The Gift of Giving

The True Spirit of Christmas Means Thinking of Others

Christmas is a time of the year when you hear and read a lot about compassion. In Taiwan there has never been a time when compassion was needed more. With the global economy on the mend and people everywhere feeling the slowdown, many families and individuals are doing without luxuries or even necessities and wondering when things will get back to ‘normal’.

For people in areas like the valleys of southern Taiwan that were ravaged in floods unleashed by Morakot in early August, life will never be the same. The lives of virtually everyone in the region were overturned in an instant, swept away in a few days of uncertainty and awe at nature’s wrath.

Yet as stunning and fierce as the storm was, it also brought an outpouring of concern and compassion that represents hope for the victims and their families at year’s end as they face questions about what lies ahead in coming years.

Although the government was heavily criticized for its slow initial response to the disaster, the Ma administration finally got things moving with military troops and vehicles to move supplies into affected areas and help with clean-up. Meanwhile, the brunt of recovery work fell to NGOs and private companies. Foremost among the NGOs were Tzu Chi, a local Buddhist group, and World Vision, based in Singapore. Both organizations had experience in large-scale relief work in the wake of Asian disasters like the Sichuan Earthquake and the tsunami which struck one day after Christmas 2004.

When it comes to Christmas, and in particular the ‘spirit’ of Christmas, Christians might learn from the Buddhists in Taiwan, and in particular, Tzu Chi. The group’s activities focus on community service and outreach (including medical help, education programs and disaster relief), and its members were seen throughout Taiwan after Morakot in their blue and white ‘uniforms’, asking for donations for flood victims.

World Vision was also on the scene quickly. The organization had stockpiles of supplies pre-positioned and almost immediately started delivering food, water and cleaning materials to affected households. World Vision also collected funds to support relief efforts and provide emergency funds to people in the south.

Other NGOs which provided relief to stricken areas included the Taiwan Root Medical Peace Corps, the Dharma Drum Mountain Social Welfare and Charity Foundation, the Red Cross Society of the ROC and the Eden Social Welfare Foundation.

Taiwan’s business world was also generous in responding to calls for help. TSMC, which has a large chip fab in the Tainan Science Park (TSP), made relief payments to the families of employees who live in areas hit by the storm as well as to communities adjacent to the TSP. They also donated to the relief fund set up by the Ministry of the Interior for other parts of southern Taiwan. Ms. Sophie Chang, wife of TSMC Chairman and Founder Morris Chang, visited the homes of many TSMC workers and participated in fact-finding events to determine where aid was needed.

Another company which responded to calls for help was the Chang Yung-fa Charity Foundation, which delivered lunch boxes produced by Evergreen Sky Catering. Other units in the group supplied critical assistance as well, including Evergreen International Storage and Transport and Uni-Air.

All of these efforts showed victims and their families the true concern of the people of Taiwan. The material and spiritual support they received has no doubt been a key in their recovery from the devastation that the typhoon wrought.

One early sign that the residents are beginning to make a comeback was the resumption of age-old ceremonies in villages. While most were carried out in an atmosphere of sorrow over the loss of so many loved ones, at the same time there were rays of hope for the ones that remained behind.

On October 31 members of the Siraya tribe gathered for their annual Arit Festival at Xiaolin Village in Kaohsiung County, a time when ancestral spirits are called back to review what has happened in the past year and offer advice through the shamans of the village.
More than 500 people were lost in Xiaolin alone in the landslides that buried the village, and the remaining villagers and family members working and living outside the village decided to rebuild their kuva (communal hall) using ancient materials and techniques including a bamboo structure and grass roof.

On the day of the festival a group of men went at daybreak to find a long bamboo pole which was erected next to the kuva as a conduit between the people and their ancestors. During the afternoon the villagers sang and danced in the ritual called qianxi to call the old ones back from the other side. The villagers gradually warmed up and got into the spirit of the occasion, and the shamans reported that the ancestors were pleased with the ceremony.

Looking at the villagers around him and the rising tempo of the ritual, Tsai Sung-yu, chairman of the Xiaolin Self-help Association, noted that every crisis presents an opportunity. “If it wasn’t for the tragedy”, he remarked, “there would not have been so many young men from Xiaolin gathered here again to talk about how to reconstruct our own community and how we want it to be in the future.”

One place where Christmas will be different this year will be in the aboriginal village of Sanmin in Kaohsiung County. With a population that includes Bunun and Tsou, other tribespeople and Han Chinese, the residents are mostly Christian. Thus it should surprise no one that Christmas begins at midnight on Christmas Eve with the villagers walking through the streets holding candles as they sing “Silent Night” and other carols. The procession ends up at the church for a Christmas service, followed by a day of games and visits to relatives and a large communal feast in the evening. As one blogger in Taiwan has remarked, it is perhaps one of the places with the most genuine Christmas spirit in Taiwan.

This Christmas, amid the commercialism and hype, we should take time to remember what has happened during the past year and to wish on the Christmas star that brings hope and compassion, that next year will be better for all of us.

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