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.