Most Common Words…

My wife and I have a joke about using a tree as a landmark. In most places, trees are too common for that to work. You need something uncommon, or less common, to ensure you keep following the right path.

In language study, of course you start by learning the most common words and sayings. That’s good. Sooner or later you’ve learned the most common 1000 or 2000 words. You can express a lot with these words, and you can understand a lot of what people around you are saying. You can get around, meet basic needs, and carry on basic conversations.

In my pride about learning so many of the most common words in Chinese, I didn’t expect I’d still end up lost, conversationally speaking, so often. Then I realized: the most common words in my mother tongue (English) are not always the words that carry the most significant meaning in conversation. The common words usually provide context for the most important words. (For example, in a paragraph about the Civil War, the majority of statements could be comprised of very common words. But the words that tell you that the paragraph is about the Civil War might be much less common.)

So we often find ourselves nodding while our friend talks away, hoping that although we don’t recognize several important words, the common words we do recognize will give us enough context to give us a general idea of what he’s saying.

The trees go flashing by, and we frantically hope we don’t miss an important landmark. Frantically hope we didn’t just miss a turn in the conversation, agree to something outrageous (or unbiblical), unknowingly commit ourselves to something we’d rather not have, or miss a cue to affirm our interest.


Hey, somethings different!

Early this week we revisited the seacoast near our city’s downtown. Actually, our children had been asking to go for a while. We were just waiting for the right combination of free time and warm weather. This week delivered.

To get there, you have to take a ferry – a favorite part of the trip for our children. It was fun to take a friend who’d never been there, so we could introduce him to a place we like – the lighthouse, the old fort, the boardwalk, the beach, and the street full of vendors.

And we discovered something. We’ve changed a lot since our first family visit there. Over a year ago now, we stumbled around trying to get our bearings. The food was strange. We didn’t know where anything was and what food was available.

Now, there are still lots of strange things. But we’re so thankful for God’s grace allowing us to adjust. It’s good to have a familiar place. We know what street foods are available, and which kinds our kids will eat. We all have things we like.

And after enjoying the water, we know we can finish our trip with fruit over shaved ice at our favorite Fruit Ice place. Amazing!

Legos and Language Learning

I often think of my effort to learn and use Chinese in terms of playing with legos. Of course, language is much more complex. But for where I am in my language ability, I’m formulating thoughts in my mind using English, sorting through the bin of Chinese vocabulary I know, and picking out the ones I think will work to express my meaning.

My creations are pretty poor quality. But they usually have a roughly identifiable shape. With practice, the quality will improve as I gain familiarity with Chinese grammar, expression, and thought.

There are so many new words to learn. It’s fun to see what you can build with just the few you have – like my sons and I do with real Legos. Put them together in different combinations, and you can create amazing things.

Unfortunately, just writing down new words doesn’t mean you know them. Lego pieces are always getting dropped or set down in odd places, and they’re lost. Until the next time you clean, and you find them under a dresser. Then you think, “Oh, I remember that piece! I can use that to make…”

Our First Attempt at Chinese Pancakes

When our Taiwanese friends make Chinese pancakes, it looks so easy. And really the recipe is pretty simple. The steps are pretty simple.

Now that I’ve done it, I can say, yeah, it’s so simple… and messy.


First attempt at kneading didn’t go so well. East meets West, and East is winning.


Until we realize I started with half the amount of flour. Once we fixed that we had a smooth, thick dough.


Add the scallions to the dough. Yum.


Frying the cakes.



Finished product!


Yum. We love these things.


We really love these things.


And that’s all that’s left.

A Taste of Culture Shock

While I was in Taiwan recently (for a 2-week pre-move trip), I had two quite different days. One was sunny, the other dim and rainy, so perhaps that had something to do with it.

The sunny day: I rode a borrowed bike past the Zuoying train station to Lotus Lake. I went armed with my camera, my notebook, and great intentions of getting some good pictures and some helpful notes about life. I’d heard about the produce in the market, so I especially wanted to get some pictures for my wife, so she could get a reminder of what was available and what the prices were like. I also wanted to see if I could get some more pictures of the temples on the far side of the lake.


Seeing the piles of fresh produce, I almost wished I needed to buy something. I also got more interaction than I expected when a vendor insisted I let Martin, a 13-year-old with 3 years of English study, practice his English on me. He seemed embarrassed, but we did have a sporadic conversation; he practiced English and I practiced Chinese.


Me and Martin… and some very fresh poultry

I made it around to the temples where I took some pictures.


