I’ve been in a contemplative mood recently. Being in grad school and going through major job changes has helped me reflect on what God has been doing in my life, and if you know me at all, you know that China has been a major part of it. I wrote this piece for the China Partnership blog, which I edit and you should totally check out, and I’m reposting it here since it connects with everything else I’ve been processing!
I first went to China almost ten years ago. I could never have predicted at the time what a difference that trip would make in my life. My first contact with the country was based mostly off of a whim, and my friends and family were generally surprised by my new interest. I quickly found myself having to get used to the question, "Why China?"
But God was preparing me for a change. A few years earlier, I had lived in Europe for a short period of time. It was a difficult experience and when I returned to the United States, I swore never to live overseas again. My only desire was to find comfort on my own shores and stay there forever. But by my sophomore year at a small Christian college, I realized I was woefully unaware of what it meant to share my faith. I had very little experiential knowledge of what evangelism meant and I wanted to find a way to learn. It was time to get out of the bubble and learn to share life with people who had no knowledge of Christ.
During that same time, my father witnessed one of his Chinese graduate students profess faith and be baptized. I didn't know her very well, but we interacted when I was home on school breaks. One summer, her parents came to visit and they took us to eat at a local Chinese restaurant. I abhorred Chinese food in those days and begrudged getting dragged along to dinner with a bunch of people I didn't know and half of whom couldn't speak English.
But something clicked that night. It was the most authentic Chinese restaurant I had been to and even though I still didn't really like the food, I was intrigued. Some inborn sense of adventure was stoked and visions of myself climbing the Great Wall floated before my eyes. I look back on it now as a vain desire, but I really wanted to say I had seen the famous ancient wonder of the world.
What I remember most about that evening, though, was the fellowship we experienced. The student's parents could only communicate with us through their daughter's interpretation, but I still remember our shared laughter and I can see their smiles in my mind. We had so much fun telling stories and learning about each other's worlds that all of the sudden I wanted to see their reality for myself. In an evening's blink of an eye, I realized there was a vast world I knew absolutely nothing about and my curiosity was awakened.
Thankfully, a group of students ahead of me in school had just spent the summer teaching English in China and when I learned of their experiences, it all clicked. I signed up to go with the same program a year later, and God has used China ever since to grow and challenge me in important ways.
That first trip started a series of changes in my life for which I am truly grateful. One of my biggest struggles in life has been the need to seek out people’s approval. I like people to like me and though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can be quite crippling if and when you’re not receiving constant approval. In God’s great wisdom, though, living cross-culturally and working in evangelism have a remarkable way of teaching a person not to worry about what people think of you.
This is perhaps the one way in which I am most indebted to China – it has been God’s primary tool in my life to teach me to care more about what he thinks of me than what others think. Most of my Chinese friends tell me that they find living in America to be an incredibly freeing experience. The same was true for me in reverse - my experiences in China were accompanied by a real personal freedom. Of course, people can discuss and debate the differences between the two countries, but apart from all political and social realities, it remains true that any expat living outside of their own cultural context feels a certain degree of freedom. Expats live apart from the norms in which they were raised, but they never quite fit into the new ones surrounding them, so they often experience a powerful time of living between the lines. For me, this reality gave me space to get to know myself apart from what I thought people wanted of me. Sometimes life in China felt like a space and time in which only God’s eyes were upon me and no one else’s. I tried new things and interacted with people in new ways. I lived only in the light of God’s grace.
In the midst of such freedom, I learned about evangelism. If there is any one thing I have learned about evangelism, it is that the primary hindrance to my faithfulness in it is fear. It is not easy for a people-pleaser to look someone in the eyes and confess that, yes, I do in fact believe in God; I do in fact believe in sin; and I do in fact believe Jesus rose from the dead and will come again to claim his children and renew the world. The more I shared my beliefs with atheist Chinese friends, the more I realized two things: I could hear the absurdity of what I believed apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, and I became even more convinced of its truth. As a result, sharing the gospel with my Chinese friends led me to a space where I could drop my need for approval – I was already culturally crazy in my friends' eyes, so why not also be spiritually crazy?
Because of my experiences with China, I have come to know the gospel better. Having to overcome myself, and having to think about and explain the gospel to a people so very different from me and my cultural context has caused me to think long and hard about what I actually believe. Learning to discuss the gospel apart from my personal context has helped me to not only start to understand the gospel in the Chinese context, but also in my own. Engaging the gospel across cultural contexts has helped me ask what the heart of the gospel truly is, and why it speaks to all people everywhere.
And this has opened my eyes in so many ways. Having lived in China and having worked with overseas Chinese for as long as I have, my view of the world is simply larger. Like so many Americans, my knowledge of and interest in international life was largely shaped by Western interests before encountering China. Ten years ago, "the East" was an exotic place that was in my mind, quite frankly, strange. It seemed like there were no reference points between my culture and Chinese culture, and it wasn’t until after years of interaction with Chinese friends that those feelings started to dissipate.
But they have started to dissipate, and in return, I have found that the extent to which the feelings of strangeness recede, that is the extent to which my world has grown. The more familiar China has grown to me, the more I have come to see the world as a complex place. Living cross-culturally, out of my own context, gave me a freedom in Christ to stop fearing people; but growing in my knowledge of China has taught me to see the beauty there is in God’s world, trusting that what might initially feel strange can eventually reveal the complexity of our shared Creator.