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Leave China, Study in America, Find Jesus
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.
China U. is an FP series devoted to higher education’s role as a major and growing node of connection between the world’s two powers. How will a new generation, fluent in China and in America, shape the future of bilateral ties?
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.
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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.
In September 2010, Cai went to her first Sunday sermon, at Harvest Church of Madison, a church near campus founded in 2007 with a relatively young congregation numbering about 40. Not understanding most of the English, Cai watched anxiously and followed the other worshippers as they stood and sat, remaining silent during the occasional outbursts of laughter at the pastor’s jokes. Although the crowd was friendly and upbeat, she felt she did not belong.
“When I started going to church, my impression was that it was just too remote,” said Cai. She said she could not have imagined becoming a believer as an adult. “If you started telling me this when I was little, perhaps. But now, I’d have thought it would have been too late.”
Like Cai, Bai Yucheng also left China in 2010 to attend a U.S. school, the University of Arizona. His image of campus life had consisted primarily of party scenes from movies and television shows. Bai thought he would study engineering or finance and make a living in one of those fields after graduation. But he quickly soured on American social life. “I realized that there is no real opportunity to meet people that I can connect with on a deeper level,” he said.
When a friend took him to an InterVarsity meeting, Bai was surprised to discover that the Christians at the fellowship were smart, frank, and willing to have deep conversations with him — even when his questions about the existence of God got a little snarky. “I think it’s sad that many Christian American students I meet don’t seem to know how to effectively answer these questions. But I was satisfied with the fact they didn’t seem to try to cover up for Christianity,” he said. Bai said that he became instant best friends with many of them.
Bai also learned that neither engineering nor finance was his calling. “I didn’t feel intellectually satisfied,” said Bai, who is now earning his masters degree in the modern history of Christianity in China at Columbia. “If I don’t study what I really want to explore, it will be a waste of the great opportunity to learn at a university.” Bai is writing his thesis on a pair of Chinese pastors who became rivals in the 1950s, shortly after the Communist party came to power; the two had disagreed over whether Christianity was compatible with Communism. Bai also runs a campus discussion group for non-Christian students, most of them Chinese, who are curious about the Bible; it’s called “Group Investigating God.”
Accidental as Bai’s and Cai’s encounters with Christianity may seem, scholars think it’s common for international students new to the United States to seek meaning from religion when things they learned back in their own country no longer seem to apply.
“When people go to a new place, their identity as immigrants makes them look for meaning: ‘Why me? Why is this happening to me?’ When people start to ask questions like these, Christianity provides answers that many find acceptable,” said Yang Fenggang, a sociology professor at Purdue University and the author of Chinese Christian in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities. “They need to learn how to interact with classmates of other races, how to interact with professors,” said Yang. “A person won’t be able to lead a normal life if they look to Marxism or Maoism to guide their daily life here.”
Young Chinese students in the United States have been writing and thinking about Christianity for some time. In 1996, Feng Bingcheng, a biologist-turned-pastor who came Stateside for his Ph.D. in 1982, published Song of the Traveling Son, a Chinese-language book borrowing its title from a household Tang dynasty poem. The book draws on Feng’s own experience and theories in an attempt to verify the authenticity of Christianity.
Feng’s book addressed itself to Chinese students studying in the United States. “I don’t expect this little book to immediately overturn an atheist thought system accumulated over decades,” Feng wrote in the foreword. “The main goal of the book is to remove the barrier and let people humbly get closer to God.” The text has garnered mixed reviews on Douban, a film and book discussion platform popular in China. But many who come Stateside to study have found the text powerful and accessible, even 20 years after its publication. And now there are far more Chinese students — as recently as the 2004/2005 academic year, only 62,523 of them studied Stateside, less than one fourth of current numbers.
Some ministry workers say they find Chinese students’ lack of experience with religion an advantage because it makes them more receptive to the gospel. By contrast, India, which accounts for 13.6 percent of the total number of foreign college and university students in the United States — second only to China — is already full of diverse, thriving, and freely practiced religions. Hon Eng, an InterVarsity minister and a religion life advisor at Columbia who has also worked at NYU, said the Indian students he’d seen come to study in the United States usually stick with their original belief system, be it Hinduism, Sikhism, or Jainism. Similarly, students from places like South Korea (comprising 6.5 percent of foreign students at U.S. colleges and universities) and Taiwan (comprising 2.2 percent) have often already been exposed to Christianity back home.
