Audrey (an OMF missionary) sat next to Grandma at her betel nut stand in Taipei’s red-light district. Audrey was there to tell Grandma a Bible story about how God created the heavens and the earth.
Jen, Grandma’s daughter-in-law , put aside her work of sorting through trash for recycling and sat down to listen. Audrey asked the two women, “Have you ever heard the name ‘Jesus’?” They shook their heads.
It was winter and Grandma was wrapped up in a scarf and woollen cap, we could only see her eyes.
Audrey asked, “Which part of the story do you like the most?”
Grandma and Jen looked at each other helplessly and replied, “We don’t know, we are uneducated and illiterate, we’re stupid.”
Audrey was caught off-guard by their response. “Oh, maybe my Taiwanese is not very good, you can teach me how to say the story better, okay?” She pointed to a picture of the garden of Eden with many different animals. One by one, she pointed, “How do you say this in Taiwanese?”
Audrey was born in the US but her parents are from Taiwan so they spoke Taiwanese at home. Her accent is good but she’s not familiar with some vocabulary. After the visit, Audrey reflected on the experience: “It’s good to say that my Taiwanese is not good. This way, our communication is not one-way, they also have the opportunity to teach us. After a few times, they may gain confidence to answer questions.”
Jen grew up in south Taiwan. Her marriage was arranged by her parents through a matchmaker. Jen never went to school and could not read or recognize numbers.
Jen worked with her husband, Mr Chen, sorting through trash for recyclable materials to sell. She worked long hours, her skin was tanned, her face wrinkled. Her melancholic eyes made her look older than she was. The first time I shook her hand, I was startled that her fingers were thick as sausages, and her palms rough like cowhide.
Like many daughters-in-law of working-class families, Jen had a lowly status in her household. Grandma and Mr Chen talked to her in loud voices. Sometimes, he would beat her. She ate lunch by the roadside, stealing a few bites here and there.
A patient teacher
Audrey taught Jen to recognize numbers. Every Friday afternoon, Jen would turn up with a notebook and pencil. Although she practiced hard, writing 0 to 9, diligently, she still found it difficult to recognize numerals. She would look at the “3” on the blackboard and hold up three fingers but say, “Two.” She became nervous if anyone else was present during class. Audrey was a patient and encouraging teacher but after a few weeks, Jen did not make much progress, causing us to suspect that Jen might have learning difficulties.
However, there were some breakthroughs along the way. One day, Audrey taught Jen to use the phone in our center. She wrote down her mobile phone number and taught Jen how to press the numbers. Jen looked at the paper and pressed the numbers accordingly. It was the first time she used the phone to call someone. Audrey was very excited, she hoped that one day, Jen might be able to take the bus by herself!
Unfortunately, we will not be able to see this happen. Not long after this, Jen disappeared. Her family did not know if she had run away from home, or if she had met with an accident or even taken her own life. The police could not find her, there was no record of her being admitted to any hospital.
It seemed as if she had vanished into thin air.
Mr Chen was sad for a long time, he carried the watch that she had given him in his pocket. He was not someone who expressed his emotions easily. This was the first time we had seen him cry. One of our male co-workers shared the gospel with Mr Chen. He believed in Jesus and we encouraged him to pray for Jen but even after five years, she has not returned.
Like Jen, most illiterate women find it shameful to admit that they cannot read. They have low self-esteem and their families often treat them as incompetent and useless. They need help with basic things like understanding instructions, making a medical appointment or filling out job applications.
The Bible tells us that all human beings are made in God’s image, with honor and dignity. This conviction drove early missionaries to strive to improve the social status of women. In 1884, George Leslie Mackay, the first Presbyterian missionary to northern Taiwan founded the first school for girls. Education makes a difference in society: educated women have a higher chance of employment, to be self-reliant and have a greater say in family matters.
A group left-behind
Although today Taiwan has a high level of literacy and female education, there is still a group of people who have been forgotten. They have not benefited from gender equality, they are unable to speak for themselves or fight for their own rights. They need access to vital information e.g. which hotline to call for help when faced with domestic violence, how to apply for social welfare, how to open a bank account. For women who are illiterate, accessing this information is very difficult.
Once, my co-worker, Edna, accompanied a woman to a job interview. This woman had lived for many years in Taipei but because she was illiterate, she had never taken the MRT (subway) on her own. Edna had to take her to the company and fill out her application form. Other people interviewing for the job made fun of our friend, “Why do you need to bring your own secretary?” Later, Edna reflected on the experience and said: “Women looking for work at this age really have to be very humble.” Most of us don’t know what it’s like to be looked down upon.
I hope that this story will open your eyes to the inequality and injustice around you. Perhaps you will think about what you can do for the people around you, whether it’s the elderly neighbor who needs help getting to the hospital for an appointment or the single mother who needs a job.
Will you pray for community ministries?
- Pray for OMF workers seeking to support disadvantaged women in Taiwan with practical help and teaching.
- Pray for Taiwanese churches and Christians to prayerfully find ways of responding to the inequality they see around them in Jesus’ name.
- Pray for the witness of caring for the poor and marginalized, that many would be drawn to consider Christ.