The Challenges of Singleness in Cross Cultural Work
by Suzanne R
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(First published as part of an internal publication of the Shanxi Evergreen Service, 2006)
The single foreign lady nudges her bicycle into a space and pulls out her loose change to pay the woman who watches the bikes. In return, she is given a wooden tag which matches the one the bicycle-guard-lady hangs over the bike’s handlebar. Before the exchange is completed, though, the bicycle-watcher starts the usual interrogation. With a sigh, the woman prepares herself. “How many children do you have? None? Impossible. Why? No husband - really? Well, how old are you? That old? Why haven’t you found yourself a husband? That doesn’t make sense – just do whatever it takes to find somebody. Would you marry a Chinese man? I’ve got a cousin, you see….”
Like anywhere in the world, single people enjoy tremendous flexibility and freedom. However, singles anywhere often struggle with loneliness and the sense of failure that society (deliberately or not) places on them for having apparently been unsuccessful in finding a life partner.
When it comes to life as a westerner in northern China, the joys and frustrations of singleness are magnified. While singleness is becoming increasingly acceptable in the big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, in less cosmopolitan centers, the expectation is that young adults find themselves life partners. To be divorced or widowed and therefore single is reasonable, although not ideal. However, to have reached your thirties and beyond having never married is unfathomable.
Much of the discussion below concerns the single worker as opposed to the family person. Of course, there are also couples who have never had children, or whose children no longer live with their parents. The situation of such couples is different again, but that is a discussion for another time.
Of course, both men and women can be single. Nevertheless, the majority of singles in overseas work are women, and for this reason, the perspective of the single woman is most prominent in the following discussion.
Lonely or peaceful?
Loneliness is not limited to singles. Nevertheless, life in a society that highly values the family structure, away from people of one’s own culture, perhaps accentuates the loneliness that some singles feel. Certainly, our local friends generally assume that we singles spend our lives wishing for a life partner. This is not usually true … although many singles will admit to sometimes wishing for a change of marital status.
On the other hand, many parents of young children envy the quiet and order that a single enjoys. Returning home to an empty apartment, where everything is as you’ve left it, particularly after an enjoyable and boisterous evening with team kids, is one of the perks of singleness.
This quiet and order is particularly valuable for a single’s walk with God. The loneliness a single experiences may also push her yet closer to God. Without a partner to turn to in difficult times, the single will be more likely to turn to God. Many well-meaning people say, “Ah, God is a husband to you.” Although the Biblical sentiment is actually that God is a father to the fatherless and a defender of widows (Psalm 68:5), there is nevertheless an element of truth in the concept of God being the primary support for the single person. On top of this, practically speaking, it is much easier to maintain a consistent quiet time when we’re not responsible for children who wake up earlier than planned, need help getting out the door early in the morning for school etc.
Singleness can result in loneliness anywhere in the world, but even more so when society keeps stressing the ‘need’ to be a part of a family structure. Nevertheless, the single life is a comparatively quiet and peaceful life.
Patronized or respected?
In China, titles are often given based on one’s occupation or age rather than one’s marital status. Common titles include ‘teacher’, ‘doctor’, ‘older sister’ and ‘aunt’. Such titles show respect. In the west, many women have to choose between the formal title of ‘Mrs’ (married), Miss (single) or Ms (not willing to say). The Chinese use of titles is liberating, as most casual acquaintances need never know one’s marital status. However, when it does become known that we are single, it seems like we slip down several pegs in the estimation of the local person. As time goes on, our position in the eyes of our friends relates again to who we are. However, in the initial stages of a friendship, the local person will often see the single as somebody to be pitied, as a defective person who is therefore unable to find a life partner.
On the other hand, the single has more time and energy to be involved in friendships with local people. In fact, often our local friends will make more of an effort to invite us to their home or for a simple meal out – it is much easier to invite a single person than a whole family. They also think that we must be lonely so will be quick to reach out in friendship. For someone who is given a visa on the basis of being a ‘foreign expert’, the decrease in stature that being single brings is not necessarily a bad thing anyway. We’re put on a pedestal in some ways because we’re foreign, so it is helpful in some respects to be brought down to the same level as a ‘normal’ person, even though we’re still seen as an oddity. Singleness certainly brings increased opportunities to be further involved in the lives of local people.
Friends and family
In a real sense, the expatriate team of which a single is a part becomes our family. The children of team-members can become as close as nephews and nieces back in our home country, and our work colleagues as close as siblings. Singles often identify strongly with Psalm 68:6, which talks of God setting the lonely in families.
The role a single can play in the lives of the team kids is also significant. Singles serve as powerful models in the lives of these young people. The disadvantage, of course, is that as time marches on, our ‘in-country-family-members’ become scattered all over the world. Team kids grow up and return to their home countries. Although they’ll always have a special place in our hearts, our lives are unlikely to significantly interact again. Each time a team-mate leaves the team, it causes significant grief, and even more so for the single for whom this is a primary nurturing relationship.
Social life … but a lack of routine
Singles are free to be far more flexible with our social lives than families are, given that there is nobody for whom a change of routine will be a problem … except ourselves. This is wonderful for the person who wants to be involved in the lives of local people. It is no problem to stay out late and make up missed sleep with a nap the following day. In fact, in this respect, it is easier being a single in northern China, since to take a midday nap is culturally appropriate.
