Ryan Zhang immigrated to the United States from China in 1999 and currently lives in the Boston metro area. He is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Georgetown University, and he currently serves as a pastoral intern and staff member at Christ the King Presbyterian Church.
My friend Hannah eloquently and thoughtfully reflected on how her life has been shaped by China on this blog a few weeks ago. This motivated me to consider, on this Fourth of July holiday, how my life has been shaped by my experience in America. Much of my reflection is based on my own experience as a Chinese immigrant, but I hope you can all affirm my conclusion.
Shortly after my family arrived in the United States, my uncle handed me a history of the U.S. written in Chinese. I gobbled the book in two weeks and was immediately captivated by the personalities and idealism behind America's founding. I was particularly fascinated by the story of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, lifelong friends who both died on the 50th anniversary of America's founding. I was proud to know more about American history than any of my American friends in high school, and even prouder as my parents and I took our oath to become American citizens in 2005. My fascination grew into an obsession with American presidents, politics, John Adams, and culminated in choosing government and American Studies as my majors in college.
Many of my teachers in China told me that if a nation is compared to a canvas, then China is an ancient painting on which the strokes of history have been layered over and over through thousands of years with little room for change or improvement. They would say that the United States, on the other hand, is still very much a blank canvas with opportunities to grow and improve. While that may be a fitting analogy to portray the historical baggage of modern China, the longer I study American history and live here, the more I have found that analogy less accurate for the U.S. Young though it may be, the relative brevity of American history permits more in-depth study of this country's social problems and historical contradictions.
The lofty ideals and heroic sacrifices of the United States' founding generation were not enough to stop the growth of slavery, a legacy that still haunts us. Even today my own alma mater – the nation's first Catholic university founded on the same year as the American Republic – reconciles with a shocking history of Jesuit leaders selling 272 black slaves to raise money for the school. Yet the abolition of slavery after a bitter civil war did not end racial injustice across the nation as Jim Crow laws dominated for the next century, along with the continuing slaughter of Native Americans, Chinese expulsion acts, Japanese internments, and many other measures of discrimination against ethnic minorities and immigrants. This month, my own denomination finally passed an overture in our general assembly to "recognize, confess, condemn, and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers." All the while, our nation continues to grapple with police violence and injustice against ethnic minorities in our criminal justice system.
As a church, we cry out, "How long?" As a Chinese immigrant, I ask, "Where is my place in this nation?" When a racial riot broke out in my hometown in 2001, I sinfully joined in with my white classmates and wondered, "Why couldn't these guys just behave themselves and not cause any trouble?" But then a different question came to my mind, "What do I have to do in this country to appear normal?" Does it mean I have to work extra hard to get rid of my Chinese accent, make white friends, study American history in an elite college, and marry a white girl? As it turns out, I have done all of these (minus the accent part).
This has also meant reserving my Chinese-ness to my home and a few allotted spaces in order not to stand out among my friends.
The initial temptation is to see this as a political problem with political answers. The liberals offer an attractive narrative of acceptance and love, but the narrative requires any deep convictions of universal Truth to remain personal and private. The celebration of personal authenticity can indeed be freeing to some, but it may be a freedom to further enslave ourselves to false idols. The conservatives offer a narrative of national moral righteousness and "Judeo-Christian" values – a narrative of which I was never fully convinced – but their clamor to restore these values cannot cover up their deafening silence on issues such as slavery, racial discrimination of various kinds, and the continuing systematic injustice that has left so many downtrodden people helpless in their own society. Their vision to restore America to a supposed former greatness often makes me wonder whether this "greatness" has a place for people like me.
Yet as I offer this personal critique, I also remember the way the heroic ideals and sacrifices of our Founding Fathers shone through as a resilient nation came together after 9/11. Regardless of political affiliation, I could see the progress of justice through the inauguration of our nation's first African American president. I am grateful for the opportunity in this nation to come to Christ and worship God with his people in freedom. I am proud to be a citizen of this nation. I remember once in high school I had a chance to meet our former Congressman, who was on the rise to become a powerful national figure at the time. When I told him through my nervous, thick Chinese accent, "You are the highest official I have ever met," he gently placed his arm around my shoulder and said, "Hey, we both put on our pants the same way." That simple gesture from a Congressman to a timid Chinese high school student reflected so much what is beautiful about America.
So on this Fourth of July, I hope you can join me in taking pride in our achievements as a nation and celebrate all the blessings that God has given us in this country. Yet we should be quick to understand that others too have many reasons to take pride in their own cultures. If there is any claim to exceptionalism in American, it is the sparkling light of the American mosaic that makes our society vibrant and beautiful. I pray that my own Chinese culture, along with African American cultures, Arab cultures, Latino cultures, and the many others, may shine as brightly in this society as the array of Caucasian cultures. And we must also remember that despite the country's progress and ideals, neither America nor the march of democracy and liberty is the fulfillment of history.
When I took my citizenship oath in the summer of 2005, I renounced my fidelity to any foreign sovereignty and pledged my allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America. Nevertheless, I must admit that at best I can only be a subversive patriot, not because I am looking for opportunities to betray my country, but because I have been called into the Kingdom of God. Every day of my life – when I see injustice, violence, evil, sickness – I will pray that the people of this Kingdom will be a light in darkness and that the glory and authority of our King will soon be fully established in our world.
I am a subversive patriot because, despite the progress we have made as a nation, America is not my best hope for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." My ultimate allegiance is to a King who gave up his own life, liberty, and happiness to redeem us from the tyranny of sin so that these may truly become our "unalienable rights," not just in this world, but eternally. I am a subversive patriot, who in the process of seeking a good life in America, discovered "that I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ... who by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him."