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 Part Two, we discussed the need for pre-return training to prepare returnees for the issues they will face when they are home. In this third part we will focus on how to help returnees settle in a church or fellowship where they can serve and be supported in their daily Christian walk. Continue reading “What does it take for returnees to thrive – Part 3”
Link to Chinese article: 中文： http://behold.oc.org/?p=34504
Author: Pastor Dong Jia-Hua
Translation of article in “Behold” magazine by Keith Ranger
He says – “I recently attended a Conference of workers from a number of different places in North America on how to do lasting and effective evangelistic ministry in the lives of international students, especially in the area of being up to date and not behind the times in reaching out to those from China. The expressed need was for relevant and engaging methodology and really making an effort to keep up to date with ‘where these people are now coming from’ in terms of their expectations and priorities. Things can, and do, change so fast! We cannot, and must not, live in the past!
By Devas and Devas, 2015 – used with permission
Marriage, like so much else in China, has undergone profound changes in recent years. In the past, tradition, social expectations and poverty all tended to oblige couples to stick together, whatever the reality of their relationship. Marriages were generally contracted at a young age, married children usually lived with parents, and divorce was rare. Today, in a much more mobile society, grown‐up children may live far from their parents, and opportunities for multiple relationships are much greater. Living together before marriage has become commonplace, at least in cities. Divorce has reached levels similar to that in Western countries. Abortion is widespread, particularly where the one‐child policy is enforced. At the same time, parents put huge pressure on young people to get married and produce a child. All this presents great challenges to those returning to China who have become Christian believers overseas, particularly since the expectation would be that they marry soon after returning. This article is intended to help those working with Chinese students overseas to understand more about the situation of marriage in China, and to encourage them to address this subject with pre‐returnees, so they will be more prepared for the challenges they will encounter.
When are you married?
For most Chinese, there are two elements: the legal process (called registration) and the big family party. Getting legally married in China involves little ceremony. A couple who wish to marry has to apply for permission from their respective work units (Danwei). The Danwei will then provide a certificate of singleness (Danshenzhengming). In the case of students returning to China their Danwei will normally be their former university until they find a job, after which their employer becomes their Danwei. The couple make an appointment at the equivalent of the Registrar’s office (Mingzenting) to be “registered” (i.e. married). Often an auspicious date is chosen or a special day, such as a birthday. The couple must show their residence permits (hukou), ID cards, and Danshenzhengming. They are asked a few questions about their health and marital status. Once the couple have signed some forms and made vows in front of the national flag and national emblem they are legally married. It all takes about an hour. (Source: www.ebeijing.gov.cn)
For some couples, this is enough, but most wealthier families will have a family party at a later date. For Christian couples, they will want also to make their marriage vows in their church, or at some ceremony in front of their Christian brothers and sisters. It can therefore be confusing for Christian couples to know at what point they are married and can start living together – is it after they are legally registered, after the family party, or after the ceremony with Christian brothers and sisters?
For Christians what matters is making a solemn commitment and promise to one another and before God and their (Christian) brothers and sisters (which of course can – and should – be also in front of their families and other friends). Thus, if they are to honour God, they should not be living together until they have made that commitment before God, regardless of whether they have already been registered.
For new Christians, such as those returning from overseas, having a Christian wedding ceremony can present problems, especially if they are not yet settled in a church. If they already belong to a church which has its own premises, they will usually be able to marry in that church, although they need a legal certificate of marriage first. Many churches do not have suitable premises, but they may be able to hold such a ceremony in a hotel or restaurant. Those wishing to marry in a home town may find that the church there rejects their application since they are not members of that church. This rejection can be quite hurtful, even though understandable from the pastor’s point of view.
One solution may be to have a Christian marriage ceremony as part of the family party, for example by inviting a pastor or mature Christian friend to take them through some Christian marriage vows. Some aspects of a traditional wedding party may be distasteful to a Christian couple, for example, the amount of alcohol which is served and the provision of cigarettes. However, most accept this in order to not offend their family.
