By Mallory Schlabach, Editor in Chief
Ashley He attends Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, a church that reminds her of the government-run church she attends at home in China.
Although it’s bigger than Highland, she says.
As the only Christian in her family, Ashley, junior nursing major from Hong Kong, often goes to church by herself unless it’s a holiday when her mom accompanies her.
Ashley’s family’s beliefs vary between family members like her grandmother who worships any God that will help her in life with longevity and prosperity, to her uncle who doesn’t believe in anything at all.
She said her family’s beliefs come from the way they grew up in China during a time when religion was prohibited. Fifty years ago the country followed Buddhism. Today she said most people in the country are atheists.
For now her only ally is her mom, who at least is understanding of why she believes in God.
“My mom kind of understands what I believe, and she thinks that at least Christianity is a good religion because it seems like it helps me in my life and God is guarding me,” she says. “The rest of my family thinks that I was just naive that I would believe Christianity. They think any kind of religion in the world is stupid, and I’m looking for comfort so that is why I believe a religion.”
To avoid further confrontation for her beliefs, Ashley attends Shenzhen Mengling Christian Church outside of Hong Kong. She said it’s easier to attend a church the government approves than to live in fear.
“If you want to worship in a government-controlled registered church, it is not that hard,” she said. “But if you want to worship in a house church, it is very hard and even dangerous because the government might arrest you and then take away all of your property and put you in jail.”
She takes the bus to get to church, and said although the design is much different than American churches, one would still be able to tell it’s a church because of the cross on the outside of the building.
The church has four services and each service is usually full with members, she said. She normally goes to one of the morning services, but said an evening service is also offered.
One time she went to the afternoon service and was surprised to see only several hundred worshippers in attendance.
“I was confused as to why there wasn’t many people there until they started speaking Korean,” she said laughing. “I was like, ‘Huh?’ because I didn’t understand a thing they were saying. Now I know my church offers a Korean service, and I make sure I get up in time to go to the normal services.”
Americans have much more freedom with religion, she said, but depending on what part of the country you live in, most people wouldn’t notice the religious regulations.
Because the city she lives in is next to Hong Kong and has about seven million people, she said she doesn’t hear about Christian persecution as much. The further inland one goes, though, the more they have to worry about being jailed or punished.
Religious freedom in China is better than 20 years ago, she says, but it still has a way to go to be good enough.
Changing a life
Five years ago Ashley came to the United States as an exchange student from State College, Pa., to stay with R. Scott and Teresa Lenhart. Teresa is the stepdaughter of M.L. Daniels, professor emeritus of music and composer of Centennial Fanfare.
Ashley was a junior in high school at the time, attending a large public high school with more than 3,000 students. Her host parents were Christians, ACU alumni and the first people to introduce her to the Bible.
“My mom would teach me the Bible stories, and she actually hooked me up with a local Chinese church in town,” she said.
Scott was a psychologist in a downtown state college but also the preacher at their small non-denominational church.
Ashley said his preaching was very inspiring to her, and attending the church made her feel free.
Her English wasn’t as good then as it is now, so she learned the Bible in Chinese first and then in English so she could pick up the language quicker.
Her host mom introduced her to a Christian group of high school students at school, and it was at one of these monthly meetings that she prayed for the first time and accepted Jesus as her savior, she said.
After a year she returned to China to finish high school and then returned to Pennsylvania after graduation to begin college at Penn State University.
Before her sophomore year began, she transferred to ACU for many reasons, she said.
First, she wanted to attend a Christian university, and Penn State, with more than 40,000 students, was a public university with Christian students in the minority. She said her host family always spoke so highly about ACU that she decided she needed to try it out, and she was also able to pay lower tuition at ACU than at Penn State.
Ashley enjoys the students at ACU the best and finds she has people she can look up to all around her.
“I haven’t been a Christian for a long time, so I feel like I need to learn more. It’s an ongoing process,” she said in between yelling ‘hi’ to people across the room.
