When I began my longterm commitment as a Columban Lay Missionary, I took on the role as a diocesan catechist. Bishop John Lee of the Diocese of Hsinchu asked me to study and get a certification for the indigenous language, Atayal. Prior to the bishop’s request, I had thought about learning the language because in my ministry site some people still use their mother tongue more frequently than Mandarin, which is the standard language in Taiwan. But I felt the bishop’s request was too sudden, and I was not ready to learn another language while still learning Mandarin. But I changed my mind as I realized that this was an opportunity for me to learn indigenous culture in depth.
Fortunately, I was able to find an Atayal language teacher immediately and started to learn. As I began to learn the language, I found the alphabet (Romanization) challenging. Although they use the English alphabet, the pronunciation is slightly different, which made it difficult to adjust. For example, alphabet “b” is pronounced as “v,” “p” pronounced as “b,” and “t” pronounced as “d.” It was confusing, because I was already so used to the English alphabet. I had no choice but to memorize everything.
I studied harder than when I had to prepare for my college entrance exam. Although, the bishop did not give me a deadline for passing the exam, and I knew that I didn’t need to put too much pressure on myself, I just wanted to be responsible for what I was doing. Because while I was studying the Atayal language, I felt close to them. It had been a long time since I was in a school setting, so studying became something new again. So, I decided to entrust this experience to God. When I arrived in Taiwan, I studied Mandarin for a year. At that time, I always asked the Holy Spirit to guide my lips and open my mind for mission as a missionary. I believe it is God’s plan, so I follow it; if not, I could not find any reason.
After months of studying Atayal language, I finally went for an exam. I met some indigenous parishioners from our parish in the examination hall where I took the exam. They were surprised to see me not only learning their language but also taking the exam.
The test was conducted in two ways, listening and speaking comprehension. During the exam, I was nervous because a non-indigenous teacher did the exam — I had to take the Atayal language test in Mandarin. It was hard, but I tried my best to focus on my answer. During the speaking comprehension, I made sure I answered loudly because I thought it would be better to answer loudly with a clear voice. But the test supervisor found my voice too loud, approached me, and warned me to speak quietly because everyone in the room could hear my answer. I was given a second warning because my voice was still too loud.
I felt my answer was too short during the second part of the exam. I knew that was all I could answer, but I still had time. So, I decided to sing an Atayal song that I usually sing during the Mass. The song was about thanking God and entrusting our difficulties to him. I knew this song was irrelevant to the question and I didn’t know how much this would affect my test scores, but I wanted to do my best. Perhaps God saw my efforts and gave me blessings. Finally, I passed the test, and I was able to get a certification.
I was happy about the result, but what touched my heart more deeply than the certificate was the parishioners’ reactions. When the parishioners learned that I was studying their language, they showed a great interest in me and my study. They were amazed and touched to see a foreign missionary struggling to learn their language. I felt that their attitude toward me somehow became different, and I also felt closer to them than before. It seemed that we had become a real family. Previously they called me simply “Mahong,” which is my indigenous name, but now they call me “Mahong Chuan-Dao.” It means “the missionary Mahong.” I felt glad and privileged to be accepted by the group and to have earned their respect.
This opportunity to learn the local language deepened my missionary journey in Taiwan. I could already communicate with the indigenous parishioners in Mandarin but since I began to speak their mother tongue it brought a huge difference in our relationship. I was also grateful that God invited me to do God’s mission in various ways. God journeyed with me, encouraged me, and strengthened me.
Learning a new language probably will be the most challenging part of missionary life. But it is also the most effective way to learn the culture, draw ourselves nearer to people and be one of them. While learning a new language, I acknowledged the constant presence of God among us. I thank God for this opportunity, and I look forward to the unique invitation God will give me next.
Columban lay missionary Sihyeon Bae lives and works in Taiwan.