Then bought some postcards at a small store down the street. I wanted to send something to my children. (The postcards arrived at our home a few days after I did, but they kids were still happy.)

The rainy day: I was on my own, partly by my own choice since I’d declined an offer of company. I wanted to explore on my own, though I did have a specific destination in mind. Getting to the MRT and taking it to right stop wasn’t a problem. I exited the MRT station and headed down the road… the wrong direction. But it wasn’t till I’d gone quite some distance that I discovered my mistake.


That sign doesn’t help me!

Once I got headed the right way, I found the store I’d wanted to revisit. Only to discover (after some time of looking around) that they didn’t have the items I was hoping to buy. Walking back to the MRT station, I was hungry. I’d kept putting off lunch, planning to eat after I bought the things I wanted. Now it was late and I didn’t feel like eating because I was disappointed.

Actually, I was feeling frustrated at my limited ability to communicate and my lack of familiarity with where things were. So I walked down the sidewalk thinking of how I didn’t want any Taiwanese food. I just wanted something American. Something comforting. I knew there was a western restaurant near my MRT station, so I decided to wait even longer for lunch. But by the time I got to the station and didn’t see the way to the restaurant right away, I just headed to the apartment where I was staying and ate a granola bar on the way.

The contrast of these two experiences lends some healthy realism to my eager anticipation for moving to Taiwan. There will be a lot of really interesting, fun experiences. Some really sunny, comfortable days when I revel in everything new. But we’ll also have our share of days when the newness feels threatening rather than fun, and dealing with life seems discouragingly hard. Now I have a first-hand reminder of some ways we’ll need God’s grace

Religion in the 21st Century

The other day, a news site illustrated an interesting feature of life in Taiwan. Culture and religion there present an interesting blend of technology and tradition. Many Taiwanese people participate in spirit worship and are, in varying degrees, superstitious.

19th-century missionary George Mackay described divination in Taiwan during his day: you stopped at a shrine to ask direction and help from the spirit with a yes or no question. Then you drop two pieces of bamboo root. Each was flat on one side, rounded on the other. Depending on how they landed, the answer was yes, no, or silence. In practice, if you don’t like the answer, you can keep dropping them until you get the answer you want!

Woman praying in a temple

A Taiwanese woman prays to the spirits in a temple.

Prosperity and technology haven’t changed Taiwan’s religions much. According to the article, a Taoist temple plans to expand its divination services. They already have a web feature that allows people to ask questions of the spirits. Within the next year they’ll add a mobile app, so people will be able to access divination services anywhere they can use a smartphone. This makes it easier for spirits to dispense favors in return for gifts (even virtual ones). But our God looks for those who will worship Him in spirit and truth – not to extract favors, but to show gratitude for grace.

Several things came to mind after I read the article. But here’s something that occurs to me now that I’ve thought about it for a while. Would it be nice to be able to text God a question about what to do and get an answer right back? Sometimes it seems like that would be great. There are so many choices we have to make where the answer isn’t specified in the Bible. Or maybe our church should offer this kind of service: answers to all your spiritual questions at the touch of a few buttons.

But would it really be good for us? God seems to be very interested not just in providing answers to our questions, but in shaping our thinking as we spend time with Him in His Word. I’d sympathize with a church that wanted to offer something like this as a way to reach out to people. The critical weakness of that kind of ministry is found in the huge difference between being told what to do and learning to think biblically.

A Taste of Miscommunication

I looked across the counter, through the pane of glass, trying to decide whether to look encouraging or confused. Encouraging, since I could tell she was searching for the right word. Or confused, because I could tell that she knew I wasn’t getting it.

We’d come to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in NYC to ask about the application process for missionary visas. I’d talked with missionaries about this, but didn’t remember much. So a really nice official was talking me through the list (in Chinese script – she couldn’t find one in English at the time), explaining each document I’d have to submit. She’d gotten through them and we were reviewing. I’d assumed that when she said something about papers establishing “fatherhood” (I forget exactly how she was saying it), she meant birth certificates for our children. But she clearly wasn’t satisfied.

After she tried several times and I was still thinking birth certificate, she consulted another official, then tried again with a word he suggested. Then it clicked. They were trying to tell me I needed a certificate of ordination. Apparently their frame of reference was Roman Catholicism or another group with orders of priesthood.

It’s always tempting – when I can’t understand – to just nod yes or say “OK” and move on, avoiding embarrassment for both of us. Hopefully, it’s nothing really important, right? But that’s not a very good strategy. We’ll be facing this kind of communication challenge for a long time, and about really significant issues. We don’t want to just assume or guess when it comes to what someone believes about the Bible!