This Article Compares Different Narratives Cultural Studies Essay

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This article compares different narratives of identity construction strategies for first-generation Chinese and Indian who converted to Christianity in the U.S. Chinese converted Christians formed implicit religious identities due to previous religious exposures. They construct achieved religious identities as Christians by radically rejecting implicit ascribed religious identities. More specifically, Chinese converted Christians criticize typical Chinese religious identities and distance themselves from being a believer of traditional Chinese religions. Simultaneously, converted Chinese immigrants reinforce Chinese ethnic identities through symbols, such as food and language.

Indian converts form explicit ascribed religious identities because of the close relationship between religion and secular culture in India. To construct achieved religious identities, Indian converts accept both ascribed and achieved religious identities. Similarly, they also reinforce Indian ethnic identities in religious events. The comparison between Chinese and Indian immigrants shows how immigrants negotiate between their ethnic and religious identities to construct new identities in the process of religious conversion. This study argues that Indian and Chinese converts adopt divergent strategies to construct their identities due to their different perceptions of religion in their countries of origin. By examining ethnic and religious identities construction as a whole picture, this study enhances the understanding about the mechanism connecting immigrants' perception of cultural contexts in countries of origin and their conversion experience in the U.S.


Since 1960s, the U.S. has been the host society of Asian and Latin American immigrants (Wong 1986). Some immigrants maintain their traditional religions in the U.S. (Chen 2003; Ebaugh and Chafetz 2000), while others convert to Christianity (Ng 2002; Yang 1999). Converted immigrants deserve scholarly attention for the following reasons. First, on a societal level, converted immigrants bring racial and ethnic diversity to American Christianity (Ecklund 2005). Second, on an individual level, converted immigrants experience radical transitions in both social contexts and religious backgrounds. Scholars found that some immigrants attempt to negotiate their ethnic and religious identities in the arena of religious congregations (Ebaugh and Chafetz 2000; Hammond 1988).

Among Asian immigrants coming to the U.S. after the 1960s, the religious conversion experience of Chinese and Indian post 1960s immigrants to the U.S merit attention. Indian and Chinese individuals are two largest Asian immigrant groups (Camarota 2012). However, unlike other Asian immigrants such as Laos and Cambodian refugees, Chinese and Indian immigrants speak English proficiently and posses professional skills (Allard 2011). Dominant religious conversion theories suggest highly educated immigrants with sufficient financial resources convert to Christianity in order to assimilate into American society (Gorden 1964; Smith 1978). Yet, scholars find that dominant religious conversion theories do not fully explain the conversion experience of "new immigrant groups from Asia and Latin America", including Chinese immigrants (Yang 1998: 237). Unfortunately, very few scholars focus on the religious conversion experience of another large immigrant group in the U.S., Asian Indians.

Chinese and Indian Immigrants

Chinese and Indian immigrants exhibit several similarities making them ideal candidates for the comparative study of religious conversion experience. Both China and India have experienced political turmoil that may have destroyed cultural traditions and made Christianity an alternative accessible belief system for Chinese and Indian immigrants (Yang 1998). After the political turmoil, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gained control and Indian obtained independence, China and India developed similar modernization strategies which includes "deliberate insulation from the World economy, industrialization, and the economic dominance of the State" (Srinivasan 2004: 614). Though the secularization "myth" predicts that China and India should be secular because modernization links with secularization (Casanova 1994; Yang 2011), neither China nor India has become secular on their way towards modernity. In contrast to what the secularization "myth" predicts, diverse religions still survive in both China and India (Clothey 2001; Yang 2011). Because I am interested in participants' perception of their countries of origin and how their perceptions influence religious conversion upon coming to the U.S., it is ideal to select two immigrant groups whose perceptions of religion differ in their countries of origin may differ. The Indian government allows religion, especially Hinduism, to enter the public spheres, whereas the Chinese government adopts restrictive religious policies. This nuanced difference may leave impacts on Chinese and Indian immigrants' perceptions of religion ultimately influencing their religious conversion experience. Although Chinese and Indian immigrants may experience religious conversion in different fashions, immigrants from China and India encounter similar issues with tensions in the process of religious conversion.

Religious conversion is a complicated process that not only involves religious identities but also ethnic identities. More specifically, in the case of ethnic identity, people establish boundaries by three elements, religion, language, and nationality (Smith 1978). These three elements reinforce each other. Before converting to Christianity, first-generation Chinese and Indian immigrants reinforce their ethnic identities by believing in traditional religion, speaking Chinese or Hindi, and retaining their Chinese and Indian citizenship. After conversion, however, conflicts emerge when how individuals behave is different from they way people expect them to behave. In other words, for Chinese and Indian converts, the religion is inconsistent with language and nationality elements. Thus, people regard Chinese Christians being less Chinese ethnically (Ebaugh and Chaftez 2000). This conflict between being Chinese and being Christian can also be applied to Indians. The purpose of this study is to investigate how Chinese and Indian people resolve these conflicts by constructing their identities as Chinese Christians and Indian Christians respectively. I am also interested in examining whether and to what extent their identity construction strategies differ from one another. This study only considers Chinese immigrants from People's Republic of China (PRC).

