Rated Argh!


I recently had a discussion with one of the older members of my youth group present where we discussed the movie Schindler’s List.   I said that movie was one of the very few movies I’ve ever seen in which the sex scenes were valuable to the story-line, and that I felt weren’t a barrier to me watching.  She seemed a bit shocked that I would say something like that.  So did several others (everyone else was an adult), and I felt myself trying to back out of the rhetorical corner I had put myself in.  I don’t feel that I did a good job of explanation.  Maybe I’ll do better here.

First off, I concede that a very valid and well thought out rebuttal could be made to everything I am about to say, and I don’t feel that this is a philosophical hill that I am prepared to die on.  But I do feel that what I said had validity, and I do stand behind my point.

Most of the Christian reaction to sex scenes stems from two things.  First, most movies contain sex scenes that are designed only to titillate.  Whole summer blockbusters are often created just for the possibility that teenagers might spend money to see their favorite star mostly naked, and hear graphic talk about sex.  I would firmly agree with the Christians who are against that.  Heck, I would lead the charge.

The second reason is a bit less reasoned, though.  In much of unspoken Christian theology is the idea that sexual sins are worse than other sins.  While there is a defining element to sexual sin that makes it very insipid, there is no biblical allusion to sex being worse than any other sin.  In fact, most of it is vestigial from Catholic doctrine of original sin being passed through sexual contact in procreation.  In short, Mary must have been a virgin because otherwise Jesus would have been born sinful already.  Further, Mary must have been born of a virgin, otherwise her sin would have passed to Jesus.

Because of this theological fallacy, and the inherent personal nature of sex, many Christians view sex on film as being the thing that makes a movie particularly unwatchable.  But gross violence is often an afterthought.  Coarse language?  Not a big deal.  Violent crime…eh…OK.  But sex, NO WAY!

The fact that Schindler’s List depicts the horrific murder of over 6 million people, and uses actual footage in many cases was never shocking in my conversation the other night.  But when I mentioned that there were 2 sex scenes, looks of horror were shared.  This does not make sense to me, the more I think about it.

There is another step that we must take in looking at all of this.  For the Christian, watching a movie cannot be merely an exercise in entertainment.  We have a mandate to connect the story of our lives, others’ lives, and all of humanity, with God’s story of redemption.  We are committed to the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19-20).  We must look at a movie like Schindler’s List and see God’s ever-reaching arms.  There are many movies that I have A-little desire to see and B-little desire to try and connect to that story of redemption, but any good story that isn’t pure trash I feel differently about.  Schindler’s List is one of those movies.

The sex scenes in that movie show a deeply flawed man, who is moving through a process of learning to see the great value in these people who are being treated as vermin by those around him.  Could those scenes show the same thing without being graphic at all, probably.  But the same could be said about telling the story without showing people being gassed to death, or cremated en mass.

I would never recommend a child see such a movie, simply because the themes are far too mature.  But there are many real life things that adults should know about that I don’t think little children should.  I think that adults should know of genocide in Rwanda, or Terrorist attacks on buses of Israeli school children.  The story of Oskar Schindler is a true story, an adult story, and ultimately a story that helps reveal a little of the heart of God.   -Ryan

Please stay tuned for Part 2 of this short series to debut later this week.  If you’d like to stay updated on this and other posts from RyanShinn.com, consider clicking the small RSS button on the very upper right of this web page.

Leading a Mutiny?

OldYoungI need to start off this article with a short disclaimer.  I got started down this philosophical road by an article in Matt Crosslin’s blog, which he started as a response to a Relevant Magazine article, “Is There a Church Mutiny Afoot?” I started my part of the discussion several weeks ago, but was unsatisfied with what I’d written.  I felt that my thoughts on the issue were too muddled, and in some ways I still feel that way.  One of the reasons I write this blog is to put legs on ideas, and in so doing, bring a little clarity to them.  That is the only reason I have put this up.  It is important for any reader to understand that none of this is combative, although the issue of Christian ambition does strike a bit of a sore spot with me.  Further, I have no animosity toward Matt or Relevant.  In fact, I feel the opposite.  Some great illumination has come to me through the reading of both.  It is in the healthy debate that I feel the greatest good is served.

