It was Saturday. The CCCB’s Bible group called ‘Noah’s Ark’ (诺亚方舟) was meeting in the parish house of Trinity Church in Charlottenburg, in West Berlin for their Saturday gathering. The meeting began at 9:30 in the morning with a prayer. The group sang a few gospel songs together before they proceeded to the main session of Bible Reading, usually consisting of one or two paragraphs interwoven with discussions and personal testimonies. The entire ‘Noah’s Ark’ groups consisted of about twenty adults and fifteen children, though the average turnout was usually twelve to fifteen adults and ten to twelve children.
‘Noah’s Ark’ was only 500 metres away from Huade Chinese Language School (华德中文学校), the biggest Chinese language school in Berlin. ‘Huade’, literally meaning ‘China and Germany’, was founded in 1992 and attracted more than five hundred pupils every Saturday in 2016. As all the children in ‘Noah’s Ark’ were attending Huade School at the same time, the Bible group’s timetable was connected closely with the schedule of the Chinese language school. Every Saturday morning, the parents first brought their children to Huade School, where classes started at 9 a.m. While most parents gathered in the waiting room of the school to chat after the classes started, members of ‘Noah’s Ark’ walked together to their Bible group meeting.
The Bible group meeting started at 9:30, its members being divided into two sub-groups. The ‘upstairs group’ used a small room with hardly any furniture besides a large table surrounded by chairs. The participants in this sub-group were mainly parents whose children were old enough to attend Huade School on their own. The ‘downstairs group’ used the biggest room in the parish house, with a large indoor playing area and plenty of toys, and a back door facing directly on to the outdoor playground in the back yard. All the adult participants in this ‘downstairs group’ had children who were too young to attend Huade School. These young children, sometimes even babies, played with each other in the corner with toys while their parents kept an eye on them during the Bible reading session.
Both ‘Noah’s Ark’ sub-groups ended their sessions at 11:45 punctually. A few parents from the downstairs group would walk to Huade School to pick up all the children, whose classes at the language school ended at 12:00. The other members would come together, set up the table in the big room and prepare lunch. All the Chinese Christians in the CCCB who were members of ‘Noah’s Ark’ referred to their common lunch as a ‘Feast of Love’. Each member brought one or two dishes from home, all of which were placed on a long table to form a buffet, which was shared by all those present.
The Bible discussion might have its ups and downs, but the quality of this lunch buffet had always been superb. That Saturday when I attended was no exception. I picked my share of the buffet and sat down next to Mr Song. He stared at my plate of goodies, and asked: ‘Do you know how to make a German potato salad?’
‘You want German potato salad? Come on, look at these golden-brown coloured dumplings!’ ‘No, it’s not for me! It’s for my children!’ Mr Song pointed to a young boy and a young girl playing board games with others at a kids’ table. ‘They don’t like Chinese food so much; they like potato salad. Neither I nor my wife knows how to make it!’
Mr Song and his wife were both born and raised in Fujian Province in southern China and came to Germany to study in 2000. On completing their education, they stayed in Germany and started a family there. When we met, Mr Song was working as a software engineer in a small town near Frankfurt am Main, while his wife and their children stayed in Berlin. ‘Actually, we could have moved. My wife stays at home anyway. But we decided to keep the family here, and I commute every week. People all say that the schools in Hesse are actually better, but that town [where I work] is too small! No Chinese church, no [Chinese] Bible groups, let alone a Chinese language school! How can my children learn any Chinese there?’ Mr Song drove at least five hours each way to commute, and I could almost see all the miles on his face as we were speaking. ‘But it is not easy for my wife either. She has to take care of three children here, all by herself! Our youngest is only two years old!’
In spite of the hardships of taking care of three children by oneself, the exhaustion of driving more than five hours twice a week and the fact that the public schools in Hesse had a better reputation, Mr Song and his wife still preferred to keep the family in Berlin. The Chinese church, the Bible group and the Chinese language school were the reasons Mr Song gave me when I asked him for his reasons for staying in Berlin. His nine-year-old daughter, SS, walked around the buffet table as I was talking to her father. ‘Look at her, she only has the face of a Chinese, everything inside is German!’ commented Mr Song. ‘All my kids are talking to each other in German; I and my wife sometimes don’t know what they are talking about. I have to really catch up with my German to talk to them. […] They play these German games, watch German TV, we don’t know anything about it.’
SS’s best friend, QQ, was the youngest daughter of Ms QD and Mr WG, both active members of ‘Noah’s Ark’. Just like Mr Song, QQ’s parents were very pleased to find SS as a regular play date. ‘They go to the language school together and sit in the same classroom’, said Ms QD; ‘here [pointing at the playground] they play together, and tomorrow [Sunday] they can be together at church for a whole afternoon’.
‘It does not matter if they are speaking German among themselves; however, it matters that they make friends, make real Chinese friends’, commented Mr WG, the father of QQ, when I asked him about the language QQ was using. ‘Language learning has to happen naturally, you can’t force them. We have three children, we both work, you just can’t force things like this, you don’t have the time! I say “Put on your shoes, you are late for school!”: if it saves me time to tell them in German, then I will not speak Chinese, there is not so much to think about.’
Although Ms QD and Mr WG did not consider Chinese learning to be the main reason for taking her daughter to attend church activities, they were very proud to share QQ’s improvement in Chinese language capacity. Ms QD enthusiastically told me that QQ could speak much better Chinese than her brothers. She was also able to write some Chinese characters, something none of her brothers was ever able to do. QQ recently started attending a Chinese calligraphy class at Huade School in the afternoon, which Ms QD was visibly very excited about. However, she did not forget to emphasize the importance of having her Chinese best friend, SS, who shared the credit for all the progress QQ was making: ‘For children, it is important to have company, to do what their good friends are doing. If they don’t have any Chinese friends, how can you convince them to go to Chinese classes?’
Pastor Xu praised ‘Noah’s Ark’ constantly during Sunday services, as he considered it a great example of ‘cultivating the heart and soul of our children’. He came to ‘Feast of Love’ to have lunch on Saturday from time to time and spoke highly of the combination of Bible reading and Chinese language learning. When asked further about the children who attended both Huade Chinese Language School and ‘Noah’s Ark’ Bible group, Pastor Xu commented, ‘Oh, they are the best! They go to Chinese school, sitting together with other children. Everyone sees immediately how great they are! […] They are different from other children. … Oh yes, completely different! They are the children of Christian parents, they are the children of our church, children of God, and they always behave much better than all other children do. Everyone can see and know right away what a great church we are.’
The combination of a Chinese language school and a Bible group meeting was the main attraction of ‘Noah’s Ark’, and all the members scheduled their timetables to fit in accordingly. Starting at 9:30 and ending at 11:45, each session of Bible reading at ‘Noah’s Ark’ lasted a maximum of two hours and a quarter, while other Bible groups usually had sessions of about four to five hours. When the Huade School was not open for classes during school breaks and holidays, the number of participants at ‘Noah’s Ark’ declined simultaneously. This phenomenon again showed the importance of Chinese language learning for the members of the CCCB. For many first-generation Chinese immigrants, the Church had become one of the options for increasing the Chinese language abilities of their children. For the Church leaders, conversely, providing Sunday school and a Chinese-speaking environment had become an effective way of bringing in more families with children and thus building up a stronger community.