by Lisa Mellinger
Chinese-Americans face challenges in China that other visitors do not face, but these challenges can open doors to ministry.
READY TO BE MISUNDERSTOOD?
When Chinese-Americans (CAs) go to China, they may find their Chinese versus American identity challenged beyond anything they had experienced in America. They may assume they will fit into the Chinese lifestyle, believing they already understand the Chinese culture from their parents. Once they step onto the mainland however, CAs soon discover that what their parents taught them no longer exists in China today. They have entered into a world where people look like them but do not think like them, act like them or dress like them. After staying in China for a period of time, CAs may see themselves as cultural foreigners (Low and Loong 2002, 1), often going through a culture shock that is different from what white (Caucasian)-looking workers experience. The white workers (WWs) may have had enough orientation to prepare themselves for the shock of being seen as foreigners; unfortunately, no one prepared the CAs for a different type of culture shock they might experience.
Assuming they would fit in, CAs may not have taken advantage of resources for cultural adjustment. CAs may have expected to be “mirrors”—looking and thinking like the dominant culture because they have seen their own lives primarily as Chinese while living in America (Pollock and Van Reken 2001, 54). It is for this reason that they accepted the fact that they might never feel completely at home in an American culture. Some may have even fantasized that if they could only go to China, at last they would truly fit in. They did not understand that in China they would primarily be in the role of “hidden immigrant” (2001, 54), looking like the dominant culture, but being as unaware of the deeper nuances, traditions and language of this culture as any other obvious immigrant (e.g., the white workers). CAs are unprepared for the reality that when a group of homogeneous people—the Mainland Chinese (MC)—sees the CAs’ black hair and brown eyes, the MC will presume the CAs to be Chinese and will treat them as such.
ROY* WRITES: “The local Chinese people assume that I know about the Chinese culture. Before I came to China, I made this assumption as well. This assumption is wrong because my knowledge of Chinese culture comes entirely from my parents. My parents left China in the 1940s. It’s safe to say that the China in 1940 is completely different from modern China. Yes, many Confucian values haven’t changed over the years, but my parents left before the Party was in charge. In one sense, I don’t know China at all.”
Not understanding Chinese values also creates a sense of alienation (Pollock 1998, 52-53). CAs never expect to be stared at, spit on or shouted at for their cultural ignorance by the MC. They also may find it difficult to reconcile the fact that they are treated poorly (because that is how all Chinese treat each other), while the WW counterpart is treated as royalty. It seems the Mainland Chinese treat the WWs with more forgiveness than they would their “fellow” Chinese—the Chinese American. It hardly seems fair!
However, CAs cannot say to the Mainlanders that they (the CAs) are not Chinese. One of the first questions that CAs may encounter when getting to China is, “Where are you from?” The last answer the MC will expect is, “America.” In fact, the MC may not believe it at first. The MC may reply, “But, where are your parents from?” The CA may then answer, “My parents are from China/Taiwan.” With that, the MC will answer, “Ah! I thought so! You are Chinese, just like us!” CAs may not understand why the Mainland Chinese even asked about their parents, nor can CAs understand how their ancestors’ birthplace has anything to do with their identity. The CA may then scramble to defend him or herself. What is he or she: American or Chinese? Is he or she like the MC or not? What advantage is it to be identified with a country that is twenty years slower than America? On the other hand, what advantage is it for the CA to tell the MC that as a Chinese American, he or she has grown up in a different world and may have more money in his or her savings account than some of the MC will see in a lifetime?
Part of the confusion here is in different definitions of being “Chinese.” When CAs hear a MC individual ask “Are you Chinese?” they presume the MC is asking if they are culturally Chinese. Because of this, they will most likely say they are American or Chinese-American. The MC will likely be puzzled by this answer because they are asking if the CA is ethnically Chinese. Mainland Chinese will usually point to a blond-haired person and say, “He is American, but you are not!” This stimulates a flood of emotions inside the CA. “That guy is no more American than I am!” may be the response. CAs have spent their entire lives as Americans and now they feel that their American rights may be denied.
