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.

 

 

Taiwanese math

After my last post I saw that the PISA test results are out. Predictably, Taiwan is very near the top–4th in math and science and 23rd in reading. Taiwan was also 6th in the world for where girls do best at science.

Of course, last night I also went to look for a tutorial on division with remainders–which I cannot believe my third grader is doing now–and saw that in the US it’s usually taught sometime in 4th grade. I’m still hoping this is all going to click for Sam, but the back up plan is to keep him on track for the US and then if we’re back for most/all of 5th grade see how he’s doing.

The picture in Taiwan is probably more complicated than this looks. A lot of parents poor huge sums into after school, tutoring, summer work and so on, and there are some kids that struggle with it. Our kid is mostly oblivious–he loves to read and write and draw, and seems to spend a good stretch of the day (and maybe of Chinese class) doodling and talking to friends.

Schooling, Tiger Parents, Cram Schools, and Kid Socializing

We’re several months into this new iteration of our time in Taiwan. This has been a new leap for us and things are coming together but we’re always learning on the go. Sam’s now in third grade at Lih-Jen and the twins are in kindergarten (大班) at Xinguang Catholic Kindergarten.

Parenting Cross-Culturally

Sam’s life looks both more relaxed and fuller this year, but the pace of instruction here is fast. He has at least two good school friends. One is an Indian student who has also grown up in Taipei but went to Dominican (a Catholic English/bilingual school) until this year, and then his buddy Connor, who is Korean-American and came in early 2016. There’s a Monday afternoon park play group, led by Jane, mother of Kevin, who is kind of a Tiger mom who aspires to less pressure for her kid (but Kevin is studying Japanese and French, piano, swimming, and ping pong, and his mom speaks to him in English). I know all the kids and parents fairly well now and I like them all. Right now my parenting style feels like:

expat parenting + Gen X helicopter parent + raising a PK/MK (pastor’s kid, missionary kid) + living among urban competitive Taiwanese parents

I always fear we’re going to crash and burn eventually. On the other hand, it’s pretty reassuring to talk to other parents (from cub scouts, church, Lih-Jen, the twins’ school) because there’s just no way to do everything and we’re all trying to figure out what’s enough and what’s too much.

Classroom

Sam’s English teacher this year gives him a much longer leash, which is nice. It’s meant he sometimes gets behind or doesn’t do great on assignments, but the teacher also figures as long as we’re okay, he’s okay. Sam does a lot independently (he likes to write little books about dinosaurs, cars, or pokemon, and he’s a good drawer).

I feel like Sam is doing well, but he also won’t be the model student, even in English, because:

-He sometimes goes too fast. We read the assigned book, Superfudge, in a week, but most students are reading a page a day over a semester. Sam’s often forgotten whatever they’re to be tested on by the time we get to it.

-We don’t always see his school work. This meant on tests he struggled with place values for numbers and with calculating time differences (I’m grateful for the tests, since it told us what he was missing).

The upside is that Sam is really loving school. Sam’s friend’s mom worried that maybe her son ‘is loving school too much.’ At Lih-Jen the computer teachers lets him and his friends look up car designs during nap time, and he seems to like recess, art, and the rest. We’re probably going to let him drop violin, but he’s said he’d switch to chorus. Our only real dilemma is math, where Taiwanese school is fast. They’ve already done multiple digit multiplication and are on division now. We’ve started working with Sam on flashcards and a poster and the rest, but he may just be slow out of the gate on this. With reading we didn’t push him at all but he also seemed to get the hang out of it without a lot of stress. With math, it seems he’s caught on basic memory work (8 +7, 4×4). I wonder if some of it might be language, so we visited a local cram school and the owner helped sign him up to work with a teacher twice a week. To me it feels a bit insane to have him in buxiban in 3rd grade, but most of the kids I see there are his age or younger. Connor’s mom also signed him up, but with a different teacher. I don’t want him to be too far behind US work, and I also don’t want him to feel like he’s bad at math, when really he’s just had a lot fewer hours doing it than his classmates.

The school itself is not a perfect mix. It’s really designed for native Chinese speakers and non-native English speakers, and we’re the opposite of that. I feel like in Chinese, he gets almost forgotten, because the teacher is used to ignoring the non-native students. I wish I could have another curriculum I could help him with. The Chinese program is mostly texts to copy plus writing characters. There’s no core vocab, no writing exercises, nothing like I studied when I had Chinese.