“I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid.” G.K. Chesterton

A recent article in Relevant Magazine equated ministry to young adults as a mutiny, particularly when it is “a young adult service” aimed at creating a new expression of worship in a gathering at the church.  I must start this rebuttal by saying, I wholeheartedly agree.  I think that young-adult ministries trying to create their own worship service with younger sounding music and younger-sounding preaching (whatever that is) is at its core born in rebellion.  But in my mind, the real questions are “Why is rebellion always bad?” and “How can younger leaders take over the reins of Church leadership without it being seen as rebellion?”

So if this is rebellion, what is being rebelled against?  Is it the adolescent rebellion that says, “Whatever you say, I’ll do the opposite”?  I don’t think so.   It is less a rebellion of theology, or a rejection of older people in the faith, but a rejection of structures that have been broken for a long time.  Erwin McManus is one of those rebelling.  He has said that his goal is to dismantle the Church, and rebuild it as Christ would want it.  He isn’t rebelling for the sake of wanting to do his own thing.  He is rebelling because he says a deep fundamental brokenness that needs to be fixed.

We also have to look at modern church history and realize that these people aren’t rebelling against Christ-instituted structures that have been in place for more than 2000 years.  In fact, many younger people are more counter-rebelling against a rebellion that started in the late 60’s and flourished through the 80’s.  During that time, much of what the defined the Church was thrown out, sometimes because it was not working, but other times because it was “old.”  I recall hearing a successful Christian leader in the early 90’s say, “People are just interested in hearing about things like salvation anymore.  They just want to know how to fix their marriage.  We can’t talk about those old concepts any longer.”  That was rebellion.

But we have to admit that things seem to be broken at the moment.  Church influence in America is waning.  Fewer Americans are claiming a Christian allegiance.  Young Americans are leaving the Church in droves.  The Relevant article points to this statistic as a sign of arrogance and in some sense, I must agree.  This generation is an arrogant one, and this arrogance must be partly to blame.  But all statistical analysis of this trend shows that the primary reasons for young people leaving the Church is that they just don’t find it essential to their lives (see The Essential Church).  This is also not because the young have decided to go it alone, but because the Church has often made itself irrelevant by continuing to do things because “that’s just what we do.”  Often times people walk away from these events thinking “That simply wasn’t valuable to me at all.”

Younger leaders in the Church see all of this happening and want to do something about it.  After all, eternities hang in the balance.  Matt Crosslin writes in his blog that

“People in the 20 somethings age bracket really do feel that older adults have nothing to offer them. I have heard them say it directly occasionally.”

He says that this disdain is often veiled in an explanation of how older adults advice on how they dealt with a problem 20 years ago is not helpful in dealing with similar circumstances today.  I would agree with Matt that any person who thinks along those lines would be falling prey to the same fallacy that Chesterton’s quote in the beginning of this article mentioned.  I would also agree that there are significant numbers of 20-somethings who would think this.  But I don’t think that forms much of the basis for why wise leaders of this movement of young adults are doing what they are doing.

Why are wiser leaders leading this rebellion?  The common cliché is that “leaders lead.”  But I am sure that the truth of that quote goes far beyond stating what leaders do.  The depth of the statement comes from its reflexive nature.  Those leading are often leading because they are leaders.  Leadership is in them.  It is who they are, not just what they do.  Young leaders are doing exactly that.

Steve Robbins, the director of Vineyard Leadership Institute, points out that one of the reasons that churches must church-plant is that young leaders will leave when not given the opportunity to lead.  He point out that this isn’t because these young people are arrogant or rude, but that they feel they have a call from God to lead.  They feel that they can do something to make a difference in the world around them.

But much of Christendom seems to think that any time that younger leaders want to lead that is inspired by some form of insipid disrespectful, ego lead, rebellious zeal that undermines the Church.  For some reason, the Church is one of the few institutions where it is seen as somehow evil for young people to have ambition and a desire to lead.

Paul instructed Timothy to not allow others to look down on him because of his youth (1 Tim 4:12).  He set up Timothy to lead, and took joy in him.  He also taught him how to lead, and instructed that he learn from those more mature.  Isn’t that what any good leader would do?