“Do you have a new cell phone number?” she asked a friend who passed by where she was sitting in the library.
“Sorry, I keep interrupting, but I haven’t seen him all semester.”
As she searches for her phone in her bag, she said, “It’s not about the Bible classes but the environment. You can find a lot of models here to learn from.”
Making a difference
When she graduates from ACU in 2008 or 2009, she said she wants to do missionary work and help those around her, which is one reason she is taking French next semester. Ashley wants to be multi-lingual so she can speak the language anywhere she goes. She already speaks English and three dialects of Chinese fluently, and because
she began French in high school, she thinks she can pick it up easily again.
Because of where she grew up, she speaks the local Chinese dialect of her town, Mandarin and Cantonese, two of the hardest languages in the world to learn. She’s also teaching fellow students at ACU how to speak Mandarin on the weekends.
Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world, with close to one billion native speakers. English comes in fourth after Hindi and Spanish. China has more than 1.3 billion people and the world’s fastest growing economy.
Many predict Mandarin will become a universal language since China is the most populated country in the world. So even if a visitor doesn’t know the local dialect, he or she can still converse with the native Chinese.
“Nobody here wants to take it because it’s so hard. We even have a hard time learning it. My friends spent years learning how to spell their name because there are so many characters involved,” she says laughing as she spells her name on the notebook in front of her.
“See, mine isn’t even that hard. It even kind of looks like bamboo, but it’s not.”
She explains that Mandarin does have an alphabet to make it easier for Americans and people from the Western world, and that it’s a language thousands of years old that is both phonetic and graphic.
Every Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. she meets with around seven to 10 students and people from the community who want to learn how to speak Mandarin.
Ashley offers the class for free; students only have to pay for copy fees for the worksheets she hands out each week.
Less than a decade ago, the university offered a Mandarin course. But before long, the Foreign Language Department had to close it because not enough students showed interest, said Dr. Mark Jones, chair of the Foreign Language Department.
“There wasn’t enough interest from students to learn it, and it seems there was a resistance from advisers and faculty that didn’t think learning Mandarin was important,” he said. “If we could find someone to teach it though, and enough students stuck with it instead of talking about it, I think we’d offer it again. It would be a wonderful idea since the awareness about China has changed. It would definitely be worth a try.”
But until that happens, Ashley continues to offer her course – treating each session like it really was a class and expecting each student to do their work.
She gives her students a quiz before each session, but says she won’t send anyone home if they haven’t done their homework.
She said she understands people have other obligations, but she does expect them to know something when they come each week.
Even though she has been teaching this class since she arrived a year ago, she said some of her students still don’t have easy pronunciation down yet. With four tones in the language and more than 60,000 characters, she said it’s hard to master.
“I feel proud that I am teaching others my language, and I am proud of them for trying to learn the hardest language in the world,” she said.
Ashley wants others at ACU to learn Mandarin so that one day, people can know the language enough to be fluent anywhere in the country.
“China doesn’t have non-profit hospitals like America does,” she says. “One day if I have a lot of money, or if I have a lot of support and volunteers, I want to open a non-profit hospital in my country to help others.”
Ashley’s goal of teaching others her language is noble and practical – and something
Larry Henderson, missions coordinator for Asia, said would be wise for most people.
“The first time I went deep in main land China and heard millions of people speaking Chinese, it really moved me,” he said. “I wished that if God gave me a language that it was Chinese. There is nothing as useful today as Chinese.”
Coming to understand the Chinese culture and its future effect on the rest of the world will mean different things to different people. For Dr. Royce Money, president of the university, his summer trip to China changed his worldview and how he sees the university operating in the future.
“I suspect I will return to China again sometime. I don’t know when that might be, but I will remain open to the leading of the Lord,” he said. “At ACU, we can’t just do business as usual. We have to begin teaching Mandarin Chinese, if one in five people are speaking it right now. We’re a university that has to operate globally and missionally, and we have to send students out in the world that can do that too. For us, China is just the start. We’re not stopping here, but looking to the rest of the world.”