Sam seems to also learn a lot on his own. We’ve been reading about US presidents lately, and he’s very into sports cars (which was never something that hooked me). He’s memorized dozens of cars and is interested in the mechanics. He watches youtube tutorials on drawing. For novels we’ve done Harry Potter #5 and are now doing a mix of Little House, Charlotte’s Web, Geronimo Stilton, some audio books (they love Dan Gutman), and whatever looks interesting from the library. I really enjoy reading with them. I started Roald Dahl’s the Witches with the twins and they love it, and I have the audio for Frog and Toad.

The twins seem very happy with their school. They are older for their grade (just turned six in October), so I feel like they’re used to being in charge more and seem to have the run of the school. Their Chinese is great right now and they both have a modest amount of well-thought out homework. We may try public school for them with some additional tutoring for English, because they seem a little more mature than Sam was at this age. They also have each other, which is a nice help. And often if we don’t understand the instructions in one classroom, we get another explanation for the kid in the other room. It’s an unexpected benefit of twins.

Taiwanese education, with an escape route

With our kids, we really have an escape valve. Probably by junior high they’ll be in an English program. For Taiwanese students, all paths have traditionally led through a series of hard exams (to get into junior high, then high school, then university), so anything that radically undermines this is dangerous. Cultural expectations are also quite different. We expect school to be fun and we value a mix of activities. I want my kids to read a ton of books for fun, to draw a lot, to play in the park, go to church, and so on. I’m probably naturally an over-scheduler, but Emily often feels we’re already doing too much.

With our kids I still struggle to give them conflicting messages: learn everything you can, follow your passions, but don’t close doors because you don’t like something right now, respect your teachers, but institutions can also be soul-crushing, be independent, but ask for help when you need it, trust others who know what you need to know, but listen to your own voice.

Church Shopping

In Taiwan I’ve attended a mix of churches. When I first came in 2005 I visited Songshan Church with Shang-Jen, a co-worker. Then a student took me to Zhongshan, where I attend for a couple of months (Zhongshan was built in the Japanese era). Then Shuanglian invited me to help start an English ministry. We launched in March 2006 and I handed it to a classmate and friend, Peter Chen, in late June when I went to back to the US. When we came in 2009 we first went to Mingshan Church, which is a small Amis church down the mountain from the seminary. We really liked it, but there was a larger cultural gap, and when the twins were born we realized we would just be too big of a distraction, so we returned to Shuanglian where we’ve mostly been since then. We still visit Shuanglian regularly (here’s my sermon last month). Two summers ago we also signed Sam up for several church camps, including one at Dongmen and another at Anhe. These have all been efforts to know the Presbyterian church better and to try to contextualize our work.

However, we’ve also visited some churches in the area. We tried Anhe again, but like many small Presbyterian churches it has a kind of erratic schedule (the time we were there they were prepping to have kids sing at a different church the next week), and there’s a strong effort to teach Taiwanese (which we’re not opposed to, but practically our kids probably won’t sit through forty minutes of Taiwanese class + singing in Taiwanese). Our kids never really settled down and after two attempts we gave up. Ironically, one of my students is doing field ed there, but in some ways that made it worse, since I could tell she wanted to please us but also that our kids weren’t really going to blend in. For us church shopping has been a curious calculus of distance + theology + kid-friendly + language. The expat churches in Taipei (International Church, Grace Baptist, Calvary) mostly lean conservative and often forbid women in ordained leadership, which is a deal-breaker for us (although I have had friends at all these places). We’re likely in for a trek no matter what.

Our solution is that we’ll probably continue to attend Shuanglian semi-regularly, but we may also attend the Episcopal church in Shihlin, Good Shepherd 牧愛堂. I took the boys there several weeks ago and Eli pronounced it “his favorite church.” It’s more expat-y than bilingual, is smaller in attendance for the English service (the Christian ed director said it’s an “introverts’ church”), but there are a lot of interesting people there. I met one of the founders of Forumosa, who I’d known previously just as Maoman. It also turned out that the former academic dean from my seminary from thirty years ago attends there occasionally (Graham Ogden). I’d visited the church many years ago and liked it at the time; back then they offered a bilingual service. Most of the other foreigners at my seminary have attended at one time or another. Our kids can still kind of be disasters in public places, so it helps that the exit abuts a courtyard, and that they like the Sunday School, which is targeted pretty much exactly at their age. In some ways I feel guilty going there, but it also feels very homey and friendly (they even have coffee hour). The church is also part an ECUSA diocese, so it’s a friend-of-a-friend ecclesiastically (ELCA is in full communion with ELCA which is in full communion with PCUSA). The style is a little different, but I don’t mind a shorter homily or real wine, and it all feels a bit more relaxed.

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…

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.

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.