Parent Teacher Association, Taiwanese style

ptaI went to my first PTA meeting Friday for Sam’s school. I was invited because I’d asked about ways to try to connect international students. I went expecting a parent-run meeting where parents took on different responsibilities (or gave money, or did something), but it’s not that kind of PTA. It always amazes me how different cultures diverge in naming the same thing. Here (1) you have to be invited to serve as a PTA “member” (2) the PTA meets for about 90 minutes, with half of this being picture-taking (30+ minutes) and the other half announcements by school leaders (~15-20 minutes) and student performances (~20 minutes), (3) at no point are parents asked to do anything and there is no open discussion or Q&A. Each parent got a picture with the superintendent and their child (Sam was sick and I didn’t know to bring him). There was around ten minutes where parents could stand up and share, and these were all parents expressing gratitude to the school. It’s probably the only 100% Taiwanese gathering I’ve been at also at the school–I think pretty much only Taiwanese teachers and parents were there (the English director was there also, and the admissions counselor is from Hong Kong).

In the US meetings tend to be business focused: topics are discussed and decisions are made. There’s sometimes a part that’s celebration or fellowship. Here I still don’t totally understand how things work. There are groups that make decisions and can be contentious (like the General Assembly or legislature, or some committee meetings), but there are often things like this too, where it’s mostly reporting and then a mix of celebration/commemoration.

I’ve been grateful to see the kids’ school, because it helps me understand my own Taiwanese school, or other events to which I’m invited. Often I’ve gone expecting to “do something,” when instead the goal is to “be together.” Always illuminating…

Su Ching

This week most of the family has been incapacitated with a stomach flu. I’m recovering from it but am still not 100%. I did get the chance Wednesday to talk to a scholar, Su Ching, whose work I’ve admired for a while. At Princeton, the EAS library director, Martin Heijdra, told me about Su Ching’s dissertation and I was able to check it out there. (Heidjra is a superlibrarian, and saved me hundreds of hours by identifying some microfilm collections I could use on site.)

Su had written on the LMS missionary printing press while at London University, and then since then he’s gone on to write work on Morrison, missionary printing presses, and related subjects. He kindly treated me to lunch, which I barely ate because the flu was beginning. Still, it was a really wonderful time. It’s a fairly small world that writes on early 19th century China missions, and it was helpful to talk with someone writing from almost all Chinese sources.

He’d just come back from CUHK where he’d lectured on records related to Morrison and the East India Company (despite a lot of work in this field, I did not know that such works existed or were available for research). He also pointed out more microfilm collections available at the National Central Library here (which could again save me a lot of time in writing in this field).

I hope I get the chance to meet him again. I was sweating profusely and probably looked vaguely ill–hopefully I didn’t pass on whatever I had.

Second Chances

It’s fun to be back in Taipei. It’s surprised me how much I’ve enjoyed little things–wonton soup, the park with kids, seeing surprised students and coworkers. Part of the fun is that when we left in February we weren’t sure if we’d return. I told everyone “maybe/probably,” but in Chinese I think many people took this to mean we wouldn’t be back. The church we’ve been involved in included me (without me knowing beforehand) in a group farewell that honored the departing senior pastor and the music director. It was funny then to be back half a year later. At the same time, it’s let me to say to people “we’re very happy to be back,” and “we’re glad everything has worked out.” I’m treating it as a second chance, and really enjoying being in a new apartment with a new pace and a new outlook. Emily has new academic responsibilities. The kids are on a new (better) schedule and are enjoying schools. It’s a lot to manage, and yet is also feeling more manageable. I’m treating it like a second chance.

This is taking several forms. We’re trying to branch out a little on visiting congregations. I’ve reengaged with writing projects. I’m enjoying showing Taipei to others. This week Kevin Ward from Knox College in Dunedin, New Zealand came through. Knox is the Presbyterian seminary for New Zealand and they have a very interesting formation. They offer ministerial training that typically comes after a first degree at Otago. The faculty is basically four teachers who are all focused on preparation for ministry. It’s an interesting model and offers that rare academic/practitioner blend that most seminaries want but struggle to get. (In my seminary, there are some students who come in with basically no academic reading/writing, while in the US there are a number of seminarians who drift through their studies with limited church attachment.) I really enjoyed Kevin because we have a lot of friends in common and seem to be working on some similar issues. He’d been in Korea and had seen a classmate and we both know Yakhwee Tan, who is a kind of godmother to our children. The Liang Fa biography I’d edited was written by a New Zealand Presbyterian. A friend we’ve enjoyed getting to know the last few years is Stuart Vogel who shows up in Taipei annually and does similar academic work. It’s a web of relationships for which I’m grateful. This semester I was also surprised to discover that there’s a music prof from Northwestern College in Iowa who is on sabbatical and is guest teaching at my seminary. It’s always fun to see a place through others’ eyes.