I think that we primarily bristle against the idea of young Christian leaders in general because it seems to smell a little like ambition.  We all know that ambition is against God’s will…Um…oh wait…is it?  The Bible guards against “selfish ambition” (Gal 5:20, Phil 1:17, Phil 2:3, Jas 3:14, et al.) and “vain conceit” (Phil 2:3).  But the Bible doesn’t decry ambition on the whole.  In fact, it was Paul’s ambition to take the gospel to Rome.  It was King David’s ambition to build God’s temple.  It was Hezekiah’s ambition to rebuild Jerusalem.  Proverbs 25 somewhat cryptically says, “it is the glory of kings to search out a matter.”  One must interpret this as a validation of ambitious pursuits.  If ambition were an unbiblical quality, then those positive examples would be antithetical.

We can see this in Christian history as well.  Was William Wilberrforce’s ambition to eradicate slavery in the British empire against God’s will?  Was Martin Luther’s ambition to return the Church to Biblical truth ungodly rebellion?  How about Mother Theresa’s dream of changing a nation, or Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a nation free of racism?

Leaders lead.  Young leaders lead.  Some of them lead out of selfish ambition.  Others lead because God built them that way, and for them to exercise the gifts that God made them is glorifying to Him who made them.  Sometimes they will make mistakes.  But they will do what God made them for.  To prevent that is the real rebellion.

I heard Leonard Sweet once say that God leaders in the post-modern Church must lead like a child on a swing set, leaning back into a rich Christian history and tradition, but kicking forward into the newness of God’s present and future calling.  Good leaders will not forsake the wisdom of those who went before them.  They will stand on those elders’ proverbial shoulders.  They will see farther, Christ willing.  They will stand taller.  Some will think that all old ideas are bad, but I bet on the whole that they will embrace those ideas more than many in past generations, and seek to reach out across generations.  The worst thing we could do is to throw out all of the good that this new leadership will do simply because of the ignorance and childishness of a few.   -Ryan

Our New Throne

I never win anything.

The last thing that I won was a Super Nintendo on the night of my High School graduation.  And as the students in my youth group like to point out, that was a long time ago.  Since then–nothing.  No prizes for Ryan, although my wife wins stuff all the time.

That is why the events of 2 weeks ago were so surprising to me.  It started out with me doing the dishes after having our friends Andrew and April over for dinner the night before.  I turned on the under-counter radio in order to keep me company.

As I did the dishes, I was reminded of a problem with our kitchen sink.  We noticed some time ago that the sink in the kitchen seems to take 10 times longer to get hot water flowing than any other faucet in the house, and when it does it is never quite as hot as the others.  I don’t think about this often, except when I do dishes and have to wait several minutes before getting any hot water.

This information is worth noting, because as I waited for my water to warm, the radio was saying “You’re listening to Chris Miles on House Talk, and today we have with us Steve Hatcher, the owner of Steve Hatcher plumbing.  We’re taking all of your plumbing questions this hour.”

So I called.

It took a few calls before it all went through and I almost gave up, but eventually the phone rang.  After only a few minutes of waiting they put me on the air and both guys helped troubleshoot my problem.  But then the real fun began.

It just so happened that Steve Hatcher was giving away a free Toto toilet with free installation to someone who called that hour.  About 15 minutes after I hung up, still doing the dishes, Chris Miles announced my name on the radio.

I won a toilet!  I needed a toilet.  Peichi and I did the Dance of Joy.

The wheels of progress began to turn, and gained some quick momentum.  Mere minutes after my name was announced on air, Chris Mile’s assistant called to congratulate me on winning.  She seemed genuinely almost as excited as I was.  Shortly thereafter, Steve Hatcher’s assistant called to congratulate me as well.  She seemed just as excited, and told me that they would be calling me back again soon to schedule the installation.  During that second call we scheduled the job for Thursday afternoon the next week.

I called my friends and family with glad tidings of great joy…at least for me.  I also promised them all that they could do their ‘business’ in my new toilet once it was installed.  My friend Paul said he would be excited to do just that, and that I couldn’t say “I never win crap” now.  His joke.

