The American family that met Wang* as he arrived at the LA Airport had done this before, but for Wang it was a firsthis first time to cross the ocean, to arrive on American shores. He had dreamed of it but never thought his parents would agree. Eventually, they came to see that it might open up more opportunities for their only child's future. After years of pursuing his passion learning English, he challenged the SATs and filled out several college applications. It was hard, but the native English teacher in his mid-sized Chinese citysomeone whom he had developed a trusted friendship withtook Wang under his wing and helped him along the way. When the acceptance letter came from his top choice, a small, private school in Southern California, Wang leapt for joy. Surely the fates were with him or was it something more?
Last October, ChinaSource sponsored China Challenge to bring leaders together to discuss trends in China in three areas: youth and university students, leader development and business as mission. We brought a team of people representing four different organizations to share research on China's youth and opportunities for ministry. We split the Youth & Student Track into two focus groups: youth studying abroad ages 12 to 18 and students studying abroad ages 18-30.
Through this workshop, we wanted to better understand how to "capture" the opportunities God has given us on the Mainland directly working with youth in all levels of society, from those in destitute situations all the way to those in positions of privilege. We also wanted to take a closer look at the historically unparalleled opportunities we have to reach Chinese studying abroad with the love and message of Christ. We will focus on this latter group here.
Mainland Chinese who head abroad for educational and professional opportunities now range in age from middle school students all the way to middle-aged scholars. According to the Institute for International Exchange (IIE) 2011 Open Doors report, young Chinese like Wang now make up twenty-two percent (almost 160,000) of all international students and scholars in the US, the largest ethnic group by far. This represents a forty-three percent increase in undergraduates and a twenty-three percent increase overall from 2010.
This trend shows no sign of abating, even though the US's relative position worldwide is declining as it shares the higher educational pie with an increasing number of other, less costly locations. The premium, privilege, place and prestige attached to education in the Chinese culture has translated into a continual, growing wave of Chinese students seeking access to higher education institutions primarily in the West, with the US leading the way for the foreseeable future.
Whereas the earlier years (late 1980s to mid/late-1990s) saw mostly PhD candidates and post-docs heading abroad for study and research, the flow of Chinese doing so has trickled downfirst to the master's level, then, more recently, to the undergraduate level and, increasingly to the high school and even middle-school levels. Factors behind this push include increased demand within China for higher education, limited spaces in Chinese educational institutions (relative to demand), and a growing desire among the younger generation for education that emphasizes creativity, innovation and unique discovery over rote memorization. As the Chinese system adapts to these mandates for change at all levels and as Chinese universities gain more global recognition worldwidenot just in name but in substancethis trend may, indeed, subside.
But for now we have our "Esther" moment. These students are coming to our shores in droves. Most, like Mei Li, have not yet heard the Good News. They are open to our friendship. Indeed, International Student Ministry (ISM) workers consistently find Chinese students and scholars to be their most responsive ethnic group, not only to the assistance and activities that ISM workers and volunteers have to offer, but also to the Gospel.
In addition, as the church grows among the educated in China, and international students return to their homeland, the number of Chinese international students who have been exposed to the Gospel keeps growing, as do the number of believers. One ISM worker recently shared a story about befriending a "typical Chinese undergraduate student." His family met this student at the airport and, on the drive home, this student ventured to ask if they were Christians because she was! As they settled her into her long-term housing, immigrant Christians from Burma welcomed her under their roof! Only 18 years old, she could see God's hand all over her decision to head to the US for her studies.
Most churches think of missions as sending people out to other nations. In the US (and wherever Chinese are headed for study abroad), we have the opportunity to both befriend and open our homes to host international students of all ages. Chinese who come at a young age, especially those at the middle school, high school, and undergraduate levels, often experience a period of intense loneliness as they struggle with the new culture, usually after the initial veneer of excitement has worn off (three-six months). They tend to need more help and welcome it from caring host families. They also can be very open in their hearts to hearing and internalizing Truth, especially if they are the recipients of Christ's genuine love through us. This is the new mission field! We need to "awaken" the American church to this new paradigm in missions.
Wang's story at the start of this article prompts us to consider the salient issues we should be aware of as we live out and share our faith with these young Chinese in our midst. What cultural and societal issues are at work here?
It is vital that Westerners ministering to Chinese recognize the group-society mentality of their Chinese friends. For instance, Chinese travel through their school years as part of a specific group in their class level. Even in college, they follow the exact same path as a subset of their classmates within the same field of study. Stepping out, on their own, from the familiar takes guts. Their "group" and Chinese society as a whole, has always been their reference point. We need to recognize and respect that fact.