This week is the first week of course. I’ve met with two thesis students–one is a Malaysian student interested in Islam. He wants to look at the early Muslim-Christian encounters to get some perspective on the modern relationship. I also have one PhD student who is pastoring in Vancouver and is now looking at two dissertation topics and trying to figure out which to pursue. I really enjoy work like this. I introduced the MDiv student to bibliography software, worldcat, and some other resources, and I helped the PhD student get a sense of the methods question for his work.

Resettling (back in Taipei)

From this blog it isn’t always clear where we are or what we’re doing. We’ve just come off of six months of “home assignment” or “interpretation assignment” in Cincinnati (February-August 2016). It was a fairly intense period. Initially we were waiting to find out if we’d be renewed by PCUSA; in May I journeyed back to Taipei to swap apartments and pay taxes and check in with schools; we stayed with family, including a longer period all together in the same house than we’d anticipated. It all came off well and we’re back now on a three year contract, but it’s also a bit more than I expected. The challenge of the cross-cultural life, at least for me, is this:

(1) A large amount of planning and contingency planning is necessary to exist between worlds, (2) but it also helps to be very flexible and able to go with the flow.

Planning. Flexibility. These two don’t always go together. Living our life requires a mix of Type A and Type B behavior. We went home not sure which of three school districts Sam would be in, what the twins would do for child care, or how many churches we’d be able to visit. In the end it all worked out. February was slower as we adjusted, so I visited several presbyteries in Ohio. June and July were kind of a rush. Sam did fine in US schools, which was reassuring to us.

Often we will have one area squared away (say Taiwan work), and then find another area that needs more time (US work). Sometimes it’s my seminary that needs more attention; other times we might have several weeks of training/retreating/coaching for PCUSA.

These six months were good. The kids really grew up a lot (literally: Sam grew two inches). We visited ~20 churches plus several presbyteries. We had some vacation, usually paired with either unpacking or packing. Emily did a conference paper and I started some small writing projects. I finished a small biographical project, and started a chapter for a volume on Liang Fa and some biographical entries for an encyclopedia of the global south. We did some training in Louisville, visited harder to reach congregations in the midwest and south, and in general kept things going.

Now that we’re back we’re finding a new schedule. The twins are back at their school. Eli has the most saintly teacher impossible, a woman who is emotionally attuned to him and patient. Because of the Sunday afternoon classes in Cincinnati and the Mandarin videos we showed them they all have at least comprehension in Mandarin and seem to be starting to speak more and more. My guess is they’ll be fluent again by the end of the year. We bought cable for the first time, so as I write this Sam and Eva are up watching National Geographic in Chinese. Sam’s been doing some ping-pong this week. The local park has a rink where the kids are trying roller blades and a scooter. Emily bought a washer, microwave, and coffee maker yesterday. All the pieces are coming back together. Planning. Flexibility. It is all coming along.


In Taiwan, one of the things that surprised me is how important alumni networks are. There are words in Chinese for “older classmate” (includes any alumni who attended earlier than you) and “younger classmate” and this is a pretty major way of relating. At my Seminary, the theological faculty are overwhelmingly alumni of my seminary (the exceptions: three non-Presbyterians who’d gone to the school in the US for MDiv and one who did his masters at the southern seminary), including all the tenured theological faculty members.

This week, after having asked in both May and June if my school would need anything for accreditation materials they offered that, hey, it would be nice if they could have a copy of the signatures sheet on my dissertation (does not exactly exist) and a copy of the diploma. So, I called PTS and the PhD Studies Office tracked down the signed sheet from my defense and was just all around friendly and helpful. They also included me on a recent website page celebrating the 75th anniversary of the degree program. Thanks PTS!

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Two of everything…

When we saw the first ultrasound in Mackay Hospital, there was some initial confusion over what we were seeing. “Two eyes…” said the nurse, and I thought “haha, that’s good, I have two eyes, you have two eyes.” But what she meant was that there were two sets of eyes–we were having twins.

