04 August 2006

Just a Blip

Hey, whaddya know, I have a blog.

I finally got that plane ticket home from Taiwan, too. Only I had so much luggage, and the bus that was supposed to take 90 minutes to get to the airport, it turned out, now takes 180 minutes, that Yule decided I would cry trying to take the train. So he and YiWen drove me themselves. After that, debacle, there's not much of a travel story to tell, because it's just the same old ten-hour-layover-in-LAX sob story anyway.

I thought to myself on the airplane over the sea, "one day, tomorrow even, all this waiting to get home won't even matter anymore, even though during these 13 hours over the ocean, it's all I can think about." 24 hours after leaving Taiwan, I stepped into the cleanest air I thought I'd ever breathed. Ahh, Sacramento. I could even see stars in the sky. Mom and Dad said, "gee, it's so hot," and I said, "What?"

Three days later I bought a new car. Two weeks after that I drove it to St. Louis, where I am now. Right now is a quiet evening cooling off after hundred-degree days. I'm setting up the classroom and school will start soon.

This has been the summertime update; an attempt to stay on the radar. Drink some lemonade and swing in a hammock for awhile. The next you check, there might be something more exciting going on.

20 June 2006

Garlic and it's Usefulness

They say garlic helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol, helps insomniacs to sleep and repels mosquitos and unwanted creeps at bars. Or everybody, really. But you might not have known garlic as a bringer of the heavenly kingdom.

Wednesday nights bring an opportunity to pick up a little Chinese in a semi-organized fashion. For the past semester, my usual teacher is a friend of our hosts Yule and YiWen. He is a principal at a school about an hour's drive away from ChiaYi. Despite the distance, he and his wife come every Wednesday night to teach Chinese for a few hours. I know him as Principal Hong.

Willing conversationalists, Principal Hong and I usually engage in discussion that wanders all over, even revealing a mutual interest in birds. This topic led us on an adventure to a wildlife reserve specifically for the black-faced spoonbills, who make their winter home here in Taiwan. Even though the flock could only be seen through a telescope, it was a breathtaking experience.

Even so, all attempts to talk about the Gospel had been heretofore rebuffed. When I seemed to have an in and ask if he'd like to hear about my faith, for example, he would chuckle and say, "No thanks."

Last Wednesday night, the foreign teachers invited all our Chinese teachers to a dinner we would prepare. I told the principal that we would be having a spaghetti dinner, an adopted American dish. He asked if there would be garlic in it. "Oh yes," I replied, "We love garlic."

"Really?" he said. "Is this a Taiwanese influence? Taiwanese cook with garlic a lot. I heard Americans used garlic to keep evil away."

"Most Americans probably haven't done that since the 1800's."

"Then what do you use to keep evil away?"

And just like that, we entered the discussion of the Message from the angle of good and evil spirits' influence in our lives. By grace, the Holy Spirit had stirred up many questions in this devout Buddhist, keeping us talking for at least an hour. At some point, YiWen (the Gospel Enabler) deposited a Bible in front of us, which was even more useful than garlic.

Give glory to God that he leads wandering hearts back to his own. Pray that the Holy Spirit would grow this seed into full faith, breaking down the influence of deceptive evil spirits and showing a need for dependent repentance.

18 June 2006

Frequently Asked Questions; Infrequently Explained Answers

Much like a recent college grad, I've found myself faced with a simliar set of questions these days. I have a hunch many readers want to know the same things. Casual conversations elicit shorter responses, or as much as I can get in edgewise, but I here you can read unabridged explanations. Conversational questions tend to be a little more blunt, as you will see. That's just part of the culture.

Q: When are you going home?

A: Well, I'm not quite sure yet; there seems to be a hang-up at the travel agent's office. That's just as frustrating to you as it is to me; I'm not trying to be difficult with this apparent ambivolence. Last I heard was July 1 or 2. But you know honestly, considering the wild fluctuations in schedule that I've come to accept as part of life in Taiwan, I wouldn't be too surprised if I didn't fly home until Christmas.

Q: When are you coming back?

A: To Taiwan? Um, well, I won't be coming back for another semes--

Q: You're not coming back?!

A: Unfortunately not.

Q: Ever?

A: It's not outside the realm of possibility for me to visit again sometime in the future but I'm not in the position of making any promises here.

Q: Don't you like Taiwan?

A: Of course I like Taiwan.

Q: What (on earth) will you do in America?

A: Well, I'll teach 3rd grade at an elementary school.

Q: What will you teach there?

A: What will I--third graders! Oh, you mean--every subject. Except, probably, music, health and computer.

Q: Are you trained to do that?

A: You'd think that because I'm a foreigner trying to make a bit of cash with my native tongue in Taiwan, I'm just a bum but yes, actually, I have a bachelor's degree in education. (Sometimes "when will you earn a graduate degree?" is the next question after this one. For my purposes here I consider it irrelevant.)

Plus I'm not just a foreigner trying to make a bit of cash by the way, I actually care for these kids because they are sought by Jesus like precious lost sheep, just like any person in creation. It is the desire of my heart to bring the Gospel message to the children I teach.

Q: Where will you live in America?

A: I'll live in St. Louis, Missouri, a city right along the Mississippi River. I've never been there before.

Q: Why do you want to move there?

A: Well I got a job with a Christian school there that appears to have a mission focus. I'm excited to do what I was trained to do and also to explore the dimensions of the great commission right in the good old USA.

Serendipitously, my Handsome Accomplice will be in the same town, going to the Lutheran Seminary and studying to become a pastor.

Q: When are you going to get married?

A: I'm not that kind of Lutheran. Your guess is as good as mine.

Q: So which do you like better, Taiwan or America?