The extent to which Chinese and Indian immigrants reject or accept their assigned religious identities sheds light on their strategies to construct new religious identities (Cadge 2005). In this study, I rely on narratives of religious conversion experience among Chinese and Indian students in American universities. My data includes in-depth interviews and observation of members in the Chinese Church and Bible Study Group of Houston, Texas and the Indian Church and Bible Study Group of Houston, Texas. I asked them to identify any conflicts between ethnic and religious identities they may encounter and how they negotiate these conflicts. I studied their perception of religion and whether they felt any conflicts in the conversion process. This study may enhance our understanding of how immigrants construct their identities in the process of religious conversion. It may also provide implications of how immigrants handle the cultural transition from their native countries to the U.S.

Religion in China and India

To study the religious conversion process of Chinese and Indian immigrants, it is necessary to have a brief understanding of religion in China and India. Though the Chinese government claims China as an atheist country, Chinese citizens still actively practice religion (Lai 2003; Yang 2012). On one hand, while the government only supports atheism, the government mildly tolerates Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism (Lai 2003; Yang 2012). On the other hand, illegal religious organizations operate among masses (Yang 2012). Underground Catholic churches remain the most prominent illegal religious organizations that encourage believers to carry on their faith according to Roman Catholic Church regardless of Chinese government's conflicts with Roman Catholic Church (Yang 2012). Even official religious organizations conduct "illegal" religious activities, such as building personal temples (Yang 2012). In addition to legal and illegal religions, Chinese folk religions, such as ancestral worship and sacrificial rituals, are becoming increasing popular despite the fact that they have not been officially approved (Madsen and Seigler 2011; Yang 2012). Similar to China, India is also a religiously diverse country with Hinduism as the dominant religion (Hardgrave 1993). As the most influential religious tradition, Hinduism has various sects and Hindus "are socially segmented by thousands of sects and castes" (Hardgrave 1993:55). Additionally, Islam, Sikhism, Catholicism, Jainism, Judaism, and other religions further complicate religious diversity in India (Min and Kim 2002; Robinson 2004). While atheism officially describes the religion of China (Zuo 1991) and Hinduism remains the most practiced religion in India (Hargrave 1993; Banu 2000), religiously diversity in these two places informs us of possible dynamics and tensions in China and India.

In the present, multiple religions are visible in both China and India. In the past, however, governments in both China and India oppressed religion in certain historical periods. The Chinese government eradicated religions by closing all religious venues from 1966 to 1979 in a political campaign called the Great Cultural Revolution (Yang 2012). During this political campaign, China experienced "perhaps the world's most radical and systematic secularization process" (Yang 2011:3). Though some scholars, such as Yang (2012), argue that Chinese people preserve religious faith by practicing religion secretly during the Great Cultural Revolution, Chinese people did not publicly access religion during that time. Similar to the Chinese government, in attempts to achieve modernization, the India government excluded religion from public spheres under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru right after independence (Mitra 1991). However, unlike China, India has not radically removed religious venues. From ancient India to the colonial period to the resent, religion is not only the foundation of personal bonds but also the basic element reinforcing ethnic identities (Mitra 1991). In recent years, the Indian government has attempted to take religion on board and include religious traditions, especially Hinduism, in public spheres (Banu 2000). Religion is always important socially in India, but the government's use of religion to enact laws and politics has changed when India is in the process of modernization. China, however, has experienced a radical secularization process, which has led to a revival of religion only among masses.

Religious Conversion

We can utilize our knowledge of the religious climate in China and India to understand existing literature concerning religious conversion modes among Chinese and Indian immigrants. The influx of post-1965 immigrants to the U.S. and their high conversion rates prompt scholars' interest in immigrants' religious conversion (e.g., Chen 2005; Hall 2006; Ng 2002; Yang 1998). Due to the fact that religious conversion of post-1965 immigrants is an understudied area, there is an ongoing debate as to why "immigrants abandon their traditional religions and convert to an untraditional religion" (Yang 1998: 242).

