Anna's Asian Adventures

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Episode this: As in the days of Noah

Weather is amazing. It is a powerful force we cannot control, yet we depend on it for life. Sometimes it is a helper, at other times an annoyance or hindrance; at once capable of either helping to build or of destroying livelihoods. It can be violent or gentle; it can make a place comfortable or barely habitable. Its changing nature makes it an ever-present, reliable source of commonality for the conversationally inept, and although there are certain patterns that one can observe, its unpredictable antics and endless variations elude the forecasting skills of even the most brilliant minds and sophisticated computer software. Despite all of these unknowns, however, two things about the weather are absolutely certain: a) that we all have to live in it, and b) we can’t help talking about it.

Growing up in Nebraska, I had plenty of opportunity to observe weather in most of its violence and beauty. Searing heat, devastating tornados, thirty degree temperature drops in a matter of hours, flash floods, droughts, bone-chilling winters, hail, wind, lightning, blizzards, and, more commonly, crystal clear blue skies. Really, I thought I’d seen it all.

Then I moved to Taiwan and became acquainted with tropical weather. And while on the whole the weather here lacks the moment to moment meteorological excitement that living in the Midwest provides, it nevertheless still manages to provide its own little challenges and weather wonders.

Like the last couple of days, for example, when the Chiayi area received what the natives call 大雨, literally “big rain.” That about describes it. Things started early Friday morning with thunder showers that managed to draw even me out of a most fitful slumber (I could have sworn that the bolt that woke me up actually hit the Practice Hotel…), and it’s been alternating between heavy drizzle and torrential downpour ever since. So in the past two days we have received over a foot and a half of rain, which is more than half of Nebraska’s average annual rainfall. This is blowing my little corn-fed mind. And it just keeps raining.

My mind keeps wanting to panic at all this water, but no one else seems too excited about it. The blasé attitude of most of the Taiwanese and the relatively quick drainage around here both seem to suggest that maybe this sort of thing has happened before. There has been some flooding on the roads, which is inconvenient to say the least, but to my knowledge nothing has washed out. Not too much else seems be affected, although we did get out of a half day of school yesterday. And I thought rain days were just for baseball players and construction workers…

Well, I just had to share that. I hope the weather is equally as interesting where you are.

Until next time,
I'm Peacefully and joyfully wearing my raincoat

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Come and listen

Two blog posts in the same month! Call the Vatican or whoever verifies miracles, because this definately qualifies as one. Truly, nothing is impossible for God. Anyway, here's the latest edition of my newsletter. Enjoy!

Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Well, usually I try and make my newsletters well connected, well-written, with an overarching theme, a catchy story, etc., but this time, God’s too awesome, and I’ve got too much to share. So what follows is a short conglomeration of different things that have happened in the past two and a half months. Come and listen to what He’s done…

I was sitting in my room the other evening, wallowing in an unwarrantedly grumpy mood, when I decided to check my e-mail (maybe there would be something good in it this time). I fully expected to find only the usual barrage of SPAM and life-business type e-mails, and doubted that I would run across anything important enough to justify putting off my bedtime another twenty minutes or so. Undaunted by common sense and sound logic however, I soon had my internet browser open and my inbox accessed. After a brief glance at both senders and subject lines, I noted with an ironic sense of satisfaction that my in-box did, in fact, appear to be devoid of anything of interest.

Appearances are often deceiving though, as they were in this case. The content of an e-mail from one of my missionary colleagues, Mike Kersten, left me amazed and confused. The Zhong Zheng University English Hala Club, which happens once a week on Thursday nights, has a variety of topics and activities in store for students who wish to practice their English for a couple hours, previous meetings have had anything from Ultimate Frisbee to photo scavenger hunts to English music and drama. Whatever may capture the interest of a Taiwanese university student seems to be fair game, including Bible study, apparently. Mike’s e-mail explained that this week, the members of English Hala Club, a fair number of which have started coming to our Friday Night Bible Study this year, decided that instead of a karaoke party, they would just as soon have Bible study. They asked Mike to plan it, which he was happy to do, and he in turn needed a guitar player or two. Hence the jaw-dropping e-mail. OK, yeah, sure, I can help with that. So we had Bible study last Thursday night. Mike led, despite a nasty headache that the Enemy had beset him with that evening, Mark Wolfram and I played guitar, and the whole thing went really well. God is awesome. He takes a “random” bunch of Taiwanese university students who speak English, puts a “random” bunch of missionaries in the general vicinity, and then they start wanting to have Bible study at their otherwise completely secular English club.

And then there was Easter. Besides all the obvious reasons why Easter is the best holiday ever, in Taiwan it’s particularly significant because it’s one of two times during the year (the other being Christmas) when our church does baptisms.

I should probably explain a little bit about baptisms here. In the Western world where a majority of people either are Christian or are at least familiar with Christianity, baptism is often treated with a kind of casual familiarity that tends to detract from its very real significance. Lots of people are baptized and then nurtured in a faith that continues to grow their whole lives, but for some, baptism is where their faith both starts and stops. For one reason or another, whatever faith that was planted at that time did not take root. Consequentially, baptism gets shrugged off, and life goes on without much thought being given to the matter. From what I have observed here in Taiwan, however, baptism is a very serious matter. The vast majority of people are not Christian, are not baptized, and still practicing traditional Chinese religion. By being baptized, however, a person publicly declares to everyone that they are officially Christian and not a part of that old way of life. And since that old way of life often includes ancestor worship and providing for their parents in the afterlife, being baptized is also sometimes looked on as turning one’s back on one’s family. It’s not a matter to be taken lightly. I’ve known of people who confess to being Christian, but delay their baptisms for quite some time, even years, while praying for God to work out their family issues.

