Supporting Article

When Tea Meets Coffee


The following is a conversation about cross-cultural differences that takes place in an elegant tea house in China. Peony, an overseas Chinese woman, is enjoying afternoon tea with her local Chinese friend, Zoe. Peony has ordered Chinese Jasmine tea while Zoe, being a coffee-lover, ordered a cup of cappuccino. Zoe studied abroad for a post-graduate degree in the 2000s.When she returned home, she found China had changed a lot.

Peony: You love coffee, right?

Zoe: I got used to having a cup of coffee in the morning when I was studying overseas. Now, coffee is quite common here in the cities of China as well. Tea and coffee shops are good places for young people to gather with friends.

Peony: I like this place—very relaxed. It has my favorite tea—Jasmine. I fell in love with it when I got involved in China ministry years ago.

Zoe: I enjoy tea as well—it’s still the most common drink here at home. It’s part of our cultural heritage. However, since the Open Policy in the 1980s, we’ve been exposed to overseas cultures and lifestyles, but the same is not necessarily true in other countries. When I traveled overseas, I found many foreigners who still think China is an ancient dynasty! It made me laugh! I encouraged my overseas friends to visit so they will see the real China.

Peony: Zoe, let’s get started on what we wanted to talk about today. After China opened its doors in 1978, in response to the Great Commission many brothers and sisters from churches and organizations around the world came here to help churches and believers mature. There have been great achievements but also challenges, and cross-cultural issues have been one of the main reasons for those challenges. I would like to ask you, a local Chinese believer, how you think we can bridge the cultural gap.

Zoe: I’m happy to talk with you about cross-cultural issues, but first we should discuss what is happening in China.

Peony: People who live outside China do not fully understand what is happening here. They often have mistaken perceptions about life in China. What are your thoughts about this?

Zoe: Yes, even in this high-tech era, I have noticed that many foreigners still have very little understanding about life in today’s China. To me this is quite strange. For example, an American once asked me, “Does Beijing have electricity”? The question totally shocked me. Even many rural areas in China have had electricity for decades!

I’ll give you another example; this one is related to ministry. Out of love and compassion, some overseas brothers and sisters sent a “music box” to China last year. It looked like an antique—very old. We appreciated their love and kindness, but their gift was completely inappropriate. Today we can access a variety of worship resources online, by app, or by other audio players. We understand they love us, but it would be better if they knew more about China and understood our current situation before deciding on ministry projects.

Peony: It seems updated information isn’t always communicated!

Zoe: No, it isn’t. In my opinion, many foreigners learn about China mainly through the media or older information. Since China is such a huge country, when the media focuses on things happening in just one area, the recipients generalize it for all of China. This gives them an unbalanced—even biased—picture of China as a whole.

Peony: I see. Would it be helpful to set up a platform so that brothers and sisters, both overseas and in China, could exchange information directly?

Zoe: I welcome this idea! It would be particularly helpful to overseas Christian organizations. The resources in God’s family could then be utilized in a more effective and strategic manner.

Peony: There is a saying that foreigners will never be able to understand the way Chinese think and do things. It’s true that many friends from overseas become confused after working with Chinese partners. To them, it seems that Chinese don’t give full attention to a task. Would you mind sharing your thoughts about this?

Zoe: We also have negative impressions and are not always fully comfortable cooperating with many overseas brothers and sisters. A recent survey on partnerships between Chinese and overseas churches or agencies revealed that the number one challenge for such partnerships is cross-cultural issues, including differing expectations of relationships.

Peony: I understand—relationships play a critical role in Eastern culture. Since I’ve been in China, I’ve learned the Chinese saying: “You guanxi, jiu mei guanxi,” (With relationship, nothing is a problem).

Zoe: Chinese often feel overseas partners pay attention only to the task and just want to get the job done. Sometimes, they don’t seem to care about us and our feelings. In the survey, some Chinese interviewees felt they were being controlled and not respected. Some said, “Overseas partners have their own agendas and schedules and just want us to follow their instructions to complete their goals.”

