This is the first essay in The Angsty Buddhist, a series about being Chinese American, nonbinary, and finding my own relationship with Buddhism, in a country where so many of its ideas have been whitewashed.
At my Catholic all-girls middle school, I liked to tell people I was Buddhist. It was my feeble attempt at preteen rebellion. When people talked about Jesus, I enjoyed interjecting, “Oh yeah? Well, I don’t believe Jesus was real because I’m Buddhist!”
I didn’t go to a particularly Catholic Catholic school. Many of the students were, like me, the children of gentrifying LA liberals who most likely supported gay marriage but didn’t want their kids going to public middle schools. Our religion class consisted of an old white woman telling us stories about her family and showing us TV movies that she found uplifting. One of our assignments was to draw an angel, and I got an A for copying a picture from a manga.
But it was still more Christianity than I had ever been previously exposed to. Before middle school, I’d only heard a handful of people say they believed in God, and suddenly, the vast majority of my classmates identified as some sort of Christian. At my first prayer service, I was baffled when everyone linked hands and started reciting what I later learned was the Lord’s Prayer. It made me feel out of place and also annoyed that I was expected to know these things. Unlike the Buddhist Church I’d grown up in, there seemed to be an assumption that everyone shared the same beliefs and experiences.
Once, in art class, I told a classmate that I didn’t believe in God because I was a Buddhist. “Oh,” she said, “well, that’s okay. All religions are different ways of worshipping the same God.”
“Buddhists don’t believe in God!” I snapped.
I complained to my mom about this when she picked me up from school. “And then she said, ‘they’re all worshipping the same God! That’s so annoying!’”
“She was just trying to be nice,” my mom said.
“Also we’re not Buddhist, just because we spend so much time at the Buddhist Church,” my mom said. “And it’s good for you to learn about Christianity. Most people in this country are some sort of Christian. It’s good to get exposed.”
“Fine,” I said.
I’m still not completely sure how to articulate this, but “all the same God” seemed a lot like the white parents my parents tried to avoid making small talk with, the kind of who liked diversity and holding fundraisers. And even though not all of the kids at my Catholic school were white, there was something about Christianity that reminded me of whiteness, at least in the power it seemed to hold. I was beginning to realize that religion is not just about what an individual person believes, but about culture and race and the larger structures we live in. “I’m Buddhist!” I insisted, by which I really meant, “You don’t know me. Fuck off.”
I went to a preschool at a Japanese American Buddhist Church. My parents chose the school mostly because one of their close friends worked there. Most of the kids my age at the Buddhist Church were fourth-generation Japanese Americans, like I’m fourth-generation Chinese American, and I think that’s one of the reasons why my parents decided to send me there. Most of my Asian American friends, since, have been first and second generation, and though I’m grateful for these friendships, I’m also glad I got to grow up with kids who shared this identity with me.
Mostly, we did normal preschool things like learn the alphabet and pretend to be cats. In elementary school, I joined the church basketball team and went to their summer day camp. The teachers there talked to us about the history of incarceration, and I listened as my classmates talked about how internment had affected their families. As an adult, I learned how Buddhist and Shinto leaders had been targeted during World War II and how Buddhism had sustained people in the camps. After the war, the Buddhist Church was important to supporting community members, many of whom had lost everything. Learning about this has made me think about the role religion and spirituality plays in resistance, how it can strengthen and bond people together.
I was struck by the realization that the pressure I felt so acutely to assimilate, was small compared to what previous generations had faced, what many continue to face.
From being at the Buddhist Church, I learned that preserving culture and community is an act of resistance, even when things like language are lost, and that religion can be an important part of this. I’m nervous about describing these things — the way we used incense, the sound of the chants, the spam musubi we sold at Obon. I don’t want to exoticize anything, especially since this isn’t my culture, but I think these things are important because they are what brought people together and allowed for resistance. .
My first year of college, I used to hide in my dorm room and watch youtube videos of Obon dancing. Surrounded by white people who wore boat shoes and vacationed at Martha’s Vineyard, I wanted something that reminded me of home. I was struck by the realization that the pressure I felt so acutely to assimilate, was small compared to what previous generations had faced, what many continue to face. But there were people who had still chosen to remember these Obon dances, to create new ones, and to pass them on to their children. I wonder about the strength it takes to choose this.
There isn’t an equivalent of the Japanese American Buddhist Church for my part of Chinese America. My own family’s experience of spirituality is fragmented, with no larger community that we’re drawn to. My great-grandparents immigrated to San Francisco at the height of the Exclusion Era. In a time of massacres against Chinese communities that was encouraged by government policy, many turned to Christian charities to meet their immediate needs. My grandmother and her siblings attended Catholic school, where the nuns gave them their English names. As a preteen, my grandma was baptized along with some of her classmates. When I asked my grandma if her mother was religious, she said, “Maybe in China she was Buddhist. She didn’t do that here, though.”
In a time of massacres against Chinese communities that was encouraged by government policy, many turned to Christian charities to meet their immediate needs.