But thanks be to God! This Easter we had three baptisms! One was a teacher at Concordia Middle School, and incidentally, the mother of one of my kindergarteners. The second was Lily Wasmund, the new baby girl that our volunteer coordinator Matt and his wife Dee Dee recently adopted (yay!). The third was a gal from a family where God has a masterpiece in progress. One of the girl’s older sisters was baptized about a year and a half ago. She has since witnessed to the rest of her sisters and brother, and God has done great things. Two of her sisters have been baptized now, one last Christmas, and the other on Easter. Praise God for His work in these three women, and continue to pray for them as they witness to their other three siblings and parents. I have rarely experienced such joy as that day when God added three more to His family.

Easter was also a time of celebration in the kindergarten. On Good Friday, instead of having normal English classes, we took a day out of the week for an Easter activity. We had different stations that the kids would go around and do. We had an Easter egg hunt, an Easter egg relay, Easter pictionary, an Easter craft, and the Easter story station, which was my privilege to run. I got to tell every one of my K-3 students that Jesus is alive! Even kids know the difference between dead and alive, and they all know that dead things don’t come alive again…unless it’s Jesus. “Where is Jesus?” I asked.

“Jesus is alive!” was their joyful response.

I realized that something more wonderful than I could have imagined had happened. They got it! They understood! Through barriers of language and culture and being wiggly five year olds, they understood! And I know they understood because three weeks later their parents were asking about it at our CELA new student recruitment meeting. Mothers who were Buddhist asked why their kids come home talking about Jesus. And while I was sorry for the conflict that some of my students are getting a taste of so early in life, I also rejoiced that God is present and is working in their young lives.

And somehow, God has seen fit to include me in all of this. I haven’t done anything spectacular or amazing or great. God has though. He’s the Vine; I get my kicks being a branch, just kind of hanging out. And what a blessing this time has been to see the fruit of the Vine!

May this newsletter find you all similarly rooted…

…In Christ,
Peace and Joy

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Episode This: The Taiwanese Scrub

One of my favorite pastimes here in Taiwan is frequenting the tea stands that line the sides of every major and most minor boulevards here on the beautiful island. Along with betel nut stands and fried rice joints, the tea stand is a prominent fixture in the unique Taiwanese business landscape, in their cold drinks and 冰沙 bing sha's (literally “ice sand”—they’re essentially slushies) offering a refuge from the nearly relentless tropical heat. These tea stands have an astonishing array of refreshing beverages, ranging from the ordinary green or milk tea to the more bizarre combinations of flavors, most notably those with beans, sour plums, and pudding chunks in them. Drinks are made to order: all the sugar, half the sugar, no sugar; ice, no ice; zhen zhu 珍珠 (big, navy blue colored tapioca balls—I call them “goo balls”), or not; etc. After a brief period of wild experimentation, one usually settles on a couple of stand by drinks and leaves the rest of the menu to the inexplicable Taiwanese tastes that created it. I myself am partial to fresh fruit tea (provided they don’t put tomatoes in it—tomatoes really are a fruit here) and, just lately, I’ve discovered kumquat lemonade for those times when a 700cc shot of a highly caffeinated beverage is just not necessary.

Today, after a typical day of typical school lunch (as far as what I think of school lunch, I think Crocodile Dundee says it best: “Oh, you can eat it, but it tastes like s---), I had a hankering for something a bit more pleasing to the palate and decided to head out to my favorite little tea stand, accompanied by the illustrious Miss Anna Meyer (hereafter referred to as “AB” to avoid any confusion). A small, family-run operation, the 学园 xue yuan (“school yard”) tea stand is celebrating its tenth anniversary of being in business this year. Their motto, “用心泡好茶” (which roughly translated means “Use your heart to make good tea”), speaks well of the service and quality there. In contrast to the average tea stand, they use real fruit and fruit juice in their drinks instead of just syrup, with the added bonus of mixing the tea in actual drink mixers. How can you go wrong?

Did I mention that none of these delicious drinks are over one U.S. dollar? Fabulous. Absolutely fabulous.

Happily anticipating the moments when our thirst would be quenched in such an agreeable manner, AB and I set out from the tea stand, holding icy drinks that sweated profusely in the steamy tropical atmosphere. It was there, on the way back to school from the tea stand, that we encountered the Taiwanese scrub.

“What, exactly, is a Taiwanese scrub?” you might ask. To answer to your question, you’ll first have to look back in your pop culture consciousness about five years or so to a song entitled “Scrubs,” the chorus of which goes something like this:

No, I don’t want no scrub
Scrub is a guy who can’t get no love from me
Hangin’ out the passenger side
Of his best friend’s ride
Tryin’ to holler at me (repeat)

In principle, a Taiwanese scrub is not so different from an American scrub, mainly insofar as I don’t want one and he “can’t get no love from me.” There are, however, a few key differences. First of all, the Taiwanese scrub can’t hang out the passenger side of his best friend’s ride, because his best friend’s ride is, in fact, a scooter. While it’s true that you can be hanging off a scooter (and the Taiwanese scrub often is since said best friend rarely has enough money to buy a scooter that will comfortably seat two people), I know for a fact that you sure as heck can’t hang out of one. Second of all, while riding a scooter, the Taiwanese scrub is never wearing a helmet, which is against the law and manages to make them look even more ghetto then they already do. Third, in contrast to the American scrub who merely TRIES to holler at me, the Taiwanese scrub actually succeeds in hollering at the object of his affection. After an enthusiastic “Hello!” which is the one English word he knows, he will continue to use Chinese to praise the beauty of the unfortunate target(s) of his attention. After passing by, the best friend will at first drive slowly away (weaving and swaying the whole time since its hard to keep turning your head around to look back and keep your balance when driving), and then gradually speed off toward whatever vocation occupies the Taiwanese scrub the rest of the day. The scrub, meanwhile, is still hanging off the back, gaping and smiling senselessly.

