End of Semester: Teaching, Logistics

The end of the semester this year is feeling busy but not-quite-frantic. I had two main courses, one a required survey and one an elective. The elective was really fun—we did a visit to Danshui, saw Silence, and talked through Christianity in different parts of Asia. The students were especially interested in the Taiping, which surprised me.

I did several guest lectures for our lay academy. I still find public lectures on a new topic to be about the most stressful part of teaching in Taiwan. For the main lecture I talked a friend, Yin-an Chen, into translating my ppt notes into Chinese, but for the other lectures I did a mix of partial translation and my best effort. This was for a series on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, so I talked about Presbyterians around the world and modern mission for the smaller classes and then “Protestant, Reformed, Presbyterian,” for the large lecture. It’s still a work in process. Two Sundays ago I preached at Shuanglian and this Saturday I’m visiting a church about an hour south of Taipei. Emily is doing the graduation trip for the twins’ school on Saturday, so Sam will come with me.

I’m always amazed by how much logistical work there is. PCUSA requires about 5 hours of online training. I’m working on submitting materials for the Ministry of Education, since the Seminary’s accreditation requires this. We dropped off visa renewals last week and pick them up Monday. We did two sets of taxes in April-May. To return to the US I’m confirming flights and lodging. (Our return flight to Taiwan was bumped from a 7:45am flight to a 6am flight, which means our whole family will have to get up in the middle of the night then.) We also need to get drivers’ license addresses updated and get information out to congregations we visit. Then there’s grading.

I’m editing some English for our postgrad department and trying to finish up a dissertation review and some book reviews. I’m excited to go to the Yale Edinburgh Conference on World Christianity in New Haven this year, and am finalizing that paper. Next week will be the big flight back to the US. Trying to stick with “busy not frantic.” And of course we’re very much looking forward to seeing family and reconnecting to old friends.

End of Semester: Kid Round Up

We’re nearing the end of the semester here. Classes were over last week and graduation is Friday at my school. In Taiwan, grades 1-12 usually goes to June 30. We are heading back slightly earlier because tickets are cheaper, it will help me get to a conference, and Sam can catch a camp.

Sam

Sam had a pretty good third grade year. He’s continued on violin (somewhat reluctantly, but more enthusiastically since Eli and Eva started). He did the bear patch in cub scouts. We’ve been involved in two churches this year—Shuanglian and Good Shepherd. The kids call Good Shepherd “the bunny church” because it has rabbits and chickens. I’m gradually getting the sense that they’re all a little older.

Sam’s year at Lih-Jen was good. In the spring we “mainstreamed” him. In practice, he’s not doing the reading/writing homework and Chinese tests, but we’ve found some other materials to use with him and we’re happy with his progress. As I’ve shared here below, the benefit of the bilingual schools is that they sort of split the difference between “full immersion with no life line” and “almost no Chinese.” Public schools tend to have large classes and not many people used to working with non-native speakers and the international schools offer just a few hours of limited Mandarin. At the bilingual schools they do about half of their time in Chinese, including club activities and assemblies and other events. Sam does his music in Chinese and watches movies and can attend church events with me. He’s definitely more comfortable in English but, as I told him, he’s something in between a foreign language learner and a native speaker. He knows intuitively that’s it’s 兩台車 and not 二個車 and his tones are good and he knows a lot of vocab. At the same time, he doesn’t have a home environment in Chinese. He’s excited about fourth grade, although he’s said that the fifth and sixth grade teachers are intense. Emily was happy that his teacher wrote her a note saying Sam’s a good kid and she likes him. We’re grateful for her. Sam will have her for fourth grade, which is great.

Eva and Eli

We successfully were able to register the twins for the school next door. It’s still a little daunting. There will be over 300 first graders with them. At the same time, they seem like they have done really well at their school this year. Eli has a best friend, Wu Canyou, and Eva has a group she gets along with well. Their Chinese is basically native speaker at this point. I don’t know how long they’ll last at public school (1-3 years?), but our thought is that the longer they can stay immersed the better. Eli translates surprisingly well. I asked him what 天才 means and he immediately produced “genius.” It’s interesting to see how each kid is a little different. This semester we’ve also had a teacher’s college-aged daughter come one evening every week or two and do Chinese with Sam and English with Eva and Eli and they all are really coming along. Eva and Eli mix words together, which is cute. They’re a little older than Sam was for their grade and they seem a little farther along so I hope it’s a smooth transition in the fall.

They have also started music with Sam’s teacher. Eva is kind of a dynamo—she’d also been doing short piano lessons at her school. Sam has plugged through book one of Suzuki over a couple of years. It will be interesting to see how the twins do. Right now we bribe them with tablet time if they do music first.

