Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Haiku

In honor of Christmas, I'd like to present a set of haiku telling the story of the birth of Jesus from the perspective of all the major characters (and one inanimate object). Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!

Mary, I have news:
The Messiah is coming.
He’s in your belly.

Baby with no dad?
That was not covered in my
Biology class.

This is not my kid.
What’s that? He’s the Son of God?
OK, I’ll keep him.

Wow! My unborn son
Recognized your unborn son!
He must be psychic.

What’s that up there? Aaah!
Angel army in the sky!
Good, they come in peace.

Hey there, shepherd dudes.
Sheep are overrated. Go
See the Lamb of God.

Wise guys, look up here!
A great king is born tonight.
Hurry, don’t be late.

When you find this king,
Tell me so that I can kill–
I mean worship – him.

We have brought you gifts
To fill up his college fund
And make him smell good.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Myths About Work II: Work is Bad

During the last post in this series, I described an ancient Babylonian myth and pointed out that, although we may have shed its polytheistic trappings, it reflects false beliefs about work that are still prevalent today. Now I’d like to talk about the first myth I listed, which may be the most common.

The Babylonian legend suggests that they thought of work as a bad thing – after all, they believed their gods created people so they wouldn’t have to work. Similarly, many people today view work as a necessary evil. We complain about our jobs and look forward to vacations and, ultimately, retirement. We think of “living the good life” as lying around on a beach somewhere far away from the demands of the workplace. When people win the lottery, often the first thing they do is quit their jobs. And Christians take comfort in the idea that in heaven, we won’t need to work.

But is that what the Bible teaches? Although it doesn’t directly say whether people will work in heaven, the Bible does tell us a lot about the nature of work. And it begins right where the Babylonians did – at the very beginning.

The first place where the word “work” appears in the Bible is Genesis 2:2 “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” So the first person to do work was God, and the result of His work was a “very good” universe, meaning that work is not a bad thing.

Of course, the verse does say that God rested, indicating that work wasn’t the only thing that mattered to Him (more on that in the next post). But that doesn’t mean He gave up working as soon as someone else could do it. Jesus said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” (John 5:17) So clearly resting in the Bible does not equal retirement.

When God created people, He did expect us to work. “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” (Genesis 1:28) God’s statement is a blessing, but it’s also a job description. Any parent can tell you that “being fruitful and multiplying” is one of the hardest jobs anyone can be given. Filling, subduing and ruling the earth means developing its resources into something greater than what it was in its natural state. That includes farming, building cities and other forms of economic activity. So God began His relationship with people by telling them to work.

But unlike the Babylonian gods, the God of the Bible didn’t make people work because He didn’t want to. We work because we are created “in the image of God.” That means we are like God and do the things He does. Being made in God’s image separates us from the rest of creation and gives us unique dignity. So work is a sign of nobility, not of inferiority. Perhaps this is why God’s first assignment of work is described as a blessing.

But work doesn’t always feel like a blessing. Even though I love my job, there are still mornings when I’d rather pull my quilt over my head and sleep than get up and face a day of work. There are afternoons when I feel like if I look at one more page of text, my brain will turn to liquid and start dripping out of my ears. And I know some people have much less rewarding and interesting jobs than I do.

The Bible explains this, too. When Adam and Eve sinned, God cursed the ground, saying it would yield “thorns and thistles” and that Adam would produce food from it “by the sweat of [his] face” (Genesis 3:18-19). This is the point where work, which is good, becomes toil, which is bad. The pain associated with toil is real and impossible to ignore. But the rest of the Bible tells about God making all things new, putting right the things that sin messed up, including work.

In conclusion, “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Your current job isn’t bad (unless you’re a criminal or something); it was created by God and can be used to glorify Him. When we see our work as an act of worship and a way to better the world around us, we restore the goodness it was created to have and join God in rolling back the effects of the Fall.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Seeing Christmas Through Tragedy

I woke up yesterday looking forward to an exciting, fun, joyful day. It was the day of my company’s annual Christmas Rally here in Taipei. I was looking forward to greeting the audience as they came in, chatting with them and learning about them, and watching the show, which is usually spectacular.

As I waited for my mind to fully wake up, I wandered into the living room to see if any of my housemates were awake. Sure enough one was sitting on the couch. But the look of shocked concern on her face stopped me in my tracks. “Did you hear the news?”

“What news?”

“There was a school shooting in Connecticut.” The name of my home state drove all sleepiness from my mind as I felt the muscles in my chest clenching. Sitting down, I glanced at the TV report. I think I read the heading two or three times, spelling it out in my head to be sure it said “Newtown” and not “Newington.” With a modicum of relief I realized my family and friends were probably safe.

I numbly sat and watched the news report, but it wasn’t until several hours later that I felt the full effects of what happened. I flopped down on my bed and cried. The high number of deaths, the fact that it seems like no one had been wounded but survived, the fact that I could not think of any possible motive, the young age of the vast majority of the victims and the timing during a season that is a supposed to be a time of joy celebrated with family combined into a towering mass of evil that I just couldn’t take in.

Sprinkled in with my mourning was a recurring question about my own situation: “How will I be able to greet people cheerfully at the Christmas Rally?” It felt somehow inappropriate to be celebrating, wearing sparkly clothing and grinning at people coming to our show when so many people were mourning this senseless violence. But then I realized that I had it backwards. Events like this are exactly why Christmas is worth celebrating.

