Learning to Share

It’s a place of regulation haircuts and regulation uniforms. It’s high school in Taiwan. And for Chu Mei Ling, it’s a place to share the gospel.

Welcome to high school. You know the rules—same as junior high (or middle) school and grade school. Boys’ hair must be kept short, girls’ hair medium length in the approved style. No exceptions. Everyone wears an approved version of the school uniform. No exceptions. Everyone stands at attention during roll call. Teachers are referred to as “sir,” “miss,” or “madame.”

Physical training is mandatory. Tardiness is not acceptable. Unruly students will be dismissed. Here, the objective is to work hard. Remember that there’s a test at the end of high school that determines whether or not you can go on to college, similar to the exams already passed at the end of grade school and middle school.

No, the above description is not the Orwellian nightmare of an American or Canadian teenager who ate too much pizza before going to bed. To students from Iceland, Europe, South America, Australia, Japan, and other regions, the description somewhat typifies their daily classroom experience, although there are many variations.

Actually, the rules of conduct prescribed in this case represent high school life in Taiwan, the island nation located just off mainland China. From the first day of classes, students here learn that discipline and education go hand in hand. Uniform clothing and uniform hair length are intended to reduce the importance of being in fashion so that students concentrate on studying. Younger children line up in ranks and practice marching under the direction of a teacher. And teachers are treated with total respect.

To those unfamiliar with such discipline in education, it may seem like a strict system. But it borrows elements of educational philosophy common in both European and Oriental cultures. And in Taiwan, students not only work hard, they are enthusiastic about learning and they also have fun, participate in student assemblies and clubs, and find time to talk to each other and make friends. Competition to get into the best schools is keen.

Chu Mei Ling, 17, a member of the Yung-ho Ward, Taipei Taiwan Stake, explained.

“In order to be admitted to the Taipei City Junior Business College (which, despite its name, is equivalent to a U.S. high school), I had to take an entrance exam. The number of people taking the exam amounted to 10,000. The number of people admitted to the school is just over 1,000. So you can see the competition is tough.”

But Mei Ling made it—on the second try. “Before I was admitted here, I was a student at Ta-lin Junior High School, which is known for its emphasis on music. After I graduated from that school I took an entrance exam for the junior business college and failed. So I went to a tutoring class for a year, then I took the entrance examination again this year and was accepted.

“This is a good school as far as the study of business is concerned. Students come from all over the city, and they are here because they want to be here. There are more boys than girls, because their grades were higher on the entrance exams. And most of the students of the school, except me, are primarily interested in business. I’m interested in music.”

But Mei Ling has a practical side. “I think music is only one of the avocations of living, an ornament of life which can be enjoyed in my leisure hours. But most students eventually have to go on and earn a living, so I want to be prepared for business too.” Her other goals include missionary service and temple marriage. “And I would also like to attend Brigham Young University after finishing my education here.”

Mei Ling’s daily schedule is a full one.

“I get up around 6:00 or 6:30 in the morning. I usually have a cup of soy bean milk for breakfast, then I ride my bike to school. Sometimes I take the bus.

“It is an exhausting experience for me during the classes, because I have never had business classes before. In addition to those classes, I have math, English, physics, and chemistry. We also have to learn to use the abacus. For me this has been quite stressful. And besides having a lot of exams, I go to another place for additional schooling after my regular school hours, a tutoring class preparing students for the college entrance tests.”

But there are some breaks in the daily grind.

“I have my lunch from my lunch box at school. Then before my tutoring class I eat out for dinner. In between classes and at club meetings, I can talk to friends and get to know new people. And sometimes we have school assemblies. For example, we had an opening social during which some students presented plays welcoming us to the school, including a performance by a student pretending to be an American trying to speak Chinese. Instead of saying ‘How are you?’ (‘Ni hau ma?’), he kept saying ‘Ni gel wo jan ju?’ That means ‘Stop! Halt!’ It was very funny.

“But the orientation for new students was tough. We had to stand almost for a whole day, which was very tiring, to hear every teacher’s lecturing and receive instructions about the school and fill out a lot of forms.”

Touring the campus of Mei Ling’s school immediately creates an impression of cleanliness and order. Graffiti is nonexistent. There is no litter in the hallways. Lockers seem ready for inspection. Students don’t loiter around after the bell rings. Announcements and posters are neatly tacked on bulletin boards. A student guide escorts all visitors.

