Monday, July 28, 2014

A Parting Gift to Those We Love

A few of the characters who made this last chapter possible:
From the left: Sister Melanie Parkinson, Jamin, Sterling, me, Sister Blickenstaff, Sister Chen, President Blickenstaff

Sixteen years ago, I did something I never had before. Not only was I leaving to a foreign country to serve as a missionary for the first time, but it was the first time I’d boarded an international flight without my viola. Now, I’ve repeated this experience many times since, travelling to far reaches of the globe without it. But at the time this felt quite strange. For over ten years prior to my mission, I had essentially been tied at the hip to my instrument, even while travelling to Europe and Israel, but when my mission president felt uncertain of the effects of a hot and humid climate on a handmade instrument, I was ultimately instructed to leave it behind. Though disappointed by the lost opportunity to do missionary work with my music, I willingly accepted this fate, and saw the wisdom in it when my missionary work did require much more of my time, body, and energy than I could have ever humanly guessed.

Truth be told, at the time there was very little interest on the island in classical music. I did have one memorable experience with a woman who was teaching piano and violin to her daughters. She was thrilled to hear me play both instruments, and later painted me a beautiful picture of two birds, hand delivering it to me in my next area. She never did agree to hear the missionary discussions, but the feeling of loving camaraderie with her was tangible.

One can only imagine, then how surprised I was to see how much Taiwan had changed in its love of classical music. It’s not just big there now, it’s huge! Along with all the other influences from the west that Taiwan is embracing, it has become fascinated by this discipline, and I was shocked to see so many posters and billboards advertising classical music concerts.

The younger generation is learning to play instruments as well. When we arrived in YuanLin, I was shocked to not only see coming string musicians come and go from our housing complex (a extraordinarily talented violinist lived two doors down from us), but also that hundreds of students in the Ciao Sin elementary school were taking violin lessons with the same older gentleman who maintained a music studio and violin choir just around the corner from the school. I took the kids over one day to show them what these kids were up to, and even played a tune or two with all of them. :)

Aren't these kids darling?

This is Li MeiLian, the mother of the two talented violinists mentioned below. She was the assistant to the older gentleman music teacher. 

I was so impressed, and almost jealous that these children were receiving such a wonderful opportunity to learn and enjoy beautiful music together.

Then, a few days later we had a visit from the sister missionaries serving in YuanLin, Sister Chen and Sister Mandrano. They were both from Provo, both daughters of immigrant parents who were converts to the church. Sister Chen’s parents had both met the church while in Taiwan, and later met and were married when attending Brigham Young University. Though her parents were both Taiwanese, she was never raised speaking Mandarin until she was called to Taiwan as a missionary, (something that is often the case amongst ABC children, whose parents want to focus on them learning English well). She and her four other siblings did learn classical music, however, and Sister Chen was a star student of Irene Peery-Fox, the piano performance professor at BYU, who has produced an innumerable group of fine pianists for years. Leaving behind her musical studies to serve a mission was a remarkable sacrifice, and one that I understood quite well.

It was at this point that my wheels started to turn . . .

What if we were to put on a concert? A musical fireside? What if we were able to invite all the incredible people in YuanLin that had been so amazing to us, share our love for Christ and our love for them by sharing our talents with them? They had been so kind and so loving to us, and we wanted to share some meaningful way to thank them.

Certainly we had all the necessary pieces to make that work – a phenomenal pianist, a violist (me), a cellist (Dad), and other violinists could likely be found in YuanLin. Jamin had a lovely voice, as did another sister missionary in the neighboring ward. Could we put together a truly great concert for the community? When I suggested this, Sister Chen was jazzed, and so was I. The fruits of the spirit were definitely tangible as we discussed the possibilities. We felt joyfully exuberant.

