Born and raised in Hong Kong during the time when it was a Crown Colony of Great Britain, Winnie Sato and her family emigrated to the US in the summer of 1980.
In this episode of Immigrant Faith Stories, Winnie reminisces about her life as a new student in America, how she found friends, and how her relationship with God became richer. Her family found fellowship and friendship in an immigrant Chinese church that offered them a place to belong and thrive. She felt called to be a missionary to China while in college. But it was not until about fifteen years later than her dream materialized.
While Winnie shared her story with me, I noticed how God orchestrated the events in her life, as a little girl in Hong Kong to a wife and mother in America, training and preparing her to be His missionary to China. Winnie has been married to Brian for 28 years. Along with their daughter, the couple served as ministry leaders to Beijing, China, for over a decade where they worked exclusively with house churches in the areas of discipleship and Christian education. Winnie tells us what she loves most about Chinese Christians and how their joy and passion inspires her.
My biggest takeaway from this conversation is that none of our experiences or abilities are useless or unimportant in God’s eyes. He is constantly working in us, shaping and molding us to be His change agents in this world.
Her story is also a powerful example of the role churches can play in helping immigrants find community, support, and opportunities to grow and serve in God’s kingdom.
Watch the interview here –
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Here’s the full transcript of episode #3 (I apologize for errors. The transcript is generated by a software, otter.ai):
Mabel: Hi and welcome to Immigrant Faith Stories! Immigrant Faith Stories is a platform that showcases diverse and powerful testimonies of Christian immigrants. I’m Mabel Ninan. I’m a Christian author and speaker and host of this show. On this show, I invite immigrants to share their life stories with you. They share their struggles and challenges, their joys and sorrows. And more importantly they share how they’ve experienced God’s goodness and faithfulness in their lives, and how their immigrant journey has shaped their spiritual journey.
Whether you’re an immigrant or not, I hope you can relate to these stories and i hope that you will find encouragement for your faith journey. My desire is also that these stories will give you a peek inside the lives of your neighbors and friends who are not just immigrants but also your brothers and sisters in Christ.
So subscribe to this channel if you want to be notified about a new video. You can also visit my website, mabelninan.com for transcripts of this episode and also to get to know me, to get to know more about this show. Without any delay, let’s begin today’s show.
I’m very excited to have a conversation today with Winnie Sato. Winnie and I met at Hope Chapel Hermosa Beach. My family used to attend this church when we lived in L.A. for about four or five years and I got to know Winnie through her daughter, Darynne, who used to babysit my son, Ryan. Winnie and her husband, Brian, are actively involved in serving their church and they both have also been missionaries to China for more than a decade. Winnie is passionate about homeschooling and she is a speaker at many homeschooling conferences.
I’m really excited to talk with her. Welcome to the show, Winnie!
Winnie: Thank you for having me
Mabel: Oh and I forgot to mention where you’re from. Winnie emigrated with her family from Hong Kong in 1980 when Hong Kong was still a Crown Colony of Great Britain and they came in 1980 and at that time she was only a young girl. So tell us how did you come to America. What was the reason? How was your experience?
Winnie: Well, my family decided to finally move my grandfather’s generation came first. They came in the 60s and we didn’t come with them even though I was born in 1968. So we could have followed in the late 60s but we didn’t because my mom was an only child and so she couldn’t leave her parents her aging parents and so we hung out in Hong Kong. You know I grew up, they worked and when my when both my mom’s parents passed away then she was free to go so that’s why we had to…we waited until the late 70s and then obviously the reason at that time was there was talk about Hong Kong being handed back over to the communist China. My dad had left communist China when he was a child and the thought of going back or the thought of them coming…you know… moving down to Hong Kong was pretty scary to them. And with good reason. So they finally decided that you know it was time to to leave and so that’s when we filed for immigration application.
Mabel: Okay. Tell us about your um your experience in America as a new immigrant… the first few days and months… what was it like?
Winnie: It was very very different. You know Hong Kong is kind of like New York you know…the city is always bustling, hustling. And we lived in the in the middle of the kowloon peninsula side. We lived in the middle of it and there was always noises we lived in an apartment building our flat was on the 11th floor. But there’s still a lot of sounds and stuff and one of the biggest thing I remember, the first night we landed… even though I was exhausted and dead tired…I couldn’t sleep because it was so quiet. We were picked up from LAX and my dad’s
cousin had rented us a house. So we drove probably, I don’t know, an hour out to this city called Roland Heights.