A: (diplomatic answer may vary)

10 June 2006

still raining

Concordia Middle School, where the Practice Hotel is (and where I live) sits on a bit of a hill. After all this rain, I began to wonder where it was all going, so today I put on river shoes and a raincoat and walked to the bottom of the hill. Sure enough, the canal there was running high and muddy, and the bent weeds along the banks showed that it had run up to 1.5 meters higher than I beheld it.

That's because we got 30 centimeters of rain yesterday.

To see a picture of this system and it's movement up to 48 hours ago, visit Taiwan's central weather bureau page. (You have to click on the link to the left that says "satellite".)

Today we got 12 centimeters. Anna H says the sum of today and yesterday is a third of Nebraska's rainfall in a year, for all you rainfall statisticians out there. I guess that's why they call these parts "rainforests".

09 June 2006


A couple of weeks ago I went to Tainan.

An acquaintance from Friday Night Bible Study and I were talking. She asked how long I'd be in Taiwan yet. When she learned that I'd be gone for the foreseeable (sp?) future after a month and a half, she insisted that I visit Tainan before I leave. We marked our calendars.

Sometimes I have introverted tendencies, like doubling back on plans for dumb reasons so I don't have to get into potentially awkward social situations. The morning of the trip to Tainan, I didn't know which train to take. This was easy enough to find out, but I considered flaking out until I accidentally stumbled into exactly the information I needed. I realized what an idiot I was being and determined, then and there, to have a good time that day.

I got to the train station and even bought a ticket by myself--two firsts. Things were going great, but there was no sign of Daphenie. She appeared on the platform just in time to make the train.

A short hour later, we had arrived in Tainan, and she was negotiating the scooter rental. Soon enough we were motoring through a colorful city. Bustling with everyday activity, it had a feeling unlike the run-down rush of most every other city I've been in Taiwan. I saw that it had wide sidewalks that were not too crowded with vendors that people could walk on them: unheard of! Leisurers peppered the city's many parks, walking dogs, riding bikes, and following their noses. It was as though they conducted life at a Westerner's pace. Taking it in, I knew my hope in Taiwan would be restored that day.

I think one reason this city has maintained it's life is that it has preserved many important old things, such as temples and castles from Taiwan's post-colonial years. The first set of pictures shows views of Chikan Tower, which sits on site of the Dutch's castle before it. The Taiwanese eventually defeated the colonizing Dutch. The statues in the picture commemorate Holland's surrender. Before Holland protested, the figure of the Dutchman could be seen kneeling. His posture was changed after the Westerners complained that this was demeaning.

It was here that I saw the altar to the god of scholarship and some of the many prayers to him I would see that day. Daphenie explained that many students were preparing for important exams that would determine their entry into middle school, high school, or university, and they came to worship and supplicate for their education.

Daphenie was a font of information, including the historical context of exams. Tests have been important in Chinese culture for generations upon generations, and just as hundreds of years before, still determined one's ability to hold a public office. Aspiring civil servants were to take a series of three tests. The number of tests passed dictated the level of service, with the highest achievers rising to the emperor's cabinet. Only the richest men had time to devote to studying for these exams, and who even knows what kinds of things were on these exams. In learning the this context, my students' schooling seems to make a little more sense.

Tainan is also home to oldest and hence the most important Confucius Temple in Taiwan. Chinese culture holds Confucius as the greatest teacher of all time. You can see a picture of the altar in this temple here. I don't know what the characters on the plaque say. Must be something pretty smart.

The grounds of the temple were grand. An enormous tree shaded the outer courtyard. Red, the decoration of the most sumptuously accomplished, washed the inner coutyard.

After the Confucius temple we stopped for a bite to eat. Daphenie produced a map and showed me the course she had mapped by the rest of the day. It would take us to a waterfront on the bay, some more historic buildings there. When we arrived the tourist destinations had been closed for the day, but the ramshackle alleys that took us there captivated me. Residents whiled the afternoon cool with neighbors in front of their houses. One woman, at least seventy, wore an old pink dress. I imagined how enchanting she must have looked before both their beauty was worn out.

If I could choose where I lived in Taiwan, I'd live on that little alley off An Ping street, right next to the woman in that enchanting old dress.

We walked by the bay and fireworks exploded over our heads--an unexpected treat. I thought, what a pity that I'm not on a date. Not that I regret the company, understand. It was just that, well, you know.

After dark we scooted back downtown, to a rehabilitated street where several artists had set up civic art projects. Some could be climbed upon. Some were good for pictures.

We reached an intersection with another small alley. Here a kitten squeezed out from under an antique door. Upstairs a woodcarver tok tok tokked away in the window of his workshop. It gave light to our pursuit of the playfully shy kitten, who we eventually abandoned to follow the alley. The alley gave up secret art projects at intervals; we found what looked like tiny glowing pebbles all over the cobblestone pavement and decided they would have been ideal for Hansel and Gretel's predicament. The little lights changed colors, but not because we stepped on them, as originally believed.

When this stroll led us back to the scooter, I believed our tour had come to an end, but Daphenie drove us to a little church. I found some sisters while Daphenie was parking the scooter properly, and to my delight, guessed correctly at the greeting of fellow Christians. "Ping an," we all said simultaneously, wishing one another peace.

Daphenie came to Friday Night Bible Study as an invitee of another attendee. There are no members, but a solid core of regulars. So far I only knew Daphenie's spiritual progress to be "curious". Curious enough to return week after week, but I never could have guessed that she sought out a church in her area on her own! In the sanctuary we found musicians practicing for the Sunday service. I thanked the Lord when a woman there recognized Daphenie from a previous visit and extended a warm welcome to both of us. I reasoned that she must be in charge of what American churches call "outreach and assimilation".

With the final trip to her home, about a half an hour outside Tainan, we met her parents and her 10 year old brother, all delightful and generous. Allen (English name for her brother) hopped in delight and showed me all his stuff. I guess kids are like that everywhere (a wink for Carol).

