Hannah Nation works as the blog editor for China Partnership. She is studying Church History at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and serves part-time doing international outreach for her local church, Christ the King Presbyterian Cambridge.
Though I have been trying to engage Chinese students for a decade, I still find myself learning about the world from which they come. Recently, I’ve been conducting a number of interviews with students I’m particularly close to. None of these students are professed Christians, though they are all in various stages of spiritual seeking. All are interested in the Bible and the Christian God and have been variously committed to Bible studies while in the United States.
Sometimes in my interviews with these students, their answers are so familiar – the words they speak echo the scores of similar answers I’ve heard over the years. But at other times, their answers are truly surprising, reminding me that what I as an American can learn and study about China, the Chinese worldview, and the experiences of Chinese people will still never fully prepare me for the individuals I face. Everyone’s story is unique, even given the cultural similarities and traits I recognize. Over the next couple of months I plan to share some of the interviews I’ve conducted on this blog.
For this second interview (you can read the first here), I spent time with a married couple I’ll refer to as X and Y. X and Y are some of the sweetest and friendliest people I’ve ever met. When I first met them over hotpot at a friend’s house, X spoke hardly any English; however, he refused to let that stand in the way of his ability to make new friends. Naturally gregarious and socially gifted, X engaged thoughtfully in the table conversation, unafraid of his linguistic limitations. Y is a graduate student at a local university and cares deeply for people and for her country. She is incredibly thoughtful – carefully considering all new information and every different perspective she comes across. Conversation with these two is always engaging, insightful, and delightful.
If you are familiar with young, urban Chinese culture, one thing that stands out immediately about X and Y is their commitment to their marriage. Unlike many of their contemporaries who part ways in order give both people space to pursue their careers unhindered, X gave up his high powered job in Beijing in order to follow Y to the United States for her education. Though they both were in search of life answers they weren’t finding in China, it is clear that prioritizing their marriage was a significant factor in the decision to come together. With such a strong commitment to each other, their spiritual journey has also very much been a united effort. Attending Bible study together, they frequently discuss their thoughts and ideas with one another throughout the week. In short, they are best friends.
If you didn’t catch the first part of their interview a few weeks ago, make sure you do so at Stories from Chinese Millennials – Interview with Married Best Friends, Part 1!
What is the happiest memory of your life?
Y: I have to say…
X: Getting married.
Y: Yeah. Because we not only have a great relationship with each other, but both of our families have great relationships, too. I’m really, really appreciative of that. It might be the most important thing in my life.
X: The relationship between my wife and I is to some extent a little different from most of our friends. Yes, we are lovers, we are a couple, wife and husband, and we are friends. We were classmates. We are relatives now. Some couples don’t talk as much as before when they get married, but from the first time we went on a date, from when we fell in love with each other, we’ve kept talking with each other every day. Even during the busiest times of life, we talked with each other by phone after lunch. All of my coworkers were really jealous of us. We would go to lunch together and then when we returned to the office, they would go together and I would go separately. Yes, the happiest memory for me is marriage.
What is the saddest memory?
X: Actually, my life is pretty good. I haven’t really suffered poverty or bad family relationships. So I don’t have many such memories. Sad memories that sometimes upset me are when I’ve failed in my job or in my education. But it’s ok. I’m an optimistic guy. It’s ok. But what really makes me sad sometimes is the betrayal of friends, of people who really matter to me.
Y: I have to say before I met my husband, I was a totally pessimistic person. It was very easy for me to feel sad. I was influenced by many things – others’ comments, not doing a good job in school, many things made me feel sad. After we got together, I think part of our conversations, especially while in school, were him encouraging me to cheer up and to see the bright side of things.
X: She is so sensitive.
Y: Yeah, I am so sensitive. So after that, I became more optimistic.
X: And more self-confident.
Y: Yeah. So I feel so much appreciation for life. Because he is not only a husband, but also a real friend. He has helped me a lot and has shaped my personality greatly.
X: Me too. I am optimistic, but actually I’m a little bit of a rough man. I’m not very sensitive to people’s feelings. You could call me “bread” – I can make people full, but I’m plain. But in my relationship with my wife, I have become more humorous and more sensitive. I increasingly have the ability to consider others’ feelings. A good marriage makes both people become better and find their better selves.
How would you describe your attitude towards life?
X: Life is full of so many difficulties, but at the same time, there are many good things in front of us and around us – family, friends, careers, dreams, knowing more about ourselves, becoming better people, making new friends, learning new things.
Y: I think I should learn how to accept myself because, as I mentioned, I was pessimistic and was not confident. I have improved very much because of my husband, but I think I need more. Especially if I can learn more about myself and accept what I can’t change in my mind – and especially accept my drawbacks – I think it will be better for life.