And you know it was dark there was nobody on the street and I’m like, I can’t sleep. It’s so quiet you know. That was that was the biggest thing and then you know that the first few weeks was just filled with immigrant stuff…you know…getting your phone, getting a car, getting social security numbers… all that stuff and luckily my uncles were there and you know as God would have it, already paved the way for us, you know. So we just kind of sat down and they just kind of guided us through everything and it was really great at that point and then you know, they took us to all the must-see, you know, me and my brother were thrilled to go to Disneyland. We heard so much about it. And just kind of did the tour thing, you know, the first couple of weeks and then, back then, school started like second week of September. We landed end of August. So we had a couple weeks.
Mabel: Okay. So you were a new student in America and I know that even in Hong Kong you were a good student. So how did that transition happen as a student from an education system that you knew to something that was unfamiliar to you?
Winnie: Yeah it was…I think… it was very interesting. You know at the end of sixth grade in Hong Kong, that’s when the kids moved to…Hong Kong didn’t have middle school. So it was just primary and secondary so I would have moved into secondary 1 and so I knew a school change was coming. I wasn’t going to be at my at my old school.
So the school change part wasn’t hard. I kind of expected that but the hardest part was in junior high is when you start going from classroom to classroom between classes and I was like – What is going on? The first…the bell rang and everybody got up and ran. I’m like, I don’t know what’s happening and… and well the language wasn’t a problem because Hong Kong being a crown British colony, I actually learned English along the same time I learned Chinese, you know, since Kindergarten, first grade so language wasn’t a problem.
I just could not figure out what was going on when everybody was running back and forth. That was a little bewildering and then language wasn’t a problem. Math was fun because when I was in Hong Kong I was kind of scraping bottom. When it came to Math, I wasn’t exactly the model student. But hong kong was really ahead as far as math compared to the United States so I walked into my seventh grade math class and I looked at the problem on the board. I’m thinking
I already did this, you know. So long story short, they didn’t have a math class for me. They had to go to the school board and get special permission to bus me to the high school to take a math class. It was all very… you know when you’re in junior high and you’re the new kid you just try to stay low you know and all of a sudden you know at the end of fourth period or whatever it was…the adults came, flanked you out to the bus. It was just kind of weird for a while
but it was after you know a couple months it was fun. It was fine.
Mabel: Did you make friends easily?
Winnie: You know it wasn’t hard I guess because at that time seventh grade was when you changed school. Right now they have six, seven, and eight but back then it was seventh grade when you changed school so it was kind of like started the new school with everybody else
sort of…you know… because people came in from different elementary schools. But because I had an accent with my English, I spoke British English at that time. I pretty much gravitated toward Asian looking friends. But they didn’t speak Cantonese. They were from Taiwan so I kind of had to learn Mandarin on the fly just so that I can communicate with them. So it wasn’t…I made a few friends. I was still in touch with my friends in Hong Kong so I wasn’t desperate for new friends I guess. But you know God had it all prepped for me because He introduced me to…I ran into these friends from Taiwan and they were committed churchgoers, so and we had
that in common too. So that was good.
Mabel: That’s great. So you had a good time in High School, I assume then?
Winnie: I did. I didn’t realize that it was different from everybody else. Because of my math background, I kind of got shoved into this honors program and then, back in those days there’s only like one honors class or one AP class a day. So pretty soon I was in the same class. There were about 30 of us and pretty soon we were always in the same class, like all the time, like every year. So we became really tight and then once you’re in those classes there are only certain other extracurricular activities that you can do, you know, either newspaper staff or yearbook staff or student council so I was pretty much with the same 28- 30 people like six classes a day so we became close.
There were you know the football players, the cheerleaders, the bookworms and the theater passions and I didn’t realize it at that time but that was very different. Most high schools are very divided I guess you know based on some of these interests and groups and so it wasn’t until I got to college that I realized my high school experience was very very different and really by the grace of God because I didn’t know any better. We were just in the same class all the time. We studied together and we just hung out together.
Mabel: So tell us about how different or similar was your parents’ experience, because they came as adults. And you as a student you were able to adapt and you kind of found your groove and you had friends. What about your parents’ experience?
