Fragmented Religion

When my mother moved to the US from Taiwan in 1992, she left behind nearly all of her religious practices. Adapting to a new culture, learning a new language, and working 60 hours a week made it difficult for her to maintain her old lifestyle and customs, religion included. As I grew up, my only glimpses of any type of religion were coloring books in the pews of our local church that my mom forced me to attend and visiting miaos during our annual trips back to Taiwan. I would simply go through the motions, copying the way my mom prayed to Guanyin and Guangong while burning incenses and dropping the red blocks pretending to be looking for answers. I would aimlessly travel with her to dozens of temples all around Taiwan and we would visit my late ancestors high in the hills of Beitou to pay respects. Many of my memories of Taiwan consist of a wide variety of different religious practices that included extravagant feasts offered to our ancestors and burning paper money in the streets. However, despite my participation in these events, they’re meanings were crafted from my own reflection and perceptions of the actions. I had little direction or explanation from my elders around me. They were merely parts of life that blended into staples of my Taiwanese vacations. They didn’t feel “religious” per se, it was just something we did every year. Back in the states, my house has a large milefo near the doorway, and for much of my childhood, I wore an amber jade Guangong around my neck. In America, religion stopped there.

My confusion reached its peak last summer during a solo trip to Taiwan. My Da Jiu Jiu (Pictured above in the green polo) took me to a large religious procession in which we followed an extravagant parade which I deduced was the birthday celebration of a local deity. During this 5 hour long event, we marched along, banged drums, set off fireworks, prayed, sang, and danced. It culminated in the foothills of some mountains when I was able to witness a man possessed by the god. This man, or a “spirit medium” which I now learned, became the center of attention as small children would do a dance of offering to him as he then proceeded to torture his body. This involved burning his shoulders, face, and back with burning embers and slicing his tongue with a large sword. The feeling was indescribable and I can’t wait to ask my uncle more about it when we visit later this month.

Now after living in Shanghai and reading about Chinese folk religion, my blurred lines of Chinese customs and Chinese religion are beginning to become more defined. Yet, at the same time, the gray area that I’ve grown up in has also become further reinforced. It seems there’s a constant interweaving of Chinese culture’s customs and their folk religion. Whether it’s praying and celebrating the opening of a new store or having a small shrine in the kitchen of a restaurant, the constant overlap is ubiquitous. It’s enlightening to finally give meaning to the things I’ve done since I was a kid. My yearning to study abroad here was driven by a need to learn the language of my aunts, uncles, grandparents, and mom and dad. But what I didn’t think about was how language was the barrier keeping me from “my” religion. Richard Madsen and Elijah Siegler define this sentiment clearly, writing that many first generation Americans such as myself have lost religion during our parent’s immigration. The “disconnect” they write of seems all too real as I slowly piece together my memories and give them meaning.