The reason for this is best explained by a story, not the one that began two thousand years ago in a stable in Bethlehem, but the one that began much earlier in a garden called Eden. The world, as God first formed it was a paradise – a glorious, unblemished landscape, delicate flowers in thousands of colors, a sky full of stars with no pollution to block them, all seen with eyes that were probably keener than our eyes today and received with hearts that celebrated them as signs of the deep love of our Creator. The relationships between people, the world and God were a smooth, harmonious dance. There was no sickness, no death, no evil, no hate. The Hebrew word for this is shalom. Usually translated as peace, it actually refers to far more than the English word “peace.” It means wholeness, abundance and flourishing, all of which were present in the world as it was first made.

Of course, that’s not how we experience the world now, and the reason for that is that people choose to turn away from God. We’ve all felt the effects of sin this weekend, far more deeply than anything I could conjure up with language. And the tragedy in Newtown is just one of millions of manifestations, big and small, of the way our world is broken. Conflict in families, war, prejudice, greed, disease, bullying, natural disasters, etc. all show how far from shalom this world is. The world is broken, and we broke it.

But now, we finally get to that Bethlehem stable. Christmas is a celebration of God stepping into this broken world and living among us. He experienced all kinds of evil during His life – including narrowly escaping from a mass killing of children. And in the end, He bore the worst consequences of our sin, taking the punishment for all breakers of shalom. But He rose from the dead, proving that the seemingly senseless killing of Jesus, the one truly innocent person, succeeded in putting shalom back together, starting with the hearts of His followers and spreading outward into the whole world.

Traditionally, the weeks leading up to Christmas are also a time when Christians wait for Jesus to return to Earth and restore shalom to the whole world. The mourning we share today is one of many reminders that this hasn’t happened yet – but the promise of Christmas is that it will. Even though God’s people had to wait for thousands of years, God did come to save them. His kingdom is established, and though things may look bad now, it will ultimately triumph.

I left for the Christmas rally yesterday with what I can only call joy. Not bubbling happiness or excitement, but a calm, steady delight in the knowledge that this night will pass. I felt the sorrow (and still do) but this vein of deep sadness actually strengthened the hope that I have a savior powerful enough to overcome even horrific evil like this. That is the only thing that makes any Christmas worth celebrating.

If any friends, family or survivors of the Sandy Hook shooting are reading this, I offer my sympathy and condolences. Please know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Myths About Work I: Beginning at the Beginning

According to ancient Babylonian legend, the world began with a god and a goddess who gave birth to several other gods. The younger gods became disruptive, and their parents soon decided to destroy them. Naturally, the younger deities didn't want to be destroyed, and a cosmic battle began. Eventually Marduk, one of the younger gods and the chief god of Babylon, defeated his enemies (including the first two deities) and was installed as king of the gods. This primeval conflict brought the forces of chaos under control, allowing Marduk and the other gods to form everything in existence.

Marduk and his fellow deities wanted to sit back and relax, enjoying their triumph. However, there was still work to be done. After all, immortals have to eat too. Marduk considered making the losers of the war do the work as punishment, but it didn’t seem fitting for divine beings to do menial tasks. So the gods created human beings to do this work and free up all the gods, winners and losers alike, to relax and enjoy their unending lives.

I imagine my readers looking disappointed that I'm addressing ancient myths, not the modern variety. But actually, I plan to do both. The Babylonian story says a great deal about how the Babylonians viewed work, and many people today see it the same way. For example, it suggests:

1. Work is bad. After all, it was beneath the dignity of gods, even the gods who lost the war, to work. People were created as the gods’ slaves to do things the things they shouldn’t have to do.

2. Work is the purpose of life. People often look at life’s purpose in terms of what they were created for.  According to the Babylonians, we were created to work.

3. Work defines our relationship to the gods. Since the Babylonian gods see people primarily as workers, it would be logical for humans’ relationship with them to depend on how well people fulfill their function.

4. Inferior people do inferior work. This story doesn’t make distinctions between classes of people, but if the gods pass unpleasant tasks on to inferior beings, there’s no reason for humans not to do the same. This could lead to oppression and slavery or to the view that people who do jobs we see as inferior are less valuable.

Do any of these attitudes look familiar? They should, because even though the story I drew them from has passed into obscurity, these ideas are alive and well.

Many people point out similarities between the Bible and Babylonian myths, but behind any superficial similarities stand two completely opposed worldviews. In fact, all of the myths about work that I just listed go directly against the Bible’s teaching. I hope that this will be the first of a series of posts that address each one of these myths, along with any others I think of. I don’t know how long it will take me, but I hope what I write will be helpful as you think about your own job and the role work plays in your life.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Today is one of my favorite almost-unknown holidays: Reformation Sunday. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, beginning the Protestant Reformation. Many churches celebrate this historic event on the last Sunday in October.

The church that I grew up in didn’t do much for Reformation Sunday, with one notable exception. Our organist and choir director Mr. Spicer is very conscious of all dates that had special significance for the church. He changes the music for seasons of the liturgical calendar like Advent and Lent and chooses songs to mark Pentecost, Ascension Sunday and Trinity Sunday. (I imagine some of my Christian friends are scratching their heads, surprised that such days even exist.)

