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Drawing Boundaries amidst Ambiguity

From the series Still Serving in China

What is the most important thing I would want someone going to China to know?

This month as I celebrate my twelfth Lunar New Year living in the Middle Kingdom, I find myself reflecting upon this question. I imagine sitting down with a like-minded friend who is preparing to go abroad and wishing for them to know, more than anything else, of the immense ambiguity they will soon live within and the necessary boundaries that will help them thrive.

Ambiguity in Culture

While any cross-cultural worker’s experience is bound to be colorful, I believe there is an added layer for those who are serving cross-culturally within their ethnic culture of origin. As a born and raised Canadian Chinese, I grew up never thinking much about my dual-cultural background. However, after my husband (also Canadian Chinese) and I responded to the call to move overseas, following God to the dusty migrant towns and factories of southern China, we found ourselves confronted (and challenged!) by our Chinese heritage like never before.

We were Chinese but without language ability and cultural understanding, not Chinese enough. We were Western but to those from migrant towns, not Western enough. Because we were not fully either, we were neither, and often criticized for being such. Second-guessing ourselves became a way of life. “Should we say that? Will we offend people? When we push back to uphold our values, how much is too much?” And in the darkest moments of frustration and weariness, “Why, Father, why are we here?”

Ambiguity in Work

When we landed in 2010 to serve through business we began at a local factory. Two foreigners of Chinese descent among 200 local factory works and suspicious white-collared staff, none of whom spoke English. Ambiguity from culture was compounded here as mainland Chinese business culture and practices added another layer. They questioned our existence, our intentions, and our identities; wondering if we were the boss’s special agents sent to spy on them.

We never lost sight of the mission but we couldn’t help but feel stuck, like our hands were tied. Even to this day, though we have settled into our workplaces and have command of the language, the tension still exists and we still second-guess ourselves, wondering if we’re doing this right.

Ambiguity in Serving

After five years, we started to get our footing in serving. We struggled between international churches, house churches, and TSPM churches. Within the local church scene, even back when things were less restricted, it was never quite clear what was allowed and what wasn’t. Navigating that as foreigners was difficult and sometimes dangerous. Eventually, we heard a specific call to invest in the local TSPM community, which is where we are still serving today.

Within local church, believers have certain expectations of fellow believers. We are expected to give up time with our spouse and children, and anything “fun” in order to serve. Rest is often frowned upon. Especially in a blue-collar context, when they find out you’re from the West, with a certain educational background, they may expect you to provide English training, church plant, preach and teach, and be able to share the Good News more effectively. This means requests at inopportune times, and invitations to show up with very little detail on what you are expected to do.

After years of this kind of “dropping what you’re doing to serve” rhythm, I found myself weary, easily annoyed, and more reclusive than before. The line between what we were called to do and what was expected of us had blurred and it was taxing.

The Importance of Boundaries

I used to think that serving was everything. I had acclimated to a certain cultural expectation to sacrifice family time to serve the community. My husband and children accommodated every time an emergency in the community arose. This rhythm created very little time for us together as a family, to rest together. We would meet together logistically or practically, but not relationally. When the outside environment challenged us, we had no buffer left with which to cope.

In 2020, due to COVID-19, my family and I spent almost a year back home in North America. During that time, I recognized unhealthiness in our rhythms. I needed to make time and space to return, rest, be quiet, and trust (Isaiah 30:15).

Without clear boundaries, burn out is just around the corner. The abundant life can no longer be sustained, and therefore, the purpose of the call cannot be fulfilled. Boundaries help create margin and while rest and relational strength take time to store up, they are necessary so that when the need comes, you have it banked.

Upon returning to China, I drew boundaries with peers and mentees; naturally there was pushback and disappointment. It has taken time and consistent effort to protect my rest in this way. I needed to resist the impulse to meet every need. By making more space to be with God, I began to naturally know more of his heart and intention for his people. That gave me strength to meet the next urgent need with the required discernment from Father.

We have also incorporated special boundaries to protect our family and couple time. We set aside Sundays after church for rest and family Sabbath. We sing, share our burdens and thanksgivings, pray for one another, read the Word, and share a special treat. This is a time that the children look forward to every week now.

On Mondays my husband and I have a couple’s Sabbath when the kids are back at school. We set apart the morning to spend time together that does not include any logistical talk. This is where we make pre-decisions and discern the week ahead. These conversations have helped us anticipate challenges and face them together, because our partnership has to be strong first.

Ambiguity is a constant; being mis-seen, misheard, and misunderstood are part of the call. Thankfully, Father has not left us to ourselves. I have found a new freedom in these changed rhythms and hope those co-laboring with me can experience this same sustaining balance as well.

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Jess Yun

Jess Yun (pseudonym) lives and serves in China with her husband and two young children. Since moving to China in 2010, Jess has developed a passion to teach, encourage, and love Chinese people deeply. Her calling is to use her unique gifts and experience as a Canadian-born Chinese to raise …View Full Bio

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