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Becky Yang Hsu
Becky Yang Hsu
April 19, 2022

Code Switching, Religion, and Happiness in China with Becky Yang Hsu

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U.S.-China Nexus Podcast

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How do different societies and cultures define and search for happiness?

Chinese officials have increasingly encouraged certain traditional rituals, including Qingming (grave-sweeping), as part of a narrative of national pride and embracing what it means to be "Chinese". Becky Yang Hsu speaks with the U.S.-China Nexus about how her childhood codeswitching led her to study different conceptions of ritual, religion, and happiness and how approaches in American and Chinese culture can influence one another.

Eleanor Albert: Today, we are speaking to Becky Yang Hsu, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, where she is also affiliated with Asian Studies and the Graduate School's program on Health and the Public Interest. Your research is at the intersection of religion and institutions, drawing from the sociology of religion, organizations, global and transnational sociology.

You are currently writing a book on Happiness and Serenity in China, focusing on family and happiness. You co-edited, The Chinese Pursuit of Happiness: Anxieties, Hopes, and Moral Tensions in Everyday Life, with Richard Madsen (2019), which looks at what defines happiness, and how can we get it. You also serve on the editorial boards of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and Social Science and Medicine—Mental Health. Becky, welcome to the show.

Becky Hsu: Thanks. Happy to be here.

Eleanor Albert: I guess I would like to start asking you about your path into researching the intersection of religion and institutions and how China factors in. In essence, what is your China story?

Becky Hsu: I was born in Taiwan and so I came to the US when I was four, grew up speaking Mandarin and minnan dialect, sort of between and betwixt borders. I grew up in the US, but I always felt like there are other ways of doing things and other ways of thinking, because that was my family. I would be in a certain environment at school and then go home and be like, "Oh." I guess code-switching is one way to put it.

Eleanor Albert: To bring your childhood experience and to have that constant code-switching be a part of your lived every day, how did that transition into being part of the focus of your research?

Becky Hsu: You know in the past few decades, happiness has become more and more a thing people talk about. When I started this project on happiness 10 years ago, I was already thinking, the way people talk about it, it's very much utilitarian ways to approach even what is the definition of happiness.

I thought, "I just know that that's not the only way people do things in different places," even within the U.S., but a comparison I was interested in was thinking about China. Even super basic concepts like happiness, it seems basic, and it seems so obvious and so self-evident, but actually, it's not. It can be quite different. It can be thought of in many different ways, and I think that comes, actually, from my childhood, always code-switching and knowing that there's always different ways to think about things.

Eleanor Albert: Let's draw that out a little bit. If you could talk about the similarities and differences in the ways in which Americans and Chinese define happiness. You've already touched upon diversity within certain geographic contexts, but taking that further, are there definitions that are more common in American societies versus a Chinese society? How have these definitions also evolved? I imagine the results of globalization and greater interaction with other entities outside of our borders shape those.

Becky Hsu: So I think that it's not necessarily that the U.S., everyone thinks a certain way, and then in China, everyone thinks a certain way. But in both societies people draw on different cultural resources, and they're putting together their own understandings of things.

But there are patterns, because people have different resources to draw from and they are immersed in a certain context that maybe emphasizes certain things. The social sciences on happiness tend to conceptualize it as something that is a descriptor of an individual, but actually, in Chinese, words like fu (福), that's a word that means blessedness or blessed happiness. But you can say that a family is happy. It's not just an individual is happy. That whole family and it's a pretty common-sense concept. There's a happy family. There's a happy individual.

But that's the kind of super basic difference that seems obvious and yet, actually, it is there. So one of the things I'm interested in thinking about is the taken for granted unit of analysis, for a lack of a better term. Are we thinking about individuals or are we thinking about families? Are we thinking about one person or 10 people or 50 people? I think that matters in how we think about these things like happiness.

Eleanor Albert: It must produce variation in the ways in which our social interactions take place or social organizations are then playing a role to organize society or communities, and how big or small those are might vary. We think about places that people go for communities that might provide certain types of happiness or fulfillment, religion is one of them. There seems to have been this resurgence of religion in China, on a variety of fronts, including more traditional practices that had been jettisoned in the Mao era, and at the same time, you also have the Chinese Communist Party reinserting itself in the lives of people. In just parts of their everyday lives.

How can we understand this duality? In practice, you would think that ideologies that might come from religion would be in conflict and, at times, we see some of them are, some of them are not. So how do we see the role of religion and its rise with also these ideas of how people are searching to find happiness in their lives and meaning?

