Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ethan goes to church. And lunch. And some class.

I'll start with some bad news, because I didn't know where else to put it:
1. Raphael won't be meeting with me for language exchange for another week and a half; instead, he's spending his days at the library studying for the upcoming national college entrance exams.
2. I'm still sick-ish. I'm functional, and I can't say this is too unusual for me - illnesses tend to hang around for a while when they find me. But what I'm afraid of is that it'll turn out that I'm allergic to mold in my apartment or something (I only got sick 3 days in, after all), and that I'll be constantly slightly under the weather for the next few months.

Now to the real stuff:

On Sunday morning, I met up with the two Zhang sisters and three of their friends - Xiao Qi, Yu San, and Wen Hui - for a Christian service at the New Life Church, the second biggest Christian church in Taipei. First things first, though: at the gates, staff members put a device up to everyone's forehead, to check their temperature and find out whether they might have H1n1/swine flu. I didn't have very many expectations for the church itself, but I guess I must have expected it to look or feel vaguely similar to the few services I've been to back home.

Not at all.

I hadn't been paying a lot of attention to where we were going (speaking Chinese takes a certain amount of focus), so I was caught off-guard when I found myself in a massive, packed high school auditorium of over 2,000 people. We had to split up despite being 20 minutes early, and I managed to end up separated from the rest of them because the church staff thought it important that they assign one of their several English-speaking members to sit next to me. Thus I ended up sitting in the back balcony next to "Jackie," a big guy in his thirties(?) who - naturally - really wants me to speak English with me, be my friend, and convince me to become a Christian. I couldn't find it within myself to refuse to give him my e-mail address, so we're now facebook friends and he's sent me an e-mail urging me to come to next week's events.

The church membership looked to be was at least 60% youths, all in their (very hip) street clothes; I stood out a bit because of that, though I was only in cargo slacks and a semi-nice collared t-shirt. (Being the only westerner there might also have made me a bit conspicuous.) Several of them wanted to introduce themselves - and practice their English - and for a minute I felt like a minor celebrity.

Then the service started. Those of you who have been to a U.S. "megachurch" might not be surprised by my description, but for me, the service was like nothing I had seen before.

The first hour was devoted to standing and to singing, led by the "worship team" - basically a modern rock band plus backup singers, specializing in poppy songs about Jesus. With their guitars, dyed mohawks, they could easily have driven straight to a club to play their next gig. I tried my best to "do as the Romans do," relieved that I had been separated from the group because I could now feel (slightly) less self-conscious about it all. So what were the Romans doing? Clapping our hands on 2 and 4 for a while (loudly; Jackie clearly had no sense of beat), and leaving off during certain sections in the tune to raise one hand, arm slightly crooked, in a vaguely praising gesture. A well-equipped camera crew provided live feed to the three large screens in the front of the stage, alternating between shots of the audience and close-ups of the "worship team."

When we were all rocked out, we sat down to hear a few speeches - but not before the first-time attendees had been asked to stand up (Jackie insisted that I join them). I didn't see how the others were treated; all I know is that after a thunderous applause, everyone around me wanted to shake my hand, and I was actually given a gift (which turned out to be - surprise - a Taiwanese pop CD) by a member of the church staff. One of the speakers apparently said something about the importance of giving to the church, at which point at least half of the folks around me put bills into the envelopes that had been placed on our chairs before we sat down. I saw a lot of $1000s - about $32 US, though that goes much farther in Taiwan.

Then a man who looked to be in his late 40s stood up and walked to the podium, and the band left the stage. I recognized him from earlier: when he had passed by my seat before the singing started, I had remarked to myself that he was probably the hippest middle-aged guy around, somewhat reminiscent of a more conservatively dressed Elton John. Elton turned out to be today's main preacher, delivering a passionate, 90-minute sermon, complete with jokes and exhortation, that according to Jackie focused on purification and baptism. But I could only catch a word or phrase here and there ("I tell you!" was popular), plus the obligatory English terms: "amen" and "hallelujah," so it all went over my head. The guy was definitely engaging anyway, though, so despite the lack of help - Jackie didn't really do any other translating and was instead doing something, hopefully church-related, on his cell phone most of the time - I wasn't as bored as I might have been.

After the sermon, we all got up for some more singing; I was then ushered out by Jackie, and some other members of the congregation who were very determined to be helpful, and brought to where the Zhangs and friends were hanging out. We circled up for a brief prayer in Chinese, and on our way to the car Li Wei explained to me that she just comes because it's a fun time - but that this service wasn't - so of course now I'm wondering what constitutes "fun."

To make a long story short, lunch/hanging out with the gang lasted forever and consisted of expensive but delicious Italian food, random Taiwanese kids' games (e.g., rock-paper-scissors redux), a lot of jokingly inappropriate questions and body language - I can't think of another situation in which I will have a cute Taiwanese girl offer to feed me - and plenty of laughing. Raphael joined us after a little while and translated, which was good because I wouldn't have understood a lot of things otherwise, but bad because I was actually having a great time struggling to communicate in Chinese on our way there. I left with some photos on my camera and a new task: coming up with English names for the five girls. I've only done one so far - for the oldest sister, Dai Ling - but it's perfect.