When I was in high school, for Reformation Sunday Mr. Spicer would do two things. One is that he would have the choir sing an impressive, chant-like rendition of Psalm 46. The other is that we would sing Martin Luther’s most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

This was a powerful experience. I wish I could convey the sense of awe that accompanied Mr. Spicer’s version of this hymn. He pulled out all the stops (pun intended). To quote my parents, on verse 3, Mr. Spicer would open up the pipes on the organ and let the demons out. You could hear the chaos of “this world with devils filled” and had no choice but to cling to the melody as best you could. The whole arrangement did a great job of expressing the dangers and challenges that we face as followers of Christ, but it ended on a triumphant note that proclaimed our hope in the ultimate victory of God.

Even apart from the amazing accompaniment, this hymn still gives me great comfort when I’m feeling afraid or discouraged, especially if I think spiritual warfare is involved. It’s definitely one of my favorite hymns.

So without further ado here are the words to “A Mighty Fortress.”

A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood
of mortal ills prevaling.
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name,
from age to age the same,
and he must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers,
no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours,
thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill;
God's truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Don't Worry – It's Just the End of the World

One of the downsides of growing up a Christian is that I’m a bit too used to Jesus. I’ve read all the Gospels before, so I tend to skim over some of the interesting, profound and downright weird things Jesus says.

I ran into one of the last of those as I was preparing for a Bible study last week. Among other passages, we were looking at Luke 21:25-28.

“… And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Wait. What? Jesus was just talking about all kinds of horrible things happening. Earlier verses talked about wars, earthquakes, famines and plagues. Now even the planets and stars are moving out of their orbits. To me, the logical response to all of this would be to hide. But that’s not what Jesus says to do.

Well, He did warn the people in Judea to flee when they saw Jerusalem surrounded. But that was talking about the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. The second half of the passage is focused more on the Second Coming, also known as the end of the world.

So to summarize: when the city of Jerusalem is destroyed, we should run, but when the whole planet is destroyed, we should, “straighten up and raise [our] heads.” When we got to this part in my Bible study, the whole class started laughing. I don’t blame them. This is very counterintuitive. But it has to do with the bigger picture. When the whole world starts falling apart, it’s a sign that God is about to put it back together again. And when He does that, the world will be far better off than it was before.

But what does this mean for us today? I’ve heard people claim that the Second Coming is going to happen in the near future, but I’m not convinced. It could, but I really don’t know. However, I do know that when I watch the news, it tends to make me depressed. There’s so much death, destruction and corruption in the world right now. Sometimes it seems like things are really falling apart.

If the problems we see in the world are in fact a sign that the end of the world is near, we can face the future with confidence because Christ will return soon and make everything right. In fact, the horrible things that are happening are all a part of God’s plan.

But if the problems we see are just problems and not at all related to the end times, we can still face the future with confidence. If God can use even the destruction of the world for His glory and to bring about something new and better, how much more can He use the other problems we face, problems that are, well, not the end of the world. Obviously, as Christians we should do what we can to bring the world into better alignment with God’s will. But whether we succeed or not, God, who governs all of history, has a plan that will never fail. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

On Being a Racial Minority

I’m pretty much the opposite of what most Americans think of as a racial minority. I’m a white girl who grew up going to a mostly-white school in suburban Connecticut.

I was raised on the belief that racial discrimination was wrong, and I acted accordingly. Of course I saw that people looked different, but I tried to treat everyone the same, without making assumptions based on what they looked like. One of my closest friends in high school was Indian (that is, her parents were from India). I even had crushes on boys from at least four different races.

But as I tried to ignore racial differences, I also ignored the different experiences of people of different races. I condemned obvious instances of racism but missed a lot of the subtle prejudices in the society around me and possibly in my own heart. The first time I considered that I might be missing something was when an Asian American friend of mine in college kept mentioning race. He’d make comments about how he felt in large groups of Asians, compared to how he felt in large groups of white people. I began to wonder: could the fact that I grew up as a majority have blinded me? If my race were something that made me different, would I consider it more important?

That question was answered for me when I moved to Asia a year ago. Now I am a minority. And I notice it.

Last year, I had pretty bad culture shock. There were a lot of things involved with it: the language, different habits, uncertainty about how to act, confusion about how to get around, sheer exhaustion and so on. But one thing that really got on my nerves was the sense that people could take one look at me and know I was foreign. It was like I had a big neon sign saying “wai guo ren” (Chinese for “foreigner”) hanging above my head.

Most people weren’t mean about it. Sometimes they were quite friendly and came up to me to practice their English. Sometimes they complimented me on my Chinese (even if I didn’t deserve it). But sometimes when I walked into a store, they would hide or run around looking for an English-speaking coworker. Sometimes they shouted “HELLO HELLO HELLO” until I acknowledged them. Sometimes small children stared at me on the subway.

Is it the same as the experience of a minority in America? No, not at all. I think it’s probably better in some ways and worse in others. On the one hand, culture shock combines with the fact that I look different to make me feel even more like an outsider. On the other hand, I think it would be harder to feel like you stood out if you were in your home country at the time.

