UK Days

We’ve now been in UK for 5 or 6 days, depending on how you count. I’m here for two weeks—it’s a mix of vacation a chance to check out some mission/world Christianity sites.

We arrived Tuesday evening after an epically long set of flights (“Dad, are we there yet? Dad, are we there yet?”). I’d prebooked the Heathrow express and a cheap hotel near Paddington Station. On Wednesday we took the tube to Westminster and walked around (Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abby, a bridge over the Thames, Lambeth Place). We went to the Imperial War Museum, which was excellent. We caught a bus back to Trafalgar Square where we stopped in the National Gallery and then went to Aladdin (I’d found tickets in the upper balcony and Sam just loved it).

The next day we walked through Hyde Park on the way to the science museums. We were nearly freezing and arrived there a half hour early. The nearby Mormon Museum was open so we went in and talked to the Mormon missionaries, warmed up in the chapel, and consented to watch a short video about a Japanese music group (Bless4). We did the Science, National History, and Victoria & Alberts, and then in the afternoon we made our way to Cambridge.

Cambridge has been very nice. The first evening we went with Yakhwee to Westminster College for a start-of-semester faculty party. I enjoyed meeting the people there are seeing the space. On Saturday we walked through a good number of the 31 Cambridge colleges, fed some birds, and took pictures. Yesterday was church at St. Columba’s, the United Reformed Church. It is the Week for Christian Unity, so I appreciated the sermon by the exchange pastor, a Methodist who talked about the challenges of Christian unity and what he called an “ecumenical winter” (this rings true for me). We were able to have lunch with John Whitehorne (I cowrote a paper with Shih Shuying that mentioned his work), his wife, and the wife of a former Westminster principal. St. Columba’s has a board of former missionaries, including many that are famous (Leslie Newbigin, George Hood, Elizabeth Brown). It was nice to see it in person.

Today I am taking Sam to several Cambridge Museums, first to the Sedgwick Museum, which has a lot of fossils and dinosaur bones, and then later to the Whipple, which is a science museum formed around a collection of instruments donated by Whipple in 1944.

Being around Yakhwee is fun also, since she knows all of our worlds and has known Sam since he was 15 months old. She’s tolerant of his travel quirkiness, shows us new things, and gives us the free insider tour where through chapels and other locations. I’m not the world’s best traveler, so I’m grateful to have such a good sanctuary. In the evening Yakhwee took us to evensong at St. John’s. The choir outnumbered the people who came to pray, but it was a very beautiful, traditional Anglican worship service.

Tomorrow is a meeting with the interim director for the World Christianity center here. The day after that is Oxford and then Friday we arrive in Edinburgh. Everyone’s cautioned us about Edinburgh weather, so we’re bundling up.

 

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.

TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling)

In the last post I wrote a little about the TPRS Seminar I attended at National Taiwan Normal University. I found my notes and thought I would edit them here. This is a method I first learned about from Pamela Rose, who I met on social media via our French Canadian friend, Fred. The speaker was Terry Waltz.

The first part of the seminar used Hawaiian to show how students could begin learning a foreign language. For maybe 60 minutes Waltz took us through a pictographic text with some English words spaced in. In TPRS you can provide quick glossing, but you primarily rely on context, repetition, and frequent variation using a small core of vocab that grows over time. It’s a little hard to explain here but I feel like I accept the core approach, which gives students the same word many different ways. (For me, French was very hard until I had the French in Action program, and I’ve always learned Chinese best through conversation and discussion.) TPRS is more complicated than I’ve described here–it also often adds hand signals to reinforce words, and it uses a method called “circling” where you approach the same set of expressions over and over again using variations. The goal is to get the student as much “comprehensible input” as you can, repeating and varying stories over and over again. It is a great, somewhat less painful way to learn. I tried it a little on Eva this last week with sight words, and it really seemed to help here.

Motivation

The seminar was a good experience for me personally, for several reasons:

  1. It’s easy to coast on language after you’ve gotten to a comfortable point
  2. It was cathartic to see Chinese teachers in class who didn’t want to be called on and struggled to come with answers
  3. With Sam we’re always looking for a different system.

