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A New Year for Those Living in China’s New Normal

From the series Still Serving in China

As we end one year and begin a new one, it’s time to look back and reflect—and take a deep breath, bracing ourselves for what is to come in 2022. For someone peeking into a new and yet unwritten year, you might think I sound cynical and negative rather than hopeful and optimistic. Let me assure you that isn’t the case. I am by nature a positive and optimistic person, but a main ingredient of life is recognizing the realities of our world. So, as we look back and prepare for the future, we need to do so with open hearts and anticipation, but also with awareness of the world around us.

Let’s start by looking back.

It is no surprise to anyone related to China that recent years have been fraught with one challenge after another. Anyone involved in ministry related to China, whether still living in the country or not, can easily compile his or her own list of heartaches and challenges.

First it was the change of the NGO law and the challenges it brought for ministries with respect to registration and transfer of funds.

I’ve written previously about the greatest exodus of expat workers since China’s opening up in the eighties and China welcomed us to live and work or study in their country. For those who have not experienced the pain of sudden, unexpected uprooting it might be easy to think “but wasn’t that several years ago?” Yes, it was in 2017–18 when many were forced out and others left because of what had happened to teammates or others around them.

Then in 2020, just as those who were still in China started to adjust to the sudden departures and ongoing absence of many dear colleagues and friends, they were hit by a new, unexpected reality. In the midst of fireworks and the Chinese New Year holiday, COVID-19 impacted their plans and dreams.

Many were on the “wrong” side of the border when they first time heard the word corona. They had traveled outside of China for the Spring Festival holiday and found themselves far away from their China home, many with only a suitcase full of summer clothes. Many expats—some who had given a large portion of their adult life to serving in China—were now locked out of their adopted home country. Many found themselves hanging around in neighboring countries for months on end waiting and hoping for the green light to return home to China. Eventually most returned to their passport countries.

But what about the ones who were in China when COVID hit? I feel that we sometimes forget about this group of people. More than once in conversations with other international workers I have heard people say that there are no Christian expats left in China. “There’s no one left! They were all forced out or are stuck outside because of COVID.”  Some of them look at me rather doubtfully when I break the news to them that there are foreign Christians still serving in China—I know because I am in personal contact with some of them.

How did that happen? How is it that they are on the “right” side of the border?

Some never left. Others had just returned from their Spring Festival holiday travel when COVID hit. Others, by God’s grace, have managed to get back in, but not without struggling significantly with endless paper work, cancelled and rescheduled flights, and weeks in quarantine—in some cases in multiple cities or places.

It’s this last group, those who are still there, that we want to hear from in the days ahead.

How are they doing? They are grateful to be there and very aware of the fact that many others would do anything to be where they are. But still—being where you are supposed to be helps but being there is not easy.

I have heard repeatedly of heavy workloads due to picking up the work of colleagues who have been unable to return.

I have listened to stories of isolation and loneliness.

In some cases, they have felt frowned upon by Chinese people they encounter in their neighborhoods or on buses, or when shopping in the markets and shops. Though the rest of the world talked about COVID being a Chinese virus, inside China the virus is seen as spread by foreigners.

Since many expats are no longer in the country, the ones who are left have fewer opportunities for fellowship. In many cases the team they had served with is gone and so are other colleagues and Christian expats with whom they could share life, laughter and tears.

As a result, anxiety, depression, and poor mental health impact many. I have heard of workers who in other situations would have been cared for through counselling and in some cases with medication prescribed by a psychiatrist. Nightmares, poor sleep, and even wrestling with suicidal thoughts are things mentioned by those still in China.

We mustn’t forget that this is a very real spiritual battle. The lack of accountability from others in physical proximity have led some workers to online temptations.

Not knowing when it will be possible to leave China is another stressor. Of course, anyone can leave, but would they be able to return? The ones outside want in and the ones inside want to fly but leave with the door open for return.

It is difficult to deal with the unknown and the uncertainty of making plans. Missing your grown children’s weddings or graduations is slowly eating away at the emotions. Each one of us have an Achilles heel and in times of despair not seldom do we get tempted in the same area we have so often struggled before.

Anyone who has ever lived in China would agree that no matter how much you love China, China is not an easy place to live and never has been. Yet, looking back in the rearview mirror we can see that God gave us a window that was open for about thirty years—for us a golden era. The things we were able to do in those days seems hard to imagine now. But still, things were not easy even during that era. None of us took having a visa for granted—every year was a new year of grace.

Difficult times included 1989, Deng Xiaoping’s death, SARS, the 2008 Olympic years, and for those in sensitive minority areas there have been bus bombs and uprisings. Yet, what we see today is a political climate of a different kind. The nationalism is of a new kind. The restrictions of today are of a new variety.

In the coming posts, let’s listen to those who are still there, pray for them, and know better how to support them as they continue in the year ahead.

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Lisa (pseudonym) has lived in Asia since 1995, serving China and working in the area of member care. She moved with her family to be a light among the people God had put on their hearts. After more than ten years the dream suddenly came to a halt and they …View Full Bio

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