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The Wrong Approach to Living in China


I love living in China and have immersed myself in Chinese culture. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go since I arrived here in 1991—many who approach China with negative attitudes and misconceptions.

I’d like to share my thoughts about how to enjoy this culture that God loves. Specifically, I want to note some wrong approaches to China that I hope will instruct us in a better way.

WRONG: See China as a backward country that is not as good as our home countries. Make fun of Chinglish signs and menus, forgetting how poor your attempt at writing a Chinese sign would be. Look down on the culture; fall into complaining.

Better: Embrace the good in China.

WRONG: View the government as the enemy; bureaucrats as the bad servants of the evil empire.

BETTER: Realize that the bureaucrats are people with families just like ours. They are not rewarded for good work, but only criticized for anything that goes wrong.

Understand that China has lived through 1000 years of little development and this government took them from rags to riches and from chains to a freedom they had not experienced for 4000 years.

In 1949, when Chairman Mao started kicking out Western Christians, China had one million Christians. Today after 60 years of Communist rule, China has perhaps 40 million Christians and the church is growing. I wish that had happened in the US.

WRONG: Always stay on Facebook, YouTube and all things Western. Go only to the Western restaurants.

BETTER: Come to invest and find treasure here in China and you may find as much as McQueen did in the movie Cars.

WRONG: Watch the Air Quality Index every day. Fear for yourself and your children because of air pollution.

BETTER: Remember that our parents or we ourselves grew up in America in the 1950s when pollution was as bad as China now. All of Lake Erie died, for example. In addition, ask ourselves what the Kingdom of God is centrally about. Clean air?

WRONG: Believe that it was bad that the Nationalists lost the war in 1949 and it was bad that the students in 1989 did not overthrow the government. Believe that democracy would make China better.

BETTER: We need to have enough humility to say we do not know if things would have turned out so well. We need to be open and consider if things are not just as God wants them.

WRONG: Avoid the common people. Fear workers dressed in peasant clothes. Keep your children always under a watchful eye—knowing danger is everywhere.

BETTER: These peasant guys are some of the best people in the world. Find a translator and talk to one you fear. They are different but not often bad.

In the West we need to have some caution about safety—and China is the same. But the Chinese government protects foreigners for reasons of saving face and to encourage tourism. Our home governments do not do that.

WRONG: Believe that our home country was never like China is today.

BETTER: Remember our history. The U.S. went through a time like China is in now. In the 1890s the US annexed Hawaii and colonized the Philippines. They fought an eleven year war to subjugate the freedom of the Philippines. They forced Native Americans onto reservations at gun point. They blatantly violated copyright laws and were notorious for fake and harmful medicines.

We grew out of this (mostly) and China will too.

WRONG: See different as bad.

BETTER: Be open. China has 4500 years of written history that is different from ours. Different is not always inferior. WeChat is better than Skype, for example.

WRONG: Hang around people who make fun of China and Chinese people.

BETTER: Do not be poisoned by those with negative attitudes.

WRONG: Avoid deep discussions with Chinese people.

BETTER: Dive in. Ask questions of all that is in your heart. America has let privacy become a god and we should not let it be our god in China. Chinese people are not as worried about privacy and our questions show interest in them.

WRONG: Avoid going to house church with Chinese Christians. Never baptize or share communion with them.

BETTER: We need to respect those involved in house churches. If they are nervous about your involvement, do not add to their fear. College campuses, Beijing, and some other local areas are often sensitive. We should also be sensitive to the concerns of bureaucrats mentioned in point 2.  But a blanket refusal to attend a house church is not nuanced enough. Get involved. That is why you came. Find out what is appropriate and helpful.

WRONG: See the government as completely anti-Christian.

BETTER: Be aware that the government is actually a little bit pro-Christian. It is anti-large-groups, especially large foreign groups. If you start a stamp-collecting club in China and it grows to 4000 people, then you are an enemy of the people. The government is wary of large groups and large gatherings of people who can command the loyalty of many Chinese people.

But they are not anti-Christian. Christians obey the law better and care for the old, the young, and the disabled. They want more of these. The government will never say they are pro-Christian. However they are for us when we stay in small groups and do not build an empire.

Enjoy your time in China. And remember that God has long been at work here in China—he did not just arrive with us but he can use us here.

Image credit: Way Wrong Wrong Way by valleygirl_tka via Flickr.
Jim Nelson

Jim Nelson

Jim Nelson graduated from West Point in 1987 and came to live in China in 1991. His goal has always been to hold the cross high and make himself valuable to China and the government. He has taught English, studied Chinese full time, started and led a Christian nonprofit, and... View Full Bio