Oh baby, oh baby.

All in all, it’s an annoying experience, but when you look as good as AB and I do, you’re bound to get some of that. And, in honor of their leering cluelessness, AB and I (but mostly AB) have composed a short ditty of our own for the Taiwanese scrub:

No, I don’t want no scrub
Scrub is a guy who can’t speak English to me
Ridin’ with his helmet off
Breakin’ the law
Hollerin’ “漂亮 piao liang! [‘Beautiful!’]” at me (repeat)

My advice to the Taiwanese scrub: stick to the tried and true method of honking the horn (or getting your friend to) when you see a beautiful woman walk down the street. At least that way there is a small chance she will attribute your vulgar display to a traffic emergency or a vehicle malfunction rather than your own ignorance.

Until next time,
Peace and Joy

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A few thoughts about Egypt

To all who are still checking this regularly enough to discover new posts:
Here is the latest edition of my newsletter. I've decided to post these on-line, since the more technologically savvy would probably rather read them here than having them clog up the ole in-box. Anywho, hope you all enjoy it. :-)

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Greetings in the Name of the one who calls us out of the darkness and into his glorious light! Much has happened in the interlude since my last newsletter. At that point, there were still roughly three weeks left in our semester before Chinese New Year, and I was going through one of the worst periods of culture shock that I have yet experienced. Culture shock hits everyone a little differently and at different times. For some, culture shock takes its toll the first day in a new place; for others, it strikes after the first month; for still others it may take half a year. I typically go down somewhere around month five of being someplace different, but that’s just me. The way in which culture shock manifests itself also varies from person to person. I get really growly. I don’t want to speak Chinese because it reminds me I’m not at home; I don’t want to speak English because it reminds me of home—and that’s just painful. Same with food. And people. And everything. The phrase “Meiyou ban fa/ 沒有辦法” (literally “no solution/no way to handle the problem”) comes to mind, but there is a wide assortment of solutions that people try: some people throw things; others set their hair on fire; still others get really depressed and lock themselves away in a room for a week or two; some people find the nearest restaurant serving Western Food and alcohol, walk in, and proceed to consume whatever amount of each they need to take the edge off their homesickness; some people simply freak out, get on a plane, and go home. Me? I very calmly anticipated what my state of mind would probably be by the middle of January already last October. Then I happened to read the blog of a friend working in Egypt this year. And then I bought a plane ticket to visit said friend.
It seemed completely ludicrous at the time, but something told me it was the right thing to do. As the semester dragged on and on, especially after Christmas, I decided that it was a stroke of pure genius. There was no way I was going to go home, and I needed a break from Taiwan. God provided the resources and opportunity (sold car = plane ticket; two and a half weeks off for Chinese New Year = vacation time!), I had a good friend living there who would know how to get around and what to see, and I’m told that I’ll only be young once. Plus, it’s Egypt. Well…why not? So, although I would love to take this opportunity to explain the rich traditions associated with Chinese New Year here (I’ll sum it up by saying it’s like a combination of Christmas, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and spring cleaning—Chinese style—all squashed together into about two weeks of festivities. It’s a poor explanation, I’ll grant you, but it will have to suffice for now due to space and time limitations), I’m going to opt to share with you some of my experiences in Egypt instead. As Monty Python would say: “And now for something completely different…”

The plane landed in the part of the desert near Cairo where someone thought it would be a good idea to pave a couple of landing strips and a put up a terminal building. Nothing looked familiar. A few of the passengers from the plane were speaking English, but that was about it. No one was speaking Chinese. I liked the place already.

I managed to obtain a visa, exchange some money, and get through immigration without too much incident, although associating uniformed Arab men holding guns with my security was a new trick for this prejudiced American. Chagrinned with my own narrow-mindedness, I vowed to break myself of the notion that the Middle East is a violent, scary place, filled with violent, scary people. Toward that end, I picked up my luggage, found my friend Jay, and we headed out from the airport.

The first five minutes on the bus toward Cairo were all I needed to assess for myself how much I didn’t know about the place. I looked around. Most of the people were men, although there were a few women. I noticed that almost all of the women save one or two were wearing the hijab (head covering). Meanwhile, Jay quietly started explaining things. The majority of Egypt is Muslim, and virtually all Muslim women save the very wealthy cover their heads when they go out. However, somewhere around between ten and twenty-five percent (depending on whom you ask) of Egyptians are Christians. So, if you see a woman without a head covering, chances are she’s a Christian. Interesting, I thought.

After getting settled and grabbing some dinner, Jay and I headed out to the Coptic Cathedral where the Coptic Pope was scheduled to speak that night. I had heard only the vaguest of references to Coptic Christianity before arriving in Egypt, much less that they had their own pope, but it’s not everyday that you get to see a pope, Coptic or otherwise, so I looked forward to hearing what he had to say. We walked through the gates of the Cathedral (there’s a wall built around it for protection) past armed guards and into the outer courtyard which was buzzing with activity. Jay explained that the Cathedral is a safe haven for many of the youths around Cairo. They go to school all day, where the study of Koranic Arabic fits in nicely between math and science class and where social interactions between Christians and Muslims are, by culture and by choice, minimal. After a long day of studying, they come to the Cathedral to meet with their friends, hang out, maybe go to an English class or some other activity there, and to not feel so different, so conspicuous, for a couple of hours.