Winnie: I really appreciated my parents’ efforts because for them it was monumentally hard. They had to leave everything behind. They grew up…my parents met in elementary school so they basically have had the same group of friends since they were 10 or 11 you know and I remember when we do picnics together on the weekends, my mom and the other aunties would play mahjong together and everybody who’s your mom’s friend is an auntie even though you’re not related and so i know these aunties and uncles.
I knew that it was pretty hard for my parents and then with…even though they lived in Hong Kong most of their lives, they didn’t…their English was heavily accented and they weren’t very fluent in it and so when they first came…even now after 40 years they would prefer to speak Chinese over English. So I appreciated their…they really sacrificed a lot for us.
I mean it sounds cliche but it was so really really true you know. My mom gave up a cushy job so then my dad…and they had a hard time with finding… kind of you know making a lateral move and so they ended up doing what a lot of immigrants ended up doing…which was actually not opening a restaurant, my mom didn’t want to do that, but they went into kind of government jobs like post office and DMV and stuff like that so it was a steady paycheck. But it definitely was not measuring up to what they had before so they made most of their friends at church.
Church became a big part of our lives. Every weekend. So that’s when they can speak the same language and have the same experiences and stuff.
Mabel: So tell us more about your church and how it shaped your faith.
Winnie: It was a very conservative Chinese church that was affiliated with a southern Baptist conference so I don’t think you can be any more conservative than that and it was primarily an immigrant church. The senior pastor was an immigrant himself and so what the church really concentrated on other than preaching the gospel was really trying to create a sense of community. Every Sunday after church, we would have potluck lunch. Every family brings a little something and whoever wants to stay can stay and that’s when I really saw my parents come alive. It was the same experience. It was the same language and they were all struggling with the same things you know…being new, being unfamiliar and so church became… even though my parents were not…I wouldn’t call them devout when we were in Hong Kong.
Even though my dad grew up in the church. But after we came, because of the community that they felt church became a big part. They hung out with their church friends on Sunday and then sometimes Saturday. We would also get together and the kids all hang out together in youth group and stuff so God just really kind of gave them a reprieve throughout the week you know and then Sunday…weekends was really a time where they really have fun and be able to enjoy themselves.
Mabel: What about your faith? I know that you were born and raised a Christian in Hong Kong and now you come to this church. So how did your faith grow…personally?
Winnie: Well you know my grandparents became Christian missionaries, went to china in the late 1800s early 1900s and my grandparents lived in a fishing village in the southern coast of China. They became Christians. They became pretty devout, they were serving in the church. I remember my grandfather. I’ve seen pictures of him being a deacon and my grandmother was a deaconess and my grandmother had always been… one of the things she always said to me was – love God and serve him and I pray for you every day…something like that…she says that to me all the time.
I practically have gone to church almost as soon as I was coming out of the hospital, I’m sure. I’ve heard it all I think and somewhere along the way in my youth group here, when I was probably in eighth grade, my youth director challenged me -Well, are you or are you not ? Because he understood and at that time I had to call my faith my own. I couldn’t ride on my parents’ shadow so I really thank God for them because they really showed me…they not only led me to Christ, I mean, really showed me what it meant to have a personal relationship but they also discipled me in areas of –you need to read your bible every day, you need to spend time with god every day and you know some of the basic tenets of being a Christian was kind of pounded into me.
You know when you’re junior high, in high school, you’re like…I don’t know… but I think looking back, I’m really grateful for what they had done because you know Bible is a huge part of my life. I love reading the bible. I love studying the bible and as I became married and became a parent, I realized I could not have survived these years without knowing the bible because it is an important part as a christian and not knowing how to live and deal with the stuff that that this world throws at you.
Mabel: It’s amazing how it just takes one or two people to invest in the lives of young people and you know to kind of lay the foundation so it takes them forward.
Winnie: Oh yeah, they spent four years with me. I was in the youth group for four years and I cannot even think, or imagine what it would have been like if they hadn’t…you know been my youth pastor or someone else or if I had gone a different way. But you know God was gracious and put those people in my life and just you know really helped me… really shape my future and change my future choices.
Mabel: Absolutely yeah! So then when you talk about future choices, how did you know …feel that calling to be a missionary to China and when were you able to realize that? Take us through that entire journey.