Peony: How do Chinese get the job done with right relationships?

Zoe: In Chinese culture, a genuine relationship is very important. Before we start a partnership, we need to build trust. My impression is that foreigners don’t need to build relationships with others to form a partnership—they just start working together. For Chinese, this is difficult; we spend time getting to know one another first, then move on to the next step.

Peony: Can you give an example?

Zoe: Drinking tea together is one of the main ways to build relationships in Chinese culture.

Peony: Just like we’re doing now. It seems we are moving in the right direction!

Zoe: Around the tea table, we spend time with friends, get to know each other, and see the possibility of building a trust relationship. But foreigners tend to think this relationship building is a waste of time. Their mind-set is “get the job done,” and that’s all.

Peony: Yet, I sometimes wonder how Chinese strike a balance between relationship building and getting things done effectively.

Zoe: Are you talking about the Chinese church leaders who attended various conferences last month conducted by different overseas organizations with conflicting, overlapping schedules?

Peony: Yes, it was quite interesting that Chinese church leaders chose to attend just half a day or perhaps one day at each conference. I understand it’s all about relationships, but did they lose the opportunity to benefit from the conferences by trying to attend all of them?

Zoe: It didn’t matter if they benefited from the conferences; they just wanted to maintain relationships with each overseas organization. If they had chosen to attend only one conference for the whole week and declined the other invitations, they felt they would have caused the hosts of the other conferences to lose face.

Peony: Since they only attended part of each conference, do you think the conference hosts were happy with their involvement?

Zoe: Perhaps not. Overseas organizations might need to coordinate among themselves to avoid scheduling conferences at the same time. From a Chinese perspective, excusing one’s self from a conference definitely causes the host to lose face. This kind of situation puts the Chinese church leaders in an embarrassing position. In order to save face for these overseas organizations, their only option was to attend all the conferences but not for the entire time. Chinese worry about creating unnecessary estrangement from others if they don’t save face for them.

Peony: Still, in a recent survey, Chinese Christians said they like exchanges with overseas parties because it broadens their perspective, and I think these conferences can help do that. For me, the way the Chinese dealt with the conflicting schedules was a bit negative. Could this have been handled in a more positive way?

Zoe: I think Chinese church leaders handled this in a positive and respectful way. They didn’t complain; rather, they accommodated all the overseas organizations. When the schedules conflicted, they were flexible in their use of time and accepted each conference invitation graciously. Saving face is a way that Chinese show respect to others.

Peony: Do men and women handle this situation differently?

Zoe: Both men and women strive to save face for others. I think Chinese men might be more conscious about saving their own faces. In Chinese tradition, men play leading roles, and they need to maintain a respectable image.

Peony: Since relationships are so important in Chinese culture, do you think Chinese are effective in communicating their thoughts and preferences?

Zoe: In a cross-cultural setting, communication is always a challenge—differing concepts, distinct perspectives, varying approaches, and so on.

Peony: Is language a big barrier?

Zoe: Even when speaking the same language, miscommunication can happen.

Peony: Can you give an example?

Zoe: Sure. I heard this from a local Chinese friend. He discussed a matter with his pastor’s wife, an overseas Chinese, but both were native Chinese speakers. He then told her: “Ni bu yong guan.” In a mainland Chinese context, his message was: “You don’t need to take care of it,” meaning he would handle the matter so as not to burden her. But to an overseas Chinese, that message meant: “It’s none of your business,” implying she was unable to handle the matter and was no longer needed. She felt hurt.

Peony: The Chinese language is fascinating—and sometimes confusing!

Zoe: One should always be aware of the context before attempting to interpret the message. For example, saying “No,” is not welcome in China.

Peony: Then how do Chinese say “No?” Or do they never say it?

Zoe: (smiling) Please don’t be surprised if a Chinese doesn’t say “No” to something he doesn’t like. Unless it is entirely intolerable, a Chinese just doesn’t want to use that word.

