Meredith Rodriguez's home, Shanghai, is China's most populous city with 23 million souls.
JOURNALIST, MISSIONARY KID discusses family life and Christianity’s growth in China.
Meredith Rodriguez keeps her bags packed, waiting for the next travel opportunity to present itself. The 28-year-old is a polyglot, speaking English, Spanish and Mandarin.
Along with her two sisters and two brothers, she was raised as a missionary kid in Puebla, Mexico. Later the family moved back to California, where as a teen she attended the Conejo Valley Church of Christ and Sunday service at the Hollywood Church of Christ, where her father Dan, a professor at nearby Pepperdine University, preached. She spent her summers traveling on “Religions of the World” tours through China, Japan and India alongside her father, who taught the class.
In 2007, she graduated from Pepperdine, where she served as a reporter and editor of various university publications. She finished her English major in London, where she interned at a publishing house.
Hired by the Kansas City Star, she attended seminars and conferences for minority journalists and used her Spanish to write stories about the Hispanic and immigrant communities in the area. She left the newspaper in September 2010 to learn Mandarin in Shanghai.
She has taught English to engineering students. She also has tried her hand at traditional Chinese dishes — with help from her students. She has written freelance articles for China Daily and CNNGo and is a business columnist for Shanghai Family magazine.
“I think my siblings and I are not only adaptable, but we feel more comfortable overseas,” she said.
Describe the religious scene in China.
A young professional Chinese Christian told me that anything you say about China can be true and at the same time false. It is such a huge, diverse, rapidly changing and often-contradictory place.
However, it is safe to say that the god of the Chinese is money. Money is acknowledged as the best guarantee of security, respect, freedom and happiness. Everyone here seems to have an entrepreneurial plan, trying to cash in on China’s rapid economic growth.
Amidst all this urbanization and modernization, though, there is an undercurrent of anxiety. It comes up often in discussions and the local news media. People are wringing their hands at what they call the “moral decline” of the nation, which can be seen in areas like spoiled only-children losing traditional Chinese values of respecting the elderly. Also, China suffers from rising divorce rates, strangers ignoring helpless accident and crime victims on the street, government officials getting rich through corruption and companies that somehow get away with distributing toxic food to the public to save a buck.
As people lose faith in everything else, many are turning to religion. There is some return to the Eastern religions that were wiped out during the Cultural Revolution, particularly Buddhism.
Other religions like Islam also are growing, but the most notable growth is in Christianity, which has reached 14 million Chinese, according to government figures, but by some estimates has grown to more than 90 million.
What attracted you to China?
It was a mix between my family background and my journalism profession.
I was raised in Mexico, which I think my California-native parents didn’t realize would forever dispose their children to move to far-off places.
My older brothers fell in love with China after moving here in 2003, which piqued my interest. Then they became fluent in Mandarin, which encouraged me that I could too.
My Spanish skills gave me an edge in my first journalism job, and I figured learning Mandarin in China would only add to my resume and increase my multicultural awareness.
In September 2010, after almost three years at a rewarding but grinding entry-level newspaper reporting position, I decided to join my family in Shanghai, where my dad was the faculty parent for Pepperdine’s international program for eight months and where my brothers and their wives would be for the year.
We were excited to be together again in a foreign country, as if trying to relive a bit of the old days in Mexico.
What is the general attitude toward the Christian faith in China?
There’s a reason Christianity is growing so fast here. Chinese are starting from a clean slate, not only in terms of not having to be converted from another religion, but also they are not obstructed by some of the scars and unnecessary baggage of our 2,000-year Christian history.
Many Christian values, like honoring your parents and submitting to authority, coincide with traditional Chinese values and are easy for Chinese to accept.
Also, while many modern, educated Chinese maintain that faith is simply a crutch for the weak, some prominent Chinese scholars have recently concluded that Christianity is the reason the West has been so successful.
Under what conditions are churches allowed to exist?
It is not illegal to be a Christian in China. However, certain forms of evangelism (handing out tracts, preaching on a street corner) are illegal, and mainland Christians are supposed to worship in one of the government-sanctioned Three-Self churches. These official churches are growing, but cannot support or account for the growth that is mostly happening through unofficial house churches.
The extreme persecution under which Christianity grew before and during the Cultural Revolution is largely gone. Most unofficial churches can meet in peace as long as they steer clear of politically sensitive topics and split before growing intimidatingly large.
House churches and their leaders encounter occasional interference, however, most often through a complaint from an irritated neighbor, a landlord who breaks a lease for fear of potential repercussions or a local official who decides to detour from the pragmatic position of “one eye open, one eye shut.” This reality often creates a culture of fear, distrust and isolation among Christians here.
Do you have long-term plans for yourself in China?
Many foreigners declare plans to stay “one more year.” Ten years later they’re still here. The learning curve that comes with moving to China is overwhelming, but the more you invest, the more rewards you reap.
There is so much to learn and reflect on here, I often despair that I will never have enough time.
Next year, I hope to write better stories and pass the HSK Level 6 language test, which is an indicator of proficiency. My plans beyond this “one more year” will depend on the reporting and writing opportunities I can find. I just know that wherever I go from now on, I want to integrate my journalism and China experience.
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