When a Chinese student/scholar comes to the US, he or she is not coming alone but usually comes with a mantle of responsibility to immediate and extended family, and, indeed, the entire Chinese nation. Filial pietythe notion that one has a lifelong duty to one's parentsis as strong as when Confucius first extolled it as a basic virtue. Most young Chinese heading abroad understand that all the hopes of their parents and grandparents (and often their money, too) have been poured into them. We need to recognize that some will hold back from commitment to Christ because of the risk of upsetting their parents. Over time, we must sensitively help our young Chinese friends understand that becoming a genuine Christian will make him/her a better, more faithful son/daughter as well.
We also need to bear in mind the "mantle of communal responsibility" which our Chinese friends bear. One Chinese scholar told us, "I have seen how you live and I want to believe, but I can't because I'm a Communist Party member." We asked her if she could simply believe quietly in her heart, to which she smiled broadly and responded, "Well, yes. Of course!" In the workplace as well, a genuine believer will be a better worker, even if serving in a system that, at its heart, opposes God (remember Daniel?).
Even with the influence of Western ideas in this increasingly interconnected world, the sheer number of people everywhere in China tends to make a Chinese feel like he/she is just a drop in a much larger "ocean of humanity." It is common even for younger Chinese to not see themselves as anything special. One tall, very attractive and talented female graduate student, with an aspiration to become a Chinese/English CCTV anchor, once proclaimed to me, "I might be all those things, but there are so many other Chinese just like me . I don't think I have a chance!"
So, it can be difficult for many Chinese to grasp the idea that they are a unique creation of a loving God, that nobody has been designed exactly like them. While hard to fathom, over time it becomes an increasingly attractive incentive for them to choose the Christian life. Further, when they begin to grasp that God has a unique blueprint for their lives, new Chinese believers often find ways to blend the group culture responsibilities they have known all their lives with the new calling they have as Christ-followers. Indeed, as we minister to and mentor our young Chinese friends, we must always emphasize that choosing to walk in Christ makes us better in all arenasin the home, our studies, the workplace and even the world.
Those who seek to love Chinese with Christ's love need to understand that Chinese as a whole are quite pragmatic, no-nonsense people. They are people who have been trained to value and memorize facts to gain success; that is what their school system has emphasized. In terms of sharing the Good News, most Chinese are more interested in how Christianity can make them better in this life, and they give very little weight to eternal issues. This, too, changes as a Chinese believer matures, but in the initial stages we should emphasize the benefits of choosing a Christian walk for the here and now.
Finally, influences from Confucianism, the Book of Changes (I Ching), martial arts, Buddhism, traditional Chinese medicine and Communism, among others, have trained the Chinese mind to view the world through the yin-yang lens. Everything is connected and affects everything else, good and evil coexist and offset each other, and achieving harmony is one of the highest goals for the individual and society. We must keep in mind these influences as we share the love of Christ with all Chinese and disciple the new Chinese believers in our midst. As we do so, young people like Wang will come to see that they have been brought to our shores not just to advance their education but to discover the One who loves them more deeply than even their parents do.
As we consider this "newest wave" of Chinese youth ages 12 to 18 heading to our shores for study, we must not only recognize the need for a paradigm shift in our missions thinking but also seek to embrace these young, impressionable people with the genuine love of Christ. We must recognize the humble honor we have to represent Christ to these young people and the high calling we have to be part of a movement that is changing the face of the most populous nation on earth! We also must acknowledge that we can do this because the Spirit of God indwells us and enables us to step up to the task! Remember Esther.
There are many ways we can accomplish this. They include relationship mentoring, serving as hosts and reaching these youth through technology. We can also train and equip families to serve in this capacity. Further, we can offer one-on-one online mentoring and parenting help for both youth here and their parents back home. These opportunities are only limited by our faith and creativity. As we push the boundaries of both, we will come to see that our all-powerful God "will do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work in us" (Eph 3:20). Are we available?
*Name changed for privacy purposes.
Li Sha leads a group of dedicated believers on both sides of the Pacific who are committed to reaching the hearts of youth in the 12–18 age range and their families with the genuine love of Christ through meaningful mentoring relationships.
Caroline DuPree has spent much of her career working with university-level international students and now also serves as a regional program director alongside Li Sha to advance the Kingdom among this younger age group. For more information, see www.pacificlinkstudents.org.
Image Credit: Our Families by Aaron Knox, on Flickr
Caroline DuPree has spent much of her career working with university-level international students and now also serves as a regional program director alongside Li Sha to advance the Kingdom among this younger age group. For more information, see www.pacificlinkstudents.org. View Full Bio