So do I understand what it’s like to be a racial minority? Not really. I know what it’s like for me, but each person’s background and personality will make their experience different. Do I understand it better than I did two years ago? Absolutely. Am I more understanding and empathetic to those who have this kind of experience? I hope so. At the very least, I now know that race does matter. It matters because it’s part of how people experience the world and consequently a part of who we are.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Glimpse of Autumn

Taiwan is beautiful during the fall. The weather is neither too hot nor too cold. I am comfortable outside wearing short, long, or medium-length sleeves. It doesn't rain all the time like it does in the winter time. Even the humidity either disappears or just isn't obvious because the temperature isn't so extreme.

And yet New England is also beautiful in the fall. I miss the leaves that change into such a wide variety of colors. I miss walking through rows of apple trees and trying to find the perfect apples to put in my bag. I miss the smell of earthy smell of freshly fallen leaves. I miss the taste of a freshly picked apple and the thick sweetness of apple cider.

This poem is an ode to autumn in New England.

A Glimpse of Autumn

A leaf of gold is set in silver wood
A ruby blossoms on a maple tree.
A moment – then the forest is ablaze
Its colors blend in autumn harmony

A cloud of cotton crowns a gust of wind
Which plucks up leaves that playfully take flight
They pirouette as trees all laugh with joy
My heart joins in and dances with delight

A silhouette against the azure sky
A flock of geese toward warmer weather roam
Like them, my soul has journeyed long and far
In memory to touch my distant home

Monday, October 1, 2012

Famous First Words

I love hearing stories about the beginnings of relationships. I especially like stories about how people met their spouses. Sometimes, they don't seem particularly special or romantic at the time. For example, a woman who used to work at my current company met her husband at an ESL Bible study. She was his teacher, and the first thing she ever said to him was, “You’re late!”

Stories like this just show how little we know about the future. So often we meet people who will have a huge effect on our lives, but we have no way of knowing it at the time.

But of course, relationships involving God are completely different. He knew everything that would happen in the history of the human race, which makes the first things He said to people especially interesting.

The first thing in the Bible that God said to a human is a blessing: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). There’s a lot that could be said about this verse, but I want to focus on the kind of relationship it suggests. When God created people, He wanted them to experience an abundant, fruitful, successful life, which would involve enjoying and taking care of everything in the world.

The next thing he said was, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food” (Genesis 1:29). Again, this is God blessing people, giving them an abundance of delicious food and allowing them to enjoy creation. Although the Bible does not mention this specifically, I’d like to point out that this includes chocolate – truly proof that God had our best interests at heart!

The creation account in Genesis 2 focuses more specifically on God’s creation of human beings, and the first recorded words in this account are very similar: “You may surely eat of every tree in the garden …” (Genesis 2:16). Yes, God goes on to give one exception to this sweeping statement, but the main point is still that Adam has an abundance of food – food he didn’t work to grow, because it was right there.

To me, this is a reminder of how central grace is in God’s relationship with us. We Christians tend to think of grace in terms of God’s forgiveness for sin. But any gift that we do not deserve or earn is also grace. Here, God gives grace by blessing people and showering them with gifts before the people have done anything at all.

So unlike the stories of human relationships, the story of God’s relationship with humanity is the same from beginning to end. God has always related to people on the basis of grace, giving generously long before people start serving Him. And God’s grace will continue to be the source of all our blessings even into eternity. In the words of John Newton, “’Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

Monday, September 24, 2012

But Christ Is Risen

When I was a child, I once told my grandmother that I was going to be a worrywart when I grew up. I probably didn’t know what that meant. I was just repeating what someone else had said to me. Nevertheless, I have surely lived up to that early aspiration.

I worry about a lot of things. I worry about whether I’m doing my work well. I worry about whether I’m eating healthy enough, exercising enough or saving enough money. I worry about my relationships with friends and about my performance in the English Bible study I teach. I worry about the things I hear on the news – political unrest, wars, a plunging economy and a skyrocketing national debt.

All this worry understandably can leave me exhausted and discouraged. That’s how I was feeling one evening last week when I watched a short video by John Stonestreet.

The video talked about Christians engaging in culture, something that I worry is not happening often enough or well enough. But it ended on a note of hope and provided me with some much-needed perspective on my problems.

“The story of the world [is] secure because of one thing that can’t be changed: Christ has risen.”

The world may look like it's going downhill, but Christ is risen. No matter who wins the upcoming election, Christ is king. No matter what happens to the economy, I serve a God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills and who provides for His children. No matter how much our culture degenerates, Christ has promised to return and make all things new. No matter how helpless I feel speaking to my Bible study students, I serve a God whose Word was powerful enough to create the universe, and it is still powerful enough to bring new life to even the most resistant heart. I can and should work hard at whatever I do, but when I have done my part, the results are in His hands. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Wings of the Dawn

Psalm 139: 9-10
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.

Wings of the Dawn
I've risen on the wings of dawn
To where the sunrise casts its rays.
I've settled on a distant shore
Where days are nights and nights are days.
I've wandered through these winding streets,
A twisting, multicolored maze,
Where subtle tones drop from each tongue,
Yet here I rest within Your gaze.

I wrote this while hiking this afternoon. The one thing I have to say is most of it is far more literal than it sounds. If you want the full explanation, check out my comment below.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Ten Things I Love About Taiwan (and Five I Don't) part 5

I have now been living in Taipei for one year. For the most part, I love it here, but as with any place, there are a few things I don’t like so much. So I plan to post a series about the best and worst things for a foreigner living here.  Each day I’ll cover two things I love and one I don’t so I can keep things balanced. They are grouped based on themes, not based on how strongly I feel about them.

