Loving Chinese migrants


I’m Chinese. But when it comes to loving Chinese migrants, I am just as frustrated as you are.

I’m a Chinese pastor leading a church with both first- and second-generation Chinese migrants. I was born in Taiwan but raised in Australia. I speak Chinese and read and write fluently. Some might think that loving Chinese migrants should be second nature to me.

The truth is, I find it extremely challenging. I am far more Western in my thinking than I care to admit, and so I suffer from all the frustrations that my Western friends face when trying to build bridges to reach and care for the growing number of Chinese migrants among us.

I’m still learning how to do this better, but since I’ve had a bit of a head-start, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve had to learn the hard way.

1. Friendships: easy to start, hard to maintain

Many Chinese migrants — whether students or the mums who bunch around in closed circles at your kids’ schools — are really thrilled when locals strike up conversations with them. They may initially seem shy and embarrassed at their language skills, but it’s often regarded as a great privilege and honour that someone outside their circles would take an interest in them. Their ‘cliqueyness’ is not due to unfriendliness, but to fear of exposing their lack of English. When someone like you takes an interest in them, they open up to receive and give friendship very easily.

However, those who jump readily through the initial friendship hoops may suddenly find strange mixed signals. Sometimes you may even get a progressive (but polite) distancing, and you don’t know why. Here’s where some understanding of cultural differences might really help, so read on.

2. ‘Face’ is everything

Many already know that ‘face’ is an ingrained cultural foundation in the worldview of the Chinese. (My friend Andrew Hong has done some really great writing on face on his blog.)

However, for many of us, there’s a world of difference between understanding that face is important, and then actually negotiating relationships with it. Face gets expressed in myriad ways, and a basic understanding of it (‘giving face’, ‘saving face’, etc.) is indispensable in our ongoing friendships with Chinese people.

3. The art of diplomacy

This infographic by Chinese/German designer Yang Liu illustrates the key difference between West (blue) and East (red) in expressing opinions.

The West values directness and candour; the East values indirectness and subtlety. Trying to build bridges with a Chinese person is engaging in the art of diplomacy. It involves looking for clues as to hidden intentions, acknowledging them, and then responding in such a way that shows you know how to ‘play the game’ in the same way they do. Only, it’s not a game. It’s relational capital, which you will need if you are to be “all things to all men, so that by all possible means, [you] might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

4. When not saying ‘no’ means ‘no’

A Chinese person will generally find a thousand ways to say ‘no’ before actually saying ‘no’. They will take an indirect route (see above), because they are trying to save you face and save themselves face.

This means that being pushy can actually damage your friendship. If they’re forced to say ‘no’, or if they feel cornered to have to say ‘yes’, you may feel a friendship begin to go cold.

So say you’re asking a new Chinese friend if you can come over to their place for a visit, and they look a little uncomfortable and find some excuse about busyness or messiness or whatever. But you think they’re just being polite, so you continue to push them, albeit gently, to find a suitable time or assure them that your house is infinitely messier and that you don’t mind. After a bit of back and forth, they finally agree. You think you’ve done the correct thing by pushing harder, but you might be missing what they were actually saying earlier in the conversation when they were making excuses. They were trying to say ‘no’ without saying ‘no’.

Many Chinese migrants, especially university students and young marrieds, live in extremely cramped conditions. Plus, in Chinese culture, if people drop by, you’re expected to entertain them as a host and provide food. If they’re unable to do that, they will be very embarrassed to have you over to their place. By making excuses, they’re trying to say ‘no’ without actually saying ‘no’. This saves you face and saves them face. Understanding this will go a long way in maintaining a friendship and building trust. And who knows, one day down the track they may actually invite you over of their own accord!

Learn to read early cues. Learn not to take statements and excuses at face value. This could earn you a lot of relational capital that over time develops a deep friendship.

5. Western ‘confidence’ is off-putting

Chinese migrants often find it hard to compete for jobs in interviews, even when they are significantly more qualified than their fellow applicants. ‘Confidence’ is seen as ‘boastfulness’, and Chinese folk take a far more indirect route to showing competence and confidence. 

In particular, the Aussie male culture of “Yeah, I can do that, I’ll have a go” is quite off-putting. It may not even be expressed with an ounce of ungodly pride; after all, it’s just an expression of truthful self-perception. However, to a Chinese person, it appears as arrogance.

Chinese culture values humility, but not in the way you think. Humility in Chinese culture isn’t like humility in the Bible. Biblical humility comes from the heart — it’s an expression of a heart bent in submission to the greatness of God. Chinese humility is a way of expressing greatness indirectly. To the Chinese, it is far greater to have others recognise my greatness through my actions and achievements than me having to big-note myself. And so they will find indirect ways to ‘brag’ (the ‘humble brag’). It’s still pride. It’s still sinful, but it’s expressed very differently from Western pride.

This is one of the key reasons Chinese migrant men find it difficult to mingle with Western men. Take your average pub conversation with Aussie blokes (or even the post-church soccer-match conversation with Aussie Christian blokes). There’s just no way that a Chinese guy feels comfortable in that situation. It’s going to be quite off-putting for them and they’re likely to retreat from such gatherings in the future (which, if it’s your church culture, is a problem if you’re trying to enfold them in fellowship).

6. Other short tips

This article is long enough, so here are some additional brief ideas. Hopefully by now the underlying reasons will be clear to you:

  • Don’t expect Chinese people to open gifts when they receive them. 
  • When you do visit their homes, bring a small gift. They will always bring one to your place when they come over.
  • Don’t expect them to voice their opinions in a group — whether it’s a tutorial or a Bible study group. 
  • Don’t expect honest feedback or constructive criticisms in a face-to-face context.
  • If you’re not Chinese, all can be forgiven if you’re willing to apologise for any cultural faux pas you might have committed. If you’re Chinese (even ABC), forgiveness comes less easily.
  • Persevere. It’s worth it. If this coming century is the Asian century, then no Christian person and no church can afford to miss the importance of these relationships. Plus, Chinese migrants are some of the most receptive to friendships and the gospel that you will find among any unchurched group. Persevere. And most importantly, pray.

Peter Ko is the lead and planting pastor of SWCCC and pastor of ACTS 11 in Kingsgrove. Much of his ministry experience has been with the Chinese community in Sydney — both first- and second-generation migrants. He is married to the non-Chinese Karen, and they have four (beautiful) Eurasian kids. He is a graduate of Moore Theological College and the Ministry Training Strategy.