This blog post is coming to you from 10,000 feet in the air…
Let me explain.
About two months ago, a really nice couple from our congregation invited us to join them and some other young ones for a game of the “Escape Room”. For any of you who don’t know what that is, it’s an interactive game where you are put in a small room with a bunch of your friends and have to decipher and interpret codes and clues within the room to find the key to the next room. You have a time limit of about one hour to complete the entire circuit of rooms, and your score is based on how much time is left on the clock after you finish. Needless to stay, Tiffany and I were beyond stoked about having a fun night out with our friends.
However…things didn’t go as planned. While the young ones were breezing through the rooms using fast and fluent Chinese, Tiffany and I were trying to catch the crumbs of what they were saying. We were listening for anything that we could make sense of. But it was no use. No one bothered to translate, slow down, or to even check if we were still alive.
When we came home that night – tired and frustrated – Tiffany and I both had the exact same urge – we just wanted to go home.
I can’t really explain this, but it is strikingly similar to what my favorite musician – Imogen Heap – quoted as the inspiration for her song “First Train Home”. She said she had attended a party, where everything was lovely and everyone was having a good time, but for some strange, indescribable reason, she just wanted to get OUT of there. She wanted to catch the first train home.
Not even an hour after we had come home that night, we had booked our “first train home” – a flight to the US for June, at the end of the school year.
At that time, it was just going to be a vacation back home for about a month. Just a refresher, if you will. Spend time with our family, see our old friends, eat some Greek food, and then head back. It was even supposed to be a surprise. Nobody was to know about it – not even our mom and dad. Can you imagine?
But after a few more weeks of sitting on those tickets, we started coming to the realization that the return part of that trip was not looking very appealing to us. There was so much behind these feelings. It can’t possibly be covered in a blog post, no matter how long and drawn out. But I’m going to try, because I also believe that putting this in writing will help me make sense of this. This post will probably end up being super long, and it might even verge on boring, if I’m being honest. So proceed with caution! 😉
Taiwan was full of ups and downs. Our first six months of trying to acclimate to the culture and language were mostly downs. But when summer rolled around, it was like a new dawn for us. After Chinese school ended, we finally had the opportunity to use our Chinese instead of just reading about how to use it. We saw our Chinese language skills increase at an incredible rate, and we realized that we could now understand almost all basic conversations that the friends had with us. We could even form responses! Our comments were long and meaningful, our talks were less stressful and more natural, and we had even built a small record of some return visits that we could try calling on by ourselves. With school out of the picture, the only thing that was required of me was three short days of work per week at the cram school teaching English. The rest of my time was filled with spiritual activity – scheduled service with the friends, informal witnessing around Lotus Pond, attending Bible studies, public witnessing…the list goes on and on. We were so genuinely happy back then, it actually makes me a little sad to think about it now. When I think back to “need-greater” life, that’s what I think back to. Little did we know just how much things would change once we started attending university.
September rolled around, and we started a very intensive course schedule, as you probably have seen me mention many times before. Courses like Economics, Chinese Literature and IT communication. Things got hard. Really hard. Even though we only signed up for a part-time schedule, which involved two days of classes per week, the school had something else in mind for us.
Every week, we had to devote a third day to “national service education” which involved volunteering in some way for the community. Ours involved traveling to a high school in the country side where we helped students with their English. This was a whole day’s event. So at this point, we were up to three full days a week. So I had to take a day off work every week for the entire semester. Now that’s three days of school, and two days of work. What does that leave for service? Nothing. Practically nothing. We still had our weekends, sure. And we were able to squeeze some evening service arrangements around that schedule as well. But how much service can you really cram into those times? Especially since the Nanzi congregation’s total weekly service arrangements don’t even amount to 16 hours. With each arrangement being a maximum of two hours, how could they?
Well, we tried. We really tried. But it was hard. We were constantly falling behind with our time, and never had time to call back on interested ones. And that schedule was just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t forget the weekly homework, the monthly projects, the mid-terms, the finals…oh, and let’s not forget about the random group assignments that popped up every once in a while. That’s also not mentioning daily Bible reading, personal study, meeting preparation, comment preparation in Chinese (very time-consuming), preparing for talks (we had them every three months) and preparing service presentations.