Jay went over to a small stand and bought some bread. It was Christian bread, he explained.

Christian bread? What on earth was “Christian bread”? What did that mean?

After seeing my quizzical expression, Jay gave me a short introduction to three of the many breads of Egypt. The first he spoke of was Christian bread. Christian bread, which is sold at the Cathedral and some churches, is a white bread, round and flat, about the size of a small plate, with a cross stamped into the top. Only Christians eat it. He also explained that Muslims have their own bread, which is round, flat, and about the size of a tea saucer. It’s a slightly denser white bread and is eaten mostly at festival times, especially the month of Ramadan. Only Muslims and clueless foreigners eat that. Egyptian bread (the Arabic word for which literally means “bread of my country”) is a big, thin wheat pita, again about the size of a plate. Egyptian bread is the main staple of the people there, so everyone, clueless foreigners and all, eats it. (After trying all three, I decided that Egyptian bread was my personal favorite.)

I was starting to get a small feel for how deep the divide is between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, an awareness that would continue to grow throughout the week I was there. Jay and I finished our Christian bread and headed inside the Cathedral. Our white faces granted us automatic admission, but they were checking everybody else’s wrists at the door. Coptic Christians in Egypt receive a tattoo of a cross on one of their wrists while they are still infants, a cross they will bear for life. So, while female Christians in Egypt can be known by their lack of a head covering (and the tattoo), Coptic Christian men are hardly less conspicuous since a simple glance at their wrists will declare their identity.

We walked into the middle of Pope Shenuda’s address. The foreigner area, which provided ear pieces with English translation, was all the way in the front. This was slightly embarrassing since we were late and had to walk in front of everyone, but it afforded a great view of things, for which I was thankful. The Pope was giving a message about staying strong in the faith, following Christ, martyrdom, etc. Wait, martyrdom? What the…oh yeah, that was a possibility here. Understand, it is not illegal to be a Christian in Egypt, and it isn’t like there are death squads out to get Christians or anything; however, persecution is not uncommon. Equal opportunity employment does not have the same place in Egyptian society as in America. If your potential employer is Muslim and you’re a Christian, suddenly your chances of getting the job become a lot slimmer. You want to build a church or a Christian school, hospital, or a center for a Christian organization? You had better be prepared to wait, since, somehow, the paperwork for putting up those kinds of buildings always gets hung up in the bureaucracy. Meanwhile, a new mosque has gone up on the site across the street in half the time it took you to get your permit. And it is very illegal to proselytize (the gateman at Jay’s apartment was fired merely on the basis of a sketchy rumor that he was trying to convert Jay to Islam, regardless of the fact that he was doing no such thing). The bottom line: when passions are running high, and when it comes to religion in Egypt they’re always running high, stuff happens. The commitment to being Christian must be one hundred percent; sitting the fence is simply not an option, and you only need glance at your wrist to be sure of that.

Later that week, Jay and I decided to travel to a small town in upper Egypt (“upper” refers to up the river, i.e. south of Cairo). Jay had a couple of friends from his organization working there, and he thought it would be good to get out of the polluted haze of Cairo to see a different side of Egypt. So, we hopped on a train and three hours later hopped off in the sleepy little town of Minya. Besides Jay’s friends and a chance to get away from the noise and the fumes, there were also some really old tomb paintings up on the bluffs nearby that we both thought sounded like they were worth checking out.

Minya was a wonderful change of pace. The sky and the air were clear, and a horse or donkey pulling a cart of vegetables was a common sight. Overall, things were just a lot slower. I was told that Minya was a better example of the “real” Egypt than Cairo was with the all its noise, pollution, crazy traffic, and crowded streets. It certainly was different than what I had experienced so far, a difference I found delightful.

We checked out the tombs, which were amazing, even after 4,000 years. (It’s absolutely mind-boggling to me that the colors could still be so bright after such a long time; I don’t care how dry the air is!) What was equally as interesting to me though, was hearing about some of Eric’s (Jay’s buddy), experiences in Minya. If my understanding is correct, as you go up the river in Egypt, the proportion of Christians increases so that the further south you go, the more Christians there are in each town. That being said, the contrast between Christians and Muslims is just as sharp, if not more so, in the more conservative smaller towns as it is in the bigger cities. In Minya, for example, all Muslim women cover their heads. Eric also shared one story of some Christian neighbors of his who went across town to buy chicken simply because that butcher was Christian. Never mind that there was a Muslim man selling chicken just around the corner from their home. The Christians have to stick together, stick to the Christian team.

At first, going across town to buy chicken when there’s a butcher next door sounded pretty ridiculous to me. But, as I thought about it more, I could start to see how things might come to that. Every day, five times a day, the call to prayer issues forth from every mosque in Egypt calling the faithful to prayer. The call from one mosque rises up and mingles eerily with all the other calls to produce another sound in itself—a five times a day reminder that Christians are not in friendly territory, and a sound for which Christians have developed a strong dislike.

Still, no matter how much both parties might want to simply be rid of all interaction with the other, Christian-Muslim encounters are unavoidable. Christians and Muslims share the same country; they both eat the Egyptian bread—the “bread of their country”; and they both proudly claim the nationality “Egyptian.” However, the above example vividly illustrates how far people are willing to go (literally) to support their respective faiths—while, incidentally, excluding the other. For an Egyptian, religion is in every part of life. Religion is so engrained into one’s identity that objectivity towards that subject is out of the question: it is the lens through which one sees the world. Going the extra city blocks for dinner is not so much an intentional exclusion as it is the natural thing to do.