The contrast between the friends is significant, at least at an initial level. The two sisters, Li Wei [second from right] and Dai Ling [left], are both tiny but loud and fierce, and a little masculine; Xiao Qi [right] is slightly masculine too, but also extremely quiet, self-effacing, and tends to look pretty Goth; Yu San [center] is noticeably taller than the rest of them but doesn't walk tall and stayed almost completely silent (she wasn't feeling so well, they said); and Wen Hui [second from left] is the epitome of the cute, beauty-obsessed Taiwanese girl: if you look closely you'll notice the short skirt, the lipstick, the designer purse, the perfectly straight hair, the blouse, the made-up face, and the umbrella. (It is not an uncommon practice for girls here to carry one everywhere, especially on sunny days, to keep their skin paler and therefore "prettier.")

A word on typhoons: I know I mentioned them earlier as something I should maybe look into/prepare for, but I never really followed up on that. Apparently they're not quite as rare as I thought - two serious ones hit Taiwan last year - and the guy online who was talking about keeping extra food, water, and lamps with batteries on hand wasn't just being an alarmist. I also found out from Li Wei and Raphael that a typhoon had been forecasted for Sunday night, but the latest news was that it would miss us. (It did, mostly, though the southern half of the island got hit a bit.) I shouldn't really be missing a day of Taiwanese news podcasts, but just in case I do I've asked Raphael to call me if he hears anything about another one.

These past three days have seen my first real ICLP classes. I have three classes a day (about 2.5 hours): an individual and then 4-person class both built around a textbook of dialogues; and one 3-person class in which we read from a book of "Chinese Moral Tales." Ideally I think I should be spending about five hours per night studying, though more is always better.

The textbook seems to be at about my level, I have my individual and at first it seemed by far the easier of the two, but it turns out I was very wrong. The speed at which we're ripping through it is ridiculous: for me, there were 50 new words in the first lesson, plus sentence patterns/grammar that I'm struggling with, and tomorrow we're already starting on the second. Needless to say, I've spent a lot of time preparing, but I'm already behind and I'm only just realizing it.

The book of moral tales seemed extremely difficult at first - I barely understood the topic of the story after listening to it thrice, let alone what was actually going on - but once I slogged through the vocabulary it wasn't bad. Its sentences are pretty simple in their structure, and the teacher isn't at all concerned with us learning to write the characters, so it's very much a verbal/audio class. Also, we go slower than I feared (maybe too slow, even), because I happen to be better at it than my two classmates: one is better at writing but a little bit worse at speaking, and another is significantly worse at speaking/comprehension, with the most abominable Chinese accent (very French!) I've ever heard in my life.

The strange thing about this whole thing is that I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to be doing. Besides the schedule for material to be covered in the classes themselves, the most I've gotten from any teacher so far has been a directive to prepare answers to a few questions and a suggestion on how to study the new vocabulary; for example, I only knew that I didn't need to learn how to write the Moral Tales characters because I asked. ICLP doesn't give grades per se, and there will be a large "mid-term quiz" but I have no idea what it will be on. It's also hard to really ask because everyone has different classes and we're not allowed to speak English here, but the idea seems to be that beyond certain requirements (e.g., the questions; being prepared to discuss in class), we'll go through a ton of material and get out of it... whatever we want.

Upon reflection, I think I like that a lot and I've already formulated a vague idea of what I do want to get out of it: from Moral Tales, I want purely aural/oral vocabulary, both the set that the teacher highlights as important and the ones that seem most useful to me; from the textbook, I want a lot of new sentence patterns and vocabulary (including character recognition, and writing ability when feasible), as well as the ability to read (and, again, write when feasible) traditional characters. What I want from the textbook is a very tall order, though, considering the speed at which we're moving through it; I may have to set some more feasible goals in a week or so.

This is wildly different from the Yale method of teaching, in which we were given very specific classwork and homework each day and night, with a quiz every day and a larger exam about every week. I was really happy with the Yale formula, though, which I think is kind of a strange paradox considering my enthusiasm for the diametrically opposed method that (I think) I'm currently working with at ICLP. I suppose that both can have merits; maybe they're even best used to complement each other. Either way, although it's early in the game, it seems to me that the classes that I'm taking could use two pretty key changes:
1. Slow down on the textbook! Independent or no, there's no way I can fully absorb what I want out of it in the time we're being given.
2. More rote learning! When you're talking about full sentences, rote memorization of common patterns is key to speaking Chinese and not sounding like an idiot. I think this is an aspect where the Yale system shines. Then again, I guess I could and should be doing rote memorization on my own without being quizzed on it - so maybe it's really just a subset of #1, and I'm just finding that I can't cram the many new sentence patterns of this first lesson into my head in a mere three days.

ICLP students playing Ma Jiang in the student lounge:

I again apologize for the length of these posts. My next update will probably be on Monday. I'll hopefully have some good stuff to tell you about: a visit to the National Palace Museum on Saturday (I'm not a big museum fan, but this is purportedly one of the best art museums in Asia and indeed the world), dinner at the Zhangs' (and then maybe church and lunch again on Sunday?!). I was reading the bit of Madison's blog about rude Beijing people, and I thought again about how ridiculously lucky I am to 1) have come to Taiwan, 2) gone to the right hostel, and 3) been semi-adopted by the Zhangs; I can't describe how great it feels to have something like Saturday night dinner to look forward to all week.

May you find good company wherever you are,


  1. Great post! Yes, different teaching styles can be a real plus. Ultimately you're learning how to direct your own studies, which can have a huge pay off. =)

  2. One of the funniest descriptions of a church service I've read in recent memory...