Laowai, simplified, is Chinese for “foreigner.” It can be used in both a generic and slightly derogatory way. For three months, my wife and I are living as foreigners in communist China, taking in the sights, teaching English and living with some long-term missionary friends. After two weeks, we stepped out of the tourist role and started engaging and living in the customs around us. Our worldview has been expanded and our mindset challenged as stereotypes are mutually reinforced and shattered, not only with the Chinese culture but with the American missionary frame of mind as well.
Over the next few months, the laowai visitor percentage will jump dramatically as the Olympic Games take place. On the streets and in the airwaves, it isn’t hard to see that the Chinese are excited about the upcoming Games. Big billboards showcase some of the native athletes, and the one English-speaking station we get on the television constantly has reports on the Olympic groundwork, which range from art design to zealous small-business opportunities. There is even a popular American fast-food restaurant that has gotten in on the merchandising aspect, producing wristbands for sale that say “Go! China! Go!”
For a developing third-world country, the revenue and press the Olympics bring will be, for better or worse, a defining point in the nation’s history. The Olympics are serving as an international spotlight and are revealing some of the dark aspects of the Red Giant’s governmental system in a more interactive way than ever before. The Games crack the door for a higher degree of influence from other nations as well as human rights groups and make clearer how the Western Church can love their Eastern neighbor better.
Juliann, Liz, Naomi and I have all been internally challenged on some common misconceptions of China, its people and the Church’s role in missions. Like many in this generation, we are thankful for where we are in life and yet are desperately looking to the future for change and reform. Some redefined thought patterns have been the incarnational realization that love without mission is fake; mission without love is injustice; and if we are not reaching out right now wherever we are with love, mission and excellence of work, why would we sincerely do that in another country? Also, with a billion or so Chinese people, it’s tempting to get wrapped up in evangelical numbers rather than seeing and appreciating each person as an individual made in the image of God.
The approaching Olympics are helping to expose several of the ugly inner workings in China, but living there in the day to day has expanded our worldview in other ways besides governmental negativity. The dirt being uncovered about unhealthy or negative practices must not be overlooked. However, beauty and joy should not be ignored, either. There is a lot of dirt in China, but there is also plenty of hope. Oppression has many masks, and the Chinese people don’t need their beauty ignored, neglected or suppressed by a Church trying to mold them to America’s standard. If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll see that it is both cultures that need change.
Opening Up: Justin
Economically and, to some extent, politically, China is not the same country we have in our mythological mind from yesteryear. Many foreigners would be surprised to find Christian bookstores on the streets in certain areas or hear the news that the United Bible Society is going to open the world’s largest Bible production plant just outside Nanjing. But while progress is being made, religious freedom and human rights are by no means out of the woods yet.
China beat out Paris, Toronto, Istanbul and Japan to host the summer Olympics this year. Hoping to give a good impression to visitors and the world, China has been constructing new buildings and cleaning up the streets. In fact, there was even a campaign in Beijing to help a large portion of the population with their public spitting “problem.” I must say, it is a bolt from the blue to hear the hocking up of mucus, and then turning to see a cute little old lady staring at you wondering why you are staring back.
The cleanup, however, is somewhat of a façade. For natives in Beijing, it is estimated that more than 12,000 Chinese people are being displaced per month in reconstruction preparation for the Olympics. By the time the Games begin, a million total will have been evicted from their housing with little or no notice, never seeing the promised compensation. Most of these citizens are going from poor to poorer.
On the foreigner side of things, the police are “asking” more religious groups to leave prior to the Olympics so they won’t have to exert their control as much while the media is watching closely. During a visit to a Sunday morning (laowai) house church, a good portion of the meeting was spent reminding each other to be careful with email, phone conversations and interaction in general with Chinese believers. Now, more than ever, being a good friend to a Chinese Christian in some areas might mean praying for them privately and ignoring them publicly. Laowai bring attention. Motives need to be questioned when trying to find an underground church, because your presence could expose and endanger those gathering. Could it be the real reason we want to seek out the underground church is that we want to tell our friends back home of the illegal, secret society we were able to get into one night? Intentions should be questioned, even challenged, of Western “tourist” missionaries just passing through who are seeking those meetings. The common life can be just as sacred as the underground one.