For the summer we have Sam signed up for several camps. The twins are not doing as much because they’re often still under the cut-off age. Sam is doing a presbytery camp, a sports camp, an art camp, and (at the local county park) a horse camp. The twins are both doing a farm camp and Sam and Eli hopefully can do cub scout camp.

Mid-Semester

Today I met Roland De Vries, a theologian from the Presbyterian College in Montreal who is teaching an intensive course at my seminary. We visited 101 and Da’an park and I had fun hearing about his work. However, I also admit to being a little envious that his semester is over. Another friend in the UK also said his semester is over. But in Taiwan… oh Taiwan… we still have about five or six weeks left in our long seventeen week semester. The semester just seems to last forever.

That said, I’ve had some good experiences lately. I met the two students from my DMin class at the Methodist Seminary downtown last week. One had had heart problems and is trying to slow down church work. The other is an international student from Malaysia who plans to finish her degree in the coming semester. I attended a conference on Buddhist-Christian studies at Fu-Jen Catholic University, which was just fascinating. My MDiv thesis student has submitted his thesis and it looks pretty good. We talked about the Taiping in my MDiv elective yesterday, and tomorrow’s class is also one I enjoy. This week we’re doing part of an intensive testing system for prospective students. Here teachers write exams which are given to students, then graded, then there’s an oral exam, and at some point we’ll set a cut off to determine incoming students. Two book reviews are on the docket and there’s a chance to serve as an external examiner also. I’m hoping to be through all of these projects by the time we finish in mid-June.

We’re also narrowing in on a school for the twins. We think that they’ll get into the school next door, but we are also feeling comfortable with several other options. We went to an open house for a new school start organized by foreigners. I was excited about the possibility and hoped it might be something like a parents’ cooperative or a foreigner-run bilingual school, but instead I think it’s a boutique school aimed at affluent downtown Taiwanese parents who don’t have foreigner passports (to go to international schools here, you have to be on a foreign passport). The tuition is crazy–over a million NT/year (>$35,000). Still, it was a helpful reminder that what we have is pretty good and that we’re lucky to be in a place with excellent options. Sam is really enjoying his classes a lot and the twins have made good strides on their bopomofo and their ABCs.

We’re also working on summer plans. We’ll be in Atlanta in July and split the rest of our time between family in Cincinnati and Birmingham, and I’ll also get to do a quick visit to NJ. The end is near…

Elementary School Enrollment

We’ve been working on school plans for the fall, especially for the twins. Sam is happy at Lih-Jen and will continue into fourth grade there. This semester we took him out of CSL. He has made a fair number of friends through CSL but in the end we decided he would do better just attending the regular Chinese class. He can’t keep up with the reading and writing and we don’t have the time to have him do the homework that would be necessary to do this (probably an extra hour a night + tutoring). At the same time, he seems to follow along in class and be fine with this arrangement. He’s doing well in English and science.

The public school next door for the twins?

With the twins, we had considered trying enrollment at the local public school. We had several reasons for this: (1) they’re a little older for their grade and seem farther along than Sam was at this point (they know their ABCs, are doing some sight words and know Bopomofo), (2) there’s a good public school right next door to us, (3) it would be nice to “front load” more Chinese since we’re more confident about how they’ll do on English (with Sam we weren’t sure how reading would go heading into elementary school but then after six months of first grade he was fine), and (4) public school is cheaper.

That said, enrollment at the public school across the street seems nearly impossible. Emily went and checked in with the enrollment officer at Ren’ai and that teacher told it was an “overfilled school” 額滿學校and asked her to pick from two other schools for our zone (Guangfu or Sanxing). I was kind of distraught by this. I went and checked in with the enrollment officer again—she’s very nice—and she gave me the elementary enrollment people for the education department. On Friday I went and met with them. They talked to me somewhat reluctantly for about a half hour and here’s what I gathered from that.

Things to Know about Public School Enrollment

As background, here’s what I would say:

+ I had heard that foreigners can essentially just enroll at the closest local school, at least for the early grades. This is not true.

+ While the English guidelines suggest that schools will have an enrollment plan for foreigners (guidelines 17 and 20 here), this rule supposedly applies only to schools that are seeking out exchange opportunities.

+ The guideline here says that you can enroll your child if there are 35 or fewer per class is outdated. The number is now 29.

+ If there is competition for slots, to get into the “drawing” for the school (where an individual school will go through its priority lists and enroll students), foreigners need to go to immigration to get their full record of visas and entries/departures.

+It may also be necessary to go to the local household registry place and confirm your status for the draw and get on the school’s drawing list.