Even if Tainan hadn't been so delightful, there was still hope for Taiwan simply because of the people. One feels like an immediate member of the family in their households. And family life is so incredibly strong, how could anyone not become immediately immersed in such an environment? I hope that I can also practice such gentle hospitality, even with strangers. There in Daphenie's family's home, underneath a mesh net to keep out the mosquitos, I slept the night. In the morning they gave me breakfast, company, and time to sit and read. And to think, the previous morning I planned to flake out completely, wary of an awkward situation.

To see more pictures from this trip--and piles of others from my travels abroad (plus a couple of weird looking Americans' portraits inexplicably upoaded by Charlotte)-- feel free to visit my flickr page.

Now where did I put that ark?

Last night booming thunder woke up most folks at the Practice Hotel, sounding as if the clap materialized from inside the building.

"It was the loudest thunder I have ever heard," stated resident and foreign teacher Anna Horkey.

Since that time a massive low pressure system with arms all over Asia has dumped almost a foot of rain on ChiaYi, Taiwan.

"My alarm went off at 7:30 this morning, when I usually go walking with Anna Horkey," said Anne Woodward, another foreign teacher. "But I didn't even have to look out the window to know that we wouldn't be walking today." By the time it came to walk two hundred meters to work, Anne had a hard time finding high ground between puddles. "I was wishing for a boat."

Driving to work was more of a gamble. Foreign teacher Michelle Cavalli braved roads that had become rivers, reaching as high as the seat of her scooter in some places. She had to drive in the middle of the road to get anywhere at all.

National teacher Pearl found it necessary to drive over a sandbag barrier in order to navigate a route to Concordia English Language Academy. The 15 minute trip took her 50 minutes.

Nevertheless the schoolday began normally with Friday morning Bible study and continued with the usual Friday preparation and general milling around.

Finally, at 11:28, the memo arrived from the boss: all elementary classes cancelled. Kindergarten classes were quick to follow suit. Everyone in the office joined their voices in a jubilant whoop and found themselves embraced in adrenalized group hugs with Michael Vogel, office nutcase.

Woodward remembers where she was when the call came. "I was writing an email to my friend Charlotte, and I was just saying how I thought school should be called off...and then it was!"

Still there remained the obstacle of getting home. Though the rain had let up by intervals since the morning downpour, many teachers had to negotiate closed roads and traffic jams.

Friday Night Bible Study has also been cancelled. Plans for the evening? Asserts Woodward, "Bloggercise."

07 June 2006

The Past

Well, I think I've waited long enough since the last post to throw off any would-be readers. So it's time to have a little fun. A scad of mini-posts! What could be cuter?

Now The Past is a pretty broad topic, so, like we learned in school, we have to pare it down a little bit. I'm going to reflect specifically on how my understanding of Taiwanese life has shifted.

When I first came to Taiwan, I thought I'd never learn to identify with the people here at all. That hasn't been the case. To begin with, I have learned some, not a lot, of Mandarin Chinese. I would have liked to pick up some more, not only because I happen to be kind of proud about the "linguistic ability" I assume I have. Language holds indefinite keys to unlocking culture. I consider this depth relatively unplumbed.

However, I have become acquainted with idiom of a student in Taiwan. It's very different here. I've written a little about it before, but I myself was never fully aware that being a student absorbs every part of a young person's life.

Just imagine meeting someone who doesn't have interests or hobbies outside of school. This is a difficult person to teach for the sake of finding common ground. The Taiwanese middle or high school student is a person who most likely does not have a lot of chores around the house because Mom and Dad think it's more important that homework gets completed. They are entirely content to complete almost any exercise in silence, save for one that requires classroom interaction or mental engagement in the higher levels (such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation. This, however, is merely a reflection of the type of rote education they've been absorbing). In all this, one can all but forget about existential rumination.

To me, this was abominable. I never knew how someone could lead a life so devoid of curiosity, yet so focused and determined. Slowly, however, I learned what it was like for a classroom to absorb me. Over the past few weeks, I've spent most of my waking hours in the office or the classroom (this of my own volition). Last night I had an hour to kill and I didn't want to do anything except go to bed so I could get up the next day and go to work. It was easier not to think about the tough stuff. I think I understand Taiwanese students a little better now.

One last morsel for now. I started watching old Mickey, Donald and Goofy cartoons on some evenings and would you believe that the Chinese voice for Donald Duck sounds exactly as incomprehensible as his English voice? So I figure I'm not missing out on much there.

Pictures next time.

The Pending

It's my last month of service here in Taiwan. My record of the year here has been limited, at least as far as the blog is concerned. At the outset I had designs for video and audioposts and whatnot. Well you know what they say: ask for the moon and get New Jersey.

Let's tackle some tough topics.

The future
After squaring away some paperwork, grading, and other insipid tasks, all that remains is sorting and packing. After that comes the matter of hauling and waiting (this means travel). Then comes the greeting, smiling, sleeping, and grumping of reentry.

About a month after that, it's time for more sorting, packing, hauling and waiting, but of a more permanent variety. I'll take up some new residence in the Midwestern Area of the United States, which may as well be a foreign country. Okay, yes, I was born in Kansas, but that was 24 years ago. Over there, I'll start talking, listening, giving the evil eye, and cutting things out (this means teaching, but different from the gig in Taiwan. I debate whether or not to keep the blog. Will possibly engage that topic in a later blog entry).

This location will also give me the opportunity to be with My Handsome Accomplice on a much more healthy schedule. By the time I see him it will have been 6 months since our last visit. That's more than half of our entire relationship.

I have high hopes for this future. It looks colorful in my mind's eye, and the future Anne of my mind's eye has interminable energy and strength. I could start writing about my vision for education, but I expect that's not a draw for readers.