Most often, scholars attempt to illuminate this question by focusing on East Asian immigrants, especially Chinese. Previous studies mostly utilize the dominant religious conversion theories and observe religious conversion modes from two perspectives, either immigrants' needs for cultural continuity (Bankston and Zhou 1995; Warner 1997) or their demands for assimilation (Gordon 1964; Smith 1978). Literature attending to immigrants' needs for cultural continuity shows how immigrants enhance ethnic identification by participating in ethnic religious organizations (Bankston and Zhou 1995). Studies focusing on immigrants' demands to assimilate into the U.S. society imply that immigrants may convert to Christianity to adopt the mainstream American ways (Yang 1999). Yang (1998), however, conducts a breakthrough study, arguing that the dominant religious conversion theory may not completely explain Chinese immigrants' religious explain Chinese immigrants' conversion experience. More specifically, Yang (1998) argues that cultural continuity, such as ethnic identification needs, and assimilation demands, such as upward mobility needs, do not fully show Chinese immigrants' motivation for religious conversion. Rather, cultural contexts, especially political storms and social turmoil in China, facilitate Chinese immigrants' conversion to Christianity because theses immigrants have requests for new religious belief systems when traditional ones have collapsed. Based on Yang's (1998) research, Hall (2006) further divides these cultural context elements into two categories, the openness factor and the receptivity factor. The openness factor can be exemplified by the collapse of traditional Chinese culture and the dominance of Western modernization. These factors make Chinese immigrants more open to religious conversion (Hall 2006). The receptivity factor includes the prestige of Christianity and commonalities between Christianity morals and Confucian values that make Chinese immigrants more receptive to conversion (Hall 2006). Different from Yang (1998) and Hall (2006), Ng (2002) questions the dominant religious conversion theory by stating that ethnic identification and assimilation demands are not two separate processes. Instead, they are two perspectives occurring one complicated religious conversion process (Ng 2002).

Compared with their Chinese counterparts, converted Indians have not received much scholarly attention. Some literature discusses the expansion of Christianity in India and states that the influx of Western culture in colonial periods popularizes Christianity in India (Robinson 2006). However, implicitly, studies conducted in the U.S. reinforce the serotype of Indians as Hindus by largely focusing on the role Hinduism plays in the acculturation of Indian immigrants (Kurien 1999; Sdowsky and Carey 1988). Only a few studies examine the experience of Indian Christians in the U.S. What remains even more elusive is the experience of converted Indians. Researchers conclude that dominant religious theories cannot fully discuss the conversion experience of a large group of new Asian immigrants, namely Chinese (Hall 2006; Ng 2002; Yang 1998). Surprisingly, few, if any studies investigate whether dominant religious conversion theories completely explain the religious conversion story of the second largest Asian immigrant group to the U.S., the Indians (Camarota 2012).

Religion and Ethnicity

Religion is a central component influencing immigrants' lives in the U.S. For example, Kurien (1999) shows that religion constrains Hindu women on the local ethnic community dimension while empowers Hindu women on the household dimension. Religious institution is also an agency through which immigrants can possibly transform the U.S. society by civic participation (Ecklund 2005). To have a better understanding about the role religion plays in immigrants' life, it is important to understand the relationship between religious and ethnic identities for immigrants.

Immigrants' religious and ethnic identities are intertwined with each other (Greeley1971; Hammond 1988; Smith 1978). In American society, "religion plays an ethnic function" and "ethnicity has powerful religious overtone" (Greeley 1971: 42). To some extent, with the migration experience, the importance of religion to ethnic identification outweighs the importance of language and nationality (Smith 1978). Therefore, scholars argue that religion plays a central role for immigrants' ethnic identity reproduction (Ebaugh and Chafetz 2000).

Given to the importance of religion for immigrants, researchers have examined the connection between religious and ethnic identities from different angles. Some of them, such as Ebaugh and Chafetz (2000), concentrate on how immigrants' religious congregations reproduce their ethnicity by imitating ethnic symbols, including architecture styles, food, and ceremonial procedures. By doing so, religious institutions "provide the physical and social spaces" for immigrants to "reproduce many aspects of their native cultures" (Ebaugh and Chafetz 2000:385). Others, such as Cadge (2005), focus on how immigrants' ethnic identity influences religious organization. By showing how Thai immigrant Buddhists bring traditional customs and scriptures into the Thai Buddhist Temple in the U.S., Cadge (2005) demonstrates how ethnic identities impact religious organizations. Most studies, however, establish their arguments on the assumption that religion and ethnicity are not at odds with one another for immigrants. Unfortunately, few scholars study the connection between religious and ethnic identity in the process of religious conversion. Religion's role in ethnic identity construction becomes complicated as immigrants convert to a non-traditional religion that shares few commonalities with their secular cultures, customs, and even languages. This is the case for Chinese and Indian immigrants who convert to Christianity.