X: Generally optimistic.
How did you become interested in studying Christianity?
X: Several years ago, about four or five, we started to consider our life, ourselves. We thought we needed to go abroad to see what happens in other worlds, in other countries. You know the United States is reported on more frequently in China than any other country. The United States is the most developed country in the world, so naturally when we decided to study abroad we wanted to go to the United States.
This country, at least at the beginning of this country, was partially based on Christianity. We wanted to know the American people, to understand their values, what they think. So we started to try to learn something about the Bible, about Christians. But it was really hard to understand the story.
The second reason is that when we arrived in Boston, the guys who picked us up from airport were early immigrants from China. All of them were Christians. We felt they were peaceful and humble, and they were willing to help others. They had these good aspects of human beings. They invited us to go to Bible study, so we went to Bible study. By contrast, when we were working in Beijing, we were always anxious due to the competition and the work environment. There was great pressure. But in the Christians we know, we feel joy, peace, happiness, and hope. These kinds of things. So that’s another reason we were attracted to learn and know something about the Bible.
Actually I was recently discussing with a friend why Christianity has been growing so fast in China contrasted with what is happening in Europe and the United States. I think one of the reasons is that Chinese people are getting more anxious about life.
Y: I think my answer is similar to his. Because we believe that beliefs will be able to shape not only people, but also countries. So for the first part, we want to understand more about this culture. When I was beginning to learn some things about the Bible in the Chinese Bible study, I also found that, yes, I must admit a lot of drawbacks about myself. There are a lot of things I can’t overcome by myself. So I really want to understand more in the Bible.
X: What makes people change a lot? We heard about some Christians’ testimonies – their lives before Christianity and after Christianity are really different. What makes this change happen?
What do you find difficult to accept about the Christian faith or about Christianity?
X: Yes, yes, yes. To be honest, it’s difficult to accept. It’s difficult to become a believer. Because we were educated to be atheists. But now we think we are agnostic.
We have discussed this many, many times. Belief is a really big thing – it’s the biggest thing in life! If we decide to become a believer, we must know or feel that, yes, God is true. Actually what the Bible tells us – to love people, to be humble – all of those things, we love them. But the question is, if we take a look at human history there are all kinds of nations, all kinds of religions. Christianity was not found by human beings at the very beginning. There is no record of it at an early stage of human history. So if God created the world, why was it only two thousand years ago that he started to send his Son to the world to save people? And what about the cultures? In African and East Asian cultures there is no record of this God. You know China has a very long history in which to record things and we have our own mythologies. There is no god, or there are many gods. There were also the Romans and the Greeks. The Jewish people were a really small group who believed there was a unique, single God. But actually nearly every tribe, every nation has had their own god, their own beliefs and religious systems. This is one reason.
A second reason is the miracles which are recorded in the Bible. But we cannot see or observe them. They are just written by people. Maybe they were good people who wrote the story and recorded it, but belief is such a serious problem that it is not a very serious response to just read some books and make a decision. In my methodology, in my value system, there is no good measure right now to let me know if God really exists. If I can’t prove it – that there is no God – then I will become a believer. But we have tried to discuss this problem, these questions. This is the biggest difficulty – not that we don’t accept the ideas the Bible tells us. The problem is how can we make sure God exists?
Y: It is related to the education we received when we were kids. Because in China, I think most people do not talk about God, religion, or beliefs. It is similar to mythology in China. So for me, I haven’t thought about whether God exists. But now I’m curious about the power of the Bible, because it was passed down for such a long time. So I’m curious about it. But maybe for me, I’m not sure how I can feel connection with God. So I don’t know.
On the other side, what do you find attractive about Christianity?
X: It gives people joy, peace, hope. It relieves people from anxiety, from uncertainty, from worries about the future. It evens makes people better versions of themselves. Because something we learned from the Bible, something we learned from Christians we know, is that Christians look different from others in many aspects. We admire them. That’s what attracts us.
Y: Yeah, to go back to the other question, I just thought of another thing that is difficult for me to trust about Christianity. Different Christian groups have different attitudes toward God. So we just think, wow, which one is the truth? Because all of them are Christians, but all of them say they are the right way when all of them are so different. The interpretation of the Bible is so different. The way of behavior is so different. So that is one of the reasons I have a hard time, because I am not sure which one is true. That is one of my difficulties.
