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Pulling Together

Villagers See All Children as Their Own


In the small village of Sin Sing, 70 percent of the local children are raised in single-parent families or by grandparents. Yet they feel loved, because the villagers view themselves as a big family and regard everyone's children as their own.



Villagers See All Children as Their Own

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 419 )

It is just an ordinary afternoon in Sin Sing Village, located in Jinfeng Township, Taidong County on Taiwan's southeast coast, and the local grade school is going through a rehearsal for an upcoming sports meet. On the red running track, barefoot children get into starting position, ready to race. In the early afternoon you would ordinarily expect to see only teachers and students at school. But the bleachers are crowded with parents and grandparents who dropped everything to rush here from their workplaces by motorbike, car or taxi to cheer for the village's children.

After the race is over, the children rush into their mothers' arms. At this moment the families on the playground seem to be even closer to one another, nestled between Mt. Taiwu and the Pacific Ocean.

With no more than 100 students, Sin Sing Elementary School is small by Taiwanese standards. But about 70 percent of its students are brought up by a single parent or grandparents. According to stereotype, these are broken families, but the children's eyes reflect warmth, not neglect.

"Love is not necessarily restricted to the traditional family structure. It doesn't depend on how much money you make either. It's a question of whether there is a family member that continues to care," says principal Han-Wen Cheng, who likes to hug the children to encourage them.

My School Is My Home

In the past quite a number of families in Sin Sing Village were actually dysfunctional.

The middle-aged in-between generation had left to earn a livelihood on Taiwan's prosperous west coast, leaving their children behind to be raised by the older generation. Influenced by television, the children adopted the materialistic values of current Taiwanese society, which made them want to leave for a better life in the cities. The older parents left behind in the villages spent their days drinking alcohol, because they couldn't find work and had nothing to do.

But twelve years ago when Cheng arrived in the village he launched efforts to restore family functionality.

Many civic groups try to solve family problems in indigenous villages by offering after-school tutoring or financial help. Their efforts aim to supplement the functions that the family ought to serve.

But Cheng argues, "It is very dangerous to supplant parents." He firmly believes that dysfunctional parents can actually be enticed to learn how to become better parents and serve as role models.

Instead of pinpointing the weaknesses of indigenous families, Cheng worked to underscore their strengths, and encouraged the adults to serve as role models for their children. Cheng used this approach to rebuild the families in Sin Sing Village and to pool the forces of the local indigenous community.

Many years ago he began to promote the idea "My school is my home." The objective was to bring the culture of the local Paiwan people into the school. Hoping to build an environmentally sustainable school, Cheng promoted Paiwan culture for its emphasis on harmony between man and nature. Among the school's environmental features are solar power, a windmill and the use of driftwood. By making these efforts, he wanted the children to be able to identify with their own culture.

More importantly Cheng went on to spread the message "My school is my home." After a few years the assertion that "the children are the children of everyone in the village" was on the lips of all the school's teachers.

Becoming Children's Role Models

The Paiwan treasure the family. They use the honorific term "Vuvu" for both their grandparents and their grandchildren, reflecting a belief in familial reincarnation. Newborn children are often named after deceased ancestors, because of the importance the Paiwan attach to passing on their family heritage.

Ku Ying-mei, who heads the community development association of Sin Sing Village, notes that Paiwan culture had been virtually lost in her own generation born in the 1960s. Since many people moved away and were assimilated into the majority Chinese culture. Many Paiwan people could not speak their ancestral tongue anymore and did not cherish their own cultural heritage and traditions that much.

But over the past decade many of the middle-aged villagers who moved away have returned and rediscovered their cultural roots, thanks in part to the concerted efforts of the local church and school.

Every household in the village, for instance, has volunteered to take responsibility for sweeping clean a specific section of town. Cultural and personal growth courses are offered for youngsters, and the village chieftain and other leaders are teaching the traditional Paiwan skills of hunting and weaving. These elders are passing on cultural heritage by personally setting an example.

Hsu Chin-yu, a teacher at the local elementary school, observes that what children in remote areas lack most is a model for behavior. But after the school began to introduce Paiwan arts and crafts, architecture and music, many students gained self-confidence and started to proudly say: "My Vuvu is the principal's teacher, even the principal will ask him for advice."

In contrast to the elitist model that has taken shape in urban society, Cheng is working to promote a model of ordinary people with a wide range of abilities. He is convinced that in the future, society will need mature individuals who can take care of their own lives, manage their emotions and have the ability to flexibly adapt to change.

Helping Parents Build Confidence

In addition to revitalizing the community, Sin Sing Village is also working hard to restore family functionality.

Unstable income is one of the main reasons why families become dysfunctional. Therefore, Cheng began years ago to help parents without steady jobs to learn particular skills.

He asked friends with expert skills to teach the male villagers woodworking and also set up a woodworking shop. The women were taught weaving and sewing, and a sewing shop was founded. Cheng even spent his own money to buy second-hand sewing machines for the village women.

Luo Chung-yi, head of the Yuan'ai woodworking shop, admits that a monthly income of just above NT$10,000 is not much, but that his work now is much more stable than in the past when he took odd jobs as a cement worker, binding steel reinforcing bars. Back then Luo would take his children along to the construction sites. At the workshop Luo now even has opportunities to hand down his carpentry skills to others.

The women who work at the sewing shop feel that they have reaped even greater benefits. School nurse Tseng Mei-hui, who is also Paiwan, discovered during home visits in Sin Sing Village in the past that the mothers would gather to chat and drink alcohol. With liquor bottles strewn around the house, the children did not feel like studying after returning from school. Now that these mothers are diligently weaving cloth and sewing, the children find it easier to sit down and study quietly too.

In addition to assisting parents to increase their abilities, Cheng also makes it a point to inculcate parents with the idea that they need to devote themselves to their children's future. The most obvious example is his encouraging parents to pay school fees for their children.

Actually, most indigenous families are exempt from miscellaneous fees and school lunch fees due to their low income. So the children often feel that they are subsidized by the school or society and that they do not owe their schooling to their families. Consequently, they often do not have strong emotional bonds with their parents after leaving home.

Therefore, Cheng encourages parents to raise funds for their kids' school education. "Children will only become grateful toward their parents if they see that they work hard to make money to provide them with a learning environment," Cheng explains. Although the fees are later refunded to the parents, the school insists on this procedure to give parents an opportunity to demonstrate their love and devotion.

Originally, it looked as if the family structure was disintegrating and indigenous culture was no longer treasured. But since the villagers have recaptured their self-confidence and identity, the younger generation no longer feel a sense of uncertainty that might drive them away, or have reason to disrespect their parents.

The deep blue Pacific Ocean is turning pitch black as night falls. As some parents who are working in the mountains cannot make it back to the village on time to cook dinner, mothers next door are helping out. In another house Yeh Shu-hsia, one of the sewing mothers, is busy making outfits for the school's sports meet. Her daughter Ching-tzu silently sits at her side doing homework.

Many people have realized the power of jointly raising the village's children.

Fairyland Cafe and Resort proprietor Chiang Li-chue, an ethnic Chinese who has lived in the area for many years, has had the opportunity to witness the positive changes in the village. "This village is very united," she says. "If the children have an event, a dozen members of each family are willing to drop everything to participate." Chiang says the villagers' enthusiasm moved her so much that although her own daughter has already graduated from elementary school, she still allows the school to use her 1,500-ping hostel for free every year to hold a three-day outdoor adventure camp and oil-painting classes.

With a little effort, everyone in the village, be they parents, teachers, shop owners or social workers, can become good role models for children.

Translted from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz

Chinese Version: 全村都是一家人