26 April 2006

Lemme Tell You About My Day...

Any kindergarten teacher in the world know's one has to be ready for curveballs. They also know said curveballs make for some pretty good stories. Curveball of the week: we suddenly learn Monday morning that each class had been given over to wholly inept college students who've invaded the kindergarten en masse in order to participate in some type of field experience.

It's enough to effectively de-rail a class when the homeroom teacher doesn't accompany her flock, and this happens often enough. Bedlam reaches new heights when four greenhorns amble in, hugged and tugged by the little ones. At this point, I become the only one even remotely in control of these children, and I don't even speak their native language.

Monday through Wednesday I slogged through business as usual. After each class I was ready, to use one of Anna Horkey's favorite lines, to set my hair on fire. Thursday I made ready for the visitors to earn their keep. With no preparation save the little English understood from me, they would teach my class.

As I made preparations Thursday morning, a two consequential events occured. First, I used the last kleenex in the room to help convey a used and crumpled kleenex from the floor to the trashcan. Simultaneously, bending to pick up the wad, I split the posterior seam in my pants. Three seconds later, twenty five students gushed into my classroom, bombing around the knee-high furninture and screeching like banshees. With a little quick thinking, I introduced my students to the ever-popular scoot-around-on-your-bottom game and successfully tricked them into getting into their places! I began class, split them into groups and set them loose on the field experiencers, who dared not refuse. It was working! Now just to keep from showing anyone my backside.

But wait, what's this? Presently I noticed some of the students holding their noses and a brown smudge on the floor. Crap. I took a quick poll of the five or six tykes standing round; none of them had to go to the bathroom (anymore), so I relocated their group and walked toward the kleenex box. The empty kleenex box. There was no chance I'd make a run to another classroom, only to leave moonstruck everyone in my wake. Distracted with the logistics of this substance's arrival on my floor, I resorted to paper, which I crumpled several times to make it more cloth-like, and alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

The show went on. That class eventually ended, and in the moments before the next class came in, I took the stapler to the ripped seam. Naturally, it was out of staples.

24 April 2006

Perfect Little Muffins

I have a preferred class of kindergartners. Inexplicably, they are called "Hyacinth". I hesitate to say "favorite", even though it might be true, because it reflects poorly on me as a professional. Plus, my other classes are filled with equally enchanting little muffins, but one teacher makes the difference. The Hyacinth class has the best homeroom teacher, and as a result, they are more easily taught than all the other classes.

For a moment, I want to point out some sobering truths of this situation which may not be readily apparent. The kindergarten where I teach, and indeed the Taiwanese kindergarten model has three levels labeled, predictably, K1, K2, and K3. Many little ones find themselves in the uncharted environs of K1 no later than their third birthday. Fine, we Americans send our toddlers off to preschool, but mostly this does not include learning to sit still, listen, and learn for extended periods of time. My own classes last 40 minutes, and no one turns a hair if the students spend that whole time sitting in the same little spot.

One bright Saturday, I realized the magnitude of these students' training. The kindergarten gathered all 150-some of the K3 students, who range between 5 and 6 years old, to take a group picture (see photos of the arrangement to the right). I was to be in the picture as well. As the teachers assembled their students into portait formation, I noted the children standing, just standing, and waiting for their teacher to put them somewhere. Get 150 American 5 and 6 year olds together and see if organizing a portrait isn't something like trying to keep a bunch of squirrels in a shopping cart. The mere possiblity of such a feat without tranquilizers left me thunderstruck.

For the time being, however, these children love school. Successful kindergarten teachers, like the one keeping Hyacinth in line, implement faithful discipline, show the children genuine love and and develop nourishing relationships them. I think. Some days, I wonder what really accounts for Hyacinth's mostly-rapt behavior.

Today, for instance, Jay, normally a chipper and bashfully winsome little muffin, could hardly keep his eyes open. I tried to figure out what was wrong, but could not get him to tell me anything. He simply sat there with sleepy eyes. Finally, as the class colored in their workbooks(!), it all came out. Not words, no, but whatever he had for lunch. Poor Jay oozed as quietly as Mauna Loa until a student fetched my attention from another child. Jay hadn't said a thing! I thought, was he really taught so well not to interrupt?

This is the only time these children will love school. From here, the long road of education is potholed with superfluous tests and examinations, endless schooldays (beginning, for example, at 7 AM and lasting until 6:30 or later, depending on the amount of cram schools they attend), and homework that will deprive them of the proper amount of sleep. Yet somehow all this busywork determines precisely the future for each of these students.

Hyacinth's teacher has taught them to obey. Perhaps it's more pleasant to see a child grow without as strict a code of uniformity, but the habit will serve them well as they grow in their culture.

An unrelated footnote:
Those of you following the saga of My Handsome Accomplice and I will be keen to learn that the relationship is now not only international but also intercontinental. That's right, somewhere around 12 hours from now, his kin will be scooping up his remains from the nearest airport after a 25 hour trip. He should recover just in time to begin studying Greek, the wretched soul.

22 April 2006

Calls Pending

Believe the headlines! The rumors are true; there's a divine call from Mecca, er, St. Louis MO with my name on it. Grace Chapel Lutheran School offers me their third grade position. The papers are on their way. It's my understanding that they're spending some time at the district office.

Last night at Friday Night Bible Study, I was talking to another expat. Previously unchurched, she has ended up a Bible study regular and has been given depths of curiosity about her creator. We were talking about future plans and I told her about my call and the call process. She asked why they were called "calls". It was an interesting chance to look at my little world of Lutheran experience.

