Blog Entries

Things I Wish I’d Known

From the series Going to China

Part 2 of a multi-part series on cross-cultural adjustment, "Going to China."

Support development, job training, vaccinations, visas, and packing luggage to precisely 50 lbs. a piece are merely the tip of the iceberg when preparing for life in China. These tasks, though necessary, often don’t prepare you for what to expect in the day-to-day life in China.

Hindsight can be a useful tool, but as this may be your first time to China here are 10 things I wish I had known before landing in Xi’an:

1. Rest as soon as you land.

Who thinks to rest before starting service in China? If you are like me, you’re excited to hit the ground running as this has been a long-awaited arrival. That’s exactly what my husband and I did. Within six-months found ourselves in front of a counselor talking through the last two-years concerning how we’d neglected each other and ourselves all in order to get to China.

Likely you’ve been working hard to serve in China, but God set an example and mandate for us in taking Sabbath after creating our world. Don’t feel shame in taking a week or two to transition well by reflecting and processing the months and years you spent preparing, packing, and moving. Rest before hitting the ground at lightning speed.

2. The dogs will be smarter— Language Study.

Things that once seemed second nature like grocery shopping, home maintenance, making a phone call, or meeting people on the street suddenly become overwhelming tasks in which you fumble over words and actions. You quickly realize that the dogs on the street understand more about life in this new place than you do. A large part of our confidence comes from our ability to speak and be understood. When you are striped of that ability, depression can set in. Find joy in the small language victories and remember you are smarter than a dog.

3. Be easy on yourself.

Setting up our new home consumed our first three months of China life. Cleaning, repairs, shopping for furniture and appliances, setting up internet and water are a few of the things on the never-ending “to do” list. These things seem easy when we consider doing them in English in our familiar culture, but when they are outside of our context they can become overwhelming.

The best advice we were given was: If you accomplish one thing a day than that’s a job well-done. This is counter-intuitive to our Western bent of productivity and efficiency, but it is life-giving truth.

4. Have realistic expectations.

Before moving to China as a family of three, I served as a single. The freedoms in ministry in that season were limitless. Somehow as a wife, mom and full-time student I expected the same freedoms in ministry as I had as a single, college student on summer mission. My expectations quickly shattered in light of real life.

Don’t expect to save the world. Don’t expect to have perfect language in three months. Don’t expect to be self-sufficient. Before setting your goals take into account your situation and be reasonable and grace-filled with respect to who you are, what God intends, and to ensure longevity. Don’t aim for burnout or disappointment in your experience due to unrealistic expectations.

5. Go as a learner and observer of culture.

As I began connecting with locals, one complaint I often heard revolved around how Christian Westerners treat Chinese people. My Chinese friends disliked how, even though they too were believers, westerners were trying to “save” them or viewing them as some spiritual project. How humbling to hear this common feeling.  Before you go, remember, you are not the savior of the world. Be respectful to our fellow brothers and sisters, work alongside them as peers. Be a learner, not a teacher. Be humble. China has a lot to teach you.

6. Your team or agency may not be your best friend.

Community is invaluable and necessary for survival in living cross-culturally, but it can also cause division. One thing we’ve learned post-field is that one of the main reasons people leave the field is due to team conflict or agency issues. Being aware is step one, seeking unity in the Spirit at all cost for the Body of Christ and those watching you is priceless.

7. You may struggle with identity.

Leaving your home-culture to embrace that of another is humbling as you are stripped of confidence, abilities, and being known. You may need to grieve aspects of how you identified yourself (mainly your capabilities) to find who you are in Christ alone. Losing yourself brings you one step closer to who you truly are. Don’t be afraid to let go.

8. Relationships take time.

It took two years for our neighbors to say hello to us. Though when they finally did they seemed to know many details about our life. They’d been observing us over the course of those two years. Though you may feel friendships are taking a long time, an investment is being laid, just be patient in the timing. They are waiting to see if you are staying and if you are trustworthy.

9. Parenting opens doors.

Family is central in Chinese culture. If you have children, this is an opportunity to invest in the lives of new parents, especially Christians, who don’t know how to parent according to God’s ways and want to learn. Parenting is a challenge among Chinese families. Grandparents play a large role; migration for employment and rigorous education demands influence how families operate. We found walking with families is a powerful way to engage in culture and share God’s love.

10. Basics of plumbing.

We, and many other expats over the years, have joked that we wish we’d known more about plumbing before coming to China. There will be endless opportunities for you to grow in this field of study. My advice: remember to laugh, learn for the next time, and catalog a good story. Oh, and don’t forget to memorize those plumbing terms in language school, you will use them more than you know.

Image credit: Beth Forshee