New Year, New Semester

January always straddles the period between the end of the calendar year and teaching and then a month or two of a mix of grading, independent work, and Lunar New Year. This time, for the first time, all three kids will have four full weeks off at New Year. We’re hoping to do a mix of camp, travel, and classes for them.

They are all doing pretty well. I’ve been impressed by how everyone’s Chinese has taken a leap forward. It is still a struggle. Eva often gets 40s on tests, probably because her teacher is tougher, but she knows the local writing system and is learning characters and is a little more independtly directed on English. Sam reads a lot and seems to be doing well, but still struggles with math. For whatever reason, even basic caclulations (9+6, 7×5) are still a struggle for him. We have workbooks, apps, and flashcards, but it’s not easy. Eli, our more hard-headed, intense child, is actually doing very well. I think he likes the structure of the school and he seems to know what he needs to do and do it.

I have stayed busy on a mix of things. I preached last Sunday at the local episocpal expat church and will preach the coming Sunday at Shuanglian, the downtown Prebyterian church. I like both of these congregations and feel at home with them. In the month ahead I have some reviews to finish, grading, a manuscript proposal, and a lot of summer planning to figure out.

We still struggle with periodic culture shock. It’s funny to me how hard it is to adjust even after being here a decade. Today we did some of the exams for applicants for the fall. I was on the music students’ groups. In the State, admission for seminary is basically transcripts, a test like the GRE, and letters of recommendation. I don’t think an interview is normally required. Here, I believe that students submit transcripts, but we essentially ignore them. Instead, students are submitted on the basis of either recommendation and oral exam or a written and oral exam. In Taiwan, questions are a lot more personal. Today the interviewers asked students about things including their parents’ divorce, church conflicts, BMI, etc. The interviews also use a huge amount of time. This is partly because they cover part of what in the US would be a church process, so later on we will also get pscyhological exams and it’s not uncommon to gather information via social networks (“her brother’s pastor’s wife was my classmate’s friend and she said…”). I objectively can often see an upside to this approach–students often enter with a lot more support and are better known by classmates and teachers–but it can still feel a bit alien to me.

I’ll try to write here more in the weeks ahead. Both the twins (at public school) and Sam (at the bilingual school) are going along but I’m always fascinated by their worlds also. Emily is a lot more active in the twins’ school and seemst to enjoy the mix of volunteer, church, and other work she is doing. I’ve navigated the new accreditation faculty input system and am also looking in the how/when/where of US church visitation schedules.

School Begins…

It’s good to be back in Taipei. Our biggest adjustment this year is that we have the twins in first grade at the local elementary school, Ren’ai. I wrote about the application process for a newsletter. In short, this is the neighborhood school, and we had several thoughts: (1) it might be good to front load Chinese, (2) if we could have them that close it would give them more time at home and more time to rest, (3) maybe it really is easier for us to teach them English than to help them with Chinese.

So far things are going well. They adjusted well to school and mix Chinese in with their English. They seem to love their teachers and have friends both from their old school and the neighborhood.  The paperwork to get them in was enormous. Ever since the twins were born (2x hospital medical forms) I’ve been in awe of how many forms it takes to keep them alive and registered in all of their institutions and activities.

They like the school itself. They do 課後輔導 at the school. In Taiwanese public schools, children attend five mornings but only one afternoon at first and then build up up to all day. Of course, many children actually attend a class to fill in this time, and many kids go much later (until 6pm or 9pm). We’ve signed them up for the fill-in class, which keeps them in school until 4pm, instead of noon. There’s an interesting article here on how much Taiwanese parents save in order to buttress their children’s education. Basically the entire area around our house is after-school programs. The good news is that now the twins are done at 4 with their homework basically complete. We’re going to get a tutor to help them some working on their reading and writing English, but it will just be a few hours a week.

Sam is in fourth grade at a bilingual school. He really likes Lih-Jen and seems to have a good coterie of classmates. He is into the Percy Jackson series now and has read the five books in the last couple of weeks. His English reading/writing is good and he loves science and the humanities. His Chinese, however, seems a little worse since the summer, and during third grade we began to realize he was struggling in math. We’re going to try to add some tutoring for Chinese and for math I’m going to work more with him more. We really like his English teacher this year, Gloria Wang. She has her class working through the whole math textbook (rather than skipping components), and we’re hopeful the English curriculum might stretch to include some more math. (Right now they basically have an hour a week plus several pages of homework, which isn’t enough.)

All three kids are doing scouts, some music, and swimming lessons. A perennial challenge is how much to force them to do and how much to go with the flow or follow their interests. At this age, they change their opinions a lot, so they loved the first swim lesson but complained about the second. The twins seem to be opposing music on the grounds that Sam opposes it, but then Eva really seems to like it and Eli actually isn’t bad. With scouts, they all like it but that may change.

Having the kids settled makes the rest of work and life a lot easier. I’m hopeful that this could be a really good semester and excited about this new chapter where all three are in elementary school.

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.

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

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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.

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.