I explained how Lutheran schools choose from a pool of candidates trained to work at said Lutheran schools, and how my dad had received calls to different schools while I was growing up. While childhood's simplicity filtered out the qualifying details, I cobbled together an understanding that schools employing him did so on behalf of God. Each time he received an opportunity to move again, he would consider and we would all pray, and God would lead to a new school or to stick with the script.

Even though the papers are still basking in their authentification process in the district office, I circulate the prayer request to anyone who will take it up, both for me and for this Lutheran school, that the Lord would lead and give clarity to the glory of his name.

21 April 2006

Friday Night Scratchpad

It's that time again! Thanks for tuning in for the monthly-if-you're-lucky blog post.

Betimes, I've complained about my gaggle of sixth graders before, citing them anti-social or inconsiderate. I'm not planning on taking any of that back, as children of their age are, as an empirical fact, pains in the butt. In fact, their inelegance speaks the grace of God all the more emphatically.

All of last week's curriculum focused on the story of Easter. Each day our learning took up a different theme: triumphal entry, last supper, and so on. By the time Thursday rolled around, I was convinced these kids had had it up to here with all this Bible learning. "Just what is this American teacher trying to shove down our throats, anyway?" In my mind, they may as well have been saying this.

Incidentally Thursday was also the day we took an intense look at the crucifixion, and the day I encountered five of my boys chucking chunks of asphalt across the school parking lot full of cars during our breaktime. Things were not going well. With a heavy heart I planned for Friday, (Good Friday in actuality, but the day we would celebrate and study Easter in my class).

The students' attitudes on Friday could not have been more joyful. They were more considerate and talkative than I've ever seen them, and many of their free-write responses about the Easter story were phenomenal:

My favorite part of the Easter story is that Jesus had nails in his hands when he died, after he alive again, holes from nails still in his hands. When he died he forgave our sins, when he alive he beat death, it's powerful!

I have more reasons to believe that the Holy Spirit has planted some seeds of faith. One student wrote me email, and in two simple sentences, triggered more moxie and joy from the Gospel than I can remember: "Teacher, I love to listen to the story about Jesus. Can you tell more Jesus story to me?"

"It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy." (Romans 9v16) Hasn't he told us? Reminded us again and again that we aren't capable of adding a drop to his ocean of grace? And he tells us, but we only seem to listen when we can see the fruits: God is faithful. He will grow faith.

Go therefore and be joyful.

21 March 2006

Cured by Ham

Recently, when reading the parables of Jesus, I've felt overwhelmingly convicted. Especially potent has been the parable where the master gives three servants ten, five, and one talent, and then goes away. Like the stubborn servant with the one talent, I'm predisposed to pout about the amount given me and sit on it, comparing myself to others.

Last week at Fiday Night Bible study, I led songs for the first time. Then I got to teach.

Anyone who knows me knows that when I get in front of groups, I'm a natural ham. For one reason or another, I'd been hiding this character trait from greater Taiwan. Well, from anybody who knows me here. Maybe because being a missionary, you're "supposed" to take things seriously? Probably. (You're not really "supposed" to do it, but that was apparently my careful approach.) Additionally, I'd never gotten the chance to ham it up, aside from with my 6th graders, which no one ever sees,and obviously the kindergartners, because any kindergarten teacher who doesn't ham it up is straight doomed.

Friday night, all that changed. Back to textbook Anne. It lifted a weight so big that I even felt lightheaded. I wasn't afraid to talk to anyone; I'm Anne. Finally!

It could hardly have gotten better when a man walked up to me. This was his first time to come to Bible study. I asked him what brought him here tonight, and he told me he wanted to learn more about the Bible. As part of being with us the first time, he had received a pocket-sized Chinese and English New Testament, but he thought the print was rather small. He was right. It was pocket sized. However, he told me that he had a Bible at home: he checked it out from the library. Well, that will do.

He said he wanted to learn more about the Bible because of the influence it has on the world. I figured, better not waste any time. Let's get this man what he wants. He agreed to start reading the Gospel of Mark with me, and we'd talk about it next week.

Maybe it's elementary to suggest this blessing was positive reinforcement from the Lord. Either way: pass the ham.

11 March 2006

Membership Guide

Only since Christmas, I've become an official grown up member of the Woodward family. I have become a birdwatcher.

I didn't get the many-pocketed khaki vest and I don't have the tripod and telescope, or even a decent pair of binoculars, but I did receive a hardbound volume of A New Guide to the Birds of Taiwan, a first (and prossably last) printing. I have reason to believe that my father (er, Father Christmas) went to great lengths to find this book, as locating anything in the area of an English Taiwan birding guide stumped even my internet-combing prowess (and everything's on the internet; if it's not there, it doesn't exist).

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: this book is amazing. Now, it's no Golden Guide to North American Birds, but despite the basic printing and limited illustrations, it includes not only English and Chinese, but also the phonetic symbols for all the sounds in the Chinese tongue, aka, the Taiwan Chinese Phonetic alphabet, aka, (laugh if you want to, I did) bopomofo, so that I know how to pronounce all those crazy characters. I've been using this book, believe it or not, to identify birds. When I see one I write down the date and any other important details in the checklist in the back. Growing up, this is what I watched my father do, and later my brother would do the same. Please humor a few examples of the natural world that this guide has helped me to observe.

Before I had a book to help me identify them, I saw the Chinese Bulbul all around campus. In the picture it's hard to see that he has a sort of golden-dusted olive colored back, which is especially lovely in the sunlight. Turns out he's pretty common, but a very friendly bird who especially enjoys perching on topmost branches. His song is heard ubiqitously throughout the well-shaded campus.

