How I Have Been Shaped By China

Jeff Kyle first went to China in the summer of 2004 and has been working with the China Partnership since graduating from Covenant College in 2006. He is passionate about US churches developing a global-local missions strategy. Jeff, his wife, Mary Elizabeth,  and their new son live in New York City.

Almost a third of my life has been spent working with China and around Chinese people. Other than my wife, nothing has influenced my adult life more than China. It is challenging to list how China has shaped my life, but I will attempt to list a couple of the most significant ways.

Chinese beautifully demonstrate Biblical hospitality.

I aspire to be hospitable like Chinese people. Chinese hospitality stands in stark contrast to the ways Western people are more individualistic and care for the self first.

One time I was invited home to a Chinese friend’s hometown. His family treated me so kindly – from siblings to his parents, relatives, and grandparents. I was treated to all of their favorite foods and taken to their favorite places. They took so much pride in their town and wanted me to experience it. Another time my American friends and I were invited to the hometown outside our large city of a storeowner near our university. He did not have a lot of money, but he threw a feast for us. He was thrilled to introduce his foreign friends to family and friends.

This stands in contrast to Americans, something I sadly recently learned in my own life. Last week I welcomed three pastors from China for meetings in NYC. We mere scheduled to meet for two hours and ended up meeting for almost five. I asked them afterwards what their plans were and they said they were going to walk around and eat dinner before driving back from the city. I should have planned to have dinner with them and show them around after the meeting, but I had already made other plans. Chinese would have done so much more. This recent experience showed me how I cared more about having an effective meeting than about how I could welcome them to my country and city, offering hospitality.

Chinese are cheerful givers.

Chinese care about their friendships and express it through giving. When I lived in China, friends would come back from visiting their hometowns and would bring me a local treat or gift. Even when I hosted the three Chinese pastors last week, they brought me calligraphy from a local artist that was actually quite expensive. They brought a gift for me in their suitcases when I probably would have packed more clothes or things for my own benefit.

I have been so touched by constant self-sacrifice and gift-giving on behalf of Chinese friends and Chinese co-workers over the years. I aspire to be a better gift-giver because of their generosity, and I wish to become a better gift-receiver as well.

Chinese have showed me how the Holy Spirit is active and that prayer is a gift.

Though the American church is often characterized by a thirst for knowledge and for being correct with theology, we often talk about God the Father and God the Son, but forget to talk about the Holy Spirit. Chinese pray to the Holy Spirit and actively rely on him for their spiritual and daily nourishment. My boss is so quick to pray in almost any moment or conversation. Living in China I prayed for sensitivity to the Spirit and have seen God reveal himself in beautiful ways over the years. The intentionality to pray in any and every situation is inspiriting and comforting, and the realization that God cares about our every single need, and that our prayers are a sweet fragrance before the throne of God. I love how Chinese value prayer, and I want to be a more prayerful person because of their example.

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There is no such thing as a “bad China” day. 

It is very easy for a person living in China to say they had a bad China day – meaning Chinese culture or people were too difficult to deal with or they missed the way things are done in the US. The thing is – Chinese people and Chinese culture are different, very different. We need to have the attitude of a student of society and people, and realize that if we have a challenging day in China, it has more to do with our own idols and desire for things to be done the way we think they should. I don’t hear Americans in the US say, “I had a bad America day,” and blame American culture.

We need to ask why people do the things they do, learn to appreciate their customs, and imitate when possible. Americans often dislike public transportation in China because Chinese do not believe in personal space. Americans love our personal space. It is not uncommon to travel on a train in China and have a Chinese person stand right by you in the isle listening to and staring at you. They are curious about English and interested in watching. So do the same. You will often find Chinese playing card games on trains in China. Stand in the isle by them and watch. That is how I first learned one of my favorite card games, Kill the Landlord, by watching people on a train (my Chinese was so bad I later asked a friend to explain it to me).

When you are able to learn why Chinese do what they do, especially the things that might frustrate or test you, it is easier to appreciate them rather than see them as “other” or “different.”

As a Christian, people listen to what you say and watch what you do.

When I was a teenager and becoming a young adult, I knew that as a Christian your words and actions are important. I have learned so much about this from Chinese people, especially from non-Christian Chinese. They often want to improve their English and therefore their listening ability is greatly enhanced. I have had numerous instances when Chinese came to me after hearing me say something and ask a question to hear me elaborate more. Being curious is a tremendous quality to have. One of my most memorable memories in China came from learning how God can use even the smallest act of kindness and kind words to significantly impact a person’s life.

When I was in China my Sophomore year of college, there was teacher assistant in our program who had been a student in the same program four years before. As we got to know her, she started whistling, humming, singing “Amazing Grace.” So we were really curious about how she knew about “Amazing Grace,” and she said that her teacher had given it to her four years before. So over the course of the next four weeks we interacted with her, and hung out with her. During the last week she came into the teacher’s office to drop off some books. I just asked her, “Mia, why do you like Amazing Grace?” She replied, “I like how it sounds.” I asked if she knew what it means and she said no. I asked if she would like for me to explain it to her and her eyes lit up.

Over the course of two hours, we just sat and opened the scriptures, and talked about God. One of the things her teacher also told her was to seek the truth and you will find it. After that, for four years she had had no Christian presence in her life other than the words, “Seek the truth and you will find it,” and the words to “Amazing Grace.” She had no idea what they meant. But she said she had been constantly looking and seeking to know what the truth was, and she was so happy that I could tell her what the truth was. So she became a Christian that night, and her friend became a Christian the next day.

While that is a significant and meaningful story, what touched me the most was coming back to the States and tracking down her teacher. I only knew her first name. I found her phone number of from the little information I had. I was able to talk to that teacher and ask her how her summer had been four years earlier. She said it was one of the worst summers of her life. She had prayed that she would touch her students and have an impact, and share the gospel. She said that her students barely knew English and she never shared Christ with them, and it wasn’t a success. I was able to tell her that her small seeds of faithfulness, such as saying to seek the truth and you will find it, the words to “Amazing Grace,” and loving her students brought about fruit years down the road.

That experience taught me that your words really do matter, and your actions can have tremendous impact on someone’s life. All you have to do is be a faithful presence in other people’s lives and care about them. 

You can show a Chinese person honor and respect by doing small things.

I read a book on showing respect to Chinese people before moving to China. It was more of a book for people with business interests in China but I learned so much from it that has helped me love and care for Chinese people over the years. And people should not be robotic in the following things, but after a while they become second nature.

 Constantly fill up their glass with hot water or tea.

 Proactively take their bowl when rice appears and scoop rice into it, passing their bowl back with both hands.

 While eating, encourage them to eat more. Chinese often will say “eat” in Chinese, so you should do it back.

 If you are sharing dishes, serve them food by turning your chopsticks backwards (so you are not touching the food with the part that has touched you mouth) and serve them a couple of pieces from a plate.

 Find a way to pay for the meal without making a scene. Go to the bathroom towards the end of the meal and ask for the check and pay.

It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to serve the Chinese church over the past ten years. I cannot imagine what my life would be like without the experiences and friendships I have developed over the years. I encourage any church in the US or Western world to find a way to reach out to Chinese people locally because there is so much you can learn from offering biblical hospitality to people who are strangers in a foreign land. Just as I was a foreigner in China and was constantly greeted with biblical hospitality, we have that opportunity in the US – to offer hospitality and love the Chinese among us.

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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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