As something of a planning fanatic, my thoughts immediately turned to twin beds and twin strollers, twin car seats, a wider vehicle, double tuition… That was the idea. Emily and I made our way to the Japanese fast food near the hospital and just kind of stared at each other as we struggled to adjust to the changes headed in our direction.

The think I love/hate about living abroad is that we really do get two of everything. Double sets of friends, of churches, of libraries and parks and play grounds. We get literacy camp and farm animals in Ohio and Taiwanese camp and music camp in Taiwan.

I’m back for two weeks doing logistics now, and it’s all pretty formidable. Monday I went to a committee meeting, Tuesday I worked on some things for Emily, Wednesday was meeting with the president and dean of my seminary, Thursday was taxes and figuring out visa matters, and today we signed on the apartment that looked at over the weekend. It’s a lot of logistics in a short amount of time. Monday is moving. I fly home Friday. Things are still pretty much in chaos here–there’s so much happening in such a short period. Double of everything. When I get home it’s congregational visits, camps planning for the kids, family weddings, and on and on. Everything doubled.

There is a lot of bliss along the way. Double the preschool teachers (who I saw today). Double the hobbies, the communities, the opportunities. Double the Everything. Double the excitement ahead…

Studying Chinese 20 years in

Yesterday I connected with my friend Fred, a French-Canadian living in Taiwan this year (and who had lived here before) and who has a kid Sam’s age. Fred and I talked language again, and especially the problem of helping kids study Chinese. Fred’s son Emile has made progress this year, but not as quickly as he’d maybe hoped. Emile and Sam have both done CSL at Lih-Jen.

Native and non-Native speakers studying Chinese

A challenge in both CSL and ESL is how native speakers and not native speakers learn and study. For instance, one of our dilemmas was how to work on Sam’s reading English. In kindergarten he attended a Mandarin language preschool that did no English alphabet or sight reading. This was part of our motivation to do a bilingual school–we wanted him to get English also. At the same time, I started looking for resources to help him, because I was nervous that it would be a tough transition. Indeed, he had some issues with handwriting (he grips his pencil in a strange way, and he’s now taught this to Eli) and was probably behind classmates in English. Another teacher at my seminary, Shufen, tried to talk me into online curriculum that were big on memorizing vocabulary, which is how Taiwanese learn English. However, Sam really learned English by doing his first grade reading sheets and, probably more importantly, by watching me read him hundreds of books over a period of about 18 or 24 months. By the end of first grade he was on track, and by the time we came back in February he was independently reading longer books. His first report card in the US said his reading, vocabulary, and writing were above grade level. One of the things he does for fun is write little book about dinosaurs that often run to ten or fifteen pages.

For him, he learned English the way a native speaker does, from exposure to a huge number of words and from free reading and writing.

With Chinese, however, learning is very different. Taiwanese students already have spoken Chinese and so their main concern becomes memorizing characters. They don’t really have to study grammar patterns. They need to connect sound to the characters, but they already know the meaning of the word, and its pronunciation and use.

New methods for Chinese study for non-native speakers

One of the interesting takeaways is that CSL in Taiwan is still taught in a very Taiwanese style, with a lot of copying of characters and repetition of the Taiwanese alphabet, poems and so on. For our kids, I think this has been okay because they did several years of preschool here so they have some of the tools to use traditional approaches. However, for kids starting later, I think this is a very challenging way to learn. I’m also wondering whether some of the more creative approaches for non-native speakers (see this U Hawaii video that Fred’s friend Pamela shared with me). It really is an interesting question–how to learn Chinese coming from English. Pamela also introduced me to “Ignite Chinese,” which uses the TPR “Total Physical Response” methodology. I think the traditional methods for learning Chinese probably really fail non-native speakers in most contexts. When our three did Chinese School on Sunday afternoons in Cincinnati, I saw that the pre-K students, like Eva and Eli, were working in a primarily Chinese context, but in Sam’s class, the kids all spoke English with each other and probably lacked context to get as much out of the copying and memorization and approaches.

I’m still sort of thinking my way into this, but I’m really curious what possibilities are to make Chinese learning more efficient and less painful for kids, and more appropriate for non-native speakers.

Mandarin videos for children on youtube

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Thank you Xi Yangyang!