+Apparently there are different priorities for schools, which include: low income students, owned/rented housing in the district, when one moved into the current zone, number of children, possibly being a foreigner, etc. I don’t understand the priority lists yet, but will try to post a current list when I do.

+Things work differently for public kindergartens—where often a small number of applicants can draw into the school—and for junior high and high school where there’s a whole other series of tests and so on.

Takeaways

I’ve talked to some parents in our local park, and they helped provide additional info new parents should know:

+If you don’t draw into the preferred school, you will be able to have your kids attend any other school in the zone with openings.

+If you want kids to do homework and keep up, they almost always have to go to an afternoon school program and/or do tutoring.

+For elementary school, classes start with four half-days and one full day a week.

+Local schools (and even the bilingual schools) assume that parents will work to keep their children up to speed and the onus is on the student to stay up to speed.

+Local school offices are often not used to working with foreigners and will not necessarily know how to help you with enrollment (at Ren’ai, they were friendly but at first told us the twins couldn’t sign up for the waiting list until the start of first grade).

+Even for private schools there’s still a lot of variation on how enrollment works. Some definitely require foreigners to draw and at other you can just enroll.

We’re leaning towards just having the twins go to Lih-Jen, the bilingual school, with their siblings. This has a number of pros: easy enrollment, all-in-one 8-4 education, rather than having to shop a separate program for the half-days, a Chinese curriculum + an English curriculum, multiple teachers (so they aren’t out of luck if their one teacher is a bad match), and some extracurriculars as part of the school day. It’s still hard to do English and Chinese well and it will probably be hard to keep them at grade level in Chinese, but for us it’s a reasonable compromise. A friend in the park also said they like the diversity of the public schools, whereas the private schools are all wealthier. Eva has a friend in a public school (she also could not go to the closest school and was slotted into the one with the most openings) who seems to have done fairly well (parents don’t speak Chinese but they have a good tutor). For us the challenge is that with three I just can’t see us realistically walking the twins somewhere a half hour away and getting Sam to school and dealing with after school programs that are farther from us.

Bright and Clear Festival, remembering the ancestors

This weekend is the weekend for Bright and Clear Festival 清明節, also called Tombsweeping Day. In Taiwan, it’s the time when the ancestors are remembered. Families typically return to their hometowns to care for the tombs of the deceased and to make offerings. Many Christian families substitute hymns and prayers.

In March, two former PCT missionaries died. First was Milo Thornberry, a Methodist missionary who had taught at my seminary and was exiled from Taiwan for his association with a Taiwanese dissident, Peng Ming-min. I met Thornberry several years ago. My seminary gave him an honorary doctorate. He’d published a memoir, Fireproof Moth, about his time in Taiwan.

Just last week, during a visit to Danshui, I received notice that a former Danshui missionary, John Geddes, had passed away. Carys Humphreys, who oversees much of the ecumenical relations work for PCT, sent us the notice. I had taken students to Danshui that day to visit two museums and then to meet with Louise Gamble, a retired Presbyterian Church of Canada missionary still working in Taiwan. On Saturday evening I watched the funeral online. I mentioned the death in class on Thursday and one of my Taiwan Seminary students said both her mother and she had been students of Geddes.

I am grateful for these predecessors, for their commitment and work across many years. There are not a lot of us still serving in PCT and every story I hear fills in a puzzle piece. I teach at Taiwan Seminary and Emily has been volunteering in Danshui, so these two feel especially familiar.

The Dutch Era in Taiwan

Today we had a lecture on 基督教傳布與荷蘭殖民統治 (“Christian and Dutch Colonial Rule”) by an Assistant Professor at National Taipei University, Hsin Samuel CHA 查忻. He teaches in their History Department and did his PhD at NTU. He is also a member of PCT General Assembly’s Historical Committee and is a deacon at Songshan Presbyterian Church, one of the main downtown congregations.

He offered an introduction to the Dutch East India Company. He also talked about how this topic touches on sensitive areas (treatment of Aborigines, relationship to the Catholic church). Today the records from that period are still used, treading on topics such as historical group identity.

I had to duck out early for our weekly faculty meeting, but enjoyed the start of the lecture. I met him during lunch and we talked history a bit. This is an era I don’t know well. I’ve often said that Taiwan Christian History is very hard to tell—Dutch and Spanish encounters, Catholic re-engagement, the English and Canadian missions, Japanese era, and a post-war period that has seen denominations and missions carried over from China as well as some indigenous churches and movements.

I’m glad that the Dutch period is getting some attention. There’s another alumnus of my school, LIN Chang-Hwa林昌華, who pastored after doing his doctorate in the Netherlands and now teaches at our sister seminary, Yushan Theological Seminary. He also wrote on the Dutch era. I’ll have to track down the two dissertations sometime.

