A number of high schools across the United States have quietly taken advantage of a growing interest in American education by international students. Federal statistics show that the number of international high schoolers arriving in the United States on F-1 (non-immigrant) visas has jumped from about 6,500 in 2007 to 65,000 in 2012.1 Many of these students are from China. Since 2011, China has become the country sending the greatest number of students. Reaching 25,880 in 2012, it has almost doubled the number from the second greatest sending countryKorea (13,873). Furthermore, China also has the fastest growth rate that continues to accelerate. (See table below.)
Country with the Highest Growth Rate Sending High Schoolers to the U.S.2
|Ranking||Sending Country||2007||2012||Growth Rate (%)|
The test-driven, highly competitive educational system in China has left its youth in high schools with little time for anything besides study. Many students are sent to boarding schools not because of distance issues, but, rather, to spend more time on studies. Parents, concerned about this model for intellectual development only, and desiring an earlier preparation for college abroad, look overseas for more holistic educational opportunities for their children.
In addition, China restricts teaching children religion. Christian schools are not permitted; this causes many Christian families to send their children overseas where Christian education is allowed.
Though a few schools recruit students directly from China, most students go through agents to find either a boarding high school or a host family to live with while attending school in the U.S. Many agents consider their job completed after the students arrive at their schools. Unless something major happens, they are unlikely to become involved in the students’ lives again; many students’ guardians are just names on a paper.
When American host families serve as guardians, they often encounter unexpected challenges due to cultural and language barriers. In a survey taken at a college preparatory, non-denominational Christian high school where more than 30 out of their 50 plus international students were from China, many host families expressed difficulties in communication and discipline. The school, not yet fully equipped to handle the many challenging issues that international students face, had outsourced their counseling services. Of the students, who were already in their second semester in the U.S. when they took the survey, more than half felt homesick, struggled daily with culture shock and experienced relational conflict either at school or with their host families. Two-thirds expressed great academic pressure, usually caused by lack of language proficiency and the requirements and expectations of the new educational system.
When teens move from their motherland to a new country, from east to west and from familiar to unfamiliar surroundings, the pressure on them increases adding to their already challenging young lives. Away from parents, their situations often require of them a maturity level of college students, and often they find themselves lost, helpless and insecure. Some withdraw into isolation indulging in watching soap operas, playing video games and hiding in their rooms, unwilling to come out and participate in family and social activities. At school, in addition to their intensive school work, they often encounter difficulties building a deeper level of friendship with their American peersand this at an age when peer acceptance is of great concern. In the midst of these struggles, anxieties and depressions can easily creep in and make things worse. When that happens, professional Christian counselors are often involved. However, the Chinese students, who likely never had any counseling experience in their country, often do not know how to respond and benefit from the help offered in a totally different culture.
Far away from home, from those who love and care for them, who will step in to care for and guide these confused, frustrated teens? Who are the guardians of these young souls?
These challenges have stirred the hearts of many Christians. To capture this opportunity, many Christian organizations have formed to connect the teens from China with Christian high schools and host families, opening up channels to lead them to Christ and disciple them. Many of these teens have the chance to hear the truth through Bible classes and chapel times at school. Some unbelievers encountered God’s love, heard the gospel and became Christians while living with Christian families; others have come to faith in Christ through mentoring by Christians. Christian students also grow in faith because of greater exposure to Christianity. Yet, there are still vast areas needing labor to turn this great opportunity into a great harvest.
The Crucial First Semester
The first few months living in the new country seem to be crucial for these teens. Trying to regain control in the turmoil of change, these teens are vulnerable and ready to absorb whatever comes their way that will ease the stress. Some quickly adapt to American culture which mixes its merits like independence, equality and hard work with others such as individualism, materialism and so on. Some students use an avoidance mechanism that treats problems as if they did not exist. Whatever they adapt to, once they have started to settle in and rebuild new norms, it will take much greater effort to make new changes.
In competition with so many other influences, the first semester of these teens in the U.S. is a great time for sowing. During this crucial time, whether through one-on-one mentoring, biblical counseling, acculturation workshops or evangelical and discipling activities, we can point them to Christ and help them make him the foundation of their lives and help in times of trouble.