Christianity, a Western religion with short history in both China and India, share few similarities with Chinese and Indian immigrants' native customs (Robinson 2003; Yang and Ebaugh 2001). Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism have embedded in Chinese society for more than two thousand years (Yang and Ebaugh 2001), whereas Christianity "has been a minority religion with a short history" (Yang and Ebaugh 2001:373). By adopting Christianity, Chinese Christians are considered as getting rid of their Chinese ethnicities and become westernized (Ebaugh and Chaftez 2000).

Indian converts are facing similar conflicts between their native customs and their newly adopted Christian religion. Indian immigrants' ethnic identities largely depend on Hinduism, since Hinduism remains so central to Indian culture (Hardgrave 1993). For example, the Hindu gesture for greeting individuals are created in the context of Indian culture and simultaneously legitimizes Indian culture (Fuller 2004). Yet, Indian Christians, especially converted Christians, can hardly enhance ethnic identity by "preserving religious faith and observing religious rituals" (Min 2003:125). From existing literature, we realize that the relationship between religious and ethnic identity becomes complicated for Chinese and Indian immigrants who converted to Christianity, since their ethnic and religious identities are inconsistent with each other.

Research Sites

To examine how converted Chinese and Indian immigrants deal with the conflicts between religious and ethnic identities, I studied first-generation Chinese and Indian immigrants who converted to Christianity. I selected my research settings in one Chinese church, Hope Family Chinese Church (HFCC) and one Indian Church, Holy Spirit Indian Church (HSIC). [1] Both of them are located in Houston, Texas. HFCC was established fifteen years ago. With the influx of Chinese immigrants, including immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland China, and other Chinese societies in South East Asia, the need for Chinese religious sites in the U.S. increased. Thus, several earlier immigrants from Hong Kong established this church and gained members by providing English, Cantonese, and Mandarin religious service. While Hong Kong immigrants established HFCC, the majority of churchgoers in the Mandarin service come from Mainland China, which is consistent with the goal of this study. The Indian Church, however, has a longer history. It was established around the 1970s when there were only a few Indian Christians in Houston. With the increase of Indian immigrants and the increase of Indian immigrants' needs for religious activities, earlier Indian immigrants built and expanded the Indian church.


This study is based on the data collected from mid February to late April 2013. I gave pseudonyms for all participants and all their identifiable information is confidential. To recruit participants, I contacted core student members in the Indian and Chinese church. These core student members gave me access to participate in their events, such as the Friday night evangelizing event, Sunday morning worship event, and Bible Studies. I showed my identity as a researcher by introducing myself as a sociology student in these observations, especially in HFCC. As a Mainland Chinese, I was a partial insider in this research. By displaying my identity as an outsider, my participants gave me more detailed information about their beliefs and conversion feelings. In my observation, I actively recruited potential participants for interviews.

During mid February to mid March, I conducted interviews with Chinese converted Christians. Five Chinese respondents participated in the interview with an age span from 22 to 30. Three of them were females and two of them were males. For practical reasons, I deliberately focused on Chinese students due to their accessibility in such a short period of time. Interview questions included respondents' previous religious identities and practice, their perception of religion in China, their feelings about identity conflicts, the conversion process, and the differences before and after conversion. All interviews with Chinese respondents were conducted in Mandarins. In this paper, I translated quotes from Mandarin to English without changing respondents' tones. With respondents' permission, I recorded all five interviews for Chinese students and transcribed the first three of them. For the rest of interviews, I listened to the records and wrote down themes concerning identity construction that repeatedly appeared.

From mid March to late April, I interviewed Indian converts. Two Indian participants accepted my interview invitation. Both of them were males. One of them was 26 and the other was 30. I asked the Indian participants the same questions as the Chinese respondents. Interviews with Indian respondents were conducted in English. With participants' consent, I recorded these two interviews. Though I did not transcribe them, I listened to these interviews and found common themes in case of identity construction in these two interviews. As an outsider of my Indian participants, they were more concerned about their confidentiality and the snowball sampling procedure moved much slower than that with my Chinese participants.


Scholars have concluded that identities are not essential categories (Cerulo 1997). People construct identities "in accord with reigning cultural scripts and centers of power" (Cerulo 1997:387). Identity construction is a central topic for sociology of religion. Yet, studies concerning religious identity largely focus on how believers choose religious identities due to the influence of the market theory. The prevalent market theory describes a religious economy as "a 'market' of current and potential adherents, a set of one or more organizations seeking to attract or maintain adherents" (Stark and Finke 2000:193). This theory assumes religious believers, particularly religious believers in the U.S., as consumers who choose their religious identities based on rational choice (Stark and Finke 2000). For converted immigrants, religion serves as a "bridge" connecting their countries of origin and the hosting society (Bankston and Zhou 1995; Williams 1988). Thus, we should focus on both their chosen religious identities in the U.S. and their assigned religious identities in their countries of origin. This particular feature of converted immigrants' religious identities inform me to analyze their identity construction using the concept of ascription and achievement (Cadge 2005).