I've always believed that the female of most bird species gets the short end of the stick, especially when it comes to those named for their color. I spotted a vinaceous rosefinch while hiking on Jade Mountain (which has the highest peak in Northeast Asia, whatever that means). Had I not been carrying the volume with me, I would have thought nothing of the ordinary-looking bird, but seeing as how I could enlarge my schema of the mountain fauna, I discovered what a fabulous looking mate this one must have. He would have a wine-colored (that's what vinaceous means) head, back, and breast, with a striking silver-white eyebrow and brown wings and tail. But she's the one who came out for groceries in her housecoat while he stayed home, vainly arranging his feathers.

While perusing the volume, I bookmarked birds that I especially wanted to find. Imagine my delight when I stumbled across the brilliant river kingfisher skimming the surface small pond in Taipei, crisscrossing it in seconds with a shrill cry. Barely touching the water, he found some dinner and took it to a secluded perch to enjoy it.

Keep paying attention. This is where we'll start to build some substance. What I like best about this book is that the most important component of its contents cannot be bound. Not only do I search for its descriptions to be made manifest in the world around me, I take part in a communion with my family. For the Woodwards, observing birds bears an understood significance. A few winters ago my brother and I negotiated holiday traffic in order to keep an eye on a hunting kite. Visiting the mountain cottage of my (younger) youth, I whiled hours in a hammock or followed a trail, listening to my father emulate the call of a passing bird that it might linger in our neck of the woods long enough for us to have a look at it. Meanwhile, visitng hummingbirds made entries on my mother's keen mental log, alternately establishing dominance by chasing others away, preventing anyone, including themselves, from enjoying the sugarwater. At home, we had an ugly gray mug whose stamped precept made all things plain: "We're birdwatchers". Simply maintaining the birdfeeders at home became a perennial task for all members of the family; even the dog joined the campaign against marauding squirrels. (Of course her graceless attacks shuttled off all the birds too, but there's a margin for error in everything).

Additionally, (just when you thought it couldn't get better) fixation with this little book gives me a little bit more insight into the the Bible. True, A New Guide to the Birds of Taiwan has nothing on the inspired word of God, but an analogy always has to be simpler than what it describes. As a member of God's family, availed of His Word, I observe and grow in understanding. I seek truth as Biblical authors have framed it. I hope for the Lord's promises. I pray for mercy and grace, rely on forgiveness, and wait for the Holy Spirit, which I know about because I read it in the Bible. It's like putting the birds I have seen and want to see into perspective.

I wouldn't want to give the idea that the Bible is just a practical guide for Christian living. It would be easy to treat it that way, say if I read more out of the books of James and Proverbs than any other book. I would describe Christ's redemptive work as the opposite of expedient and certainly Job's account contributes almost nothing to the pragmatist's inventory, save for "what to scrape your boils with".

Along with observing my parents observe birds, I also observed them read and continue to discover the scriptures. Isaiah 55:10-11 says the Word of God is like rain that falls, yielding both seed and bread. As seed is to the beginning of faith, bread is the nourishment of faith. We as members of God's family can not exhaust his word; it always holds something new for us though it's been there the whole time, just as the Lord God has been and will be. As humans we can't eat once and expect to remain satisfied forever. We can't expect the lessons we learned in Sunday School or as youths to sustain our understanding of our risen Lord as our mind matures past the intellectual and spiritual stages of youth. Kierkegaard reminds us in Fear and Trembling that it takes a man even such as Abraham his whole life to grapple with his faith, leaning on it as means and ends of his existence. From my limited perspective, I can only imagine what this means.

I'll never see every bird in my bird book. I'll never see every bird in any bird book. But I'll know what it's like to look for birds and find them, just like anyone who learns to look for birds and find them.

09 March 2006


1) I spent last weekend in Taipei for an English teacher's conference, of sorts. It was really just a chance for a bunch of publishers to show off curricula. Every workshop was a commercial, to some degree. But at least I got to go to Taipei, which I haven't done before, other than the airport, which doesn't count.

While in Taipei we had a chance to visit a sister in Christ, and just about the most joyful cancer patient I've ever seen. She recently retired from a career of teaching in a high school and owns the popular hangout for Western foreigners, the Golden Eagle Pub, in Chiayi. A little more than a month ago, she was diagnosed with lymphoma and the doctor advised her only to go ahead with treatment if she had a strong desire to live. She responded that she knew her God was strong enough to bring her through and continues hard-lining a dependence on Jesus Christ rarely seen by this (albeit novice) missionary.

Though, like any hospital patient in Asia, she wore a paper mask over the breating organs on her face, a shining smile was unmistakeable, and she was sitting Indian style on her bed. From the time we spent with her, it's clear that she hungers and thirsts for the living God. Though the visit left us surprisingly strengthened, she still needs our prayers. Difficult times are still to come.

It occurs to me that this is not such a different prayer request that those which might be offered at any church stateside. Some things don't change across the ocean.

2) Belated updates to the sidebar: Sam Beltz and Mel Scheer. Sam is my candid team-mate who clearly spends a lot of time in thought. He teaches at CMS (Concordia Middle School, on the same campus as CELA) but in a little bit of a different capacity from the other teachers at CMS. There's a segment of the student body who failed a test somewhere along the way, and their only hope for the future now is to learn a trade. The tests have already decided who has a shot at college. Whatever these students may be, they've been told that they're basically worthless, and they've come to believe it. Sam teaches these kids conversational English and Bible. I'll let his blog take it from there.

Mel Scheer (center) (this won't be news for some of you) is the DCE at St. Peter Lutheran Church. We didn't go to college together or anything, but I love to spend time with her whenever I'm in Lodi. I'm happy she's at my home church. She puts things together: people, events, probably sandwiches. That's why you can't get a picture of her by herself. Just for the record, she's been a bona-fide crusader on behalf of My Handsome Accomplice and I from the very beginning, and she plays a mean game of low-stakes poker. On her blog, she keeps track of her zany antics--I mean, life.

