Adapting to a New Culture – Chinese

Writing CaligraphyLiving in a new culture forces us to make changes and rethink the way we do things. It causes us to evaluate our home culture by new criteria. We have to make choices about how we are going to live and balance our home culture with our new culture.

Changing cultures stretches our minds and experiences, encouraging us to learn and grow. People who have never left their home culture seldom understand this process and may not understand us after we’ve gone through it. It’s good for us but it’s not necessarily a comfortable process.

Here are some cultural observations from an American friend who has recently spent a year living in a Chinese country:

  • Chinese people who have a close friendship/relationship do not say, “thank you” to each other. Saying “thank you” implies a distant relationship with the other person.
  • Teachers have a serious, conservative demeanor in class. It’s OK to smile, but dramatic gestures and drama can make students uncomfortable.
  • Respect for elders is always important. We need to stand to greet older people who enter the room and call on the oldest brother to open or close a meeting in prayer.
  • Time schedules are made last-minute and are open to change.
  • If you ask people questions to which they don’t know the answer, they are likely to make up an answer. Saving face is more important than truth-telling.

When culture shock was strong, my coping strategies were to read about culture or make a journal entry about it. Our home was a place of rest and normalcy from a Western perspective.

 Local believers and friends were generally quite forgiving of our cultural ignorance and mistakes. But this can make it is harder to learn about your weaknesses.

 Chinese culture is difficult for Westerners to adapt to. Historically, Westerners have failed to adapt well to Chinese culture and have left offences in the Chinese mind. They still admire Americans because they perceive our country as wealthy and successful. However, they do not expect us to adapt very well to Chinese culture. It’s like they think, “You are foreigners. You will always be foreigners. We don’t expect more than that.”

 I want to thank my friend for sharing his experiences. He is challenged to continue to learn about Chinese culture and relate to Chinese in a more effective way.

What things have your learned about a different culture?

[image courtesy J R/deposit photos]




Equality as a Cultural Issue

10645013_s (1)I always thought I knew what equality was.

Americans believe in equality. We don’t like to think of ourselves as snobs. We try not to judge a person’s worth by their fame or income level or what they look like. We try to treat all people with a certain degree of respect. So when we moved to New Zealand, where equality is very important, I felt we fit in and understood. Years later, however, I learned that the New Zealander (Kiwi) idea of equality was slightly different.

Tall Poppy Syndrome

“Tall Poppy Syndrome” is a label used in New Zealand and Australia to describe their aversion to people who “get above themselves.” They are friendly to almost anyone, but eye with suspicion the “tall poppy” who grows higher than the rest. Kiwis and Aussies rarely celebrate success and don’t generally aspire to build wildly successful careers.  Sports is the exception to the rule. Everyone loves the All-Blacks, the nation’s rugby team. Compared to many other cultures, however, education is not highly valued. New Zealand is, as a result, always short of doctors, but they have plenty of tradesmen.

Kiwis will tolerate a certain amount of success if the successful person lives in an average house, drives an average vehicle, and is like everyone else.  Anything that could hint at being flashy or pretentious will not impress the average Kiwi, but will have the opposite effect.

 Equality and Leadership

Understanding the Kiwi concept of equality becomes important in a leadership position. Titles are rarely used. Even kids often call doctors and pastors by their first names. While Americans use titles as a sign of respect, expecting it in New Zealand often signals superiority.

Some cultures weigh a pastor’s advice very heavily and nearly always follow it. In an egalitarian culture like New Zealand, however, a pastor or leader has to tread much more carefully when giving advice or correction or he will risk offense.

Formality and Leadership

Kiwis like to keep most things casual. Formality often comes across as unfriendly. Formality often emphasizes a central figure standing up front, leading things. Casualness emphasizes everyone in the group, because individuals can speak out quite freely.

People sitting in a circle drinking tea is friendly. Casual dress, informal settings, unstructured meetings are friendly too. Having tea and biscuits (cookies) makes anything seem more friendly.