Anthropologist Ralph Linton (1936) was the first one who applied the concept as ascription and achievement on social status. According to Linton (1936), individuals choose certain things "that are ascertainable at birth" and utilize them as "reference points for the ascription of status" (Linton 1936: 115). In addition to ascription of status, there are "a varying number of statuses which are open to individual achievement" (Linton 1936: 128). Based on Linton's (1936) theory, Cadge (2005) extends the division between ascribed and achieved status to religious identities, arguing that ascribed identities are religious identity people inherit from their cultural backgrounds, mainly from their families (Cadge 2005). Achieved identities, on the other hand, are religious identities constructed by believers' personal choice (Cadge 2005). In this study, I employ ascribed and achieved identity in the case of religious conversion. I examine how Chinese and Indian converted Christians negotiate between their previously ascribed religious identities and their achieved Christian identities. This article argues that by negotiating between religious and ethnic identities, Chinese and Indian immigrants construct new identities as Chinese Christians and Indian Christians.

Before showing more detailed findings in interviews, it is helpful to observe how Chinese and Indian Christians connect their ascribed identity with their achieved identity in religious events. In a Friday Night Evangelizing Event at HFCC, a guest speaker from Mainland China gave a lecture to reinforce church members' belief in Christianity and evangelizing non-Christians. At the very beginning of the event, she told us a story about poison steamed buns. "When I was in China receiving training about evangelizing, I wanted to buy several steamed buns for dinner", she said. "All steamed buns in the market look white and good. Yet, my friend told me that I should not buy those white steamed buns because they contain optical brightener, which will potentially cause cancer in the long term." Then she transited her topic from poison steamed buns to religious beliefs, "Why so many immoral things happened in China? It is because Chinese people don't really believe in religions, especially Christianity ". To start her speech, this guest speaker attempted to connect Chinese society with being a Chinese Christian in the U.S. by crudely criticizing what is happening in China and attributing it to the lack of religious beliefs.

After several weeks, at a Sunday Morning Worship Event, the Indian pastor gave a speech entitled "Money Matters." To begin his speech, the pastor said, "at least in India, people like to ask each other 'how much money do you make?' Our identity is so closely related to money. Judging money is judging us." Similar to the guest speaker in the HFCC, the pastor also talked about a story connecting India to the U.S. However, different from the Chinese guest speaker, the Indian pastor did not negatively judge anything in India. Rather, he used the strategy to connect church members' ethnic identity with their religious identity.

Both the Chinese guest speaker and the Indian pastor connected immigrants' countries of origin with being Christians in the U.S. to allow Christianity to serve practical purpose for Chinese and Indian immigrants. They share an emphasis on how to interpret ascribed religious identities in immigrants' countries of origin. These two divergent scenes happening in HFCC and HSIC foreshadow Chinese and Indian Christians' distinctive strategies to construct their identities as Chinese Christians and Indian Christians.

Vending Machine: Religious and Ethnic Identity in HFCC

Though the Chinese government always claims itself as an atheist government and attempts to establish an atheist country (Cox 2007; Yang 2012), all of the Chinese participants had previous religious exposures. Most of them practiced Buddhism with their parents or grandparents. For example, Nina Wang, a second year PhD student who came to the U.S. four years ago, went to Buddhist temples with her mother and grandmother. She remembered, "I went to the Buddhist temple before my entrance examination because of the influence from my mother and my grandmother. After getting good scores on the entrance examination, I went back to the temple to thank the Buddha." Similar with Nina Wang, Catherine Wu, a female junior student, told me that she went to Buddhist temples during traditional festival time. Catherine said,

I was pretty 'pious' at that time. I didn't buy joss sticks outside the temple. I bought them inside the temple. My parents always told other people proudly that I was really pious.

Interestingly, Nina Wang and Catherine Wu's previous exposures to Buddhism did not ascribe their religious identities. When I asked them whether they believed in religion before coming to the U.S. Nina, the student who went to the Buddhist temple before the entrance examination said, "no, no, not at all." Catherine, the girl who practiced Buddhism "piously" also denied her religious identity. She explained,

I don't think [I had religious identities], but I am not an atheist. I believed in deities, but I didn't believe in deities firmly. I didn't know what I want [in case of religious beliefs] and I was not interested in finding out.

Their narration of religious identities displays that Nina Wang, Catherine Wu and some others separated religious practice from religious identities and beliefs. Their birth in Buddhist families did not explicitly assign them Buddhist identities.

