If you have lived in Beijing long enough you know it’s a place where people regularly come and go. Sometimes it seems that welcoming and saying good-bye is all we do. However, we don’t often hear from people who are truly called to stay in Beijing for the long haul. Joining us today is Jonathon, a loyal Beijinger and a regular in the Middle Kingdom podcasts.
So Jonathon, what brought you to Beijing initially?
I first came to Beijing in July 2002 to learn Chinese and to get some experience teaching. I worked for a company that taught phonics to primary teachers. I moved to Shanghai in 2003 and taught at a local school there for three years. Later, I moved back to Beijing with my wife and son to teach at an international school.
You have lived in Beijing for quite some time! What is it that keeps you here?
I have one of the greatest jobs in the world. My school is an excellent place to work. I have invested a lot of time and energy into Beijing so that’s what keeps me here.
Beijing is a city where people come and go quite frequently. What is the hardest part of living in such a transient city?
No matter how long you have lived here it’s so difficult to say good-bye to people year in and year out. For many years we were part of a Small Group and saw our kids grow up with many friends during their formative years. However, every year families moved, and we were left with nobody else in that Small Group.
The same can be said about my co-workers. I have worked with wonderful people over the years only to see them move on. The hardest thing for me is really saying good-bye.
I think we can all agree with that one. There must be some good things about living in a transient city though?
The best part is learning new things all the time. No matter how long you have been on the job or have lived in Beijing, there are always opportunities to learn.
I have heard many people describe Beijing as a city where God prepares us to be sent back out to the nations once again. That leaves the church constantly in the process of “sending them out”. However, sometimes God calls us to stay. How would you describe God’s hand in the calling to stay in a place?
That is certainly a very interesting question. I have seen many people “sent out” however, I’ve never really felt called by God to leave. I think He sent me here for a specific reason and I never forget my mission here in Beijing. God always opens new opportunities for me to serve and new challenges for me to take on. For example, after being a teacher for so many years I am now the university guidance counselor and am learning more things on the job. In terms of ministry, God has really challenged me as a leader of men at Bible Study Fellowship on Monday nights.
People in Beijing also tend to fall in love with the city and feel that no other place can quite compare. This leaves us longing to stay and sometimes fearful of leaving and starting over somewhere else. How do we discern between our own fears and desires related to staying in Beijing, and a genuine call from God to stay?
Discerning our own fears and desires from what God is calling us to do can only be done by staying in the Word. If you are really looking to do what God has called you to do, then you are sensitive to what God is saying to you in terms of your ministry. God is always opening doors for you when He wants you in a place. As long as your focus is on other people you will be able to discern God’s calling. The minute you start worrying about yourself, the focus shifts and the fears come.
Sometimes I hear people refer to those expats who, like you, have been here for years as the “pillars” of the community. That is, the kind of friends they will “latch on” to because they are certain they will never leave. This makes me wonder if these more seasoned expats feel taken for granted. Would you say this is the case for long-term Beijingers?
I don’t for a second feel I’m taken for granted. I’ve never thought that in all the years I’ve been here. If you are in God’s will and accomplishing His vision, then you won’t feel you are being taken for granted. I don’t think that others owe me anything. It is a privilege to serve no matter how long you have been here. For me to feel that others are forgetting me shows a lack of faith. Yes, sometimes it’s nice to be recognized for what you do, but for the most part you get so much joy from giving to others.
Many people are raising their children here in Beijing. Others are teaching or ministering to children and youth. Adults may be used to the process of constantly saying good-bye to friends and then making new ones, but for the children and youth in our lives, this sometimes feels new or especially painful. How can we support the children in our lives going through this?
Both of my boys have spent the majority of their lives here in Beijing. It has been incredibly difficult to see them have to say good-bye to many friends. However, there are always new friends that my boys meet. People come and go, and you eventually have to say good-bye. At my school I also see it every year with my students.
About six years ago I wrote a song called “Memories”. The chorus goes,
“all we have are memories,
embedded in our hearts and minds for history,
posted on Instagram (or We Chat if you like) for all to see,
but the people who care the most are you and me.”
