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.

New Year Break

Finishing out the semester

We’re now heading into our winter, Chinese New Year break. When I say “heading into,” I’ve sort of intentionally skipped the last week of grading and meetings.

The last weeks have been good ones. I went to a NTNU seminar last Sunday on TPSR language methodology taught by Terry Waltz, the main guru for Chinese learning in Taiwan (she goes by “Ironlady” on the main expat forum, Forumosa). It was good inspiration not to give up on improving Chinese, and also gave me some ideas for working with the kids. The other participants were also very interesting, and included Chinese teachers from the American school, European school, NTU’s language center, and other programs.

This week I taught at DMin class at the Methodist Seminary. It was a small class, with just a student from Malaysia and a Taiwanese Brethren pastor. They were enthusiastic and I am looking forward to their finals. I also met Liao Shang-hsin 廖上信, a former president of my seminary (although one I had never met before, likely owing to our unique institutional culture).

Next week is busy. Monday is our juridical committee meeting, followed by presbytery and then a meeting with the academic survey group that is studying Taiwanese churches.

Break travels

Wednesday I fly to England with Sam. We will visit our family friend, Yakhwee Tan, who is in Cambridge at the United Reformed Church theological college. Yakhwee’s a sort of godmother to Sam. When Emily went into labor and I went with her to the hospital Yakhwee came and stayed with Sam, and she spent a lot of time looking out for us when the twins were born. I’m also planning side trips to London, Oxford and to Edinburgh. I’m grateful for these UK connections, since most of my life has been US and now Taiwan. UK is the home to the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and an old mentor, Tom Harvey. I knew Tom in Singapore and he was doing the type of work I’d started to do, but was two decades farther along. Along with Philip Wickeri and Scott Sunquist, he’s one of three PCUSA academic types I know that have been engaged in Chinese-speaking East and Southeast Asia and the mix between theology and Chinese studies. I’m excited to see him. I’m also happy to see Alex Chow who is a big name in Chinese Christian studies and leads the AAR Seminar on Chinese Christianity. Originally I’d hoped to do some research on my Morrison/Milne project, but I think with Sam along it will change the dynamics (hopefully for the better).

In preparation, we’re currently studying all things English—Elizabeth I, the Arthur Legends, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, etc. He’s at the perfect age to really immerse himself in new things and I’m excited to do this. We’ve read a lot of the children’s English classics (CS Lewis, Tolkien, Roald Dahl) plus some contemporary authors and we’re on book 6 of Harry Potter. For Potter, we’d read the British version, and he had an English teacher last year, so he’s already used to different meanings for trainers, jumpers, and biscuits. Cambridge has several paleontology collections and we’re going to try to see some performances also (I found discount Aladdin tickets for London yesterday). I’m grateful to travel somewhere where I know the language (more or less) and have a list of contacts if we run into any troubles.



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

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 11.10.19 PM

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.

On our Bi-Cultural Experiment

Last night I took the kids to Tianmu to visit our old baomu/nanny, Lee Chiung-Ling. Chiung-Ling was a nearly perfect help for us in all things parenting in Taiwan. She helped with the twins for about a year and a few months, from March 2011 until June 2012. Chiung-Ling had been a bao-mu (保姆lit. “protective mother”) for about seven or eight years at that point, mostly working abroad. Before that, she worked at facilities at Taiwan Seminary for nearly twenty years, so she knows a whole generation of pastors and teachers in PCT and stays on good terms with my school’s staff. She did her baomu work in Vancouver, where she helped people do the traditional Chinese “month of sitting” and did nannying for (I think) six or seven years. I learned a lot from her about life and culture here. She still lives with her husband and her extremely healthy, seventy-something (probably mentally ill) mother-in-law. It can’t be easy.

I think Vancouver was a mixed experience for her. She told me stories sometimes about being stuck in transit and unable to leave a small part of the airport, or being kicked out of Costco because her boss insisted she use her card, even though she was dubious. Her grown children are very bright and are wonderful human beings, but moving into an all-English environment in high school was hard on them. She understands all of the cross-cultural life issues we’ve had here: paperwork in triplicate, driving in a foreign country, being misunderstood, working on kids’ schooling, etc. I’m sure we were confounding to her at times, since in the past she’d always worked with first generation immigrants in Canada, and we are instead more-or-less first generation immigrants here.

She was able to help translate institutions and cultures for us. She knows my specific school, church life here, and kid culture–that’s a very rare combination. We talked her into coming back half-time from early 2014 to mid-2015. She really was a life-saver. In the past when one of us was traveling she could help the other cope. She attended a retreat with us abroad. When her daughter got married, I did the wedding, and then she’s helped or is helping her kids raise their grandchildren (she is returning to Vancouver next week). One of the things that always surprises me is how culture is often so invisible. Often we only confront a new set of vocabulary when we’re faced with an immediate crisis: childbirth in a local hospital, enrolling children in lotteries for schools, negotiating work situations. I really feel grateful to have had such a wise guide for several of our years here.12490024_10154443923242678_114710381_o

Last night I took the kids to Tianmu to visit her and her daughter and two granddaughters. It was one of those rare nights where everything goes smoothly. The kids all switched to Chinese at dinner, which I know they can do but rarely see myself.  Eva bonded with her old friend, 3 1/2 year old Tong-tong. Eli told Chiungling he’ll miss her. We played in the empty dark park for an hour and said goodbye. Not a lot of people read this blog, but the ones who come here almost always come here looking for the few posts I’ve written on bilingual schools and bilingual education. I think part of what has made us viable here bilingually and biculturally has been a mixture of a few stellar teachers (Sam had a beloved preschool teacher for five years, who basically taught him Chinese twice; and the twins have saintly teachers at their school now that they adore); a few families, including Chiungling’s; and having several contexts (churches, the General Assembly office here, after school activities) where people look out for our kids. I’d sort of thought my workplace would be the main support network, but ironically it’s often been these other settings.

Presbyterian Church of Taiwan 150th, Tainan

Last week was the Tainan edition of PCT’s 150th anniversary. I took Sam down on Sunday for the last day. There were two long worship services and a parade in between. It was a (hot), great day. The main focus this time was on the aborigine churches, and the first service ended with the longest dance line I’ve ever seen.


There were several PCUSA visitors–Heath Rada, his wife Peggy, a former mission worker, presbytery exec Bobbi White, and Tom Taylor from the Presbyterian Foundation. It means a lot to the church here to have visitors from abroad. For us, it was nice to talk to former missionaries who had lived in Taiwan 15, 25, or 40 years ago. Several came up to me and asked about Sam and several, somewhat guiltily, shared that they wish their children had been able to do Chinese. One started out in Hakka and then moved to Mandarin but didn’t retain either. Another had kids who learned Mandarin but they were learning Taiwanese. One home-schooled using a UK curriculum. A persistent back story on this blog has been kids and schooling, and it is always interesting for me to see how others have handled things. Sam did great and even made a new friend from Kansas (also in 2nd grade).



Rada preached at our seminary on Sunday. He’s been connecting with PSCE grads (I told him my parents both did degrees at Union Seminary). I’m grateful for the connections between our two denominations. Truly a fun time.

Second Grade has begun….

DSC_1329 After the second day of second grade, with Harry Potter drawing.

Samuel’s back in school, now in the second grade. It has been a smoother transition in general this year. Last year he was looking at a new place, new school, new teachers, new classmates, homework for the first time really. The teacher-student relationship also changed. Sam had attended a large kindergarten in Tianmu where he was in a large class with several teachers. The head teacher had really looked out for him, and it was still a pretty relaxed atmosphere.

This year Samuel seems fairly happy at school. There’s a group of other kids with international experience—Claire, Chloe, Kaylin, Akuma, Adeeb, and Émile. He likes the group of them. He has Mr. Nick for the first time as his English teacher and likes the class. His Chinese teacher, Li Laoshi, is the same for the second year, which is nice, and she’s been willing to work with us.

I’m admittedly a kind of Goldilocks parent: I don’t want Sam to have too much homework or feel too stressed out or scolded, but I also don’t want him to think school’s unimportant or to drift off in studies. The “just right” education is hard to find. This week he wasn’t bringing home his Chinese homework, so Saturday I went over to the school with him and made him go get it. Here’s the photo of words he was to copy out:DSC_1336I don’t know some of these characters! Hang in there Sam!

He was a bit grouchy about doing it, and I think his original plan was to just do CSL homework at a relaxed pace. I’d checked in with his teacher last week and she said that students who do CSL usually just do their Chinese there, but I’m a little afraid Sam may not keep up with the main class. Last year he pretty much could take the tests with the other students and stay close to where they are. I am glad, however, that his English seems on track and that he seems like he’s tracking everything in Chinese. I’m also really glad he seems to have a group of buddies he enjoys seeing every day. Yesterday he seemed really happy that he’d gotten positive feedback to his English sentences and characters, so I think we’re on track.

There are other things that took me a while to figure out. Sam started to demand that we make him lunch instead of having him get it at school (in the first two years, normally kids just have lunch at school). I think partly this was a desire to be like other kids, whose parents have opted them out of the meals for various reasons. But it also turned out that if he brought a snack he could share it with other kids and get friendship points. So we’ve agreed to improve his snacks. Apparently, students are normally required to finish their whole meal also, although it sounds like Sam’s teacher doesn’t make a big deal out of it.

Emily relates how when she asks kids here how they like school they often say things like: “it’s okay” or “I’m used to it now.” I know that different cultures describe schooling, childhood, and parenting very differently. In Taiwan, schooling is generally seen as hard work but necessary. It’s definitely an interesting system. My guess is fewer kids fall through the cracks here, but also that there’s a surplus of work and advice.