01 March 2006

Late Breaking News: Creation Subjected to Frustration

According to the eighth chapter of the Biblical book of Romans, written by the Apostle Paul, all of God's Green Earth has been "subjected to frustration." Experts interpret this God-inspired passage to indicate man's inherent sinfulness, beginning with the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden near the dawn of time.

Even after the Lord Almighty instructed the only two humans in existence not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they did just that.

Since that time, scholars believe, the whole of creation has come under the same fatal curse as the humans, and additionally suffers the burden that six and a half billion sinners place upon it daily.

Romans further states that "the whole of creation has been groaning", presumably under such affliction, and "waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed" in the hope of likewise being "liberated from it's bondaged of decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God".

These portions of scripture bring discord from Know-it-Alls around the world, some giving credence to the Biblical promise of Christ's return to redeem those who believe in him, while still others remain convinced that it prophesies an enormous environmental summit of world leaders larger than any yet seen, resulting in the merging of all faiths, epic global policy reform and complete restorative effects in every corner of the earth.

In other news, I may be reading too much of The Onion.

18 February 2006

Socrates and Me

I'm back to the future, finally, and it looks like I've missed a whole week of school in the process. Normally this would be okay but I have a hunch that the time machine doesn't have many trips left in it, and I've still got to take Socrates home. I just stopped in to take out my contacts and make this post. Hey, at least I'm not a bean.

Socrates? Well, to find out why he's along, you'll have to go all the way back to Christmas Day and read our reports from the last two months.

07 February 2006

With Technology, It's All Possible

Hi there! My name is Anne Woodward, though longtime readers may remember me as The Gal Who Used To Update This Website Semi-Reliably.

Many of you, at this point, will have noticed that nothing has happened around these parts since late last year. It's just for situations like these that we here at Open Epistle keep a time machine hanging around.

It's often said that the writing life is often something of a Catch-22. If you have plenty of time to write, it's probable that you've nothing to write about. On the other hand, if you find yourself on the seat of your pants more than once a day, it's sure to make a fine tale, but no time to ink it out. You can assure yourself that the era as of yet not recorded on this blog was the latter.

Hence the post. "Hence," I say!

Tomorrow marks the end of two glorious weeks of vacation, thanks to Chinese Lunar New Year. In the remaining hours of my vacation, with the help of my time machine, I shall attempt to revisit key moments in the six weeks of my absence, and make posts from the actual time they occurred, which will then appear as though they had always been there. This may prove tricky, and I'm hoping not to make any large rents in the space-time continuum. If, in fact, I return to the present in the form of an anthropomorphized soy bean, there's going to be a fair amount of explaining. I can take that chance. For my readers, I can take that chance.

Be prepared for a lot of pictures.

28 January 2006

Live from Singapore

Socrates and I are about to cover the Chinese New Year scene live from Singapore. After initial investigations yesterday, it appears that the city-island was set up for massive celebrations in all districts, but most notably Chinatown. These celebrations were certain to include red lanterns, loud Chinese music, and appeal most to the hoards of thrill seekers scouring this island-city from end to end.

(In her journal from the period, which I've carefully lifted, Quondam-Anne relates contemporaneous observations about the trip. I've included them in italics from time to time. She has this to say about first impressions in Singapore:)

From what I can tell, Singapore is a destination attracting tourists from all over Asia wanting to lay down a fair penny. Having no true indigenous people of its own, it has adopted Indians, Malays, Arabs, and Chinese. It started out as a British colony and apparently still holds to a proud, if not pompous, philosophy of success. Everything here exists to showcase one thing: bills. Anything there worth doing requires the same.
I know, this sounds like the bitter pouting of a penniless missionary, but really I was expecting something very different out of Singapore. I was expecting "quaint". But, as Socrates pointed out, people don't travel to the cleanest, richest Asian Tiger for "quaint". He's got a point there. Plus, I'm not penniless: the school handed out an ample Chinese New Year Bonus.

And so we followed our couple around Singapore, follwing them through Orchard Road (the swank shopping district) Clarke Quay, Chinatown, Little India, the Arab Quarter, and a little visit at the Raffles hotel.

Upon arrival, as per the overarching reason for the visit (renewing the Handsome Accomplice's visa), our couple made the most valiant scramble possible toward the Royal Thai Embassy, minus a superfluous-and-stubborn-however-well-meant extra march around the block led by Quuondam-Anne, who wanted to stick to her map-reading skills despite actual signs in the actual city leading to the actual Royal Thai Embassy. This didn't matter anyway, as the office handling visas had closed at about the time their plane had taken off from Bangkok and would remain closed until the following Wednesday, giving everyone a nice, cushy holiday break over the Chinese New Year celebration. Shoulders sunken, sails deflated, they dragged their feet to a nearby Borders, just one franchised accessory out of hundreds on the sold-out island, and sated themselves in titles and authors. Socrates was excited to see them hovering in the philosphy section, but simultaneously he wished they would disappear to another section so that he could peruse the titles himself.

For some evening fare, the couple happened upon Clarke Quay, where a congregation of conspicuous architecture housing a spate of overpriced restauants huddled near the mouth of the Singapore River. Boat-sized cockroaches, disguised as boats and adorned with red lanterns for the New Year, served as river taxis up and down the river.

The next day our disjointed quartet hit the meat of the city. On their way to Chinatown, our couple met another couple of expats:
We boarded a subway train and were greeted with a friendly imperative: "Where you from?" Who we later learned were Dan and Susan introduced themselves to us and began to trade stories. They were from Louisiana but had been traveling since before hurricane Katrina had hit in September. Dan was retired from the military and had spent three years in Vietnam. They traveled everywhere on military planes. They'd started out in Hawaii, which had actually been their honeymoon, and just kept going after that, hitting Japan and some of the Caribbean Islands. They thought Thailand might be their next stop. They gave us all kinds of tips on bargaining folks down in price. They were kind and average people, amazed by the spectacle of what they thought they'd learned from where they'd been. Dan advised us against stealing from the Indians and Arabs in Singapore: "You know what they'll do, don't you?" he deadpans. "They'll cut off the right hand. Y'see, they eat with their right and wipe with their left, so you cut off their right hand...and they starve to death."

