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Considering a Move to China?


It promises the opportunity to live and work in a progressive, vibrant and developing culture, and also the chance to see and participate in a rapidly growing Christian church. However, for the unprepared it can be one of life's worst nightmares as they discover firsthand the unforgiving challenges, hazards and dangers of living in a foreign country. Some statistics tell us between 50% and 80% of those who move to China will not successfully complete their foreign assignment. Those who are successful will often find their return home difficult. However, proper assessment of your adaptability and having a plan will boost the chances of a positive outcome.

Several years ago, my family and I took on this adventure and have never regretted the move. Since our return to the United States we have had the opportunity to not only reflect on our experience, but to watch others take the same journey and to observe their experiences in China. As we look back, we can see how God challenged and changed us and the ways He used us. More importantly, we can see how God prepared us and then used us in ways we never imagined possible.

For those considering living abroad or taking on a foreign assignment, we share these experiences and heartily encourage you to consider the great adventure God may have for you. But as you do so, you need to carefully consider the cost and hardship you will encounter.

Our Story

After working for the same corporation for 15 years, I became interested in international assignments. On a whim, I applied for jobs my company had posted in Singapore, and to my surprise I was a finalist. Our family was young, and my wife's parents had been missionaries, so the prospect of adventure excited her.

I did not get the initial job. The Singapore position became a Hong Kong position and went to someone more qualified for the role. Not long after, my younger brother and his family became interested in China and moved to southern China to work with a nonprofit organization. We watched them work in Yunnan and became more educated about what God was doing, and through the process gained a heart for the people of China.

Three years after my initial application for an international assignment, I received a call asking if I would consider a position in Shanghai, China. We were interested in how God might use us there. While we were concerned for our family and especially the impact on our two teenagers, we saw the potential for the good things God could do in our lives.

The decision to live abroad is never one to take lightly. There are many hurdles, and the flexibility of the family is key in leaving the home culture and adapting to and embracing a new culture.

We moved to Shanghai, then eventually Beijing, and took on one of the greatest and most rewarding experiences of our lives.

Assessing your ability to take on a foreign assignment

There are many issues individuals and families need to consider in making this decision. These may include aging parents who need assistance, medical issues that require specialized care, and financial needs. One issue that needs careful consideration is the mental health and flexibility of the family. A foreign assignment will significantly add to family stress, and China can be a difficult place to work through emotional issues.

From our observation, people who are successful generally share several traits: flexibility, a sense of adventure, strong home-based support, a track record of ministry at home, willingness to work outside the box, a desire to try new things and take on a new culture, and independence. They are also generally well-educated.

As we approached the opportunity to live overseas, we had many concerns, but some of the key ones included:

  1. Finances: What would it cost to live overseas, and could we afford it? Where would we live?
  2. Our kids: How would they adapt to the transition from a group of people they had known their whole lives to a group of complete strangers? Where would they go to school?
  3. Job: Could I do the job they were asking? What would constitute success in the eyes of people in our home office?
  4. Safety: What were the inherent dangers and potential for injury or death?
  5. Returning home: Where might we land when we returned? What kind of job would I have?

Once a person or family considers their readiness and makes the decision to move, a preparation plan is essential.

Preparation for the move

Too often we think the full burden of preparing for an assignment of this magnitude will fall on us. It does require careful consideration, great effort and significant thought. It is important to count the cost and fully consider the liabilities. That said, we found the journey to be more like being in a boat on a river, rowing hard toward a destination, only to discover our efforts were contributing very little of the energy required. A much stronger current was at work guiding our boat to its ultimate destination. As we prepared for our move we began to see God's hand everywhere.