My grandma says she’s a Catholic, though I’ve never seen her go to church. Once, I asked her if she believes in God, and she replied, “That’s what Catholics are supposed to believe.” She does get excited, however, when I ask her about the figurines from Chinese mythology she has around her house. She doesn’t remember the stories behind most of them, besides vague things like, “Those ones are sort of like angels.” I’ve tried to google some of them and learned that many of them are deities associated with both Buddhism and Daoism. I usually skim through their stories and then forget them. Despite my best intentions, there’s something vaguely dissatisfying about learning about one’s culture from google.
The rest of my family is spiritual in a similarly haphazard way. My parents have statues of Guanyin and Guan Gong in the living room. “For protection,” they say, though I’m not sure any of us know what exactly we’re being protected from. It’s just comforting to have them there. At funerals, our entire extended family will baisin with incense at the gravesite, and then someone will mention Jesus during a speech.
After the funeral, I always ask my mom afterwards, “Uncle so-and-so is Christian?” These were people I’d grown up with, and I’d never heard them mention it before.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “He hung around Cameron House a lot when he was a kid. It’s a Christian community center in Chinatown.”
I don’t think most people in my family are super Christian, but at times, like funerals, it’s a piece of ritual we know how to grab onto. I sometimes wonder what might have been in its place.
When I was a kid, I used to wish I were Japanese American and Buddhist. Mostly, I wanted something more concrete to identify with and a community I could call my own. More recently, though, I’ve been learning to embrace the ways spirituality and culture have come to me in more fragmented and distorted ways. I think that embracing this is a way of remembering the history that brought my family here. Like the history of incarceration shaped the Japanese American Buddhist Church, the history of exclusion has shaped my family’s fragmented spiritual practice. There is knowledge and a sense of connection to the past that is lost, but there is the satisfaction in knowing that the things we manage to hold onto have been fought for and that there is the opportunity to imagine new ways of being.
I’ve been thinking about this more lately — how the communities that raised me have survived past apocalypses and the role that spirituality and shared culture played in inspiring people to imagine something different. I think about the conversations we had about internment and the stories my relatives told me about being detained at Angel Island, how this affected my understanding of structural racism and white supremacy.
If anything, I’m thinking of the ways spirituality tethered people to each other — in the joy of a shared ritual or holding onto a myth or a belief in secret, remembering that your people hold wisdom deeper than the violence that white supremacy can inflict.
There must have been something that allowed people to survive these moments and imagine something better on the other side. I’m having a hard time articulating this outside of the simplistic ideas about faith and believing in higher purpose — I don’t think that’s what I mean. If anything, I’m thinking of the ways spirituality tethered people to each other — in the joy of a shared ritual or holding onto a myth or a belief in secret, remembering that your people hold wisdom deeper than the violence that white supremacy can inflict.
This is not to say that these communities are perfect. I can think of many ways I and the communities I come from failed in large ways. We didn’t talk enough about anti-Blackness and the ways we were complicit in the violence against Black communities. We didn’t talk about Islamophobia or the privilege that East Asians hold when compared to other communities that fall under the umbrella of “Asian Pacific Islander” and the violences we often commit as a result. The spiritual and cultural grounding of our communities is valuable and important but only if it is used to fight for collective liberation.
In middle school, I looked forward to Thursdays because that was basketball practice night at the Buddhist Church. I liked changing out of the gray pleated skirt and white polo shirt that was our uniform into a t-shirt and basketball shorts. I liked leaving Catholic school, with all its unfamiliar rituals, and returning to a community that felt like home.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I don’t really consider myself a Buddhist. I’m not that into organized religion, and the more I learn about the ways Buddhism has been used in violent and oppressive ways, the more reluctant I am to identify with it. Because I’m not Japanese American, I don’t feel comfortable claiming the kind of Buddhism I grew up with. The Buddhism I’ve encountered since then has mostly been filtered through whiteness: the chapter on Asia in my seventh grade history book, white professors, white queers who meditate, Zen-branded oil emulsifiers, shower gels, and Whole Foods muffins.
Once, when I was a college student, I was wandering around in the snow feeling sorry for myself. I’d heard that the chaplain’s office was hosting a dharma talk, and I went because it seemed like a good way to channel my angst. The person giving the talk was a white man in robes from the local Zen center. I don’t remember what the talk was on, something about being present or dealing with anger or whatever. I do remember it being vaguely self-helpy and mansplainy in a way that I’ve come to associate with white Buddhists and white people in general. I left the talk confused, wondering if I was being melodramatic for disliking the guy so much and also frustrated that he was my access point to Buddhism.
Now that most of the people around me are trans and queer, everyone I know seems to be honoring their ancestors, making altars, and insisting on rituals. I used to think this was weird and depending on the situation, culturally appropriative. Sometimes, I still think these things. Every time we start a meeting with a grounding exercise, I find myself wanting to roll my eyes.
But as I parse through my own memories of the Buddhist Church and my own family’s scattered rituals, I’m starting to realize the wisdom behind these impulses. In order to create the futures we want, we need to understand the lessons imparted by those who came before us, and we also need the rituals and practices, spiritual or otherwise, that keep us connected and clear in our sense of purpose. I’m not sure if I’ve found these things for myself, but I would like to. I would like to be able to imagine a way forward.