- Getting Saved in America: Taiwanese Immigration and Religious Experience
Religion, I argue, shapes Asian Americans' political, social, and cultural behaviors more than any other factor. Yet Asian American studies tends to neglect this field. Fortunately, Carolyn Chen's Getting Saved in America is a remarkable, much needed corrective to this lacuna as it describes the ability of the sacred to radically transform people. Through in-depth interviews and ethnographies, she eloquently argues that by becoming religious, her subjects also become ethnic Americans. Rather than simply preserving ethnic traditions or facilitating adaptation, religion provides the symbols, structure, and traditions to convert the identities and communities of immigrants. Chen asserts that this process of religious conversion in the United States also entails the transformation of Taiwanese into Taiwanese Americans.
This sociological study contributes greatly to Asian American studies and religious studies through its comparative approach. First, by contrasting Taiwanese conversion to evangelical Christianity with Taiwanese conversion to Buddhism, Chen demonstrates how these different religious communities operate. She shows that evangelical Christianity has institutional structures that motivate individuals to become religious seekers. For example, her ethnographic site, Grace Church, hosts small groups, or cell meetings, that function much like a Taiwanese extended family would. As immigrants join these groups for social reasons, they also are exposed to existential issues that encourage exploration of one's purpose in life. [End Page 113] Through this communally informed process, a large percentage of Taiwanese immigrants in the United States have chosen to become Christians.
In contrast, Taiwanese immigrants who have been practicing Buddhists have made a choice to adopt a minority religion. In these cases, Chen shows how Buddhist moral vocabularies and ethical practices differ from Christianity, as well as Chinese popular religion. As practiced at the Dharma Light Temple, Chen's other field site, Buddhism is a path toward radical self-sufficiency. Chen's Taiwanese respondents assert that Buddhism is a form of education through self-power and is not a religion. Buddha thus is not a deity to be worshipped, but a symbol of their Buddha nature and of individuals' ability to transcend their worldly selves. By adopting such symbols and ways of religious identification, these immigrants explicitly reject the Christianity of their co-ethnics as well as the popular religiosity of their families in Taiwan.
Another contribution is Chen's examination of the gendered differences and similarities in religious conversion. While Taiwanese women and men faced different issues in immigrating, religion helps both to resolve the contradictions in their new American realities. Taiwanese American women chafe at their traditional, familial obligations, especially when expected to work and to be independent in their new American contexts. As they articulate new senses of self through conversion, they embrace identities free from their kin-centered expectations. On the other hand, Taiwanese American men are more likely to face career obstacles in their new countries, such as language barriers and racialized glass ceilings. They, too, adopt new religious identities, separate from their career status, which enables them to transcend their problems.
Along with detailing the construction of new communities and new identities, Chen convincingly argues how sacred religion disciplines and changes individuals even at high costs to their freedom. Here, Chen addresses the classical sociological question of how to maintain social order in a context of change and individualism. For Taiwanese, the process of migration uproots them from traditional moors of kinship and relational responsibilities. How, then, do they develop new ethical mores and transmit them to their families? Getting Saved in America illustrates how Christianity and Buddhism, as salvation religions, help to create morally autonomous individuals. In seeking to transcend this world and gain salvation, her subjects undertake spiritual disciplines that require the monitoring of their interior states. Chen shows how Taiwanese American Christians use prayer and Bible study to deal with temptations, while the Buddhists practice mindfulness to avoid negative emotions and thoughts. This self-regulation enables Taiwanese [End Page 114] immigrants deal with what they see as the...