Blog EntriesReturnees

Friendship and Discipleship


According to the Institute of International Education, there were 328,547 students from China in colleges and universities throughout the United States in 2016. This includes those enrolled in undergraduate, graduate, and “optional practical training” programs.

But it’s not just higher education institutions where Chinese students are found; increasing numbers are now enrolled in high schools. The Institute of International Education reported that in 2013, there were more than 23,000 Chinese students enrolled in secondary schools in the US. A report in Foreign Policy in 2016 indicated that many of them are enrolling in Christian high schools.

What is the experience of international students in the United States? How do they fit in? The website Quartz recently published an article about the “adjustment fatigue” of international students and how they cope:

Many international students respond to the “adjustment fatigue” by sticking to their own. An Indonesian student at the University of Florida laments that, “Their [American students’] conversations revolve around things I am not familiar with. As a result, international students tend to stick closely with each other. Even until today, I still always sit down together with other international students in the dining hall and hesitate to mingle with American students.”

Many, however, find themselves even without the solace of their countrymen. The Journal of International and Intercultural Communication reports that 40% of international students had no close friends amongst their American classmates, a rate that was especially high amongst East Asian students (and incidentally slightly lower for those attending universities in the South). So despite actual numbers of foreign students on the rise, this casts one of the sadder lights on the true internationalization of American campuses.

Did you catch that? 40% of international students had no close friends amongst their American classmates, a rate that was especially high amongst East Asian students.

Last month Foreign Policy returned to the topic of Chinese students, but this time it focused on the numbers of Chinese students who become Christians in the US, but then find their faith faltering when they return home:

Since the early 2010s, increasing numbers of Chinese students have studied abroad, mostly in English-speaking countries; a majority of them have landed in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. Among them, as many as tens of thousands who converted to the Christian faith overseas return to China every year. (No statistics on this trend are publicly available; this estimate reflects conversations with multiple sources close to the issue.)

Yet large numbers of converts give up after coming back to China. Volunteers and missionary staff who have worked for years with Chinese students in the United States estimate that 80 percent of believers eventually stop going to church after returning home. It generally takes time for returnees to find their places again in a country still searching for rules and norms to match its rapid economic and social changes. And because Chinese churches operate under a controlling and suspicious atheist state, the supply of intimate church environments continues to fall short of evidently growing demand.

For those in the US (and other countries where Chinese students are enrolling) who are involved in outreach ministry to international students in general, and Chinese students these trends are sobering.

The need for reaching out in friendship to international students is high, as is the need for strong discipleship of new believers before they return home.

If you want to go deeper into the issue of the challenges facing believers who return to China, please go back and dive into the autumn edition of the ChinaSource Quarterly, “A Call to Partnership in Chinese Returnee Ministry.”

Image credit: Girl With iPad, by Beryl Chan, via Flickr.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio