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.

Living in Interesting Times: Church and Politics in Taiwan

This is a turbulent period in Taiwanese political life. A few weeks ago I attended a prayer breakfast where Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen spoke. In the interim there have been large protests over multi-party proposals to allow for marriage equality in Taiwan. And then Trump took Tsai’s phone call. Suddenly many voices are trying to puzzle out the implications of this first open discussion between Taiwan’s president and the US president elect since the late 1970s.

On gay marriage, initially I was not clued into the debate, but I started seeing posts by students and alumni on facebook. I began reading about recent legislative discussions about marriage equality, which seems to have the votes to pass. A couple of weeks ago we had a teachers meeting where everyone looked depressed and there was a lot nervous chatter. My seminary is host to some of the loudest pro- and anti-GLBTQ voices in Taiwanese church life. This time around, our former dean Cheng Yang-en and a retired Tainan Seminary professor, Chen Nan-chou, have both signed on to pro-marriage equality work. A teacher of ours, Tseng Tsong-sheng, was rejected by a church in the south as a guest preacher because of pro-GLBTQ views. One of the most widely shared pro-GLBTQ posts was by a graduate of our seminary, Chen Si-hao. Joseph Chang, one of just two openly gay pastors I know of, is also a graduate of our seminary and pastors a GLBTQ-friendly charismatic church downtown. On the other hand, our principal is one of the main voices against the acceptance of GLBTQ rights in the church and large numbers of students were part of protests against the marriage equality legislation.I’m also on a committee with a Presbyterian elder who works in human rights law but in this case is against marriage equality, and has taken a lock of flack from other civil rights activists. PCT formally issued a letter against marriage equality in the recent past, but it’s still a debated topic and some in the leadership favor marriage equality and GLBTQ ordination. In general debate is civil, but one of the things that fascinates me (and this was true of the Sunflower Movement language) is how much language gets borrowed from abroad. This time I’ve seen posts about an Australian young adult with two moms who feels she should have known her father, and this is a story that’s been shared in Chinese, and there are also discussions comparing GLBTQ laws to pedophilia or attributing Taiwan’s AIDS population to GLBTQ issues. A lot of this reminds me of US discussions from the late 1990s.

It’s an interesting time in which to live. As the resident American I keep a pretty low profile and don’t presume I’ll convince anyone of my views. At the same time, I do think there’s a strong cultural component, and it always amazes me how Christians get so tracked on this one issue but mostly ignore other major changes in the family (delayed marriage, higher rates of nonmarriage, use of birth control, gender imbalance in births, low birth rate, rising divorce rate, etc.). When I first came to Taiwan in 2005 I knew an elder in his late 70s whose father had had multiple wives in Taiwan and China and he had dozens of half-siblings. If I had lived through eighty years in Taiwan I would probably have some form of social whiplash. Still, Christians here are really tracked on GLBTQ issues (even abortion is not really an issue here, although it’s likely much more common than in the US).

More recently, President Tsai called Trump and he took the call. It’s still unclear if this is about his business interests, because of activism by Heritage foundation, represents a serious policy change, or just shows lack of awareness. For Taiwanese, it’s probably good, unless it leads to major conflict down the road or a big fight with China (which can still exert a lot of control over Taiwanese business and travel).

I’m not an expert on any of this, but as I round out 2016 it’s been just a fascinating year to be in Taiwan.

Green Island

25763894A friend on facebook recommended this novel, posting the New York Times review. I checked it out online from my library and really enjoyed the read. It’s an epic family saga that stretches across Taiwan’s history from 1947 into the present. It’s probably the best novel I’ve read in terms of treating modern Taiwan’s experience: the period of economic growth, the strange education culture (where students memorized Chinese provinces that no longer existed), the ways Taiwan’s relationship was shaped by US policy, the mix of language, the losses families experienced (of property, of culture, of life).

The main protagonists are a mother and father (Mama, Baba), their four children (the protagonist, an older sister and two older brothers), and assorted spouses, friends, and coworkers. The story is told via the youngest daughter of the four, who is born during the 228 incident (in 1947). Her father, a doctor, gives a political speech after trying to save the life of a wounded protester. He’s subsequently arrested and imprisoned on Green Island for 11 years. The siblings go in different directions–one marries a young soldier, a brother rises in the military in large part by informing on others, and another brother is something of a drifter. The father is released and lives out the next 40+ years with his family, but he’s never the same. The youngest sister eventually marries a Berkeley physics PhD and moves to California, where her husband is involved in a resistance cell. The siblings’ paths all reflect different trajectories Taiwanese families faced (intermarriage, exile abroad, collaboration, escapism).

The family has a mix of ups and downs. Her father never truly recovers from his imprisonment and is implicated in providing info that leads to the jailings of others. The protagonist’s husband’s work leads to a mix of family oppression, failed efforts, and so on. State violence taints everyone in the story in questionable ethical behavior, with the exception of one idealistic activist who stays pure in his resistance without sacrificing those around him. More over, there’s no happy conclusion at the end. Taiwan never has its truth and reconciliation commission. The book ends with the idea that the stories that were oppressed might still be told. True enough, in Taiwan, more of these stories are told, but there’s still a lot of silence. The generation that committed these crimes and experienced them is now passing away…

There’s not a lot of English language lit available on Taiwan. Tao Lin’s 2013 Taipei, was a more experimental, creative effort (that related a drug-loving, internet-addicted antihero). Green Island is a bit more of what I know. In churches here I often meet people who came of age in the late 40s and 50s. They sometimes had parents disappeared. A Methodist missionary at my seminary, Milo Thornberry, wrote a book Fireproof Moth (2011), that related his experience in Taiwan and his subsequent exile from Taiwan. Thornberry directs his book towards the ethics of resistance, including the question of violent resistance (he apparently was unknowingly involve in a bomb plot). He struggled with church culture, which was sometimes quietistic or conservative about Chiang’s authoritarianism.

In Green Island, the protagonist’s older sister and mother become Christian. The author struggles to make sense of the conversion, even as this was a period in church life when Christianity grew rapidly. I think the picture was limited, but also fairly honest. I often meet families here where there is a Christian “wing,” and often a mother will follow a daughter into faith. It was a small detail, but I appreciated it.

Cub Scouts

In first grade I looked into cub scouts for Sam and we found they met out of the American School in Tianmu. The initial group was just four kids, but by last year it had grown to about 15 and this year we have 20 in the “bears.” I’m going to be a den leader this year–the first time I’ve felt like I had the slack in my schedule to pull it off. I am enjoying it.

Two weekends ago we went to the local scout camp on Yangmingshan, a mountain outside Taipei (the site was only about fifteen minutes north of my seminary). I brought the two boys, which was a mixed experience. Sam did fairly well, but Eli tends to be jealous of his big brother’s friends and was also mad he couldn’t do things like use a knife, play with a hammer, etc. Sam also apparently ate a large quantity of junk food and threw up at midnight, which involved taking both kids to the bathroom in the dark to clean up (good news: we got to see this type of snake, which I’d never seen before). We bused down the mountain the next day.

I like scouts for a lot of reasons: (1) it fills in the civics/government gap that Sam might get in US school (2) you can do it anywhere (Sam did it in Ohio), and (3) it will be a whole family event soon (Eva’s already joined Daisies, Eli can join cub scouts next year).

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The picture gives no indication of how exhausting the trip was

Parent Teacher Association, Taiwanese style

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

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

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

Su Ching

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

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

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

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

Second Chances

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

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

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

Resettling (back in Taipei)

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

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

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

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

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

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