We were pretty miserable. But we didn’t let it show. Part of the reason why is because we always held out hope for the exciting things to come. “Oh, if we could just hold on till November, then our parents will be here! And everything will get better.” Or, “If we could juuust hold out until the Special Convention…it will be such a boost in every way, it’ll definitely give us what we need to keep going.” There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that thinking. Until, of course, you realize that one day your parents will be back home in Michigan, and the delegates will be flying out of Taiwan as the convention stadium is being packed up. And then what’s left to keep you going?
Right around the time that those events were wrapping up, our semester was about to end and we were approaching winter break. This gave us a false sense of hope. Our life during winter break reverted back to the good ol’ days. But we even went a step further and took extra precautions to ensure that our lives stayed under control. We decided to turn down every gathering and invitation, except for the ones that we really wanted to attend. I even got off my Instagram account to try to eliminate the time wasted online. Towards the end of winter break, we were feeling so hopeful. We thought we did it. We had finally found the rhythm to this life. That was when I wrote my last blog post. And it sure was a happy one.
Then February rolled around…and our lives reverted back to the same misery we experienced in the autumn. Always chasing time, being involved in so many things that we couldn’t actually be involved in anything. In fact, even though this round of courses was slightly less intense, our lives got even harder. We had another semester of that “service education”, BUT this time we also had to drive up to the university an extra day per week to listen to seminars about why we were doing the volunteer work that we were doing. The school also informed us that next year, whether we’re “part-time students” or not, we will be coming to school yet another extra day for mandatory P.E. classes. They also told us that we need to spend at least one summer during our time as students studying abroad (because, ya know, that’s clearly not what we were already doing in the first place), and another summer interning for the university. These were mandatory requirements for graduation, and almost all of them are government requirements and would be required of us no matter which university we decided to attend. If we failed to meet these requirements, we had to pay the school back the total tuition – over $20,000 US. You can probably imagine why I felt like we had locked ourselves into our own prison cells and had been burying the key deeper and deeper into the ground with every passing day.
I really don’t want to keep boring you with what a mistake university was, so I’ll stop there. But basically, this is what led to a FaceTime call early one morning where we spilled the beans to my mom about our upcoming trip and eventually changed it to an earlier *one-way* flight.
And so here I am. Writing this post at an altitude of 10,000 feet as we leave Taiwan behind…likely forever. And this won’t be posted until the end of this week, because some of the surprise isn’t spoiled yet…nobody knows except our parents. And now, you, of course. 😉
I hope that this post doesn’t discourage anyone from going to Taiwan, or even worse, from moving abroad to serve where there is a greater need.
The truth is, Taiwan has changed me in so many ways. One of the greatest things it’s done for me is change my perception. Especially on what it means to be a “need-greater”. At some point during our lowest here, I had received a long, heartfelt email from a super sweet friend back in Michigan. She was talking about some of the limitations that she faced in her service, but how she still does her best. After reading her email, it finally clicked. I realized that even though she felt she was limited by her own standards, she was accomplishing more in her service than we ever could in Taiwan. Because the cold, hard truth is…nobody can live the kind of life we lived and give 100% to everything.
I came to realize that I gave so much more of myself to Jehovah when I was back home in that small town of Fraser than I was able to here in Taiwan. Basically, I realized that the small things are actually the big things. Having the time to make a quality return visit on someone who shows interest, getting to know and encourage the young ones at the hall, extending hospitality to the friends, and even being able to participate in every congregation cleaning. These are the little things that I took for granted in my old “boring” life, but I realize now that they are what truly define a Christian. “Need-greater” is just a title, and just like any other title it, in itself, doesn’t mean anything. You can be living a quiet life doing more for Jehovah than someone who’s out there living this adventurous lifestyle abroad with Instagram pictures to prove it. Come to find out, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. And that brings me to the second biggest reason why we left.