This presents a very challenging situation for everyone, the foreigners living and working in Egypt not excluded. And it is especially thorny for those interested in furthering the Kingdom of God. In the West, religion is largely hands off, and everybody is supposed to be left alone to do their own thing. For me, while I would care that the guy who owns the supermarket down the street isn’t Christian because I would rather that person know the love of Christ, that fact that we don’t share the same faith is not going to stop me from giving him my business. The kind of polarization that exists in Egypt is almost unfathomable to me. I’ve grown up being told that I should take Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech seriously. “I have a dream that [people] will not be judged by the [color of their skin/hijab/cross on their wrist/gender], but by the content of their character.” The knee-jerk reaction is to storm in and tell people they’re wrong and need to change.

Which brings me back to my culture shock. The conviction that I’m right and that this is your culture’s problem and you need to change is at the heart of all culture shock, whether it’s in Taiwan, China, Egypt, or anywhere else. It’s the root of sin: the desire to have things one’s own way. And while I think we can all agree that every place has its problems and things that need to change, the change that needs to come is not one brought by people, per se. What’s needed is healing and wholeness, not a rearrangement of the old problems, and there’s only one source of that kind of healing that I know. All creation groans in expectation of it—the ultimate healing and redemption that will be brought about through Christ.

So what am I to do about it? It’s an extremely pertinent question. The problems of Egypt, Taiwan, or most anyplace other than your hometown probably seem really big and really far away. However, I feel it would be a grave error to think that distance will necessarily prevent us from having an impact in these places. Granted, you can’t just drive down to Taiwan or Egypt for the weekend, but God holds these and the people of every nation in his heart. And when we are close to his heart, the distance is not so great as it first appears. The Body of Christ has the unique opportunity to come together in fervent prayer and intercession for one another. Prayer is the first action. I am firmly convinced that the wonderful relationships that are in place and still forming every day here in Taiwan and the ministry opportunities that keep happening are a direct result of all the prayers being offered up on behalf of this mission.

Christians in Egypt need your prayers. Christians in Taiwan need your prayers. Christians everywhere need your prayers. I realize that if you’re receiving this newsletter, you’re probably already praying for your brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. Still, it’s never a bad thing to be reminded how important those prayers are. As far as what’s next, from prayer, God leads to action in different directions. True, it’s not always easy to know what action to take, (I don’t know how to go about solving most of my own problems, let alone the problems of other peoples and nations) but I do know Christ, who is quite literally the very embodiment of action. From Him, worthwhile action will naturally be forthcoming.

I came back happy to be in Asia again. I was excited to understand what people were saying and to have some idea of what was going on. And to find once again that as inevitable as culture shock is, the worst of it also inevitably passes. The time in Egypt was amazing. It was refreshing, interesting, and, well, really fun. All vacations should be that good. Still, I seem to be the most plugged into the part of God’s heart that’s in Asia, and it was good to get back.

Speaking of which, that brings me to another bit of news. I have decided to extend my time with LCMS World Mission through at least next year, but rather than remain in Taiwan, I feel that God has called me to mainland China. So, at the moment, I am deliberating between two different opportunities to work there: one in a city called Jiangmen in Guangdong province; the other in the city of Wuhan, which is in Hubei province. Needless to say, your prayers are much coveted as I myself pray about this decision.

May His peace and joy keep you,

Monday, February 06, 2006

What the...

That doesn't look like Taiwan. What is she standing on? Wait a second...?

My friends, the above picture is but one example of the many faceted ways that blogs can be trouble. Or more correctly, what comes of it when I read them. Last October, I was innocently reading the blog of a friend of mine, Jay, who is working in Egypt this year. I'll reference his blog since it explains much better than I can what exactly he's doing there this year (see the entry "Care With Love: The Overview" for the specifics of his work; read the rest just because it's interesting). That day's account especially caught my attention as it went something like "So, I went to Mt. Sinai for the weekend and it was incredible..."


That was so cool I could hardly stand it. "I wanna go to Egypt!" I whined to my unsympathetic computer screen. As I finished reading that particular entry, I shook my head, green with envy. "Egypt. Hrumph. Now that would be quite the adventure. *pause* I wonder..."

Like space cowboys in the mindless sci-fi novels I enjoy now and then who skirt the edges of black holes for fun, I found myself flying dangerously close to the edges of my own curiosity. There were two weeks of vacation over Chinese New Year that I had no specific plans for, other than a vague notion that I would find a beach somewhere in Thailand on which to sun myself. Suddenly, without knowing quite how, I found myself on Expedia, doing a little harmless research.

Danger, Will Robinson.

I pointedly ignored the flashing red light on the console of my common sense. Hmmm, it was too expensive to fly from Taipei to Cairo. Way too expensive. But wait, all the flights connected through Bangkok. I knew there were cheap flights to Bangkok. I wondered what the price was from there... After some clever maneuvering and a couple of quick calculations in my head, I felt something happening to my face. The gravity of my curiosity was pulling my face into a small smile. Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

Too late. I felt myself slipping over the event horizon as the face of Anna Horkey turned into something else entirely: the Face of Anticipation. For those of you who don't know or haven't witnessed the phenomenon, the Face of Anticipation is something that comes over me when I am irrationally, irrevocably excited about something. Beyond reason or control, it has a life of its own that can emerge with the mere thought of an upcoming event. While something as small as the promise of a good plate of curry or a game of ultimate frisbee could bring on a less severe version, the full blown Face of Anticipation manifests itself only in the face of something truly exciting. Usually, that means a trip to some exotic locale that I have been throwing around the back of my mind for a while. The last documented Face of Anticipation was on the way to Tibet. The picture below will give you some idea of the phenomenon, but can in no way convey the full effect of experiencing it first or even second hand.