However, at the same time, the flexibility that singleness brings isn’t always helpful. A mother will say, “Sorry – we’ve got to get the children home and to bed.” A single has no such ‘excuse’. Some singles have been known to occasionally hide themselves in a room with only a low light and the phone disconnected. It is easier to appear to be ‘not at home’ than to explain that we’d just like a quiet evening at home.
Friendships with local people
As discussed earlier, singles are free to invest more time and energy in relationships with local people than are team-mates with family responsibilities. We may well develop deeper friendships in some ways, because we are forced to rely on local friends rather than a life partner. We are often able to develop particularly close relationships with others of the same gender.
One frustration with such relationships is that we want to impact the whole family in our ministry but often this is hard to do without being part of a family ourselves. Single women sometimes find themselves counseling local married women about being submissive and godly in difficult marriages, or discussing child-raising issues. To be honest, though, we single women have no personal experience on which to draw or which gives us credibility. This is intensified when it comes to dealing with the husband of a local friend. It is not unusual to hear the single woman sigh, “If only I had a husband who could talk with my friend’s husband.”
Friendships with other Westerners
Friendships are important sources of nurture for any single person. Overseas, such friendships play an even more important role than they might back in our home countries. Perhaps the intensity of such friendships would be frowned upon in secular western society, but in fact, such friendships are pure and God-given.
Apart from companionship, the practicalities of life in northern China favor having a partner. Food is an example. China does not have the array of pre-packaged foods that the west has, let alone single portions. Even ordering out in a restaurant, there is not much a lot of variety possible when ordering for one. Hosting guests is almost impossible when all the dishes are stir-fried rather than prepared ahead and baked. It is much easier to cook, eat out and host meals with a partner. On the other hand, however, a single is often happy to eat quite simply. Food preparation takes much longer in China that it does in the west, but simple meals, healthy road-side snacks and leftovers are a quick and convenient source of nutrition for the single person.
Holidays as a single is often a challenge. Always holidaying alone is not much fun. Staying at home when life and work are so closely intertwined means that you don’t get a good break. However, pairing up with a friend makes travel affordable and enjoyable … usually. It is also comparatively affordable for a single to return to her home country for a holiday from time to time, although this brings its own stresses, as well as joys.
It used to be that organizations would require single women to share accommodation. This was more locally appropriate than the current style of having singles live alone, but brought with it many frustrations. A married couple has chosen to be together for life and is committed to a life together. Two singles are only together for a limited time, and are not trying to build a life together. Different personalities, lifestyles and expectations made such shared accommodation stressful at times. Overall, most singles will say that they prefer living near others but not with others.
In the west, it is much easier for a single to become isolated from others than it is as part of an expatriate team in China. Even so, naturally introverted singles may need to consciously put out the effort to build such relationships. It is important that such relationships with other team members be built, as this is a significant source of support. Many singles will testify to God’s provision of others with whom a special friendship is formed during their years overseas. Some families go out of their way to include singles as aunties and uncles in their families. This is much appreciated.
What are our morals really?
On occasions, it seems a good idea to have a T-shirt printed that says, “I am not immoral.” Once a friendship is formed, the moral standards of the single westerner are obvious. However, the casual observer is quick to assume that an older single westerner has other ways of meeting his or her sexual desires. Rarely do people put it quite so plainly, but from time to time, taxi drivers or bicycle parking attendants will make the comment, “Oh, things are much more open in the west, I know.” Nobody can blame people for that perception, given that their knowledge of the west is largely based on imported movies. How many singles in popular western movies live celibate lives? The behavior of some men towards the single western woman after a few alcoholic drinks also reconfirms this view.
China is not a particularly dangerous place for the single woman. There is nearly always somebody around who will be quick to help. In the same way that the single woman takes precautions against trouble in her home country, so she should in her adopted country. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the single western woman is viewed by the general public as a loose woman. It is embarrassing, but true.
Singles are good value for money! In many sending agencies, singles raise less than half the support of a family. However, singles on average work as long or longer on ‘work activities’ than can somebody who has to balance work and home responsibilities. Our work and ministry becomes our life. Most people are quick to admit that the way our work can become all-consuming is not always healthy. Yet the fact is that we do get a lot of work done. The apostle Paul wrote about how it is a privilege to be single-minded for the Lord’s work (1 Corinthians 7:32-35), and most singles working overseas are quick to agree with him.
Modeling Christian values
It is a HUGE thing for Chinese Christian women to stay single rather than marry a non-believer. There are many more Chinese Christian women than there are Christian men. Naturally, some women will either have to marry a non-believer or remain single. As westerners, who have chosen to remain single rather than marry a non-believer or even a Christian man unwilling to live in China, we provide an example and encouragement to our local friends. To be honest, though, the pressure placed on us to marry is nothing like the pressure our local friends experience.
To be a single worker as part of a larger team in northern China is not unlike being a single in our home countries in some ways. Perhaps, though, both the joys and frustrations are magnified. Ultimately, the best place to be is exactly where God would have us. May He enable each believer to joyfully serve Him, regardless of where in the world we may be, and regardless of our marital status.
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