Things I Like:
9. Awesome Foreigners
Expatriates are a really cool group of people. Although there aren’t a lot of foreigners in Taipei, we all tend to find each other because we tend to hang out at the same places, work at the same jobs and have many friends in common. After all, it’s easy to make friends with someone who speaks your native language and who shares the joys and frustrations of trying to find their way through the maze that is Taiwanese culture. But in many cases, our status as “Wai-guo-ren,” or foreigners, is almost the only thing we have in common.  This actually leads to many interesting conversations, especially about the places we come from. For example, I have learned more about South Africa in the past year than in all the previous years of my life combined. In Taiwan, I’ve met people from Canada, England, Holland, France, South Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Korea, Japan, New Zealand and probably a few other countries that are slipping my mind right now. I’m learning a lot about different cultures – and not just Taiwanese/Chinese culture.

Expatriates are also interesting because they tend to have a broader perspective and more travel experience than most other people. I haven’t visited many countries in Asia, so I’m always fascinated to hear stories about other people’s travels and to dream about all the places I’d like to visit. We live in such a big, colorful, fascinating, diverse world, and living in even one country outside your home can help you take in much more of it.

10. Awesome Locals
 Taiwanese people are incredibly friendly. I’m not just saying this because I’m used to cold, aloof New Englanders – everyone I mention this to agrees with me. I pretty regularly have people strike up conversations with me on busses or subways, at restaurants and in shops. In most cases, they speak to me in English, which could be caused by a desire to practice their English or an assumption that I don’t speak Chinese, but I prefer to think of it as their way of being hospitable. Once they find out where I’m from and how long I’ve been here, people are always eager to hear what I think of Taiwan (especially the food). They’ll ask if I miss home, give me tips about where to go and what to do, and in some cases offer to help me out in some way. Of course I’ve had a few bad experiences, but these were mostly cultural misunderstandings, and many of them arose from people being a bit too friendly.

The Taiwanese are very polite; they wait in line and apologize if they inconvenience you. I also feel very safe here. One time I dropped a small wallet that had a little cash and my transportation card in a metro station. I didn’t realize this for about ten minutes, but when I returned, someone had turned the wallet in to the information desk. My card and all my money were still there. Obviously, I don’t recommend leaving money lying around, but this experience does say something good about Taiwan as a whole. That’s why when the locals ask me what I like about Taiwan, I always respond “The food and the people.”

Things I Don’t
5. Not Being at Home
In spite of all the awesome people I meet in Taiwan, I can’t stop missing the awesome people I left behind. Once in a while, especially when I’m tired after a long day of work or other activities, I find myself thinking longingly of eating dinner with my family, playing games with my brother or staying up late playing cards, watching TV or having deep discussions with my college friends. I guess that’s an inevitable part of living away from home, and in a sense I’m glad of it. This lingering homesickness is proof that what I had back in America was good and valuable and that it is still a deep part of who I am. It would be very sad if I never looked back on the past, never missed my family, never wanted to return to where I came from. That’s the hardest part of living in Taiwan, and sometimes I think that if I could bring my loved ones here with me, I would be perfectly happy. But I’m realizing that leaving some things behind is an inevitable part of growing up, and that we need to keep and treasure the good things in our past while we move on into the intimidating but invigorating adventure that is our future.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ten Things I Love About Taiwan (And Five I Don't) part 4

I have now been living in Taipei for one year. For the most part, I love it here, but as with any place, there are a few things I don’t like so much. So I plan to post a series about the best and worst things for a foreigner living here.  Each day I’ll cover two things I love and one I don’t so I can keep things balanced. They are grouped based on themes, not based on how strongly I feel about them.

 Things I like:

7.  Adventures around every corner
                This one is kind of a general term, but I’ll try to explain what I mean. I’m a very adventurous person, so one of the things I love about being in another culture is the fact that things are so different. I already wrote about Taiwanese food, but even if it wasn’t so good, I’d still be trying just about everything. I’m proud of being willing to taste almost anything offered to me. I figure if it’s good, I’ve had a fun experience, and if it’s gross, I get a good story out of it.
                But more generally, I enjoy the strange things I see walking down the street. I like looking at the little carts that drive around selling snacks. I live near a fashion design school, so the students’ clothing is often quite interesting. The birds, trees and flowers are different from the ones at home, so to me they seem especially beautiful and exotic. There are some really beautiful old buildings around, too (but most of them are Buddhist temples, which makes me a little sad). Every time I take off for a place I haven’t seen before, I get a thrill because I know a new experience is just around the corner.

