This post is a remembrance of my experiences with religion during my first year in China — 1999 — when I taught English in Zhengzhou.
It was an early week in September, just as China’s Autumn Tiger — the fierce summer heat that claws its way into September — was in full force when a college-age Chinese girl with a ponytail approached me on the streets of Zhengzhou. I had been looking for the Indian restaurant in town with my friends, and had fallen behind when this girl stepped out of a group of young people and spoke English to me.
“Hello! Are you a Christian?” the girl blurted out as naturally as if she was asking how my day was.
She had hit me with the 64,000 yuan question — religion. Of course, it was a simple yes or no question — but one about an issue that many Americans, like me, would rather not articulate to a complete stranger. “I, uh….I don’t know,” I said. Can a lapsed Catholic with Taoist and Buddhist tendencies, who still believes in God, be considered a Christian?
But the girl didn’t pay much attention to my answer. She smiled fervently, and then put something into my hand, closing it with a gentle pat. As I walked away and opened my hand, I found a little business card. It said “Jesus is your savior!” written in colored words, with the girl’s name and a phone number.
Did I just get recruited by a Chinese?
“Do you believe in God?” The question, asked by a teenage girl with a sweet boy cut and a pink clip in her hair, mentally knocked me over in front of the crowd at the first English corner I attended in Purple Mountain Park. I knew what the answer was, but I didn’t know how to say it in front of people who clung to my every word, as if it were the gospel. This was not the gospel, and I was not a saint. And if this was today’s reading, the message was this: in China, religion is a fair subject in everyday conversation.
But if you asked my students, or friends, if they believed in God, you’d get a different answer. “I believe in Marxism….I have fervently studied it like a science,” wrote Paul, in one of his essays for my class. I’m not sure how fervently Paul believed in Marxism; but most of my students were taught in school to believe in the atheism espoused by the Communist party. Ask my husband and he will say “I’m an atheist — I only believe in concrete things.”
Frank, my friend in Zhengzhou, believed in concrete things too — and had a concrete explanation of why his parents didn’t. The topic didn’t come up in a heavy conversation about spirituality. Rather, Frank mentioned it while helping me find a vegan-friendly soymilk powder in Star grocery store.
“You should try this one,” he said, pulling out a clear package with a simple brand name in dark green Chinese characters. “My parents drink it.”
“What, your parents are vegetarians?” I responded, surprised.
Frank hesitated a bit in his usual, nervous fashion. “Well…yes. They’re Buddhist.”
“Why aren’t you Buddhist?”
“Oh,” he replied, “that’s for old people.” This was also Frank’s explanation for why he shunned vegetarianism. But in Frank’s world, being Buddhist and vegetarian went together…and also meant you had a foot in the grave.
My students also put food and religion together when they wrote about the local Muslim minority, the Hui. When I thought about the Hui, I imagined what I’d seen on the streets — the men wearing white kufis (the Muslim cap) and the women with their hair swept behind a scarf. When my students wrote about the Hui, the picture looked different: “My friend is a Hui. I met with him for lunch, and he didn’t eat pork, because his religion forbids it.”
And I understood why — because the younger generation, the people who were attending college like my students, didn’t look like the people in the streets. I met one of them, a girl named Dan Dan who never wore a veil, and dressed in the same Gap-inspired pastel coats and tops and jeans, just like all the students. I only found out she was Hui because a teacher told me, but she never said if Dan Dan went to the mosque.
What has been your experience with religion in China? Have you had surprising encounters? I’d love to hear from you.