[Photo Gallery:] Our First Chinese New Year’s Dinner

Chinese New Year, 05-06. We were invited to Charles and Angel’s family dinner, with their grandparents and brother.

You can read about it here:

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First Impressions

We left the airport in Taipei around 7am. It was a foggy/smoggy morning. One of the first things we noticed was the population density. One of our sources describes Taiwan as the 2nd most densely populated country on earth. The streets and sidewalks are packed with cars, trucks, and motor-scooters, while every city block is packed to capacity with various businesses. Virtually impenetrable rows of parked scooters line the sidewalks – parking space is precious. The smallest buildings are 5 stories, and most are much higher. It seems every block shoves as much neon and otherwise lighted advertising Mingdaw (“ming-dao”) calls all this the “suburbs.” We have yet to see an actual house. The undeveloped hills outside the city were thick, solid green, like a jungle.

For those of you who have seen the 1980’s movie Gung-ho, about the Japanese company that takes over a Michigan auto plant and tries to make the Americans work like Japanese… that company dedication stuff is for real. One of the first things we saw driving away from the airport during the start of the business day was a Japanese car dealership with all their employees lined up facing the street behind the big display windows, bowing repeatedly in unison to the public. No yelling and screaming or ribbons of shame though.

We arrived on one of the days in the lunar calendar when people — especially merchants — offer meals, incense, and spirit-money to their ancestors. Little stands of nicely set meals with a handful of burning incense sticks dotted the sidewalks everywhere, along with special buckets for burning piles of spirit money.

Traffic here has been likened to river water flowing around rocks and trees. For every car or truck there must be 20 motor-scooters; all the road-space not used by cars is filled in with scooters. At red lights all the scooters weave up to the front and surround the first few cars before they take off in a pack race-like on the green light. A lot of people wear surgical-type masks if they are driving scooters or working outside (like in the SARS pictures). It’s also apparently a courtesy to wear one if you’re sick when out in public. They come in lots of different styles, too (including designer knockoffs from Burberry, Yves St. Laurent and others) – kind of like a clothing accessory.

Like the ice-cream trucks in North America, certain trucks here drive around with that kind of music, too, (Beethoven’s Fur Elise today) only they carry garbage, not ice cream. Also, the garbage truck music is quite a bit louder than the ice cream truck music – it’s to let people in their apartments know that it is time to bring down the trash.

Two competing schools down the street are called “Chocolate America Style School” and “Brown Sugar.” Our Taiwanese boss wanted to know if their elementary school was trying to make a reference to the Rolling Stones.

We’ve already frightened some little kids and made them cry. Three mothers and their children play in the downstairs reading room in our apartment building every morning, and we have to walk through to get to the street. We walked up and introduced ourselves the first day, and one of the little girls started wailing and wouldn’t stop ’til we left. The mothers got some good laughs out of our mangled Mandarin greeting attempt, though.

We’re here and online!

Hello friends and family! Sorry we’ve taken so long to post – we were waiting for our computers to arrive.

It’s been busy so far. We began working the day we got off the plane, getting the school ready for the first students, and haven’t had much time to go exploring yet – but there sure is a lot to explore! Last night we did an open house presentation for the parents of prospective students. The school contains a downstairs reception area and two upstairs classrooms, right across the street from a big park where people do everything from ballroom dancing lessongs to karaoke to tai-chi. It seems like the ballroom dancing lessons go on all day long, as we’ve seen people dancing at 9 am, noon, and 9 pm. Perhaps we’ll try to join them sometime and see if we can learn to dance… our permanent apartment (which we should move into sometime in the next few weeks) is two minutes away from both the school and the park – very, very convenient. We’ve also seen people taking a mid-afternoon nap on the cement benches in the park.

This weekend we’ll take a break and run around the city, Monday we start teaching, and the week after next is Chinese New Years. That means we’ll have a ton of pictures and hopefully some video to post really soon.

Leaving for Taiwan

We were intending to settle in Surrey, BC for the year to finish up that last year of grad school. There’s plenty of opportunity to study Chinese culture and language in greater Vancouver, and it was relatively close to the university. We planned to work part-time while we finished our studies and continued preparing for language school in Tianjin, China in February 2007. We’re still doing all that, except we’ll be in Taiwan instead of Vancouver.

When we committed to an extra year of full time graduate study we never dreamed that we’d get to complete it in Asia! We are overwhelmed with the ways in which we’ve been blessed. Taiwan may not be the Mainland, but it’s about as close as you can get.

Soon after arriving in Surrey Joel applied for a Teaching Assistant position at his old high school, Pacific Academy. P.A. came back with an offer for both of us to work as elementary school English teachers in a satellite school P.A. is opening in Taipei, Taiwan this January. We hadn’t even unpacked our bags yet from our sojourn in the Untied States, but after prayers, interviews, more prayers, and more interviews, we accepted.

The upsides are numerous. Aside from the cultural exposure, our total costs for the year will consume less than one of our two salaries; we’ll be able to save much more than we could have in Surrey. Our employers are accommodating our schooling requirements, flying us back for our June session in California and providing us with computers and high speed internet to do our distance learning in Taiwan. In the summer we’ll return to BC with some of our Taiwanese students to teach in P.A.’s international student summer program and take about three weeks of vacation with family before returning to finish out the year in Taiwan.

There are some downsides, too. Having much less time than we anticipated with family and the SBCC is the biggest – we leave January 4 and we just got here at the end of November! That, and balancing full time English-speaking jobs with 9 credits each of grad work per semester leaves little time for formal language study and running wild in the streets (two of our favourite overseas activities). We’ll be diving into the local culture less than we have in past overseas experiences.

We leave for California January 4, and Taipei, Taiwan on January 13. Our contract ends in mid-January, 2007.