When Thursday came around, Peichi and I were giddy with anticipation, and a little bit weighted down, after “saving up” so as to be able to fully experience our new toilet once it was in place.  We waited, staring out the window at every passing truck and van, inspecting them for plumbing ads on their doors.

The only imperfect part of the whole experience was that the plumber didn’t technically show up at the time we were told…but they did call us twice to let us know this, make sure it was all right, and inform us that Steve, himself, would be coming out to supervise. I told them both times that it was all OK by me.

Let me take time out for a second to say this: As a home owner and a person who works a busy schedule, I often have various people who have scheduled to come and do some work.  The phone, Internet, security, electric company, all have come at one time or another.  They seldom make the window they have told me in advance.  This is insensitive to me.  But in this case, they called several times just to keep me apprised and to make sure that it was all OK with me.

First of all, of course it is OK, I am getting a free toilet.  Second, I am almost always flexible when someone lets me know what is going on.  If more companies would do what Steve Hatcher plumbing did in that case, more customers would be satisfied with their service.  Most people know that plumbing jobs (or insert Internet, electrical, etc.) can take longer than a technician would have assumed by hearing about the problem over the phone.  Most people are also willing to be accommodating if the company would just let them know.  Steve Hatcher plumbing did this.  Even if my toilet hadn’t been free, I would be happy with that level of service.  It showed me respect.  Now back to the story…

Steve and Sean (one of his plumbers) showed up and began to get things going.

Everything went pretty smoothly.  They replaced my toilet, the mounting flange, fixed the water line to the toilet in a different bathroom, and even looked at the sink I called about in the first place.  Total cost to me $0.

But almost equally pleasing to me was that everyone was super nice, and fun.  Essentially, Steve was giving me his time, his employees time, his company’s money, and a free toilet.  He could have just thrown the thing in, charged me for the flange (or refused to install it until I had it done), and then gotten out quickly in order to make some real money.  But that isn’t what they did of course, or how they made me feel.

We talked about radio, the plumbing business, all the cool info about my new toilet, and played guitar.  When they finished, Steve even checked out my neighbor’s sink, free of charge.

Oh, and the toilet…Primo!  It is a water saving, super-eco throne.  It uses less than half the water of a regular toilet, while flushing with the power of one of those airplane jet toilets.  It is ADA compliant, which means for me that I can sit and read without my legs going to sleep from sitting so low.  Truthfully, I use it as often as I possibly can.  I get a little bit excited every time I have to go.

My point in this is not to advertise a plumber.  But I am the kind of guy who will let a manager know if my service was bad.  At the same time, I believe that when service is above and beyond expectations that should be recognized.  That is the kind of experience I had with Steve Hatcher Plumbing.  When I have a plumbing problem in the future, they will be the first, and probably the last ones I call. 


Below is a slide show of the pictures we took during all of this.

Thoughts from Taiwan -part 6

grandma's housePeichi’s Amma must have decided to put all of the events I mentioned in my last blog entry behind her, though, as she was very welcoming to me as we showed up for Chinese New Year.  She didn’t even keep much of a watchful eye over me, as I might have expected.  I cannot be sure that she hadn’t carefully noted the home’s entire inventory and each item’s place prior to my arrival.

Amma and I hit it off quite smoothly this time, with few rough patches.  The most difficult breach of protocol for me to handle is regarding the “house shoes” that each family uses in Taiwan.  Most people know that Asian households require one to take off his shoes on entry.  In Asia there is an added step.  Each family keeps an armada of house slippers on hand just inside the doorway that each guest is expected to use while inside.  You may not opt out of this deal.  Yes, the shoes might not even come close to fitting your American-sized feet.  Yes, one probably will accidentally slip off halfway up the stairs and leave you to hop back down to find it again.  But make no mistake, they must be used.

This part was not the problem for me.  The problem is that each household has a place where you are supposed to take off your outside shoes Me in Tainanand put your house shoes on.  In Japan this is clearly marked by the presence of bamboo mats. In Taiwan, this place is marked by some sort of sixth-sensed hoo-bah, that I apparently do not posses.