The impression of order is reinforced during roll call, when students stand at attention and receive announcements and instructions from the principal and other administrators. At many schools, public and private, military training, including marching, target practice, and close order drill, is part of the curriculum.

“The emphasis on military activity varies, though many schools do such things,” Mei Ling explained. “Such training intensifies prior to military service (which follows high school), then isn’t as rigid in the universities.”

It’s hard not to wonder how administrators manage to get teenagers to wear uniforms, keep their hair short, and not constantly harass their instructors.

“I’m used to it, we all are, because we’ve worn uniforms since our preschool days,” Mei Ling said. “My hair is the same as everyone else’s hair. My uniform is like everyone else’s. We look beyond the styles and get to know the people. We concentrate on our studies more because we’re not always worried about what to wear.”

And what about all of the standing at attention, marching, and military decorum?

“In middle school I didn’t have to march, we only had to salute. But now we march and salute our teachers. We have to greet them when we meet, saying ‘teacher good’ (which translates roughly as ‘Good morning, sir’). But teachers are so important. They help us learn, and learning is serious business. They deserve respect and devotion.”

After spending all day and evening at school, Mei Ling will return home and enjoy playing with her younger brothers and sisters for a few minutes before she studies some more, often late into the night. Finally, just before she turns out the light at midnight or 1:00 A.M., she will engage in another type of learning, learning that she first started about a year and a half ago.

“No matter how late it is, I always spend about 30 minutes reading scriptures before I fall asleep. The scriptures are one of the first things the missionaries introduced me to, and I’ve loved them ever since. I mark my most favorite scriptures with blue, second-most-liked with yellow, and third favorite with red. I mark questions with a purple question mark. Then, if I come across a scripture which answers my questions, I mark it in green. I have finished reading the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, Gospel Principles, The Articles of Faith by James E. Talmage, and now I’m reading Doctrines of Salvation by Joseph Fielding Smith.”

That’s not bad for a young woman who’s been a member of the Church for a little over one year.

“Before I met the missionaries, I had seen them but I didn’t know the nature of what they were preaching. Then one autumn day, two of them knocked at my door.

“We let them in and listened to them. After they left, I read the Book of Mormon and prayed. The more I read the happier and more interested I felt. I waited and waited. They hadn’t said when they might return.

“By the time they came back, I had many, many questions. I listened to everything they taught. From then on, I prayed daily, whenever and wherever it was necessary. I read the scriptures continually. Eventually I gained a strong belief in the Church and I was baptized on October 9. Afterward, I was able to learn more and more from teachers in Sunday School and Young Women and from the example of many members. I have become totally active in the Church.

“Since I joined, I haven’t had any pessimistic thoughts at all. Any unhappy feeling can’t last five minutes in me. Besides, by observing the commandments, I have avoided going astray or learning bad habits. My life has become more solid. I have gained more knowledge.

“My mother is a Buddhist, and it is hard for her to think of changing her traditions. But she does not object to my belief in the Church. I hope that by the time I become old enough to think about leaving on a full-time mission, she will have joined the Church. I don’t often get a chance to talk at length with my father, because he is a very busy man, a newspaper distribution manager. He is also remodeling our apartment, which takes up his time after work. But I hope that he also will someday find the gospel and that my younger brothers and sisters will, too.” (Mei Ling is the oldest of five children.)

Mei Ling has also discussed the gospel with many of her school friends.

“In the beginning I didn’t think about helping my classmates know about the Church,” she said. “But by the beginning of December I was very happy in the Church and everybody wondered why I was so happy. They asked me about it so I told them about the gospel, brought them to meetings, and introduced them to the missionaries.

“But when I first took my friends to be taught by the missionaries, my friends were quite nervous. Besides, to hear, for the first time, a foreigner speaking Chinese, often creates communication problems. Sometimes the missionaries would ask them questions which they couldn’t make out and did not know how to answer. Afterward, my classmates would say that they dared not go back because they couldn’t understand everything.”

Mei Ling decided that perhaps she could help. She started talking to her friends prior to their meetings with the missionaries, bearing her own testimony, and reviewing some of the concepts that the missionaries would be teaching.

“For example, if they were going to be talking about where men go after death, I would make a chart for my classmates, on which I would list questions. Then I would also list revelations and commandments given to the prophets and outline some of the major ideas.”