This system seems to work. They had a class they tried where they did 22 hours of Chinese in 12 days and then asked students to express English sentences in Chinese, and they were able to communicate a number of grammatical concepts. Close to 90% could correctly use 兩, use 沒 to negate a word, use of 個 as a measure word, and so on. Language learning is hard, so being able to give learners an approach that is interesting, non-shame based, and cumulative is very valuable.

Traditional Methods

I learned Chinese using a traditional method, with a lot of variations. I began at the University of Michigan on a fellowship (since discontinued) called Program for Intercollaboration Area Studies (PICAS). We used the DeFrancis book. At Wooster I did a reader called Taiwan Today. Then in Beijing we used a mix of Foreign Language Institute and the main PRC readers from the period. Later I did some classical, but most of this involved writing characters over and overagain and a lot of practice filling in sentences with vocab words or making sentences. I always hated the “make a sentence” model and I like that TPRS does more yes/no, rephrase/mirror the answer type methods. In Taiwan I spent a while at Taipei Languages Institute, and while they didn’t have an exact method I felt like the teachers were basically sympathetic and patient. If I learn another language (or return to Taiwanese) I’d probably try more TPRS. For me, I’m fairly happy with my current Chinese level: I can type emails and read a range of materials I use professionally, I can communicate easily for street life, and can teach in my field. I can’t read a newspaper and there are whole categories of vocabulary I’ve never learned, but my problem with communicating isn’t a lack of memorized word or needing to write long letters by hand.

TPSR for Kids

One of the challenges with language learning (I believe) is that native speakers learn differently from non-natives. Sam kind of sits between these two categories and he faces a different set of issues than I do. I would say that the issues are:

  1. Culturally he is often coded as a foreigner and either let out of work or ignored. He came out of kindergarten with only a loose grasp of 注音 alphabet, whereas most of his classmates could read using it. I remember near the end of kindergarten telling his teachers that he would continue studying in Chinese and they looked surprised. I think people here often assume that Chinese is just something he’s trying out. His teacher in first and second grade kept him close to grade level but his current teacher mostly ignores him.
  2. At the same time, as parents we’re also not as invested in the traditional learning system. Learning to write Chinese by hand takes a ridiculous amount of time. I would guess Sam’s classmates are doing several hours of homework a day after an 8 hour school day. We know a 4th grader who doesn’t end after school cram school until 8 pm. We’re not really willing to do that to him. His recognition is “pretty good” when I’ve looked at simple words with him and my guess is his comprehension could be close to classmates’ if we had the time/teachers to keep him on track.
  3. CSL in Sam’s school is kind of a Chinese lite curriculum, by which I mean that they use the exact same books as the regular class but go through them very slowly and don’t give quizzes or tests. CSL has been good for Sam socially in that it’s let him know other non-Taiwanese students and we really like the teacher (who has been a caretaker/advocate for him). At the same time, with limited funds it makes more sense to spend them on tutoring or something where he could work exactly at his skill level. If we “mainstream” him his main teacher would also have to engage him more.

An interesting take away from the TPRS seminar was how foreigners learn and use Chinese. Waltz said that she surveyed MRT riders in Taiwan on when they handwrite Chinese and they use it three ways: to write down phone message, to make shopping lists, and to send personal cards. Her takeaway was that in today’s world it is fine to focus on recognition of characters and being able to compose on computer. (The main exception here is testing: most Taiwanese testing still uses paper and pencil.) For Sam, I think I’m going to see if his school would let him take a tablet computer in and type during class, do flash cards, read, and do other exercises. I’ve started him on pinyin (the main foreigner romanization system) and he seems to get it. I’m not sure if he’s sufficiently self-motivated to so much learning on his own, but he has an amazing knack to work on something if he really wants to learn it (he’s now working on the names of Pokemon in Chinese–閃電鳥,噴火龍,等).

This isn’t a magic bullet, but our goal has always been to try to keep kids in Chinese for as long as possible. In some ways, language is a waiting game–how can you steep yourself in the language long enough to really learn and use? This seems like a promising approach.

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.

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