The influx of Chinese students has been transforming not just for them, but for some campus evangelists. Ariane Brotto, a Brazilian doctoral student at Columbia University, preaches to Chinese students despite not speaking a word of Mandarin. It started in 2012, when a young Chinese man in her laboratory kept asking her why she seemed happier than her stressed-out peers. One afternoon, Brotto stopped him in the hallway of her laboratory building and handed him a Chinese-language Bible. After an hour, she asked the man what he thought. He responded, “I want to start a relationship with God.” Brotto thought he hadn’t understood her English correctly. But he insisted that he wanted to start praying.
Some predict that the future of Christianity lies in China. After all, they argue, the popularity of the faith is declining in the United States, the largest Christian country in the world. Meanwhile, in China, even government figures acknowledge a growing number of followers, from 14 million in 1997 to 23 million in 2010. (This number is generally considered a low estimate.) The Washington, DC- based non-profit Pew Research Center estimated that there were 67 million Christians in China in 2010. This number continues to grow, with underground activities including house churches.
Some analysts credit the rise of religion among Chinese people — both in-country and overseas — to China’s economic reforms, its concomitant opening to the West, and the 1989 crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen square in central Beijing, which shattered the idealism many Chinese had once harbored. Government pushback has sometimes been fierce. Frequent reports emerge of Chinese authorities cracking down on Christianity, demolishing church buildings, taking down crosses, and harassing lawyers who defend churches. Domestically, state-run media largely avoid coverage of mainstream Christianity, or any other religion at all. But many people are familiar with the heavy coverage of government crackdown on cults, such as Falun Gong, which has been outlawed in China as a xiejiao, meaning “evil cult,” since the late 1990s.
In this atmosphere, it is perhaps natural that Cai’s parents, who asked not to give their full names given the sensitivities surrounding religion in China, were concerned when she first became interested in Christianity during her freshman year. “We had only heard about Christianity, but had never really come into contact with it or gotten to know much about it,” they wrote to FP. “When Shelly began frequenting and then soon joined a church in her freshman year, we really didn’t understand and feared that it was like Falun Gong. Maybe she would be misled or possessed.” Their concerns abated in August 2015, after they visited Madison for their daughter’s wedding and were favorably impressed by her church.
Leah Yuan, a Shenyang native now living in the United States, converted to Christianity while enrolled at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts after listening to a sermon by Feng, the biologist-turned-pastor. “I thought that to believe or not to believe was like tea and coffee,” meaning a matter of free choice, said Yuan, who now studies actuarial science. She explained her conversion in terms of percentages: it started with 10 percent belief and 90 percent choice; four years later, it has become 70 percent belief and 30 percent choice. “If you think that belief can make you better, you can choose to believe, which rationally opens the door for you.”
Yujie Wu, a 43-year-old engineer, came to the United States for post-doctoral research in 1998 and converted to Christianity a year later. It all started when his fiancée and he searched for a Chinese person to marry them — “it didn’t feel quite right to get married by an American judge,” Wu said — and a friend suggested a Chinese pastor in Salt Lake City. Wu’s family and his wife, who currently live in New York City, now take their children to a Chinese church on the Upper West Side each Sunday. “People think change is a sharp angle, but to me it’s a large circle,” he said. “At each given period I felt that I was on a straight line, my direction unchanged. Years later, I discovered that it has turned 180 degrees.”
Before 1989, when the Tiananmen crackdown occurred, “very few Chinese students would go to church when studying in North America,” said Yang, the Purdue professor, who taught at the prestigious Renmin University in Beijing before leaving for the United States in 1989. In fact, he added, “they stayed far away from it.” When Yang converted to Christianity in the United States, his father, a life-long Communist party member who refused to visit him, called him a traitor. “For my generation, it was a real struggle between Marxism; communism versus Christianity.” But the younger generation of Chinese have grown up in what’s essentially a market economy; one stripped of religious meaning, but also of any competing ideology.
That’s left a void that some are trying to fill. Brotto, the Brazilian preacher, says she now knows more Chinese people than Brazilians in New York. She leads an English-speaking Bible study group that targets non-believers generally, but attracts mostly Chinese students. She claims that in the past two years, she has converted six Chinese students to Christianity. “I think it’s just the timing that God has prepared for Chinese people,” she said.
Liu Jin/Getty Images