Religion in America: Chinese students’ perspectives and experiences

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A missing religious identity

For the first 16 years of Jiahe Hui’s life growing up in Beijing, religion never crossed his path until he began his studies in America.

Hui is one of over 300,000 Chinese students studying in the U.S., and first felt pressure to put a label on his beliefs after beginning his schooling at a Catholic High School in Philadelphia.

“I read the Bible from the first page to the last, and it didn’t make any sense to me,” Hui said. I then went on to read the Quran and I got the same feeling. After that, I just kind of started to become atheist.”

Douglas Sjoquist, a visiting professor in MSU’s Department of Religious Studies, said atheism is the norm in China.

“Officially the country is atheistic so they don’t keep statistics on religion,” Sjoquist said. “It’s very difficult to cite numbers, but Buddhism tends to be perceived as less of a religion and more of a way of life or a philosophy.”

Sjoquist, who specializes in East Asian religions, believes Chinese culture has blended with religion so much over the past 2,500 years most citizens can’t identify with one in particular, as was Hui’s experience.

Since enrolling at Michigan State University in 2016, Hui has joined the MSU Chinese Students and Scholars Association, a Mandarin language-based organization that helps students adapt to living in America.

According to Hui, CSSA does not align with any religious or political organization, but instead embraces Chinese culture and aims to serve its base, which is primarily nonreligious theists.

In a 2015 Gallup International survey, China was deemed the least religious country in the world, with 90 percent of respondents claiming to be either not religious or atheist. The next closest being Sweden at 76 percent, and America coming in at 34 percent.

A history of integration and suppression

Sjoquist believes Communists and nationalists’ condemnation of religion in the 20th century still plays a role in how Chinese citizens view religion. Specifically, older generations who are still afraid to openly practice their faith without repercussions.

“The general feeling is everyone is on their own journey so you can pull things out from various world religions as they meet your own spiritual needs, and so identifying with one religion just doesn’t make sense,” Sjoquist said.

In 1949, the Communist Party of China began its rule by placing religious institutions and movements under government control.

Since the late 1970s, however, the Chinese government has relaxed its restrictions on religion; and now formally recognizes Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism, yet still oversees all religious matters and forbids preaching in public.

Converting and coming to terms

Zhicong “Evelyn” Li, 21, was raised Buddhist while growing up in the Sichuan province in Southwest China but converted to Christianity after attending church services with her host family when she came to America in 2011.

Evelyn Li, a senior at MSU, studies for her Supply Chain Management exam in the Business Library.

“They made me feel like I was part of a family and that was the religion they practiced,” Li said. “I went regardless of if I want to or not. When I was little I didn’t really know I was practicing a religion when me and my family would to go the temples and pray. I thought it was part of my culture instead.”

Li was initially shocked at how openly Americans prayed and worshiped their religion, and was a huge factor in her decision to switch faiths.

“Americans are so free to have a religion and express it however they want,” Li said. “But in China, everyone is the same race and basically has the same culture so there’s not really a need for that kind of community.”

Now in her senior year at MSU, Li admits she has attended church far less than when she was in high school, equating it to a busier schedule and having more of a knowledge about Christianity in general.

“When I first got here (MSU) I kind of just did my own thing,” Li said. “I was more worried about school and getting used to it here than finding a church. I do think technology and science, in a way, influences what people believe nowadays. I believe in religion but not everything they say.”

According to the MSU Office for International Studies and Scholars Fall 2016 Statistical Report, of the 7,264 international students enrolled at MSU, 4,527 came from China. Nationwide, China is the largest sender of international students, accounting for 31.5 percent of international enrollments, according to the Institute of International Education.

For many of these young people, American universities are their first exposure to different religious ideas and experiences.

For Zhao Peng, a Ph.D. student in MSU’s School of Journalism, her first introduction to Christianity was translating for an American teacher during her final year of undergrad in the Jiangxi province of China, but it wasn’t until she arrived at MSU that she became officially involved with a church.

“I brought up the topic of Christianity and she thought I was interested so she brought me once a week to discuss the Bible,” Peng said. “After I came here I went to international affairs in the student union and the Lansing Chinese Christian Church approached me, and I have been going there ever since.”

Peng has not decided whether or not she will stay in America or return to China after she graduates, she is sure, however, that her faith will remain no matter where she lives.

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