All So Normal: Naomi
Except for an entire bookcase devoted to red-market DVDs, a bit of Chinglish mixed into the flow of banter and the lack of a central heating system in this apartment complex, you could easily mistake it for an American home. This particular morning, we are all feeling a little grumpy. One friend is late getting out the door, another is battling with the ridiculous demands of her Internet provider, and me—well, I am just trying to relate, of course. The problems of this morning have a familiar, almost friendly feeling to me. They are normal, yet still annoying. I guess I expected this kind of life to be a bit harder and, subsequently, more spiritual. I’m sure these missionaries do exist, but I have not found them here.
What I have seen in China is exactly what you would hope to see in America: A graphic designer, a businesswoman, a day-care worker and a teacher, all doing a good job and being unpretentious, kind (though still human)
Christians while working. It makes me wonder why we need the word missionary at all. The fact is, the more I am around missionaries here in China, the more I am met with the reality of how normal their life is, or at least should be. The only difference between us and them is a thousand-dollar plane ticket, a second language and an entirely different set of expectations.
For some reason, Christians in America can make great employees/employers but then are allowed to forget they’re entrusted with a message. On the flip side, missionaries are allowed to completely disregard the need for training and sacrifice excellence, effectively ripping off their students/clients/employees, so long as they speak for Jesus. Somehow the wires get crossed, and we end up with a poorly represented Jesus on the one side, and a complete lack of representation on the other.
A Redeeming Work: Juliann
Those who live overseas as missionaries can have an all-consuming passion (or guilt complex) to make sure every moment counts—I know, I’m one of them. But when a Christian decides to open a business, whether as a way of increasing one’s influence or simply to acquire a visa, a strange and potentially harmful environment can be created.
The danger comes when the work, both the zeal for and skill of, is neglected because of the focus on group Bible studies and prayer meetings. Because of the pressure to always live as a “super Christian,” it is easy to try and create a mini-church, instead of a successful business dedicated to its employees and its particular craft. As those who seek to follow God, it is our duty to represent Him well by the work we do. “In all you do, work with all your heart, as working for the Lord.”
In the workplace, it seems a better witness to conduct the business with excellence and passion. Requiring someone to attend a prayer meeting once a week, for a faith they have not ever embraced, is not going to transform their life. However, working alongside a Christian who treats their clients, co-workers and projects with friendliness, excellence and joy will affect their belief system in a personal way. The world focuses on how we live, not so much on what we say.
Separation of Games and State: Justin
Normally, sports and politics don’t mix. In fact, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has rules in place that do not allow athletes in certain Olympic zones to talk about political issues. Some see these rules as a positive separation, but others are using the international platform to pressure China to change some of their foreign and human rights policies. While the 1988 Games in South Korea aided in the genesis of liberalization, China has been much more reluctant thus far to change and come out of its political cocoon.
Steven Spielberg, who was helping to choreograph the opening ceremonies, resigned from his artistic advisor position in February. China purchases two-thirds of Sudan’s oil and supplies millions of pounds worth of weapons, Amnesty International reports. Spielberg had cautioned Beijing months before that he would pull out if they did not distance themselves from the violence and genocide happening in Darfur.
There has been ambiguity between Beijing, the IOC and human rights groups as to some of the promises made and expected to come about with the ‘08 Olympics. Traffic and pollution problems are taking the front seat, while more personal items such as freedom of speech and labor laws are tied up and gagged in the trunk. Treason charges, including the popular “inciting subversion,” are a state-security offense. Ministry of Justice statistics show state-security convictions with a 20 percent increase between 2006 and 2007, reflecting how high-profile poets, writers and activists have been arrested well before the outside media can use their press cards during the Olympic Games.
The communist leadership is big on silencing subversion in its many forms inside its borders of control. Anything that questions or challenges the power or authority of the government is seen as a threat. This plays into spiritual life as well.
The Three Self Church is the only government-sanctioned Christian church in China. With that approval, though, comes limitation. It’s not that the powers that be want to promote religious freedom; rather, they want to control the organization, especially from outside influence. One of the most obvious restrictions, no doubt enforced by secret police in the congregation, is of what can (not) be preached. Anything (which is open to interpretation) that would directly take ultimate authority from the government and place supremacy in a higher power or the people’s hands is a faux pas. This includes much of the Book of Revelation and almost anything dealing with the Second Coming of Christ.
