If you count the time between attending my first Mass and receiving my first sacraments, it took me just over three years to become a Catholic. If you count the time before my official conversion, when I was asking versions of the same questions that led to my baptism in 2016, it took me more like twenty-five years. There was no religion in my household growing up. Had they stopped to give it any thought at all, my Chinese parents would have seen the church as anathema to many of their values—tithing away hard-earned money, confessing sins, contemplating death (and worse, talking openly about it), and spending unpaid time on unproductive activities like prayer. Having endured famine, immigration, exclusion, and the shock and grief of cultural assimilation, they came by their values honestly and so forbade me to speak of death or bad luck, to save anything less than half of what I earned, or to venture out among the strangers who might cheat, lie, or take me for a fool. I realize now just how perfect a teenage rebellion religious conversion would have been.
The summer of 2013, I was pregnant with my second daughter and reading spiritual literature with an almost-hormonal hunger. Conversion stories by Anne Lamott and Mary Karr and the tender gang-rehabilitation narratives of Fr. Gregory Boyle fed my cravings. That my conversion began with storytelling shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. When we first met, my now-husband had been alienated from the church he was born into for over ten years, yet he gave me a copy of The Screwtape Letters for our first Christmas. We read it together, both laughing out loud and falling still before ourselves as reflected in C. S. Lewis’s patient. Long before, I had tagged along to church services with high-school friends, and in college took classes like “The Bible as Literature” and “Christianity and Nonviolence.”
When I look to my childhood for clues, it seems to offer no clear trail to my religious turn. But my parents’ connection to the mysterious is probably what set the dial for my religious attunement. My mother lived with spirits of ancestors, tracing a direct line from our behaviors to their displeasure to our consequences. She appeased, served, and honored the dead we remembered and the dead we could only imagine, ever vigilant of their ceaseless inspection and impossible expectations. Our home was rich with traditions both ancient and adapted to America, all of them liturgical.