Three months later, I found myself hopping on some poor Bedouin’s camel at the pyramids of Saqqara, hopelessly delighted at my own ridiculousness, shaking my head in bewildered wonder at God’s blessing, at His ridiculousness. Like all of God’s gifts, it was inexpressibly amazing, undeserved, and above all, good. I hope to write more on the whole experience a little later, but for now I’ll just leave you all with some eye candy.


The obligatory photo proving I was there.

Another obligatory photo proving I was there.

Here's Jay, walking Lonely Planet and good friend, standing on the bluffs overlooking the Nile Valley. Notice that where the water stops, so does the green.

Here we are at Benni Hassan, where we looked at some 4000 year old paintings in the tombs built into the bluffs. The colors and scenes from everyday Egyptian life so long ago were amazing! And we had the trusty tourist police with us the whole time--there for our security, of course.

Here's some tomb paintings/carvings we probably weren't supposed to take pictures of...ooops.

Here I am, perched upon my noble steed.

You hear that? She called me a "noble steed."

After Jay explained for the 500th time that I was neither his wife nor girlfriend, this man took the opportunity to propose to me. I just couldn't see living the rest of my life in the desert though (or converting to Islam , for that matter), so I politely declined. I did, however, agree to have my picture taken with him. And then his friend gave me bunny ears! Punk.

The Africa cup happened to be in Cairo, Egypt this year. Jay happened to have a friend who got us tickets to the Congo vs. Cameroon game. Jay's friend was from Congo, so we cheered for them. They lost, but no one really cared because the Congo fans had a great beat going on the drums the whole game.

This Congo fan was even decked out in his tribal gear. He was dancing the whole game. I've subsequently decided that African soccer matches are the best.

The roof tops of Cairo. Jay said it was the clearest day he'd ever seen there. Usually the pollution and dust make it impossible to see most of the city. I thanked God for that incredible blessing and for the equally incredible view--if you look closely, you can see the pyramids in the distance.

Ah, kids. In the background is a horse and cart, a sight not uncommon on the streets of Cairo where people come in from the rural areas to hawk their wares, whatever they may be.

Street's the only way to dine.

Here's an interesting picture of Cairo. Start at the bottom with a littered, unpaved street, work your way up to the banner in Arabit, top it off with a mosque and a blue sky.

Sunset over Cairo, and my vacation. This one's going to be hard to top...but I'll probably find a way. :-) Salem, Egypt.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Hey...Where'd the pirate go?

So, the experiment to see whether or not you really could get enough of the cute Taiwanese kids on my blog has clearly gone horribly, horribly wrong. Occasionally, I use the links off of my blog because I'm too lazy to remember the actual addresses, and even I'm sick of the pictures. That will happen. But anyway, I'm back to the world of blogging now, well somewhat. The following post is my newsletter from November/December, so some of you may have read it before, but hey, at least it's not captain pirate anymore.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Greetings in this New Year, 2006! We’ve all made it, amazingly enough. What may be even more amazing is you actually making it all the way through this newsletter since it’s a little longer. I’ve been using Christmas as a poor excuse for not communicating for the last two months; consequentially, there is much to tell. I usually try not to make these things too lengthy in an attempt to respect the fact that everyone has things to attend to in their busy lives, but I’ve decided to allow myself something of an exception in this case. You’re reading other lengthy epistles updating you on everyone else’s lives, why not your favorite missionary as well? ‘Tis the season, right?

This holiday season has been cause for much reflection on my part. That will happen when something so familiar is taken completely out of any context where one has previously known it. Replace pine trees with palm trees. Replace snow with the kind of weather that I typically expect out of mid to late October. Replace the typical Christmas program with a Christmas talent show. Replace “Silent Night” with “平安夜,” Ping An Ye. This year, I even celebrated Christmas with a different family, the family that God has given me in Taiwan. And that’s only the beginning…

The holidays have also been different this year because it’s the first time I’ve ever been in charge of anything. Apparently, the foreign teacher in the kindergarten gets to head up the kindergarten Christmas extravaganza. Every new teacher’s dream come true. *cough* While it’s true that I have participated in plenty of Christmas activities before, never before have I taken on the role of commander. Or, more accurately, had that role thrust upon me. I first became aware of this responsibility sometime in September when DeeDee (the wife of our coordinator, Matt Wasmund, who also, incidentally, taught kindergarten last year) pulled me aside and gently explained that I would “pretty much be the go-to-girl for the Christmas program.” I had no idea what that meant at the time, but I did know that I didn’t like the sound of it. I decided to handle the problem Taiwanese style; that is, put it on the back of the stove until you smell something burning. Periodic progress checks are in order though, so occasionally I would find myself having conversations that went something like the following (it’s translated for your convenience):

“Say, how’s the Christmas program coming? Do you need any help?” (Translation: “Hey, have you checked on Christmas lately? It’s not burning is it?”)
“Yeah, it’s coming. I’m almost done writing the lines and I’ve just about got the songs are picked out.” (Translation: “I stirred it a couple of minutes ago. It should be fine for a while.”)
“Great! Well, let me know if there’s anything I can do, if I can help.” (Translation: “Keep an eye on it. If you’re not careful it’ll boil over in a couple of weeks. Good luck!”)
To myself: Phewww, got through another one of those conversations. And they still think I’ve got things under control! Heh heh. You were right, Barnum. Hmmm. (frowning at pot) What’s in this pot anyway? What am I even cooking up here? Shoot. Who’s really the sucker in this deal…?

