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.