It’s an odd thing, really. We were told that Taiwan had an enormous need for preachers, and the publisher to population ratio seemed to validate that. But…the reality here was so different. For starters, a good 60-70% of the average population we encountered out in service spoke Taiwanese. They may speak Chinese too, but Taiwanese is the language of their heart. And Taiwanese is a whole other beast. It has double the tones that Chinese has, and it doesn’t really have it’s own written language. So when we met these people at the door, not only could we not communicate with them, but we couldn’t even leave them anything to read. Because they couldn’t read. All they could do was listen. Sure, we could show them one of the, like, two videos available in Taiwanese…but what comes after that?
The people we did find who spoke Chinese were mostly apathetic and would only accept literature so that we would stop talking. To add to that, I can’t actually tell you how many times the local friends had asked us why we came to Taiwan. We thought it was pretty obvious. But after we explained our reasons to them, they always looked back at us with the same bewildered expression. “Really? Taiwan has a need? Ha…I’d like to see that for myself, too”.
Again, this isn’t meant to discourage anyone. There may be a need. There probably is one. But in our year and a half of living there, we couldn’t find it. Maybe it was our fault. Maybe we should’ve never picked that little outskirt town of Nanzi. But it was what it was. Even during the good times last summer, the happiness didn’t come from the results, but from the fact that we could try. Which, of course, is enough in itself. The effort is what Jehovah looks at, not the number you write down on a piece of paper at the end of each month. However….when you’ve traveled thousands of miles away from your family to an uncomfortable and foreign environment where you’re forced to attend university classes you don’t want to attend just to maintain residency…well, in that case, the results kinda do matter. Because otherwise, I could be happily doing the exact same thing back home…minus the stress.
There were, of course, other reasons that came into play. For example, I knew the friends loved us and cared for us, but the fact is we would never feel fully accepted into the culture. The language is a big part of that, but it’s not the only part. Our little “Escape Room” adventure was a good example of this. Unfortunately, sometimes culture does seep into the congregation as well. The Taiwanese culture maintains a distance from foreigners that can’t be rivaled anywhere else. We couldn’t walk the streets without being called 外國人, or “outsider”. We would often be refused service by taxis because we were foreigners. When people got tired of our broken Chinese over the phone they would just hang up. We would get the full, uncomfortable stare down everywhere we went, even when waiting at red lights. I know this probably happens in other parts of the world as well, but it was sharply felt in Taiwan. And despite the general friendliness and helpfulness of the culture, I guess we were just tired of being on the outside.
There are some days I wonder why I ever did this whole thing…but more days than not, I see it for what it was – a once in a lifetime experience that changed me.
I learned what it means to be a foreigner. I have walked in those shoes, and I am coming back home to the States with a whole new appreciation for the refugees or other foreigners that have been forced to leave their home countries and acclimate to a completely different environment. When I’m at work or service and come across someone who can’t speak English, I will have a newfound appreciation for what they have to go through. Basically, much like our time in Africa, this experience has made me more human.
I realized how easy it can be to feel out of place or uncomfortable, sometimes even among friends. And that’s taught me to be more emotionally aware of how others are feeling and, more importantly, how I make them feel.
This experience has given me courage. Courage beyond what I could ever imagine. I once thought I would never make it on my own, whether in a foreign country, or even just away from my family. But now I know that I can, in fact, do all of these things and even more. Because it’s not me who makes it possible. It really is Jehovah.
This experience has also taught me that there isn’t a whole lot you need in life besides Jehovah. And that no matter how lonely you feel in life, you are never alone. Jehovah is as sure in your life as the sunrise every morning and the sunset every evening.
Our time in Taiwan has also taught us to be more patient with the friends. Before this experience, I would easily get worked up by some careless or thoughtless remark made by a brother or sister. But this experience put us through the fire, and I can only hope that we came out a little more refined.
One of the greatest gifts this experience gave me was a strengthened relationship with my sister. After Chynna left, we were all we had in that foreign, unfamiliar place. And we learned to rely on each other more than we ever had to in the past. We weren’t above the bad times, but those bad times were the reason we grew the way we did together. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way 🙂
Though our return visits weren’t many, and my Bible studies were sparse and short-lasted, the greatest experience we had in Taiwan was helping someone find Jehovah. It wasn’t someone we met in the field ministry, or someone we met while informal witnessing. It was Patty. Our sweet friend, Patty.