I think that’s what Beijing is. We are making memories that will last a life-time and that is something you can’t take away from your kids or students.
The best way to support your children is just to be there for them. There’s nothing you can do to take that feeling away from them. Everyone has to go through this process. If you want to be a refined human being, you have to go through the fire and face things head on.
Often well-meaning friends and family in our home country express their desire for us to return and ask us when we are coming “home”. How would you advise newer expats to respond?
I know this is something that people deal with all the time. My parents live in Hong Kong and when we first moved abroad, my grandmother always prayed for us to go back home. I think if you are secure in where you are supposed to be then it’s easier to not let it affect you.
My advice to expats that are getting these responses from home would be to just tell them that this is the place where you feel you should be now. If they aren’t Christians, just be positive with them about the things you are doing here. Think about all the opportunities you have here and all the growth you are experiencing. Make sure that all of this is communicated.
Keep loved ones back home up to date on what’s happening. Family will always be concerned about your health and if you are fitting in.
If you are facing any kind of difficulties, I encourage you to share with people in Beijing. Sometimes sharing bad news or struggles can add extra stress to those loved ones back at home. Persevere and when you see breakthrough, share that with your family at home.
I have been in Beijing for three years now, so I have grown accustomed to welcoming new people and saying good-bye to others every year. However, in the past few months it feels like we are seeing more people than usual leave the country. In your time here have you seen some exodus seasons appear to be more drastic and frequent than at other times?
This is really a tough question because every year I say good-bye to lots of people. Last year 24 teachers left the school I teach at and lots of friends from church as well. It feels like the people you think will never leave decide that they will. In the time I’ve been here there have been definite exodus seasons, but there are also fantastic people that arrive all the time.
Some people feel that I may be immune to people leaving since it happens all the time. However, it’s really difficult for me to say good-bye to people year after year. We are all here for a season and for some that season is longer than others.
I don’t subscribe to the notion that some seasons are more drastic and frequent than others. Everyone who leaves does so for different reasons and sometimes the timing is such that some years have more people leaving than others.
So how do you cope when it does feel like everyone is leaving in such a short time?
I basically go through the process. It’s difficult when I say good-bye and sometimes, I wish it weren’t the case. But I come to a place of acceptance and I move on with my life.
Never forget why you are here. Accept the difficulty of saying goodbye, but then remember what you are called to do. That can be tough, but in reality, life isn’t easy.
After having our hearts broken many times from the constant good-byes it can be discouraging to make new friends. What advice would you offer someone struggling with this?
My advice would be not to feel guilty over something so natural. Of course, it’s discouraging when people leave. However, continue to do what you were called here to do. Meet with those around you. There will be some friendships that are deeper than others but connect with others, nonetheless. People will come and go in your life and for that season you will be impacted, and your life will impact theirs.
Stay close to God. I think sometimes we rely on other people for happiness and satisfaction. However, I believe that through connection with God’s Word we are transformed.
Finally, you must have said good-bye to many Beijing people by now who, I’m sure, are scattered all over the world. How do you stay in touch with them after they leave?
Obviously, the relationship changes when you aren’t in the same place, but you can always stay in touch through email and social media. Our old Small Group still has a WeChat group today. We have stayed with friends from Small Group while visiting in the U.S. We stay in touch with our friends in Hong Kong even though they left six years ago. Our friends in Germany, Canada and Singapore all have open invitations for us to visit. Depending on how close you are with the people and what time allows for, relationships will look different when you are apart.
For me, I’m grateful for all the friends our family has all over the world. I’m glad my boys had the chance to meet people in Beijing. I know they still stay in contact with friends that have moved away.
Remember, “All we have our memories…” and those are so precious, and nobody can take them away from us.
Jonathon, personally I found your insight on Beijing life to be refreshing. Remembering why we are called here and to always be looking beyond ourselves is so important for those tougher expat seasons. Thank you so much for sharing today!
Last week’s post: Ask a… Training Centre Teacher!
Jonathon stressed the importance of staying in community while living in Beijing. Below are a few options he suggested.