The August evening began with collective karaoke. A student organizer for the Chinese Church of Iowa City walked us through a dance routine, a bit of light choreography for our musical offering to Jesus. The forty of us crammed into the elder’s basement tried to mirror the sweep of her arms as she rushed past the beat; when her co-instructor tried to catch her eye and coordinate the bobbing of his head with hers, she beamed out at us, ignoring him.
“How many people here are Christian?” asked another organizer during a bonding exercise. (The subtext being, “at this very religious event.”) I haven’t prayed since middle school; I don’t know what I am—except, I feared, an outlier. So I raised my hand, tentatively.
I was surprised to see how few people joined me. Zhuzi Xiao, a first year at the University of Iowa, left his arms folded against his chest; I had noticed him before because he had the same exasperated expression on his face that my brother does when he’s asked to play his guitar at house parties. I asked how he had ended up at the event. He was curious, he replied—he had noticed the spiritual conversion of many of his older peers. Christianity is stigmatized back in his hometown in Henan, in northern China, he told me; it has a reputation for enticing uneducated country folk. But here in the U.S., he wanted to poke around and learn more about Jesus. Whether or not he would return to the church remained to be seen.
As for me? I had come because Amy Zhu, the pastor’s wife, had been visiting my house recently, after hearing from a church member about my cancer-stricken dad. Zhu would bring verses and home-cooked food, which put my largely non-religious parents at ease; they always felt more comfortable in the presence of the divine when they were well-fed. When Zhu invited me to the youth event, I decided to accept her invitation. I knew that people often came to religion in life-altering moments, and I wondered if I could find others who had found some clarity through their faith, some examples for me to follow, perhaps. Now, at the event, as others were seeking God, I was seeking specificity.
Before the end of the evening, a hip young male leader made a plea: even if you think hymnal dancing is lame, give church a shot—you just might like it. Each of us were given a 2-inch thick pocket-sized book of apologetics written in standard Chinese. The hope, I suppose, was that some of us would go home feeling increasingly curious, while others would leave with a new sense of belonging, of having landed a few jokes, met new people to run into on campus, and filled up on dinner, which had not only been pizza but good Chinese food, with dishes like li dou tang (mung bean soup) and you tiao (fried breadsticks)—a street food not often sold at restaurants in the U.S.
Tasting the pillowy goodness of you tiao again felt like a blessing. And the space was re nao, “atmospheric,” with the bustle, laughter, and cheer of a good party. It reminded me of being little, walking around town with my mother and watching her nod and smile to anyone who looked like us. Now, admiring this space full of East Asian faces and Mandarin speakers of all ages in the middle of the Midwest, I thought of how much I had taken this community for granted.
Here in the Midwest, people define themselves by communities. Whether that’s the small town they grew up in, a 4-H group, or the mommy blog they post to every day, communities transform the peculiar ways people lead their lives into collective activities. But being Chinese or Chinese-American in Iowa—a state that is 91 percent white—makes community an existential matter. My parents raised us in a place where the first question anyone asked was—one way or another—“what are you?” Finding an answer—by finding others—was something none of us took for granted.
When families like my own set out to make a community out of the Chinese diaspora in Iowa, attempting to unify across dialects, ethnic backgrounds, socio-economic class and age seemed like an impossible task. But “numbers count in American politics,” as the scholar Yen Le Espiritu once mused. For all of the background differences, coming together gave us those numbers, creating the possibility of a “Chinese community” whose needs, aspirations, and societal concerns would be listened to. We would become, as one of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s characters muses in The Sympathizer, a “respectably sized, self-sufficient colony, a pimple on the buttocks of the American body politic.”
The first East Asian immigrants to come to Iowa City were primarily Taiwanese and Hong Kongers in the early ‘80s, but the U.S. Immigration Act of 1990, with its preference for “skilled workers,” brought in professors, researchers and PhD students from mainland China to this university town. The Act’s allowances for family visas let graduate students like my dad bring along their spouses and children. They bought houses, hosted potlucks, and raised us.
They also began to organize in a more formal way by creating Chinese associations. First, there was The Iowa City Chinese Association, which began as a network for newcomers in the expanding Chinese population. Because its primary purpose was to maintain Chinese cultural forms like dancing and fashion, it primarily served through social programming. My dad, who would go on to serve as president of the Chinese Association, used this group to introduce my brother and I—both born in Iowa City—to Chinese-ness: the “culture” and subjectivity of a Chinese person packed within all the holidays, dancing, collective memories, smells, tastes, and sounds that could not otherwise be found in the U.S.
