My mother has always been incredibly protective of me. Some would say she fits the “Asian Tiger Mom” stereotype. I may or may not agree – lovingly, of course. Yet she certainly does everything to extremes to make sure I am healthy and safe.
“Don’t eat meat. Look, I’m a vegetarian,” she’ll say, brandishing a bowl of fresh tossed salad, a smidgen of ranch dressing already looming over her lip.
“Don’t sleep under the fan. It might fall and kill you.”
“Don’t wear nail polish. You’ll get distracted by your fingers.”
My mother’s remarks range from profound to all sorts of ridiculous. Yet if there’s one that sticks out and has unfortunately proven to be valuable, it was the advice about the Word-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named (no, not Voldemort).
“Don’t ever say the A word. People will automatically hate you.”
Atheist. One word, seven letters, infinite judgment.
My parents were born in China in a period marked by the Communist Revolution, when religion was eradicated and devotion to Mao Zedong put in its place. As a result, the first eight years of my life were devoid of religion – that is, until my mother placed me in Tri-City Christian Academy, solely due to its academic standing.
Suddenly I was crowded by Christ and long hours of classes and Bible reenactments and more classes and more Christ. Since everyone else was praying, it seemed like the right thing to do. Everyone else was listening attentively to Mrs. Krauss’s high-pitched voice reciting Psalm 27. I should too, right?
Yet I found my mind wandering off during Bible study. I began to question the teachings. Soon I was only praying when I had a math test the next day or had decided to risk it and – God forbid – sleep under the fan. I started researching online, watching Richard Dawkins videos on YouTube, and rereading the Bible, this time not in total faith but with questions. Then I wasn’t praying at all anymore. Before I knew it, my answer to religion had progressed from Christian to agnostic to, dare I say it, atheist.
As a born-again atheist, I was naive to how I would be perceived. When my mother told me never to affiliate myself with even the word, I assumed she was just spouting ridiculousness. However, I realized the real caution behind her advice when I faced people’s reactions to my atheism, which ranged from concern to outright disgust. Even my best friend donned a grotesque expression before searing me with her iron-hot words: “You’re going to Hell.”
Needless to say, after a few failed attempts to convert me and drag me to church, my friendship with her died and definitely didn’t go to a better place. I would flinch at every religious flyer thrown at me, run from every person trying to “save” me. People’s opinions of me began to change for the worse, not because of my personality or my behaviors, but due to my faith. Or, rather, the lack of it.
So, for a while, I kept the ghastly A word stored close to my heart but far from my mouth. Anything was preferable to being seen as the stereotypical atheist: a terrible person with no morals or purpose in life. I started to believe I ought to have listened to my mother’s advice that it was better just to keep my mouth shut, use euphemisms such as “nonreligious” or “unsure,” or even straight-out lie.
Before my mother came here, she had dreamed of America as the land of diversity and acceptance. The land of opportunity and fortune. America, the land of religious freedom, with over 80 percent of people associating with a religion. Just a few months ago I came across a Huffington Post article about a survey that had asked people whether they’d consider voting for presidential candidates of various religions, races, or genders. While potential female presidents, black presidents, and Christian presidents passed with 97 percent and 98 percent approval ratings, barely half of the population said they would vote for an atheist, with the next lowest category being a Muslim. Our society has grown so offended by this word that religious sensitivity is all but lost.
Just like my mother telling me to eat salad because she is vegetarian, some religious people have tried to impose their beliefs on me because they think their path is the only true one. When it comes to food, everyone has their own favorites, likes, and dislikes. I can be friends with someone who has a different diet. In fact, most of my friends have different religions, different palates. I love learning about other diets, lifestyles, and religions. I love questioning mine and talking with others to understand their lifestyles.
Recently I stopped following my mother’s advice.
“I’m an atheist.”
Yes, this word has elicited horrified expressions, sighs of disappointment, and head shakes with long religious rants to follow. But I stand tall in my belief of no belief. I say this Word-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named with pride and patience at the reaction I often face.
My mother may be right about many things. Painting my fingernails neon pink did end up attracting my attention away from the biology lecture. Who knows, maybe fan accidents are on the rise. Yet I no longer avoid the A word due to others’ religious insensitivity. I will not lose hold on my morals – my meat – in order to make the vegetarians happy. Just as my mother has always been protective to me, I am protective to my identity as a person, as an atheist, and as an avid meat-lover.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.