Yesterday afternoon I drove my scooter over to the local park. I brought along my pet cockatoo as a conversation starter. Before I even got off my scooter, I was greeted by two sets of parents whose kids we teach every Saturday at our Children’s English Club. I exchanged small talk with them for 45 minutes or so as their kids spoke with the cockatoo.
Then an elderly gentleman approached and sat down next to me. We exchanged greetings and a few words of casual conversation. The two couples moved away 5 yards or so almost immediately and continued their conversation with each other in the middle of the courtyard. Why did the parents gradually move away?
In the town where I live there is a man who – as far as I know -- lives isolated emotionally and socially from almost everyone in the community. I first met him 6 years ago. We were checking out the viability of this area for a church plant, and I wanted to pay a visit to the old Presbyterian church which was founded here 60+ years ago (It’s housed in a tiny house and has never had more than 7 or 8 adherents—Presbyterian leadership welcomed and encouraged us to come here as they had no leader and no plan for the church at the time).
On that day 6 years ago I knocked on the door and met a kind elderly brother. However, I could hardly understand a word he said. Since then I came to know that he was a soldier in the Kuomintang army which retreated from China after having lost the Chinese Civil War which ended in 1949. His dialect of the Chinese language is very different from those which are spoken here. As far as I know, he has never had any family – other than his own church family in this community.
On an earlier occasion last summer in the same park, we were playing football and frisbee with some other kids we know from the English Club and elementary school. When this elderly brother approached, the kids confided in me they could not understand a word he was saying. So apparently lots of people keep their distance from him. Although I saw no one being rude to him, the situation seemed sad and perhaps a little cruel.
As an international worker with only a high-intermediate level of proficiency in Mandarin, and a low-intermediate grasp of the Taiwanese Hoklo language, I can certainly relate to this gentleman’s situation. I often feel similar feelings of emotional and social isolation, largely due to the cultural and linguistic barriers. Oftentimes people don’t have a clue what I am trying to communicate, or they assume they cannot communicate with me and do not even try. One man even used this language barrier as an excuse to try to steal our church people.
On the other hand, I am fortunate here in that there are a few other foreigners around I can communicate with, as well as a small but growing family of believers we are working with. Furthermore, because we are the only westerners here in this town (and I’m taller than the average Taiwanese) most people are generally friendly to us. We tend to stick out in the crowd! It’s not easy… In summary, let me just say I admire this gentleman’s continuing perseverance and reliance upon His God these 60+ years.