Why a growing number of Chinese students at U.S. universities are coming home with Christian beliefs.
Shelly Cai was 18 years old when she left the southern Chinese metropolis of Nanjing to enroll in the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In August 2010, after a 13-hour flight from Shanghai to Chicago and a three-hour bus ride, Cai finally arrived in Madison, where a distant cousin picked her up. During orientation, Cai found herself jet lagged, struggling to make sense of all the English. Five days in, she learned her grandfather in Nanjing had passed away. Not wanting her new roommate to see her cry, she spent the night at the study den in the basement, surrounded by washers, dryers, and stored bikes. One day in early September, as frigid weather moved into Madison, a group of students approached Cai in her dormitory hallway to ask her opinion about God. She realized that she had never thought about it before. Out of simple curiosity, she began to attend a Bible study group. And so her spiritual journey began; four years after coming to Wisconsin, Cai was baptized and then tied the knot with an American in a Madison church.
Cai’s path to faith is one followed by thousands of young Chinese who have come Stateside to study, but ended up embracing Christianity. While firm statistics do not exist on the number of Chinese converts in the United States, it’s clear that a rapidly increasing number of Chinese students, including Cai, have come Stateside to pursue higher education; more than 304,000 Chinese studied in American colleges and universities in 2015 alone, many hailing from large cities like Beijing and Shanghai. China is the largest secular country in the world; young Chinese people often identify as atheists, although many may have visited a Buddhist temple to pray for good luck before an exam, or celebrated traditional festivals with roots in Chinese folklore. Public preaching is forbidden there, and the Communist Party-state oversees all religious matters, often with a heavy hand. Meanwhile, the state-controlled educational curriculum emphasizes patriotism and socialism, promoting a purely materialistic and scientific worldview.
But many feel that there is something missing. “In the past few years, Chinese people’s spiritual demands have surged,” declared a May 2015 article in newsmagazine Southern Weekly. On Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform, users blame a spiritual void for many disheartening social trends, including the flaunting of wealth by the country’s reviled nouveau riche. Chinese President Xi Jinping averred in a February 2015 speech, “When people have belief, our people have hope, and our nation has power.” But Xi’s words aside, it’s unclear what coherent belief system the party can offer to meet growing demand.
As a result, U.S. universities are the first places that hundreds of thousands of educated young Chinese are exposed to different religious ideas, and invited to consider them freely. Sensing an opportunity, on-campus Christian fellowships and churches have gone out of their collective way to help those fresh from China. At some universities, Christian fellowships and churches assist Chinese student associations with pick-up services from airports and temporary housing at Christian homes before school housing becomes available. Some even take new Chinese students on trips to shopping malls or help them move into their rooms.
In August 2015, for example, 470 freshman from China and their parents signed up for a paid pick-up service organized by the Chinese student union at Purdue University in Indiana. While waiting for the shuttle to be filled, students were offered drinks and snacks including Wangwang crackers, a common Chinese snack — all compliments of the on-campus Great Lafayette Chinese Alliance Church. When the last group arrived at Purdue campus after midnight, church volunteers greeted travelers, wearing neon vests and waving flashlights to gather students and help them move into their dorms. The church also provided temporary accommodation for dozens of students at local homes.
Despite Marxism’s disavowal of God, recent arrivals from China make a surprisingly good fit with American Christian student groups. Overseas Chinese students often stick to their own crowd; they are not Americanized like second or third generation American-born Chinese, but neither do they identify with less educated Chinatown immigrants who came Stateside for work. They don’t yet know America — or, often, English — particularly well, and they find the keg-guzzling social scene at many campuses off-putting.
“One day I was walking on campus, I just felt like there are waves of Chinese students walking past me,” said Duncan Szeto, who has volunteered at the Mandarin-speaking fellowship at Columbia for three years. “It just hit me that there are so many Chinese students. I know each of them has a soul that God values.”
Some of those souls are looking for a place to belong. Christian services and fellowships can help some international students adjust to American campus life by offering a tight-knit, caring group with social events — often with a religious twist. Many campus Christian fellowships run general-interest events to attract international students, including dinners during Chinese holidays, weekend trips, and English conversation groups. A Mandarin-language Christian fellowship at Columbia University, for example, created a guidebook for new students with tips on navigating the Columbia library system and a complete list of Morningside Heights grocery stores, its pages decorated with Bible verses.
While no definitive statistics can be found on the number of Christian converts from mainland China, those immersed in campus spiritual life say it is significant, and growing. Gregory Jao, national director of campus engagement for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, a nationwide evangelical ministry, estimated that his organization serves between 1,600 and 1,800 overseas Chinese out of a total of about 5,000 international students under its tent. Valerie Althouse, who served as a chaplain at NYU for about nine years, said that Chinese have been the majority of those involved in the school’s spiritual programming. “Part of it is language-based — it seems most Chinese greatly desire to improve [their] English — and also [their] curiosity about Americans, American Life, and even our religious beliefs and democratic system,” Althouse said.
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