We read and closely followed the advice of our company's global assignment program. Cultural consultants came into our home to work directly with us. An unexpected surprise was a consultant who was a strong believer, heavily involved in Christian ministry invested in China. She became one of our greatest resources and gave us clear direction on what it meant to be a Christian married couple in China. Her advice and wisdom were invaluable. Below are several pieces of advice and warnings we found helpful in planning our transition:

  1. Intentionally say good-bye to your old culture and friends. It is important to say good-bye and for your kids to make opportunities for gatherings with those close to them. We appreciated having friends who hosted get-togethers that allowed us to gain their support for our new adventure.
  2. Allow people to question and challenge your decision. It is normal for people to challenge your thought process for moving overseas. We appreciated the concern of friends for keeping us from going over a cliff, and it confirmed to us we had thought the process through. In time they agreed with us.
  3. Build a home support base. Through the process of saying good-bye, you build a support base of people who will share your adventure for the next several years. For us, these people would pray for us, host our kids on home country visits, write to us and keep us up to date on events back home.
  4. Take your home church along for the ride. Too often churches will say good-bye to people moving overseas rather than continue to hold them as part of their community. We approached our pastor with the decision we were making, and he too sensed God's hand at work. Our church endorsed us and featured us in messages to the congregation. They prayed for us and included our kids in youth group activities when they came home for the summer. When we returned home, they were there to help.
  5. Personal accountability. Keep contact and accountability with people back home. Throughout my assignment, there were people to whom I continued to hold myself accountable for my Christian walk. Although I established accountability groups in my new locations, I did not want to lose contact with people back home who knew me and would challenge me.
  6. Anticipate the difficulties of the new culture. Things are done differently in China. Many days we came home exhausted ready to go to bed at 5:00PM. Ordinary tasks like getting groceries, paying the internet bill, and obtaining cell phones are not the same as in your home culture. Getting to know people presently living in the country and asking questions helped us anticipate the road ahead.
  7. Know the expectations of your sending organization. Having an idea of what success looks like is essential. To be successful you need to build a team of mentors and advisors in your home company to help you bridge organizational shifts and changes. For me, I knew what was expected and what was to be delivered before I landed in China. That said, flexibility was key, as my job changed within six months of moving to China.
  8. Know you don't know everything you need to know. Keep an open mind to different ways of doing things. Be aware that what you don't know can land you in jail. I found it essential to have a group of business advisors and lawyers around me to help review plans and strategies, especially in the early days. Even though I was concerned about strategy, I was more concerned that we were following legal and acceptable customs.
  9. Embrace and enjoy the new culture and all its differences. Let go of the way you did things in your old home and immerse yourself in your new culture. Make new friends of local people and allow them to guide you in finding your way. If possible, study their language. Learn to see life from their perspective. Plan to eat strange food and do some strange things. People may laugh at you, but it's all part of the fun and ride.
  10. Anticipate where you will land when you return home. Keep in touch with people who will help you find your next position when you return. Too many missionaries fall away from the church and a majority of businessmen will leave their company within a year of landing back in their home country. Plan to find a support group and team to help you in your transition back.

Anyone who has taken on an overseas assignment knows I have greatly simplified this process. The preparation process often requires many people working with you and your family. Not only will they help you prepare, but they will help you succeed in your assignment and your eventual return home.

Final thoughts

Jesus was very clear with His disciples that the process of following Him was often not easy, and that they needed to count the costs. There are costs to people wishing to serve God in a foreign setting: reduced contact with family and friends, illness, exhaustion, the dangers of living in a foreign country. But there are great rewards of seeing firsthand the work of God and experiencing a new culture and observing the world through much different eyes.

Successful expatriates will not approach their assignment alone. While we constantly had the assistance of others, we knew there were much Bigger Hands guiding our steps and watching over us. Daily we were dependent upon God, and our times of worship were precious. God placed numerous people in our lives who provided us support and direction and were very great blessings.

We heartily encourage those considering such a move. Living in China can be one of the greatest blessings you will ever experience in your life. But do so with your eyes wide open and with the help of those who have successfully braved the challenges.

It can be one of lifes greatest challenges and blessings.

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John Kimber

John Kimber retired in 2013 after working for 35 years in the insurance industry. During his career, he led China development operations for a large insurer.  His family lived in both Shanghai and Beijing, where they were active in Christian fellowships. John recently completed a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)... View Full Bio