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After Four Years Away

The Joys and Challenges of Re-entering China

Since I first arrived in western China in the summer of 2001 for a lingua-cultural exchange, life has been transforming here at a breakneck pace. During that first summer, I remember seeing just one building higher than 10 stories in the entire city: the China Construction Bank tower, rising 28 stories above downtown. Fourteen years later, there must be thousands of such buildings around the city. In 2001, there was just one Dico’s restaurant, the only sign of “western” fast food in the city. The next year, a KFC appeared. Now, there are at least five KFCs, the same number of Dico’s, and three Pizza Huts. In August of this year, two Starbucks stores opened, with a third one on the way soon. Much of the country still sees this city as undeveloped, but many indicators contradict that perception.

I lived here full-time from 2004 until 2011, and I got to see many of these changes firsthand. I was away for four years and have just returned full-time this past August. In my four years away, it seems that the pace of change has only accelerated. Since I left in 2011, a whole new section of the city has been built where fields existed previously. Hundreds of tall buildings went up in that section of the city in just a few years. The city to which I returned is not the same as the one I left in 2011.

Besides these superficial changes that are easier to see, more subtle changes have also begun to show themselves. It’s these changes that have made the adjustment process tricky for me. Working with students and relating with Chinese believers does not work the same way as I remember in 2004

One change seems to be the not-so-exalted status of foreigners. I remember in 2001, as our group of American university students got off the train, we attracted curious onlookers who would just stare at us. In this city, we were an anomaly. When I moved here in 2004, I was still a curiosity. It was easy to engage students in conversation for English practice and friendship building. Now, as I walk through campus, I pass by students with barely a glance in my direction. Since returning in August, I’ve taken up the habit of walking around campus two to three times a week to pray. It’s interesting to walk around the campus in anonymity, even though I stand out almost as much as I did in 2004. Back then, I felt the “superstar” effect, with students flocking to practice English and learn about American culture. Today, I just feel like a regular person on campus.

Chinese students also have different priorities now. Even as late as 2011, English corners and other activities with foreigners were bursting at the seams. English corners that I’ve attended this semester are lucky to attract 15 students; 5-8 is the norm. With social media and the constant presence of their smartphones, students have many alternatives to draw their attention. Universities also keep the students busier than ever, constantly keeping them in class and enforced study sessions. A weekly open house like I did from 2008 until 2011, with 30-50 students in attendance every week, seems impossible to consider now. How are we to engage with today’s students? How can we meet them where they are?

Besides these differences on campus, relating to the Chinese church has also changed. As one of just two Americans from my organization in China, I need to listen well and learn how to be led by our Chinese brothers and sisters. Our relationship continues to evolve as the Chinese church continues to mature.

In 2004, a lot of work was happening with students around the country, but it was only just starting to get more organized. Among these Chinese congregations reaching out to students, little consideration was given to western China and minorities. As Americans, we were invited to go to these minority areas to reach students. Now, the work with students around the country is maturing. Young people are growing into positions of leadership in their congregations, and they are taking leadership of the student work. Today, their vision is turning toward western China, toward minority areas. Rather than Americans and other foreigners leading the way to reach these western areas, Chinese believers are taking the lead in this work. One leader in eastern China told me that what Chinese believers need now from foreigners is mentoring and encouragement in the work that they themselves are doing.

God is preparing people from the eastern part of China to reach minorities and others in western China. He has already sent some, and more are on the way. As foreigners, how do we adjust our role to be one of support, with more mentoring and encouragement, and less outreach and training? How do we come alongside and encourage the work that God is doing through the Chinese themselves

As I continue to adjust to living in China again, I’m excited to see how my role will change. How do I engage students that are now less willing to engage? How do I effectively support the Chinese church in the work that God is doing through them? With all the change that has happened here during the past 15 years and longer, it’s no surprise that my own role as I return would also have significant changes. For those of us who are foreigners living in China, may we all learn how to take the back seat as our Chinese friends do more and more to drive the car and navigate. May God be glorified through his people in China!

Header image: Tim Brookings
Text image credit: Dico’s yunnan-1095 dico's by donuzz via Flickr.
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Tim Brookings

Tim Brookings (pseudonym) grew up in Massachusetts and went to university to study engineering, but soon felt God’s call into student ministry. He has lived in western China for most of the last 11 years, with a four-year gap from 2011 until May 2015 to study theology.  Beginning in August …View Full Bio

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