8. Night markets
                One type of adventure I am particularly fond of is walking through Taiwan’s night markets. They tend to be insanely crowded, so I like them best in small doses, but they are certainly an interesting cultural experience. I tend to think of them as a college student’s dream come true: very cheap food and clothing.
                Many night markets exist in streets with shops that are always open and at night wheel out racks into the street to compete with the stands that line the road only after dark. Vendors wheel carts in or lay down blankets in the middle of the street offering jewelry, shoes, skirts, hats, souvenirs and tee-shirts, sometimes with hilariously bad English (or “Chinglish”). Periodically, many of these booths pack up their wares and run into a dark alley where they hide for a few minutes. This is because they don’t have licenses and they have received word that the police are coming to do a raid. But within five or ten minutes, the illegal booths are back and continuing their business. Of course, there are some legal businesses that remain open constantly. The streets are usually packed with people as lights shine in many colors and pop music in Chinese, Korean or English blares from the stores’ speakers. (If you stand in just the right place, you may end up listening to two songs at once, which can be quite a weird experience.)
                I already wrote about Taiwanese food, but night market food definitely deserves a mention. You’ll see carts, stands and shops selling baked, boiled or fried buns stuffed with meat or vegetables; wraps with a variety of meat; vegetables and ground peanuts; oyster omelets held together with a sticky batter; shaved ice topped with fresh fruit, nuts, sweetened beans of various kinds or various flavors of jelly and tapioca balls; freshly cut fruit, including cherry tomatoes stuffed with dried figs; and drink stands selling tea mixed with milk or fruit juice as well as fruit smoothies made of freshly cut fruit put in a blender with milk and/or ice. This would be a mouth-watering combination of smells if it weren’t for the distinctive and ubiquitous scent of stinky tofu, a well-named type of fermented tofu served boiled or fried with pickled vegetables.  You can easily get dinner, a drink and a dessert at a night market for much less than $10, and it’s a great way to remind yourself of the fun side of living in a different culture.

Things I don’t
4. Guessing Games
                The other side of living in another country, though, is the sheer amount of things you don’t know. My reading ability in Chinese has improved a lot in the past year, but it doesn’t mean I can read every sign I see, so when I need to buy something specific, like baking ingredients, I often spend a significant amount of time wandering through the store before I give up and ask someone. Then they usually take me to a shelf I already looked at and point to something I missed the first time I went through. The other challenge is figuring out what brand to buy, since I’m not familiar with all of them and the ones I do know tend to be more expensive.  I usually go with the least expensive option, but sometimes, one brand will have two types of the product that cost the same amount. For example, today I bought some shampoo. I chose a brand that was on sale and that had two kinds: one with an orange label and one with a green label. I knew they were both shampoo, but I had no idea what the difference was. So I picked the orange label at random and decided to just see how it works.
                Language barriers aside, my other least favorite guessing game is trying to figure out the toilets. They have two kinds of toilets here: Western-style ones and squat toilets. The squat toilets are made of porcelain, and they do flush, but there’s nothing to sit on. I can use them, but I prefer not to. Many public places will have both kinds of toilets, and sometimes they are labeled, but often they are not. In that case, I just have to guess which one to go into. I have learned that stalls with doors that start well above the ground are always Western-style, for obvious reasons, but doors that almost touch the ground can go either way. When I went back to the States on vacation, I still remember the rush of excitement I got from walking into the airport restroom and realizing I didn’t have to guess what kind of toilet I’d go into!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ten Things I Love About Taiwan (and Five I Don't) part 3

I have now been living in Taipei for one year. For the most part, I love it here, but as with any place, there are a few things I don’t like so much. So I plan to post a series about the best and worst things for a foreigner living here.  Each day I’ll cover two things I love and one I don’t so I can keep things balanced. They are grouped based on themes, not based on how strongly I feel about them.

Things I like:
5.  7-11
                I hear the question marks popping into existence above my American readers’ heads. “What?” they say, “We have 7-11’s in the States, too. And they’re nothing special! Did Elizabeth put this in the wrong post?” Meanwhile, my readers in Taiwan are saying, “Yes, of course.”
                Yes, we have 7-11’s in the States. No, they are nothing like 7-11’s in Taiwan. In fact, if I owned a Taiwanese 7-11, I would be embarrassed by the pathetic excuses for convenience stores in America. I would probably go on a rant about how they are a disgrace to the noble name of 7-11, or something.
                But I’m not going to do that now. Instead, I’m going to talk about how wonderful Taiwanese 7-11’s are. They have walls covered with interesting drinks (fruit juice, tea, flavored milk, soymilk in different flavors, etc.) They have food including sandwiches, noodles, rice wraps, fruit and fresh salads, as well as chips and other junk food. You can also buy things including (but not limited to) soap, washcloths, umbrellas, cat food and disposable underwear. (Ok, that last one is a bit weird, but someone must use it, or they wouldn’t sell it.) My cell phone is on a plan where I add money to the sim card periodically, and both the card and the ways to add money come from 7-11. I’ve also booked train tickets and seen friends get tickets for concerts there. And if you don’t have a mailing address, you can ask FedEx to send your package to 7-11 so you can pick it up.  And based on my observations, at any point in Taipei, there is at least one 7-11 within two blocks of you. Actually, there will usually be one closer. In fact, There are now four within a 10-minute walk from my house. And one of my coworkers apparently defines a small town as one where you have to drive to 7-11, rather than having one within walking distance.

6.  Convenient Transportation
                Taipei has an amazing public transportation system. I have a subway stop just outside of my apartment that will send me to the center of town in about 20 minutes. The subways here are some of the cleanest in the world, or so I’ve heard. This is because they are very strict in enforcing rules against eating, drinking or even chewing gum on the bus. If you break these rules, people will take pictures of you with their cellphones and report you to authorities. The subways are very convenient and reliable, and they go to most of the popular destinations in the city. And they announce stops in four languages: Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka (another Chinese dialect) and English.
                Taipei also has an extensive bus system. The busses go all over, and it’s a flat rate of US$0.50, even for the 45-minute ride to my church. Some of the bus stops have neon signs that will display how long it will be until the next bus. It’s nice knowing how long you’ll have to wait. If it will be a long time, you can go to 7-11 and buy a drink!