X: For example, in John there is a passage that tells us the nonbelievers will be put into a lake of fire and will be cut from the limb if they don’t bear fruit. In one Bible study group they told us it is a punishment, the way God punishes nonbelievers. But another Bible study told us it’s not. In John 3:16-21, it says God loves the world. But in another group, they always told us, “Don’t give much attention to the world. God hates the world. The world is God’s enemy. Christians are just passengers in the world. They go through the world to go to the kingdom of God, to heaven. The world does not matter for Christians.” So they gave us a sense of remoteness from real life – not a good feeling. So that is part of the reason we think about whether we can trust what they tell us.
Y: Because in the beginning, part of the reason to study the Bible was that we want to learn about whether there is truth that exists. This might be a way for us to find the truth. But when we studied the Bible in another group, I thought, wow, I’m not sure we can accept this kind of interpretation.
X: Yes, it is unacceptable.
Y: We are confused about what is authentic. Because before we studied the Bible, we thought that all Christians thought about the Bible in the same way, so after studying we found maybe not.
X: Some Christians have an open mind to the explanation of the Bible. For example, one friend told me that he can accept evolutionary theory. But in another group, most of the people are PhDs in physics and biology and they told us that evolutionary theory is totally ridiculous.
Y: They refuse anything they don’t believe. You can’t even discuss it with them. Nothing. You can’t say anything different from what they believe. When they find there are differences of opinion in the discussion they will try their best to convince us to believe what they believe. They don’t accept discussion.
X: They gave us a lot of pressure. Really a lot of pressure. We had to be very careful not to offend them.
Y: We had to be very careful of our words because if there were any words different from what they believed, all of them will try to persuade us.
X: And I’ll give another reason. In Chinese history, there are many Chinese who created many small religions. All of them demonstrated miracles through diverse methods. I’ve read a lot of books about it. So that history has given me many doubts about miracles. There are so many of these small religions and they try to make money from people. They try to start rebellions. They spread their religions on behalf of their own benefit.
Falun Gong is the most recent one. My grandmother is a part of Falun Gong. They tell people they do not need to go to the hospital when they are ill. So my grandmother had kidney stones. It was very dangerous and she refused to go the hospital. She just worshiped the Falun Gong god and prayed to the god that he would heal her. But actually, she almost died. My parents, my uncle, and my aunts forced her to go to the hospital and saved her life. I have heard many stories like this.
And I experienced another one. In 1999, I was in my third year of high school. At the beginning of September, a newly enrolled student in the first year, jumped off the fifth floor of the dormitory one day at midnight. He tried to commit suicide, but fortunately he survived. But his spine was totally crushed and he was paralyzed. He left a letter before he jumped off the building saying that he did it because Falun Gong told him that the end of the world was coming – just like many religions have told us. That is Falun Gong. A lot of this type of thing happens in China. So miracles are hard. We never saw any miracles ourselves and we don’t have an opportunity to test them or check them. But in historic records, most of them have been created by people.
Y: People have used a lot of things to control people. Maybe two hundred years ago one of them even claimed he was the second son of God.
X: Oh yes, one hundred years ago. He claimed he was the younger brother of Jesus.
Last question. If you believed in Jesus what do you think would change about your life?
X: Oh, a lot of things. This is also a big question that we have discussed a lot. If all the goals of life are only secular goals – make money, have a good life, live longer, become richer, get a higher social position – for all of these things we have to work very hard to compete with people. You have to be aggressive, ambitious. But if we were believers and we believed in Jesus, that there is a heaven and a perfect world after life, then this world is not the real world of humans, of Christians. So what happens in this world would really not be as important as it is for us now. So it I think it really would make us more comfortable, peaceful for life. It would give us hope for after life.
Y: In your first questions, you asked us how we know what is right or wrong. I think that might be part of believing God. I think views on what is wrong and what is right keep changing all of the time. We don’t know what the standard is, what the truth is. So I think this would be the way to figure it out what is true of life, true of the world.
X: I have a personal example. My father believes that a communist society will come someday. All people will be equal and will get along well with each other. In primary school, high school, and university I wanted to follow him, so I was the monitor for my university class. I did a lot of work for the whole class. We had nine classes in our grade, but just one assistant teacher. So the bulk of the work was done by the monitors. It required a lot of time and energy to do those things for free – totally free, not a part-time job. Just free.
This experience gave me a very good reputation in our class and even in the school and larger circle. But it I really had to do many things for the class. Sometimes my friends would tell me, “You do too much and you’re a fool.” That made me confused. But if I was a Christian, I wouldn’t need to worry about it. In real life when we do good things for people, if there is not a context or atmosphere for it, people will think we are just weird. But if we are Christians, we don’t need to worry about it. We wouldn’t need to compare our value to other people. We would just need to check whether we follow and obey what God tells us. It would give people peace.