Peoples of China

The Expected and the Unexpected Journey of Homecoming

For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this? Esther 4:14

In Chinese, haigui (海归), has a dual meaning: people who return from overseas (returnees), and the process of returning from overseas (homecoming). No matter who it is or to what country a person returns, the homecoming journey is very similar to that of going abroad. It is more than the ten odd hours’ flight from coast to coast. It could mean all sorts of adjustments, readjustments and adaptation as a result of the experience of having lived overseasfor the past few years, ten plus years or even decades. As a returnee who has been back in China for a few years already, I would like to share my experience and my observations.

Homecoming: A Hard Decision

Many returnees, who have spent some years living and learning overseas, have become accustomed to living overseas with stable living, work and family situations. For varying reasons they need to return to China. This is a hard decision which may mean giving up many things. To a Christian returnee, an additional worry is about religious freedom.

Making a decision to return to China needs clear guidance from God and obedience. Some brothers and sisters have a burden for returning but think they are not yet ready. It is difficult to say when the right time to return is. We can only say that God has his own timing for everything. Therefore the road to returning to China is a journey of faith.

What to Expect after You Return

As with many returnees, Christian returnees have to face all sorts of problems. There is reverse culture shock, environmental pollution, traffic congestion, medical care, education for children, complicated relationships, work pressures and so on. However, there are some problems that are specific to Christian returnees.

The first one is to look for a home church. In China, the current church situation is this. Three-Self Churches are publicly open. Owing to their size and things like pastoral care, it is difficult for the returnees to find the same feeling of “home” and of the presence of God as in the overseas churches. House churches are plentiful and widespread. They have nice pastoral care and warm fellowship; however, most of them operate underground and are difficult to find.

The next question is living with unbelieving family members. Most Christian returnees were converted while overseas; most of their family members remain nonbelievers. Some brothers and sisters are despised and harassed when they try to evangelize their family members. They are misunderstood and are teased, and this gives them an acute sense of frustration. Other brothers and sisters, especially those who went for a short-term as visiting scholars or exchange students and were converted during that short period, have difficulties professing their new faith in front of their families who hold strongly to their traditions. Some may face strong opposition from their families and even threats of severing their relationship from parents and spouses.

Professing their faith publicly is another challenge. Due to the lack of respect for individual religious preferences at some work units, it is difficult for returnees to reveal their faith publicly at these places. It is especially tough for those who work in government departments or public institutions. This has become a challenge for them as some of these brothers and sisters have faced severe pressure after professing their faith.

Spiritual “homesickness” is another problem facing us. Those who became Christians and then returned to China usually had treated the church and fellowship as their homes while overseas. The churches, especially in North America, usually gave so much pastoral care to these overseas Chinese that they tended to be on the receiving end all the time and could hardly stand on their own. After returning to China, even though they have a “home” church, it still takes much time to adjust. To some who lack close church brothers and sisters, especially those having similar backgrounds, they find little encouragement and few opportunities to air their frustrations. They have a sense of spiritual isolation which accounts for the “homesick” feeling. Some even backslide and disappear from the church.

The next problem is the need to assimilate into the local church. Owing to security measures, the Chinese church tends to adopt a closed or semi-closed model regarding its members. Usually it takes a newcomer three months, and in some cases up to six months of commitment to apply for membership. Most churches will not open ministry opportunities to these new friends during this grace period. On the other hand, these Christians were free from such constraints while overseas. Now, they consider themselves to have been given the “cold-shoulder” treatment. This adds to the difficulties in assimilating into a local church and they feel a lack of belonging spiritually.

Something Unexpected after Returning Home

Some homecoming issues are common and can be anticipated which means that something can be done beforehand. Other issues are not as obvious and catch us unprepared. The good thing is that in hindsight, God has made good preparations for us.

Some brothers and sisters, who come back to work in universities, may have to face the problem of a slow process in dealing with paper work. In the case of my husband, he was invited to return to the university he used to work for before leaving China; it was assumed the process of reengagement would be simple and quick. For various reasons, the process was unexpectedly complicated and was not completed until ten months after returning to China. He did not receive his first salary until well after one year from the time he returned. This exceeds the usual expectation and laid a severe financial pressure on us as we did not have any savings at the time we returned. God moved in the hearts of some brothers and sisters to help us. Just a week after we returned, one sister sent us a sum of money so that we were covered for the initial time. Then my husband’s work unit offered us a loan which enabled us to maintain a normal life in the next half year. Normally, borrowing such a large sum of money from the work unit is impossible. God’s provision far exceeded our expectations.

God provided for us not only financially but spiritually. Soon after we returned, we met some brothers and sisters who had returned about the same time we did. As we shared similar backgrounds and spiritual experiences, we began a fellowship with most members being returnees. This fellowship continues to exist and flourish. In many ways, this has helped more than 100 returnees, including us, to have a smooth transition and adjustment. We have had a vision from God that we should expand the ministry to serve returnees in a larger scope.

We had thought that our journey of homecoming had been tough enough just given all the experiences we had in the first two years. As of 2009, we had been back in China for two years. Despite many difficulties, things had become normal, such as housing, child care for the children, an improved work situation and a stable church life with good fellowship and ministries. However, at this wonderful time, I was suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer. This dealt a blow to the normal, good life that we had just built up. I was quickly admitted to the hospital, went through operations and then began the long and painful process of chemotherapy and convalescence. Sickness has occupied the center of my life. I lost my job during that time. My husband faces the double burden of his work and family. We are unable to take care of our children and our financial problems have returned. All of this has been unexpected. Nevertheless, we thank God who is faithful! Over the years we have trusted God, he has prepared my husband, my parents and me to be able to face the issues brought about by my illness. By his grace, God has protected us despite my sickness. The love of brothers and sisters continually surrounds us and we are never in want. We are able to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

It is said that, “Faith doesn’t get you around trouble, it gets you through it.” After returning to China and living for years, we are convinced by what we went through that we can face all sorts of difficulties without stumbling with the guidance of God.

People frequently ask, “What is your greatest reward from your experience living overseas”? I wonder if it really is the experience of living overseas or the accreditations I received from institutions. In my opinion, all these do not count. The greatest reward is to be used by God and to become his children. When we once again return to our Motherland and are able to participate in the grand plans of China, this is simply blessed!

And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14) It is my wish that more and more Christians will return to China with a sense of mission and be a blessing to this country!

Image credit: high rising pudong by Fredrik Rubensson, on Flickr

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Lydia Song

Lydia Song (pen name) lived and studied in the US for six-and-a-half years. While there she became a believer in Jesus Christ. She returned to China in 2000. In 2010 she responded to God’s call to serve in returnee ministry and now lives in Beijing with her husband and two …View Full Bio