'Tentmaking' In China as an English Teacher

by Anna Thornton-Taylor

The large nation of China has it's share of beautiful landscape.

As of the 2000 census, 1.3 billion people live in China. It is estimated that over 100 million still live in cave dwellings and it boasts the largest Muslim population in the world. It is home to the highest plateau in the world, the longest wall in the world and the biggest projected dam in the world. This is the People's Republic of China.

From the frigid reaches of northeastern Manchuria to lush subtropical regions of the southwest, China is a culturally rich and powerfully beautiful place. My husband and I entered from Siberia in February of 2001. Unlike the barren Russian steppe, China positively teemed with people. After the culinary wasteland of Russian cuisine, China was flavorful and colorful---even in the dead of winter.

We went to China to teach English as a Second Language. We had been hired over the Internet and through a phone interview. We were expected to report to work in Dalian, China by March 1. We arrived a few days early to get acclimated to the tempo of the city.

Dalian is a little known city of six million people nestled amongst some hills on the Liaoning peninsula of northeastern China. Although part of China, this part of the country has been exchanged between the Russians and the Japanese in recent history. Indeed some of the older folks can still speak a little Japanese and Russian sailors are a frequent sight on the streets. Unlike most of China, the people of Dalian were quite familiar with lao wei or foreigners, as we were called. They were also familiar with another Western phenomenon---Christianity. Between registered churches and small groups that meet in homes there are reportedly between 15-250 million Christians in all of China.

There has been a decidedly large religious vacuum left by Chinese Communism. Before the civil war the Chinese were, on the whole, Taoists or Buddhists worshipping a pantheon of gods. The ancient Chinese built shrines honoring these gods on the tops of mountains. There are several holy Taoists mountains and several holy Buddhist ones.

But Karl Marx wrote that "religion is the opium of the masses" and Maoist communism incorporated this philosophy. Chairman Mao discouraged religion. The state told you what to do, how to do it, when to do it and what your set of beliefs were going to be. Setting himself up as a modern-day Chinese emperor Chairman Mao was god-like. Millions revered him. His picture was everywhere. His sayings were canonized in the 'Little Red Book' that was carried and memorized by the youth during the Cultural Revolution of the late sixties.

The Chinese have been able to breathe easier since Chairman Mao's death in 1976. Chairman Mao's successors have slowly opened up China to the West. Since 1980, foreigners have been allowed in the country to travel or work. Most of the foreigners working in China are English teachers. Since they are native-English speakers and come from Christian nations they are perceived as Christians.

We were set up with an apartment complete with big screen television, DVD player and Internet hookup. After a few hardy meals, and getting a lay of the land, we were ready for the classroom. Our students were aged five to fifty-five. The little ones came on the weekends. Saturday and Sunday were our big workdays. The students were coming to our school, as well as, attending their regular schools. As a child it is your job to be a student and your excellent performance in school is paramount. The best way to serve the state is to be a good student. The students, as a whole, were diligent, respectful and industrious.

The adults came to class during the week. In the evening after work they went the extra mile to learn English. Most of the adult classes were conversation-based. While we had fun and played games in those classes most of the adult students wanted to talk about Western culture. To promote conversation, we talked a great deal about Chinese culture as well. However, there were certain taboo subjects. And the Communist Party exclusively dictates Chinese history. "Chairman Mao was 30% bad and 70% good" was a common view of recent history. Of course, any other political discussion was shied away from. The other main taboo subject was religion.

Religion could be talked about, but only with an historical perspective. For example, I could ask questions about Confucius, the Taoist mountains or the Journey to the West (the story of the arrival of the Buddhist scriptures). But any forays into personal beliefs were prohibited in the classroom.

Like many rules, however, sometimes the line was too tantalizing not to cross. Classroom discussions with high-level students could be intense. And as a Christian I was anxious to see where my students were spiritually. Many students had taken English lessons for many years and knew the word God. They would ask me if I believed in God. I would answer yes. Then I would ask them if they believed in God. Many of them said no. Then I would push the envelope a little and ask what, if anything, they believed in. Most of them would say they only believed in themselves.

This view is what has filled the vacuum left in post-Chairman Mao China: a belief in self. It can be seen everywhere in Dalian, a relatively affluent city. People are self-absorbed and self-indulgent. The modern Chinese hold dear very few ancient religious beliefs and Communism was not as good as promised. The only thing remaining for them to believe in, without exposure to Christ, is self.

Living Christ's example was the best way we found to respect Chinese laws and customs and at the same time to share the reason for our happiness and fulfillment. We met "tent-making" Westerners working in partnership with locals. An Australian fellow teacher had lived, with his wife, in China ten years. He was a teacher, volunteered at an orphanage, made a home in China and had been able to adopt three beautiful children all while living Christ's example of love and servitude. And he is just one person.

China is hungry for the Good News of Christ. Through "tent-making" we can help people fill the void left by Communism with hope instead of self-reliance. There are 1.3 billion people in China and an equal number of opportunities to demonstrate Christ's love to a spiritually hungry people.

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