Olympic Souvenir: Designer Face Masks?: Justin
A big environmental and health concern for those visiting Beijing for the Olympics has been the air quality. Many competitors and sports scientists have been voicing their complaints about the capital city’s pollution problem. The athletes are being encouraged to wear face masks during warmups, though current Olympic regulation does not allow masks during the actual competition. Apprehension about the pollution is a given, but more specifically for those whose events, such as a marathon, stretch out for a longer period of time.
One of the most polluted places in the United States is the San Joaquin Valley in California. In the summer of 2007, wildfires increased the air effluence to an emergency degree where sporting events needed to be canceled. In comparison, the Air Pollution Control District Director of San Joaquin Valley said that at that time, the air quality was still 10 to 20 times better than the normal quality in Beijing.
Yet the Chinese government has been pouring money into cleaning up the capital city for the past 10 years. More recently they have shut down around 200 factories and relocated a majority of them (and their staff) to outside the city. They also plan to curtail a million automobiles during the Olympics to cut down on toxic emissions. In February, an official from the IOC tried to calm concerns, stating, “All preparations for the Games in August are going on smoothly, including measures to curb pollution.”
But will it be enough? Only time will tell. The bigger question is, what happens after the limelight is off of China? Haile Gebrselassie, holder of the world marathon record, said, “When we talk about the pollution, it’s not only during the Olympic Games. What about the people here?” He brings up a good point of concern for Chinese natives. Cars will return to the city streets, and just because factories have been relocated doesn’t mean their environmental standards have been upgraded. The hope is that the international attention won’t just bring a quick fix for the pollution problem, but will be a conduit that will lead to a healthier, long-term solution.
Of Apples and Bei Dous: Elizabeth
Dallas Willard wrote that the largest economic divide in America today is between those who take public transportation and those who do not. Most Americans of legal age own a vehicle, but what about those who don’t? Do we know them?
One time in college I took the bus into D.C., at first feeling alone and a bit worried that I would take the wrong bus. When the doors opened, the light was just enough to illuminate a segment of the population my upper middle-class life had shielded me from. I stepped up, put my $1 bill into the slot and moved toward the back of the bus to sit among my estranged peers.
Now, seven years later, I live in southwest China, where taking the bus is a part of my everyday life. The wealthy have cars, but the majority of the several millions within the city walk, bike or ride the bus to their destination. Together on the crowded bus, regardless of birthplace or status, we are the same. I am not Chinese and I am not poor, but there is something that equalizes us when we ride the same bus, live in the same part of town and shop in the same marketplace. This is not my country, but it is my town. And if it is my town, these people are no longer strangers, but my neighbors.
China is quickly developing, but many are still left without work and without a way to support their families. The only option for some who have left their homes to find work in the city is to carry groceries, coal, bricks or whatever is needed on their backs. In Chinese, they are called bei dou.
Near my home there is often a group of these migrant workers waiting for a job. One cool September day, I bought a bag of apples to make applesauce. As I passed by the bei dous, I couldn’t help my desire to share with them. At first they were hesitant, but finally one of the women smiled, reached out her hand and accepted an apple. Within a minute, all 13 of my apples were passed out. They laughed, possibly thought I was a bit strange, but were quite pleased. I was also pleased because it wasn’t charity, but simply sharing a gift with some of my neighbors. I want to experience this more, because it is beautiful, seeing people as God created them and not allowing social barriers to hinder this vision.
When the Gospel Isn’t Good News: Justin
“The idea of love is a beautiful thing as long as it does not demand that we put it into practice on some particular person,” A.W. Tozer wrote. “Then it becomes a nuisance. Many Christians love foreign missions who cannot bring themselves to love foreigners. They love the Chinese in Hong Kong and are willing to give generously to send someone to convert him, but they never try to convert him when he is in a [laundromat] on Main Street.”
The history of the dark side of missions reveals the Church using Jesus for an ideological war. But the Gospel is not an ideology. It is about a Person and a people—remove either one, and it ceases to be what it truly is. We live the Gospel to bring life to others, not to kill their culture; we tell of Jesus so others may be more like Him, not to stamp our own image on them; we give the Gospel for the sake of freedom, not to sell them on a capitalistic model. Love must remain.
In a few months, the closing ceremonies of the summer Olympics will take place, and though reports of progress and fallback will continue to occur, the spotlight will turn elsewhere. There is no doubt that in some fashion China is evolving and becoming a political and economic giant. In the shuffle we must not forget these beautiful people. Rather, we must keep the torch burning in prayer and service for them, remembering that we all are pushing and crying out for the same thing: redemption.