My first years in Taiwan

by on Tuesday, 24 November 2009 Comments

“Father, where do you come from?” Before I started to answer, the young man standing in front of me, the uncle of a student I was driving back home at the beginning of the winter holidays, apologised for daring to ask that question; I did not find his curiosity embarrassing in the slightest, at least he didn’t immediately label me as an American. My national pride was safe! “I am sorry Father, for asking you this; I did not mean to put a distance between us”. Being a “foreign” missionary I did realize how delicate his attitude was. He wanted me to feel at home on this piece of land that was now, with me present here, common to both of us. I remember years later when I tried to learn some Taiwanese, exactly how I realised that this attitude was rooted in the mind of the people: in Taiwanese, when answering the phone don’t people say “Lan ti te wi?” (Where are we?): this is inclusive language, so say the linguists, which already welcomes the stranger, or the unknown voice as a friend.

As a foreigner in a foreign land, the first thing I did experience profoundly in Taiwan was friendship. No need for a manual in hand to make friends. Far from France, I was often thinking that foreigners over there have a less enviable fate. But even when you are a priest, making friends is not the same as evangelising them.

My first assignment, after language studies, was to take responsibility of a dormitory for senior high school boys coming from the surrounding areas to study in Tainan. That was tough for me during in my first few years. I had to cope with teenagers speaking to me very fast. The boys, besides memorizing lists of English words, had very limited experience in learning a foreign language and were therefore pretty unaware of my difficulties. Our relationship became a mutual exercise of patience, and for me, wonderful training for my listening ability. After all, listening ability is a must for both a student in foreign languages and for being the teacher I was supposed to be. I’m really grateful to them for that. In a role where I was the intermediary, so to speak, between the parents, students and the school, I gained precious insights into the educational system of the country, which like the French system is endlessly reforming. Going to classes during the day, then in the evening (at least for some of them) to cram schools in order to secure good grades did not leave us much time for ‘evangelisation’ or any kind of religious instruction. Besides, I was not the principal in charge of their curriculum; time left after classes and study was scarce. My conversations with them were often limited to small encouragements to help cope with the trials of the educational system, the pressure of progressing to the next grade and of course the high expectations of their parents. My continuing to learn the language and their pursuing of their studies was for all of us a painful, though bonding experience! What I was doing during these five years was simply giving a little help, an accompaniment and I was thus happy to be part of the service that the Catholic Church was giving to the youth. Living in Tainan was also an ideal place to enjoy Taiwan. Knowing a different culture starts with the senses and all the Taiwan street snacks imaginable, were there at hand. Anytime, anyplace; street stalls, day and night markets were providing something to quench any little hunger.

I witnessed in the basement of our church the beginning of the now famous ‘Tainaner Ensemble’ (台南人劇團). Later they staged some of their productions at the French ‘Festival d’Avignon’. One of their special features has been translation into Taiwanese and adaptation of famous plays from the world theatre directory. A few years ago I remember attending and assisting their own interpretation of Macbeth at Taipei’s National Theatre and Concert Hall. Like me, some of them only had a smattering of Taiwanese phrases; nevertheless, for all of us it was a grand pleasure!

The dormitory building, Beda Student Centre(百達學生中心), still exists but it no longer hosts high school students. The alumni association that was formed about ten years ago (我為人人協會), now runs the place that has become a cultural centre harbouring different groups and activities including the theatre troop ‘Tainaner Ensemble’. Since the foundation of this dormitory more than 40 years ago, the needs of Taiwanese society have changed with the times. Services provided to the boys for 40 years have instilled the desire in those who benefited from them to take their turn to serve society in a different and creative way as men, and citizens. Is that not the beginning of evangelisation?

After five years in Tainan my next job in Kaohsiung was the care of Catholic college students. I was the chaplain in charge of the campus ministry (天主教大專同學會輔導神父) for the diocese (教區). The Catholic Church in Taiwan is a real minority. Thus I had to develop the necessary skills to find a handful of young Catholics willing to form a group, on campuses filled with thousands of students. Young people like to be together in big groups; for them it makes sense, for them its fun. The huge scale of a college campus makes it so obvious that not only Catholics, but all Christians really are a minority in Taiwan. How to overcome the frustration of being a minor group and nevertheless accepting to form a community of faith? For seven years my ministry was to accompany young people to keep faith and to grow in faith.

Furthermore, to accept that groups with a membership that could often be counted on the fingers of your hands could become the pinch of salt that brings the flavour of the Gospel to the world. Thank God very few groups were composed solely of Catholics. Friendship brings people together. At the same time College years are somehow relieved from the study pressure typical of senior high school years, creating opportunities for acquaintance with the Christian faith and thus for evangelisation.

I remember with yearning those years spent in Kaohsiung and the neighbouring districts. The challenges I encountered then are for me still the same now. On one side building communities of faith is always a priority. On the other side I do believe that Christian communities must be really open and avoid the temptation to huddle up amongst themselves for the sake of a ‘pure identity’. Evangelisation takes time. Some friends have been walking with us, sharing with us for a while, but we say, punning in Mandarin, “they are not yet Catholic friends教友, but already friends of the Catholic Church 教會的朋友”. In Chinese both if these meanings can take the same characters. Any ‘evangeliser’ must remember that he himself is in the process of becoming a Christian. Friendship is for that: from you I learn more about myself. What I appreciate in you may challenge my desire to live up to my Christian standards. Is a Christian community (whether Catholic or Protestant community) able to initiate and carry on projects where people from different backgrounds can contribute? Once, a parish priest talking about his flock drew my attention to the fact that one third of his parish were of mainlander descent, one third native Taiwanese, and one third aborigines. For celebrations and liturgy it was necessary to take into account these differences and sensitivities. And, I think perhaps there was more too it than simply handling sensitivities; amongst the differences in his parish a real potential for creativity was ready to be unveiled. I am so happy to enjoy the diversity of Taiwanese society that I hope that my Church, the Catholic Church, can be a catalyst for projects fostering harmony, comprehension and compassion. Compassion not only for this island too easily satisfied with its own economic achievements, but also for the less privileged world outside expecting some generosity from the rich.
This requires debate and discernment. For debate and discussion we will always be able to find mindful, passionate and reasonably critical friends willing to search together. Discernment requires time, silence, what we call prayer, because at stake are our desires, our projects which run in accordance with the spirit of love that comes from God and is shared by all men and women of good will.

Indeed I do cherish the memory of these years in the South with my friends the students. From them I was designated a form of address less formal than that of “Father”. Even if by being bestowed this nickname I was somehow upgraded from father to grandfather. That is why, now exiled in Northern Taiwan, I sign ’Kenyeye’ (Grandfather Ken): 肯爺爺.

Read the original version in French

Jacques Duraud (杜樂仁)

Board member of the Taipei Ricci Isntitute. Former Publisher of Renlai Magazine. 

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