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.

PTS

In Taiwan, one of the things that surprised me is how important alumni networks are. There are words in Chinese for “older classmate” (includes any alumni who attended earlier than you) and “younger classmate” and this is a pretty major way of relating. At my Seminary, the theological faculty are overwhelmingly alumni of my seminary (the exceptions: three non-Presbyterians who’d gone to the school in the US for MDiv and one who did his masters at the southern seminary), including all the tenured theological faculty members.

This week, after having asked in both May and June if my school would need anything for accreditation materials they offered that, hey, it would be nice if they could have a copy of the signatures sheet on my dissertation (does not exactly exist) and a copy of the diploma. So, I called PTS and the PhD Studies Office tracked down the signed sheet from my defense and was just all around friendly and helpful. They also included me on a recent website page celebrating the 75th anniversary of the degree program. Thanks PTS!

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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.