Winnie: Well, that was, it was such a God thing, you know. In 1989, you know, when that whole Tiananmen Square incident was happening, I was watching it as a college student. And I was staring at the TV screen thinking, you know, these people really just think the Lord, you know, even more than democracy or freedom or whatever they think they needed, they really just need the Lord and, and, you know, I’m bilingual, and I am a journalism major, and, you know, I can work for CNN, maybe I’ll go back to China, maybe I’ll, you know, get in there. And on the weekends, I can work with the house churches, and during the week, I can work for CNN and I had this whole you know, youthful ambition, everything planned out.
But God had other plans and he took me through short term missions, a project with YWAM, Youth With A Mission. And we went into Eastern Europe that had just opened, the Iron Curtain had just fallen. And we had one of the first groups to go in there and it was just an incredible time.
My team was praying for each person. They want to pray over each person to find out exactly where God wants them to do. So they were praying for me and I didn’t know these people at that time. I’ve only met them because of the trip. And so I didn’t say anything about, I want to go back to China and all that stuff. And when they were praying for me, one of the guy says, one of the male, one of the leaders, he said to me, “God knows your heart for China, and he’s gonna take you there one of these days.” Have you been reading my journal?
And I was like, Okay. If this is really what you have for me, then let’s go and then of course, you know, being 19-20. I was thinking, all right, when I get home, when I graduated from college, I’m good to go. And, of course, that’s not. That’s never the case. You know, God is like, I’m not here to do your bidding. You know, God took me through. I met my husband, I married him. And I’m thinking, I don’t know where I’m going with this kind of thing. You know, because he’s Japanese American. He didn’t speak any Chinese. Okay, like, it seems like you’re taking me away.
And yet, at the same time, China keeps coming back to me, you know, China news. And you know, what, that one child policy and these little girls and my husband and I decided to adopt one. So we did and so I started having connections inside China. And then I thought, oh, maybe through these orphanages, I can get in there. Nope, it wasn’t like that.
And then…it wasn’t, so I got my call in the late 80s-89-90. And then it wasn’t until 2005 that God finally opened the door. And of course, you know, as God would have it, we were at a big white church, Hope Chapel, primarily white, Caucasian church, you know, with, even though with a diverse group of congregation, you know, from all walks of life, and from all races, it was still primarily a big white church, you know, but they had it, they had a big heart for mission. And they were sending teams to all over the world, Vietnam, Mexico, South Africa, and I was like, oh, God, put China in there, you know, and, and then through Hope that I got the connection to a house church in Beijing.
And so in 2005, we finally went. So it was 15 years. But God, of course, God never wavered, right? God doesn’t change. But over those 15 years, I was like, oh, okay, God, anytime now. You know, we should get on that plane. And H was always like, no, I got other plans for now.
Mabel: Interesting. That’s really interesting to me. It’s fascinating. And exactly how did Hope choose you guys to go? How did that happen?
Winnie: Well, Hope has this philosophy of ministry, you know, if you feel God wants you to do something, you go do it. We’ll support you. And so, after there was…we were commissioning the Vietnam team. And I distinctly heard in my head. You’re going to be commissioned one of these days. I’m like, okay, right. And so, um, so I told my husband, and he goes, Well, we’ve been talking about this for so long. I said, I know. And he’s like, well, if you’re going, I’m going to go to and I’m like, Well, okay, let’s go, you know.
And so then, at that time, Hope was divided into like districts. So we’re like, okay, let’s talk to our district pastor. And he’s like, Alright, well, if God tells you to go, who are we to stand in the way, let me.. let’s talk to Pastor Zach, you know, talk to the senior pastor. And we talked to Pastor Zack and Zack is like, Well, I have a connection for you. One of our former members works in Beijing, and he started to the group, and he’s been asking me to send people there to help him.
Like, wow, you know, it can only be God, how else would you figure that out? Right? So we met this guy, and Zach says, Oh, he’s coming back in two weeks? Of course, he is. I mean, you know. So that was May of 2005. We met the guy. We met Perry. And yes, he runs a small house church at that time in Beijing. And I said, Oh, but other than me, none of our team, you know, my husband doesn’t speak English. He knows that’s okay. Because two thirds of my church, um, speak English. Okay, God, really, you know, when he when he makes it happen, everything just falls into place. And so, yeah, by November of 2005, we were in we were in China working with a house church. That was our first trip and then it was the first of 13 trips. It went on for 13 years.
Mabel: Praise God! He has his own ways.
