Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Letter 2009

In spite of 2009 being a difficult year for many in view of the global economic recession and various natural disasters, this year will certainly be one that we as a family will have many good memories of. It was our second year as a family living in Kaohsiung in Southern Taiwan. Jocelyn was able to buy a good bicycle and to discover the joys of riding relatively long distances in sometimes difficult terrain. I myself also bought a "real" mountain bike and one that was the right size for me. In addition, I was able to swim the whole year outdoors in two different 50 meter pools.
Occasionally, Jocelyn and I were able to get away from the city of Kaohsiung, even if it was just for a couple of days a couple of hours away. Both our boys applied to colleges and were accepted, with James going to Surrey, England to study for a BA in filmmaking and photography, and Morrison going to Elmhurst in Illinois to study international business. I was able to work hard throughout the year, mostly from home or wherever else in the neighborhood I felt able to concentrate, and to meet all their tuition, accommodation and general living expenses by the due dates.
In my generally busy life, I was sometimes able to appreciate the beauty of flowers, like these bourgain villea, as well as banana trees. I enjoy eating bananas, and so I am thankful for the many banana trees that flourish in the warm weather here. To try to maintain some balance in life and not let work completely take over, I tried to swim for about one hour per day about five days per week, and also went on quite a few bike rides, mostly with Jocelyn, in addition to using a bike to get around town, usually to the swimming pool, as going to work mostly only involved going up or down stairs.
Jocelyn was able to become increasingly involved in counseling younger women and church ministry activities and to develop her many unique giftings in these areas. She was also able to help with a fairly difficult translation I was given to do, as well as to work for the local city government as a counselor among some of the many indigenous peoples displaced by the disastrous landslides and flooding in the mountains not far away from us in August this year.
Ten years ago, at the start of the new decade, we as a family were still getting used to living in Hawai'i, where we had only been a couple of months, but subsequently stayed for another seven and a half years. When we returned to Taiwan in 2007, James had finished high school, but Morrison still had one year left (of home schooling). At that time and especially for the boys, the future looked somewhat threatening and uncertain. We are pleased with what happened this year, and thankful for having great friends, great supporters (through work) and a great God. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Confucius' Birthday 孔子誕辰日

As the world was getting ready to go to work on Monday morning, a gathering of faithful disciples of the great sage and teacher Confucius, ceremonial participants and a smallish group of curious onlookers made their way to the Confucius Temple in Tsoying, Kaohsiung to commemorate the day of his birthday about 2,560 years ago.
I was a little in two minds as to whether to go or not. I wasn't sure if the ceremony would be held here and thought it might start very early, say at 4:00 a.m. However, since I could not take good pictures in the dark, I waited until nearly 6:00 a.m. before leaving for the 15 to 20 minute bike ride to get there. I was greeted by this huge gate. Fortunately, the smaller red gates on the left had been opened and in I went.
This brought me into the following courtyard, and another gate. These gates weren't open and I had to go round to the left and enter the Temple forecourt from there.
I thought I might as well have been standing somewhere like the Forbidden City in Beijing. It was about 6:20 a.m. I was told that the ceremony would start at 7:00 a.m. sharp. At least I hadn't missed it.
Just before the 50-minute- long ceremony commenced, various participants took their positions.
The people dressed in red appeared to perform various duties like carrying incense, etc.
The people dressed in yellow appeared to be elementary school children. At least they hopefully can carry on the tradition in the future.
The people in black were modern-day disciples of Confucius, people no doubt who study Confucius' writings in depth. Many of them looked as if they could have been university professors. After all, you almost have to be one to understand the Four Books.
This was the first time I had ever tried to attend this ceremony. Many years ago when I studied Chinese in Taipei, the ceremony there was held very early and there was no way that I could get up at such an unearthly hour.
This is the entrance to the "front gate" from the inside of the courtyard.
I very much liked the mix of colors - red, yellow and black.
When I was a student of Chinese in the early 1980s in Taipei, one of my teachers spent about six months teaching us a lot of passages directly from Confucius' writings in classical Chinese.
I also had a teacher named Kung (孔), who claimed that she was the 75th-generation descendent of Confucius. At least she was somehow able to trace her ancestry that far back. At the time she taught us, she was in her 60s, and was an expert in Chinese literature.
In the past, one of the research institutions where I worked held a conference on "Confucianism and Economic Development". While the evidence isn't conclusive, Confucianism is believed to be partly responsible for the economic success stories of Taiwan and several other Asian countries.
Carrying incense.
In the olden days, these axes would no doubt have been real.
Standing guard on the other side of the gate.
Several "consecrations" were held.
The children who participated posed for a photo afterwards.
I decided to get my photo taken, too, for the record.
Outside the temple complex is a wall with a lot of engaving on it.
This close-up picture of the wall reminds me of Confucius. That is how I imagine he was.
View from a bridge crossing the Lotus Pond. The building on the right is the one where the ceremony was held.
Looking towards Gu Mountain in the other direction from the Confucius temple. Although it was about 8:15 a.m. on a Monday morning, everything seemed so peaceful. Somewhere in the distance, the city of Kaohsiung was bustling with people going about their daily business.