Things I Don’t:
3. Comments about my appearance
                We Americans have a reputation for being blunt. We’re very straightforward about most things, like asking for help and making suggestions. In contrast, Asians tend to be much more indirect about those things, dropping hints which we Americans generally can’t pick up on. But there are a few areas in which this is reversed. Here, the charging rhino of American bluntness becomes a timid mouse in comparison to the Taiwanese approach. And one of these is comments on people’s appearance.
                In Taiwan, it appears that the rule of etiquette is “if you can see it, you can talk about it.” This means that people have no qualms on going up to you and pointing out that you’re overweight, or that you have a lot of pimples, or that your hair is going gray. In some cases, people have come up to me and said, “You should stay out of the sun, and don’t eat too much oily food.” It took me a minute to realize they referring to my pimples. (I have a lot of pimples here, which I think is caused by pollution.) When describing people’s appearance, people have often referred to mutual acquaintances as “the fat girl (or boy, but in my experience it’s mostly been girls).” Part of the reason for this is that the usual way Americans describe people isn’t available here. We usually talk about hair color and texture, but in Asia, saying “the girl with the straight, black hair” doesn’t get you very far. But even when I understand it, it still shocks me when I hear it.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Ten Things I Love About Taiwan (and Five I Don't) part 2

I have now been living in Taipei for one year. For the most part, I love it here, but as with any place, there are a few things I don’t like so much. So I plan to post a series about the best and worst things for a foreigner living here.  Each day I’ll cover two things I love and one I don’t so I can keep things balanced. They are grouped based on themes, not based on how strongly I feel about them.

Things I like:

3. Beautiful Scenery
                I’ve always loved mountains, and Taiwan has more than its fair share of them, especially for such a small island. Over Chinese New Year last year, I went to Chia’yi, County in central Taiwan. I’ll never forget standing on top of the high mountains surrounded by tea bushes while what looked like a sea of clouds stretched out under my feet. Then there’s Hualien, a city surrounded by mountains on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. A few weeks ago, I went swimming on a beach there where the mountains spread right up to the edge of the sea. Almost anywhere you go in Taiwan is incredibly beautiful, especially once you get away from Taipei.

4. Easily available hiking trails
                About a fifteen-minute walk from my house, a small street, about the width of a driveway, winds up a hill and is hidden by the trees. If you walk up this street, you soon come to a hiking trail that runs along the mountain side. It’s a fairly steep trek up the mountain, but when you get to the top the path intersects a beautiful trail that runs in both directions. To the right, it takes you toward Miramar, a famous mall that is known for its large ferris wheel. The path to the left winds toward the Grand Hotel, a large, beautiful building with classical Chinese-style architecture. If you continue past the hotel, it turns and you can go down near Shilin Night Market (which I’ll discuss in a later post). No matter which way you turn, you can get amazing views of Taipei City, most of which are dominated by the distinctive shape of the Taipei 101 building. I tend to think of Taipei 101as the Eiffel Tower of Taipei. If you look in the right direction, you can see it from almost anywhere in the city, and in many people’s minds it is a symbol of Taipei.
                But even if I didn’t live so close to this trail, I could still get to a hiking trail from most parts of Taipei. This is because Taipei is in a valley surrounded by mountains. While living here, I’ve learned that going hiking is one of the best things I can do for my mental health, both because it is exercise and because it lets me be out in nature. The wide variety of tree, flowers and butterflies I always see on the trail remind me of how unique and wonderful my experience here is.

Things I don’t:
2. Acid rain
                As much as I like hiking, I don’t do it if it’s raining outside. Taiwanese people seem a bit paranoid about rain, and they claim it’s because the rain here contains acid that will make your hair fall out. I don’t know if that is true, but I try to keep my head dry as much as possible. Why take unnecessary risks?
                Actually, the acid rain thing is part of a larger problem of pollution. The pollution in Taipei is nowhere near as bad as in certain other Asian cities I’ve lived in. But that’s not saying much – the other city had days where I could barely see buildings 30 feet in front of me because there were so many gray particles floating in the air. As I said, Taipei isn’t that bad. But on its worst days, that view of Taipei 101 I was talking about gets mostly blocked by smog. Some of my foreign friends have gotten nasty respiratory infections, which we think were caused by the pollution.  For what it’s worth, I’ve gathered that the pollution isn’t from Taiwan itself; it floats over from mainland China. But no matter where it comes from, it’s a downside to living here.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Ten Things I Love About Taiwan (and Five I Don't) part 1

I have now been living in Taipei for one year. For the most part, I love it here, but as with any place, there are a few things I don’t like so much. So I plan to post a series about the best and worst things for a foreigner living here.  Each day I’ll cover two things I love and one I don’t so I can keep things balanced. They are grouped based on themes, not based on how strongly I feel about them.