Peony: I understand that. One time, I joined an overseas missionary to meet with a Chinese church leader. The missionary, who spoke very fluent Mandarin, supplied tons of Christian literature and the church leader helped to distribute it all over the country. They met to discuss how their Christian literature distribution project was going. I was surprised at what the Chinese church leader told me later.

Zoe: Why? What did he say?

Peony: He said Chinese living in the cities already had enough books to read and didn’t have time to read them all. Given that the overseas missionary loved China and wanted to distribute Christian literature, he was willing to help her with the project—by getting rid of the books into the hands of Chinese!

Zoe: Oh, that is so sad! Yet, I am not surprised. The church leader hesitated to say “No” because he recognized that the missionary loved them very much!

Peony: I am still wondering why he didn’t explain the situation to the missionary previously.

Zoe: Maybe he did tell her before, but she didn’t listen—or she didn’t understand. Having enough Christian books to read was probably entirely out of her concept or imagination. Maybe the Chinese church leader was more willing to tell the truth to an overseas Chinese than to a foreigner.

Peony: You mean Chinese may tell one thing to an overseas Chinese, but another thing to a foreigner?

Zoe: Yes, that may happen.

Peony: You mean, Chinese are accustomed to telling . . . lies?

Zoe: Chinese don’t see it as telling lies. Some Chinese tend to tell good things to please outsiders; this is a way that they serve their guests. Sometimes, they don’t want to hurt the feelings of others. In other cases, they don’t want to expose their limitations in order to save their own face, unless they have gained enough trust with the other person.

Peony: That’s why you are willing to share more of your thoughts with me—an overseas Chinese?

Zoe: Of course! We are both Chinese. This draws us closer. I would still trust my foreign friends, once I had built up good relationships with them. But it’s generally much easier for Chinese to connect with other ethnic Chinese because we understand each other better.

Peony: Again, it’s all about relationships and saving face.

Zoe: That’s true!

Peony: Another interesting thing I’ve noticed is that overseas and Chinese Christians seem to react differently to some government policies. For instance, recently new policies regarding overseas NGOs as well as a draft of new religious policies have come out. When you read comments from overseas, it’s all darkness and hopelessness. But if you listen to the Chinese, you hear mixed reactions, including some who think nothing really serious is happening. Why is that?

Zoe: Oh, this is a bit complicated. From a Western perspective, a law is a law; people are expected to follow it. But for Chinese, we have our own understanding as to how to interpret policies, and we also have our own ways of dealing with them.

Peony: I learned the Chinese saying: “Shang you zheng ce, xia you dui ce,” (The authorities have their measures; we have our countermeasures).

Zoe: Whenever the government introduces a new policy, we may not agree with it, but most Chinese will show respect for authority and not openly protest it. We’ll simply ignore it and quietly follow the old way. The authorities also “open one eye and close the other”—unless the issue is really harmful to national security. They won’t look for trouble by arresting those who are against a policy. This is our Chinese “system.”

Peony: It’s a big job to learn Chinese culture—just like learning about all the different kinds of Chinese tea!

Zoe: It’s the same for learning about different kinds of coffee! When there is more interaction and partnership between China and overseas countries, people will understand that we speak, think, and do things in very different ways. It’s not just about language. More than language skills, we need listening ears and humble hearts.

Peony: In Hong Kong there is a beverage that is a mixture of tea and coffee. Perhaps we need to mix with each other more often to learn and understand each other better.

Zoe: I’ll second that!

Image credit: Coffee Tea + the Great Wall of China by Dawn Danby via Flickr.

Peony Tang

Peony Tang is an overseas Chinese experienced in managing research projects. She has been participating in China ministry in the areas of research and project management for ten years.  View Full Bio


Zoe Zhou

Dr. Zoe Zhou is an indigenous Chinese researcher with cross-cultural exposure, notably with overseas churches, for over ten years. She is passionate about sharing the current situation in China with overseas communities. View Full Bio