Becky Hsu: Well, one of the things I think that's interesting in thinking about what religion is in the first place is who is in charge, I suppose, of religion. I think that actually the idea of the dichotomy between religion and the secular, that is actually a historically specific concept that arose due to specific political developments in Western Europe. And actually, that dichotomy between religion and the secular is not super native to Chinese society, which has looked at religion or spirituality or the supernatural, I think, in a more integrated way.

The three teachings, the sanjiao people think, “Oh, well, I'm going to learn from Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, and I put it together and I will learn from them,” but not necessarily in the sense of a big institution that gives its teachings to me.

Eleanor Albert: It's not dogmatic.

Becky Hsu: Yeah. It's not necessarily not secular. I think the Western historical context, it's religious institutions, Catholic church, versus secular institutions, and they're both very institutional. In China, there's more of the individual is looking at different teachings and being able to draw from them and, families doing the rituals. This is ancestor worship, going to the graves, and grave sweeping, Qingming.

Eleanor Albert: Qingmingjie is a national holiday.

Becky Hsu: It is now a national holiday.

Eleanor Albert: What that entails is very family-specific.

Becky Hsu: Yes. I think that it's so interesting that it's such an important ritual and yet just the family just puts it together. What it entails is, "oh ok April's coming up. Call the aunts and the cousins. Who's going to buy the food? What time do you guys want to meet up? How do we want to avoid traffic? Which weekend do you want to go?" It's getting together and you do these things, and yet it's actually religion in the sense of the encounter with the supernatural. There's prayers, there's the line between life and death, there is filial piety, these big values that order a lot of moral life, that's religion in that way. And yet, it's just stuff that the family does when they get together a couple times a year, and I think that is super different when it comes to thinking about even what religion is.

Eleanor Albert: On that note, do you see a lot of the more traditional practices and rituals maintaining the ability to exist, or is this resurgence of the party as being a central facet of Chinese society coming into conflict with that?

Becky Hsu: The party has been trying to encourage these “traditional,” in quotes, “Chinese values” or “Chinese traditions.” It's part of the narrative of national pride, ascendancy on the world stage. They're trying to promote, "Hey, we're proud to be Chinese. This is who we are.” The family and some of the traditions, that's part of it. And so, it doesn't come into contact.

This is, I think, one place where, what ordinary people want and then what the state is encouraging, it's in a convergence at the moment, I think. We were talking about how Qingmingjie is a national holiday. It became a national holiday in 2008 after being discouraged, obviously, during the socialist era, and then just not really acknowledged too much, officially. But in 2008, they made it an official holiday, partly because people were skipping work and stuff anyways, and then because there was crazy traffic. So, “If we make it a holiday, we won't collect tolls. That's one less thing to obstruct the traffic.” So it was partly because people were doing this anyway, and that's what I mean by convergence.

So yes. Grave-sweeping happens to be one of those things. We have a new national survey, which I will be hopefully publishing soon; the numbers are pretty striking. Over 70% of adults, and this is nationally representative, went to grave-sweeping in the past year. Our numbers are that most people go between one and two times. The national average is 1.56. That means not only did most people go once, they went between once and twice, and then there were people who went more than that. And so, this is just taken for granted. It's just the thing you do. It's prevalent.

Eleanor Albert: That's so interesting, especially when you think about that just being as one isolated example, right, of Qingmingjie. I've read work about how individual officials in certain provinces see that there are opportunities to capitalize on these ritualized patterns, and so you have temples having entrance fees in a way that it is almost being commercialized or taking advantage of these phenomena that are part of your Chinese society.

Becky Hsu: Yeah. There’s definitely commercial stuff going on. Qingming is one of those times that people take a trip. There are tourist packages, “you take a train through five provinces...” You're with your family, so you must as well go take a trip.

And then, the parents can go back afterwards and tell their friends, “My daughter took us on a great trip during the holiday," and they'll be like, “Oh, wow. Your daughter's so great.” But, yeah. There's definitely commercialization and lots of products being offered, different types of paper money to burn at the grave site, and all sorts of things that are people can buy, and do buy.

Eleanor Albert: I want to take advantage of your duality of living in the United States, where we're on this big self-care kick as a part of thinking about health and happiness. China has undergone tremendous social upheaval because of the country’s transformation. Are there practices or things that are going on in the discourse about happiness in the United States that could translate or are being adopted? What are some of the patterns of similarity versus things that absolutely would not mesh well?

Becky Hsu: It’s interesting. I’m reading a book called Anxious China, which is about the boom in psychotherapy in the past 20 to 30 years. The interesting thing is that it's imported in some ways, but also it's been super adapted as people have picked and chosen the things that they want to emphasize. Then as they're implementing it, and they're doing it in certain ways, it's because of factors in the Chinese context that people do things a certain way, and it does not look like the way it looks in the U.S.