Although Chinese converts, such as Nina and Catherine, do not have explicitly ascribed religious identities. They adopt strategies as radically rejecting their implicit ascribed religious identities and moving to achieved religious identities (Cadge 2005). Jenifer Li, one of the female participants who came to the U.S. six years ago had religious exposures in Chinese folk religions, such as fortune telling (Suan Ming). Similar to Nina and Catherine, Jenifer did not have any explicit ascribed religious identities. Yet, when she talked about typical Chinese religious practice, she criticized it by analogizing it as "treating their Gods as a vending machine." She explained,

The so-called Chinese religious believers treat their gods as a vending machine. They put coins in it and their gods will give them some practical goods….By doing this, they lost opportunities to learn about their religions.

Although Jenifer Li did not explicitly state her ascribed religious identity, her analogy of "vending machines" reveals her eagerness to reject the implicit ascribed identity as a believer of Chinese traditional religions. What Chinese respondents try to do is judging typical Chinese religious identities as "fake Buddhists", "vending machine", "they don't know what they are doing" to get rid of their implicitly assigned religious identity as a Chinese traditional religious believer. Catherine Wu, the Chinese student who went to the temple piously also criticized the typical Chinese religious practice. She does not think the typical Chinese religious practice as an indicator for Chinese people's religiosity and religious beliefs. When she talked about Chinese Buddhist, Catherine commented:

They go to the temple, but they do not necessarily believe in Buddhism. They go there because others go there. They have practical needs and they think it is goodwill. Also it is a chance to go outing with families. So they go to the temple, but they don't really believe in Buddhism…You can see the differences between real Buddhists and fake Buddhists. Oh, I don't mean they are fake Buddhists, but they don't believe in Buddhism seriously.

According to Catherine, being "real" religious believers includes reading scriptures, knowing core religious values, and participating in religious practice regularly. Though Catherine did not specifically link Chinese religious practice with analogies like vending machines, she criticized typical Chinese religious practice and stated that religious beliefs should stem from spiritual needs instead of practical demands.

For my Chinese respondents, setting boundaries between their implicit ascribed religious identities and achieved religious identities is the first step for them in constructing their identities as Christians. After setting boundaries, they deliberately distance themselves from "typical" Chinese believers. When they reflected their Christian religious practice, they emphatically avoided mentioning their pursuits of practical goods when they pray to God. Nina Wang, the second year PhD student who went to the temple before her entrance examination told me that she recently faced a huge issue she did not know how to resolve.

At that time, I closed my eyes and prayed in my office. I told God that I didn't know what to do. I wished that God could comfort me…[After the pray], I felt warm deep in my heart. This is what I felt.

After that, she purposely denied that God offered her some practical goods by helping her to resolve the issue.

It does not mean that God helped me to solve the trouble. No, it doesn't. I don't know how to articulate it. When you learn to be humble and when you learn to give your credits to God, your life will become better.

In her discourse, she deliberately distanced herself from those religious believers who ask their gods to offer them practical goods. Even though in her story God helped her overcome practical difficulties, she reiterated that she only gained spiritual comforting God and not practical goods.

By interacting with my Chinese participants about their understandings of religion in China, I found their perceptions of Chinese social context indicate why Chinese participants radically reject their ascribed religious identities even though their ascribed religious identities are not explicit. In the interviews, my Chinese respondents told me how the Great Cultural revolution closed all religious venues and prevent them from receiving religious exposure through education and public media. Jason Zhang, a first year master student arrived in the U.S. six months ago used the word "brainwashing" to describe restrictive religious policies in China. In the past thirty years, Chinese government gradually started to accept religions and approved several official religions. Yet, public medias controlled by the government still relate unapproved religions, such as folk religions, as superstitions (Mi Xin). Influenced by the atheist government and its criticism to superstition, most Chinese converts perceive Chinese traditional religions as either secular culture or superstitions. Thus, to establish their "real" religious identities as Christians, they choose to adopt the strategy of radically rejecting their ascribed religious identities.

Chinese immigrants' rejection of ascribed identities is only confined in religious identities. Their rejection of ascribed religious identities does not refer to the rejection of ascribed ethnic identities. This observation confirms sociologists' argument that immigrants do not necessarily equate their religious identity with ethnic identity (Cadge 2005). When Chinese participants radically reject ascribed religious identities, they reinforce their ethnic identity by symbols such as food and language. In addition to food, language is an indicator symbolizing cultural reality and speaker's social identity (Kramsch 1998). Most first-generation Mainland Chinese immigrants attend Mandarin religious service at HFCC. At the beginning of Evangelizing Event or Bible Study, they sing Chinese songs with tunes similar to Chinese pop music. They read Chinese Bibles and the pastor preaches in Chinese. Food is another symbol to enhance Chinese Christians' ethnic identification (Ng 2002). After the Sunday Afternoon Bible Study, they share traditional Chinese food, such as dumplings and steamed buns. Even though first-generation Chinese immigrants usually incorporate their ethnicity in everyday lives, Chinese Christians are still using symbols to assert their "love for and pride in their traditions" (Gans 1979:9).