So how can CAs better prepare themselves to be used by God most effectively in China? In addition to the culture shock that every person goes through in moving to a new land, what are some of the additional questions CAs must face if they are to fulfill their calling with joy and contentment? Ironically, it is in looking at these questions that they may better understand what it means to fellowship with Christ in his sufferings. After all, he also came to a world in which he appeared to be the same as those around him but internally was remarkably different.
CAs must ask themselves, “Am I ready, like Christ, to be misunderstood?” This misunderstanding may come not only from the Mainland Chinese, but also from other expatriates, the CAs’ own companies and even themselves. This is where Christ’s example of his security in knowing that he was God is so important; he had nothing to prove and could thus humble himself, become a man and walk all the way to the cross. Whether anyone else ever understood this was not important; he knew who he was. It is this same confidence in their basic identity as children and called ones of God that gives CAs the capacity to stay steady when others are questioning their identity. It is also what gives them the humility to take the time to sit down and share their cultural background without feeling angry.
Having said that, however, let us also look at some of the specific issues CAs may face as they seek to integrate into Mainland Chinese culture.
CAs grow up learning to conform to the demands of their parents, their wider social circle and even themselves. This familiar issue may then develop into a more problematic challenge once CAs come to China, as everyone’s expectations of them may be higher than they can ever hope to meet.
The Mainland Chinese may expect CAs to have a native speaker’s level of language and do not understand why the CAs cannot speak fluently, much less read the characters. CAs may have greater language proficiency than the WW, but this is rarely acknowledged. A national Chinese will simply respond with, “You should know the language. After all, you are Chinese!” It hurts when the CA hears the MC individual praise the WW’s monotonous Ni Hao. Mainlanders also expect CAs to know how to deal appropriately with culturally sensitive situations. When CAs respond in inappropriate ways, the Mainlanders are merciless in their impatience and are often frustrated that this “Chinese” person does not understand the ways of the Chinese.
The MC also tend to treat the CA “poorly” in comparison to the obvious foreigner. They feel that the CA is Chinese and should understand that screaming and being treated badly is just part of being culturally Chinese. On the other hand, when the WW asks for directions, MCs typically bend over backwards to gain favor with them. When CAs notice the inconsistencies of treatment, feelings of bitterness can easily overcome them, leaving them angry that the MCs are being unjust in how they treat them.
JOHN* WRITES: “One stress I had while living in China was that along with being Chinese comes the expectation of being able to speak, write and read Chinese fluently. I remember all those times when we went out with the school officials, and they would all be talking to us in Chinese and we would just nod politely and smile, all the while everyone knew we were not understanding anything.”
The WW also have high expectations for CAs by expecting them to play translator or tour guide. The WW may feel that CAs do not need to make any cultural adjustments. The CAs may even have been told, “You don’t know how hard it is to learn this language” or “You don’t need to adjust to such a tough culture.” If the WW asks a CA to help him or her read a sign or interpret a conversation and the CA cannot, the WW is often irrationally disappointed. In an effort to be more Chinese, CAs may flounder through an act of understanding; however, in the end they feel discouraged for not being smarter or “more” Chinese. CAs may find that WWs congregate together in order to commiserate their culture shock, but that the WWs do not share openly with the CAs. This leaves CAs feeling lonely and unable to share what they may be feeling and experiencing.
The CA’s company may also have expectations. The company administrators may assume that just because the CA looks Chinese, he or she will be able to fit in, understand the culture and speak the language fluently. Many leaders skip language assessment and place CAs wherever they are willing to go. Member care may be directed primarily at the WWs, leaving the CAs to wonder why they did not receive the same care.
MARY* WRITES: “Many white people, especially Americans, just do not get it. They make comments like ‘Your English is so good’ or ‘How wonderful that you can return to your motherland.’ They must not understand Chinese-Americans in America, much less in China!”
