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China Expats and Home Church Support


One of the least discussed aspects of the expatriate’s experience is the role of the home support community, particularly that of the home church. This past July, ChinaSource published an article seeking participants for a study I was conducting on the Christian expatriate experience in China. The intent of the study was to understand the role of the home church support community in the life of Christians who have taken a China posting. Many readers responded, and ultimately, I narrowed the study’s focus to Christian business expatriates from the United States. Many interesting findings emerged from the interviews. In this article, I will share some of those outcomes and include some steps successful expatriates have taken to improve or maintain their home country connections.

During their assignments, most expatriates understandably focus on their support networks within China. Initially, they require local support to help them adapt to the new culture, and they continue to rely on local networks for assistance with ongoing, day-to-day needs for the duration of their assignments. During the adjustment phase, most Christian expatriates turn to their home churches for periodic emotional support. The role these home connections play is often determined by the expatriate’s needs back home. Over time, as expats become more adapted, many lose contact and connection with their home churches. Most of those I interviewed stated that people back home did not really understand their situation in China, and as a result, their home connection deteriorated or disappeared. Not surprisingly, the longer the expatriate was posted to China, the weaker the home connection became.

Repatriation, the expat’s final return to the home country, seemed to be the point at which most study participants fully experienced the deterioration of their home-based support. They found the process of establishing new social circles difficult and repatriation far more challenging than the initial move to China. Those who had served longer term assignments, more than five years, seemed to have the greatest difficulty. The interviews revealed that most expatriates were surprised by the difficulty of repatriation, and especially the toll it took on their families. Many had imagined that living in the US was like riding a bicycle, something one never forgets. The reality was that they had been changed by their China experience and readapting to life in the US was difficult. Several interviewees stated that they wished someone had better prepared them for repatriation at the beginning of their China assignments.

The news was not all bad, however. Study participants’ stories revealed several steps that helped them maintain contact with their home church or support groups in a way that enriched their China experience and helped ease repatriation:

  1. They realize that the expatriate has two separate lives—a China life and a US life. These two sets of relationships both require significant effort to maintain. During successful assignments, expatriates grow and develop a new identity that allows them to function in China, but they benefit by also maintaining their US identity and social connections.
  2. Successful expatriates intentionally set up communication channels to maintain regular contact with people in their home churches. They sent out regular newsletters or posted social media updates on their activities and received responses from friends. The people back home were able to participate in the China experience and had a better understanding of the challenges the expat faced. One study interviewee and his wife set up a US phone line in their Beijing apartment so family and friends could call them in China at any time without extra expense.
  3. The study also suggested that home churches need to be intentional in maintaining their connections with expats on assignment. Churches that tracked with the expatriates during their assignment were of the greatest assistance. Regular correspondence with expats was helpful, and occasional visits by people from home were encouraging. When the expatriate had a stateside need, the people of the church were available to help or to meet them at the airport. When the expatriates returned home, people encouraged them to share their experiences.
  4. Children of expats require special care by the home community. In many cases, they go overseas at a young age, and when the family moves back to the US for the last time, the children are essentially moving to a foreign country. In China, they may have been part of a tight-knit group of caring people. Too often, they return to a home church that seems indifferent or uncaring.

Many Christian leaders I have spoken with over the years have told me that the church needs to better understand how to assist people on overseas assignments. My hope is that this study might be one step in that direction.

Reference

Kimber, John A. (2019). The Role of Home Social Network Support in the Expatriate Experience: A Study of Expatriates after Repatriation from China. (Dissertation). George Fox University, Newberg, Oregon, USA.

Image credit: Claudia Flohr from Pixabay

John Kimber

John Kimber retired in 2013 after working for 35 years in the insurance industry. During his career, he led China development operations for a large insurer.  His family lived in both Shanghai and Beijing, where they were active in Christian fellowships. John recently completed a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)... View Full Bio


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