Monday, September 14, 2009

"I would rather be a chicken's head!"

Not a big running track, but this track at the nearby Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages has a good surface and is completely surrounded by buildings so one doesn't hear the sound of cars. So far I haven't seen people use it (the summer vacation is very hot after all), but I do hope to try out my running shoes here as it gets cooler. I will need to bike home (5 minutes) to have a shower, as I haven't seen those outside showers like we had in Hawaii.

There is a well-known saying in Chinese that states "I’d rather be the head of the chicken rather than the tail of the ox." When I first came to Taiwan, I had not had much work experience before (as in the U.K.), but what particularly surprised me was that most people who gave me name cards had the title of "President" or something similar. Of course, a few might have been big powerful bosses, but the vast majority were "one-man bands" or else very small businesses with just a few family members as employees. However, it was these "small businesspeople" who had a huge part to play in Taiwan's phenomenal economic success story.
The Library at the Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages is less than five minutes by bike from my home. This is a great place to work at in the mornings, although one is never sure of being let in as they limit the number of outsiders who can use it on any given day. However, the library is full of books in French, German, Spanish and Japanese, if only I had the time to read them. If I cannot get in, I can usually bike to the Golden Lion Lake reading room (see below) in at most ten minutes.

When I finished college in England, I did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to do as a career, and at the time the only options were to be an employee of any firm that would employ me. Hopefully, the firm I joined would help me further my career, but invariably the firms I joined were at most stepping stones to an uncertain future and were usually quite slippery, meaning that I did not easily make it from one stone to the next.
The Golden Lion Lake, five minutes by bike from my home. This is the view from the bridge I ride across to go to the reading room where I often work late afternoons.

Even in Taiwan, after going back to school for a few years to study Chinese, I looked for a job that would give me a steady paycheck, and while I had some nice working environments (like well a air-conditioned office, and even a plush carpet in one case), I was generally in one of two situations. The first was where I had a steady, not-too-demanding job, but where it was not really possible to save much money or advance my career. The second was where I had a very demanding and challenging job with quite good pay, where I was able to save, but I had little security for the future as I never knew quite what would happen next.
The Golden Lion Lake reading room. This air-conditioned public reading room is open six days a week from about 8:30 am to 7:45 pm. A place I often go to from 5 pm until it closes (when there are few people). I can spread my work out on the table.

I guess that, apart from issues like job fulfillment, pay, career development, etc., I have never been a good team player. In most group activities, whether in paid or voluntary work, I have always tended to be at the far back of the orchestra, and in such situations I have felt frustrated, unable to follow my dreams and have felt my life has been wasted.
Burning paper money to appease the spirits during ghost month. This is so much part of the traditional Taiwanese culture here, that these kinds of fires are being seen all over the place.

So for the time being, I am "doing my own thing" as regards work, supporting my family and preparing for the future. I strategize and make plans on my own, and I mostly work on my own. I am not trying to further the cause of any organization, save my own reputation. I am, however, seeking to pursue excellence in what I do. In fact the work I do is little understood, perhaps not surprisingly since it involves the Chinese language, but I am convinced that if I can keep pace with the new developments constantly taking place, I am confident that as a chicken's head as opposed to an ox's tail, I can still continue to find my way in this increasingly integrated but at times unsteady world.
Tables laid out for an offering during the ghost month outside a temple next to the Golden Lion Lake.

