Chinese School in Church
Excerpt from On the Move
December 2007 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
Growing up in Louisiana, I always felt lonely on Sunday mornings because every family except for mine would get all dressed up and go to church together, so I couldn't ever find any friends to play with me. I wanted to go to church on Sundays too, but not for religious purposes. I never had any desire to become Christian. I just wanted our family to go to church so that we could seem more American and, well, more normal.
I received my blessing in the form of Chinese school. In cities all across America, groups of Chinese parents organized local Chinese schools that were held on weekends. The primary purpose of these schools was to teach Chinese language, history, and culture to the younger generation, who spent most of their time immersed in American society and were at risk of forgetting their ethnic heritage. Chinese schools are often non-profit and charge affordable tuition just to offset their operational costs; parents volunteer to serve as teachers and administrators. The Chinese school (and related ethnic schools for Japanese, Korean, and other immigrant groups) is an important community institution which provides supplementary education for the kids and social connections for both the kids and especially for immigrant parents whose lack of English skills and American cultural literacy limit their connections in the society-at-large. Not coincidentally, supplementary education and social networking are two prominent roles of the church as a community organization.
Starting in my third year in America (third grade), I attended Chinese school every Sunday, and it became my equivalent of going to church. My parents enrolled me in a Chinese school that was actually located inside a church. The local Chinese school organizers rented church premises on Sunday afternoons to hold classes. On Sunday mornings, the wholesome dressed-up white families would go learn sacred lessons from The Bible, and then in the afternoons, the barbarian horde of Chinese heathen would invade the hallowed grounds and hijack it as a platform for teaching Chinese language and secular culture.
The Sunday school classrooms where we had class were always decorated with Christian memorabilia. In the mornings, kids would often sketch Biblical verses and scenes on construction paper and post them up on the walls. When we arrived in the afternoons, my mostly-atheist Chinese school peers would always be curious about what these words and images meant. They would inspect the artwork on the walls, flip through the Bibles, examine the holy crosses, and explore the premises like curious kids. Our teachers would often get agitated at the sight of this meddling behavior and yell at the kids in stern Mandarin Chinese, "Don't touch anything here! We are guests in this church, and if we don't want to be kicked out of here, then you kids better behave!"
These parents-turned-weekend-teachers were absolutely correct. They knew that if the churchgoers ever found anything out of place—even one Bible that was not put back in its proper location—they would be harshly reprimanded for not respecting the sanctity of church property. These unassimilated immigrants were easy scapegoats because of their minority status. I'm not saying that the churchgoers would actively and maliciously discriminate against us; after all, we were renting their property and had a responsibility to keep it tidy.
But imagine if another group of people who were demographically similar to the churchgoers rented the church, say for weekend knitting lessons; they would probably be more lenient if the white amateur-knitters left the classrooms a bit disheveled than if the Chinese school students did. Minorities are less likely to receive the benefit of the doubt and are more likely to have their specific offenses generalized into group stereotypes. In this hypothetical example, the amateur-knitters might be warned about their specific act of messiness, but there would be no negative social stigmas attached to the group itself. In contrast, the reprimand of the Chinese school tenants would likely reinforce stereotypes of the Godless immigrants as filthy and disrespectful.
The best part of Chinese school for me wasn't the education or the camaraderie with other Chinese kids; it was the simple fact that I had somewhere to go on Sundays. Now I could tell my friends that I went to church on Sundays just like they all did. And I wasn't even lying, since Chinese school was actually held in a church. I was one step closer to fitting in with my Christian friends.
Throughout elementary school, my classmates sometimes brought up the topic of religion, never as a focus of academic study or scholarly debate, but rather always in the form of a simple question: "Which church does your family go to?" Nobody asked the more logical two-question progression: "Does your family go to church? If so, which one?" It was assumed that all families went to church. Kids would ask each other this question on the school bus and in the playground when discussing what they did over the past weekend. For instance, "I went to a church barbeque with my family. What church does your family go to? Did your church have a special event this weekend?" Fortunately, I was already attending Chinese school by that time, so I could reply with confidence, "I go to the church on so-and-so street. It's an all-Chinese church." Everyone would always naturally assume that I attended a Christian church for Chinese people.
My cold sweat would subside as my peers bought my white lie every time, but one time my friend Raymond [a pseudonym], whom I went to Chinese school with, overheard my response and interjected, "That's not church! It's located IN a church but we don't actually go there to worship! We go there to learn Chinese! It's a Chinese school!" Oh man, that was bad! That was doubly bad. Not only did he tell everyone that we did not go to church to worship God, but he also highlighted our differences by mentioning that we went there to learn Chinese, thus reinforcing our image as foreigners. It was like, not only would we be ostracized because we were not part of the Christian majority, we would be further scorned because we banded together in Chinese school to become even more foreign.