Over the next few weeks, we started to mobilize all the moving pieces. Having Dad send me pdf copies of music, finding violinists to perform “O Divine Redeemer” for string quartet and piano with us, locating instruments for me and Dad, deciding upon a proper program, communicating with missionaries, getting invitations and programs graphic designed by a local member, figuring out translations for the hymns written and printed, writing out a proper narration and seeing it translated into Chinese . . .

The list seemed to go on and on, and ultimately seemed like it wasn’t going to happen when it seemed like the missionaries and mission president didn’t quite catch the vision of what we wanted to do—especially when it appeared Sister Chen would be transferred to another area before we held our concert . . . Sigh. This was so discouraging at times. I knew that these lovely, educated, and classy people we had come to know during our time in Taiwan were people that had by and large never stepped foot into an LDS chapel, and would likely never allow missionaries to tract into their homes—but they would come to a beautiful concert. I knew this was a glorious opportunity to share what meant the most to us—the sacred message of Christ and His plan for us.

Throughout this time, I prayed fervently, and when it seemed like everything would fall apart unless I was able to speak with the mission president directly, I squared with Heavenly Father. “Lord, this is my offering to You. If you want us to do this concert, please help it come to pass by placing the mission president in my path. If you don’t want it to happen, that’s fine. I have no problem with that. In fact, that would make my time here much, much more simple. But, I just want to offer this piece of my heart and myself willingly.”

When I did not see the mission president that next day close to the mission headquarters, (the day I met up with my close friend, Melissa) I felt almost relief at the fact that I was, in a sense, “off the hook.” However, the next day at church I was struck by the sister missionaries’ news:  the president had surprised all of them that morning by calling to say he would be at the YuanLin chapel that evening for meetings . . . It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

And so it went with all our different obstacles. Whenever it seemed there was something preventing us from moving forward, I would turn it over to the Lord again, and He would resolve things in his quiet and powerful way, often surprising me by how much better He could transform circumstances than I could (Elder Ran of the Seventy ended up presiding for the meeting as a result of many wonderful twists and turns, and became excited by the possibility of using Sister Chen’s talents more meaningfully in the future).

My favorite example of the Lord’s hand in the preparation of this experience was with regard to Sister Chen’s family. Though she was serving as a missionary in the Taichung mission, Sister Chen was not able to see her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in Taipei. (This was hard for them to understand the reasoning behind this since none of them are members of the LDS faith.) I’ll never forget hearing Sister Chen rehearse one of her solos in the chapel, and I was overcome with emotion at the emotive beauty of her playing. It was exquisite. Knowing that her extended family had not yet ever heard her speak Mandarin, I was struck with another singular question. “Sister Chen, have your grandparents ever heard you play the piano in person?” The answer:  though her grandfather had flown to the United States to hear her solo with a symphony orchestra, her grandmother had never heard her directly play, nor had most of her extended family. To me, this felt almost criminal, and I breached the subject of inviting them to the concert to hear their beloved granddaughter. Again, this felt impossible to her as she felt she couldn’t possibly ask her mission president for permission. When I called Sister Chen’s mother, she was concerned by the same thing . . . But I couldn’t let go of the intense feeling that somehow Sister Chen’s family needed to be there.

Then another miracle happened. On the weekend that hubby and I went to Taipei to visit those from my mission, we ended our visit there by going to the temple. We ended up going much later than we had originally anticipated, and ended up only being able do initiatories, rather than a full session. This was one of the most significant experiences I have ever had in the Lord’s house. I cannot write about it publicly as it was so sacred and meaningful for me. However, directly afterwards as I dressed and turned to leave, who did I almost literally run into? Sister Blickenstaff, the Taichung Mission President’s wife who had just finished a session. As it turned out, she and President and several missionaries were there at the temple that day. Though it took me several moments to process that uncanny serendipity, I told our taxi to stay put while I sprinted to find the Blickenstaffs before it was too late. I related the circumstances regarding Sister Chen’s family in Taipei needing to be invited to the concert, and Sister Blickenstaff immediately agreed with me. Of course they should go! Were it not for the fact that she is a rather stern woman, I would have hugged and kissed her. I was just that in that moment of the Lord’s obvious intervention, I felt giddy to consider just how much the Lord loves us and is aware of us. I felt so grateful to witness a part of it.

