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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How I Prayed For Instruction
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God's Love in Trials: A Letter of Encouragement
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