It’s official – we’re delayed one year

We finally made some decisions. Here they are:

– We have moved our leaving-for-China target date from February 2006 to February 2007, because we’ll need an extra year of school.

– We’ve applied to a school in Southern California. It will take us year to complete the remaining Intercultural Studies and International Development courses. We’re actually pretty excited about getting into their particular program for a lot of reasons – one being that for much of their offerings they use a “block” model of graduate education rather than the standard 3-credit lecture format. They’ve done this for 5 years and love it.

– We’re leaving Baton Rouge, Louisiana for Surrey, British Columbia, Canada on November 17. It’s about 45 hours of driving time, but we’re hoping to drop in on some conveniently-located friends in Colorado and Montana. We’ve gotta get there in time for Julia’s starring role in Fiddler on the Roof!

Perspective Shift…

Even though we aren’t currently at the shelter, I wanted to make sure that I posted about one of the biggest lessons that I have learned from the experience of working there and developing friendships with the guests. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, as we were driving through the South and visiting different organizations, there were a few days that I would be so frustrated at our current stage in life. Currently, we have no job, no home (though we have had many gracious hosts), and the future of our plans is somewhat uncertain. We have lots of plans and ideas, a few people to share them with, and nothing scheduled beyond October. In all of this, we are so well taken care of and God has provided for us in so many ways, but on some days, I would get a bit frustrated at our migratory stage and long to be settled – to belong somewhere again.

It didn’t take much time down at the shelter for my perspective on our current state to be radically shifted. My friends there have lost everything (jobs, homes, pets, independence, and so many other things), many aren’t certain where all of their family members are, and it will be a very long time before most of them are truly “settled” again. Our little “transition stage” pales in comparison. Several of the older ladies in particular were a great example of faith in the midst of trial. They often shared about how their faith in God was the only thing that was carrying them through the uncertainty, saying “I lost everything in that hurricane, but God is still with me. I know that if I’m going to make it through this hard time, He’s going to be the one that carries me through it. When it comes down to it, He’s the only one I can trust in.” They also encouraged me about my plans to serve God and said, “He will provide a way for you…just trust in Him.”

I am so saddened by this disaster, by the way people’s lives have been uprooted and rearranged and by the personal tragedy that so many are walking through right now. But I am also very thankful that God brought us to Baton Rouge during this time. The opportunity to help was amazing, but even more amazing were the lessons I learned from my friends. Three of the ladies in the picture have left the shelter and are now staying with family in Mississippi. It’s not likely that I will ever see them again, but I know that I will never forget them and the way that they shared their faith with me even in the midst of their many struggles.

Now we are back on the road, going back to West Texas for a few days, but my attitude toward our migratory stage has changed for the better. I hope that in the midst of these small trials, I can develop the kind of faith that withstands the much larger storms…the kind of faith thatmany of my friends at the shelter have shared with me over the last two weeks.

In a Baton Rouge shelter after Katrina

I have no deep reflective thoughts yet composed regarding our experience with this, so I’ll just pass along these: “Shouldn’t’ve named it after a black woman. She’ll just come through and tear everything up!” So said two black men at our breakfast table the morning of the day we turned the Baton Rouge Church of Christ’s Christian Student Center in a hurricane relief shelter.

There’s about 50 people from New Orleans (including four UNO students from China) living here now. Things are going amazingly smooth and the refugees are great, though in shock. We’ve already spent many hours working alongside some of them, all of today and yesterday. No one wants to talk about who and what they left behind. The ones we have talked to admit being in denial, saying that if they start thinking or talking about what’s happened they’ll pretty much fall apart. One woman who last heard that her fiancee was on a roof volunteers for all the work she can get just to stay busy and distracted. Others have seen footage of their neighbourhoods – now underwater – on TV. We don’t ask after their experiences beyond generalities, but provide opportunities for them to talk.

There’s several whole families here. People have lost their homes, businesses, jobs, and are missing family members. Most don’t know if they’ve lost anyone or not – though everyone seems sure they’ve lost their property and it seems everyone is missing somebody. No one knows how long they’ll be here… a month? 6 months? These are the people we’re trying to serve and help cobble together a giant home for a giant family.

Jessica and I were planning to join a Chinese student retreat this weekend but the camp is also now a shelter, so that’s off. We made it into Baton Rouge from Huntsville, Alabama at 5am Monday, about two hours before some fences were blown down and roof tiles ripped off. But the real impact of Hurricane Katrina on this city is felt now. Major intersections are still without lights and uncounted numbers of refugees from New Orleans and the surrounding areas have drastically swelled the population of Baton Rouge (some estimates say it’s doubled). This makes traffic is unbelievable. People have nowhere to go. Churches and community buildings are becoming shelters. The city is swollen with a huge extra population of desperate, worn out people. Rumours of looting and rioting come out of downtown. The church van was stolen and some property broken into. Some gas stations are out of gas – the police coordinate the line-ups. You can literally walk into Walmart, strike up a conversation with a few strangers, and find people who came from New Orleans and have nowhere to go. But the facilities at the South Baton Rouge Church of Christ can only hold so many, though they are considering some more-creative options to expand their capacity.

Had a previously scheduled visit with some LSU students tonight – they just happened to be covering Luke 4.37-49
46″So why do you call me `Lord,’ when you won’t obey me? 47I will show you what it’s like when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then obeys me. 48It is like a person who builds a house on a strong foundation laid upon the underlying rock. When the floodwaters rise and break against the house, it stands firm because it is well built. 49But anyone who listens and doesn’t obey is like a person who builds a house without a foundation. When the floods sweep down against that house, it will crumble into a heap of ruins.”

Many of these people have literally had their lives reduced to whatever their foundation is. Puts our own little transitory, ‘faith-building’ stage of life in perspective, that’s for sure.