Eventually, after all the hours of planning, coordinating, convincing of certain parties that certain details were actually necessary, and a lot of late nights (most of which unfortunately took place during our 11-day excursion around the island), the day of the concert, and our final Sunday in Taiwan finally arrived.

The LDS chapel in YuanLin, where the concert was held.
One of the many posters advertising the concert. The brother who helped us with the graphic design on this and the program did a lovely job!

Sterling and I took the kids to church, and then left early to pick up Sister Chen and her new companion in Taichung, in order to allow us to effectively rehearse. There were still a couple of numbers we had yet to effectively rehearse, and others we needed to brush up on with other musicians. As we set up chairs in the overflow, a local bishop commented that he didn’t think we would need so many chairs, but we begged to differ. We knew the chapel would be filled and then some. We knew that so many people we loved, and others the missionaries had invited would come. More than anything, we knew God had set His hand over this concert, and that it would be wonderful.

We weren’t disappointed. Things went beautifully! From the moment when Elder Ran of the Seventy arrived, there were hoards of people arriving, and they seemed to keep coming and coming. It was an electric, wonderful feeling, especially considering that so few of them had ever set foot in an LDS chapel before. I was most especially excited to know that Ama had come.

I was beyond ecstatic to see Sister Chen’s adorable grandparents and extended family there! She hadn’t thought her grandmother’s health would allow this visit, but much to all our surprise, she was there with bouquets and beaming pride for her remarkable granddaughter. Thrilled at their presence amongst us, I was also somewhat amused at their lack of understanding regarding the etiquette in an LDS chapel. Sister Chen had seated her grandparents up on the stand behind her, and during the prayer they began taking pictures of her. This was something to be repeated during the performance as well, but out of respect for who they were, no one dared to correct them.  We all figured that in that moment, it was the spirit of what was going on that mattered most. :)

Sister Chen and her maternal grandmother. Isn't she adorable?

Though at first the stake president seemed a bit taken aback by the large crowd in front of him, (it seemed to have been a major struggle to get him properly notified weeks ahead of time about this event), from the moment that Sister Qiu got up to narrate the program, the feeling of love and goodwill in the room was tangible. The music flowed smoothly, and overall the program maintained a dignity and elegance that everyone seemed to just inhale. I loved it! It brought me so much satisfaction to share this part of ourselves with all these wonderful people, to look down at their faces, and to see them smile with pleasure. Sister Chen’s numbers, in particular, were remarkable, and I relished in the realization of what had been a small dream now coming to pass with the Lord’s help.

In the end, the mood in that chapel was exultant. Our friends and Taiwanese “family” (i.e. local friends and also ward members) clamored to take photographs with us and our instruments, and it felt so bittersweet to share our last moments with many of them in this way.  Sister Blickenstaff ushered everyone down to the lobby, insisting on more photographs with she and the president, ourselves, and any of the missionaries involved in the event. Between checking on where my children were, and passing out classical music CDs as parting gifts, it was beyond chaotic, but extraordinarily happy.

The two darling teenage sisters who played with us for "O Divine Redeemer"
Cindy's family, (Cindy is pictured on the left, her mother is standing behind Mr. Bitts, and Li-Zhen is in blue). She and her sister Peggy and dad (on the right) came to visit Li-ling a few years ago, and fell in love with little Coco at the time. Ironically, when we came to Taiwan a few years later they were the means for Coco getting into her very exclusive preschool. We were so grateful for their generous help!
I love this photo. Coco's assistant principal is on the left, along with the Lee Family on the right. I will explain more in a subsequent entry about them, but they really were so amazing to us while in Taiwan. Their whole family practically adopted all of us. Meanwhile, I have no idea what Li-Zhen is doing in front. :) You can see the state of affairs with the baby. Poor thing! Now one can see why we don't perform all that often anymore.