An odiferous tour through Little India treated the couple to a delicious vegetarian lunch before spending approximately four more hours on foot. I was happy to have chosen a companion from a time before even bicycles as we followed the couple, eventually taking a break:

[We] went for a Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel, the origin of the froufily delicious cocktail and arguably the most famous hotel in the world (which learned from our guide book though I'd never heard of it before but then again I'm no rich jet-setter by any means, and grand hotels, I suppose, are of decreased importance to me when compared to the more immediately applicable thickness of the seat of my pants). Anyway it was a grand moment, the two of us sitting there on the lavish patio among the people who could afford everything that goes along with it. We drank to "Singapoverty", refreshed from the day we'd spent pounding the pavement in the polytopian metropolis.

Interestingly, what occurred next were the most expensive ten minutes of our lives, when the couple agreed to take a short ride in the rickshaw waiting outside the Raffles Hotel. Socrates had to hold me back from warning Quondam-Anne, or at least exhorting her to negotiate for a reasonable fare before embarking. At least the event was well documented.

As for the rest of the stay, Socrates and I will be occupied exploring parts of the island our couple didn't get to see and joining in the Chinese New Year Celebration, because in a matter of hours, the Hapless, however handsome, Accomplice will be coming down with an illness that will last for the remainder of the stay in Singapore, and in fact, the rest of Quondam-Anne's stay in Thailand. Don't worry: the couple sticks together and Quondam-Anne takes good care of him. I have yet to visit the first part of my stay in Thailand, so if you're just tuning in and it hasn't turned up, check back in a few minutes.

You can also read the Handsome Accomplice's version of events and then of course be sure to inspect the Singapore Photo Adventure.

24 January 2006

Here I Am in Thailand!


And even though the Singapore jaunt has been recorded already, this is the last stop for Socrates and me, and let me tell you, these two time travelers are tired birds. What would you say if I just posted some token photos and directed you, once again, toward a flickr Photo Album with plenty of commentary?

Well you don't get a choice in the matter! Enjoy!

21 January 2006

Vacation Begins

Today Socrates and I hang out at gate 32 of the international terminal of Chiang Kai Shek International Airport. If there's a surefire way to get into the gate area without a ticket, it's a time machine. Course, we had to land in a bathroom stall, which required some scrupulous planning and still ended up a little awkward.

We find Anna Horkey and Quondam-Anne waiting for an airplane. They are boarding a flight to Bangkok in about an hour. We’re sitting with our backs to them and overhearing them talking about computers and viruses. They're tired. The three and a half hour bus ride from ChiaYi to Taipei made them sick to their stomachs, though the seats were capacious.

"Well, there was the semester," says Quondam-Anne. "I suppose now would be as good a time as any to begin reflection on how that all went."

"I can feel my back muscles loosening up. They feel better than they have in weeks," asserts Anna.

On Thursday night the pair cleaned and cleaned and cleaned in the E6 classroom, beginning with the light fixtures, the filthiest thing I have ever seen in my life, and ending with the little tears they dropped on the ground after five hours, not even satisfied with the fruit of their labours. The window scrubbing left them only panes of smears. On top of that, thy mixed the floor cleanser incorrectly, leaving the nice redwood floor covered in a cloudy residue.

But they left. Against odds, they secured tickets from the bus station. (There were really only very few odds against, but they were afraid that they might be left out in the cold after what Molly’s father said to them upon exiting the Practice Hotel that morning: “It sure would be a shame if you couldn’t get bus tickets”. Shortly thereafter the pair swore that they'd make the flight in Taipei if it meant riding a scooter there. Of course it wouldn’t come to that.)

They passed the jubilant return ride to campus with a boisterous-if-jumbled rendition of Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing!” (a song with no words, actually) and hurried to pack. The trip was comfortable, if strange. The pair wondered what they'd have done if the other weren’t there. The bus that finally brought them to the airport dropped off around an obscure corner of the arrivals area, which, though somewhat comical, would have created endless confusion had they not had someone to laugh with. Funny how two together can ease so much. People just want someone else to go through things with.

I guess that's why I brought Socrates. Next we'll visit Bangkok.

07 January 2006

An Outing with the Muffins

Everyone enjoys a good field trip now and again, and Socrates and I are no exception. Today we join about three hundred kindergartners on their journey to a field of dry straw.

The first time around on this field trip, there was no intelligence to suggest our destination or our purpose. The accompanying English teachers were left to their own devices to figure out what what going on. In the meantime, unlimited free-time with all our Chinese-speaking cuddlebunnies. It turned out that we had been led there to make earth-ovens and cook vegetables like sweet potatoes and corn by wrapping them in foil, placing them in the ovens, and packing down the hot earth all over the parcels.

It also turned out that the Muffins did little or nothing to aid or even heed the activity for which they'd traveled 45 minutes in the bus. Most of them were too busy throwing handfuls of dry straw at each other and Socrates. He's happy enough now, but I know he's going to grump about trying to get that stuff out of his outfit later.

I don't think that anyone noticed there were two of me here, either, because it's a big field and I teach about 120 kindergartners between all the classes. I'm trying to avoid Quondam-Anne, though, because I think seeing me would be damaging to her already-fragile state of mind. She's approaching the zenith of culture shock, and though she's enjoying the company of the children, she's still a little confused about what everyone's doing in the field today. Not to mention what seeing us together would do to the children.

For photo coverage of this event, click on this link.