Sergei Karjakin, a young man of 26 from Russia, has been preparing since March of this year for a trip to New York City in November—but this is not to be a holiday. He is getting ready, instead, to face the supreme battle of his life. After his arrival in New York, he will take his seat across the table from another young man, Magnus Carlson (25), currently the World Champion, and the two will begin the grueling contest, held each year, to decide who will become the next champion. It will be a battle of the mind that will severely test the intellectual prowess and stamina of both players, for Karjakin plays chess, and plays it very well. Having won the Candidates Chess 2016 Tournament against the world’s best professionals in March, he emerged as the only one, among the earth’s 700 million chess players, who will have this chance to contend with the champion.
You can be sure that Karjakin is not just relaxing and hoping for the best. In the months leading up to November, he has been meticulously analyzing every tournament game that Magnus Carlson has played over the past few years, looking for weaknesses, checking for patterns in his playing style, hoping, among the thousands of recorded moves of Carlson’s pawns, knights, bishops, and rooks, to find a fatal flaw, a tiny recurring oversight that he can exploit during the coming games to rout the champion and seize his title. Karjakin knows that he may only have this one chance in his lifetime; his destiny depends entirely on how well he prepares.
Let’s compare and contrast this with the typical Chinese student who has come to believe in Christ while studying in the West. We will call him Wei, and he will, for the purpose of our discussion, represent the hundreds of young Chinese who convert to the Christian faith each year while studying abroad.
When he returns home after graduation, Wei, like Karjakin, will face the supreme battle of his life. From the moment he steps off the plane in China, his new faith will be tested as it has never been tested before. Unlike Karjakin, however, Wei is doing nothing to prepare for it. In fact, Wei is completely unaware of the challenges that he will face and has no premonition of the impending destruction of his Christian life. Moreover, no one is warning Wei about what is to come or helping him to think realistically about how he will survive as a Christian.
Karjakin has a trainer, Vladimir Potkin (one of several), who selflessly devotes his time and energy to getting his contender ready for the coming battle. Vladimir spends hours on research, coming up with new and innovative moves that Sergei can draw on to present the champion with a few nasty surprises.
While overseas, Wei has Bob, his kindly mentor, who leads a small group Bible discussion in English for international students near the university, and who also meets with him once a week for additional one-on-one Bible study. Bob is actually quite good at explaining the Bible, and his illustrations and applications reveal that he has a clear understanding of the current issues that university students face.
But Bob is no Vladimir—he is not focused on Wei’s future, has little understanding of China or Chinese cultural issues, and does not know what challenges Wei will face when he returns home. Wei also does not know—he has never been a Christian in China before! Even if Bob should learn something about these challenges, he has no strategy, materials, or methods that he could use to help Wei to prepare for them. Wei also is quite reluctant to think about his future; he just wants to enjoy his student life abroad for as long as he can.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, and each passing day brings Wei a bit closer to his “time of testing” (Luke 8:13) when he will be “sifted like wheat” (Luke 22:31).
Returnee Conflicts and Challenges
Ideally, what does Bob need to know about the conflicts and challenges that are waiting for Wei in China? Why will it be so hard for Wei to pack up his faith, acquired while overseas, take it home, and unpack it in his own culture?
The issues are many, and they begin with isolation, identity, and culture shock—these will eat away at Wei’s emotional well-being for months after his return. Then, while he is still navigating these rough waters, conflicts and challenges will appear from all sides, forcing him to make the most painful choices while repeatedly testing his loyalty to his new faith. The challenges will hit him especially hard in the areas of life that matter most: family, work, and church.
Let us now quickly survey some of the challenges that Christian returnees face in China. Wei, thankfully, will not have to contend with all of these, but he will certainly have enough to keep him busy.
Isolation, Identity, and Culture Shock
- Going home alone. From the moment a homeward-bound student boards the plane, all social support for his or her Christian faith is gone. Isolation immediately begins to take its toll. The free dinners, outings, picnics, fun activities, and cross-cultural friendships that the new converts once enjoyed in Christian groups overseas have all come to an end.
- Separating Christianity from the West. For some students, there is a strong association between experiences in the West and the Christian faith—and it can be hard to separate the two. This is especially true for those whose entire Christian experience has been in English. Having never discovered what it means to be a Chinese Christian, a student may unconsciously presume that leaving the West means leaving Christianity behind.
