From Easter Sunrise to Chinese Graveside – The Cross-Cultural Challenges of Life and Worship

Ryan as a boy in China

Ryan as a boy in China

I came to Boston and Christ the King when I moved to begin seminary in 2012. Abigail and I were married in May 2013 in Washington D.C., where we had both lived for many years.  Three months after our wedding, Abigail moved up to Boston with me and became a member of Christ the King.  Stories like ours are common at CTK.  There are many people who move to Boston because of their husband or wife’s work or school.  What makes our marriage unique is that we are one of the few cross-culture marriages at CTK Cambridge.  Abigail is a Caucasian woman from Champaign, Illinois. I am a Chinese-American immigrant who came to the U.S. at the age of twelve.  

I spent my childhood in Guangzhou, China, then I went to middle school and high school in a small town outside of Cincinnati, Ohio.  I was the only China-born student in my graduating class of 750, and all of my best friends were white Christian boys.  After just a few years, I felt very comfortable stepping outside our home into the American world, but my parents and I still retained many Chinese customs at home. My parents spoke very little English.  Every night I would translate the mail for them.   I would accompany them to doctors’ appointments, car repairs, and bank visits to speak on their behalf.  We cooked Chinese food at home (which is still the only type of food I know how to cook), watched Chinese television shows, and spoke to each other in Chinese.  The switch between my home culture and the outside world had become so seamless to me that I barely noticed its existence. I didn't know there was a noticeable difference in my home and "away" lives.

Now imagine Abigail as my girlfriend visiting my family in Cincinnati for the first time. After dating for about four months, Abigail came back with me to visit my parents, and I received a chance to see our lives through a white girl's eyes. She courageously ate all the food that was set before her, listened to my conversations with my parents in Chinese, watched Chinese television with my parents, and worshiped at my dad's Chinese church. She also carefully followed all the shoes and sandals rules in my parents' house. At the end of the week, my parents sent us back with whole cooked chickens in each of our bags. Abigail didn't even know flying with a chicken in a carry-on bag was allowed!

Our relationship and later marriage opened my eyes to the cultural transitions that I had previously traversed without much thought. These transitions became even more noticeable when we moved to Boston and became members of CTK Cambridge. The service we attend at CTK meets in a historical building, uses a structured liturgy and is made up mostly of Caucasian members.  Having grown up and attended schools and churches in America for half of my life, I felt very comfortable stepping into CTK.  Yet living in Boston has also afforded me more access to the Chinese culture than I have ever had in America.  We have quick access to Chinatown and large Chinese supermarkets, where I still prefer to do our grocery shopping.  I have many Chinese relatives in the area, including my grandma who lived in Quincy before passing away in November 2014. We are able to celebrate many Chinese holidays with them throughout the year.  We have also been invited to participate in many Chinese international student events, which has allowed us to develop friendships with Chinese students who are not part of our regular church or work circles.  In 2014, Hannah and Trey Nation from CTK even invited me to preach in Mandarin at a Chinese ministry student retreat. 

Our time in Boston has given us a clear juxtaposition of the two cultures in which we live, and we have gradually realized that although we live in both, these two cultures have very little connection with one another.  As a young single person, I was able to make the switch between the two cultures smoothly because I could easily check certain things at the door as I jumped back and forth.  But with Abigail by my side, she has shown me how different these cultures are and how much we straddle these two worlds. 

Ryan and Abigail with extended family at a restaurant in Quincy

Ryan and Abigail with extended family at a restaurant in Quincy

One perfect example was Easter 2015, which also happened to be Qing Ming (pronounced Ching Ming), a Chinese holiday where families pay respect to their deceased loved ones by visiting their graves.  Our day started at 5:45 am at the Easter Sunrise service, where I preached my first sermon at CTK.  We stayed for the annual Easter morning breakfast and the 10 am worship service.  After that we immediately rushed down to Quincy – in our Easter attire – to join my extended family at various cemetery visits.  The irony of the day not only consisted of us intentionally visiting cemeteries on Easter Sunday, but also in showing how little our two worlds relate to one another.  Almost none of my relatives knew that earlier that morning I had just preached at our American church, and if they did, they assumed that my choice to become a pastor only reflects how much I have assimilated into white Protestant culture.  On the other hand, most of our church friends had probably never even heard of a Chinese holiday called Qing Ming.  While many of them were having Easter brunch with their extended families, we too were surrounded by our extended family, only we were eating Chinese pork buns, chicken and octopus from Chinatown and homemade red bean pastries by my grandma's grave. 

This may not be a very typical CTK story, but it is our Boston story, and I can imagine that this is many people's Boston story as well.  Thousands and thousands of people here have a home culture that is very different from their away culture.  Every time they and their kids step through their front doors, offices, classrooms, or churches, they have to check certain aspects of their lives at the door. As CTK seeks to grow as a church-planting church in Boston, I pray that the good news of Jesus' death on the cross for our sins would continue to break down pride and cultural walls.  I pray that more and more people from other cultures will realize what Pastor Dan Rogers often says, "Without you, there is no us."  I pray that future CTK members like me might write Boston stories of how they can bring their whole person to worship at their church, and that our Sunday gatherings would embody the vision of Revelation 7, where all nations, tribes, and tongues praise together "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" And I pray, for the sake of my unbelieving family members, that the hope of Jesus' resurrection on Easter Sunday can even reach a Chinese family at a Quincy graveside.

Next week, my wife and I hope to share some lessons we have learned in our cross-culture marriage and our time at CTK.

Ryan and Abigail Zhang

Ryan and Abigail Zhang

Ryan and Abigail Zhang are members at CTK Cambridge. Ryan attended Gordon-Conwell from 2012-2015 and currently works as the CTK Cambridge Volunteer Coordinator and Pastoral Intern. Abigail works full-time in higher education marketing and is completing a graduate degree in museum education at Tufts University.