Then there was the Chinese School of Iowa City, which was founded in 1993 by Chen Zhong Xian; after he arrived in 1989 with a degree from the prestigious teaching school, Beijing Normal University, he found himself working as a janitor at an Iowa City hospital. His other role, as one of the few Chinese elders in the area, was as to be “everyone’s grandpa.” The classes took place once a week in the recreation room of an apartment complex, where second gen-ers like me would sit and practice patience in front of the scrutinizing eye of one of the school’s Mandarin instructors. It was here that I learned Iowa City in Chinese was ai he hua chung, which sounds like I-OH-WA and translates directly into Love City; a phonetic gesture, but chosen by someone optimistic.
A third association, the Chinese Church, proposed a different approach. Bible study didn’t only concern itself with the Word of the Lord—it was also a venue to discuss feelings of alienation, loneliness, and the inanity of American culture. Moving away from China called for more than logistical support, some had decided; it called for existential intervention. And so, the Church provided a space for new arrivals to explore, in-depth, a new religious consciousness and spirituality in its transnational Christian form—but to do it in Mandarin. Armed with all the idioms, metaphors, and analogies of a familiar language, participants could fully articulate the complicated questions that accompany a religious path.
Beyond mere numbers, it was the church—with its ability to organize, induct, and ritualize as a religious institution—that made the Chinese community into a community. Aside from missionary work every fall, Christian fellowships and churches across the U.S. sniff out newcomers on college campuses and pitch their beliefs to those looking for a tight-knit group. This concerted effort help students get situated in a new country–by introducing them to current residents, hosting group dinners, and putting on weekend retreats–are all friendly ways to make the newcomers feel welcome, as well as recruiting new members in the process. It’s no surprise that moving to the U.S. from China only to find Jesus is a growing phenomenon.
Gathering people is, after all, one of religion’s superpowers. In China itself, church leaders are beginning to gain large followings, a development that presumably concerns President Xi Jinping; Communist Party leaders have cracked down on Christianity in Zhejiang province, tearing down crosses and demolishing places of worship, and in August, the United Nations reported that Uighur Muslims have been detained in internment camps—officially, Chinese officials say, because the state sees separatism as a threat. But I wonder whether it’s also because Xi knows that these self-founded communities that foster joy, hope, and utmost dedication from their members might prove stronger than the voice of the Party.
My parents grew up during the Cultural Revolution, a time when the Maoist state violently mandated atheism. At home, we didn’t talk about religion until I was in middle school; I began attending a youth group at a nearby church; I’m Buddhist, my dad would grumble when I asked him about his prospects for the afterlife, ending the conversation before it ever began. My mother attended a few Bible study groups, but left feeling unconvinced. The crowd at the church was niche, devout in a way that was hard to understand as an outsider—even though most of the congregation had been outsiders until arriving at the Chinese Church, Pastor Ed Jiang pointed out when I called him to talk about this piece in August. Kids who have been raised in the church environment, he noted, often express concerns to him that their parents are straying from God.
Your parents are new to this, Jiang tells them, assuring them that religious life takes time to learn, and the congregation is full of adult beginners, seeking a spiritual connection they lacked before.
Today, Iowa City’s Chinese population is still small, but grown to the low thousands. The church congregation provides invaluable secular resources for newcomers, drawing on a network of seasoned implants and their knowledge about the “how to’s” of the Midwest. Zhuzi Xiao, the student I met at the church orientation, had called the church for a ride from the airport upon landing in Iowa City, even though he was decidedly not religious. Just a week later, orientation organizers were posting in their WeChat group, offering trips to the grocery store and Walmart. Pastors help newcomers move in and the congregation often houses visitors. But in the church’s L-shaped hallway, anyone can snag the ear of a helpful babysitters, doctors, chefs, musicians, lawyers, tutors, future spouses, singers, therapists, and piano players. Kevin Wu, a longtime member of the church, offers a service to those seeking rentals and buying used cars; churchgoer Tony Chang’s phone and SIM card stand is often the first stop after newcomers arrive; Xiao Ming Lin, an owner of four restaurants in the area, often will hire non-English speakers as wait-staff, all making for a swift induction into life in the U.S. (Walking around downtown with Zhu and Pastor John Xu can feel like being a member of a celebrity ensemble, greeting fans on the streets.)