C and G, a Christian couple, wanted to mary in G’s home town because his widowed mother still lived there. They asked if they could marry in the local church but were refused as they did not belong to that church. C’s mother, a Christian, vowed she would not attend the wedding if there was going to be lots of alcohol and cigarettes. On the other hand, C’s father, a non‐Christian, vowed he would not attend the wedding unless there was lots of alcohol and cigarettes. The final agreement was that C and G would have a wedding service in a restaurant with a Christian friend to take them through their vows. The restaurant room was arranged as a church and then, after the ceremony, the room was re‐organised for a wedding meal. Lots of sweets, alchohol and cigarettes were provided to show the family’s hospitality. C and G, and C’s mother, had to accept this in order not to embarrass G’s mother who was hosting it.
Later, the couple travelled to another province for a second wedding organised by C’s parents. They expected to have to go through the second ceremony without any Christian input. But they were amazed and delighted to find that her mother had invited her local pastor to the wedding, and that he had brought his church choir. So they had a clear Christian element of prayers and hymns at this wedding also.
Finding a marriage partner
Most Chinese students in the UK are here for only one or two years. They return to China at the ideal age for marriage, and they usually come under much pressure from their families to get married. For those who have become believers while overseas, this becomes a major challenge. The challenge is particularly great for Christian girls, given the shortage of Christian boys. Christian returnees need to be helped to think through what they will look for in a future life partner, not least the importance of having a shared faith in the Lord Jesus before getting committed to one another. They also need to be helped to think through how they will deal with pressure from family to get married to an unbeliever.
Ensuring that one’s child finds a good marriage partner is a major pre‐occupation of Chinese parents. By the time their child is 27, this can be a source of considerable anxiety, which grows with every passsing year. In some places parents meet other parents in a park and discuss their children, hoping to find a match which is suitable from their point of view. Others will look among their acqaintances
for the perfect match. There is a strong degree of self‐interest in this since the parents generally want the security that a wealthy match can bring them. The mothers of girls will look at a proposed husband as if he were a racehorse: health, fitness, eyes, teeth, employment prospects and pedigree are all considered. In cities like Bejing, a man is expected to bring an apartment and a car to the marriage. His whole family may have to help him to do this, and he will be expected to repay, in due course, by funding medical bills, old‐age care and even overseas holidays. He will also be expected to take care of his wife’s relatives. Returning students may be faced with their parents’ choice of marriage partner at or soon after their re‐entry. Returnees who have become believers need to know how to respond with graciousness and firmness if the proposed partner is not the one they want to marry, especially if he/she is not a believer. This can lead to major rows and much upset on all sides.
Given the shortage of Christian boys, many girls will not find a Christian life partner. We need to communicate the great value of singleness in a life committed to the Lord.1 Older female returnees (such as those who have completed PhDs) may find that they join the ranks of “leftover women”. Once a girl is over 30, she may begin to be regarded as a failure in the marriage stakes and as someone who brings shame on the family. The older Christian girl faces many problems as she searches for a mature Christian man to marry. Sadly, many Christian girls marry a non‐believer simply in order to keep their family happy. Such marriages may well lead to immense conflict, and may result in the believing partner giving up their faith.
H studied in the UK and has a PhD in English Literature. While in the UK she had come to faith in Christ. When she returned to China her parents, who had strong contacts in the armed forces, proposed that she marry a soldier with “excellent prospects” whom they has chosen. She did not want to marry a non‐believer, but was very fearful of telling her parents that this was because of her faith. After much prayer she had the courage to tell her parents: to her amazement and relief her parents did not protest.
T became a believer while studying in Hong Kong, and since her return to China has joined an active church where she gets good teaching and fellowship. She is already 30 and still unmarried. She longs to have a Christian life partner but there seems to be no sign of one. With all the pressure from her family, this has become a dominant theme in her prayer life. She trusts that one day the Lord will answer her, but so far he has not. Should she keep her family (and herself) happy by marrying an unbeliever, in the hope that he will become a believer?
Already in a relationship?