Belated End of UK Trip Description

The end of our UK trip went very well. We spent three days in Edinburgh. I’m really grateful for the chance to have connected to different institutions and friends along the way. Cambridge, Oxford, and Edinburgh all have strong world Christianity/mission centers. It wasn’t the purpose of this trip, but I am also trying to figure out whether it is worth pushing my school to develop its (basically fictional) “Mission and Pluralistic Learning Center,” or where there may be some possibilities for collaboration in the future.

I also really admired the PhD programs at the several schools. The Cambridge center has a professional doctorate (similar to a DMin) that they offer in conjunction with a local university. Tom’s center at Oxford is the largest mission PhD-granting institution in the world (he said they had recently passed Fuller). In Edinburgh, Alex has a number of students working on very interesting topics, from contextual theology to qi and Christian theology. It was wonderful to get time with him, and also to meet a set of Taiwan students and friends who hopefully will be back in a few years at places like Tainan Seminary, China Evangelical Seminary, or Fu-Jen.

 

I was able to see the site of the Edinburgh 1910/2010 gatherings, visit John Knox’s house, and attend two churches, one Church of Scotland (Palmerston Place Presbyterian) and one the Evangelical Chinese Church in Edinburgh (which I found out later had had one of our current teachers, Simon Wei, as their pastor for a while). Edinburgh has had an outsize influence on the development of my academic field, and for Presbyterians it also looms large in our memory. This was my first Scotland trip, so I was grateful for the chance to go. I had a haggis baked potato and we spent a lot of time just walking around. We even had “pretty good” weather: a rainy day, and two clear days.

The travel itself was fairly smooth. We took an overnight sleeper train, The Caledonian Sleeper. It was late, but in the end because of the late arrival they have a policy of fully refunding the fare, which was a nice surprise. On the way back we arrived at Cambridge late. We spent one last day in London and finally visited the London Museum. A surprise was that Sam’s favorite museum turned out to be a small University of London zoology museum. He just adored it and spent hours looking at skeletons and pickled snakes and all other manner of objects.

I don’t have pictures up here yet. I may end up adding an album to google images. One of my challenges has been that I think I’ve maxed out my images for this site. I used to always feel that I was fairly naturally tech savvy but lately I think I’m bumping up against my limits 🙂

Oxford

We’re now in the middle of our next travel iteration, finishing out Oxford and soon to head to Edinburgh. I visited the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, where an old coworker/mentor, Tom Harvey, is dean. Tom and Judy hosted Sam and I and it was a really nice place to be along the way.

In Oxford we spent most of our time in museums, first the Ashmolean and then today the Natural Science and Rivers Museum. Sam found an interactive display on the tree of life that just fascinated him. The goal was to show how single lines separate into individual species. There was also a bird exhibit in the upper gallery and I was impressed by how many species he’s identified in our time here—a gray heron, assorted ducks, mute swans, a magpie, a pheasant, a common buzzard, and so on. He occupies himself pretty well. I also booked the last legs of our trip using museum wifi—another day in London and a bus to Heathrow. We also walked to Christ Church, which has the fame of being the dining hall for the Harry Potter movies. (And of course there are regularly portraits up of Henry VIII, Elizabeth, Wesley, and others.)

Tom’s work is interesting because he’s also doing Chinese Christianity but more theologically. He’s interested in several of the major twentieth century figures—Wang Mingdao, Nee, Song and a few others—who sought to recover a primitive Christianity. I had a good time talking with him—about Barth, mission Dei, the different academic networks, PCUSA and the Reformed churches here, and so on. OCMS’s major work is focused on academic training for African, Asian, and Latin American Christians. When I arrived yesterday there was a conversation in Korean and two vivas (vivae?) being conducted for students. It really does interdisciplinary work. I enjoyed the chance to hear about it. The Harveys have also raised third-culture kids, so that interests me too. Both the mechanics of this process (schools, moves, US time) and also their own approach to it were helpful. Tom told Sam not to give up on math, that music makes your brain bigger, and that it’s good to study Chinese. As parents, we often have our own model we hold up, but it’s always helpful to have convivial models shared with them.

The next stop is Edinburgh. This is our trickiest connection because there’s the real chance Sam will fall into a deep sleep on the way to London to switch. There’s also the equally troubling possibility he won’t sleep at all in which case tomorrow could be rocky. That said, he’s been very adaptable and takes almost no extra energy. For lunch we at granola bars earlier and split a tavern meal. I’m grateful for these small moments of joy along the way.

