Monday, October 20, 2014

Ten Side Effects of Living in Taiwan

Now that I’m back in the U.S., I’ve noticed some things about me that have changed due to my time away. Here’s a short list:

1.      I often need to be reminded to tip in restaurants.
2.      I feel a little surprised when shoe stores have my size.
3.      Over half my stories start, “When I was in Taiwan …”
4.      But I can’t start these stories any other way, because the fact I was in Taiwan is somehow essential to them.
5.      When I hear the word “foreigner” in any context, I somehow feel like the word is referring to me.
6.      I feel homesick for a place where I was never considered a local.
7.      These feelings of homesickness are often triggered by seeing a 7-11.
8.      But if I go into that 7-11, I will inevitably be disappointed by the poor tea selection.
9.      When talking to strangers, I find myself restructuring sentences to avoid difficult words, only to realize that, yes, other grad students do know the term lingua franca.
10.   I get ridiculously excited about things like colorful autumn leaves and frost.

Obviously, these are not the most important take-aways from my time in Taiwan, but they are real. So if you want to travel overseas, be warned: your opinion of 7-11 will never be the same!

Monday, July 7, 2014

On Religious Parades

Before I went to Taiwan, I always thought of idols in one of three ways. Either they were gods worshipped in the distant past, they were modern pop stars as in “American Idol” or they were things that Christians today put ahead of God, such as money or having a good reputation. But after moving to Asia I realized that idolatry, in the most literal sense of the word, is alive and thriving in many places.

One Sunday night at around 8:00 p.m., the street outside my house exploded. If I lived anywhere else, I would probably have thought there was a gunfight. But in Taiwan, I assumed that it was just firecrackers. The bangs were accompanied by loud, raucous music. It was so noisy that I found myself putting my hands over my ears to stop them from hurting.

Apparently that was the night of a religious festival, probably a local deity’s birthday. These festivals are usually celebrated with parades, and this one started right outside my apartment.

The parade featured people in elaborate costumes, which represent either deities or protective spirits, that dance while music is played. People also carry the statues of the deities, which normally rest in temples, through the streets. These statues rest in elaborate boxes carried on poles by teams of people, kind of like a sedan chair. Traditionally the carriers bounce the boxes to give the deities a more enjoyable ride.

This parade also had fireworks, not just firecrackers, as well as a truck that was playing Western music, such as “Trouble” by Taylor Swift. (I wish that were a joke.) As they were getting ready before it started, I also spotted a flat-bed truck with a pole and a young woman who looked like she was going to be dancing on it.

My first reaction was frustration and anger at the noise. The sound was almost causing me physical pain, and there was no way I could get anything done with that cacophony outside.

But then my conscience caught up with me, and I thought of God. It was as if the Holy Spirit said to me, “How do you think I feel?” I realized that this parade, which in my mind was nothing more than a nuisance that should be shut down with a noise ordinance, was actually much more. It was an expression of a false religion, an act of worship given to a god that cannot save. Moreover, in worshipping this idol, the people there were despising and ignoring their Creator, who I love dearly.

Acting on impulse, I went downstairs to get a closer look. That was when I saw the costumed people dancing and posing in the street. There was a police officer directing traffic around the parade. And I saw a crowd of young men walk by, carrying the box with the idol, my frustration at the noise began to fade. I wondered what was going through their minds, whether they really believed they were holding a god or whether they were just participating in a fun cultural activity. I wondered the same about all the people in the parade.

Taiwan is quite highly developed as a whole. It has great public transportation, some very impressive buildings, and goods from all over the world. Almost all the young people have smartphones, and they tend to act surprised when they learn I don’t have one. And yet the country is still in the grip of superstition and pagan religious practices.

I’m not usually one to complain about other cultures. I’m all for experiencing and learning about new kinds of food, music, clothing, art, etc. Finding out about other countries can make our lives much more interesting. I also think Chinese culture has a lot of values it can teach us in the West, such as the importance of caring for one’s parents.

But religion doesn’t fall into either of those categories. It isn’t a morally neutral thing you can add into your life, like trying a new food or buying some calligraphy to hang on your wall. It isn’t even a moral statement everyone can recognize intuitively, accept and act on.

No, religion is fundamentally a statement of the way the world works. And that means if any religion is true, anyone who rejects it is believing a lie. I think Christianity is true. (If I didn’t, I would not be a Christian.) And if I’m right, these people are not only wasting their time; they’re actively insulting the God of the universe by choosing to worship something else.