After participating in religious events and discussing with converted Chinese, I ascertained that converted Chinese Christians in HFCC construct identities as Chinese Christians by rejecting their implicit religious identities and reinforcing their ethnic identities. Possibly, their identity construction strategy comes from their perceptions about religion in China. Though they reject their implicitly ascribed religious identity as believers of traditional Chinese religion, they have never attempted to get rid of their assigned ethnic identity. Rather, they use symbols in religious activities to reinforce their identities as being Chinese.

Different Paths to the Common Goal: Religious and Ethnic Identity in HSIC

Similar to converted Chinese Christians, converted Indians had even more previous religious exposures. Indian respondents stated that religious practice was of great importance to their lives before conversion. Jacob, a master student who came to the U.S. four years ago, converted from Catholicism to Protestantism after arriving in the U.S. He told me that religion was important to him on the dimension of practice before conversion. He said,

I used to pray for blessing. I asked him for what I need. Pray to him before having a test.

Pray to him when I want some marks, like good grades this stuff. I had pray to him when I

need something…Then, I went to church every week.

Jacob reflected that he did not understand what Catholicism was talking about before conversion. But he described how religious practice was an indispensable part of his life.

Surry, a converted Indian who has experienced a more radical change from Hinduism to Christianity, also mentioned the importance of religious practice. He explained, "I prayed to [Hindu] God for everything. I prayed to God before starting a good work. So, God was an important part in my life in India. Practice."

Religious atmosphere in India allows my Indian respondents to have sufficient exposures of religious practice. Though both of them have abandoned their previous religious practice after conversion, neither of them has denied their previous assigned religious identity as Catholics or Hindus. Jacob emphasized, "I was born as a Christian, like a Catholic. I was not a Muslim. I was not a Hindu. I was a Catholic." Similar to Jacob, Surry also stated his previously ascribed religious identity without hesitation. He told me, "Previously, I was Hindu. We worshipped Hindu Gods." In terms of previous religious exposure and assigned religious identities, converted Indians do not reject the fact that they had different religious identities before conversion. Rather, from their narration of religious practice and religious identities, I found that they were proud of being religious before conversion. In the interview, both Jacob and Surry have reiterated several times how India is a religious country and how they immerged in such a religious context.

Indian converted Christians' explicit religious identities lead to their strategy of constructing achieved religious identities without rejecting ascribed ones. More specifically, they utilize the strategy as finding commonalities between their ascribed and achieved identities. Jacob, the converted Protestant, found symbols connecting his ascribed and achieved religious identity. He commented,

In India, Hinduism has slightly affected Christianity in India, because just like Hindu person offer sacrifice of flowers, a Christian in India will offer sacrifice of candles.

By finding the commonality as sacrifice, Jacob reconciled the conflicts between his ascribed religious identity and achieved religious identity. Like Jacob, Surry also told me that divergent religions are actually distinctive paths to reach the ultimate God. Therefore, he does not think there are any inconsistencies between being a Hindu and being a Christian. Instead of regarding himself as a religious convert, Surry thinks that he has merely transformed to a different path to approach the only God. Different from my Chinese respondents, Indian respondents do not set boundaries between their ascribed and achieved religious identities. Indian converts accept both their ascribed and achieved identities by finding commonalities between these two identities and switch smoothly from their previous religious identities to their current religious identities as Christians.

By hearing narratives from Indian converts, I argue that their perception of religious in Indian results in their identity construction strategy as accepting both ascribed and achieved identities. In our discussions, Jacob and Surry described Indian as "the most religious country in the world." They reflected how religion is embedded in every corner in Indian society. Surry further elaborated the fluid and flexible boundary between religion and secular culture in India. He explained,

India is a cultural country. I mean…very cultural. So, you were born in a Hindu culture. So, we have so many faiths to us. And we have so many atmosphere of living. I mean the God is part our lives.

More specifically, both Jacob and Surry regard Hinduism as the most influential religion to Indian secular culture. Though Jacob was not born in a Hindu family, Hinduism leaves impacts on him through the close connection between Hinduism and secular Indian culture. Hinduism is defined as an adaptive religion, which is not a rigid belief system relying on a single scripture book (Kurien 1998). Hinduism approaches gods without destroying any other religions (Kurien 1998). Affected by adaptive Hinduism through religious Indian culture, Indian respondents regard religion as an adaptive belief system to reach the God. Particular features of Indian culture and Hinduism explain why converted Indians do not find any conflicts between their previously assigned religious identity and their ascribed religious identity as Christians. They regard them as transforming to a different path to reach the same goal, which is connecting with the ultimate God.

