Written by Sam Simonds (Connecticut College) Student Correspondent CET Taiwan, Spring 2018
The first thing I noticed when I walked into my friend’s home was the Christmas tree. It was still up and the lights were still flashing. I immediately remembered how my roommates in my Borderless apartment kept their Christmas decorations up until the middle of April. What followed in the next few days was an incredibly powerful experience. If it had gone differently, I would be writing this article about the significance of Christmas in Taiwanese Christian culture, and I would probably make some kind of argument about prevailing tendencies to romanticize western conceptions of home, family, and gathering.
Over the course of the following day and a half, however, I was taken completely by surprise. I had become friends with this girl last summer in Tainan. I had taken a break from Taipei to visit her and some other friends this past weekend. When I mentioned the Christmas tree to her, she looked at me and smiled, saying that every day was Christmas. I laughed and said that I had forgotten that fact. We moved on and discussed something else – possibly a film or something.
It wasn’t until the next evening when I realized the importance of the Christmas tree in her home. Some friends and I (including her) had all gone to a museum together. It was late afternoon and everyone was deciding what to do. Most people had to go home, but this girl, Diana, wanted to go to a mocha tea shop. I decided to go with her to the tea shop.
It was a really pretty shop with two stories and a cherry tree growing from the first floor and blossoming into the second floor (I believe the tree was fake, unfortunately). We talked for a while, and, as customers left, we moved to a section where we could sit on the ground. She asked me to tell her more about my life, so I did the best I could in Chinese. Then I asked her the same question she asked me, and she said that if she wanted to truly answer my question, she had better use English. It sounded serious, so I braced myself.
She told me the story of her mother. She told me that she has never been as sad as she has been for the past year, and that it was because her mother had passed last spring. She said that her family still hadn’t told anyone about her mother passing because her family still wanted all of her mother’s friends to post birthday wishes on Facebook. All of her friends knew that her mother was in the hospital because two winters ago, her mother had slipped and fell, hitting her head, but because the ambulance had trouble finding Diana’s home, they didn’t get to her mom in time and she entered a coma.
Her mom had shown signs of improving, however, last March, an assistant caring for her mother accidentally added the wrong medicine to the IV, and Diana’s mom passed away. Her mom had been the one to put the Christmas tree up and decorate it. That was why they still had the Christmas tree up in their home. I remembered Diana telling me that her mom was on vacation in Hualien a while back.
A bit later, Diana invited me to get dinner at her family’s favorite restaurant in Tainan. I, of course, agreed and we met her father at the restaurant. It was interesting talking to Diana’s father because his Chinese wasn’t very good (not that I could really tell, but he would have to ask Diana how to say some things). His first language is Taiwanese. During our conversation, I asked him what his favorite thing to do in Tainan was.
He replied, “I most enjoy taking evening walks with my wife.”
As soon as he said this, I was caught off guard. His eyes stared just past me and his voice felt empty. I quickly put together some kind of reply that it sounded nice, as I didn’t want him to know that Diana had told me about his wife. After talking with Diana, and then seeing her father talk about his wife, it was clear to me how much they both loved her, and how much pain there was in her absence.
And so, I understood why the Christmas tree was still up.
I wrote this because the entire experience made me realize that it is so easy to approach situations, especially in an unfamiliar context, and make broad or sweeping generalizations. If unchecked, these generalizations can become a truth. Without having this experience with Diana and her father, for example, perhaps I would have left Tainan telling friends and family how strange it was that Taiwanese people were so obsessed with Christmas. I’ve been reminded of the importance of keeping an open mind and trying to come to conclusions based on experiences and lessons facilitated by others rather than merely facilitated by my own thoughts.