After a few minutes, I turned away from the parade because I was choking up. The sight of so many people so lost and confused broke my heart. It was humbling for me to realize how little I cared about my Taiwanese neighbors. At first I didn’t care what these people were doing, as long as they didn’t interrupt my quiet evening at home. 

But for those of us who love the Lord, idolatry is not just a nuisance. It is a sin against God and a tragedy for people. If we listen with the ears of Christ, the sounds of the parade are really a cry for help.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Dear Taiwan: A Love Letter

Dear Taiwan,

            When I first met you, I was like many graduates, young, excited, idealistic and nervous. Any blind date is frightening, and I had committed to spending two years with you. When I arrived, I had been traveling for almost 20 hours, and my mind was filled with a cloud of weariness almost as thick as the humid air.

As I traveled along your highways, I stared out the car window looking for something, anything, that would mark you as the exotic, interesting place I hoped for. At first, there was nothing. Then the driver pointed out Taipei 101, a strangely-shaped tower in the distance. But the first thrill of excitement to break through my exhaustion came with the sight of the Grand Hotel. Tall and majestic, its red and gold façade had all the elegance I had admired in your mainland sister, and at that moment, I knew that you had something to offer.

The years passed, and I became more and more familiar with the bustle of your streets, the grandeur of your mountains, the colors of your flowers, the flavors of your food and the welcoming smiles of your people. As friends introduced me to delight after delight, I realized with a thrill what a beautiful and interesting place you are.

You possess beautiful scenery: gorges, waterfalls and mountains, some of which meet the Pacific ocean in rocky beaches. Your forests are filled with flowers, animals and butterflies. And all of this is just a few miles from bustling cities where almost anything can be purchased from one of the convenience stores that sit on practically every block. I’ve always been more fond of the wilderness than of the city, but who could complain about a city that has a mountain range with several hiking trails in its center, as Taipei does?

And then there’s the food. You introduced me to fruits I had never tasted before – mango, guava, dragon fruit and pomelo to name a few. And even those I knew were sweeter. I often wondered whether the pineapple was fruit or candy, and your cherry tomatoes actually tasted like a fruit (which, biologically, I guess they are).

Then there are the many local delicacies I tried. Scallion pancakes fried and wrapped around eggs or other fillings, small dumplings filled with soup, noodles with sesame sauce and so many more than I could name. I loved your nearly infinite variety of teas– black, green, oolong and more mixed with milk or various kinds of fruit. Then you add tapioca, coconut jelly, fruit pieces or other things which I only know Chinese names for in the bottom of the cup. Now, we did have some disagreements over food, mostly when you misunderstood my home culture, but the hundreds of delicious meals you treated me to more than make up for the few bizarre ones.

Speaking of disagreements, I must admit that our first year together was a bit rocky. I’d never lived on my own, you see, certainly not while working full-time. And it did take a while for me to get used to you. But at those moments when I felt most homesick, when I most wanted to get on a plane and fly back to somewhere familiar, you would show me some unique aspect of your life that I hadn’t seen before. You would charm me with a building or a food I hadn’t yet tried, and I would remember that although I had left good things behind, the place I had come to was also good.

When that didn’t work, there were always people by my side, encouraging me and comforting me. I remember an elderly woman giving me a hug and saying, “If you miss your family, I will be your Taiwanese grandmother. So don’t be sad.” I remember friends sitting with me over long cups of coffee while I shared about my life. I remember adventures taken with individuals and groups up mountains, through city streets, to hole-in-the wall cafés, shops and flower festivals that I never could have found alone.

Taiwanese people were incredibly kind and willing to help. Once I dropped my wallet in a MRT (subway) station, and it was turned in to the information desk with all my money still inside. I lost count of the times strangers came up to me and asked if I was lost.

There are so many things I could say about you, Taiwan; so many things that you have taught me; so many ways you made my life with you convenient and comfortable. I have fallen deeply in love with you, Taiwan, so much so that it broke my heart to leave you. Our three years together have changed my life in ways I am only beginning to understand. Thank you, Taiwan. Though I have moved back to America, I will never forget you.

It would break my heart to say goodbye, so let me end with your own language: Taiwan, 再見 (zai jian). It literally means “see again,” and I sincerely hope I will.

                                                                                        Elizabeth Sunshine

Saturday, April 19, 2014

One Does Not Simply Walk Into Heaven

Yesterday morning I saw a news report about former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, which quoted him as saying, “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven.”

I think this is a pretty clear expression of most Americans’ thoughts about heaven. It’s not based on any particular religion (Bloomberg doesn’t even sound sure that God exists). But there’s a general sense that God is nice and will let people into heaven because they volunteered or donated money or did political work meant to help people or just were a nice person.