Two years ago when we came home briefly, I fed my kids a partial diet of two or three Chinese-language shows, and the truth was they mostly kept up the Mandarin. This was a big improvement over two years earlier, when we were back longer, and Sam pretty much lost it all. I think hearing and watching probably works pretty well for helping hold on to Chinese, and this time we even brought back our DVD collection, harvested partially from 2nd hand video sales at a nearby DVD store.

The DVD collection includes a lot of Disney/Pixar (Incredibles, Monsters Vs. Aliens, Toy Story, Madagascar, Ice Age), but also some more local productions or animated movies from China.

The easier thing to do, however, especially with youtube + chromecast or roku, is youtube vidoes. This time we’ve kept our old favorites:

  • Granny Ice Cream 水果冰淇淋 (a Taiwanese public television show) and
  • Qiaohu 巧虎, the tiger

But I’ve also found a lot of others, including

  • 喜羊羊 “Peasant Goat and Big, Big Wolf”
  • 《Hello Kitty》
  • Taiwan, our island 我們的島 (like Granny Ice Cream, this is public television in Taiwan 公共電視台)
  • Mr. Bean 豆豆先生 or 憨豆先生
  • Le Petit Prince 小王子
  • And sometimes you can find oddball Mandarin pronunciation versions of things like Power Rangers, Dinosaur Train, My Little Pony or other shows

Another success is popular movie trailers and some dubbed songs (“Let it Go” 冰雪奇綠 is great, if, for instance, your daughter is willing to watching this song from Frozen a million times). And sometimes if you are looking for a movie you’ll find someone has uploaded the whole film in Chinese.

I don’t think AV can totally replace conversation, teaching, cultural environment, and so on, but it can provide a steady diet of alternate programming. In general, I think people way underestimate how many hours it takes for a kid to get comprehension, basic communication skills, or fluency in Mandarin. There is certainly variation among kids also. Last Sunday our kids had their “final exam” at the local Mandarin school, and it was pretty clear Eva just nailed it. Eli held his own, but spoke some in English and needed a little prompting. They’re the same age, raised in the same family, and living in the same context, but there’s still variation. Maybe some kids can get decent Chinese with a few hours of instruction and the occasional summer abroad, but my sense is most need a lot more time in language to do that. And video is one possible aid.

70 days in Cincinnati…

Getting out of Taiwan was a whirlwind, especially after the Asia retreat and with finals to grade. We’ve been back in the States for about 70 days (2+ months). We’re here at least through the summer, visiting congregations, reconnecting to family, and doing a mix of training and our catch-up on almost-forgotten projects. I did a quick trip already to Birmingham, and have future trips planned to Chicago, DC, and probably New Jersey and Massachusetts.

Kids have done well. A trait of third culture kids is “high mobility,” which seems true of ours. The upside of high mobility is that they’re fairly adaptive. Sam transitioned seamlessly into second grade, “caught up” on math in a couple of days, joined a cub scout pack (and won first place in his den for pinewood derby), and has been fairly happy to tagging along to different churches, kids’ clubs, family events, and so on. He’s doing soccer now, did his first scout campout last weekend, and finished his final violin skype lesson yesterday. With music, we’re not sure what to do. He’s most of the way through Suzuki book 1 but is wanting to stop violin. We may see if we can talk him into trying a class here or switching to singing or piano. His life is pretty busy between church, scouts, soccer, music, and language. He loves riding the school bus, checking out his own books from the library at school, and recess with his friends.

The twins are basically home with us for now, which is fairly intense. It was too late to enroll them in preschool. Eva’s started some piano with grandma, they’re both able to listen to chapter books during rest time (a nice development), and we do a lot of library, church, and YMCA time. Emily took Eva to a Lollipops conference and there are several nice parks nearby. The Y here has a drop-off you can do with kids up to two hours a day, which is a potential game changer. I’m trying to exercise more after a fairly sedentary stretch this winter. It’s nice to have the use of a back lawn–yesterday they spent several hours digging at the back edge of the lawn.