On the other hand, anything highly structured or planned can seem unfriendly. Rules, punctuality, formal dress, evaluation, one speaker talking without comments from the audience; all these can easily come across in an unfriendly manner. Meetings are often much more casual than the American counterparts.  While Americans may be uncomfortable with such a degree of casualness, it makes the meeting seem friendly to Kiwis. And friendliness is the brother of equality.

Reaching Out to International Students in America

Ten years ago a big city church in America decided they needed to start a daughter church that intentionally reached out to international students and immigrants in their city. I love going to this church when we are on furlough. If you want to reach out to international people in your area … Continue reading 

Resources to Learn about China

Writing CaligraphyPerhaps you are preparing to host a Chinese international student in your home or maybe you’re preparing an Ancient China unit study for your homeschool. Maybe your interest in China stems from a biography you’ve read or a friend’s plans to teach English there. Today’s blog gives some great resources for various ages to learn about China. Our guest blogger today is a friend who has lived in China and done some good research on it. Thanks to my friend who writes:

Because I’ve lived in China for several years, I’m particularly sensitive to whether or not books are fair, accurate and up-to-date. I particularly enjoy China books written by people to love China and want to understand what makes it tick.

Whatever your reason, there are some great China resources out there and there’s always more to learn about this complex place. Here’s a partial bibliography:

China Resources for Children

(my public library carries most of these)

For Age 5 and under

China in Colors (Pendergrast) presents basic facts about China alongside full-page photographs. Simple facts are given and presented according to color (i.e. dancers in red, white rice, etc.)

Mei Mei Loves the Morning (Tsubakiyama) depicts daily life in a Chinese family as a grandfather and granddaughter go on an outing together. Our family loves the lovely watercolors in this large picture book, though since it is more than a decade old, some things have changed.

 Gai See (Thong) features children shopping with Grandma in Chinatown, introducing many Chinese foods and products along the way.


Welcome to China (DK) (Jenner) is a great starting place to introduce modern China.

Ancient China (Friedman) is a nice, simple introduction to China. It includes lots of pictures and a list of other China resources. For upper elementary, try DK Eyewitness: Ancient China (Cottertell.)  Don’t forget to search the card catalog for books on pandas, the Great Wall and the Silk Road.

Speak and Sing Chinese with Mei Mei (Hu) audio CD and Play and Learn Chinese with Mei Mei (Hu) both do a great job teaching some spoken Chinese. For written Chinese and other China-related topics, see books by Ed Young and Huy Voun Lee at your local library.

Dancing to Freedom (Li) tells the true story of a Chinese boy that grows up during the Cultural Revolution and becomes a world-famous ballet dancer. The story is tastefully adapted for kids and gives insight into certain aspects of Chinese culture.

Deb Brammer’s Peanut Butter Friends in a Chop Suey World shows an American missionary family adapting to Chinese culture in Taiwan. It’s a great book about learning to understand and be friendly toward people who are different that we are.

There are many famous missionaries from the past that served in China. (Check separate posting here.)

China Resources for Adults

Culture (secular)

Encountering the Chinese (Hu, Grove, Zhuang) is a great introduction to Chinese culture. To understand more about recent Chinese history, try Wild Swans (Chang), which chronicles the true story of three generations of women in her family. It is rich with description and historical insights. Peter Hessler and Leslie Chang have both written on China as well.

The Church in China

Sometimes I’m asked if the moving depiction of the Chinese church in Safely Home (Alcorn) is accurate. I believe that the situation it describes is mostly one of the past. To get a better glimpse of ministry environment today, you might read Careful Enough (Forbes.) This novel aimed is at young adults. For a factual (and technical) discussion of Chinese church history, see A New History of Christianity in China (Bays.) (Don’t forget to check out my link on missionary biographies from the past.)

Outreach Resources

Song of a Wanderer (Li) is the testimony of a highly-educated Chinese man who came to faith in Christ. It is available in Chinese and English and has been used very successfully in evangelism (contact Ambassadors for Christ.)

[Image by Deposit Photos/c3JR.]

