Growing up Asian-Australian in Sydney Churches

The changing demographics of regular church attendance in Australia is no secret to long-time Christians, with declining numbers of Anglo-Australians. This, however, does not signify the end of Christianity in the country, with an increasing number of church attendees coming from an immigrant and especially a second-generation Asian background.

Both traditional Australian and single-ethnic oriented churches have struggled in recent decades to address the newest generation of young Christians. This rising generation is known as “third-culture kids” given their Westernised yet traditional immigrant upbringing in Australia. Many of these young people may look like immigrants to the untrained eye but would be treated as foreigners in the countries of their parents.

With a growing number of Australians having at least one parent born overseas, the meaning of “ABC” as an acronym has come to be understood as “Australian born Chinese” in recent decades. Such has largely been overlooked by mainstream media and most institutions until recently, which has allowed for the flourishing of such “third-culture” to go unnoticed.

On Facebook, several Melbourne high school students created the semi-satirical group “Subtle Asian Traits” in 2018, highlighting the experiences of “third-culture” Asian-Australian young people. This has led to many spins offs including “Subtle Asian Christian Traits”, which inspired the following list:

1. You know you’re an Asian-Australian Christian when RICE Movement is an evangelistic youth rally and not just something that gets spun around on a Lazy Susan in a Chinese restaurant 

2. You probably have attended or know a church that has at least 2 Cs in its name. e.g. Chinese Christian Church, West Sydney Chinese Christian Church, Northern District Chinese Christian Church, Western District Chinese Christian Church

3. Growing up you’re likely to have calculated the answer to Matthew chapter 18 verse 21 to 22 (seven times seventy) before understanding what Jesus taught in the passage about forgiveness

4. Single Christian males are attracted to ABGs, but not your typical “Asian Baby Girl” who likes tight clothing, drinking and raving. Rather, B is for Bible, so a wholesome girl who loves Jesus!

5. Similarly, BOBA isn’t just an acronym for “bubble tea”, but for Asian Bible Girls (ABGs) it stands for “Bible Over Boys, Amen!”

6. The idea of getting baptised in BOBA (actual bubble tea) has been floated to you

7. You’ve probably been afraid to speak with someone in the church because they are older than you or an adult, because growing up your traditional upbringing says you’re unworthy of their time and to know your place as a child (and that you’ll always be a child as long as your parents are alive)

8. Likewise giving the Bible study leader a hard time, by being too shy and introverted to any answer questions because you’re “not supposed to be” speaking up to an authority figure

9. Not knowing how to start a “critical review” essay question in Bible college because criticising established authors or persons of authority are seen as taboo… (growing up with principles of “respect your elders” and “honour your parents” being taken out of context)

10. Wanting to practice speaking your parent’s Asian language with other Asians in church but dropping in half-English words because you don’t want to appear to be gossiping about non-Asians even though you’re not

11. When you realise your Asian “auntie” is your sister and “uncle” is your brother in Christ

12. Being spoken to by an Asian “auntie” or “uncle” (adult) in English but surprising them by responding in your Asian language. (Being an egg – white on the outside but yellow on the inside, when everyone thinks you’re a banana – yellow on the outside but white on the inside)

13. Able to hold a decent conversation in an Asian language until you hit the Biblical jargon or deep Christian terminology

14. Hoping the PowerPoint slides are multilingual or being used to hearing the sermon twice because you understand both languages

15. Feeling left out of mainstream sermon analogies (in a multicultural church) because you’re unable to relate to a non-Asian upbringing

16. Not being able to abbreviate “Pastor’s Kid” because you go to a Cantonese church…

17. With a Pastor’s Kid, there’s usually the goody-two-shoes or the badass child. Likewise, there’s the Asian-Australian Christian who cares too much about their studies or too little

18. Realising that at one stage you went to school every day because of Chinese or language school on Saturday and then Sunday school

19. Watching Christian anime aka. Veggie Tales

20. Struggling to convince your parents that a post-high school Gap Year at Bible college and training for mission is worthwhile

21. Having “aunties”, “uncles” and parents of youth look down upon you as a Youth Group leader because you didn’t get 99.95 ATAR (highest available score in the High School Certificate)

22. Probably having a Christian (or church attending) mother before a Christian father

23. Your parents attending an English church to learn the language or your parents pull you out of an Asian church’s Sunday School (run by first generation immigrant Christians) to go to an English Sunday School because the fluent English speaker teaches “better.”

24. Not sure whether your parents wanting you to take piano or instrument lessons is because they want you to serve in the music team at church or just because you’re Asian

25. Not sure whether you’re joining the youth group or the youth orchestra

26. Being great at karaoke but refusing to sing (or being terrible) as a vocalist in the music team

27. Being seen as a weirdo if you raise your hands during worship, not just because you’re the odd one out but because you’ve “dared to question” the church

28. Discovering that your parent’s Asian language Bible isn’t actually the Asian translation of the NIV

29. At church camp, being the child of parents who had stocked up on cup noodles or being the child of parents who despised cup noodles because they are “Yeet Hay” (a form of unhealthy in Cantonese) and loaded with MSG flavouring

30. Turning the outside of your Bible study leader’s house into the front of a mosque (with rows of shoes everywhere)

31. Literally united in prayer (through collectively praying out loud)

32. Thinking Jesus was Asian because Israel is technically in Asia

33. Seeing an Asian church leader “voluntarily” being “dominated” by a fluent English speaker because of the traditional cultural power dynamics

34. Not speaking up about being wronged or hurt, because it is “Asian” to sweep disputes under the carpet instead of resolving them (having any interactions with conflict is taboo)

35. Wondering if your Asian church is inadvertently racist because it (generally unintentionally) excludes people who can’t speak or read the language

36. Being demonised in conservative gatherings for struggling with mental health issues, abuse, or same-sex attraction (yet abortion is silently tolerated given the history of China’s ‘One Child Policy’)

37. Being invited at least once to join FOCUS International Church at Sydney University’s Evangelical Union or the University of New South Wales’ Campus Bible Study (campus Christian groups)

38. Having a dinner “feast” at morning tea after the Sunday service because there’s some sort of celebration

Congratulations on making it to the end of this article!

Remember that the things on this earth are temporary and that we are all called to be the united body of Christ. The church regardless of language or culture ought to stand as the incarnational representation of Christ in the world. So as Christians let our lights shine brightly, for we ought to be a nation under God.

This article was first published in Christian Today Australia on Monday 20 May 2019