We have all three kids in a Taiwanese-run Chinese school in Cincinnati. It’s a great match for the twins and they chatter, play, and learn for a couple of hours every Sunday. Sam’s group is mostly speaking in English, but at least he gets some reinforcement. We have about a hundred DVDs that are dubbed into Chinese, and I use chromecast to play Taiwanese PBS shows from youtube on the tv. It’s still not a lot and they’re losing some, but hopefully they’ll at least keep the tones and some of the vocab. When we were first back, Eli impressed us by answering vocab queries for words like “skunk” and “skiing” (which our language courses certainly never covered).

cincinnati chinese school

Cincinnati Chinese School

I’m getting to know congregations better. I visited three presbyteries (Cincinnati, Miami Valley, Scioto Valley) and talked to the exec at a fourth (Sheppards and Lapsley). We’ve visited about a half-dozen congregations so far. This last week I offered to be the on call pastor (in case of emergencies) for the presbyterian church down the street, which has been pretty interesting. Our big travel dilemma is that I have to return to Taipei in May to deal with our apartment.

That’s the news from here. I’ve grateful for small moments of bliss along the way–starry midwestern skies, grandparent babysitting, smoother car trips, and interactions with old and new friends. This return to the US was kind of rushed, so I wasn’t sure how it would come together, but so far it is about exactly what I was hoping for.

Asia retreat


We’ve just come back from a week-long trip in Dumegeute Philippines. It was nice to spend time with coworkers, talk to others doing this kind of stuff, and learn about PCUSA’s plan and vision. I’m always moved by the types of work others do. On this trip there’s a pair of doctors who have worked in South Asia for a generation, an English teacher in Japan who has raised his kids pretty much entirely in Japanese (they’re adults now), and a coworker in Hong Kong who has worked with a church council that has emphasized human rights. It’s an eclectic mix and there are a lot of strong personalities, but in general it’s been nice.

The kids had a blast. Originally we’d only planned to send one adult and Sam, since he’s a fairly good traveller. On the last retreat like this there were at least four families in the region but we were the only one where all of us travelled, and although people were very accepting, infants and a toddler were a pretty rough go. This time, our kids were the oldest ones there and there were four great child care workers who looked after them. The kids travelled very well, but it was a pretty intense eight days: a 4:30am departure from our apartment, lost baggage, Emily’s eye swelled up from a mango allergy, and Eva had a 24 hour flu. That’s pretty much par for the course for us. It was redeemed by meeting great people and some time spent looking out at the ocean and different critters. I met some new staff members and also connected to ones I’m working with on different projects. PCUSA has usually done these retreats every year, rotating between different parts of the world. They’re expensive, but there’s also no cheap way to do them. Dumaguete is basically a college town on a tropical beach, but cities (Tokyo, Seoul, Mumbai) are not cheap and going back to the US isn’t a great option.

The highlight for me on this trip turned out to be the speakers. I’d gone into it saying to a colleague ‘I’ve heard both of these people before—I wonder what I’ll get out of this,’ but then they really spoke to where I was. One speaker was J. Herbert Nelson, who runs PCUSA’s DC office. He travels intensively and advocates for PCUSA General Assembly policy (right now, this might include a focus on responding to gun violence, immigration, education, and health care concerns; to opposing drones and militarizing trends; to advocating for refugee situations, trafficking and other issues raised at recent GAs). However, I was especially grateful for his personal stories. He is a third generation black Presbyterian pastor. He talked several times about starting a church for the poor in Memphis and having his salary cut by nearly sixty percent months into the call. How do we live with integrity when institutions, especially the church, so often fail us? He also discussed work he’s doing on gun violence, and how challenging it can be for (often white, elite, suburban) congregations to hear how this work plays out in daily life for black congregations. The other speaker was Cynthia Rigby, who talked about the idea of wonder and a theology of play (highly appropriate given days of mandatory meetings). I’d forgotten but she’d organized a panel at AAR’s Reformed History and Theology group, where I talked about PCT and the problem of schism. She also was a keynote speaker (along with Jurgen Moltmann) at the first Princeton Institute for Youth and Theology I attended in summer 1999. I still remember her talk, which was a bright point and an encouragement as I waited to start seminary.

Now the challenge is that we’re down to our last days. We have basically three days to pack and move out. It’s a lot happening on a very short deadline. It’s also quite possible I’ll be back in a few months to pack us out for good. We’re in a “farewell for now stage.” I am happy that I’ll get to connect to some friends and do some transitions. Yesterday I took books up to the seminary to donate. I just saw Peter Chen, a classmate and coworker. Sam got to spend some time with his buddy Emile on Sunday and our church had a big cake and a lit-up plaque. Yesterday we saw Kevin, Sam’s other best friend. Tomorrow we fly to the US. So much going on I can barely stand it all…