ChinaSource’s Joann Pittman interviewed “Tim,” a Zimbabwean international student in China. She asked him to reflect on his experiences as an African living in China, as well as his thoughts and advice for Chinese Christians who wish to share the gospel with Africans living in their country.
JP: On a personal level, can you describe your experience as an African in China?
Tim: My experiences in China as an African student have been exciting and at the same time challenging. I have found Chinese culture very interesting because there are so many aspects that are different from African culture: these include holidays, beliefs, and ways of thinking. Many Chinese people tend to be kindhearted towards foreigners although there are some who tend to feel some discomfort when they encounter an African.
Being able to speak Chinese has, in many ways, helped me to appreciate China more as it allows me to dig deeper into why Chinese people think and behave the way they do. I have made some great Chinese friends as well as international friends which have enriched my experience.
China has also offered me opportunities to learn about other cultures through its growing international community. I found a great church which has helped me grow and has taught me how to reach out to others with the gospel. In many ways, my experiences in China have helped me grow.
JP: What are some key cultural differences between Chinese and Africans and how do these affect relationships?
Tim: Relationships: In African culture, relationships between people are considered crucial and usually are not based on what one possesses or what one has to offer to the other person since it is believed that every person always has something to offer society. People are expected to offer help to one another without expecting immediate recompense. It is very common in Africa to have people who have not known each other for a long term share their problems with each other and help one another find solutions. Being willing to share possessions or ideas and discuss them with others is seen as the key to relationships, not merely what one can offer.
In Chinese culture however, relationships are usually based on what one has to offer. If one is offered help there is an expectation on the other end to reciprocate. If one does not benefit from the relationship then there is no need to continue in that relationship. There is a belief, however, that a relationship should not be easily broken.
Hospitality: In African culture, hospitality is a virtue. Africans are taught to warmly welcome strangers, but there is an expectation on the guest to follow the rules and not take advantage of the host. In Chinese culture, however, there is a tendency towards suspicion when it comes to welcoming strangers with whom relationships have not been established.
Religion and beliefs: Religion is considered to be an integral part of African culture and the basis of morality; hence, its incorporation into institutions. It is considered very strange if one does not believe in a supreme being. In Chinese culture, however, it is common for people to not believe in a supreme being; nevertheless, many people believe in ideas from ancient teachers or respected figures such as Confucius.
Because of the above points, I think it is easier for Africans to form relationships with strangers although there is pressure on the stranger to try and adopt the culture. In Chinese culture, on the other hand, relationships take time to form as there is a need to find mutual trust and benefit. However, when they do form, those relationships will be strong and are cherished.
JP: What are some key cultural similarities between Chinese and Africans and how do these affect relationships?
Tim: African culture and Chinese culture tend to be similar when it comes to collectivism. Both cultures tend to emphasize the needs and goals of the group as a whole over the needs and desires of each individual. In both cultures, decision making is not a one-person affair but has the entire family behind it.
In African and Chinese culture there is a deep veneration of ancestors and elderly people. Everyone is expected to listen to what elders say and often times should not question back. This trait is very influential in how young people view decisions.
JP: What advice do you have for Chinese who want to reach Africans with the good news?
Tim: Most Africans are very open and enjoy making friends. This makes it very easy to start conversations. However, there is need to be careful not to assume things about their culture or way of life or else walls will quickly be put up.
Most Africans tend to say they know God, and most of them have heard the gospel, so they tend to say they know it all, but there is always a need to dig deeper to understand the roots.
Africans tend to connect more with you through your story. It is crucial that one gets to share his/her story as this makes most Africans more open to share.
Even though in this interview I have identified Africans as one people, often times Africans do not want to be identified as one people. People from the same country may prefer to be identified by their ethnicity (tribal group) more than just by their country. So, it is good to have a target group in mind if you are ministering with Africans from a multi-ethnic nation.
Just as Paul did with the Jews in trying to become like them, it is the same with Africans. It is always good to try and understand some key aspects of African culture to be able to make strong relationships and significant impact.
There is the need to have some interest in learning a foreign language, at least English, to help with communication.
JP: What opportunities do you see for Chinese to reach Africans in China?
Tim: A lot of Africans don’t know much about Chinese culture, so helping them integrate into the culture presents a huge opportunity to reach out to them. One way would be to make use of Chinese holidays or festivals by organizing an event to explain its origins and activities and through that form relationships or share the good news.
A lot of Africans in China have a strong desire to learn Chinese because they see the impact of China in Africa. Being willing to help them with their Chinese also presents good opportunities to reach out to them; this could be done through language partnerships or Chinese corners.
A lot of African men are very athletic but find it hard to team up with Chinese because often Chinese people already have established relationships. Chinese being willing to welcome Africans and play sports with them presents a huge opportunity to reach out to them.
JP: What opportunities do you see for Africans to reach Chinese?
Tim: A lot of Chinese are heavily involved in English corners. Going to these as a foreigner to help presents a good opportunity to reach out to Chinese.
As an African, showing curiosity in Chinese culture drives one to engage more with Chinese who often are willing to interact with you and help you. This in itself is a great opportunity.
Africans can make use of platforms where they get to share their culture and traditions to reach out to some Chinese people.
Holidays like Christmas and Easter also presents good opportunities for Africans to share the good news.
JP: Thank you, Tim. We appreciate your sharing your thoughts and observations with us.
Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio