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Café Encounters

From the series Still Serving in China

“I’m stunned you’re actually sitting here.”

We had spent the past hour sharing our stories. Her journey of formation in the faith, years in ministry, burnout, conflict, and a recent season of struggle and aridity. My extended re-entry after years of delay, uncertainty, and COVID-related red tape. Yet there we were, sipping mochas at a local café as we discerned the hand of God at work amidst the wilderness of our present lives. “If He’s brought you this far, and against all odds,” she continued, “He certainly has something marvelous prepared for you here.”

Don’t ask me how I managed to re-enter this country. Between plane tickets, work permits, pre-departure testing requirements, and a hair-raising re-entry saga starring big tech-China and the local Juweihui (neighborhood committee), I might as well have parted the Red Sea. Talk to an airline or spend more than twenty minutes inside an expat-run WeChat group, and you’ll discern a pretty unambiguous message: China is closed. I can’t argue with this statement. But I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a paradoxical proposition of my own: From the inside, I have never encountered in China an openness and hunger like this before.

I see it with my students. My thoughts turn to a pair of learners eager to treat me to a drink at a café. From the nature of the US’s COVID response to the prospects of American college graduates to the truth about the dating scene in western culture, I couldn’t satiate their curiosity fast enough. As our two-hour exchange drew to a close, one of the girls confided her bisexual attraction and spoke candidly about a recent romantic relationship with a fellow student. It wasn’t an awkward conversation. I hadn’t planned for that level of vulnerability; trust simply manifested.

I’m haunted by the gaggle of girls who treated me to a restaurant lunch back in September. In some sense the small talk and linguistic awkwardness inherent in the interaction were par for the course. But below the surface I discerned an honest lostness at this stage of life, a restless searching for the right way forward, and deep yearning for a source of steadfast security. They’re studying at one of the most prestigious universities on the mainland. Yet the GPA- and test-score-driven competition for graduate scholarships presses down like a yoke upon their wearied shoulders. Forget finding a job upon graduation: the COVID economy has sunk their career prospects. Lockdowns and restrictions have disrupted their social and emotional lives as well. They try to find solace in shopping, in hobbies, and in burying themselves in academic work. It isn’t working. In opening up to an outsider like me over lunch, I can’t help think they were also subtly seeking an outside answer to a lifestyle that is not nourishing their youthful souls. What haunts me is the recognition that I do, in fact, have that Answer.

I’ve encountered it amongst members of the urban middle class. When I suffered an accident on the premises of my gated community, my landlord rushed to the local hospital to check up on me. As I sat helpless, he navigated the byzantine medical system, ushering me into an X-ray chamber, procuring a bagful of medication, and jumping on JD (an e-commerce company) to order the pair of crutches the infirmary somehow did not have (They were delivered to the hospital door within 25 minutes.). Days later he personally picked me up outside my apartment and drove me back for further tests and the follow-up consultation. He then treated me to lunch at a nearby restaurant.

This is a married man with school-aged children and significant responsibilities as a property manager. Why was he spending eight hours he did not have to personally preside over my physical well-being? “That’s Chinese culture: a leader must care for those who belong to him, and as his “special” foreign tenant you fall under the aegis of his responsibility.” Fair enough. But that doesn’t explain the ways he opened up to me over lunch and in the car. We bonded spontaneously over the shared experience of living abroad, found refreshment in our mutual appreciation for the culinary arts, and compared notes with respect to Chinese and Western cuisine.

As the conversation unfolded, he subtly broached the topic of the hardships brought upon tenants, small businesses, and other municipal residents by the stringent COVID policies. Within this context, the story of my extended reentry served as a moving testimony of the value I place upon living amongst his people and within his city. He was visibly moved. You can’t manufacture this kind of chemistry. It’s bestowed from above.

It’s at work amongst believers, too. I ate with a local leader recently. His eyes lit up as I relayed my passion for spiritual formation and my desire to see the faithful deeply rooted in the Vine through the daily practice of intentional spiritual disciplines. “I’d like to hear more about your vision,” he replied. “Let’s see if we can find a time for you to meet with my team and share it with them.” Being networked by a mutual friend had helped to establish trust. Still, how could I account for such a hunger here for precisely the contribution I have been prepared to make?

“Every other foreigner I’ve known has been moving in the opposite direction,” my coffeeshop comrade eventually confided. “It isn’t just COVID, it’s the changing climate.” It struck me that I was no longer “just another expat” in Chinese eyes. The entire trajectory of my life now stands as a living refutation of what has become convention: “Foreigners? On their way out. Opportunities? Sealed shut. Ministry among locals? Unworkable.”

Don’t ask me where it all leads. What I can tell you is this: If you’re willing to push past the most onerous travel restrictions imaginable, set foot on Chinese soil, and humbly place yourself alongside everyday urban residents racked with the inarticulate ache for life. . . Then amidst a society increasingly strained to the breaking point, you will find the harvest that awaits you as white as it has ever been.

For more on the current situation for expatriates wanting to serve in China, see “Expatriates Serving in China’s New Era: Recent Developments, Future Prospects” in the 2022 winter issue of ChinaSource Quarterly.

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Image credit: Tao on Unsplash.


Caedmon (pseudonym) studied history as an undergraduate before going to China to teach English to college students. After several years in the chilly northeast, he returned to his home country for theological education. The past decade has brought to him a clear call to return, along with the challenge of …View Full Bio

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