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The Challenges of Localization (2)


From the series The Challenges of Localization

This is the second in a five-part series on localization of China ministry. Each essay centers on a different issue that the author has encountered as his organization goes through the process of handing over key leadership to local believers. The challenges are real, and the process is ongoing, meaning that some essays contain as many questions as answers.

It should come as no surprise to any cross-cultural worker that any organization or project operating in China that was established and/or administered by expatriates will (intentionally or otherwise) reflect the cultural values of those expatriates. More than a vague “organizational culture,” what I am referring to here includes many different factors that deeply affect the nature of community and organizational effectiveness. Despite our twenty-five years of experience working together in an intentionally cross-cultural organization, questions related to culture were some of the first to be raised when we began the transition to local leadership.

As mainland Chinese brothers and sisters became increasingly central to the decision-making processes in our organization, we soon realized how deeply expatriate cultural preferences had infected our operations. Very quickly, it was apparent that a Chinese leader might not feel compelled to spend hours in individual conversations before announcing a decision, preferring instead to announce decisions publicly and expect obedience without the need to build consensus. Westerners, on the other hand, felt their opinions increasingly discredited as a more hierarchical (Chinese?) and less communal organizational structure emerged. What westerners had always imagined as a flat organization shifted as Chinese staff and Chinese leaders naturally acknowledged their new differences in authority.

But beyond changes in decision-making and hierarchical understandings of authority, the most challenging differences emerged in the area of communication. What information was public? When should information be shared and to whom? Chinese leaders, without thinking, began to renegotiate these boundaries along lines that seemed more natural to those raised in a collectivist culture that was deeply sensitive to matters of shame. More practically, westerners struggled to understand the less direct form of communication that their new Chinese leaders employed—again, a natural reflection of China’s high context cultural and linguistic patterns.

While each of these required us as a cross-cultural team collectively to reinvestigate the world of cultural differences and, in particular, cross-cultural communications, it was not until we were a year or more into the process that our top Chinese leader shared with us the most challenging question in this entire process. In the midst of our struggle to resolve several conflicts that had arisen from these shifts in cultural habits, she pointed out that one of our greatest values within the local ministry context was our recognizably non-Chinese culture. It was precisely this differentness—a curious mix of Chinese and western values that at its best produced a distinctively salty witness within the Chinese context—that drew people into our circle. It made our work stand out, and gave us many opportunities to explain the ultimate source of our different values.

The implication of this last observation is simple yet profound: ideally, transitioning to local leadership is not a simple abandoning of previous cultural habits in order to embrace all Chinese cultural patterns. On the contrary, as our Chinese brothers and sisters take on increasing responsibility for our work in their communities, they must be empowered to stir the pot and develop a mixture of east and west that best allows them to be salt and light.

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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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