View From the Wall

Foreigners and Chinese Working Together

A Local Perspective

Now you really are on the way to serve overseas! You have probably had a lot of training and study, and you have read a lot of books about China. Most likely, you feel you are ready. You have a passion to serve, you have a warm heart and you cannot wait to come to China to do God’s work. Everything looks right, but .

As a Chinese citizen, I have been working with a Christian service organization in China for over ten years, serving as an assistant, a project manager, a regional director and assistant to the China Director. I have worked with many great foreign sisters and brothers; I have been managed by them and later, as a leader, worked alongside them. It has been such a blessing that God has sent so many great servants to work with us! However, even with such amazing people, there were still hard situations and misunderstandings. I hope that by learning more from us, the locals, expatriates will be able to cooperate better with local brothers and sisters. In this article, I would like to use some stories to share some basic principles. These observations are the result of my own experiences, not the conclusions of a survey. I hope they will serve as an encouragement or a reminder to you before you really work with Chinese coworkers. Let’s start.

Working in China, you really cannot separate work, ministry and personal life.

This is a lesson from some long-term, foreign members of my organization. Originally from the United States, before they came to China they felt that they had several different lives. They had work life, family life, ministry life, personal life and so on. In each life, they had different friends; this was quite common in their country. When they moved to a small city in China, there were a lot of changes. Their work colleagues were also their sisters and brothers in the church and their friends. In China, especially in such a small city, their family issues were practically wide-open to the local people.

At first these foreign coworkers did not feel comfortable; they thought that this was a matter of cultural conflict. However, as God taught them, they began to realize that there should be only one life as Christians. In all places, at all times, we should all live as Christians–and our entire families should join us in living as members of God’s kingdom.

This realization dramatically changed the view about life and belief for these foreign coworkers. Later, when they had their home assignment back in the U.S., they found this way of living useful there, too. Now there is only one lifetheir Christian life. We are called to live out Jesus’ life, and this life will then influence other lives. Personally, my life was changed as well, not only from studying and being mentored, but most importantly from being influenced by their new way of living! In China, it is hard to separate work, ministry, family and personal life, especially if you want to live a holistic, transformational life.

We need to work hard.

Sometimes, some foreign colleagues’ lives are too relaxed. First, I want to say that this is not common among foreign members, but I remember one couple who came to China to serve. From my point of view, their life was too relaxed. They took long personal vacations, and they did not work at all on the weekends. They rested on both Chinese and Western holidays, and during the work day, they only worked part time. Maybe they worked very hard at home. Perhaps that is the right work rhythm for foreigners. However, the typical Chinese worker has to work so hard–six to seven days a weeks and ten hours a dayjust to make a living. I agree there are also many Chinese workers who are very relaxed, especially those who work for the government, but as workers for the Lord, we should be putting more into our work than those who work for the world. Working hard does not mean not relying God; rather, it shows our attitude–that we value God’s work.

Please listen to our advice!

One day, one of our local contacts called to invite us to attend their unit’s annual party. This contact had helped us find several work partners. She said some leaders that we wanted to get to know might be at the party as well. I sensed that this was an opportunity to meet these leaders that we had been struggling to get in touch with. In addition, this contact was still important to us, and so I felt that we should go. However, the contact only told us about the party the night before it was scheduled, and the party itself was of no interest or value to us. I talked to my leader, and I persuaded him to go to it even though I could tell he really did not want to. First, it was not on the schedule–and who knew if he would meet that certain leader or not? Then too, if we did go, we could easily end up wasting a whole day’s time. Finally, though my leader was not willing, and though our van suddenly would not start, we headed off to the party. At the event, we did manage to meet the leader we were trying to get to know, and because we “gave face” to our contact by showing up at this party, she helped us later on with a different matter. On the way back home, my leader shared that I had been right, and he confessed that sometimes, as a foreigner, he had difficulty reading Chinese relationship (renqing 人情​ ) issues. I want to encourage you to please listen more to your Chinese colleagues, especially when dealing with issues related to Chinese culture, personal relationships, hospitality and so on. Even though at times we might not be able to explain why we make certain suggestions, we still know what should be done. We are locals, and we just naturally, instinctively know.

We want to do ministry work, but we have to raise our families as well.

I have worked for this Christian service organization for almost twelve years. Over the last three to five years, many Chinese staff have had to leave us. A lot of them are Christians, they like our organization and they truly want to serve, but they had to leave to secure a higher salaried job to enable them to raise their families. This situation is especially acute for Christian brothers because they are usually the main source of income for their families. To tell the truth, as China’s economy has developed, the pressure for organizations like ours to continue to offer reasonable salaries has become greater and greater. While foreign colleagues are often receiving very low pay compared to people in their home countries, they still receive enough for a reasonable lifestyle in China–they are able to pay for children’s education and other basic life expenses. However, for those of us who are typical Chinese employees, our main income is our salary, and if we cannot get a reasonable one, then even though we want to serve, we simply cannot. There are, of course, some Chinese sisters and brothers who have a better situation, and they are willing to work as volunteers or would be more likely to accept a low salary. Yet, in these situations the organization has much less control over how and when these volunteers work. My point is to remind you that, for us, money is an issue.

Not having attended Bible school does not prevent us from knowing God.

Once, while serving as a regional director, at one of our leaders’ meetings we talked about issues related to spiritual principles. I shared my point of view, but another leader felt that since I had not gone to Bible school, I should not give advice. Although he was quite polite, I was still shocked by his comment. I did not say anything else at that meeting, but after I went home I prayed: “God, I know I did not go to Bible school, and I have less knowledge than most of our foreign sisters and brothers who have attended Bible school or have some kind of training. Nevertheless, I am eager to know you, and you have been teaching me a lot through prayer and devotional study. Does going to Bible school or not really determine whether or not I can know you and know your will?” The answer was obviously no. When we met at the next leaders’ meeting, I talked to the foreign brother. I cried as I said that although I did not have the opportunity to go to Bible school, it would not prevent me from knowing God’s truth. Then this brother nodded, and together we all sang “Sisters and Brothers Love Each Other.” After this I felt that before God, we are all the same.

Sisters and brothers, I agree that most of you who have come to my country have a passion to serve and have a rich spiritual life. That is why you have come! However, for many of us Chinese coworkers, we start by looking at our ministry as a job. We are grateful that you are willing to use all sorts of different ways to pass on your vision for service to us, like mentoring, disciplining, training and coaching. As time passes, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we will grow in spiritual maturity.

Dear sisters and brothers, after I have shared these thoughts with you, you may think that our differences are too great. Nevertheless, we all know that it is God’s will for each of us to develop our own gifts to serve in God’s kingdom. My conclusion is Galatians 4:26-28: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Please pray with me for wisdom and patience for all, and may we all glorify God together as one body.

Image Credit: Official GDC via Compfight cc

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Jenny (pseudonym) has been serving alongside her Chinese and expatriate colleagues in China ministry for nearly twelve years.View Full Bio