- Adjusting once more to the traffic, noise, and crowded conditions of China. Readjusting to life in China may take some time. Some returnees now have concerns about food safety and the health effects of China’s air and water pollution, even if they never had these concerns before.
- Experiencing reentry (or reverse) culture shock. This is usually unexpected, begins to set in immediately, and can last from about six months to one year (or even longer!). Returnees may struggle with feelings of not belonging or not fitting in. They may experience deep feelings of loss and “homesickness” for the host country. Since these feelings are not understood or appreciated by friends and relatives who have never left home, the returnees tend to withdraw and dream about going back overseas. Many find that their feelings are only understood by other returnees.
- Personal space: For some, returning home means moving back in with parents and other family members. Every movement is under parental scrutiny. The freedom, privacy, independence, and personal space that students enjoyed overseas are gone.
- Use of Sunday: Families may be opposed to church attendance because of when it occurs. Sunday is a family day in many parts of Asia. Spending time at church, especially when it takes most of the day, may be viewed as not caring about family.
- Ancestor worship: Traditional Chinese families that practice ancestor worship or temple rituals will often expect or demand that their children participate. For new believers who are not prepared to negotiate their way through this conflict, the pressure can be intense, and the result is often capitulation.
- Political concerns: Parents and other family members may express concern about political problems due to children being open about their faith. Returnees themselves may have genuine fears about the possibility of trouble with the authorities or suffering career repercussions because of attending illegal Christian gatherings.
- Marriage: Female students, especially, may face pressure from their parents to marry non-Christians after they return. This can be very difficult to resist, especially when there are no eligible Christian men! Marrying a non-Christian, however, will make it difficult, if not impossible, to practice the Christian faith.
- Finding a job: This is usually not as easy as the returnees expected. They often find that there is intense competition for any job openings. This may predispose them to accept the first job that is offered.
- Long work hours: If they succeed in finding a job, they may immediately be faced with crushing and brutally long hours at work along with a long commute. Chronic exhaustion can become a way of life.
- Moral and ethical compromise: The Chinese workplace often leads Christians into a variety of moral and ethical compromises. Cheating, lying to customers, bribery, corruption, kickbacks, tax evasion, false accounting, and alcohol abuse are often the norm. Failure to go along with these practices can result in being fired.
- Financial pressures: Pressure to buy a house or repay relatives who financed their overseas education may drive returnees to seek the highest-paying positions, regardless of the personal consequences or cost to their spiritual lives.
- Finding a church: When returnees try to get involved in Chinese churches, they often discover that it is not easy. In the first place, it may be hard to even find a church since many meet secretly in undisclosed locations. In addition, after years of persecution, many churches are suspicious of newcomers and not very welcoming.
- Having high expectations: Returnees often search for a church just like the one they attended while overseas; but they soon discover that it is impossible to find—there is no church like that in China. At the nearby churches they visit, they often notice huge gaps in age, education, and social status between themselves and the church members. This can make it difficult for them to make friends or feel like they belong. So, after they visit two or three, they just give up.
- Hidden returnee fellowships: In cities where returnee fellowships exist, newly arriving returnees will often find a warm welcome. However, these groups can be hard to find—and many returnees do not even know they exist.
Given all of the challenges they face, there is little chance that new believers will make it if they go it alone. Their only chance of surviving as Christians is by joining a close-knit, faith community.
It has been two years now since Wei’s return. He visited the local Three-Self church a few times during his first month back in China, but that was before he found a job. The demands of his first job proved to be more than he could have ever imagined, even in his worst nightmares! He travels constantly now on company business, and routinely works through evenings, weekends, and holidays—it has literally taken over his life.
Could this have been avoided? Wei often wonders. Perhaps he would have turned down this job if only someone had warned him in advance. But he came back from overseas without a plan, without anticipating any of the shocks that came his way, and he has suffered one defeat after another.
Could some training and preparation prior to his return have produced a better outcome?
Image credit: SaltLakeCity2007 017 by Lawrence,
Stuart (pen name) plays chess as a hobby and befriends Chinese students in the UK. After living in Asia for nearly 11 years serving in returnee ministry, he completed a doctoral research project on the struggles of Chinese Christian returnees in which he documented how much help they have received by participating in returnee fellowship groups.View Full Bio