I continue to swim regularly, although with both children now in full-time education, I am currently unable to devote as much time to sports as I would like, and work is often a higher priority. Hopefully, my swimming will not slow down too much before I have the chance to visit Hawai'i again.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Recap on the Last Two Months

It is over two months since my last blog post. I have recently been posting to Twitter, mostly so that I can write to myself and see what the few people I have been following are up to, maybe unknown to them. Anyway, I am thankful for the few friends who do follow me on Twitter (there is a link on the right), and no doubt they sometimes see my postings.

The main reason I have not posted on this blog is because I have been very busy. There just does not seem to be time to post things, and I sometimes feel bad about posting things, especially if it distracts me from my work. My swimming has been affected, too. While I still swim about 10 km per week, I often swim slowly and seldom feel out of breath, meaning that I go too easy.

A few months ago, our younger son was accepted to study at a college in Chicago (see the previous posting) and soon after that I thought we could just about afford it. Then our elder son attended a UK universities exhibition in our home town in Taiwan and was subsequently accepted by a university in South-East England to start an honors degree program this September. James has often tended to be a last-minute person, and this was no exception. We received the university offer for him only in June.

While this is of course good news, it has put added pressure on me. It's a bit like trying to ride the waves. If you can stay on the board, then it's great, but if the waves overwhelm you, then you sink! I am not one to consider borrowing money (even if it were an option), and so each day I have to be very disciplined with my work (fortunately I don't lack it), to make sure I am doing everything possible to make our children's university dreams a reality.

On this posting I attach a few pictures taken in recent weeks and months to serve as a reminder of some of the more interesting things I have seen or done in an otherwise busy life.
Kaohsiung (in south Taiwan) hosted the 2009 World Games and we attended the opening ceremony with 50,000 other people. This is only a few miles from our home. The wooden canoe is a traditional hand-carved boat used by the Yami indigenous tribe living on Orchid Island off the east coast of Taiwan.

A fisherwoman casts her net into Kaohsiung harbor. In the distance is the tallest building in southern Taiwan (85 storeys). The image is not very sharp as it was late in the day.
View from our rooftop. Not very exciting - naphtha crackers, a congested overpass, and some hills in the distance. Part of life in a big city.
Sunset over Cheng Ching Lake in Kaohsiung. Our home is about one mile behind the building sticking up to the left of the setting sun (the incinerator shown in other pictures below). I see this lake each morning on my way to the pool.
Not the moon, but rather the sun during a partial solar eclipse on July 22 about 9:30 a.m. Taken through 4 pairs of sunglasses on the roof of our house. A little hit and miss!
The gabage incinerator which is a major landmark in our immediate area seen behind a rice field. If you click on the image you will see that is carries an ad for the World Games.
A sign along the bike trail that goes along one side of Cheng Ching Lake, with the words being backlit by the setting sun.
Jocelyn standing with her bike next to two mascots of the Kaohsiung World Games. This was taken near the Love Pier by Kaohsiung Harbor, a place that we can bike to mostly along designated riverside bike routes.
The new wetlands park a few hundred meters from our house. The garbage incinerator is in the opposite direction to our house.
Not sure what these things are, maybe some kind of eggs. At least they have an important part to play in maintaining the ecosystem in these wetlands, something that has been neglected for too long.
Bananas, just yards away from the pink eggs. Grown privately on public land.
A excellent local jazz band performing on a stage set up by the river along which we ride our bikes. Well worth stopping to listen.
Jocelyn and me in our cycling gear on the sea wall having just arrived too late to watch the sunset over the ocean next to Kaohsiung's National Sun Yat-Sen University.

We are not doing anything special this summer, just spending time with the boys mostly at home as they get ready for the adventure of their lives. Hopefully, as time passes and more work gets done, there will be a little time to relax later.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Living the American Dream - in the U.S.!

On the way to the U.S. (Don't worry, the cards have either expired or are samples used as fridge magnets!)

