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Culture clash: Asian Americans balance Christianity and culture in rituals honoring their ancestors

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When my great-grandmother died, I didn’t know how to pay my respects.

I was 9 years old, and had seen other Chinese people bow at funerals and gravesites before. One, two, three times.

But, my parents told me as we approached her coffin, we don’t do that.

Nor would we participate in any of the traditional Chinese ancestral rites of burning incense and paper money, or leaving food for her as an offering in the afterlife.

Like 42 percent of Asian Americans, my parents are Christian. And for believers like them, Chinese ancestor veneration inappropriately elevates the dead. The bowing, in particular, is akin to “idol worship,” a direct contradiction of their faith. The burning of money and offering of food are supposed to be gifts to the dead in the afterlife. But to Christians, death isn’t the door to a spirit world where material things are needed, but the beginning of life in heaven.

This year, my father told me we would visit my grandparents’ graves around Qingming Jie, the annual Chinese Tombsweeping festival, which this year fell on April 5. Joining millions of Chinese families celebrating the spring holiday to honor the dead, we planned to make the pilgrimage to our family burial grounds. We would clean my grandparents’ gravesites and reflect on their lives. But we wouldn’t bow, burn incense and paper money or leave food.

My parents left Hong Kong 50 years ago. For the first time I wondered: Are they now more Christian than Chinese? Had Christianity become our primary culture here in America?

My family isn’t the only one grappling with these questions.

Before Chinese American Jordan Kwan and his family converted to Christianity, they would bring oranges and a dim sum dish to a cemetery in Oakland, Calif., and participate in all the traditional ancestor veneration rituals.

He remembers them changing their routine when he was in the sixth grade.

“You don’t have to bow,” his newly Christian parents told him.

How did Chinese families like ours come to feel that our culture was incompatible with Christianity?

Sze-Kar Wan, professor of New Testament at Southern Methodist University, says it stems from an error in translation.

In ancient Chinese, the word for ancestor veneration, “jizu,” was defined as the act of sacrifice to the deities. In a modern context, Wan says it simply describes the commemoration of the dead.

Historically, practicing ancestral rites is deeply knit into Chinese culture — particularly because it embodies filial piety, the Confucian virtue of respect for one’s elders. Although it plays a central role in the Tombsweeping festival, it is traditionally observed during all major holidays.

Europeans initially believed China to be an enlightened society without Christianity, but that changed by the mid-18th to 19th century. Western missionaries viewed some aspects of Chinese culture as an obstacle to their religion and did everything to counter them, Wan says.

This included translating “jizu” to “ancestor worship.” In doing so, missionaries played a part in defining Chinese tradition to the English-speaking world and pitting it against a Christian God.

“Do not worship any other god,” the Bible reads. “The Lord … is a jealous God.”

Chinese American Serena Cerezo Poon remembers traveling to Hong Kong from California for her grandmother’s funeral in 2003. Her cousin played Christian worship music on his guitar, drowning out the Buddhist monks chanting at nearby services. Her mother placed a sign next to her grandmother’s coffin that read, “No Bowing.”

“I was surprised she didn’t physically stand next to the coffin and stop people mid-bow,” Cerezo Poon said.

Before her family’s trip, Cerezo Poon had researched the influence missionaries had in China as a college student.

“Christian missionaries said it was evil,” she says of ancestor veneration. “But when it’s such a big part of the culture, it was like them saying ‘You can’t be Chinese anymore, it’s evil.’ ”

After Catholic and Protestant missionaries established more churches in China by the 19th century, many new converts were ostracized for their faith and their rejection of Chinese traditions such as ancestor veneration. In extreme examples, such as the 1899 Boxer rebellion, they were persecuted and killed.

Despite political challenges, Christianity in China has endured into the 21st century. In 2010, the Pew Research Center estimated the country’s Christian population to be over 67 million, 5 percent of the national population, and other scholars say current numbers could be nearly twice that.

Today, the influence of Western missionaries is still evident in Chinese Christians whose families like mine, Kwan’s and Cerezo Poon’s immigrated to the United States.

But the hard-line approach against ancestor veneration could be fading in a world where cultures are becoming increasingly hybrid.

“I think one could look at ancestor veneration as a continuation of memory,” Wan says. Our dead “do not have independent status or power from God, but we can acknowledge that they are now in the repose of God and that it is important to remember them. That could really be worked into the modern Christian worldview.”

Other Asian Americans have found a compromise between their mother culture and adopted religion.

Desiree Nguyen is a Vietnamese American Catholic whose ancestor veneration rituals closely resemble Chinese traditions.

“When I found out that some Vietnamese gave up ancestor worship after converting to Catholicism, I thought it was a real shame,” Nguyen says. “Ancestor veneration, or respecting elders, is really a crucial part of our culture.”

The Vatican has recognized this and officially allowed Vietnamese Catholics to practice ancestral veneration in 1968.

On major holidays, including Lunar New Year and Christmas, Nguyen’s family gathers around an altar for her ancestors. They light incense, bow three times, say Christian prayers and sometimes pray the rosary.

“I always thought white Christianity’s approach to death and spirits was pitifully narrow,” says Nguyen of the early condemnation of ancestor veneration. “Christianity is deeply layered and complex, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

Regardless of religion, it can be difficult for immigrants to uphold and pass on rituals from their home country.

When my family paid our respects at my grandparents’ gravesites this spring, I couldn’t recall the last time we visited.

But we poured water over their headstones, swept wet twigs from the crevices and scrubbed the surface clean. We repurposed palm crosses from Palm Sunday, sticking them in the moist ground behind the memorials. Borrowing from Jewish tradition, we placed a stone on top of their graves, leaving notes for our deceased beneath.

We came to the cemetery to honor our ancestors. And when we remembered the dead, we reflected ourselves — a mix of culture and faith in a country where we now celebrate both.

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