In the West we tend to treat Chinese students as individuals, without taking account of the fact that many have long‐standing boyfriend/girlfriend relationships back home. They may not mention such relationships when we talk with them, yet on their return they are probably expecting to get married to the boyfiend/girlfriend who has been waiting for them. It seems that many of those who have been studying the Bible while here, and even those who have become believers, do not share anything about their spiritual journey with their partner back home, even if they have been baptised. Consequently, they face a big problem when they return expecting to get married, only to find their partner has little interest in their new‐found faith, or is even actively hostile to it. Thus, it is vital,
before they return, that they are helped to think through how they will share what they have learned with their partner, how they will handle his/her response, and what they will then do.
YS became a believer while studying in UK. Shortly after her return to China she announced her intention to marry her long‐standing boyfriend, H, who was not a believer. Christian friends challenged her about this, but she argued that he had waited all this time for her, how could she now refuse to marry him? They did marry, and H accepts that she goes to church, but there is always an underlying tension about the use of time and money, and how to bring up their little boy.
A contrasting case is LX, who became a very committed Christian believer while studying overseas. He too had a long‐standing relationship with his girlfriend, LY. But when LX returned to China he explained the problem to LY, concluding that they could not marry as she was not a believer. Needless to say, LY was deeply upset, but she took LX’s advice, went to church and read the Bible. In due course she too became a believer, praise God. The way was then clear for them to get married.
Problems of traditions
Traditional views of marriage, which are deep‐seated in Chinese culture, can set up many difficulties in a marriage. Before the 1911 revolution, a wealthy man could have a number of wives and concubines. Some men in China still feel entitled to have a wife and some other women. Under the Maoist communist regime, married couples were often sent to different parts of the country to work. Many people acquired other partners in their place of work and only saw their spouse once a year at Chinese New Year. It is still quite common for couples to live and work or study in different places for years on end. Thus, Christians need to be helped to understand the importance of married couples living together.
One elderly Christian pastor described how, as a young man, he had to travel cramped under a train seat for 24 hours in order to visit his wife. He also did not see her for 15 years while he was in prison for his faith. They are together now but have no children due to their enforced separation when they were younger.
Mothers‐in‐law can sabotage marriages. In Chinese tradition, a man’s mother is more important than his wife. A man would bring his wife to his family and she would be subject, in every way, to her mother‐in‐law. This presents a great challenge for young Christian couples: how to show proper respect for parents without being dominated by them, especially if the parents are not Christians.
Mothers in China are very possessive and feel it is their duty not only to do their best for their child but also to chivvy and drive the child to succeed in every area of life. When a girl marries the son, she gets the same treatment. Her cooking is criticised, her housekeeping scrutinised, and when the grandchild arrives mother‐in‐law will arrive too, to look after the child “properly”. One woman described having rows with her mother‐in‐law over how many layers of clothing her baby should wear. This was just a symptom of how difficult their relationship was. Adult children are expected to provide for their parents’ old age and a widowed mother will usually choose the traditional option of going to live with her son. This too can set up problems in small modern apartments.
Young Christians M and E live in Beijing and have a baby girl. M’s parents, who are poor, immediately arrived from the north to “help”. M’s father had a history of
domestic violence and his wife had left him several times because of this. E was deeply concerned for her baby’s safety. M’s mother immediately began to bind E with traditional prohibitions: she must not leave the house for at least one month after giving birth; she must not have a bath; she must not eat peanuts and many other similar foods and behaviour restrictions. E described how she hid in the bathroom and ate peanuts out of sheer defiance.
M’s parents then decided to move to Beijing permanently. This meant that they gave up all the benefits on which they lived in their home town and became dependent on M and E for everything. After a tense time M and E solved their overcrowding and in‐law problems by buying a nearby apartment and moving the older people in there. They also started to do a weekly bible study with M’s parents.
Marriage in China is under great strain, and sadly many Chinese marriages end in divorce. The figures are comparable with the UK. A divorce is very quick and easy to obtain: all that is required is for both parties to sign the divorce papers. Once the papers have been accepted and stamped (“chopped”) by the marriage office, the divorce is instant. Contested divorces have to go to court.
For men who divorce and remarry, it is an opportunity to have another child, assuming his new wife has not already had a child. Recent restrictions in some cities on the number of apartments a couple can own has also, apparently, encouraged couples to get divorced.
