Heaping Plates of Grace: Returning from China to the United States

Perhaps you’ve worked and lived overseas and were required to attend a debriefing session. It’s very possible you heard a story that goes something like this: “I went to the grocery store to pick up cereal, but when I got to the cereal aisle, I was totally overwhelmed with all the choices. I just had to sit down and cry!” Not to belittle those who have experienced these emotions, but when I heard this story at my own debriefing a few days before returning home, my exact thought was, “HA! Tears of joy, maybe.”
I had just spent a year in Sichuan, China, as a university teacher and, for the most part, loved it. From what I’ve seen and heard, spending a single year in a country seems to be somewhat of a gamble, because if things start out terrible, there is not much time to turn it around. My coin flip ended happily. I lived on campus with my fun and functional team, which enabled us to interact with our students frequently. My classes were well behaved and the subject (oral English) relatively simple to plan. I became friends with students and visited their hometowns, along with other major cities in China. I got to constantly enjoy spicy food and become pals with the restaurant owners. My teammate and I even had the opportunity to lead a study on the Word for our students. Some of them came to know Christ, and all of them heard things about Christ they never knew before. All in all, it was a very positive experience, but I was also very excited to come home and enjoy some of the aforementioned cereal benefits.

That incredulous thought from my debriefing session describes my first days back from China. With my eternally patient mother as my witness, I positively frolicked down the cereal aisle. I ran from sample to sample at Sam’s Club, almost fainted for joy at the smell of Target, and ate guacamole with a spoon. Was I a little concerned that I was a heartless, shallow ingrate? Partially, but I was also pretty confident in the fact that everyone transitions back to their home culture differently, and some of us just have a deep, abiding love for a certain man by the name of Cap’n Crunch. I was riding the high of joyful reunions with friends and food.

However, as you may have guessed, this was only what we like to call, “The Honeymoon Period.” Not to say that I don’t still have a great relationship with America. No, I am still fully enjoying pretzels, being one of a million blondes, and my ability to eavesdrop on conversations as much as ever. America and I, we will be fully committed to each other for many years to come. But I now have quite a different relationship with the Christian culture of the United States. And that relationship has conflict brewing under the surface.

“Culture shock” doesn’t really describe how I feel. Yes, America is very materialistic, but China is too. Nor did my return from China include the jarring realization of the disparity of wealth that Westerners often experience when they visit less developed countries. To be honest, I don’t really think of America as a Christian nation, and therefore my standards for American culture (and Chinese culture) are pretty low. But I do have higher standards for the Christian community of America, and so “Christian culture shock,” is a more apt description of what I’ve experienced after my return.

In China, almost every American Christian I knew was there with the specific intent to share the Gospel. We prayed about it, we talked about it, we took classes about it. I didn’t have to search for purpose – it was right there in front of me! The distractions of status, achievements, appearance, and wealth were conveniently absent for the most part. It’s kind of boring to play the comparison game when you’re all making money below the American poverty line and wearing jeans that constantly sag because you don’t have a dryer. Everybody loses. Everybody wins.

Reenter returning missionary into the American church (“church” being Christian friends, family, or the physical church building) and this is where I started to feel the jarring disparity. This is where I started to feel the tension in the relationship. So, being the emotionally aware adult that I am, I adopted the tried and true policy of passive-aggression.

I struggle with being passive-aggressive in other areas of my life, so it shouldn’t really surprise me that I would do this with collective bodies as well as actual people. Passive-aggressiveness, as you may have heard, is when you can’t really verbalize how you are feeling about the material mindset of many Christians you meet, so you lash out by telling people in a snotty voice how dumb you think it is that your church spent thousands of dollars remodeling its fancy bathroom into a fancier bathroom while you were away. It’s when you can see – or you think you can see – that the Christians around you don’t find their identity in Christ, but rather in clearance sales, Instagram-ready food, salaries, and fancy beer.

Here is the great thing about passive-aggression: you get to feel righteously indignant and morally superior, and then conveniently act like you don’t have to do anything about it. This is why I use it for so many life situations. However, side effects may include: building resentment, conflict, judgmental pride, and the solving of absolutely no problems whatsoever.

When I realized I was feeling this way, I asked myself, “Well, now what?” When you realize you are acting this way towards a person, you go to that person, ask for forgiveness, and try to explain how you feel. But this becomes difficult when your anger is directed at a thousand people, most of whom are vague, faceless, or imagined.

But why am I angry? What’s going on here? I’ve had to sit and think about that for a while.


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The truth is that I’m scared. One reason I loved my Christian community in China was the ever-present encouragement to live my life intentionally. It is very, very easy to focus on evangelism when everyone else focused on it as well. It’s easy to do things that scare you when your neighbor is being bold right along with you. Accountability isn’t a bi-weekly appointment; it’s a way of life. Before China, evangelism had never been a focus, or even a hobby, of my life. It was more like something I ran away from in terror.

So, in my head, the logic went like this:

Life before China – I’m similar to those around me. I don’t deliberately seek out the lost.

Life during China – I’m similar to those around me. I deliberately seek out the lost.

Life after China – I’m not sure if I’m similar to those around me. And if the people around me aren’t seeking out the lost, how am I not going to slip right back into my old patterns and be just like them? I need these people to support me, because I cannot do this myself, and I am going to fail.

And here we have come to the heart of the matter concerning my relationship with American Christianity – the crippling fear of failure due to some truly twisted logic. This logic is rooted in three big lies. The first lie is that I am the only Christian around who wants to intentionally share the love that I’ve received. This is so terribly self-absorbed and prideful that it’s embarrassing to admit. The truth is that there is grace; God provides others to labor with us. The second lie is that my ability to explain God’s story and love had anything to do with me or the people who were around me. The truth is that grace is responsible for all my good works. The third lie is that my performance in the area of evangelism is what solidifies God’s love for me. This also explains a lot of my anger; I felt like God was going to hold me to a standard without the resources to meet it. The truth is that grace has already met the standard and provides me with every resource I need.

The truth is grace. Grace brought me to China, grace brought me back, and grace can sustain me anywhere. There are heaping plates – American-sized plates – of grace for you and me and the American church. There is no shortage of provision or forgiveness. Grace is what makes it possible for me to live in China, possible for me to live in America, possible for me to live.

 

Lisa Speckhard comes from Cottage Grove, Minnesota, and is a graduate of Trinity International University. She recently spent a year teaching English in Sichuan, China, and will be starting graduate school to pursue a degree in journalism in the fall. You can follow her personal blog at The Beautiful Place.

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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 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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