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"Waffle House" of Northwest China

Come visit me at the “Waffle House” of northwest China!

I can hook you up with a free breakfast. Certainly the name I gave the place is a bit misleading, as this “Waffle House” may be the only one in the world that doesn’t actually sell waffles. But I’d be happy to treat you to some local Chinese breakfast favorites, including hot soymilk, a hard-boiled egg, small rice porridge, eight-treasure porridge, Chinese pancakes, Chinese funnel cakes, or some homemade tofu custard.

I’ve been working at Waffle House for about two years. They don’t pay me a salary—other than free breakfast. So how did I start working such a job? Well, we often ate at this restaurant, and I mentioned to my wife that I had some extra free time in the mornings. She suggested I start volunteering at this breakfast place, the same way I had at a Chinese restaurant named Red Eagle when I first arrived in eastern China in 2005. My wife’s idea to do the same thing in my current city seemed like a good idea.

I asked the boss of Waffle House if it would be ok for me to work as a volunteer there. Of course he looked at me like I was crazy but he wasn’t about to turn down an opportunity for a white person to work at his shop. He was smart enough to know that Chinese people love foreigners. He knew that if I were working at the Waffle House, it would attract more customers. I don’t think that my time working there has hurt the Waffle House’s business at all. It was a hopping place way before I ever got there and it continues to be the busiest place in our large Chinese-style outdoor market.

My job? I’m in charge of wiping the tables and plates, and occasionally cutting blocks of fresh tofu for customers.

Why do I do it?

It opens many doors for building relationships. Because Waffle House gets so much business, I meet all kinds of people in our community who eat there. Rich and poor, young and old, men and women—they all come to eat breakfast at Waffle House. Teachers from our nearby high school eat at Waffle House and I’ve been able to develop relationships with some of them.

When I first started working at Waffle House, I met a customer named Mr. Gao. He and I have become great friends and I meet weekly with him for lunch. He’s still not a believer, but I’ve shared much of my life and the gospel with him. I continue to pray for his salvation. I wouldn’t have met him without Waffle House.

Also, I can get to know the other four workers at Waffle House. I see them every day and we’ve developed great friendships. Daily my faith shines brightly to them as I live out the Word through my behavior. And I also share with them in words when God provides the opportunity. Last Easter, I gave all of them a copy of the Chinese Bible. I told them that the most precious thing in my life is my relationship with Christ. Long after I leave this city, God’s Word may be the only legacy I leave to these four Waffle House workers.

It’s a place to demonstrate a life changed by the gospel. The workers and customers see my behavior every day. Hopefully it is mostly in line with what the Bible teaches us. They can see that I have a humble spirit, as they watch me cleaning the tables. They can see me interact kindly with customers and care for them. None of the workers or customers of Waffle House have become believers up to this point. But for me to live my life in front of them is to plant a seed. They connect my life to Jesus, and Lord willing they’ll remember that.

My Chinese improves. When I’m at Waffle House, everyone is speaking Chinese. I am constantly interacting with them in Chinese. It’s a great way to continue to grow in my Chinese language ability, even after living in China for ten years. When I first arrived in eastern China in 2005 and volunteered at a restaurant there, I could hardly speak any Chinese at all. Nonetheless, it was a great way to connect with local people and to be forced to better learn the language. Though I could hardly understand much at first, slowly, after working at Red Eagle, I was able to understand more and more.

Freedom from the fear of “losing face” is demonstrated.  The Chinese culture is very concerned about “losing face.” When they see me wiping tables and getting my hands dirty for no salary at a hole-in-the-wall place, they can see that I don’t seem concerned about “losing face.” Doing a job like that is for the lowly common folks, not for a respected teacher. They can see that I’m different in this regard. I can tell them that I don’t need to worry about “losing face” because Jesus was the one who “lost face” on the shameful cross for my sake. I’m freed from the fear of “losing face.”

I’ve found that volunteering at a restaurant is a great way to identify with the local people in order to better reach them with the good news of Jesus Christ. When we dive into their culture and their community, they will often be more likely to trust us. If they trust us a little bit more in life, then they’ll be more likely to hear and trust the message of eternal life that we have come to speak to them.

Paul writes, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22)

For more from Tabor Laughlin, read his new book Becoming Native to Win the Natives: Cross-Culturally Becoming All Things to All Men. 

 Header image credit: Tabor Laughlin

Tabor Laughlin

Tabor Laughlin (pseudonym) is a PhD student in Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He received his MDiv from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Missions and his bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from Oklahoma State University. He has been serving in China for ten years, and is president of a... View Full Bio