I wish it were that simple, but it’s not. One does not simply walk into heaven. To do that you would need to be perfect, and we aren’t. And if God simply overlooked the things we did wrong, it would violate His justice and make heaven less perfect in the process.

I can relate to the thought process that Bloomberg used. I thought more or less the same way when I was younger. At the time, I wasn’t really focused on getting to heaven. But I desperately wanted to know that God was pleased with me, and I thought that was something I can earn.

Do you think God is pleased with you? Maybe you’re certain that you’ve done enough good things to make God happy. Or maybe you’re thinking, “No, God isn’t pleased with me.” Maybe you’ve done something terrible in the past and you just can’t forget it. Or maybe you haven’t done anything really bad, but you know you’re not good enough. I fell into that last category.

I was always a “good girl.” I didn’t do drugs or steal or do anything that’s usually considered really bad. But I knew I didn’t measure up to what God wanted.

I sometimes argued with my brother or my parents. Occasionally I lied to teachers about whether I’d done my homework. I grew up going to church, so I knew God wanted me to be loving and friendly. But I was really shy, so I avoided my classmates instead.

These may seem like little things, but I felt terrible about them. They showed that inside, I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be. At church, I kept committing to follow God, and I kept falling short. I was convinced that God was disappointed in me because I was disappointed in myself. I also wasn’t sure I had really been forgiven because I knew that receiving God’s forgiveness should change my life, and my life wasn’t changing.

Finally, when I was 14, I went to a church camp. They told me the news I had heard so many times before: That Jesus had died for me and taken the punishment I deserved for my sins. He rose from the dead and now offered me forgiveness. I just had to receive it.

I prayed and told God that I couldn’t live a good life on my own. As good as I might have looked on the outside, I was really messed up inside. I asked Him to forgive and change me.

That was when I finally realized that God doesn’t save us because of good things we’ve done or because He knows we’ll do good things in the future. He saves us just because He loves us.

After I asked God to change me, He did. I began to want to pray and read the Bible. I became more patient and loving, and I gradually stopped being so shy. But the best thing is knowing that God is pleased with me. And I can be sure that when I die I can simply walk into heaven. But it’s not because I’ve earned it. It’s because Jesus earned it for me. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Measure of Success

Lately, my free evenings often end with me going to bed crushed by discouragement. I have so many plans and goals of things I want to get done and end up doing only a small fraction of them. Sometimes the problem is that I was lazy and chose to waste time, but more often the problem was basic math. Ten hours’ worth of work cannot be completed in three.  

When the numbers don’t add up, there’s really only one solution: set priorities. This is not something I’m good at. I want to do everything. How can I decide which of the many good things I can do is most important?

Fortunately, about 2,000 years ago Jesus answered my question. Well, actually, he answered some lawyer’s question, but you'll see the connection.

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:35-40)

Here we have a very clear statement of God’s priorities for our lives. It can all be summed up in one word: love. Loving God and loving others is more important than my work or my chores. It’s more important than my social life or my health. If I have a day when I get nothing done but love God and my neighbors well, that day will be a success in God’s eyes. And conversely, if I finish all my tasks at work for the next month, write fifty viral blog posts and a bestselling novel and develop the conditioning of an Olympic athlete but I don’t do it out of real love for God, then all those accomplishments are worthless.

My work and my writing are valuable, but only to the extent that they express my love for God, my coworkers and the people who read my work. And caring for my body has its place as a way to honor my maker and make sure I have the energy for my other loving actions. But I can’t let those things take away from what is most important.

These commands may be simple, but they are not easy to follow. Fortunately, God’s grace is there to cover the thousands of times we fail to live out these commands each day. He sees us, not as failures, but as His children clothed in the righteousness and perfect love of Christ. And focusing on living that love out sets us free from the burden of self-imposed expectations.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Lessons From Lanterns

            Last Friday was Valentine’s Day, but here in Taiwan it was also Lantern Festival. This holiday is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year.

Some places celebrate Lantern Festival by creating huge sculptures out of paper, cloth or thin plastic and placing lights inside, turning them into giant lanterns. I have seen these sculptures featuring animals (this year there are a lot of horses because it’s the year of the horse), flowers, buildings video game characters and more. Sometimes people will set up whole scenes depicting historical events or traditions.

Others celebrate with “sky lanterns,” which are shaped like light bulbs about the size of my torso. People write wishes on the lanterns and light fires in the bottom. Then they release the lanterns into the sky. A town outside of Taipei called Pingxi is especially known for its sky lanterns.

