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New book explores Chinese American devotion to family over religion

Photo from Family Sacrifices

By Jennifer Zhan, AsAmNews intern

Chinese Americans are the least religiously identified ethnic group in the country, with 52 percent reporting no religious affiliation in a national survey.

When it comes to religion, Unitarian Universalist minister Seanan Fong said conversations often end after non-religious Chinese Americans say they simply don’t have one. But a new book he co-authored suggests that Chinese Americans should be understood in terms of what they are, rather than defined by what they’re not. 

Family Sacrifices: The Worldviews and Ethics of Chinese Americans, written by Russell Jeung, Seanan Fong and Helen Kim, is the first book based on national survey data on Asian American religious practices. The Oakland Asian Cultural Center will host a talk today with Jeung and Fong about the book’s findings regarding the role of familialism .  

“Chinese Americans say they’re not religious, but they are pretty religious about how devoted they are to their family,” Jeung, an Asian American studies professor and church leader, told AsAmNews. “In this book, we argue that their whole life narrative centers around family: what family has given them in the past, how they’re serving their family now, and what they want to give to their family in the future.”

The work behind Family Sacrifices involved examining national survey data and conducting research that included dozens of sociological interviews. Kim, a professor of religious history, described Family Sacrifices to AsAmNews as a “deep dive” into data about Chinese American millennial life. 

She added that it became clear during interviews that the lives of Chinese Americans didn’t necessarily fit into established Western ideas. 

“Non religiosity among Chinese Americans isn’t really about absence of belief or belonging to Protestantism,” Kim said. “It’s a whole other kind of constellation of values, rituals and ethics that need to be taken into account.”

Kim said increasingly, religious studies scholars are finding that the so-called secular field is not an empty, value-neutral space and has ethics and practices that “look a lot like religion.”

Family Sacrifices suggests that while specific ethnic customs have changed, family-reinforcing values and rituals with Chinese roots have persisted in Chinese American communities. For example, although certain cultural taboos have been abandoned and are now considered superstitious, Jeung said most Chinese Americans continue to gather around food for Chinese New Year.

According to Fong, the first few chapters in the book break down concepts surrounding Chinese American familialism through theoretical and historical examination.

“A set of operating ethics and worldviews is really key to understanding yourself and your family and your history,” Fong told AsAmNews. “Making it explicit and then providing vocabulary and a theoretical framework to understand it can help people really connect with themselves and their heritage.We definitely hope it makes a difference in some people’s lives.”

Fong said he’s interested in the book’s potential applications to other ethnic groups, people who have left religions but still consider themselves spiritual, as well as the global Chinese diaspora.

Jeung added that the influence of Chinese popular religions and the Confucian value system is often “transplanted” into Chinese Christian churches. Familialism can manifest through a strong view of church members as family and a heavier emphasis on the commandment to honor one’s parents.

Jeung said from a Western viewpoint, Chinese Americans may seem dysfunctional because of the ways they communicate and relate emotionally. Family Sacrifices, he said, can provide context for understanding motivations behind Chinese American behavior.  

“We can organize them politically, we can improve their mental health, we can improve their health practices by seeing how the family functions as a source of resilience and community,” Jeung said. “This book is important because it helps us better serve Chinese Americans.”

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