Helping returnees think through these issues
It is vital that returnees have a proper Christian understanding of marriage, and how the Lord can help them to build a lasting, God‐honouring marriage. In particular, it will be important to help them to see the importance of marrying a believer, and for those in an existing relationship, to challenge them about how they are going to deal with that situation now that they are a believer.
For those planning to get married soon, we can share with them some key Bible passages about marriage (for example: Genesis 1: 26‐27, 2:15‐25, 3:7 & 16; Exodus 20: 12 & 14; Malachi 2: 10‐16; Hebrews 13: 4; Matthew 5: 27‐30; Ephesians 5: 21‐33; 2 Corinthians 6: 14‐16; 1 Corinthians 7: 1‐16; 1 Corinthians 13: 4‐7). We can also help them to think through some of the practical aspects of marriage, such as communication between husband and wife; use of time; use of money; attitude to children; attitude to parents/in‐laws; headship; sex; self‐giving love; living together (many Chinese married couples regard it as normal to live in different places, often for years on end).
Additional Case Studies
Junming became a believer while studying for her Masters in the UK, but was still very young in the faith when she returned to China. She joined a returnees Bible study group and grew in her understanding and faith. Being in her late 20s, her parents were keen that she should get married. At one point her father was calling her every day to ask if she yet had a boyfriend. They suggested various possible young men but none were suitable. Junming started going out with one young man who seemed nice enough but he wasn’t a Christian, and did not seem very interested, so that relationship ended quite quickly. The next boyfriend seemed quite interested in her faith and came to church with her. He seemed at first to be quite serious, but after a while she realised that he was really only interested in her, not in her faith. Through Bible studies with other believers, she realised that marriage must be based on a shared faith in the Lord Jesus, so reluctantly she broke off that
relationship. Then she met a young man at another church who said he was a believer, although Junming had her doubts, particularly because of the church he was attending. He was less well educated than her and did not speak English, so she was concerned about how he would cope with her friends, several of whom were foreigners. After some ups and downs in their relationship, he decided to join her church. He really grew in his faith, to the point where she was convinced that he really was a believer. Only then did she feel free to marry him. Their wedding in a house church, and later in her home town, was a tremendous Christian witness to family and friends.
Maolin became a believer while doing his PhD in the UK. His new‐found faith profoundly changed his life, and he soon became a leader on the Chinese student group on campus, as well as an active member of the local Chinese church. But his big concern was his girlfriend Yu, back in China, who was not a believer. They had been together for several years, and had lived together before Maolin came to study in UK. He longed for her to share his faith, but she was very resistant. At his encouragement, she started meeting up with some Christians to study the Bible. She was willing to give it a go, but she found the conflict between what the Bible said and the scientific atheism that she had been brought up with just too great. Moreover, she had many friends who warned her against joining a “foreign religion”. Maolin’s Christian friends in the UK were trying to help him see the importance of marrying a believer. He could see that very clearly, but he still loved Yu. Furthermore, both his family and hers were expecting them to get married on his return: to break the relationship after they had been together (and lived together) for several years would bring dishonour, not just to him but to their perception of his Christian faith. What to do? He prayed very much for Yu and about what was the right thing to do – and continues to pray, since the story is not yet concluded…..
Xuemei studied the Bible while she was doing her Masters in the UK, and came close to believing. Soon after returning to China, through the help of Christian friends, she came through to a living faith in Jesus and was baptised. She also came home to her long‐standing boyfriend Chao. They had been together since high school, and he had been waiting for her return. But Chao was not a believer, and she had not really shared anything with him about her spiritual journey. Her Christian friends wanted her to break that relationship, but she felt that she could not do so after he had waited faithfully for her, Moreover, their families were expecting them to get married. So they did, and a year later they had a son. Xuemei goes to church when she can (her demanding job makes that difficult), and Chao is happy for her to go but does not join her. Xuemei’s relationship with her mother‐in‐
law (who lives with them) has been very difficult, but she has seen the Lord’s help with this and things have improved. But still there are big challenges in their family life, and about bringing up their son, as they do not share the most fundamental values.
