Engaging China Across Asian Borders

Editor’s note: This week we highlight writers whose family backgrounds are Chinese. As they share their experiences growing up and testimonies of God’s work in their lives, they also discuss God’s calling to befriend Mainland Chinese. As they openly and honestly share the struggles and goodness they have encountered while working through questions of identity, family, and community, we hope you are encouraged. We live in an amazing time of diversity and cross-cultural interaction, for “…he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” (Acts 17:26) 

Joe Pan lives with his wife in London and ministers at St. Helen’s Bishopgate to Chinese working in business and finance.

“You’re so weird!” This isn’t a comment I am unfamiliar with, but in this context it caught me by surprise. “Why?” I asked. “You’re Scottish and you’re Chinese!” was the follow up. I guess I had always known this is a bit of a weird combination, but sitting with a French-speaking, Canadian-born, Chinese girl and a Spanish-speaking, Honduran-born, Chinese girl I definitely felt like I was the least weird. We had a good laugh but didn’t come to a consensus on who actually was the most weird out of the three of us.

Growing up in Scotland, one phrase I often heard my parents talking about was “identity crisis.” As they talked with their friends it was clear that they were worried about whether their kids would suffer from an identity crisis of not knowing where home really was, of not knowing who we really were. Would we appeal to our nationality or to our ethnicity?

If I’m honest, those sorts of questions were really easy for me to answer while growing up. I had no identity crisis. I was definitely Scottish and proud of it. I was kilt-wearing and English-hating just like the rest of my friends! Scotland was my home. Despite being repeatedly told that I was Chinese, despite having to go to Chinese school on Saturdays when all my friends were out having fun, despite being told that we must speak Chinese when at home, I didn’t grow up considering myself Chinese at all.

Being part of a Chinese church did not help me feel Chinese either. If anything it skewed my understanding of Christianity as I grew up thinking only Chinese people were Christians! Church was also where I first encountered Mainland Chinese. My siblings and I used to look down on the Mainland Chinese scholars who came to visit the church and our home. They seemed so different to us. Different manners, different dress, different language. When I left Scotland to go to university, one of the things I was most looking forward to was being able to go to a non-Chinese church!

Looking back, if I was God, I would be the last person I would choose to teach the Bible in Mandarin to Chinese people. I think my parents would wholeheartedly agree! So how did I actually end up in this position?

University was a life-changing time for me. Firstly and most importantly, it was during this time that I learned what my real identity was. Going to a Bible-teaching church and having a couple of older Christian men read the Bible one-to-one with me really helped me get clear on the gospel. As I got clear on the gospel, I became much clearer on my identity. I began to grasp that if I followed Jesus Christ as my Lord then being a Christian was my primary identity. Being ethnically Chinese or nationally Scottish wasn’t how I should define myself.

Secondly, my time at university helped me begin to feel really Chinese and see the opportunity to share the gospel with Chinese people. University was the first time that I met Mainland Chinese who were my own age. In fact, my first conversation with a Mainland Chinese guy ended up with me explaining the gospel. He had been given a Bible by his English teacher in Beijing and wanted someone to explain it to him. As I got to know him better, I realized that he wasn’t that different to me. We were on the same course, we liked watching football together, and we even liked the same music. This really challenged my attitude to people from Mainland China.

That summer I signed up for a short-term English teaching trip to Chengdu and my understanding of my own identity was transformed. Being accepted by the students as one of their own, enjoying some spectacular food, and not being looked at as a foreigner (like the rest of my team) really helped me to feel more Chinese than ever before. What frustrated me about the trip was my inability to explain the gospel to my students in Chinese.

On my return from China, I signed up to study Mandarin and was involved for the rest of my time at university with reaching international students with the gospel. I felt more committed than ever before to making Jesus known to Mainland Chinese.

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Moving away from university to start my first job seemed to take me away from work with Chinese people, but to my surprise I discovered that my church, despite not being a Chinese church, had a dedicated ministry to Mainland Chinese. This gave me the opportunity to lead a Bible study group in Mandarin for the first time in my life – probably the most painful thing I have ever done! Then having the opportunity to preach in Mandarin really opened my eyes to the possibility of spending my life teaching the Bible to Chinese people.

Around this time, I was strongly encouraged by church leaders to consider how I could maximize the resources God had given me for the sake of the gospel. I was quickly convicted both of the lack of Bible teachers across the world and of the opportunity I had as a Scottish-born Chinese to teach the Bible to Mainland Chinese here in the UK. I ended up deciding to leave my job to spend a few years training in how to understand and teach the Bible.

Since then, I have been involved with teaching the Bible primarily in Mandarin to Mainland Chinese working in the UK. Our prayer is to see Mainland Chinese reached with the good news of Jesus Christ, built up in their faith and sent out as gospel partners whether in the UK or back to China. We have been given such a wonderful opportunity to train leaders for the church in China while they are in the UK for a few years.

Over the years, it has been a real joy to see how God has been at work in the lives of Chinese men and women in the UK. Seeing people become Christians and then grow in their understanding of the gospel such that they are able to teach and disciple others is a privilege!

On a personal level, I’ve found that being ethnically Chinese has certainly helped build rapport with Chinese people quickly. Despite growing up in the UK, I’ve found that since my parents held tightly to Chinese culture and values I have many similar experiences to the people I meet.

But whilst there have been many highlights, being ethnically Chinese has brought about personal challenges too. In my experience, I’ve found that Chinese people seem to be less forgiving of my language ability given I am Chinese looking. This puts an added pressure on sermon and Bible study preparation. Some days I will find myself thinking, “Wouldn’t it be much easier, quicker, and clearer if I just taught the Bible in English?” It’s a challenge to remind myself that the power is in the word of God and the Holy Spirit’s work, and not in my own ability!

Over the years, I have gradually come to accept that I will never be totally accepted as an insider. Despite looking Chinese and being born into a fairly traditional Chinese family, the fact that I am in so many ways Scottish is strange and makes me different. This will often feel uncomfortable, but what helps me to persevere is asking myself, “How can I maximize the resources God has given me for the sake of the gospel?” The reality is, even if I will never be an insider and even if my language will never be flawless, there are not many people being trained to teach the Bible faithfully in Mandarin to Chinese people.

“You’re so weird! You’re Scottish and you’re Chinese!” It really is a strange combination and it hasn’t been easy to come to terms with. But from not feeling Chinese at all and wanting to run away from the Chinese church, I find myself now committing my life to serving Chinese people by teaching them of the Lord Jesus. Why? Because the Lord taught me that my identity is found in Christ, not in ethnicity or nationality and the call of Jesus is to maximize the gifts he has given me for the sake of the gospel. 

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Further Reading

Witness In Persecution: Heart Struggle
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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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