Things I Like:

1. Delicious food
                One afternoon this week, I stopped at one of the many drink stands that line the street near my home to get a papaya smoothie.  My Caucasian face and heavily accented Chinese immediately revealed to the woman who was running the stand that I was a foreigner. She asked me how long I’d been in Taiwan, and whether I liked it. When I assured her that I really like it here, she immediately pointed out Taiwan’s greatest point of pride – “There are lots of good things to eat here!”
                The locals are always talking about how good the food is, and with good reason. It would take a long time to describe all the food, so I'll just mention some highlights. Some of my favorite dishes include: noodles with sesame sauce; flaky scallion pancakes that are often served wrapped around eggs or other fillings; dumplings of all kinds (They come boiled, fried or steamed, with a wide variety of meats and vegetables inside. Some will even have sweet fillings and become dessert. And still others are made with dough that has risen, so they look more like stuffed buns); dou gan (tofu with a denser texture that is often served as an appetizer with soy sauce; and danbing, a breakfast food consisting of thin pancakes that are fried and filled with egg and other toppings of your choice. There are also a lot of foods from different countries here. Within a 10-minute walk of my house there are Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Italian, American and Vietnamese restaurants. They don’t always get Western food exactly right (I’ve seen seafood kimchi spaghetti and pizza with corn, peas, mushrooms and pineapple), but you can always find something good to eat.

2. Tropical fruit
This could fall under the category of food, but it’s so amazing that it deserves its own point. I’m from New England, so I had never eaten a lot of the fruits we get here. Fresh mangoes are one of my favorites, as is something called a Buddha head fruit. Buddha head fruits are light green with lumps. When you break them open there is a creamy white pulp with large black seeds. You don’t eat the seeds or the skin, but the pulp is tasty. I’ve also come to love guavas, which are round and green on the outside and either white or magenta on the inside. They have a mild but very nice flavor. Another common fruit here is called wax apples. They’re red on the outside and white on the inside and shaped like rounded triangles. They have a texture similar to watermelon, but they’re a bit more sour.
Fruits we get at home are also better here. Bananas are really cheap and very good. But my favorite Taiwanese fruit is pineapple. They have the bright yellow pineapples we get in the U.S., but there is another kind that is paler yellow and amazingly sweet. Once I was eating it for breakfast and started feeling guilty about having desert so early in the morning!

Things I don't:
1. Getting hit by a pillow when I walk outside
                This was how a friend of mine described stepping outside in the summer, and it’s very accurate. During July and August, it stays at about 80 degrees F (40 degrees C), but it’s like that EVERY DAY with what must be almost 100% humidity. I usually need two showers each day in the summer, and when I get out of the shower, I usually don’t feel like I’ve completely dry off. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Aim of Freedom

I recently finished reading Defending the Free Market by Father Robert Sirico, a man whom I have greatly admired since two years ago, when I did an internship at the Acton Institute, a think tank he founded. Father Sirico’s penetrating insight on a wide variety of topics delivered in a clear, courageous yet friendly and often funny manner have made him one of my favorite speakers.  As the title suggests, his book deals mostly with economic issues. However, his final chapter provides an explanation of the theological basis for his ideas. One comment that I found particularly intriguing was as follows:

“[F]reedom, despite the natural human yearning for it, is not a goal or virtue in itself. We have freedom for something. … Ultimately, the aim of freedom must be the truth, and the Truth. What else would be worthy of filling the void?”

We live in a culture that exalts freedom as almost the greatest good that exists. This seems to be one of the only things liberals and conservatives agree on. Granted, they focus on different kinds of freedom – conservatives tend to emphasize religious and economic freedom, while liberals speak more about freedom from oppression in various forms. But both groups share a longing for liberty.

But what is the point of being free? One might reply: to be able to make choices and perform actions that seem best to us. But is that always a good thing? What if the choices that seem best to us lead us to hurt others? What if they lead us to hurt ourselves? Our free decisions are truly good only if they enable us to pursue a goal that is truly good. That goal, then is the aim of freedom.

Sirico posits that this ultimate goal is “the truth, and the Truth.” The truth is an understanding of the world as it really is. It is necessary if we are to make the best possible choices, choices that bring real benefits in the real world. And if we pursue truth, we will find the Truth in the person of Jesus Christ.

This is where much of American culture has gone wrong. We praise freedom, but we scoff at truth, calling it bigoted, irrelevant or impossible to find. We treasure freedom and fight to the death to protect it, but we toss its goal aside and trample it underfoot.

Freedom is a good and beautiful thing, and we must do all we can to defend it. But at the same time, we must encourage each other to find the truth, the only thing that enables us to make free choices that are truly good. Only when we seek the truth will our freedom become complete, because we will receive the full, satisfying life that all free creatures strive for.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Culture and Movies

 One of the interesting things about cultures is that they affect the things you notice in everyday life and in stories. For example, last week I watched the movie Soul Surfer with a group of people here in Taipei. The movie tells the story of Bethany Hamilton, a surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack.

As an American, I looked at the movie as Bethany’s story. I was inspired by her courage and determination to pursue her passion, surfing, in spite of the huge obstacle she faced. I was even more inspired when she realized that success as a surfer was only a small part of what life is about. She came to see loving people as more important than winning competitions and became a much more generous, caring person.

My local friends, though, had a different perspective. Certainly they approved of Bethany’s persistence. But they were equally impressed, if not more so, with her family. They pointed out how supportive Bethany’s parents and brothers were and how they encouraged her in her hard times. And once they said this, I realized that it was true.

Movies, books and spoken stories are a product of culture, but they are also a way of expressing truth. Often, there is more truth buried in the story than any one person will notice. This is why people have book clubs and why people like to watch movies in groups. But when the people gathered come from many cultures, the experience becomes even richer.