1. There is a valuable series of studies (in Chinese and English) on singleness available at: http://www.seaturtles.org.uk/articles/
2. The image used with this story was originally posted to Flickr, was uploaded to Commons using Flickr upload bot on by KTo288. On that date, it was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the license indicated. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Resources in Chinese
- “Boy Meets Girl” (当男孩遇见女孩)(Joshua Harris), available from COCM Bookroom: http://bookroom.cocm.org.uk/
- “Holding Hands for a Lifetime” (牵手一世情), available from COCM bookroom or online at: http://cclw.net/soul/qsysq/index.html
- ‘Chinese Families for Christ’ organises courses in Chinese on marriage and family, see: http://www.cffc.org.uk/
- Chinese Christian website with a section of audio materials on marriage: http://www.fuyin.tv/chs/mp3.html
Going home is not what I thought it would be: The unique challenges faced by returnees
This article was written for the Mission Round Table journal by one of our Thriving Turtles team members and is a good overview of the problems faced by Chinese returnees. You can read and download the article here:
The theme for this edition of the Mission Round Table journal is “Diaspora Returnees” so you can look at the whole edition here:
In recent months, news articles have pointed out developments in censorship and communication in China, and I have been asked many times for advice on how to communicate with Chinese people, both here in Australia and in China. There is no easy answer to these questions, but let me try and lay out some of the known facts and then consider what options are available.
Mobile Phones are popular with Chinese
We should first note that Chinese people of all ages have embraced online communication and social media. China has one of the highest rates of mobile phone ownership in the world with 94.5% of the population owning at least one. Even middle aged and elderly people use their devices on a daily basis and mobile phones are conspicuously obvious in Chinese daily life.
One ‘app’ to rule them all
In Australia there are a large number of apps in use and you need to be proficient with several in order to manage your online life. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, eBay, Amazon, Uber, Paypal and Apple Pay are examples of this. In a similar way there are choices in China, but one app has become popular because of the way it provides most of these services in one simple to use app: WeChat. WeChat provides messaging, sharing, news, shopping, ridesharing and a cashless payment system that we could only dream of in Australia. When Apple threatened to pull Wechat from the iTunes store because it was crushing their Apple Pay app, the Chinese response was they could easily live without an iPhone, but they couldn’t live without WeChat – Apple quickly relented. Those involved in ministry to Chinese students in Australia know that they all use WeChat, and this is almost the only platform to use when communicating with them.
Three key issues with Chinese online communication
Like the Trojan horse, along with all this convenience comes the fact that it is now much easier for the government to monitor the lives of average people. Let’s consider what we know about the current situation:
1) Big brother is watching, and notices
It is common knowledge that for decades in China, the authorities have been monitoring and controlling all media and any voice that can be heard in society. Censorship is not new in China, it is only the scope that is changing. China intends to implement a system of monitoring and rating all its citizens and although this sounds very Orwellian, current technology means it’s possible. At a fundamental level China expects all aspects of society to serve the party and this includes social media. Xi Jin Ping recently stated “All media must love the party, protect the party and serve the party.” It is not a case of the Chinese government may be monitoring it’s population – we need to accept that this is the intention and current practice.
2) Some apps work and some don’t
It is helpful to realize that online tools and social media platforms fall into two categories: 1) Those who cooperate with government monitoring and allow full access to user data whenever request by authorities. These services continue to function in China; and 2) Those that do not allow monitoring. These platforms are blocked completely or choked so that the service is too slow to use. The goal of this is to push people towards the platforms that allow monitoring. In recent weeks the popular secure communications app “Whatsapp” has been blocked, and this has seen many people move to WeChat for their communication needs. It should also be noted that continuing to use blocked services by employing technology like a VPN can draw unhelpful attention and suspicion. It leads to the question – what do you have to hide?
3) Your online history will follow you – forever!
It is important to remember that apps like WeChat run through servers based inside China where all user data is stored ‘forever’. What you post or comment on today may not be a problem and may not draw an immediate response, but it is stored away in case it is needed at a later date. Most Chinese students are totally unaware of this and cannot see it as a problem. They have grown up during a prosperous time and have never been exposed to persecution or pressure from the government. They never experienced events like the Cultural Revolution and know little about the darker history of their country. Most don’t realize that some day in the future when they are applying for a position or opportunity that is important, then their file will be opened and examined carefully, so suddenly those things they did a long time ago will become very important. Even in Australia long term data storage means that not-so-smart posts from long ago can come back to haunt us. Recently an Australia political candidate discovered this when he was sacked for inappropriate Facebook posts he had made years before.