Building an ESL Bridge to the Gospel

international helloIn some countries, like Peru, people are anxious to hear the Gospel. If a missionary gives them a tract, they sit down and read it right away.  Many mission fields, however, don’t enjoy this ready response.  Missionaries need to build bridges to nationals. Once friendship is established with nationals they are often more receptive to the Gospel. Teaching English as a second language can be that bridge.

We found this true in Taiwan. Most people know very little about our God. We’ve been asked if our God is a man or woman and how old he is. Society puts strong pressure for people to worship their ancestors and other gods, at least outwardly. It takes time for people to build a foundation of truth to be ready to accept the Gospel. Even attending any kind of church is a social stigma.

On the other hand, lots of people want to learn English. They have studied English in school and they may have had to read textbooks in English, but they have very little opportunity to speak it with a native speaker. An English Bible class provides a good way for people to learn about the Bible in a socially acceptable setting.

Teaching English can be a good evangelistic tool in foreign countries. Here are some things we learned in our ministry in Taiwan that may work for you.

 Start with needs.

What group of people do you want to reach? What age group? What level of English do most people in that group speak?

In Taiwan we taught English to three groups of people. One group involved adults with beginning English. This meant they had already been taught to read the alphabet and some basic grammar and sounds. They could read a bit, but they couldn’t converse very well.

The second group consisted of advanced adults who could basically say most of what they needed to, but they needed practice using it with native speakers. They also needed help with pronunciation of sounds that were very different from Chinese sounds.

We also taught a little English to our Chinese Sunday School students. Mostly we taught Bible, but we also gave them a taste of very simple English.

 Teach the level of English needed.

 Beginning Adult Class

In our beginning adult class we used two books: an English conversation book and an English Bible story book. These adults needed basic conversation skills and wouldn’t be interested if we couldn’t offer that. We also wanted them to hear about the Bible. With each book we had the students repeat vocabulary words after us. Then they used the vocabulary words in sentences. Often they repeated the sentences of the lesson after us too.

We spent a lot of time teaching them to listen for the distinctive sounds and repeat them after us. For example we would pronounce these words: bait, bat, beat, bet, bit, bite, boat, bought, but, butte. Then we’d give each word a number and test them. “Which word am I saying?” we’d say, and see if they could tell the difference. Then we’d have them say a word and we would guess which one they were trying to say.

We would ask questions from the lessons, but the questions were always written out and the answers could be easily found within the text.

 Advanced Adult Classes

These were much more fun for us to teach. We’d have them repeat the vocabulary words after us and use them in a sentence. They would take turns reading the text around the room. We would ask harder questions. Then we had time for discussion that would spring from the Bible study without being tied to it. When we studied the story of Joseph, for example, we would talk about jealousy in families and let them speak freely about the subject. These lessons often took two hours because the students were comfortable enough with their English to speak freely. We became very close to some of our students because we were able to discuss so many things.

 Children’s Class

When we taught children we used the most basic English and tried to teach them sentences they would be able to use. What’s your name? How old are you? Where do you come from? That kind of thing. It was especially important in Taiwan that we never make them look or feel foolish and encourage them no matter how well they did.

 Where do I get curriculum?

In countries like Taiwan it is easy to find basic English conversation booklets. We just went to a local bookstore and picked something that looked like it would be helpful and at their level. We could also find English Bible lessons about the life of Christ, but little else. Finally I wrote lessons that taught the basic Old Testament stories and the Life of Christ. You’ll find my Old Testament stories here free and the Life of Christ lessons very reasonably priced.

 Should I charge for the classes?

Missionaries often ask this question. In many countries people don’t value what they can get for free. You have to charge a little just so they take them seriously. On the other hand you don’t want to charge so much that it keeps people away.

We charged for the books, but didn’t charge for the classes. This covered our expenses, but also left the ball in our court. If someone complained that there was too much Bible and they only wanted conversation, we just smiled and said, “This is a church. This is what we do. We offer classes for free but we always teach the Bible. If this made them quit coming, at least we knew they weren’t really interested in learning more about God anyway.

In a few weeks we’ll talk about how to use ESL to bring the Gospel to immigrants in your own country. We’ll tell you about an exciting church plant that has done just that.


[image from Deposit Photos/gvictoria.]