Outside the Chinatowns in main urban centers of the U.S., it can be difficult to find a Chinese immigrant or second generation Chinese community for newcomers. But, in fact, in more suburban areas there actually are Chinese communities – they’re just harder to find because they are more spread out.
As non-intuitive as it sounds, the most common and strongest of these communities is the Chinese church; they are the main civic and social community centers for recent immigrants and their children.
You don’t have to be Christian to go to one – in fact, like all Christian churches they have a strong sense of evangelism and want non-Christians to come. But if you only want community and never want to even hear/talk/ask questions about Christianity, it’ll eventually become uncomfortable for you.
JiaYou and I started going to a Chinese church in our rather suburban area of NYC, and here are some interesting observations I have regarding Chinese churches in general (and I’ve been to several):
- Chinese language vs English language services/congregations. To accommodate recent immigrants and second generation/non-Chinese speaking people, Chinese churches usually have separate Chinese speaking and English speaking services and events. So for non-Chinese speakers like myself, no worries! And, depending on the population, there may be services for different dialects of Chinese – so separating Cantonese-speaking from the Mandarin-speaking, if there’s demand.
- Even being remotely linked to Chinese ethnicity will make you welcomed. This does not mean that Chinese churches are hostile to non-Chinese, but the immediate identification and cultural affinity will be sought for in being Chinese in some way. You can be a PRC mainlander with the “er-hua” Beijing accent, a Cantonese/English-speaker from Hong Kong, someone of the Hokkien sub-ethnicity from Indonesia, or a Taiwanese who moved here decades ago, and you’ll be completely welcomed with open arms. And if you’re Asian but not ethnically Chinese, they will go out of their way to create the link somewhere in their minds. I think everyone at the church we go to is in denial that I’m not ethnically Chinese because I’m Asian and can speak a bit of Mandarin. (I guess my being married to a PRC Chinese girl helps them assume.)
- Age demographic differences can be extreme. Related somewhat to language, there are usually large age disparities in suburban Chinese churches. There are many explanations for this, but generally families with young children make up the bulk of Chinese immigrants moving to the suburbs. So there will be a large 45+ population of parents who are more comfortable speaking Chinese, and a large middle school/high school population of their children, and very little in between. But then, this is reflective of suburbia in general, as Chinese churches in urban centers would have a larger young adult/career crowd. One odd side-effect is that the English speaking congregation will consist mostly of the under 25 crowd… and by default will be treated like children (which may be subject matter for another post.)
- Food is celebrated. One aspect of Chinese culture is that food, particularly from the various cuisines of China, is celebrated. Most suburban Chinese churches have large kitchens to cook lunch (Chinese American cuisine) for their congregations after service. This tends to be cafeteria style and therefore filling (but not exceptional in taste). The good stuff happens during the potluck events, such as Thanksgiving outreach and Bible study nights. Most of the mothers out there do an amazing job of cooking huge volumes of tasty stuff. So if you want a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner Chinese style, Chinese churches are where to go!
I’ve purposely not discussed the history and present day situation of Christian churches in PRC vs and those in the greater China area (i.e., HK, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese in SE Asia), but that’s a potential topic for another China Flashback post.