What advice can we give to Chinese students and those working with them?
1) Boldness versus unnecessary risks
We should remember that it is a normal part of the Christian life to suffer. The apostle Peter says we should not be surprised when we suffer but instead rejoice. He says it is a blessing to participate with Christ in suffering. However, he advises that we should avoid the suffering that comes from being a criminal or even just a meddler because there is no value in that. I think the application of this is to avoid unnecessary risks that come from inappropriate comments. There seems to be no good reason for Christians to publicly criticize China, her government and policies. Writing and commenting on sensitive matters is unlikely to make much change and is only going to bring unnecessary trouble for a believer. Yet, not all trouble can be avoided because at the end of the day a true Christian is one who trusts God for their future and is not ashamed of being identified as a disciple of Christ.
It is wise to be careful and more circumspect when publishing comments, pictures and videos online. It is worth carefully weighing up the positive and negative outcomes of any particular post before putting it online. It may not be a problem now, but how will it look in the future? Sometimes “less is more” when it comes to online posts. Just because we can publish something with a few clicks, doesn’t mean we should publish it. Praying for wisdom and waiting a few hours before posting would be helpful habits to develop.
3) Type of communication
It is important to realize that there is a difference between one-on-one or very small group communications and large group communications or posts to the general public. Large group chats and pages that are visited by many people will be more likely to be carefully monitored than individual communications between two people. Using WeChat to call a student friend in China to read the Bible together, pray and encourage them is probably not going to create a lot of trouble, but being identified as a student leader who manages and influences several groups of hundreds of others probably will be recorded for future reference. Recently the government has said that they will hold chat group moderators responsible for what is posted in their chat rooms. For this reason it seems that large group chats should be handled with a great deal of care.
When I first went to China in the early 90’s it took three weeks for a letter to come from home and a phone call cost dollars per minute. Now I can have a video call with a friend on the other side of the planet instantly and for free. Online technologies allow us to stay regularly connected with our friends even when they move away. Many students have shared with me how meaningful it is to have a friend in Australia keep contact with them when they first returned to China, and following-up with them until they have settled into a church in China. We should give thanks to God for this amazing provision and continue to do all we can to use it wisely in the service of His kingdom.
 Xinhua, ‘China’s Mobile Phone Users 94.5% of Population’, China Daily, 20 July 2015, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/tech/2015-07/20/content_21330773.htm.
 Jennifer Ruther, ‘Apple Pay Overpowered by Tencent’s WeChat Pay’, Bank Innovation, 29 August 2017, https://bankinnovation.net/2017/08/apple-pay-overpowered-by-tencents-wechat-pay/.
 David Bandurski, ‘The Great Hive of Propaganda’, China Media Project, 16 September 2017, http://chinamediaproject.org/2017/09/16/the-great-hive-of-propaganda/.
 Bandurski, ‘The Great Hive of Propaganda’.
 Isabel Dayman, ‘Xenophon Candidate Sacked over Controversial Photos with Waxworks’, ABC News, 7 October 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-10-07/xenophon-candidate-rhys-adams-sacked-over-facebook-photos/9026442.
 1 Peter 4:12-19
 Wikipedia, ‘Less Is More’, Wikipedia, 2 August 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Less_is_more&oldid=793579513.
 Bandurski, ‘The Great Hive of Propaganda’.
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.
We have pointed out that in order to thrive in China, Chinese returnees must be discipled as Chinese Christians who are prepared to live in a Chinese context. This is called contextualised discipleship. Below are links to two resources we have found that explain this important idea.
What is discipleship?
This 12 minute video from gotherefor.com shows Tony Payne from Matthias Media giving a good explanation of Christian discipleship.
What is contextualisation?
What is the importance of considering culture and contextualisation when doing ministry with Chinese? In this podcast Australian Sam Chan and American Jackson Wu discuss these issues . Note: this podcast talks about some complex issues so you may want to listen to it a few times in order to follow their arguments.
Stuart Bullington has been working with Chinese students in the US, Asia and the UK for more than 20 years. He suggests that students need to be prepared in three ways in order to succeed when they return to China[i]. Firstly, they need to be discipled as a Chinese believer (contextualized discipleship). Secondly, they need to receive specific training in order to understand the issues they will face on returning home and to develop coping strategies (pre-return training). Thirdly, they need to be introduced into networks of churches and other believers in China (networking). In this article we will consider the first of these – contextualized discipleship.
Discipleship is engaging with new believers in conversations about what it means to live as a Christian. It occurs with individuals, in small groups and in larger meetings. Discipleship includes prayer, Bible reading, discussions, singing, listening to teaching as well as opportunities to serve in various ways, all within the context of supportive relationships. Chinese students experience this in Australia, but in many cases the context and focus is ‘English speaking Australia’. ‘Contextualizing’ for these students needs to be discipling with the ‘China context’ in mind. It is vital that the students know how to live out their faith as Chinese Christians in China. They need to know how to be a follow of Jesus in their homes and communities in China, how to be an appropriate witness before their family, friends and society and how to relate and fellowship with Chinese believers who make up churches and fellowships in China. But – how can they do this if they are unfamiliar with the Chinese Bible, are uncomfortable praying in Chinese and can’t discuss issues of faith using Chinese language? It is a sad fact that many Chinese students discipled in English in Australia go home to find they are unable to express their faith in Chinese to parents and friends in a way they can understand, and they find it challenging to attend a Chinese church. This is the major reason they fail to connect with other believers in China and become isolated.
Chinese students are often less than willing to engage with Chinese Christianity while in Australia. They prefer to use English for Christian activities and this flows over to their personal reading and praying. They find the Chinese Bible is complicated and not as easy to pick up and read, and many Chinese genuinely find it easier to read the English Bible and will push back on suggestions to do some of their reading in Chinese. Unfortunately, many well-meaning student workers have accepted the student doing this – believing that it’s more important for the student to understand the text than for them to engage its content with their inner Chinese-self. As well as this, Chinese churches in Australia are generally conservative and traditional, and few would be ‘un-churched people friendly’ making it difficult for a Chinese student to feel comfortable attending. Busy Australian campus workers often don’t have resources to provide mother-tongue Bible study opportunities for international students. All this means that there is little chance of the student being encouraged to grow as a Christian in a Chinese context.
What can be done? Firstly, it requires a change in mindset for ministry workers. This may mean rethinking some basic ministry principles and it may mean the challenge of allowing ministry activities to happen in a language you don’t understand. Secondly, it means learning enough about Chinese language resources so you can equip your students with a Bible in their mother tongue. Bible apps on the phone make this easy. Thirdly, it means encouraging Chinese students to spend ‘some’ of their time in worship/study/ministry in Chinese. They don’t need to stop using the English Bible, or leave their campus ministry or church, but they should look for ways to spend some of their time each week studying the Chinese Bible, praying and discussing what they believe in a Chinese context. In your ministry you can encourage small group studies or prayer groups to use Chinese instead of English. You can use study materials that are bilingual and encourage them to read the Chinese version. There are links to some resources below.
When discipling, we need to keep the end in mind: what are we discipling or preparing them for? If their future context is in China, then we need to do all we can to prepare them for that context so they can connect to the Church and thrive in their faith.
- Information about Chinese Bible Apps
- Where to buy a Chinese Bible
- Which version of the Bible should I recommend
- Chinese and bilingual Bible study resources
[i] Bullington S., “Diaspora Ministries: A View from the Field: Adding to Church Growth in East Asia by Discipling the Diaspora.”
By David Xing, November 2016
In April 2016 Thriving Turtles conducted a survey amongst Chinese International students at four universities in Sydney: The University of NSW; The University of Sydney; The University of Science and Technology (UTS); and Macquarie University. The survey was targeted at Christian students who were recruited through on-campus Christian ministries of AFES FOCUS, Power to Change and Mandarin Bible Study groups.