All these expectations lead CAs to believe that they themselves can meet these expectations. The masks they wear deceive not only the Mainland Chinese but other foreigners as well. They try to become the tour guide and the translator. They may even accept a position in the company where they are expected to meet with officials for formal exchange. If they continue to try to meet the expectations of everyone around them, they will eventually be unable to cope.
UNDERSTANDING ONES SELF
CAs come to China wanting to serve, shine and work hard. After awhile, however, they find they are stretched beyond themselves. They are often tired and sick. “What has happened to me?” they may wonder. CAs must take a good look at themselves before the Lord and ask, “Where is my value?” They should take careful inventory of the gifts given them and solidify their identity. Is this identity with the world or with Christ? According to Maggie Cho, “The process of identity formation is complex. From a psychological standpoint, a healthy understanding of self is basic and necessary for a person. From a Christian perspective, a correct understanding of self is essential to spiritual, emotional and psychological health” (1999, 3). Samuel Ling writes, “We have an identity crisis which can be overcome only in Christ. Liberated by the Holy Spirit, we will be empowered to meet and to serve alongside our Ethnic Chinese brothers and sisters”(1997, 14-15). It is only through the CA’s identity in Christ that he or she can freely leave the feelings of being misunderstood, of being rejected and of being sneered at and serve with true humility.
At some point CAs must come to terms with their citizenship here on earth. They must realize that they do not go to China, or anywhere else, to represent the citizenship of America. Rather, they represent the citizenship of heaven, their eternal home. In the Bible, Peter shares that as Christians we are aliens here on earth. The sooner CAs come to accept this, the faster they will realize that no matter where they are on earth, they may always be misunderstood. Only when they are truly home, before the throne, may they finally know that they are home.
Keeping this citizenship before them at all times, CAs should ask themselves how they may face the challenges of being misunderstood. Will they choose to ignore the comments from MC and WWs and thus grow cynical and bitter? Or will they take the time to educate those around them who do not understand? The CAs may become impatient with others because of other people’s lack of experience, willing ignorance or limited perspective. The CAs will be challenged to be patient and understanding of those who have had less opportunity to become educated on these matters (Pollack 1998, 53).
JILL* WRITES: “The Chinese expect me to understand more of the culture than I do. I get treated more rudely by shopkeepers, attendants, service people and police most of the time. People are more comfortable telling me what I should do—I should get married, I should improve my Chinese, I should spend money in different ways, etc. When I serve as an interpreter or cultural broker for other foreign friends, the Chinese expect me to be on their side in bargaining or etiquette, whereas the foreigner is usually clueless that I’m caught in the middle. I usually just end up losing face to the Chinese, but that doesn’t bother me very much since I have an American concept of ‘face’ anyway.”
In order to rise above the frustrations, the CAs must go to the throne room and seek wisdom from God’s words. Jesus Christ was misunderstood. He left a country where he was deeply loved by his Father, and moved far away to a place where he spent his human life. People in Nazareth felt he was just a carpenter’s son. As he performed miracles and spoke of his true home, some people felt he was crazy and was speaking blasphemy. When he shared who he really was, most people did not believe him. Jesus Christ understands the CA who has been misunderstood.
It may also be very important for CAs to understand that they grew up as Cross-cultural Kids (CCK). In understanding the characteristics of a CCK, they will be equipped to stand strong in the Lord’s identity. According to Ruth Van Reken, “A Cross-cultural Kid (CCK) is a person who has lived for a significant period of time in two or more cultural environments before adulthood” (Van Reken and Bethel 2005, 7). Someone who grew up as a CCK will never be able to change back into a monocultural person.
Once CAs understand that it is okay to not be a monocultural person, the life that once seemed confusing can become one of the greatest gifts God has given them. Ann Baker Cottrell identifies some characteristics of Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs), a particular group of CCKs. She writes that ATCKs (1) are internationally experienced, (2) continue their international involvement, (3) are adaptable and relate easily to a diversity of people, (4) are helpers and problem solvers and (5) feel different, but not isolated (1993). She also writes that “most [CAs] do not identify with members of their ethnic group, and nearly half do not feel central to any group” (1993).
