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Can I Leave Now?

I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, living and working in China with my family—nearly all that time in a remarkably stable situation. I am thankful for the things I have been able to do, and for the amazing life we have had. Many things have gotten easier over the years: food, language, and cultural differences are now only rarely jarring, and most of the time they are sources of great joy and even comfort.

Over the past couple of years many of our fellow China workers have left, all across China. It is likely impossible to say precisely how many of us have moved out of China in recent years, but anecdotally it feels like . . . half? Or maybe more?

Some were forced to leave long before they were ready, leaving wounds in their lives and holes in the communities from which they were removed. A few left out of the conviction that their work in China was finished, that there were other things calling for their attention in other places. Many left because the stress, fear, and sheer difficulty of staying in China made remaining too costly—either financially or emotionally. And now with COVID-19: who will actually return? And when?

As China workers we love China. We love the people around us. For those privileged to serve here for longer periods of time, it is easy to fall in love with many aspects of Chinese life: fresh food daily, the emphasis on relationships over efficiency, accessible and affordable public transportation, the importance of family, the different pace of life. Some of us may even find great comfort in a different (more comfortable?) standard of living.

And yet despite all this—the stuff of newsletters—we all know that the same “China” that we love so much is doing its best to make it easy for us to leave. The joys of successfully communicating across cultural barriers are mitigated by those inescapable instances of frustrated communication that still occur, though thankfully less often, even after decades of residence in China. And all that emphasis on relationships is a joy, until a bad relationship costs you a permit, an opportunity, or perhaps even your residence in China, and it feels as if there is nothing you can do to fix it.

A friend of mine says that every year China has a “thing,” some major event or campaign that disrupts our lives dramatically. Olympics, natural disasters, diseases, spy planes and bombs, political transitions and protests: each year China throws a storm at us, invariably providing us with an excellent opportunity to quit. Visas are increasingly difficult to secure and keep. Government officials are generally unwilling to have anything to do with foreigners. The private sector is increasingly skewed in favor of local entities, squeezing foreign businesses out of the marketplace. And as the Chinese state increasingly asserts its power overseas, foreigners are increasingly represented to Chinese people as suspect—and even dangerous. The truth is that “China” doesn’t really want us.

So, as a new acquaintance asked me last week, “why do you stay?” after all these years living and working in China, I can tell you honestly that I am tired. I am tired of having the same conversation over and over again, struggling to convince officials and potential partners that I am not dangerous. I am tired of cajoling and pleading with an endless parade of local officials to give me permission for an equally endless list of things that require permission. I am tired of the look of suspicion and wariness with which I am greeted in 9 out of 10 interactions.

I am not naïve: this is what I signed up for, and I’ve had decades of success at this—and found joy in those victories. I understand the historical and systemic reasons for that suspicion and fear, and have developed a host of ways to respond. But feeling so unwelcome in the place I think of as my home: that takes a psychological toll. And after more than two decades I don’t know how much longer I can take it.

So why do I stay?

1. First of all, I need to be honest and recognize that all of this, of course, is the discourse of privilege. For so many in the world, the feeling of being unwelcome at “home” is daily and inescapable. Whether due to racial discrimination, ethnic or religious persecution, economic oppression, or situations of domestic abuse, billions of people around the world bear with the daily experience of being unwanted in the place where they have made their lives. Our faith does not guarantee us a welcome on this earth. On the contrary, the Son of Man had no place to lay his head, and he was publicly reviled. This side of eternity, we should expect nothing different.

2. It is also important to remember that after many years of life in China, the security of going home is an illusion. The old proverb that you can never cross the same river twice is true: long-term cross-cultural work changes us and in doing so changes our relationship with “home”—and meanwhile “home” itself has also been changed by the passing years. We often refer to this sense of being out of place as culture shock or reverse culture shock, viewing it as a symptom to be managed and overcome.

But do you really wish to be the same person you were before you came to China and went through the humbling, sanctifying experience of cross-cultural incarnational living? The changes—the growth—that life in China brings is a blessing that allows us to experience more directly what it means to be aliens and strangers whether in China or our passport country. While this alienation is painful, at its best it drives us to refocus our attention on our true home in that better country, that promised land for which creation groans..

3. Finally, I am just beginning to learn that perhaps all of this is related to the passages in scripture about sharing in the sufferings of Christ. While I have always tended to view those verses in terms of physical persecution (beating, martyrdom, etc.), the pattern of our Lord’s ministry on this earth was one of constant suspicion and rejection. The leaders of his day hounded him, while nearly every time he spoke or acted he was confronted by those who doubted who he was and what he was doing or saying. Even in his hometown, he was not welcome. Could it be that there is an important spiritual lesson—one close to the heart of our Savior—that can only be learned through suspicion, discrimination, and rejection? Am I willing to do what it takes to learn that lesson?

With each year that my family remains in China those missionary biographies that have inspired generations of cross-cultural workers become more relatable. As another colleague recently pointed out, we admire those heroes of the faith precisely because they stayed even though it was so difficult. And so we stay.

When China delivers those annual (monthly? daily?) storms, we look for ways to manage and treat the stress that living in China brings—and all the symptoms that arise from that stress. Some day God may direct us to different work in a different place, and I hope we will be sensitive and obedient to that call. But until that day we persevere through the frustration, alienation, and anxiety, trusting that if we seek first the coming kingdom then our loving Father who knows exactly what we need will provide for us—even in the midst of China’s latest storm. Maybe that’s why he keeps us here.

Image credit: Gone by Gauthier DELECROIX – 郭天 via Flickr.
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Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China.View Full Bio

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