Many Chinese international students studying in Christian high schools are Christians. They attend chapel and Bible classes at school, live with Christian families and go to church with their host families. However, in my interaction with them, I realized that not many of them showed evidence of their faith being lived out. Among the unbelievers, though gaining knowledge about God, not many accepted Christ as their personal Savior.
Among the students I knew, two stood out as making great progress in their faith journey in their new country. One, let’s call her Heather, was an unbeliever when she first came to the U.S. to study in a Christian high school. She was introduced to a Chinese Christian mentor three months after she arrived. Differing from a mentorship between American Christians and students, they conducted their conversations mostly in Chinese. Though Heather gained much Bible knowledge through her school and going to church with her host family, she did not quite grasp the true meaning of all she had learned since everything was in English. Not long after her mentor explained the key concepts of the biblical teaching in her heart language, she quickly received Christ and has been growing in her faith. She now prays and reads scripture every night and is always eager to learn more about her new faith and share it with her family and friends.
The other student, let’s call her Victoria, was also an unbeliever when she first came to the U.S. After some conflict with her original American host family, she moved in with a Chinese Christian host family and started to go to a Chinese church. Now, she regularly participates in the youth program and has accepted Christ. Her changed life has amazed many people who knew her previously.
Is it a coincidence that in both cases Christians, who came from the students’ own culture and spoke their heart language, became involved? The Apostle Paul said: “To the Jews I became as a Jew to those outside the law I became as one outside the law . I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22, ESV). Hudson Taylor, in order to win the souls of the Chinese, ate like the Chinese, dressed like the Chinese and spoke their dialects.
Receiving the gospel message through one’s heart language in a familiar cultural environment makes it easier for people to embrace the gospel and grow in faith. People need to experience the closeness of Godhe is not a foreign God from faraway. He is the God who knows where they came from, is at work in the very context of their lives and communicates with them in their own language!
Yet, getting to know a new language and culture is no easy task. Without sufficient training and immersion in a culture, how can American Christians accomplish this difficult task? But God, like always, seems to have already prepared an answer .
Partnership with Chinese churches
Many Chinese speaking churches in America have realized their calling to serve these Chinese teens. Some brothers and sisters have already started to expand their Chinese college ministry to high schoolers; others are paired one-on-one with these teens to mentor them. In addition, many Chinese Christian conferences are held to further develop this ministry.
The next step seems to be to develop open, trusting, close relationships and partnerships among American Christians, Chinese speaking churches and Christian organizations. The Chinese church can bring the contextualized gospel and truth to these teens in their heart language; this, in turn, reinforces the Bible knowledge they are learning in English. Our American agents, schools and host families can also gain insight from our Chinese brothers and sisters in dealing with the language and culture barriers that arise as they care for these teens, making their ministry more relevant to them. Chinese churches and Christian organizations can partner with American Christian agents, schools and host families further expanding one-on-one mentoring programs as well as organizing evangelical events, providing Christian counseling, training, cultural workshops and so onall in the heart language of these teens.
We, the Christian agents, schools, host families, Chinese and American churches together, can and should serve as the guardians of these young souls on behalf of our Heavenly Father who might soon be the Father of many of them as well.
Going through cross-cultural challenges at an early age could become advantageous for these teens in the future, preparing them to be excellent ambassadors bridging cultures and countries or even equipping them to become excellent cross-cultural missionaries.
In an age of globalization, these young people with cross-cultural life experience can greatly impact their generation. We are now given this wonderful opportunity to step in, colabor with God and each other to prepare them to be godly influences in their generation. What better way can we serve this purpose than by modeling unity as we work together across cultures and traditions? ” for he [Christ] has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:4 ESV). By doing so, the church of this generation will also be further unified and strengthened.
1 Page, C., Brock, M., Marzullo, L. and Omar, A. (2013). Leading in an F-1 Context. (The information was provided to the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET) through a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If a student participated across calendar years, his/her record is counted in each year.)
Image Credit: Ken Lagerveld
Lu Chen (pseudonym), born and reared in Beijing, has a master’s degree in chemistry from The City University of New York and a master’s degree in Operations Research from Columbia University. She taught ESL and is currently studying in a TESOL master level program. She mentors a Chinese international high …View Full Bio