Lacrosse / Wooster

11072593_10153865383952678_2168308057147800547_nI went to a small college in the midwest, the College of Wooster. It has a Presbyterian background and graduates an outsized number of PCUSA pastors. I’m hoping to catch up with fellow interns from Westminster Presbyterian Church in a couple of weeks. There were six or seven of us that interned during these years, and almost all are now ordained. One’s a presbytery exec, one ran the main GLBT advocacy group for our church in NYC, one just finished a PhD in systematics and took a call in Illinois, another is an episcopal priest and author, yet another is part of a clergy couple team and is fifteen years into ministry, and the last works for another non-profit in the Chicago area. Curiously, every single one of these classmates is a first-born daughter (there are several other men from my class in ministry, but they tilted towards different activities in college). I got to be the little brother of the group and was always kind of amazed by the gifts within this network (writing, singing, preaching, speaking, organizing). We profited from several great campus ministers and local clergy. In general, it was a good college for me because it emphasized individual research (all students write junior and senior theses) and there was plenty of space to try things out. It was/is a school that rewards creativity and individual interest, and encourages internal motivation.

Another influence on me in college years was the start of a Chinese program. I did a summer of Chinese at the University of Michigan through a fellowship program to encourage people from the US to study less commonly taught langauges. When I came back, Wooster had just started offering Chinese, and then I went onto a year in Beijing. My advisor was David Gedalecia, who had studied the Yuan dynasty Cheng brothers and also advised several theses in my year. One of my roommates (also a Gedalecia advisee) went to law school but then passed the foreign service exam and was even here in Taiwan for some time.

This is all backdrop to say that in Taiwan, there’s a small group of Wooster alum: a pair of English teachers, a guy who has worked in mining in Asia for the last thirty years, and a string of visitors. Sue Min (who ran a Chinese restaurant and Wooster and is a member of Westminster) comes through regularly. This last weekend there was a lacrosse scrimmage at NTNU that included a mix of locals and foreigners. I didn’t play, but was able to talk for a while with one of the more recent graduates. She talked Sam into picking up a lacrosse stick and learning some basic skills. She had Gedalecia as an advisor, as did the older alum who’d visited. I’m also in touch with the three others in history in my year who had the same advisor.

I know alumni relationships can be unhealthy. In Taiwan, in many schools alumni get preferential treatment (the entire senior theology leadership at my school are alumni of Taiwan Seminary). At the same time, it’s really nice to connect to people who experienced the same place and had some of the same experiences, although in different eras. I try not to be overly rosy about my college years, but I’m grateful for the ways that college developed a calling towards ministry, teaching, and the cross-cultural life.


Taipei’s International Schools: Bethany

Today I visited Morrison Academy’s Taipei School, Bethany School, for one of their regular tours. The school counselor and admissions director seemed really nice and I have a better sense of what they are doing. In Taipei, there is an American School and a European School (the European has French, German, and English sections). There are also smaller schools (an Advent American school). Besides this, there’s the Morrison Academy, which is a missionary school and has branches in Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. Taichung is their “main” campus and does grades K-12. Bethany School, Taipei’s branch, has through grade 9 but may expand to include a full high school program. If we stay in Taipei, we’d likely be at either TAS, TES, or Bethany for later elementary or junior high (maybe earlier depending on the kid). Bethany also has a slightly later cutoff for the school year (November 1 birthday, rather than September 1), which is a little appealing.

Bethany is located downtown not far from us ($5 cab rider, probably a half hour if you catch the bus). The closest MRT seems to be 台電大樓, Taipower Station. For us, it would be convenient in the long term because it is only about a five minute walk from the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan’s General Assembly office.

I’ve met a few of Bethany’s students before and one of their teachers had attended our church in the past and is really friendly. I think in many ways this would be a more familiar, fairly friendly atmosphere for us. Their classes are smaller, with just twelve in kindergarten right now. They also offer tracks for Chinese study and a mix of activities (music, art, sports). They have a nice library and place book boxes in each classroom. They do storytimes and other activities.

Total admission at the school maxes out at 240, which means 20-30 per grade. Some people wear multiple hats. The counselor we met also hosts a youth group that meets Friday nights, teaches woodworking, and works with admissions. One of my colleagues at Taiwan Seminary said that when her kid moved from Bethany to Taipei American School for high school, he felt fairly overwhelmed by the size and atmosphere. The American School is gigantic, whereas Bethany’s campus feels very navigable and friendly. It’s a bit more familiar in terms of culture (no uniforms, English language environment, class projects on things like American inventors).

It’s been nice to get a sense of how different schools work and to see what options are for down the road. Sam is keeping up fine, but it wouldn’t surprise me if either homework or culture eventually becomes too much to maintain.

One of the main challenges for most families abroad is sorting out education. In many ways, we’re very lucky to be in Taipei and to have options.