Since last September, I have been going to a Toroko Aboriginal community in Tongmen to teach English through music with another Hualien ETA Gina. A former Fulbright researcher had a connection to the community because he had previously worked at Tongmen and attended the Presbyterian Church throughout his grant period, which finished in September of 2018. I met with him right before he left and invited Gina who said she’d be interested in the project. We’ve been going to the church at least twice a month since then. Throughout the year we probably spent over 200 hours with the community and I am very grateful for this opportunity to get to know so many wonderful people, especially the students that we work with.
Gina and I wanted the opportunity to perform the song we’d been rehearsing for the past several weeks at the church. In order to do that, we needed some extra time to practice and a final goodbye date. We talked to our students and arranged that on Sunday, May 26th, we would say our final goodbyes. Our students told us they would arrange a fun day for us so we anticipated spending the entire day with our Tongmen friends and students.
On Saturday night, we headed to the church for an evening practice. When we arrived we discovered that our students wanted us to dance and sing with them! This was exciting for us, so we quickly tried to learn the dance. Luckily, Ubing was standing in the front so I could follow her moves because man I had NO idea what to do for most of the song. We had a great and productive evening to prepare for the final day.
The next morning, we met at 9 am for one final practice. The students came wearing white dress shirts and black pants. There were so many of them that had come to this final event! When the time came to perform, we got up and sang and dance. After we finished, we bowed and the whole congregation gave us a huge round of applause. Then, they brought us to the front of the church to thank us and I said a few words telling the congregation how thankful I was for allowing us to become part of their family for the year. It was probably the first time I ever spoke to so many people in Chinese at once and I was terrified.
After the service was over, we joined the youth group while they practiced a few Chinese songs. Right at the end of their rehearsal, they pulled out two beautifully hand drawn envelopes with portraits of Gina and I. Two of the students had drawn them for us! Then, we opened the envelope and found a beautifully hand-written card with cut out pictures, and signatures from all of our students. They had each written about a paragraph in English, it was so sweet. We gave little cards that we had made to all of the students.
They next adventure of the day was hiking up to “instagram” falls. It is a beautiful waterfall with a pool that you can swim in right across the river from the Tongmen village. The whole way there, we sang songs in English and in Chinese together. We stayed in the water for a while playing games that involved catching a shoe (although I didn’t totally understand the directions I still tried my best to follow along). When it started to rain, we headed back through the pitch black tunnel filled with bats and back to the church. We took a quick nap and shower before dinner in the choir room of the church.
Around 6, all of the students returned and we got ready to head out for a dinner that the students had planned for us. As we were about to leave, a lady who was a member of the congregation came out of her home with a package wrapped with newspaper and tied with twine. She told us to open it, and we discovered a beautiful skirt and jacket set. The minister of the church had come out at this point and explained that the woman didn’t have much to give, but she wanted to find a way to thank us for teaching the students English. It was such a beautiful and meaningful gift and it made me realize how the teaching and connection we had formed with the students had extended to the larger community. It made me so sad to realize that this would probably be the last time I would ever see this woman again and I started tearing up.
Thankfully I was saved by the van arriving for dinner. We got into the van (we fit about 20 people in a 10 passenger van?!) and headed to a cute restaurant in Zhi Xue where we each got meal sets. The food was delicious but the company was better. It was a wonderful evening and although we were sad to say goodbye to our friends, I enjoyed chatting with Jay and helping him practice his English and seeing Taku, a man around Gina and my age who had great English and had joined us for dinner several times.
As we traveled back to the church, we stopped at the various houses of our students and slowly said goodbye. Realizing I’d probably never see this kids again was really heartbreaking. I also recognized that this was the first of many painful goodbyes that I would soon be facing in Taiwan and I was unprepared for this reality. At least I knew that next year Gina would be coming back and she would be able to continue to be a part of this community next year. Overall, I am incredibly grateful for all that the Tongmen community has given to me. Although it was supposed to be my way to give back to my community in Hualien, I feel that these people have given me so much and I will never forget them.