In part one of this series we considered the importance of discipling Chinese students as Chinese believers who are prepared to live in a Chinese context (contextualized discipleship). In this second part we consider the need for pre-return training to prepare returnees for the issues they will face on returning home. Experience has shown that there are four key topics that need to be addressed:
- Relating to family.
- Facing work and career issues.
- Understanding and relating to the church in China.
- Reverse culture shock and transition.
Most Chinese students will spend between 1-5 years in Australia. During this time they grow to enjoy independence from their parents and from the pressures of life in China. They think for themselves and appreciate that their Christian faith helps them to make wise decisions. However, China is a collective, group-orientated society where children, no matter their age, are expected to respect and obey their parents’ wishes. On returning to China, students again find themselves under pressure from their parents to fulfill responsibilities to the family. This usually includes getting a high status and good paying job, as well as getting married and producing a grandchild. There is little understanding by parents of a child who wants a Christian spouse and a job that honors the Lord, both of which are very hard to find in China. A great deal of tension can develop as the returnee is perceived as selfish for not putting the financial security of their family above all else. Those returnees who are married and have become Christian while overseas will find similar tension with their spouse regarding traditional expectations and their new faith. This faith, that was so meaningful while overseas, clashes with Chinese culture and seems to bring tension within family relationships. Day by day it can be hard to know how to live as a Christian and still interact as a loving family member.
Having found a job, the returnee invariably finds themselves working very long hours and facing long commutes to and from their place of work. They may also find themselves drawn into compromising situations where they become complicit in less-than-ethical business practices. For many, work takes over life leaving them exhausted and struggling with guilt. After a while it is easy for the returnee to feel that Christian teaching is impractical in China, and that they would be better off without faith.
In the endless treadmill that their life has become there is little time and inclination to attend a church or fellowship meeting. This is compounded by long travel distances to the meeting place, as well as the inability to connect and build meaningful relationships with Chinese Christians who seem so very different from the brothers and sisters the student knew in Australia. This leads to a sense of failure and shame, and it becomes embarrassing to talk to Christian friends in Australia. Step by step the new Christian becomes isolated from those who would encourage and support them in their faith, and one day they wake up and decide that their Christian faith was just a dream and part of the wonderful experience they had in Australia. This is the point where they make the painful choice to give up on faith and try to survive by fitting in to the culture around them.
Reverse culture shock
This is an issue that often catches Chinese returnees by surprise. Their default thinking is often that as a Chinese they can come and go from China without any change in their identity. “It’s in the blood” is the way Chinese identity is seen. This fails to acknowledge that the returnee has changed during their time overseas and that China has also changed during that time. Many returnees have shared about the struggles they have experience through revers culture shock on returning to China.
Chinese students are often unaware of how difficult these issues will be when they return to China, so pre-return training should start by highlighting these issues for discussion. It’s a difficult conversation because there are no easy solutions, and giving simplistic answers will only make things more difficult. The students need time to prayerfully prepare themselves for the trials ahead. They need to identify the challenges they are likely to face and prepare a strategy and responses. They need to talk about their fears in a safe environment and know that there is grace if they fail. Effective pre-return training takes time. There needs to be input and training from experienced presenters. There needs to be time for reflection, discussion and strategy building, and there also needs to be time for prayer and encouragement. There are several options for pre-return training. In the UK and the USA there are weekend ‘Returnee Retreats’ which are an intensive time of considering returnee issues. It is also possible to arrange several sessions over a period of weeks or months and deal with a different topic at each session. The Thriving Turtles team can facilitate this kind of training. There are some books and resources (see below) that can be used to facilitate individual or small group discussion groups and some of these could also be used for self-study if the returnee is highly self motivated. Although it can be difficult to plan for a group event, in our experience it is really helpful for a group of returnees to go through this training together. They bond through the experience and stay in touch, praying, encouraging and holding each other accountable through the returning experience.
For many returnees, the issues that cause confusion and pain are difficult because they were unanticipated. Hopes of returning home to pick up where they left off are dashed when they realize how much they and China have changed. It can be a real struggle to work out how faith in Jesus fits into life as a Chinese in China. Tensions with family, pressure at work and struggles to fit into a church can overwhelm returnees to the point where abandoning their faith seems the only option. These issues are all complex and there are no easy answers, however taking time to prayerfully consider these issues, to prepare for the struggle and develop a strategy to face the most likely scenarios can make a real difference to a returnee’s spiritual future. The challenge, as always, is to find time in their current full lives and busy schedules to think, plan and have these conversations.
The first two resources are available as free downloads. More information can be found at this page: https://thrivingturtles.org/2016/06/20/pre-return-training-resources-china-specific/
CEF-USA coworkers. (2008). Returnee Handbook: On the Road of Homebound Journey. Torrance, CA, USA: Overseas Campus Magazines(CEF-OCM).
China Outreach Ministries. (2008). Returning Home to China: An equipping guide for Chinese Christians returning home. USA: China Outreach Ministries.
Chinn, L. E. (2011). Think Home: A Reentry Guide for Christian International Students (Revised). USA: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA.
Linc Ministries (2016) Strength to Stand: 31 Daily Bible Reading Notes for Chinese Returnees Available here https://thrivingturtles.org/2016/10/10/bible-readings-for-the-first-month-back-home/
 The shortest courses are around 1 year and a Masters + PhD study would be around 5 years.