I would enter the house from the screened in porch via the stairs, leaving my street shoes outside.  At some point after the doorway I would cross the invisible battle line of germ warfare where my “safe” shoes were supposed to come on.  I would usually miss this line somehow.  When the process was reversed and the house shoes made it past the line, sirens would go off in Amma’s head, and she would come after me, gently rebuking me in short vocal bugle blasts.  She was very gracious.  I don’t mean to imply anything less.

My most exciting story with the house shoes was when visiting a household outside of the family.  As I came in, I started to take off my outside shoes and was informed that this would not be necessary at this place.  I looked around for some sign of where the hoo-bah was.  It was invisible as usual.  I asked to use the bathroom and was told it was down the hall.  I gingerly advanced, pausing with each step in case this time would be different and I might actually sense the hoo-bah.  They laughed and told me that I would not need to remove my shoes there either.  I felt safe.

NY Eve DinnerA few minutes later, I went to view the kitchen and again was told that it was safe.  I was very confused.  I had never made it this far without using house shoes before. I did not know how to act.  I shrugged and enjoyed my good fortune.

After viewing the kitchen, I was ushered to the seating area where there was a plate of fruit.  Every Asian household I am invited to has prepared fruit.  It is expected.  It is wonderful.  Americans need to start doing that.  I eagerly went to take a seat and eat some fruit.  Everyone lunged at me noisily. I had crossed the hoo-bah.  I didn’t know.  There was not even a pile of shoes.   Nothing.  I retreated and apologized profusely.  They still let me eat the fruit.

Think love, Piece

merred hill

I have a friend in the ministry who is a big Beatles fan.  We often playfully debate philosophy and music history together.  She included this quote in a recent email, and I thought I would respond.

“Get out there and get peace, think peace, live peace and breathe peace, and you’ll get it as soon as you like.”
John Lennon

I have thoughts about your John Lennon quote.
Now, I know that you don’t just quote him because of his philosophy, but mostly because you are a big Beatles fan…

We have the extreme luxury of being one of the few generations to grow up with almost no understanding of war.  Yes, in my lifetime there has been the Iraq war, Kosovo, Iraq 2, War on terror, and other small conflicts.  But those weren’t of the scale or effect of wars in past generations.  Wars now are things we hear about on the evening news, not things that actually claim the lives of our friends and relatives (for the most part).
Think back on what it must have been like to live through WW2.  Germans were using their submarines to destroy ships off of the East coast.  Hundreds of ships were sunk right off of our coast–even passenger cruise ships.  Japan attacked HI and we were under constant threat of invasion on the West coast.  At one point late in the war Japan launched helium balloons with bombs attached into the air.  Those fell in Alaska, but no one was ever hurt from them.

Women in America couldn’t buy leggings (which were a fashion essential back then) because the fabric was needed for parachutes.  Other things that were rationed state-side: tires (most people couldn’t buy them), many cosmetics, gas, cars, certain grocery products.  Women and children saved money for the government war effort.  Cities had “bomb drills” where everyone turned off all the lights and hid in their closets and basements.  It was a difficult and scary time.  This all is not to mention the fact that we were fighting a war on two fronts (Japan and the Axis powers of Europe), and there was the very real possibility for much of the war that we could lose.

Why did all of this happen?  Evil.  When Hitler invaded Poland and Austria the British PM, Neville Chamberlain said “We should seek by all means in our power to avoid war, by analyzing possible causes, by trying to remove them, by discussion in a spirit of collaboration and good will. I cannot believe that such a program would be rejected by the people of this country, even if it does mean the establishment of personal contact with the dictators.”  He signed a peace treaty with Germany, allowing them to keep Poland, Austria, and giving them parts of Czechoslovakia and said “I believe it is peace for our time…peace with honor.”  Merely months later, Germany attacked France and Britain.

Fast forward to the 1960’s: America was involved in a war that we probably shouldn’t have been involved in, Vietnam.  It was a very unpopular war.  We weren’t fighting in a way that we could win, and against an enemy we couldn’t really identify.  Young men all over America lived under the real threat that they could be shipped off to Asia to fight in a war that they didn’t really believe in.  Those that went either came home in body bags, or with permanent mental and emotional scars.

