A letter from Jonathan Seitz in Taiwan
One of the things that has surprised me in these last years is how totally having children has affected our work. There’s a level of responsibility that I probably understood on some cognitive level, but which has become very real to me. I’ve started looking for models for raising children cross-culturally. Children who grow up between cultures are often called “third culture kids” because they share their parents’ culture, the culture in which they grow up, and also create a culture of their own. In this newsletter I thought I’d share some reflections on learning to raise children abroad.
Our arrival with Sam and the appearance of the twins has reminded me of how unique a time this is for families in mission. The last PC(USA) mission worker with children in Taiwan, as near as I can tell, left a generation ago. Currently we appear to be the only PC(USA) workers in Asia (which is, after all, half of the world) with small children. Within the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan there are a few other families, Korean and Thai, who have small kids. And within PC(USA) World Mission there are perhaps a half dozen families with small children also. The institutions that cradle us care very much for our children, but there aren’t a lot of immediate precedents, and most decisions are up to us. We’re definitely learning as we go.
At the same time there are some very excellent models of living cross-culturally, and perhaps chief among these is the Taiwanese-American community. We’re looking forward to seeing Taiwanese-American Presbyterian churches in New Jersey, Chicago, Cincinnati, D.C., and Louisville when we’re back home this summer and fall. Since we came here in part through friendships created in these churches, we know kids who are growing up in the United States but with strong connections in Taiwan and hope they can give us a cultural “mirror” as we raise our own children. (As an aside, it has been fun to watch the pride of the Taiwanese and Taiwanese-American communities in basketball sensation Jeremy Lin, a Taiwanese-American Christian.)
This month I was also surprised to meet two adult children of mission workers, in their 30s and 40s. Both were unexpected encounters. Over Chinese New Year we learned of a Finnish Lutheran family who had come to Taiwan as missionaries a few months ago. The husband grew up in Taiwan before living in the U.S. for 20 years. It was very helpful to hear about his childhood, and also to talk with the couple as they navigate what is partly a new experience and what is partly a “return.” I had an even more surprising experience a few weeks ago. On the train to a committee meeting in Hualian (where fellow mission workers the Lims live), another foreigner sat down next to me. I’d never had this happen before, and we began talking. I learned that he was the son of a recently deceased Canadian Presbyterian missionary. The father had returned to Taiwan in retirement and taught into his late 70s. I’d remembered hearing about his death in January, so for two hours we talked about life and family, what it was like growing up in Taiwan, language and ministry, and so on. One of the things that was reassuring in these conversations was that for these adult children, their childhood in Taiwan was by and large a very happy experience. One described it as the happiest chapter of his life. The conversations also reminded me, however, that the decisions parents make have lifelong repercussions, so I also took these unexpected encounters as a call to stay attuned to our children and their experience here.
One of the most entertaining things about having children abroad is the alternate models we are given. In the last year we have been sent several best-selling books by American authors that tout alternate models of parenting (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Bringing up Bebe, How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm). Here, however, the alternative is our norm. Taiwanese spend more days and longer hours in school, and students go to cram schools rather than team sports. I don’t know of a single kid doing a T-ball or soccer league here (as near as I can tell they do not even exist), but there are Suzuki and Yamaha music schools within five minutes of Sam’s preschool, as well as probably a dozen different bushiban, or cram schools (they teach English, Japanese, “mental math,” and other subjects). Some of Sam’s 3-year-old classmates already attend language classes. I was surprised to discover that, without exception, my Taiwanese colleagues’ teenage children are good musicians, and most are fluent in Taiwanese, Mandarin, and English.
For us, having children here has given us new perspectives and ways of understanding family. It’s helped our Chinese (I can say “cement truck” and “Triceratops” in Chinese, words that appear in no Mandarin textbook). It has sometimes slowed or limited our ministry, even as it has given us alternative ways to relate to those around us. We’re learning about faith development through Sam’s Sunday school, and when Eva was sick we were grateful for people who visited us and prayed for us. We’ve been given new models on how to handle family life, education, faith development, diet and nutrition, and so many other topics. We know this is a short chapter for us—really just a few years—but we don’t want to mess it up for our children, who only get one childhood.
It means a lot to us to have your support and encouragement. It’s a cliché that it takes a village to raise a child, but we’re very grateful for those who of you who are with us in this shared endeavor.
Grace and Peace,
Jonathan (and Emily, Samuel, Eva and Eli)
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 205
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so glad to hear from you! thanks for including the pic of Sam. cant believe it is almost 3 yrs since i saw youand your family of 3 at Louisville for your commissioning. now you are part of the Taiwan community and have two more family members! May God continue to bless you and your family and your work. In His service, Carolyn Coffman remember me and spouse Turner to your parents