‘Why Not I?’: Jiang’s Journey from Communist China to BC

The first time Rev. Joseph You Guo Jiang, S.J. met a priest, he didn’t know it was a priest. He was an undergraduate studying in the Philippines when one day in the dining hall, a young Jesuit dressed in plain clothes introduced himself. Jiang assumed he befriended a fellow student and continued with his studies. After some time, the new friend asked Jiang his mission and purpose in life.

“Lawyer,” Jiang said instinctively, like he had hundreds of times before.

“Do you want to help others?” the friend asked in reply.

Jiang had been raised to impulsively answer “yes” to that question. But, when the incognito Jesuit explained that there were communities of men who lived separate from society and dedicated their lives to service, Jiang was confused. So he called his mother.

His mother was born in China and educated by French missionaries who brought her into the Catholic faith before the rise of Communism and ban on religion in 1949. Although Jiang’s home of Tandu in China’s Sichuan province did not tolerate religion, his mother made sure to instill in her son secularized Catholic virtues—love, temperance and justice. Jiang learned that helping others was important because it benefitted his community, not because Jesus calls us to do so.

In grade school, Jiang dared to pin to his shirt a small dove, which his mother said represented the Holy Spirit. Another student saw him and made fun of him for being superstitious. He and his classmates were part of the Young Pioneers, an organization still operating today that indoctrinates children into becoming future members of the Communist Party of China. By the time most students complete grade school, they are part of the program. The training goes on until they reach 14, at which point they are encouraged to join the Communist Youth League.

Toward the end of the decade, restrictions loosened and Catholic worship was allowed, so long as it was registered with the state. The Chinese government had one catch: Any Catholic institution in China would answer to the government, not the Vatican. This allowed for Jiang’s mother to arrange for her son’s baptism during his senior year of high school. Jiang was already familiar with the manner in which Catholicism calls us to treat others, but knew little about Christianity.

Three decades later, Jiang still draws inspiration from his mother with the work he does in the Academic Advising Center, where he has been assistant director since the end of 2012. In addition to teaching, he works with international students and helps them transition into Boston College. Some students, Jiang says, have no clue what it means to be a Catholic college, so he likes to introduce them to the tenets of Jesuit identity.

“I don’t try to convert them,” he said. “Obviously I want them to come to know God. But love, justice, harmony—those are values we can all come to embody.”

It’s easy to see how Jiang’s appreciation for the Jesuits he met in college manifests itself in his work at BC. A professor of classical Eastern philosophy, Jiang says he loves when his students, many of whom are from Asia, realize the commonalities shared between Catholicism and Eastern thought.

“A lot of my international students have never heard of the 12 Apostles,” Jiang said, “but they understand the definition of discipleship.”

While Jiang was still an undergraduate, his Jesuit friend taught him about reflection and prayer. For four years, Jiang contemplated his calling to the priesthood, trying to distinguish God’s will from his own. He read about the lives of Saints Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier, and asked himself, “Why not I?” Once he made the decision, Jiang remembers being overcome by a wave of peace with his life. He hesitated to step out of his comfort zone but his calling by God was strong. The process of reflecting on his vocation, called discernment, gave him the confidence to enter the Society of Jesus in the same year he received his bachelor’s degree, 1996.

Jiang’s parents never envisioned him becoming a priest. But his mother saw the good work missionaries did when she was younger, and she and her husband supported the decision. Jiang’s aunts, uncles, and family friends, on the other hand, assumed something to be seriously wrong with him to “throw away” a college education and enter the priesthood. It meant Jiang wouldn’t satisfy any of the Chinese societal expectations, like making a family or having a competitive job. And somehow, Jiang was perfectly fine with that.

After being ordained in 2008 in Los Angeles, he began work with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNESCO seeks to combat poverty by working to provide children in underdeveloped countries with the right to an education. For three years, Jiang was stationed in Bangkok, teaching high schoolers and teachers and working side by side with the Red Cross and other NGOs. Once a month, Jiang and his colleagues would travel to Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos in hopes of reaching as many people possible. Landmines checkered the borders, so on monthly trips, cows walked 50 yards ahead while Jiang and company followed the cows’ footprints. He taught English and math, but says his greater mission was to change the people’s outlook on life. He regrets to say that most of the people he encountered didn’t look for life beyond their villages. He hoped his presence would encourage them to question their own purposes in life. But Jiang sees an unfortunate theme in education in Asia.

“Very few people in China want to learn because it will help them think more deeply or because something is interesting,” he said. “It is all about getting a degree and getting rich.”

Nevertheless, he remains hopeful. He says in the last 15 years there has been a swath of Chinese students educated overseas who return home with a more holistic appreciation for education. Over time, he thinks, this will lead to change. Jiang wants to be part of this change, so he seeks to instill in his students more than just a mastery of the material.

“I don’t give pop quizzes,” he said. “I trust that my students know how to read. I’m more interested in if they understand. It’s easy to hide it on a quiz if you don’t understand something. But when I read their essays and see their thinking, that’s when I can conclude they’ve done more than just memorize.”

Jiang loves to teach and views his Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy more as a book club. Learning, as Jiang describes it, is a walk with him through material and a reflection after. He wants his students to realize how many similarities there are between Eastern and Western thought. For personal philosophy he draws on Laozi and Confucius mostly, but sees a lot of overlap between their works and the teachings of the Church. He thinks a dialogue between cultures is the best way for students raised in different traditions to realize these commonalities.

“We’re a global village,” Jiang said. “I’m not sure where I’m going to be in five years. I’d love to be here at Boston College, but wherever there is a calling, I am ready.”

Featured Image by Sam Zhai / Heights Staff

September 24, 2017