In response to this artists started talking about peace and love, and how if everyone just gave peace a chance, we could create a world without sorrow, greed, or war.  There is an amazing truth to that.  If everyone gave peace and love a chance, that is what would happen.  That is our view of heaven, really.  “The wolf will live with the lamb…the lion and the yearling together…and a child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6).  Peace.  Perfect.
On a plane flight recently I saw a movie called The Invention of Lying.  It isn’t a movie that I can recommend you see, but like most things I watch, I see a tie in to the cosmic and spiritual reality that surrounds us.  In the movie Ricky Gervais’ character lives in a world where no one has ever lied.  The concept of telling a falsehood has just never been thought of.  Somehow he accidentally figures this out.  Hilarity ensues.  He ends up using this power to take advantage of everyone around him.  He uses it to their detriment and his benefit.

The reason I mention this example is that if we all decided to live in a world with no guns, no army, no violence, none of that would actually be what would happen.  Instead we would live in a world where someone, somewhere would realize that suddenly he/she had the power to steal everything from us and hurt us.  We would be led off to slaughter like sheep.  The end result would be a world of slavery and pain—War and chaos, not peace and love.

The only way for this heaven to come about would be for all to place control in the hands of a being who both has ultimate power, and is permanently incorruptible, a king who is perfectly benevolent.  I wait for that day.  A day when all can lay down arms with no possibility of violence propagated against us.

This cannot happen as long as there is sin in the world.  Sin is at its heart selfishness.  Anytime we say “but I want…” we are walking a path toward sin.  This does not mean that we should have an ascetic view and allow ourselves to be beaten down by evil under the guise of living Christianly, either.  In fact, the Bible tells us that we are in a war.  That we must fight.  Our war is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil that exist around us.

Throughout the last 2000 years there has been a dichotomy between those who cling to Jesus world as a call to embody peace, over and against those Old Testament passages where God tells the Israelites to war against other peoples.  This dichotomy is usually a false one.  Jesus gave great instruction to Christians to be known as those who turn the other cheek (which if you study is actually a course in radical non-violent resistance—read Martin Luther King), and to be known by our love.  We cannot believe that Jesus intended that message to mean that countries never defended themselves against hostile forces.  Think about this: what would Jesus want Neville Chamberlain or FDR to have done in 1938-1940?  Would he have had them sign peace agreement after peace agreement while Hitler came marching through Europe killing millions?  I don’t think so.  Either way, it isn’t as simple as ‘think happy thoughts and buy Hitler a coke.’

Artists and musicians often live in an idealized world of symbolism, beauty, and absolutes.  But the world is seldom a thing of perfect beauty or absolutes.  We are all shades of grey, striving to become repristinated, yes all the while getting a little grayer.  When the musician sees the world as different from their dream, it seems out-of-joint and wrong.  That is the greatest truth.  The world is a marred painting.  We can see the beauty there, but we are all ever-aware that some black stain has covered its surface.  Sadly, we cannot paint it back to perfect.  We cannot remove the stain, only try and cover it with something much less than the original, and every attempt reminds us all the more that it is not as perfect as it was intended.  Trying to fix the problems of violence and pain with anything other than the rule and reign of Christ is just as effective as trying to paint the grass greener or the sky bluer.

Thoughts from Taiwan -part 5

Peichi's AmmaIn Tainan, I met Peichi’s grandmother for the second time.  “Amma” is “grandma” in Taiwanese, which is exclusively spoken in most of southern Taiwan.  It is far different than Mandarin Chinese, sounding a lot like Thai would if it weren’t nasal.  Short staccato sounds punctuate each word.  Peichi and her immediate family of origin speak both languages fluently.  I don’t.  I barely speak some Mandarin, but know only a couple of Taiwanese words.  I have very few occasions to speak it at all.  Amma speaks no English and very little Mandarin.  This means that we cannot communicate at all without someone interpreting.  I often say, “Two people can always communicate if they want to badly enough.”  Amma is a slightly different story.  In some ways it doesn’t seem that she recognizes that I am not developmentally disabled, but just speak a different language.  I’m not saying she isn’t bright.  She is Peichi’s stock.  She must be.  She is just from a world that is much smaller than mine in some ways, and the idea of what happens so far away must be unimaginable to her.