Many of us have grown up dreaming of living the American Dream, including myself. As a teenager, I used to regularly play golf with a couple of American friends who were living with their families in England because their fathers worked with U.S. organizations based in London. At university when studying economics, I found that much of the economics literature was written by Americans, and while I at times dreamed of one day going there to live, it all seemed a little beyond my reach.

For our younger son, Morrison, the dream may be a little easier to realize than it was for me, since I did not first set foot in the United States until I was nearly 40. Morrison visited the U.S. for a few months when he was four, and then in 5th grade when he was 10 went there where he graduated from Kahakai Elementary School, Kailua-Kona, Hawai'i, and spent in total almost 8 years of his life in Hawai'i.
Morrison on a beach in Taitung, East Taiwan (photo taken by his brother James)

At the end of our time in Hawai'i, Morrison still had one more year of high school, and upon our return to Taiwan, things looked a little uncertain. Life was also a little hard for Morrison at that time, as he had to leave all his good friends in Hawai'i and complete his high-school studies by correspondence. Having been home schooled for almost all of his teenage years, would he be accepted into a U.S. college? There were also other things like SAT scores that he had to concern himself about. I myself had not paid much attention to these issues and even wondered if he could take these tests on Taiwan.
Morrison on Mount Alishan, Central/Southern Taiwan (photo taken by his mother)

When Morrison attended a small cooperative school in Hawai'i at around the age of 12, the teachers looked at each child and chose a character trait to describe what it was that each child had that caused him or her to excel. For Morrison, the character trait was "Determination". During the last two years in Taiwan, Morrison was certainly determined. In spite of a very laid back life in Hawai'i during his mid-teen years when his school performance was very so-so (homeschooling often seemed to be "no schooling"), Morrison's grades improved year by year and, even in subjects he found difficult, he managed to complete his assignments on time and get good grades. To prepare for the SAT test, he bought a large book full of practice tests and would sit in the local library for three hours at a time doing practice tests. While his written English (understandably) may have left a little to be desired, his Math scores got higher and higher.

Morrison applied to three U.S. colleges and was accepted by all of them. After careful deliberation, Morrison settled on Elmhurst College in Illinois where he will read for a B.A. in International Business starting this fall. Last week Morrison went to the American Institute in Taiwan to be interviewed for his student visa and now he has that, the next step will be to book a flight to Chicago some time in August.
Elmhurst College - Langhorst Football Field (Courtesy of the National Athletic Testing System)

Studying in the U.S. is not cheap, even though Morrison fortunately was able to secure a more generous scholarship than I had expected, given our circumstances. However, as a parent, I am confident that the money that I invest in Morrison over these next few years will be well worth it, as I know from being around him all these years that he is very careful with money, and he is also someone who can be entrusted with other people's money. In Hawai'i, a few of his friends for certain periods of time actually left some of their savings with him for safekeeping, to make sure that the money would otherwise not be spent when they were saving up for things like relatively expensive overseas trips.
Elmhurst College, Illinois, established in 1871 as a seminary, and today offering a liberal arts education. About 10 miles from Wheaton College and about 40 minutes from the middle of Chicago.

Of course, just going to America does not guarantee success, and one can be successful in all kinds of places, particularly in Taiwan as I in a small way have discovered for myself. However, as anyone who has lived in the U.S. for a length of time will realize, the United States is a land of opportunity, a land that treats people with due respect, regardless of their ethnicity, color or religious beliefs, a land which values the liberty of the individual, and a land in which one can easily make a lot of friends.

As for me, the U.S. is a country that I feel I can be a part of without being one of its citizens (which I might well be if the process was a little easier!). During my eight years there, I could relate to what was going on, from the 9-11 tragedy, to Katrina, to the sporadic campus shootings, as well as to the more successful events like the return to earth of the space shuttle or the inauguration of the nation's first black president, Barack Obama. However, I am also European, and have lived much of my life (and continue to live) in Taiwan, and so I guess I will visit the U.S. for relatively short trips from now on. I hope that the next few years that Morrison spends in the U.S. attending college will be enjoyable and will help prepare him for whatever lies ahead, wherever that may be.
Morrison doing what he enjoys - skateboarding - somewhere in Southern Taiwan (photo taken by his brother or one of those with him at the time!)