Some of the performers and most of the members of Sister Chen's family that came. I seriously think her grandparents are just darling!

The missionary force in YuanLin, as well as President Chen on the right.

With Brother and Sister Qiu, our elegant emcee for the night. 
For the sake of remembering, here is the lovely program front that night. I hope it gave people a different view of who these foreign missionaries riding bikes actually are . . . that they are dedicated young men and women who, like Sister Chen, are willing to make any sacrificed required for service to their Lord and Savior. More importantly, I hope it gave the members of the LDS church in YuanLin a feeling of joy and pride to be associated with our church, a religion which promotes "anything lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy." 

Because of all the many details connected to successfully pulling off an event like this one, I was also touched to personally witness the personal sacrifice and dedication exhibited by the local members of the church in Taiwan. These people, out of no self-interest, but rather out of a love for their Heavenly Father, gave many last-minute hours to rehearsing, translating, and preparing for this event. Women, who had full-time jobs and family responsibilities dropped everything to ensure that things went off successfully. It humbled me to my core, and filled me with a deep love for their dedication and unselfishness. 

After our short-lived, but meaningful time spent with them, anything I could give back was well worth any effort on my part. I loved these people and shuddered to think just how much I would miss them. As a result, the comment that meant the most to me afterwards actually came from LiZhen (Li-ling's sister), who said that she was thrilled with the concert, feeling that in that moment of beauty and solidarity, she felt they received more "face," a greater sense that they are people to be loved and respected. Now, if that was the only thing that came out of that final Sunday evening, then that alone would be worth it to me. 

I miss you, YuanLin 2nd Ward, and wish that all of God's choicest blessings may be showered down upon your heads.

much love,


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Yilan and a Goodbye to the East Coast

Sigh . . . Who ever wants to leave this?
When I initially made plans for our loop around the island, I knew I would be sad to leave the east coast of Taiwan . . . and, I was. The contrast between gorgeous mountain green against azure blue is something I don't think I could tire of, and I wanted to hold onto every view as long as I could. Unfortunately, we knew that to reach our next destination of Yilan, we would have to brave the Qingshui cliffs--probably the most treacherous stretch of road on the whole island. The road literally clings to a cliff hundreds of feet up above the ocean, and in recent years the major influx of mainland Chinese tourists have resulted in casualties there, including vehicles hurtling downward into the water below. Li-ling was terribly nervous about this stretch and we all felt it would be best to get an early start before the Chinese tour buses began coming from the opposite direction in earnest. 

As it turns out, the hardest part of the drive was actually Buggas, who screamed with fury during the whole drive. It was such a bummer to be sailing along such a gorgeous coast, with an overtired one-year-old in the back who was angry at the insult of being asked to sit in his carseat--again. Poor Li-ling tried to comfort him in every way possible, and I felt for her as I tried to safely drive, which turned out to be really important when an insane Chinese driver decided to pass a truck by driving into oncoming traffic (and directly in front of our car). It definitely woke everyone up, and shortly after we rolled into Yilan without too much trouble. 

Interestingly enough, the home stay we booked that evening provided one of the most authentic Asian experiences of all--hard beds! To his credit, the strange (and over-the-top environmentalist) host had tried to forewarn us about this part of his place, but we ignorantly said we were fine with this, and dropped our things there nonetheless. Little did we know it would literally feel like laying down on a hardwood floor. Sigh . . . The irony, too, was that this dumpy place cost more than some of our other lovely accommodations we'd already slept in. 

The one perk (and reason I had booked it to begin with), was that this home stay was known for having loads of fireflies in their garden, and that the host did a nice job educating his guests about the critters. This he did, (although the extent of the fireflies there didn't hold a candle to Alishan), and then we quickly headed out to the local night market to get some yummy street food. After all, our days in Taiwan at this point were numbered, and we needed to milk the culinary time we had left.