The occasion of our first meeting was at Peichi’s and my engagement party in Taipei.  She came in and sat down at our head table as part of the bride’s family.  She is an adorable old lady.  She is only slightly above four feet tall, if even that much, and she looks exactly like you would picture an Asian “amma” should look like.  Just looking at her makes me want to simultaneously bear-hug her and show her great, gentle reverence.

She plopped down right next to me, with her purse set behind her on the chair, the way some Asian ladies do, both to prevent someone from stealing it and so as to not forget it is there.  It seemed to me at the time, that was probably not quite the most appropriate for the situation, and thought I would endear myself to her by being helpful.  Big mistake.

I patted her on the shoulder, smiled, and reached for her purse to hang it from the trestle on the chair back.  Her eyes grew wide and she reached for it as well, holding it in a death grip.  We played a brief game of tug-of-war as I tried to calm her.  I lost.  The purse was returned to its location.

It was a busy evening, and I was never able to revisit the situation with her.  But somehow I am sure that she was convinced I was trying to steal her, Peichi’s Amma’s purse at my own engagement party.  She must have been thinking that all of the rumors about these Americans must be true.  We are all uncouth charlatans and thieves.

Thoughts from Taiwan -part 4

Chinese New YearWhen we arrived in Tainan somehow the news of my knee had spread south at a pace that left our stuck-in-traffic 50 km/hr clip.  I have always found that dealing with ailments abroad (or the prevention thereof) is a fascinating experience all on its own.  In Iceland, the family answer to bee stings was for me to eat ice cream.  In El Salvador, they suggested that after being in the rain I absolutely must wipe my whole body down with alcohol.  Every country has some sort of strange sounding advice.  The old wives are alive and well, and telling their tales.

You go through stages in dealing with their medical advice.  In stage one you wonder if they really believe the advice they are giving you, knowing no one in the modern world could possibly believe such hoodoo.  In stage two you try your best to ignore their helpful advances, slightly annoyed that they keep trying to help you despite you clearly not wanting to cover your head in chicken blood to end your malady.  Next stage has you accepting their help and doing what they want, mostly so that you’ll have peace and quiet.  Finally, wondering why their advice worked, you begin to realize that at home we have some hoodoo-like ideas of our own.

In most of Taiwan, their thoughts regarding medicine are quite modern and sensible, unless one is having a baby, and then I doubt there are enough stages for me to stop calling it hoodoo.  This time, I wasn’t assaulted with weird ideas, but I was covered constantly in patches and sprays, and pills shoved down my throat.  Saying “no” was not an option to any of this.  Not only would it not have been heard, but it would have been rude.  So, I became their test dummy.  I felt like a rabbit in a medical lab of some pharmaceutical company, a white one.Peichi and family

Their concoctions did help, and my knee started feeling a bit better after a few days.  I wasn’t sure whether it was the medicine, or time.  Either way, I really appreciated their care.  Taiwanese people don’t have the warmth of Italians or Greeks, who smoother you with affection rather quickly, but they do have a quiet consideration.  When they take you into their circle, they do little things, things that become huge in your mind.  My brother-in-law filling his car stereo with American music so I wouldn’t feel homesick or bored on the long trip, my mother-in-law always filling my cup or offering me something to nibble on, or the entire extended family trying to figure out anything they can do to ease my knee pain.  It makes me thankful for a wonderful family.  It makes me have such a deeper understanding of how little my corner of the world really is, and that my mind and heart are often much smaller than that corner.

Thoughts from Taiwan -part 3

Shinto TempleIn Tokyo, I got lost at a major Shinto temple at closing time.  Peichi ended up at the exit we were supposed to be at, and I ended up on the opposite side.  It is easier to do than one might think, with surrounding tall trees, and darkness encroaching.  The guards would not let me go back in to find Peichi, and made me wait while they chattered into the walkie-talkie. They finally did give me directions to the other side of the park from outside streets.