But actually I am also interested in the other direction, because I think I grew up in the U.S., I see things could be a little better here and there, and then I do have maybe some nostalgia about my family and I think actually that grave-sweeping could be one of those things that could be super beneficial for people in the US. I don't know if we can just import some tradition like that, but I see the benefits.

Actually, specifically with the pandemic, this is a time now that we've had suddenly a lot of numbers of deaths all at one time. Of course, Americans come from everywhere and have all sorts of traditions, but not everybody has ways to remember their deceased family or bereavement that I think will be helpful enough.

I think there's something about the grave-sweeping, where people go every year, it's regular, and then you do it with their family. So it’s a normal thing. You just bring food. It sounds mystical, but it's not, and there's something about the practicality of it, I think, that helps people have a way to relate to the family member who has now died and do it regularly over time, and in a way that you don't have to think of it yourself. It's like, "oh, it's just time. Let's go. It doesn't matter if I want to or not. We all are just going to go and here we are, and this is what we do." But I think in the end, that is actually pretty useful.

Eleanor Albert: There is All Hallows Eve. There is, in theory, this thing that existed a long time ago, and yet now we dress kids up in funny costumes and they go and ask strangers for candy, which is a fundamentally different thing than honoring people of our past.

Becky Hsu: But All Saints Day in France, I think in France, people still go to the graves. They'll visit with their family. It's pretty similar. I think that there's something about that that we could maybe benefit from.

Eleanor Albert: Even though we're trying to have a conversation about finding happiness or balance, I think grief in the U.S. context is very individualized and it's acknowledged in its immediacy, but grief is an enduring sentiment. Having spent time in China, and while I admit to having taken advantage of the holiday for my own travels, everyone has family that is no longer around, or people of importance. And so, in a way, it's almost in some ways a national, family unit celebration.

Becky Hsu: Yeah. Every family just does it their own way, so it's not automated. It's individualized or it's family. There's a little bit of a template, but mostly it's pretty loose and informal, in a way, and yet on a national level, if everyone is doing it, I think there's something going on there, as well. And then, also at the family level where there's the regular getting together and thinking about the past and the future in a certain way. It is relevant to mental health.

Eleanor Albert: I think this provides a really interesting transition to talking about opportunities for cultural exchange. It's easy to analyze and compare the differences as these two places are experiencing things differently or two cultures. The pandemic has brought back geographic boundaries in a way with travel challenges. And I wonder from academic and cultural perspectives, what do you see as the trend lines for there to be exchange? We talked a little bit about how there are things that we can learn from one another, but if we are limited in our ability to experience these exchanges, what are the types of consequences of that or implications?

Becky Hsu: So I guess I can see conflicting things. On the one hand, as you say, there's restrictions. I don't foresee myself going back to China for any field work or any visits. And I think also for things like academic exchange, that's pretty hard, not just for students, but for any academic research collaborations.

Chinese universities have a different structure, anyway, from American ones, in the sense that universities are basically run by the party state. So every department has a party secretary. And so, the research I think is strong on maybe practical things, but a lot of the things are maybe not going to be things that we would do a lot of collaboration on.

On the other hand, I don't know if you've noticed, but on Netflix I have noticed that there's way more Chinese dramas and comedies and things, so I think there is cultural ... It's not exchange. But people are more transnational these days. I think lots of people are like you and me; we've lived in more than one society. We watch things in more than one language. Transnational, I think, cosmopolitan is the way people increasingly are, and so the national borders, are on the one hand, there's a lot of nationalism. There's a lot of activity and things and antagonism, actually, let's say, between the U.S. and China. But I think on the personal level, there's a lot of trans-nationalism and I think that's important to see and remember.

Eleanor Albert: I was curious about how your research and current research right now is being received in a place like China?

Becky Hsu: I actually think that this book on serenity, maybe it would be fun to see if anybody wants to translate that, because I am going to do that other direction of cultural discussion that we were talking about, where it's not just China importing stuff from the West, but I suggest, actually, or that's the implication, that something in China might be useful or good for other people to emphasize in their own societies.

That was one thing that I think people appreciated when I was doing the field work. I would do the interviews and be like, "So I want to hear about what you do for funerals, grave-sweeping," and then they'd be like, "Why?" and I would say, "Honestly, I really think some of these things are pretty great in many ways and I think the world should know about it." Actually, usually they would be very surprised because an American professor… “Should I be worried?" That kind of a thing. When I'm like, "No, actually I think grave-sweeping has some really good qualities," they'd be like, "Oh. Well, yeah. I could tell you about what I did last year.”