Knowing this can help CAs realize it is not something deficient in themselves that makes it hard for them to identify completely with the Mainlanders who have never lived in another culture. Being multicultural is what God has in store for CAs and they should see this as a unique gift which offers them knowledge, understanding and empathy. The CA can become a cultural bridge and an active, positive influence in an increasingly intercultural world (Pollack 1998, 52-53). Samuel Ling writes,
Our highest purpose on earth is not to preserve some static notion of culture. Our highest purpose on earth is to reflect the image of Christ through the body of Christ, where there is plenty of diversity, yet a unity which does not demand uniformity. (1997, 15)
The next step, then, is for the CA to ask, “Am I going to preserve the static notion of culture, or am I going to step out, be the bridge, educate and reflect the image of Christ?”
THE JOY OF BEING CHINESE-AMERICAN
There may be a day when CAs can say, “Yes! We are Chinese and American and we are proud of it.” To this, they may get two responses. One may be objection from their Mainland Chinese friends who say, “You will never be Chinese. You will never understand what it means to be Chinese.” The CAs must understand that perhaps the Chinese are stating that CAs may never understand how to be culturally Chinese. This may be true, and the CA can hopefully say, “I don’t understand how to be Chinese, but I am willing to learn the culture. Please teach me.” This spirit of humility is the way Christ taught his people. The other response the CA may receive from the MC individual may be, “Tell me more about your life. Where are you from? How did you learn English? Why did you come here?” This becomes an open door for the CA to share his or her life. Once CAs are able to accept that they were born ethnically Chinese but had the privilege to grow up culturally American, they will be able to count the blessings from both worlds, add the love of Christ and show the MC people what it means to be blessed, loved and part of the nation of heaven.
CAs will discover that MC will delve into a deeper level of intimacy with them than they would with WWs. The MC may soon forget that the CA is a foreigner and instead see him or her as part of the “family of Chinese.” Can the CA see beyond the negatives of being “one of them” and take advantage of opportunities of being in the family (faster trust, open hearts)? It is with this eternal perspective that the CA will be able to move past the cultural pains and invite his or her fellow Chinese brothers and sisters into the family of heaven. And in the end, when everyone stands before the throne, fellow MC will be glad that CAs came “back” to the homeland to share the greatest news of God leaving his country to bring salvation to them.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Cho, Maggie. 1999. “How Can an Understanding of Identity in Christ Help Second Generation Chinese-Americans Resolve Their Identity Issues?” M.A. thesis. Columbia International University.
Cottrell, Ann Baker. 1993. “ATCKs Have Problems Relating to Their Own Ethnic Groups.” Newslinks.[online] 8(2). Princeton, N.J. Accessed November 3, 2003 from http://www.tckworld.com/useem/art4.html.
Gordon, Alma. 1993. Don’t Pig Out on Junk Food: The MK’s Guide to Surviving in the U.S. Wheaton, Ill.: Evangelical Missions Information Service.
Ling, Samuel. 1997. “Chinese, Ethnic Chinese and World Evangelization.” Accessed November 3, 2003 from http://www.aaministry.org/cac/articles/cac/articles/chinese.txt.
Low, Andrew and Mabel Loong. 2002. “CAs: Misfits or Change Agents?” China Watch. Spring, 1.
Pollock, David. 1998. “Being a Third-Culture Kid: A Profile.” In Raising Resilient MKs. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Association of Christian Schools International.
Pollock, David and Ruth Van Reken. 2001. Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds. Maine: Nicholas Brealey/Intercultural Press.
Van Reken, Ruth and Paulette Bethel. 2005. “Third Culture Kids: Prototypes for Understanding Other Cross-Cultural Kids.” Handout, the Seventh Families in Global Transition International Conference, September 15-17, 2005. Houston, Texas.
Lisa Mellinger lived for three years in China as a hidden foreigner. In addition to being a wife and mother, she is a registered nurse in an emergency room in Colorado.
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