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Getting Out of the Bubble


Could I live with you for a month?

Shortly after we moved back to the States after living in Asia for many years, a Chinese researcher from a major university in China approached us asking if he could spend his last month in the US living with us. It wasn’t that his lease had expired or his stipend was running low. Rather, he realized that although he had lived in the American Midwest for a year doing research at a well-respected American university—he had experienced very little of American life and had very few non-Chinese friends.

His colleagues in the lab where he worked were almost all Chinese and Mandarin was their primary language of communication. His housemates were all Chinese; the people he played tennis with were all Chinese; he either ate at home or at one of the nearby Chinese restaurants—he could go through a full day without speaking a word of English. He realized he was missing out on a significant part of his research year—experiencing American life and making American friends.

So, Fong joined us for a month. He ate meals with us, we talked, he made notes on English usage, and he helped me cook. He did get to know some Americans before he left and we were introduced to the remarkable sub-culture that exists on many US campuses—the Chinese bubble that makes it possible to get a US university degree without really encountering Americans or the American life.

The Economist article “Alienation 101,” describes this situation in much more detail telling of the experiences of Chinese students at the University of Iowa.

At Iowa, as at many other American universities, the influx happened so fast that students, both Chinese and American, have had little time to adjust. As a consequence, what could have been a meaningful cultural encounter can feel instead like a lost opportunity. The Chinese population is so large that it forms a separate world. Many Chinese speak only Mandarin, study only with other Chinese, attend only Chinese-organised events—and show off luxury cars in Chinese-only auto clubs. The Chinese government and Christian groups may vie for their hearts and minds. But few others show much interest, and most Chinese students end up floating in a bubble disconnected from the very educational realms they had hoped to inhabit. “It takes a lot of courage to go out of your comfort zone,” Sophie [a Chinese student] says. “And a lot of students on both sides never even try.”

The article notes that Christian groups “vie for their hearts and minds” and indeed Christian campus groups are reaching out to Chinese students in effective ways. We’ve seen that dynamic as Christians, either as part of an organized ministry or on their own, go out of their way to meet and welcome Chinese and other international students. That’s how we met Fong—he had asked a campus ministry staff person if he knew a family that would let him live with them. And he did—us!

One evening just before he left, Fong came home after one of many farewell lunches. Rather than heading up to his room to change before returning to his lab to check on one of his many ongoing experiments, he sat down in our sitting room and said to me, “you know I’m an atheist.” One of those campus staff members had taken him out for lunch and had shared the gospel with him once more before his departure. We talked for a while and I shared with him about my faith in Christ. Our farewell gift to him was a book about the quirky history of our city—and a bilingual New Testament. Our hope is that he will read it and will meet other Christians back in his home city in China. And that he will someday come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ himself. 

Narci Herr

Narci Herr

Narci Herr and her husband, Glenn, lived for just over 30 years in Hong Kong. They were first involved in working with the church in Hong Kong and then for the last 20 years of their time in Asia they served workers living in China. During that time Glenn traveled extensively throughout China and Narci... View Full Bio