Becoming “Chinese”: The Problem of Identity in Missions

This post is the final in a three-part series. Make sure to catch up on the first and second posts!

In China, I have learned that I am especially indistinct. I am an Asian American and on most days, I am able to walk the streets of China as an insider because I don’t look any different than the masses. As I pass by, the fruit cart lady will keep shouting out the day’s deals, the newsstand guy will keep throwing watermelon seed shells on the ground, and customers of the local noodle shop will keep focusing on the steaming bowls in front of them. But, the veneer of me being a native Chinese person is fragile and so easily pierced. All I need to do is speak and my improper tonal inflections give me away. Similarly, the mere presence of my three children at my side causes the hustle and bustle around us to cease and the attention to fall conspicuously on us. The one-child policy makes two children rare, and three a spectacle – a clear reason to doubt their initial impression of me as a native Chinese person.

There is a great tendency here to stare at the uncommon. I understand the curiosity that locals have because they live in a land where homogeneity is genetic (e.g., black hair, brown eyes) and deviation from norms and standards is mostly discouraged. I have not even lived in this country for very long, but I already feel the urge to stare at the anomalous. On one occasion, I was walking along a small side street when I noticed a large group of Germans walking towards me. I chuckled as I also observed various local Chinese people lock their gaze on the fair-haired and relatively tall group of outsiders, who were doing their best to pretend to not notice. As the Germans approached, I found myself wondering, what was a group of Germans doing in this part of the city anyway, away from the tourist attractions? They looked really out of place. I gawked intently at them trying to understand why the locals tend to stare so much. It only took a few moments for me to recognize the irony.

The phenomenon of staring in China accentuates some important truths about cross-cultural missions in China. Chinese have an extremely strong sense of the indigenous and the alien, and aliens are treated very differently. It is notoriously difficult to gain access to the genuine affections of the Chinese. Eastern hospitality, face-saving tendencies, and strong familial bonds can make genuine, mutual friendship with Chinese people very difficult for foreigners. Adding to the challenge is the general mistrust of foreigners felt by many Chinese. The result is that relational barriers tend to be quite high. For all of these reasons, the success of a missionary’s life and ministry in China critically depends on establishing a credible identity that facilitates identification with, not separation from, the people in his or her host community. The hope is that one can pass through the walls, which Chinese are very adept at building.

When meeting someone new, the first and the most-frequent questions I am asked have to do with my identity and role in China. You are American? Why have you moved to China? Where do you work? For traditional missionaries who are financially supported by churches and individuals, forthright answers to these questions can be quite challenging. But, without these honest and direct answers, it can feel near impossible to establish friendships with neighbors or to earn the trust of the government. The government and many citizens feel resentment towards foreigners because of both real and perceived abuses, which has caused them to lose face before the world. People also tend to be very aware of their place in the social hierarchy. Failure to gain the government’s trust and to find one’s place in Chinese society, at best, means being relegated to the “strange foreigner” social status. At worst, it means being scrutinized as a spy, a terrorist, or a missionary.

Indeed being labeled as a missionary in this country can place you into the same category as spies and terrorists. And, to be honest the traditional practices of well-intentioned, Jesus-loving Christians has not done a lot to garner trust from the Chinese, who often see missionaries as being part of foreign efforts to subvert the government of this country. As wrong as the ruling officials might be about the intentions of missionaries and their sending organizations, consider two common identities adopted by many of our brothers and sisters, which have not helped our cause.

  • A middle-aged, jobless university student that has studied foreign language in a non-degree bearing program for over four years, but still can not speak Mandarin with appreciable fluency.

  • The owner of a small-business, which has no physical location, no employees, no obvious product or service, and rarely requires the owner to actually work.

At the same time, maintaining these kinds of identities is incredibly depleting for the missionary, who experiences a fundamental anxiety about living in two worlds with two different identities. To our sending organizations we would be known as missionaries. But, in our cross-cultural ministry contexts, we would be educators, business people, relief workers, or some other kinds of tentmaker. Our great fears are that someone in our sending world will inadvertently call us out as missionaries, or that someone in our cross-cultural ministry context will find us to be dishonest.

Rick Love describes well the task before modern Christian laborers (note I did not use the word “missionary”) and his description is relevant for those of us in China. In his article, Blessing the Nations in the 21st Century: A 3D Approach to Apostolic Ministry, Love states that “an integrated identity worth living for means that we have an alignment between our motivation, our tent-making role, our personal gifting, and our apostolic calling.” In other words, the call is to establish an integrated identity. And this is not an easy thing. It means bridging the sacred and the secular, the non-profit and the for-profit, one’s professional life and his spiritual life, time in ministry and time at work, theological development and professional development. And the list goes on.


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How can you be a good partner to modern Christian laborers in China, who are wrestling with establishing their identities?

  • Recognize the interconnected world in which we now live. Laborers in China are trying hard to integrate their life as a “missionary” and as a “professional.” Be careful on social media to not merely label them as a “missionary” or their work as “missions” as this can undue some of the work that they have accomplished.

  • Be open-minded to new models of business and missions. Integrating our individual identities means that we will also need to integrate the structures and organizations that are supporting us. Can a church partner with a Kingdom-oriented, for-profit business? Can our sending agencies accommodate us if we are partly generating income from a business or career? These are issues that we are confronting and that we find often prevent us from partnering with otherwise significant individuals and organizations.

  • Be patient and encouraging with us as we struggle with identity issues and those issues related to identity. We may go through seasons of ineffectiveness as we feel less bold to share the gospel because of an absence of social connectedness with our host community. Similarly, we may not achieve the productivity in our integrated role that others might expect based on the traditional metrics of a dedicated business or a dedicated ministry.

  • Be sensitive to adopt the terminology we use to describe ourselves and our work. Some words have lost their positive connotation, if such ever existed, in our context. We might not be “sharing the gospel,” but we might be “having conversations about truth and worldview.” This is not an attempt to deceive anyone, but rather an attempt to be sensitive to those that we are trying to love and befriend.

Please pray for Christian laborers in China who are seeking to establish an identity that will enable the building of relationships with native Chinese people. Just as the Apostle Paul states in 1Corinthians 9:22, may we become all things to all people, that by all means we might save some. Identification is the road to gospel proclamation and facilitates the task of creating communication and communion with the Chinese.*

* From Readings in Missionary Anthropology II by William Rayburn.

 

Chunsun (meaning “spring bamboo”) is a collective pseudonym for writers ministering in sensitive situations to Chinese people. The author of this post lives in China and serves in supporting and strengthening the Chinese house church.

 

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Further Reading

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Qingdao: How to Pray
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Qingdao: Locals and Outsiders
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Qingdao: Good Soil for the Gospel
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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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