UK Days

We’ve now been in UK for 5 or 6 days, depending on how you count. I’m here for two weeks—it’s a mix of vacation a chance to check out some mission/world Christianity sites.

We arrived Tuesday evening after an epically long set of flights (“Dad, are we there yet? Dad, are we there yet?”). I’d prebooked the Heathrow express and a cheap hotel near Paddington Station. On Wednesday we took the tube to Westminster and walked around (Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abby, a bridge over the Thames, Lambeth Place). We went to the Imperial War Museum, which was excellent. We caught a bus back to Trafalgar Square where we stopped in the National Gallery and then went to Aladdin (I’d found tickets in the upper balcony and Sam just loved it).

The next day we walked through Hyde Park on the way to the science museums. We were nearly freezing and arrived there a half hour early. The nearby Mormon Museum was open so we went in and talked to the Mormon missionaries, warmed up in the chapel, and consented to watch a short video about a Japanese music group (Bless4). We did the Science, National History, and Victoria & Alberts, and then in the afternoon we made our way to Cambridge.

Cambridge has been very nice. The first evening we went with Yakhwee to Westminster College for a start-of-semester faculty party. I enjoyed meeting the people there are seeing the space. On Saturday we walked through a good number of the 31 Cambridge colleges, fed some birds, and took pictures. Yesterday was church at St. Columba’s, the United Reformed Church. It is the Week for Christian Unity, so I appreciated the sermon by the exchange pastor, a Methodist who talked about the challenges of Christian unity and what he called an “ecumenical winter” (this rings true for me). We were able to have lunch with John Whitehorne (I cowrote a paper with Shih Shuying that mentioned his work), his wife, and the wife of a former Westminster principal. St. Columba’s has a board of former missionaries, including many that are famous (Leslie Newbigin, George Hood, Elizabeth Brown). It was nice to see it in person.

Today I am taking Sam to several Cambridge Museums, first to the Sedgwick Museum, which has a lot of fossils and dinosaur bones, and then later to the Whipple, which is a science museum formed around a collection of instruments donated by Whipple in 1944.

Being around Yakhwee is fun also, since she knows all of our worlds and has known Sam since he was 15 months old. She’s tolerant of his travel quirkiness, shows us new things, and gives us the free insider tour where through chapels and other locations. I’m not the world’s best traveler, so I’m grateful to have such a good sanctuary. In the evening Yakhwee took us to evensong at St. John’s. The choir outnumbered the people who came to pray, but it was a very beautiful, traditional Anglican worship service.

Tomorrow is a meeting with the interim director for the World Christianity center here. The day after that is Oxford and then Friday we arrive in Edinburgh. Everyone’s cautioned us about Edinburgh weather, so we’re bundling up.

 

PCUSA Mission 2017

A year ago around this time PCUSA World Mission was in the middle of a financial crisis, apparently the biggest in forty years. In 2015 for the first time in decades we had recalled workers from abroad, and then in 2016 through about April things were still very much up in the air. Several office staff were eliminated. At one point there was talk of recalling a quarter of our workers, and we were up for renewal last year. For us as a family it was a time of a fair amount of anxiety. We’d struggled with how to transition if we needed to–stay in Taiwan or head back to the States?–and we also began reevaluating some of our work balance (in our first two terms we spent a lot of time on language and getting to know church culture, coworkers, and institutions here, and we realized we needed to tend to US connections more). We held off on moving apartments until we knew on reappointment, and I let my school know that things were unclear in case they needed to make alternate plans. We went back to Ohio for a semester, which let us be closer to our headquarters, visit more churches, and spend time with family, and then in the end everything worked out and we’re back in Taiwan now.

At the same time, the institutional culture continues to shift. Our last director finished in October. Currently our two associate directors are acting as interim directors for PCUSA World Mission. The institution has felt more relaxed to me. Overseas workers are now included on conference calls, which has helped give the pulse of the organization better (denominational politics can sometimes feel like Kremlinology). I learned on the last call that we are now at 128 mission workers overseas, which is about 60% of the number from when Emily and I started seven years ago. Our numbers have dropped mostly through attrition, which is how things more often worked in the past. We also have a number of positions that have been left open pending announcement of a new director (which we will hopefully know about in a few weeks).

I’ve often said that part of the challenge of our work is that we have fewer models to look to for how to do it. I have a gazillion classmates who are suburban pastors, or teach at colleges or seminaries, or work in non-profits. Sometimes I envy their office culture and their vocational clarity. I am grateful to live in the age of teleconferencing, social media, and email, but there are not a lot of people doing what I do. I’m cautiously optimistic about the coming years and hoping that things will be a little calmer.