You’ve already read about her in some of my old posts, but there have been some developments since then. Well, a development. She’s getting baptized this year! And we left Taiwan with her being one of our closest friends – not just in Taiwan, but for life. She wrote us a card where she expressed how much our friendship has meant to her over the past year, and we can say that the feeling is definitely mutual. She told us that when we came to Taiwan she was at one of the lowest points in her life and couldn’t see Jehovah as being real. She said that things started to slowly change after she met us. And I do believe that part of the reason why is because she got a taste of just how worldwide the brotherhood really is. Whatever the reason, her expressions helped us leave with peace of mind. The tears, the frustrations, the stress…they were all worth it in the end. Even if it was just to play a small part in a young girl coming to know Jehovah. We saw her through from that first Bible study we attended where she looked at us with doubt and uncertainty, all the way to the moment she confidently walked up to the demonic temple her parents worshipped at to withdraw her membership. And that’s something we never experienced before.
A few days before we left, a brother told us that the congregation’s young ones started to progress after we three foreigners moved in. He said this was the greatest thing we accomplished because we brought a breathe of fresh air into the congregation which motivated some of the young ones to take a look at their own lives. This also gave us an immense sense of inner peace, because it had always been our greatest fear that we had been failures as “need-greaters.”
When all is said and done, there really is a part of me that will always remain in Taiwan.
I will miss waking up in the morning to the sounds of a Taiwanese wedding marching through the streets below.
I will miss weaving in and out of traffic on our nifty scooter, taking in the sun and the warm breeze on summer days.
I will miss taking our service breaks at the 7/11 on the corner, where we would buy candy to munch on while resting on the outdoor patio set.
I will miss the nights we spent panicking trying to find a service arrangement in the dark, on our scooter, and with nothing but Chinese street signs to lead the way.
I will miss the homegrown fruits and vegetables that the friends would give us at almost every meeting.
I will miss the giant cypress trees of Alishan, the rolling waves of Kenting, and the dazzling lights of Taipei.
I will miss the waffle cafe on the corner and all the lazy mornings spent there.
I will miss having to translate grocery receipts using Google translate and never knowing exactly what I bought.
I will miss confusing the garbage truck for the ice cream truck.
I will miss the kiddos I taught for nearly a year, and the endless games of Sticky Ball and Heads Up that we would play.
I will miss trying to decide where to go to lunch with Patty after working out in service together on the weekend.
I will miss coming home from a long, hot service day and having a bubble-gum flavored popsicle before collapsing on the couch for a nap.
I will miss mouth-watering beef noodle soup, deliciously sweet bubble tea, and, yes, even the nasty smell of stinky tofu.
I will miss the way we rewarded ourselves after a Sunday spent cleaning the house by walking to the local mom and pop shaved ice vendor for a treat.
I will even miss that stupid slingbox and the way my sister and I had to get up off the couch once every ten minutes to fix it after it inevitably crashed while we tried to watch our favorite shows.
But what I will miss the absolute most is best summed up in a famous quote:
You’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.
In a lot of ways, Taiwan really had become home to us. After traveling to other Asian countries and returning to Taiwan, our eyes would always be comforted by the sight of Taoyuan International Airport from above. I think in some ways, that feeling will never completely go away.
Sorry this post was so unorganized and all over the place. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been in the air for 16 hours and trying to organize your thoughts after making such a big decision. But I think it’s ok…it’s raw and completely unedited. It’s the truth.
What’s next for us? I’m not sure. Originally, I wanted to be done with this whole experience. There were so many negatives at one point, I never wanted to see myself in this field again. But…I can already tell that time and distance are going to heal the bad, and eventually, I will see the good in what we accomplished – especially how far we’ve come with the Chinese language. So we’re thinking our plans may be bringing us back by the end of this year…but not to Taiwan. Across the strait, maybe? We’ve come so far with this language we’d hate to lose it, or abandon it completely. We’ll see…
But I don’t want to stress about it too much…for now, my biggest concern is how to kill the four remaining hours of this incredibly long flight 😉
To all my friends and family back home:
I’ll see you on the other side 🙂