Recently, some international students at UCLA participated in an artwork called Invisible Name, in which they wrote their names in both their native language and English, to express a double identity. Identity, again, has been on the center of the stage of American politics in recent years. But what do I identify with? A convert to Islam, a social outcast, probably also an Aspie… Groups most people identify with don’t work well for me. I resonate with people who say they’re too American to be Muslim and too Muslim to be American. Odd as I am even among international students, my identity is full of contradictions.
I would say I’m a Muslim, but due to perceived Islamophobia, my Christian parents tell everybody that I’m a Christian and bring me to church when I go home. As a result, I’ve been to churches much more often than mosques, and know about Christian communities a lot better than Muslim communities. Because my mom is very domineering and influential while my personality is at the opposite end of the spectrum, I have also listened to a lot more Christian music than Muslim music. And I still often listen to Christian music when away from my parents because the sense of holiness still belongs to God, who transcends religious institutions. She’s so domineering that I try to avoid talking about Islam as far as I can when I go home.
Furthermore, as an aspiring scientist, I deeply care about the dialogue between science and religion; in this area, I read a lot from Christians, because most people I whose works I read or with whom I interact with in this field are Christians, such as Francis Collins of the human genome project. As a result, I know a lot more about Christian theological traditions than their Muslim counterparts. Probably because Muslims – I mean people who are ethnically Muslims – in the West, though mostly life science majors and pre-med (at least in UCLA), have to cope with a more urgent problem of racism. I’m largely spared the trouble of racism because discrimination against East Asians isn’t as severe (though it certainly exists) as discrimination against Arabs and African Americans at present in the US and nobody expects that I’m a Muslim based on my ethnicity. So am I a Muslim or a Christian? Theologically, yes, I am a Muslim, but theologically, it’s also correct to say that I’m a Unitarian Christian. Culturally, however, I’m much more Christian than Muslim.
But Christianity is alien to the mainstream Chinese tradition. Here comes another aspect of contradiction in my identity. I identify with my religion and my majors much more strongly than my ethnicity, because on the one hand, my conversion to Islam is very odd among Han Chinese people, some of whom are Islamophobic, and on the other hand, I was a social outcast back in China. Another factor is that Islam has permanently changed my worldview, so I’m willing to appreciate God’s creation in basic research although the income is unremarkable (but certainly enough to pay rent, food, and etc.) while modern Chinese culture is very worldly and emphasizes income; that’s why my cousin, who is also a biologist, advises me to go to medical school or work for a pharmaceutical company even though I significantly prefer basic research. In contrast, my American professors advised me to pursue what I enjoy. I did not get along well with her, even though I did get a long with Edip Yuksel despite vast differences in culture and personality. Because of worldview, I get along a lot better with people with similar worldview and better yet similar personal interests than people with similar culture and ethnicity but different worldview and interests.
What else can I say? Though Chinese is my native language, now I’m a lot better at English than Chinese, because my high school teaches in English. Furthermore, while I aced the GRE and got A+’s for English as first language in high school and college, I always got something equivalent to a C for Chinese in middle school. So where am I culturally? I think nowhere, neither Chinese nor American. I don’t fit into modern Chinese culture because of my worldview, and I don’t fit into American culture because I’m too introverted and I’m still a loner and social outcast. But why do I need a culture that has a label? Can’t I have my own personal culture?
So what? Why do I have to identify with a group? Well, I even identify a little more strongly with my lab than my ethnicity. If I do identify with a group, then the best one would be scientists, especially scientists who also believe in God, whether Christians or Muslims or Jews, and regardless of field of study, since it’s the only one that doesn’t consider me odd. I don’t have to identify with a group anyway, because God judges based on righteousness instead of group membership. Group membership can correlate with righteousness, such as membership of charities, but it by itself does not cause one to be more righteous; it’s the other way round. To be more precise, if one is righteous to begin with, joining a group, say on charity, can form a feed forward loop making one more righteous because one act on righteousness in the group and can get into touch with like-minded people. However, if one is not righteous to begin with, there’s much less chance that the group makes one more righteous, because the membership itself does not entail active work and intention of work is essential to characterize a deed. Furthermore, we all know that so much evil has been done in the name of religion, because group identity has substituted God (there are obviously many other social, economical, political, psychological, and etc. factors, but group identity definitely plays an important role, especially in persecution of apostates). So all that I need to do is to submit to God Alone.