Meanwhile, November demanded some attention. There were two major events in November on top of the usual routine to keep us all occupied. The first was Thanksgiving and all the activities therein, and the second was the Asia Ablaze! Summit in Hong Kong over Thanksgiving weekend. First things first: the kindergarten “feast.” Maybe “feast” isn’t the best word I could use to describe it since they really didn’t eat all that much, but I guess when you’re five years old it doesn’t really take much food to make a feast, especially when it’s weird foreign stuff. By the end of the day, I had seen all three hundred plus kindergarteners (about 200 of which are my students) come through my room. The routine, performed in twenty minute increments, was basically the same for each class. Come to my room; sing “Hello, Mr. Turkey, how are you?” (To the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”); say a Thanksgiving prayer led by yours truly; eat; and, finally, get shooed out the door since the next class was already waiting outside, their little mouths watering in anticipation. The “turkey” we ate was actually chicken since real turkey is somewhat difficult to obtain and expensive besides, but the kids didn’t seem to mind. I found out that some of my kindergarteners are vegetarians (vegetarian kindergarteners—now I’ve seen everything), which either means they’re the most socially conscious children I’ve ever encountered or that they’re Buddhist. I’ve also been told that some Taiwanese kids don’t really like meat that much. *shrug* In any case, everyone repeated after me as we said a Thanksgiving prayer to Jesus, thanking him for our food and many blessings. Also on the menu besides the chick—I mean “turkey,” were sweet potatoes, corn, pumpkin seeds, and apple cider to drink. The kids liked the food, I liked the break in the routine, and I think a good time was had by all.

November’s second big activity, following immediately on the heels of the Thanksgiving feast was the Asia Ablaze! Summit in Hong Kong. Missionaries and nationals alike from all over Asia came together in Hong Kong to talk about Ablaze! and, like the good Lutherans we are, discuss “what does this [Ablaze!] mean?” For me personally, Ablaze! basically boils down to follow Christ. If you have the heart of Christ and follow where he leads, I have a feeling that whatever Ablaze! is will follow. God is the one who is ablaze here. He’s the source. So, naturally, if you’re near the source, you’re going to catch fire yourself, and then the people around you will catch too, and on and on. Then, the specifics of how a heart on fire for the Lord manifests itself, in other words, how it applies practically to one’s ministry, can be left to the particular time and place where one is serving. The other half of Ablaze!, of course, is the resolution to reach 100 million people with the Gospel by 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. They kept saying that it was an ambitious goal. Personally, I’m with the lady who stood up and pointed out how small a percentage of the population of Asia 100 million people is. She was thinking of reaching people in the billions. Now that’s what I’m talking about! 100 million people is less than ten percent of the population of China alone! And Asia includes India, China, Japan, Indonesia…Come on people! We work for God! Think BIG!

OK, I’m a little excited about missions here. Probably a good thing since that’s what I’m doing. Anyway, back to the newsletter.

So, besides attending the sessions and talks by the keynote speakers, Team Taiwan was also asked to help lead worship at different times throughout the summit. It ended up being a lot of work, especially for Molly Hinz, who was basically the contact person/organizer on top of being our star keyboardist. We all worked hard though, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, I think it went rather well. At least that’s what all the people that came up to me said. Most of my part was playing guitar, but I was on vocals for a couple of songs, and the recorder even snuck its way into one of the hymns. I’m never quite sure how to take compliments after I’ve helped lead worship, because I basically see myself simply as a participant. Plus a microphone/instrument. On the other hand, it’s nice to have people acknowledge the time you’ve put into preparation and the gifts God has given you. Ah well. Soli Deo Gloria.

Here I am after a few misadventures in Hong Kong. We had some free time on Friday night, and I chose to go with the group that was braving the longest escalator in the world. After climbing about four stories of it, we decided to heed the signs that said it was closed and went back down. We were then going to walk along the harbor, but the harbor walk waa closed too. At that point, we decided to cut our losses, and go back to the hotel. After comforting ourselves with icecream, of course.

Asia Ablaze!, or ABLASIA as we like to call it here in Taiwan, was a time of refreshment, encouragement, excitement, reunion with old friends, and it gave me a lot to think about. I didn’t have a lot of time for pondering though, because as soon as our flight from Hong Kong touched down in Taiwan, the smell of Christmas was in the air—and it was burning. Shoot! I rushed to check on it. Turns out, it was only at a vigorous boil and a few drops had spilled over onto the stove. Still, the scent of charred Christmas lingering faintly in the air was enough to spur me into really taking the task seriously. Script written? Check. Songs picked out? Check. Do the children know any of this? Ahhh… Do any of their teachers besides me know any of this? Ahhh…

Thus began the madness. It quickly became apparent that “go-to-girl” was something of an understatement. I was essentially the mastermind, musician, artist, and general teacher. Cringe. As a pastor’s child, I have watched numerous people languish under the yoke of Christmas programs all my life, and I was less than excited to find myself similarly burdened. The one bright shining gleam of hope, the secret ingredient if you will, in all this nasty business is that once the homeroom teachers knew what to do, they absolutely drilled the kids on it. I discovered that my computer has a program for recording WAV music files (who knew?), so I recorded all the songs and then burned a CD for each class with their songs on it. That turned out to be a really good move since I noticed that there was a dramatic improvement in singing immediately following the introduction of the CDs into the classroom. Thereafter, I often heard my own voice echoing eerily down the halls of the kindergarten as the teachers blasted the songs from their stereos. It was definitely creepy, but I was willing to endure a few involuntary shudders on my part for the sake of the results, which were quite spectacular. Within a matter of days, the kids were solid on their songs. Now, all that remained was putting the thing together in Luther Hall.