Indian Christians in HSIC not only accept their ascribed religious identities, but also embrace their assigned ethnic identities. Same as my Chinese respondents in HFCC, Indian Christians reinforce their ethnic identity by symbols, such as dresses, decorations, and ceremonies. In Sunday Morning Worship Events, Indian churchgoers wear traditional formal dresses. Even in the English preaching event, women and men sit separately, which is transplanted from India to the U.S. The Wednesday Night Bible Study of HSIC takes place in a small apartment. Though there is not much decoration in that apartment, organizers put an Indian carpet in the room. By utilizing symbols to reinforce their ethnic identities, Indian Christians assert their prides as being Indians (Kurien 1998).

Indian converted Christians construct their identity by accepting both previously ascribed religious identity and achieved religious identity. Though others may think their ascribed religious identities are at odds with achieved religious identities, they resolve the conflicts by finding commonalities between their previous religious beliefs and Christianity. Born in a religious country, Indian Christians not only use symbols, such as traditional dresses, to reinforce their ethnic identities, but also transplant some ceremonial elements, such as separation female and males, from India to the U.S.


Examining narratives from first-generation Chinese and Indian converted Christians illustrates how immigrants utilize different strategies to construct their identities as Chinese and Indian Christians. Their discourse about how they reconcile their ascribed and achieved religious identity connects with their perceptions of religion in their countries of origin. Some sociologists who largely rely on market theory emphasize on achieved religious identity chosen by believers based on their rational choice (Berger 1969). This study shows that for immigrants in the U.S., their ascribed and achieved religious identities are equally important. Their identity construction process depends how on immigrants accept or reject ascribed religious identities to construct achieved religious identities.

Given my knowledge about religion in China and India, I expect Chinese participants being non-religious while Indian respondents being religious before converting to Christianity. Their narratives confirm my expectation. However, different from my expectation, compared with their Indian counterparts, Chinese converts who did not have explicit ascribed religious identities reject their implicitly assigned religious identities more radically than Indian converts. My data shows that identity construction strategies of Chinese and Indian immigrants relate to their perceptions of religiosity in their countries of origin.

What China and India have in common is the religiously diversity. Yet, Chinese and Indian government adopt different religious policies. The Chinese government propagandizes religion as opium for people (He 2011) and oppressed religions in public medias and educational systems. After internalizing the notion of religion as opium and superstitions, converted Chinese reject their implicitly assigned religious identity as believers of traditional Chinese religions to construct their new identity as Christians who focus purely on religious beliefs. In contrast, the Indian government has not closed down any religious venues in the modernization process. Religion has always been central to the Indian society. Therefore, influenced by the importance of religion and flexibility of Hinduism, converted Indians choose to look for commonalities and justify their conversion as transforming to another path to reach the God. By analyzing Chinese and Indian immigrants' identity construction strategies and linking them to their cultural content, I deepen Yang's (1998) argument that cultural content facilitates immigrants' motivation to convert to Christianity. I demonstrate that cultural content of immigrants' countries of origin influences not only immigrants' motivation of religious conversion but also their strategies of identity construction.

What remains the same in each of these two immigrant groups is the reinforcement of ethnic identities. This observation confirms the scholarly consensus that immigrants enhance their ethnic identification in religious congregations (Ebaugh and Chaftez 2000). It also shows that immigrants do not necessarily equate their religious identities to their ethnic identities (Cadge 2005; Cadge and Davidman 2006). In case of religious identity, scholars conclude that being Christian is inconsistent with their ethnic identities for some Asian immigrants (Ebaugh and Chaftez 2000). In case of ethnic identity, researchers, such as Kurien (1998), demonstrate that highly educated immigrants draw resources from both their native cultures and American cultures to adapt to the American society without entirely assimilating to the American society. This study, however, investigates immigrants' religious identities and ethnic identities as a whole picture, displaying how immigrants strike a balance between believing in Christianity, a Western religion, and not losing Indian and Chinese ethnic identities.

By observing Chinese and Indian immigrants' ethnic identities and religious identities as a whole picture and examining how they negotiate between ascribed and achieved identities, this article found that immigrants' perception of religion in their countries of origin may leave impacts on their identity construction strategies in religious conversion process in the U.S. This idea is novel and has not been fully developed in the past. This study informs that sociologists should concentrate more on how immigrants negotiate their identities inside religious congregations. The differences in the ways that Chinese and Indian converted Christians constructed their identities shows that religious conversion theories should leave room for the potential impacts of immigrants' perception of cultural context in their countries of origin on their conversion experience. For future research, scholars need to study whether these identity construction strategies adopted by Chinese and Indian immigrants in the process of religious conversion are particular for these two groups of immigrants or shared by other post-1965 immigrant groups.


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