Winnie: You know, it was just so God. You wait and you wait for 15 years and you think every so often, is this ever gonna happen? Is it gonna happen when I retire? Is it gonna happen when you know, I don’t know, when I hopefully I can still walk? And then when it happened it just like, you know, we met Perry that was his name in May of 2005. And then by November, we were in Beijing.
Mabel: Yes, God, you know, God usually does that. We have our own plans, but he comes in with his plan. And it’s better, it’s bigger.
Winne: Oh, much better!
Mabel: It gives Him glory. At the perfect time, things turn out. I know that you’ve been visiting China. And you were involved in discipleship and Christian education, working with house churches for so many years. And so, tell us, what did you learn from the Chinese Christians? I know that, as a missionary, you are going there to teach and to impart training, but were you able to take back something? If the Chinese Christians have taught you anything or have affected how you pray and worship, share that with us?
Winnie: They… I think the thing that really marked me of all the times that I’ve been with them… 13 years, you know, even those two weeks, just two weeks a year, and then during the year, we keep in touch via internet chat. I think what we talk about, my husband and I always talk about and can never get enough of is their passion. They are so passionate. And they, I mean, talk about being all in, you know, because their work schedule, they work 10-12 hours a day, I mean, these Chinese companies, work them hard.
And so Sunday is really the only day that they really have together, they don’t really have time for mini church or anything like that during the week. And then it’s also you know, kind of dangerous, because house churches are illegal in inside China. And so they would really only get together on Sundays. And on Sundays, they would gather at like 9:30 for service, they will have lunch together. And then they will stay for maybe a Bible study or the women will have a women’s group. The men will have a men’s group or play basketball or whatnot. And then they’ll have dinner together. And then they may even break into like a jam session, you know, at seven or eight at night. And they spend all day together and they just want to talk about God, want to hear each other, how things are going and what to pray for each other.
And we contrast that with a lot of Western churches where the service is over an hour and a half, people are like, “Okay, I have kickoff in about 15 minutes. Or there’s a game going on, or, or I have a birthday party.” It’s just the West, people are so distracted. I mean, I’m guilty, too. Sometimes we have family things going on on Sundays.
But they are just so passionate, and not just because they can be together. But it’s because I think their faith really costs them something. Yeah, well, we have to be very careful. The group that we were with, and they have been visited by the police a few times… more than a few times over the last over the decade. And yet they keep coming back, they keep coming back.
They’ve had to turn around several times, when they had an outdoor get together, and some people got detained for hours, with their ID information being copied down by the police. And their faith, really, they put it on the line. And sometimes I asked myself, what would I have done? If it was happening to me, you know, if I had to? Okay, well, the government knows my numbers anyhow. But if I had to… would what would I do? Would I still be so blatant about talking to people about it? Will I still be so passionate? Will I still show up every week?
I think that is one of our biggest takeaways, their passion and their commitment. And when they when they pray! I don’t know if I can really describe it. It’s moving and it’s touching and you can feel their gratitude for the salvation and the relationship that they have and the freedom that they feel inside this relationship with God, it’s an honor.
Mabel: All in the backdrop of persecution.
Winnie: Oh, yeah!
Mabel: That is amazing!
Winnie: A lot of them cover their Bible with brown paper. So, when they pull it out, nobody knows that is a Bible. The police have visited that apartment where the church meets a number of times. They say, “How come there are Bibles here?” And they use bilingual Bibles. So they say, “It’s for an English class.” They have a piano. The pastor plays a piano really, really well. And so the police says –play something for me, because they know that church music uses piano. And the guy said, “Oh, no, I play it for my own pleasure.” Because he wanted to be sure that the guy’s not lying to him. It’s when you live on that edge. Your faith is different. And it shows.
Mabel: It must be so encouraging and inspiring for you to be able to go and visit with them.
Winnie: Every year, we loved it.
Mabel: I hope and pray that you’re able to go back. I know that persecution is on the rise in China. And I know that we’re all praying, and I hope you can continue to do that.
Thank you so much for sharing your story. This was good – how your life unfolded from a little girl to a missionary to China, and I hope you’re enjoying your empty nest. I know it’s been bittersweet. You miss your daughter too.
Winnie: Well, we were married 10 years before she came along. So, even though it was 18 years, it seemed like a long time but my gosh, it really went by so quick. You need to treasure every moment you have with Ryan because it just goes by like that.
Mabel: Yeah, I’m realizing that. Thank you so much for speaking with us, Winnie. I really enjoyed it.
Winnie: Thank you.