In 2006, the Chinese Church built a campus in North Liberty, a neighborhood with only a smattering of houses and minimal commercial zoning; next to open prairie and underdeveloped land, the building has a playground in the back and an empty lot in the front. There is space to grow. It has a huge kitchen, with enough counter space for every parent to contribute. An unusually long staircase covered in thick red carpet leads to classrooms upstairs and a pressbox-type room that overlooks the congregation. The church is now a place, a location on a map: it is four exterior walls, one roof and one winding sidewalk extending to the road. It displays pictures of congregations inside, ready for moments of I think I know that person; there are first-hand records of Chinese immigration in the form of notebooks, CDs, and documents on the shelves; there is art by kids on the walls. Earthly and divine information collides.
Ai chung hua ren jiao hui, it says on the door above the Church’s main hall. A welcome into the hall of hua ren, it says, a word that means “Chinese people” but indicates something more: Hua ren is an intimate identity, proud, describing those who were badass enough to move to a foreign country and don’t plan on going back. People like my mother, who told me the other day that she’s never lived in any city as long as she has in Iowa City, yet when asked where she is from, still says China. Hua ren remember China, even if only in its most distant and immutable form; well-traveled, they settle into the unfamiliar and swallow the bitter sweetness of uprooting a home. In this nation of immigrants, it’s hard to imagine understanding life in the U.S. any other way.
On a Friday morning in August, I sat in the kitchen of a family friend, who was also the current principal of the Chinese School. As Li Shu Zhen pared nectarines and poured green tea in my cup, she told me that the creation of the School was Chen’s promise to bring the hua ren family together, demystifying the Mandarin characters which could seem so impossibly twisting and elusive. I remembered that it was at the School where, at the very young age of five, the realization began to nag at me that my parents had left an entire world behind them.
The hua ren of the 90s knew that raising the kids in the U.S. would not be easy, and would require concessions. As my brother and I grew older, our realities deviated more and more from hua ren-ness; our Americanness pushed it away, which gave our parents headache and heartache. Here in Iowa City, the hua ren had already lost so much,and weren’t always able to communicate the depth of their experiences to their children. Chen—who has since retired and returned to China—told the parents, Zhen recalled, that “learning Chinese is not for the kids. It’s for you.” Our parents had already achieved a communicable level of English, so my generation saw only the duty, not the purpose of learning our parent’s native tongue. For some of us, Chinglish would be just fine; others would simply develop an ear for accented English. Our parents, who never expected us to return to the motherland, began to relent.
A community is a group that is sometimes forced, often affirming—and usually judgmental. As my brother and I became cocooned in our own lives and left home for college, my mother started attending services at the Church and more hua ren association events. She reported back with new conclusions based off the chatter along the pews. One was that her kids—us—will not turn out like those of her friends. She hadn’t raised us with enough rigor; Not like other Chinese moms, she says over the phone. Early on, she tells me, she was made aware that as someone raising immigrant kids in the U.S., she was expected to be a hu ma, a tiger mom. She felt surrounded by this expectation at community events leading her to declare—sometimes proudly, sometimes regretfully—that she was a yang ma, a sheep mom. Being a member of a community meant that she watched other kids grow up alongside hers, and now had to suss out the ways in which the same exact phenomena led to such different results.
But raising kids in the U.S. is an utter crapshoot, I remind her, and the hua ren community isn’t defined by its sameness, I say. It means not having to raise your kids alone.
Every year, the church hall plays host to the Lunar New Year’s showcase, a celebration worthy enough for my mother to free her dress from its plastic Dillard’s wrapper, put on blush and draw on eyebrows. My dad would put on his brown suit with the red tie, the luckiest color. In our kitchen, my brother and I would kneel before my parents and bow to receive hong bao, a red envelope with cash inside. Gong xi fa chi, we would say. We wish you to be prosperous. At the church, we would lay hundreds of dumplings in rows along the table. We’d fill red Solo cups with 7-up and Coke.
At these celebrations, we children learned how eloquent and funny our parents were, even if we didn’t understand all their references. We would watch as they popped up when their favorite songs came on; we would watch as they drank astonishing amounts of bai jiu. We would watch the others gossip and point, recognizing an ex or someone’s white, out-of-place significant other. We would watch as people kept track of each other, wondering about the status of their neighbors, nosy and well-intentioned.
As of a few years ago, most of my generation of kids had left home. My parents and their friends suddenly had time to themselves, time to figure out where they might find something else resembling a family. My dad and mom planned a dance one New Years for their friends and they all agreed upon matching uniforms: white button-downs with red and gold ties. My dad stood in the middle with his hands pressed together in prayer form. Then slowly, from behind, the others emerged, hands fanned out in formation. Welcome to our show, this pose, ridiculous, boastful—proud—said. We are here.
Shirley Wang, How We Got Here, Chinese Church, Iowa, Hua Ren, Chinese American, Immigrant, Immigration