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From the series Still Serving in China

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two posts written by “Caedmon” who continues to serve in China—although for a time from afar. Part one is about that time from afar.

Good morning! Seven o’clock has come, and it’s time to start your day. You have 20 minutes to put breakfast together. The drone of the blender, the click of the toaster, and before you know it all your housemates have gathered around the dining room table: it’s time for morning devotions. The fellowship is edifying, as always. But as eight o’clock rolls around you politely excuse yourself while others are still at prayer. You see, you have an appointment to keep with someone 12 time zones away. For the next two hours you parse verbs and make conversation in front of a computer screen. A Mandarin textbook is propped up against a tray to your left. A Zoom screen is blaring blue light into your eyes on the right. Your Beijing-based tutor, whom you pay for thrice-weekly Mandarin lessons, has just typed the latest syntactical structure into the chat box. Later you’ll copy and paste the entire chat history into Word, before color-coding it for vocabulary review. You’re groggy. You need to use the bathroom. And you’re still in your pajamas. But at least he showed up on time and the internet connection was good.

It’s the weekend! And like most other Americans, you’re keen to unwind with some friends this Friday evening. Unlike them, however, you’ve got your eye on the clock. It would be nice to stay for dessert, to enjoy another drink, or to play some of the board games that were just laid out. But something’s coming your way at six tomorrow morning, and you’d best be rested. Sure enough, at 5:30 on Saturday morning you roll out of bed, throw on a button-up shirt, and open your MacBook Air in preparation for section three of British and American Literature. Before long, the sun will rise. Opening the blinds, you realize yours is the only window on the whole block with a light on. So be it: you’re a full-time employee of a prestigious Chinese university, and your overseas students have just finished their evening meal. As they trickle into your virtual classroom, they wonder what new content you have in store for them this time around. For your part, you wonder how you’re going to get your head on straight enough to say something intelligent about Chaucer as you punch the share screen button. “At least,” you reason, “this is better than two in the morning.” Indeed, you’re fortunate to work with a department willing to modify your original schedule. Less fortunate are your friends, who will witness yet another early departure this evening: because on Sunday morning at six, you’re off to the races again.

Another family gathering! Thanksgivings, birthdays, graduations… Indeed, it’s pleasant to share these precious moments while they last. But while watching your nieces run to and fro across an expansive living room floor, you notice your cell phone has “pinged” yet again. You know that tone, and it takes all of your self-control not to check the latest message. After supper, no one is doing anything in particular. You, however, are putting together some crafts at the dining room table for a gift you’ll soon send to a friend overseas. When morning rolls around, your parents and in-laws are huddled around the kitchen island, sipping coffee and nibbling donuts. You excuse yourself to head upstairs to the office, where you sign on to a two-hour support meeting with colleagues from Europe.

Isn’t it strange? Those who are supposed to be the closest to you haven’t the slightest inkling of what it’s like to live in your shoes. They’re friendly enough. They mean well. But below the surface, they simply can’t understand why you’re still single, still transient, and still working for peanuts for an overseas employer who can’t get their act together enough to send you a visa. “When is he finally going to grow up?! Hasn’t he gotten this ‘China bug’ out of his system?”

The ones who really empathize are an ocean away. They’ve suffered through two years of covid stasis, lost careers and possessions, and have themselves faced dispossession as travel restrictions sealed them off from cities they had long learned to call home. Now as you all meet on Zoom for prayer, you find new strength and hope to persevere through the continually unfolding unknown that is waiting on China. What’s it like to live in your home country as a sojourner? How to manage when you cannot honestly plan more than three months in advance? What to make of recent decisions regarding the Olympics, significant Party meetings, and travel restrictions? Are you doing OK…really? These are the questions your spiritual family helps you to live into. And these are the kinds of updates and prayer requests that are texted your way in group chats each day. Despite the comfort, you worry: is it wrong to put so much stock in people that you’ve never met in person?

Have you wondered what it’s like to be “called to China” during such a time as this? I hope these vignettes have given you a taste of what is involved in trying to return, a flavor of the cost of faithfulness.

These aren’t isolated experiences patched together from a handful of Sinophiles. They emerge from a single life: my own. And the lifestyle fragmentation they attest to is the most difficult trial I’ve faced in my decades-long journey of faith. Many couples, families, and singles have stared into the face of this fragmentation and decided to turn away. For them, it is simply not a sustainable (or survivable) status quo. But I am among those who have clearly discerned the Lord’s leading to carry on. He has asked me to pick up my cross and follow him through an uncharted wilderness of weakness.

I’ve never felt so powerless. I’ve never felt so tired. And I’ve never felt more dependent upon a higher power to be the glue that holds my fragile, fragmented life together. Yet hold it together he does: He remains, as ever, the rock of my salvation.

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Image credit: Robert Anasch @diesektion via 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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