LSTC Ph.D. student Di Kang has a particularly insightful post for Asian/Pacific Islander Month here at We Talk. We Listen. Carefully unpacking the many aspects of her personal identity – she then reflects not only how these different identities interact in her day-to-day life, but also why they make Lutheran theology so meaningful for her. Read, comment, and share!
Francisco Herrera – Interim Editor, PhD student
I live a hybrid existence.
I am Chinese but I am also a Christian.
I am a Christian but I am a Lutheran.
I am a student but I am an international student.
In these ways, I am both an insider and outsider. Some scholars would refer to my being both an insider and an outsider as a hybrid identity. I am neither fully one identity or the other identity—-I am both at the same time, which allows me to create a new hybrid self that I can fully live into and come to know myself in a new way.
Being a Christian in mainland China, I am an outsider. Growing up and receiving education in mainland China, I was immersed in the traditional Chinese cultural context, contemporary Communist ideology, and lastly, the Confucian worldview. Confucius concedes the existence of supernatural beings, and emphasizes the importance of sacrifice. However, the Confucius’ practical rationality and this-worldly morality led to distance between human beings and the “so-called” supernatural god, which is manifested in his sayings in Analects.
For example, “Confucius never talked about odd, puissance, turmoil and deity”, “while respecting spiritual beings, to keep aloof from them may be called wisdom”. At the same time, Confucius also places emphasis on this life, instead of deities, or life beyond death. He says: “We cannot even serve people enough, how can we serve gods?” He also adds: “While you do not know about life, how can you know about death?”
The dominance of Confucius’ teachings influenced the Chinese people’s general attitude toward religions – in general, they believe in the existence of supernatural beings such a deity/deities, but reject the deity/deities’ absolute dominance of every aspect of human life. On the other hand, they put faith in the deity/deities’ ability to solve specific issues that are out of the control of human hands. Such attitudes are reflected in the prosperity of Buddhism and Taoism in China. Taoism, being the folk religion, exemplifies the practical nature of the Chinese people to worship deities, for each deity in Taoism governs a specific aspect of human life and can offer blessings or solve the issue on that aspect.
The adoption of Confucianism and Taoism eventually marks Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, considered an indigenized religion or truly “Chinese religion”, although Buddhism itself first originated in India. Compared to Buddhism however, which entered China hundreds of years earlier, Christianity is always seen as a foreign religion. This situation is due to its relatively short history in China, its lack of indigenization and its rejection of Chinese traditions. Christianity was also used as a tool of western colonization and oppression before the new China was founded in 1949, so much so that one of the first acts of the People’s Republic of China was to initiate the total expulsion of all missions and missionaries.
Entering in the new era, the ideology of the Chinese Communist party, built on Marxist theory, emphasizes atheism and the suspicion of religious belief. Religions, being an “opium” to the people, are thought to be nothing more than a tool of pacification that brings temporary comfort to those who need it. Such views coincide with Confucianism’s practical rationality and pushes it to a new level.
As a result, the ideology of the Communist party is yet even more antagonistic towards Christianity. Hence, being a Christian thus not only means being a minority, but also engaging in something “foreign” and the abandonment of the root and heritage of China. Among the majority of Chinese in mainland China, and even in my family, being a Christian marks me as an outsider.
Being a Chinese student in the United States and at my current seminary, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, again, marks me as an outsider, as I am labelled an “international student”. Being an outsider is not limited to my skin color, the red cover of my passport and the documents I hold to study in the US, nor the different cultural aspects, mentality, and habits that I grew up with and carry with me. The cultural clashes and difficulties I as an international student face when traveling and entering this country is just a small part of being a stranger.
Being an outsider means that I am constructed as “other” in contrast to being accepted as part of “us”. This sense of being an outsider shows itself when I am asked questions such as “which country are you from?” and “when you will return to your home country and what will you do?” Or “as an international student, tell us how you feel about …” These questions constantly remind me that I come from somewhere else, and that I am not fully part of the “us” in the US. At school, me being the “other” is highlighted by participating in activities primarily for “international” students, rather than for the student body. More than any other obvious label, I am always marked as an international student at LSTC, instead of as a PhD student, or even as a student in the LSTC community. Being an outsider also means the value judgment and bias I have received based on the differences, and my obligation to correct the misperceptions people have of me in the US.
Being a Lutheran, I am also an outsider to the majority of Chinese Christians. Many times, when meeting a Chinese Christian (regardless of being in the US or in China), I always receive such a question: “How did you become a Lutheran?” The easy way to answer this question is that I became a Lutheran while I was an exchange student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Hong Kong, but the implication of this question is still there. When they ask this question, it is as if they are asking: “How are you so different from either the non-denominational, three-self background of mainland Chinese churches, or the heavy influence of Calvinism and Pietism in mainland house churches and in Chinese churches in the US?”
I am an outsider because I am a Lutheran.
I am Lutheran because I believe that I cannot do anything to earn God’s love, or to add to God’s glory. I am an outsider because I do not believe that prayers can manipulate God’s will. Not to mention the fact that I am even an outsider among other Chinese Lutherans, who lean on the conservative side. However, when attending a Lutheran church in the US, and thinking that I am no longer an outsider there, I am still an outsider because I am not white, and I come from a country on the other side of the world.
Wherever I am, whether in mainland China or in the US, whether at church among Chinese Christians or among white Lutherans, I find myself both an insider and outsider. As I learn to live with this hybridity of identities, which seem to contradict each other, I am in the process of “knowing thy self” in the variety of dimensions that define who I am. It is not an “either/or” question; I do not have to turn my back on one dimension in order to fully embrace the other dimension. It is rather about living with this hybridity at the same time. This hybridity was something that Luther knew about—when thinking about who he was in relation to God, Luther famously asserts, “I am a sinner in and by myself apart from Christ. Apart from myself and in Christ I am not a sinner.”
As someone who knew he was both a sinner and a saint at the same time, Luther helps me know myself as both a Christian and as Chinese.
Di Kang, who also goes by Karen, is a PhD student studying the Hebrew Bible at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Her dissertation examines the theme of the “vengeance of God” in Psalm 94. This topic is inspired by the concept “redressing injustice” (申冤) for the disadvantaged in the Chinese society.