I should note though, I gave a talk on this happiness and serenity project at the University of Rochester in November. It happened to be international student week, and there were probably about a hundred mainland Chinese international students who came.

They were a little bit surprised by my choice of theme because, well they’re young adults, they're thinking about work. They work a lot. They're thinking about their careers. “This is the talk on happiness. Oh, grave-sweeping?” I don't know; I just wanted to say that because I think it's not necessarily the thing that would be expected and maybe not even agreed with, because I think some people were, "Well, I kind of think of it as a backwards thing... Everyone does it, but being super into it, that's the superstition, or people in rural areas are more interested."

I also have research on people preparing their burial clothes and somebody was like, "So, isn't that something more rural? Shouldn't we move past that? It's not very modern." That's how they're seeing it, they come in with that. But I think that there's something to it, even if the young people are not thinking in this direction.

Eleanor Albert: Yeah. I wonder, too, if there's a sense of participation in it because it's something that's duty-bound. With this generational difference, are there other phenomena that are part of younger generations, the more urban, about how they're thinking about how they view happiness?

Becky Hsu: Yes. I think they're pretty focused on work. There's tension about getting married, dating and getting married, and one of the things is, often, there's parents that are really pushing, really wanting their kids to get married and have a kid or two.

Eleanor Albert: I've been to the marriage markets. I'll never forget my first time walking into People's Square and just seeing all these older Chinese people with ads. "Wait. Why are there photos and why does it list their height and their age and their employment?" And then I was finally told, "Oh, no. This is basically a market for matchmaking."

Becky Hsu: For their children.

Eleanor Albert: I think about a country with as many people as China has, with demanding work schedules but work-life balance that only recently been something that is thought of as important.

A couple generations ago it was like, "No. If you want to do, well, you have to work more than the 40 hours a week.” But I think in the Chinese sense, it's almost that they took the old U.S. model to an extreme. At the same time, they maintain all of these family, filial components.

Becky Hsu: So my interviews with young adults, it showed both and it really did show a tension between like, "I have this dream of I want to be an academic," or "I have these career aspirations. But my parents want me to get married and have a kid." I feel like the young adults fight that and they're like, "I want to go abroad. I want to go to England." but at the end of the day, I feel like they still have trouble being completely happy if they feel like their parents are not happy with them.

Even though I know there's new numbers … The fertility rate has been decreasing, and it looks like young women don't want to be married, or there are more young women that are not married by a certain age than ever before. But I think that maybe they will put it off, but eventually it's very hard to just be like, "No," to the parents. From what I saw, the filial piety thing there is different now, but it's not absent.

I went on one blind date while was doing field work. I was not the one dating. I just got invited to go. It sounds more involved than it was. But I happened to be interviewing somebody. I had interviewed him years ago, and at that time he was like "I want to do law. I have these plans. My parents want me to get married now. I really don't want to.”

Met him again five years later, we're having this interview or this conversation, and he was like, "Well, all right. Yeah. I'm going on blind dates. My parents are setting me up. It's fine.” Despite all this angst earlier, he was actually ... I was like, "Five years ago when we talked, you were really upset about this," and he was like, "What? Was I?" He was like, "Really? No. It wasn't that bad."

Eleanor Albert: I can imagine that differences regionally and with the urban-rural divide are probably pretty strong.

Becky Hsu: In my interviews, it felt like people have a lot of urban-rural connections. I feel like there's more or interchange between the two than people say, and actually specifically than urban Chinese say, because I feel like urban Chinese go, "I don't know anything about the rural people. They're very different from me." In fact, many people have relatives that are rural. There's movement, I think.

Eleanor Albert: It also seems that China might also start experiencing more of what has happened in the U.S., with the big cities, the big-tier cities, just being so big and competitive and pricey that second-tier cities and third-tier cities are also good places to be to get the urban experience, but also not be overwhelmed by it.

I remember living in Nanjing. I'd talk to Chinese people and they're like, "Yeah. It's a not-big, not-small city." I was like, "There are many millions of people who live here. This is not a small city." But the way of life was much more relaxed than Shanghai nearby and Beijing in obviously very different ways, but it was a really interesting phenomenon. I feel as there's oversaturation in the big cities, the smaller cities will have more draw, and that could create interesting social dynamics.

Becky Hsu: Yeah. In my interviews, there was some appreciation of the midsize cities. There was a little bit of talking, even by young people, who were like, "After I graduated from college, I felt like I didn't really want to try to be in Beijing or Shanghai. Too stressful. I wanted to be back home,” they celebrated it; they were okay with it.