Out of the 91 Chinese international students that completed the survey, 62 stated they were Christians. 23 were non-Christians and 6 were unsure. Only the responses from Christians were included in the analysis below.
48 students will graduate before 2017. Of these only 6 (13%) are planning to return to China with 28 (58%) saying they do not plan to return to China. 14 (29%) were unsure.
14 students will graduate in 2018 or later. At this time none of them plan to return to China after graduation. 10 (71%) plan to stay in Australia and 4 (29%) are uncertain.
This survey indicates that most Chinese Christian students do not intend to return to China upon completion of their studies. Out of the 62 Christians, only 6 (10%) stated they planed to return. 38 (61%) say they plan to stay in Australia and 18 (29%) are unsure (see table 1).
The data also showed that students were staying longer in Australia over and beyond the 3-5 years required to complete a tertiary degree. Upon completion of the degree, the data revealed that 24 students out of the 62 Christian students would have stayed more than 5 years in Australia (see table 2).
In any case, Australia is a unique case study compared to Chinese Christians in other countries. For example, it is much harder for international students to the UK to stay on after completing their studies. In comparison, Australia has several options that allow students to remain in the country for work or travel. Further research of current Australian visa and immigration policies may explain why Chinese families are choosing to send their children to Australia, not just for tertiary qualifications, but also for long-term residency.
The China Ministry of Education (MOE) estimates that, as of 2014, 75% (1) of Chinese students who have studied overseas return to China. So although our survey indicates most respondents prefer to stay in Australia, it seems that many of those are not actually able to remain and end up returning to China. The large difference in the number of those who plan to return (10%) and those who actually return (75%) suggests that many of those who return are not doing so willingly and likely lack appropriate preparation (emotional and spiritual) for their return.
The results of this survey seem to indicate that many Chinese Christian students prefer to stay in Australia after completing their studies. Understanding this preference for Australia as the ideal place to live and work shows the need to consider ways of motivating Christian students to consider the gospel needs of their homeland, to be willing to put aside their own desires for a comfortable life and to be willing to return to China with a missional vision to be a blessing their families, communities and nation.
(1) Song, L. (2016). Returnee Ministry at Home and Abroad. ChinaSource Quarterly, 18(3). Retrieved from https://chinasource.org//resource-library/articles/returnee-ministry-at-home-and-abroad
|Graduate 2017 (48 people)||Graduate 2018 and after (14 people)|
|Plan to return to China||6||0|
|Plan to stay in Australia||28||10|
|Years in Australia||Christians||Non-Christians||Unsure|
In September 2016 the China Source Quarterly Journal was devoted to the issue of helping Chinese Returnees thrive as Christians after returning to China.
Living in another country can be a life-changing experience. The longer the stay and the greater the immersion into that country’s social life, the deeper and more lasting the effects. Adapting to the new culture, making foreign friends, learning a new set of behaviors, and speaking in a foreign language shape the identity and values of sojourners in ways that can never be undone.
The changes that overseas sojourners experience may go beyond the necessary adaptation to a new language and culture; for many, the experience creates an openness to new ideas, new values, and even a new way of understanding life.
When the time finally comes to return home, the newly-arriving returnees often discover that the behaviors, identity, tastes, and values they acquired overseas do not transfer easily into the home culture. Many of the changes they experienced, including some that are highly valued, must now be reversed for the sake of fitting in.
Now what if, among the many changes experienced in a foreign land, some of the sojourners have converted to the Christian faith? This is certainly the case for thousands of Chinese students and scholars who have studied abroad over the past three decades. For those yet to return, how will their faith, acquired while overseas, and often learned from Westerners in a foreign language, be brought home to become part of their daily life in China? Will these new believers, as returnees, view their new faith as one of the changes that “must now be reversed for the sake of fitting in”? Or will they discover how to be both Chinese and Christian, finding their places of service in the churches of China, perhaps via returnee fellowships made up of others who, like themselves, came to faith while studying abroad?
You can read all the articles here. We’d like to draw your attention to the following articles that are particularly helpful:
This article is a good summary of many of the issues that Chinese Returnees face.
by Henry E. T.
This articles looks at the challenges for Returnees in committing to a Church when they return to China.