Pizza in a cone. This stuff seriously tasted amazing. Every American sporting event should have these available in their concession stands!

Coco discovers the all-famous Peking duck!
Anyone who's ever spent time in Taiwan will recognize these tasty little yogurty drink bottle beverages. The children here all grew up on them, and now one sees all sorts of variations of the stuff. It's as good as I remember.

A quintessential element to every night market is the presence of the novel and quirky. This one was no exception:

Notice the papaya milk in the baby's bottle in the background. Man! Do I miss that stuff! He was on a constant, steady stream of drinking it at all times, (and I didn't mind sneaking a sip from time to time, either.)

This was a little game where you were allowed to catch as many small fish via your basket and place them in your own bowl. It had no rhyme or reason to it, other than it was strangely soothing. Even the adults there frequented the place.

Each of the kids had to buy something from this place.
After a late evening like this one, it didn't matter how rock-hard our beds were, we slept just fine. :)

Here's a shot of our breakfast on the day of our leaving Yilan. Though delicious, (I HIGHLY recommend the roasted duck from this region!), this was essentially all they prepared to feed our group of nine people! I know our host is preservation-minded, but my goodness!

Our first time eating ferns! These actually tasted quite delicious, and had an interesting texture to them. They almost seemed to get more sticky the more you chewed them.

Mr. Bitts demonstrates his fetish with gnawing shapes out of his guava. Pictured below is our plate of pure gluten. Yuck! Needless to say, with Dad being a celiac, we didn't touch this stuff.

The next morning we headed over to the highly recommended National Center for Traditional Arts. This place has a recreated Taiwanese village, akin to what it looked like in the 1920's, and features all sorts of traditional Taiwanese foods, performances, and arts where one can try one's hand at it himself. Our day there started off with a Taiwanese (this was a new experience for me) opera based on the famous folk story of the Monkey King. I was thrilled to see this, especially since I had read the story to the kids before we had come to Taiwan, and they quickly became fans of the story, just as most Chinese children do. As a result, though they couldn't understand the Taiwanese, they could easily followed the story and remained riveted by their athletic prowess and fascinating costumes.

Note our upteenth photo bombing on the right. . . classic.

Directly after this performance, there was a recreated street procession down the main drag. The kids were obviously dazzled.

Directly after the performances we took advantage of the DIY opportunities the village had available, particularly the potter's wheel. Mr. Bitts was especially enthralled, and declared that he must have the opportunity to learn this more when we return home to the U.S.!

On the whole, it was a great day, and we could have easily stayed longer, but ultimately we needed to head back to YuanLin so that we could properly prepare for our concert (more to come on that later). We were grateful for the fun capstone for such an amazing week and a half--even if the last few hours of driving home were harrowing when dealing with a very cranky and very overtired baby. Sigh . . . I goes you can't win 'em all. It's definitely part of the hard reality of traveling with kids, right?

Watch out for this kid your neighborhood, (or motor vehicle), because he always gets the last laugh!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Hualien and Taroko Gorge

Following our short stint in Yuli, we headed out towards Hualien. In contrast to when we had missed seeing the east coast during daylight hours, we earlier this time in the hopes that this time we would have a better view of the gorgeous mountains alongside the restorative oceanfront. We were not disappointed. Coming down over the mountain pass from Yuli to the oceanside freeway had to have been one of the most spectacular views I've ever seen in my life. The mist that floated in the mountainsides beautifully contrasted the bright blue before us, and I felt like at times I literally didn't want to breathe for fear it might change something. 

Not the greatest representation of our drive, but it gives you a small taste for the beauty.

When we finally reached the coastline, we were delighted to see a piece of old-world Asia, something Dad and I have seen in our other travels, but it was a first for the kids.

Water buffalo!

Between looking at the ocean and the impending storm that was brewing there, as well as the rice fields on our left, we were reminded all over again why so many people rave about why they love this part of the island. It is majestic.