The results have been impressive. “There are about 30 classmates of mine who have joined the Church.”

Examples: “One of my best friends grew up with a strong Buddhist background. At first, I doubted that she would join the Church. But I mentioned it from time to time, and gradually she became curious about the gospel. She prayed daily. She read the scriptures. But she had so many questions I began to feel she might always have some belief in the Church but not join it. Then one day she told me she had decided to be baptized, that she had felt the witness of the Holy Ghost that the Church is true. I was very happy then.

“Another of my classmates studied for a long time and had a testimony, but she didn’t want to be baptized because she was afraid of water. She couldn’t imagine standing in the baptismal font. So we prayed and decided she should try her faith. The baptismal date was set. Even the day before she was still scared. So we prayed again. About 11:00 P.M. that night, she called me to say she had found peace about it and would be baptized.

“There have been many others. Each time I saw one of my friends standing in the baptismal font, I think I was as happy as they were. Once again I could see someone become a member of the kingdom of God.

“Now, even though we are members of different wards, we all keep in touch with each other. It is wonderful to know they have become happier and that they now want to share the gospel.”

Mei Ling regularly writes in her journal, too. And she serves as chorister during her ward’s sacrament meetings.

And even though schoolwork is a high priority, she finds time to join the other Latter-day Saint youth of Taipei for Aaronic Priesthood and Young Women activities.

“I love to take my guitar to the hills and sing, or go to the beach to swim. I like horseback riding at the youth park, or ice skating. And of course it’s only that much better when it’s a Church activity and friends and classmates come along.

“During the mid-autumn festival this year, we’re planning a party at the park. We will build a fire and sing and enjoy the beauty of the moon, which is an old Chinese custom.”

When Mei Ling thinks of future activities like that, she also thinks about things even further in the future.

“It is said that the Taiwanese are full of genuine human warmth—but I believe the people would have even more love and kindness among themselves if they had the gospel. I believe that someday most of the people in Taiwan will be Latter-day Saints. Then from here the Church will continue to grow throughout all of Asia, throughout all the world, as we reach out to our brothers and sisters everywhere.”

In learning about the Church, there are some lessons that Mei Ling has learned well.

“I think that someday I will certainly be married in the temple,” she said. “I will also do the ordinances for my ancestors. I want to enter into the kingdom of God and provide the same opportunity for my family before me. If they aren’t baptized, how can they enter the kingdom of God? So I have to do the ordinances for them. As far as my marriage is concerned, I think that the person I marry will be someone I love and that he will also love me. We will not like the idea of being separated after death. So we will go to the temple and be sealed forever. And because there will soon be a temple in Taipei, we won’t have to travel far.”

Right now, though, Mei Ling said her first priority is to put her own life in order. “Since I now have to go to school both day and night, I am busy. There is tremendous pressure. But as long as I am able to manage my time well, the Lord will bless me to find time to do what he has asked.”

Since she joined the Church, Mei Ling has progressed in two kinds of learning. She has continued her schoolwork, and she works hard at it. But she has also learned that by studying and sharing the gospel, she can help others to acquire a type of knowledge more important than any secular education.

Every weekday, the students of Taipei City Junior Business College come to school, open their books, study their lessons, return home and study some more. In a busy, crowded metropolis like Taipei, their activity may seem just another part of the rush and hurry. In the school’s student body of thousands, one LDS girl may not seem to most of her peers to stand out in a crowd.

But just as the schools of Taiwan have taught students and teachers alike ways of sharing knowledge with each other, the still small voice has taught Chu Mei Ling how to share her testimony with those around her.

There certainly must be lessons to be learned from both.

[photos] Photos by Richard M. Romney

[photos] Despite her hectic schedule, Mei Ling squeezes in a few minutes with her younger brothers and sisters and their friends. Even young children know that each school has its own cap and uniform, and that discipline is part of academic life.

[photos] Monthly passes make mass transportation economical, but in densely populated Taipei, it’s exasperating to park a bike in the bus station lot. Mei Ling’s window seat provides a place to reflect on the day’s activities and exams.

[photos] Traditional sauces add spicy color at a sidewalk cafe where students enjoy eating. Mei Ling, who is known by her classmates as a friendly but serious student, also relaxes from the academic grind through daily scripture reading.