Isaiah Bai arrived in the United States in September of 2012 after more than a dozen hours in a plane from Shanghai. He landed in Eugene, Oregon, to attend University of Oregon and major in business. He was 18 years old and had plans to get his degree, work in business and return to Shanghai, but he could not foresee that the trajectory of his life would eventually lead to becoming a U.S. citizen and attending Lutheran Brethren Seminary in Fergus Falls, where is now studying for a master of divinity.“I could never imagine becoming an American citizen seven years later, that just sounds too crazy to me,” Bai says.
Like many children in China, Bai didn’t grow up in a religious family. His father was a Chinese ethnic minority called Hui. “They are supposed to be Muslims, but we, as I grew up, we didn’t go to a mosque, we didn’t pray five times per day; we just didn’t eat pork,” says Bai.
Before coming to America, though, he became interested in Christianity. “Before I came here, I went to a church. I just wanted to see what church was like. So I went to a church and I felt like, ‘Oh that’s interesting.’ I felt very interested, and I was baptized, and then came to the states,” he explains.
He spent two years studying business at University of Oregon before he felt called to become a pastor. He transferred to a Christian college in Oregon called New Hope Christian College and spent three years there, graduating in 2017 with a Bachelor of Science in ministry leadership. He met his wife in Oregon, she’s from California, and they married in 2015. Today they have two children, one born in Oregon and one in Minnesota, ages 10 months and 2 years old.
He learned about and was accepted to Lutheran Brethren Seminary’s master’s program, completing one year online while he was still in Oregon. He arrived in Fergus Falls in August of 2018 and became an American citizen just this month, September 2019. “I can formally call myself an American,” he says. “I can eventually say that I am a host, I belong here, it is my homeland, I am no longer a guest here. It is my home, nobody can tell me to go back to wherever I came from. It’s my home.”
Becoming an American citizen was a proud moment for him, but also bittersweet. China doesn’t allow for dual citizenship so becoming American meant he had to relinquish his Chinese citizenship. He plans to take his family to visit his mother in Shanghai later this month and that means he needs to apply for a Chinese visa. “I feel like, on the one hand I became a citizen of the states, on the other hand, I need to have a visa to visit my hometown, where I was born, where my parents met, where I was raised, where I went to school, where I have my first friends,” Bai says. “It is sad in a sense, that everytime I go back now I am no longer a native, in a sense, I am becoming a visitor.”
It’s not just the need for a visa that makes him feel a bit like he’s drifting away from his roots. “I embrace American culture, I watch American TV shows and movies and sports,” he says. “I think, after so many years living here in the states, I’ve blended in with society, I am somehow different than my friends and family in China.” When he returns to Shanghai, he says he experiences culture shock as he remembers some of the ways life is different there.
He feels some culture shock in Fergus Falls, too. Eugene, Oregon, had lots of culinary options for someone like Bai, who says he has a “Chinese stomach,” but Fergus Falls has few choices for him when he starts to miss dishes from his hometown.
He’s happy to be in Fergus Falls and says it feels much safer here than in bigger cities. It’s the smallest town he’s ever lived in, and he enjoys life here. “When a town is smaller, then you know people deeper,” he says. “If it’s in a bigger town, then everybody is so busy with what they’re doing, you barely have any chance to encounter them to have a deep, in-depth conversation with them. But here, I love talking to people. People are friendly here, that’s a plus.” His mom still lives in Shanghai and misses him, but is proud of him as well, and is happy that he is happy.
Bai graduates from Lutheran Brethren Seminary in May next year and isn’t sure where he’ll be going from there. His wife would like to return to the West Coast, where her family lives, but he says they truly feel open to whatever happens. “It could be a long process,” he says, “as for now I’m not sure. I think we’ll be content to be called anywhere in the United States or even Canada, wherever the church needs.”