After rolling into Hualien after dark, and feeling absolutely ravenous, we located a restaurant that proved to be equally joyful to what we had seen that day:  Salt Lick Barbecue! We were so happy to have this vestige of home, we all felt we could cry with relief.

Check out those portion sizes. Ah! the love of American BBQ!

Once we were done eating we folded back into our van and on over to our hotel where we would be staying for the next three nights while we enjoyed Hualien's, (and Taiwan's, for that matter) greatest highlight -- Taroko Gorge. 

For those of you who might not be familiar with Taroko Gorge, the name comes from an aboriginal word, meaning "magnificent and beautiful." It features 92,000 hectares of protected land, riddled with enormous marble (and in some cases, jade) cliffs that have been carved out by the vibrant blue Liwu River. Many of its peaks surpass 3000 meters in height, and many drop directly below down to the river. 

As a result of the sheer immensity of its gorges, it is near to impossible to actually capture the full grandeur and glory of this place. For years I had seen photographs of the park, and couldn't understand why people raved and raved about it. Turns out it is because it is literally impossible to take a picture that does it justice, and I hadn't seen any real visual representation of its glory. Seriously . . . There is no camera lens that has enough of a wide angle to capture the height and immensity of it all. (It's like trying to adequately capture the Grand Canyon from within a tight angle from the bottom of one of its small canyons.)

The comparison of the Grand Canyon to this place is not a bad one, actually, and is one we kept making the whole time we were here. We kept saying how incredible it would be to be able to take a helicopter ride above the gorge, or at the very least, someone needs to make an IMAX film that allows you to be able to take it in more accurately, since we felt like ants in something so enormous trying to do so.

On a hike within the gorge. Would that our camera had a wider angle!
Buggas appreciates the local foliage. 
View of us from further back on the Lushui trail.
The rainy mist on our first day not only made for a eerily mysterious atmosphere, but it also allowed our hiking to be so much more comfortable.

Daddy says "hello."

Check out the size of that fern!

On our second day in Taroko, we rose early, so that we might miss the usual onslaught of mainland Chinese tourists that come in droves in the afternoon. As we drove up the canyon, the sun was now shining bright, and much to the chagrin of some of Mr. Bitts who was very concerned, Li-ling and I opened the van doors wide to take everything in.

Before entering the famous Swallow's Grotto:

This place amazing!

A view of the tight fit for our car there.

It just goes on and on . . . 

Check out the road railing up ahead to get a sense of scale. Huge!

A view of the tight fit for the tour buses. This one is coming up behind our car.

After getting through Swallow's Grotto, we headed up the canyon to Baiyan Trail, a highly recommended hike for families. But before, we made sure to accommodate a much needed for Buggas.


As if the Walami trail weren't awesome enough, this hike has to take the cake above any hiking we've ever done with the kids. Not only was the majority of the trail flat and walkable with a stroller, but there was more of this incredible scenery:

Also, we saw monkeys!

We saw waterfalls:  

Crossed suspension bridges:

Walked through caves, including one called the Water Curtain Cave:

Make sure you go in properly prepared. :)
This place was awesome, though tricky to capture on film.

This plaque explains the unusual cave, and how it came to be.  
Here's a better shot of the cave, albeit not our own. I love how it just comes down in gorgeous sheets. It made the littles a bit afraid to walk through, though, because the sound of the water in there was deafening. 

Then, to top it all off, we had an older gentleman point out to the kids the opportunity to catch frog tadpoles there. The kids, including Buggas, were fascinated and thrilled!

Can you see the two little legs already developing?

The baby loved playing out in the water.
Can't get enough. We were out here playing for a long time!


Finishing off Taroko with such a extraordinary hike was the perfect way to end our time there. We came away from the experience understanding full well why the guidebooks say that it is the #1 thing to do on the island. Feeling in awe of its majesty on both a micro and macro scale, we'd say we'd have to agree.