I’ve decided that 300 kindergarteners, jabbering away like monkeys, and fifteen or so teachers all looking to you to tell them what to do is a little intimidating. I’ve also found that if you pretend you’re in control and that you know what you’re doing, people often mistake this for actually being in control and knowing what you’re doing. Or maybe they’re just willing to pretend too. In any event, I was far from being as alone as I’m probably making this sound. I was inexpressibly thankful for my Taiwanese colleague, Pearl, took on a lot of the logistical stuff as far as getting everyone seated and working out a few of the other inevitable kinks. I honestly don’t think I would have been able to face it all if she hadn’t been there. I was also very thankful for all my team members who, though they had their own Christmas pots to watch, were there to help take care of mine. They were drilling the kids in their classes and were there at practices as much as their own busy schedules allowed. These people made me look very good. As good teammates will.

During all this, I was not the most pleasant person to hang around. I tried to keep from verbalizing all the internal grousing, but enough got through the censor to annoy those in the general vicinity. Scrooge would have been proud. I spent a lot of time contemplating the reasons why we all go to so much trouble for Christmas. Outside of my missionary colleagues, most of the people I work with are not Christian. What does this mean to them? Is this just a performance? Even though the only message this program proclaimed was the Gospel (one of the more pleasant side effects of writing the Christmas program is that the message is whatever you make it, so I had the novel idea to make it about Jesus), was anything getting through?

Christmas wasn’t just about being unusually busy either. It consumed our thoughts and our time, both in and out of school. If there was anything to be dealt with, friends to see, or more leisurely activities to take part in (like a rousing game of Ultimate Frisbee, for example), our collective pat answer became “Sure! I’d love to—after Christmas.” Want to go see a movie? Sure—after Christmas. Want to come over to our house for a cooking lesson? Love to!—after Christmas. Would you like to get to know a Taiwanese family and get to practice your Chinese a little bit? Absolutely—after Christmas. Are you ever going to write a newsletter or update your blog? I’ll get around to it—after Christmas.

After Christmas. What would it be like? Why, we would have our lives back! The restoration of our freedom! The promise of “after Christmas” was something we all looked forward to with much longing and anticipation. Life would be better after Christmas.

Well, the kindergarten Christmas extravaganza went off without too many hitches. The CELA Christmas program went well. The middle school teachers performed their own skit. The students decorated some of the trees around campus with Bible story themes. We caroled, we made and ate Christmas cookies, we did another skit for the Christmas Eve talent show at church and the same skit again on Christmas morning. We stuffed ourselves like Christmas geese at the “Love Feast” put on by the church we all attend (everyone invites their friends and we all eat Christmas day lunch together out doors. Go tropical climate! Don’t worry; we eat under tents in case it rains. There were two hundred plus people who came to eat and share the love. It’s quite the affair—ahem, I mean event.)

And then…it was after Christmas. It’s what we had been waiting for all along, at least, we thought so. All the programs over, all the gifts exchanged, all the songs sung, all the feasts consumed. And, when all else was finally stripped away, all that was left was Jesus. Jesus. And it was then that I realized that I had been waiting not for “after Christmas,” such as it is, but rather for Christ himself. I was looking so hard for him. Jesus, where are you in the hype? In the busyness?
Not surprisingly, he was right where the angel said he would be. He is here! He is with us! In the manger, on the cross, out of the grave, into our hearts. He is here! After Christmas, he gave us our lives back. After Christmas, he brought us freedom. How they longed for him then! How we still long for him now! And it’s true in so many ways: Life is better after Christmas.

Most of Christmas still seems pretty silly to me. There’s a lot of nonsense that comes along with it all. Then again, I suppose Christmas never really made sense in the first place. A virgin with child? A king in a manger? Almighty God in man? Nope, no sense in that. Does this mean I’ll cut Christmas some slack next year? Mmm, I’m pretty sure that would take a Christmas miracle. God is all-powerful though, so anything could happen. You’ll have to check with me then. Until that time, I’ll revel in the post Christmas joy and wonder of Jesus.

May His love go with you through this New Year.

Peace and Joy.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Can you get enough? No, you cannot.

Here they are, pictures of the CELA Kindergarten Halloween parties. They're sweeter than the candy they managed to get their little paws on...

Note: Captions appear below the pictures they are captioning.

It's Captin Pirate! Argh...

Trick or Treat! Happy Hallow...what's going on?

Assessesing the loot...

This kid's going to be a heart breaker

Me and the K-1 Cherries

Me and the K-1 Apples

This kid can't move, but he's Bee-utiful!

Here's Angela, our little angel

That's correct. I'm in a giant, orange pumpkin costume wearing an equally orange wig

Jason is just pretty excited about his Halloween candy

The Angel and Snow White wish us peace

Kindergarten Love

Identical twins Patty and Kim from the Butterfly class

Mardi Gras witch?

And, just for making it all the way to the end, here's a picture of Tango and I dancing. Bravo, Tango. See the entry below for details.

Until next time,
Peace and Joy