Last year I went to Pingxi on the day of the lantern festival. I arrived in the middle of the day, but people were already releasing sky lanterns. As I watched the lanterns rise and blow away, I thought they moved gracefully enough, but I didn’t see why they were such a big deal. They looked like large balloons some poor child had let go of, not particularly beautiful.

I met a few friends, and we stayed until after the sun set. Lanterns continued floating up into the air, but they no longer looked like balloons. Now they resembled iridescent jellyfish in the depths of the sea or colored stars rising into the night. The same things that had left me cold a few hours earlier had been transformed into something mystical and hypnotic.

By this time, a huge crowd had descended on Pingxi (or rather, ascended – Pingxi is on a mountain). They gathered in a field where a stage was set up. In between speeches and performances they invited people to step into the space at the center and release the lanterns at the same time. The beauty of each individual lantern was multiplied as they rose together.

I found myself thinking of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:14 – “You are the light of the world.” Sometimes, it feels like the world is covered in darkness – wars, terrorism, disease, natural disasters … The evil around us can feel as vast and threatening of a night sky on a new moon when the stars are hidden by clouds. But it’s those nights when any light – even a tiny lantern – appears the most beautiful. As much as I love bright, sunny days (both figuratively and literally), sunny weather is not the time you appreciate sky lanterns most. It is the dark times that truly show what we are made of and that reveal the light of Christ shining through us.

Yet in those dark times, a single lantern, however bright, can only do so much. When we rise up as a community, then we turn the night sky into a backdrop for a dance of light. It is when we rise together that the world can see the light isn’t a fluke, a mistake, or a trick their eyes are playing on them. Through us they will see Jesus, who also called Himself the light of the world and who is the one who makes us shine.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Myths About Work Part 5: Work Defines Our Relationship With God

This is the final post in my series on myths about work. If you’re interested, here are part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4. For this post, I’d like to broaden my focus a bit to include not only the work we are paid to do but also other things we feel we must accomplish. That includes things like housework, serving at church or volunteering. Many people buy into the myth that these actions define our relationship with God.

In the Babylonian myth that I’ve been comparing to the Christian story, the gods created people to do work for them. Since the work was assigned by the gods, we can infer that their attitude toward you would depend on how well you work. In Babylonian religious life, this worked out as sacrifices. People would give sacrifices as food to the gods. In return for these gifts, they would bless their worshipers (theoretically, at least).

Here in Taiwan, I often see people burning incense or paper money or leaving out food for gods, ghosts or their ancestors. But even in the religions that no longer require these kinds of sacrifices, one’s relationship to God (or the gods) is often dependent on obeying a set of commands or moral principles.

Even in churches, this myth is prevalent. I accepted it for much of my childhood. Sunday School lessons tended to focus on what God wanted us to do and examples of heroes to follow. Or at least, that’s how I understood it at the time. When I got into junior high school, the gospel message was proclaimed a bit more often, but it still took an awfully long time for me to get the point.

Throughout junior high school I felt incredibly guilty because I couldn’t bring myself to do what God required of me. Most notably, I knew I should reach out and share the gospel with people, but I was painfully shy and couldn’t work up the courage to do so. Finally, I gave up. I told God, “I can’t do this. If You want me to be a good person, You have to change me.”

Little did I know that that was exactly what God wanted. I admitted that I couldn’t earn His love, but I turned to Him in faith, believing that He could and would accept me anyway.

When we look at the Genesis creation story, God did ask Adam to tend and keep the garden He had made. But it was already a beautiful place filled with fruit trees. God showered Adam with blessings even before Adam had had a chance to do anything. In other words, the Biblical creation story starts with a free gift.

And although the Israelites and the Babylonians both performed sacrifices, their purposes were very different. The Babylonians sacrificed in return for favors to provide the gods with food. (Don’t want the immortals to starve to death.)

In contrast, the Israelite sacrifices were given either to atone for sin or to express gratitude. God was very clear that He didn’t need sacrifices. He didn’t even want them as much as He wanted His people to obey Him. But the real meaning of the sacrifices became clear thousands of years later. They were a picture of Jesus, who died on the cross to bring people forgiveness for their sins.

It is this gift, the sacrifice of Christ, that allows us to have a good relationship with God. Not sacrifices we give God. Not even our own obedience. Only a gift of grace.

The Biblical view of work is complex and multifaceted. We’ve seen how it is a good thing that reflects the image of God in us. But it is neither our purpose nor the thing that determines our value. We work, not primarily because God told us to, but because God works, and we were born to be like Him. God’s work is the foundation for our work. And it, not our own effort, is the foundation of our relationship with Him.