By the time that I got the security guard to let me go, it was 20 minutes after closing.  He said that it was a 20 minute walk.  I was worried.  Both Peichi and I knew how to get back to the hostel where we were staying, so I wasn’t worried that one of us would be scared and lost.  But we did have many plans for the rest of the night that did not include 30 minute trips back to our room.  So, I ran.

My legs were already tired from walking all over Tokyo.  My knee had been recovering from some strange pain that I acquired weeks ago, and I was generally exhausted from the trip.  I ran anyway, not wanting to worry Peichi, or miss her.  I arrived out of breath, to a generally unhappy wife, but relieved that tragedy had been averted, or so I thought.

As I regained my composure and we began to walk down the stairs into the subway at Harajuku station, I felt a strange clicking in my knee, and Harajuku stationa wonderful explosion of pain with every step.  Walking hurt, climbing stairs was excruciating, but I grinned and bared it.

The next day (the day of our afternoon flight to Taipei) my knee felt the same.  I was beginning to get worried, but I was determined not to let this cause too much disruption to our trip.  I did my best to keep it to myself, although of course Peichi knew.  All of this is important back-story to events in Tainan.

P.S. To alleviate anyone’s fears, while the clicking remains, and there is still some pain, I am confident that I will get over it in time.

Thoughts from Taiwan -part 2

We came to Tainan after a very long trip through the island’s mid-section, waiting in long lines of traffic.  Tainan is in the southern section of Taiwan and Taipei, where a huge proportion of the people actually reside, is in the very northern tip.  While Tainan is one of the largest of the handful of cities in Taiwan, it is decidedly rural.  It was raining.

Peichi’s grandmother, spinster aunt, and unmarried uncle live among a clan community in one of the more…um…I guess “suburban” istogether9 the right word, parts of Tainan.  Life in all of Taiwan, and particularly the more traditional and rural areas is communal and clan oriented.  Traditionally, when a woman gets married she comes to live with the husband at his family home.  This almost always includes his parents and often some aunts and uncles.

To Western eyes this seems ridiculous.  On the whole it has both positives and negatives.  First, Taiwan (like almost all cultures I’ve witnessed) is a patriarchal/matriarchal society.  The Father typically does no work inside the house, but works a job to bring in money.  His after-work time is spent playing gambling games, chatting with the other men, drinking, and smoking.  The wife often does not hold an official outside job, but is responsible for the care and keeping of the home.  This means that she also by default makes most of the real decisions.  Men think they’re in charge, but the women really have more say.

Clan life brings with it a sense of community.  It also brings shared resources.  This cannot be overlooked.  Grandmothers and grandfathers can help take care of young children while their parents work.  Conversely, children can take care of their parents when they reach old age.  There is also a sense of history and life cycle that is shared in clan life that is missing and often leads to larger societal problems in much of Western culture.

On the other side, clan life lessens social mobility.  Children often forgo opportunities out of a sense of obligation to the elder relatives.  Money is also never kept for oneself or immediate family, but shared with the larger family, which mitigates much of the possible benefits of new wealth, particularly when it gets spread to those in the family who have little financial responsibility. Further, because of all of this, ambition is not generally seen as a positive trait, as it is in the West.

Amma's streetWhether positive or negative, clan life is central to every aspect of Tainanese culture.  Even houses are constructed around clan life.  Traditional Taiwanese houses were built as more of a complex, intended to house 4 or more family units within a single building.  Each compound was built in a C formation, with a big courtyard in the middle.  The courtyard existed as a family meeting place, the location for bathing, and an entryway into the main sections of the structure.  In the center of the building was the family idol, where the family worshipped both Taoist idols and their own ancestors.

These homes started falling out of fashion only about 20 years ago, when because of space restrictions, different buildings were built.  The new buildings still incorporate much of the same concepts as the old ones, but with each family unit dwelling on a different level of a multi-story structure.  Each floor has two or three bedrooms and a bathroom, and the ground level contains the kitchen and common areas.  Families still gather outside for fellowship.  The family altar is usually on the ground floor at the entrance, or on an enclosed roof patio.