A tale of two cultures

25 Apr, 2013 | Hong Kong
Debbie Meroff
Urdu, Chinese and English vocabulary cards
Go almost anywhere in Hong Kong on a typical Sunday and you'll have to compete for space with tens of thousands of foreign domestic workers enjoying their day off. Over 150,000 Filipinos and 150,000 Indonesian maids work in the city. So do at least 18,000 Pakistanis, over a third of whom were born in Hong Kong. Many are descended from relatives who migrated there when Hong Kong was a British Crown colony and then British Dependent Territory, allowing English speakers to get good jobs.

OM Hong Kong has been reaching out to new immigrants for years, but the Pakistani population is a more recent focus. In fact, OM intentionally sold their last office in a prime location on Hong Kong Island in 2010 in order to move closer to minority peoples.

"In 2011 we prayed about how to make contact with Pakistani people," relates Grace Lau, who has served with OM for 16 years. "We came up with the idea of introducing ourselves through the Mid-Autumn Festival. This is one of Hong Kong's biggest national holidays, a time for families to gather together, light lanterns and enjoy a meal under a full moon. So we went to the park and gave out lanterns to the South Asian children we found there, asking parents if we could visit or help their children with their schoolwork. They gladly welcomed us, and now we're looking for more and more volunteers!"

Creating a welcome centre

OM Hong Kong's office move to the poorest district of Kowloon left them enough money to create a separate centre for ministry to migrants. A church service for Indonesians is now held in this large, well-lit space on Sunday afternoons. On two other days each week, Chinese lessons are given to Pakistani children and their mothers. No Christian signs or symbols adorn the centre, so even though visitors know that staff are Christians, they obviously feel comfortable. Team members also travel to a Christian primary school two afternoons a week to offer free after-school tutoring to non-Chinese students, and on Fridays up to 50 volunteers from various churches join them in visiting families. While they never try to force their faith on anyone, they find they are sometimes able to share a testimony or pray with individuals in Jesus' name.

Grace admits that she initially had some misgivings about working with Pakistanis, since she doesn't speak a lot of English. "But the Lord told me, 'I'll do it, not you!'" she laughs. "So I said yes! And we've seen miracles happen."

Fitting into a Chinese culture

Lincoln Yip, coordinator of OM Hong Kong's five-member community development team, explains that South Asians in Hong Kong often face discrimination, cultural and language barriers and poor living conditions. Accommodation is so expensive that landlords commonly maximise their profits by dividing ordinary-sized apartments into three tiny areas for immigrant families.

Since one of OM Hong Kong's aims is to befriend South Asian immigrants and help them integrate into the local culture, teaching them Chinese is an obvious step. Most children attending public schools must learn Cantonese. Pakistani men can get by without reading or writing the language if they work on construction sites, but if they want better pay, doing government (civil) work, they have to improve their Cantonese. Often it is the women who are most isolated, unable to communicate or move freely around the city. Wives may also be forced to endure violent or unfaithful behaviour from husbands who drink or gamble. And while sons may marry in Hong Kong, daughters are traditionally sent back to Pakistan to become brides.

Help from abroad

Lincoln notes that a very exciting development for his team is a cooperative effort with OM Pakistan.

"We have raised funds for OM Pakistan in the past and know they do great work. We really wanted to connect with them, so in August last year 12 of us (five OM Hong Kong staff and seven volunteers) actually travelled to Pakistan for two weeks."

The trip was a real eye-opener. They had chosen an extremely hot month; and the frequent power cuts and level of poverty apparent in many places were not something they had anticipated. Neither had they expected to be greeted like film stars! Most Pakistanis have never seen Chinese people, so they were asked for photos wherever they went. Their visit also took place during Ramadan, the most religious time of the year, exposing them to the powerful influence of Islam. Altogether, the experience greatly aided their understanding of the culture and how best to build bridges with Pakistanis in Hong Kong.

This year the team is eagerly looking forward to the arrival of two young women with OM Pakistan who have applied for a visa to Hong Kong. Lincoln is sure their coming will benefit everyone. "It will be an entirely different ministry for them here," he affirms. "I believe God will open the door."

Changing church attitudes

God has also been changing attitudes in some Hong Kong churches. "We've always had Pakistanis here, but the new generation has more courage to step out. Churches with an annual mission week sometimes ask us to share about our ministry. Others that have a heart for it ask us to give them training in Muslim culture." He adds that a few churches are even thinking of encouraging individuals with a heart for Pakistan to go there, with their blessing. And one of the volunteers who accompanied the OM team to that country has expressed an interest in going back for a year, to learn the Urdu language.

Of course, the Hong Kong team also dreams that some of their new Pakistani friends will one day accept Christ and return to Pakistan to share the gospel with other members of their families. If the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, they are trusting God that they have started in the right direction.

Credit: Debbie Meroff · © 2013 Debbie Meroff This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

OM’s role in the Church is to mobilise people to share the knowledge of Jesus and His love with every generation in every nation. OM pioneers and leads initiatives to redeem lives, rebuild communities and restore hope in over 110 countries.

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