The first I heard of Teacher Ou (pronounced ‘Oh’ in English) was when I was talking with a young Peruvian Columban priest, Fr. Henry Amado Serván Vallejos. The way he lit up when he mentioned her struck me, he seemed so enthusiastic, so I did a little investigating. It turned out that she has been teaching Chinese (Mandarin) to Columbans, including students on their First Missionary Assignment, priests and Lay Missionaries, for 30 years. I had the idea that interviewing her might give me an insight into the work of the Columbans in Taiwan and so asked to meet her to hear her story.
We met in a coffee shop in the city of Hsinchu. Her humour and generosity were immediately evident as she smiled encouragingly at my bumbling attempts at greeting her in Mandarin and jumped in to pay for our drinks. As we sat down she pulled out pages of neat notes written in Chinese. She explained that she had enjoyed the opportunity that the questions I had sent in advance had given her to reflect on her experiences with the Columbans, looking back over her career. She sat upright, listening attentively, serious and dignified, but with a definite sense of fun. The conversation quickly slipped from the scripted questions as I learnt about her passion for teaching and her impressions of Columban mission in Taiwan.
Although Teacher Ou has always been a Buddhist, many of her educational experiences have been in Catholic institutions. As a child she attended a Catholic-run school, and then went on to teach Chinese to (non-Columban) missionaries at a university in Taipei. Her enthusiasm for teaching foreigners is rooted in her passion for Chinese culture; she studied Chinese literature at university, and is keen on Chinese Opera, calligraphy, theatre, music and many other aspects of the culture.
After marriage she needed to move from Taipei to Hsinchu. For a year she commuted back to the capital to teach, but this was exhausting. At that time there was no opportunity to teach foreigners in Hsinchu so she looked for other work, “but nobody would hire me – I’m not a good secretary!” she explained with a huge smile. An introduction via a friend led to her first meeting with the Columbans.
Columban Frs. Kevin and Peter O’Neill were planning to move nearby and were looking for a teacher – to start in 6 months. She remembers that this was agreed at their first meeting and then there was no communication for half a year. Her friends were concerned and encouraged her to look for other opportunities – what if these foreigners didn’t show up? But she trusted that they would; “Priests don’t tell lies!” she said. Her faith was rewarded, and the rest is history! In fact, her neighbours were amazed at how often they turned up, saying “Teacher Ou, your student, he really studies hard, he comes twice every day,” not realising that Kevin and Peter are identical twins!
Teacher Ou is still close to Kevin and Peter, and she and her husband have visited them and their family in Australia. This theme of friendship and family runs through the conversation. She explains that her daughters called her early students uncles and aunties, and now they have grown up, call her current Columban students sisters and brothers. Most Columbans continue to learn Chinese throughout their time in Taiwan, so some of her students have been with her for over ten years. She explains that as an educator she becomes a companion, and that “when I accompany people, I really feel I use my gifts.” She finds this enjoyable and satisfying and explains that all her teacher friends have gone through times when they wanted to quit, but she never has. She strikes me as someone clearly living their vocation.
She described seeing her students go through culture shock, a common experience for people living in a culture outside their own. She says that for the first months everything is enjoyable and interesting, the ‘honeymoon’ period. Then, “they cannot hide it,” a time of homesickness, poor sleep and frustration, before they settle down. She supports them by listening, and through compassionate teaching. “I remember telling one struggling lay missionary, listen very carefully, here is your homework – shut your books, don’t listen to Mandarin. Watch TV in your own language. Relax. Sleep. That was like a giant hug from me.”
Teacher Ou appreciates the Columbans’ faith in her. When young missionaries doubt her methods, old hands tell them to trust her, as she knows what she’s doing. “And because they say it, I need to make it come true. So during the 30 years, I have never stopped studying, training myself to be the best teacher I can be for them.” An arriving Columban spends a year learning Chinese full time, after which Teacher Ou focuses on relevant language for their ministries. This involves listening to them, understanding what they do, reflecting on this and then creating bespoke learning appropriate for their specific mission and ministry. “My living room is like a library,” she says. The breadth of her library truly speaks to her commitment, and to the changing face of Columban Mission in Taiwan, including English, Korean, HIV/AIDS and special needs educational materials.
It is evident that Teacher Ou admires the Columbans. She says, “They are doing something I could never do,” sacrificing their lives at home. She describes them as open, patient and humble, and notes that, “They really love the people they serve. It’s not only a job. It’s mission,” a sentiment I can’t help but notice is also true of her. She was particularly impressed with their commitment in the face of the pandemic: “When I saw them adapting during COVID, I felt happy. Nothing can knock them, nothing can stop them, they find a way to fulfil their mission.”
My final question is about how knowing the Columbans has affected her. She responds that they have changed her life and “expanded her heart – because of my relationship with the Columbans, I love HIV patients, I love Indigenous peoples, I love migrant workers, I love people with special needs. Their love makes my life richer… the Columbans are the pen, trying to write something God wants them to write. I’m not the pen. Maybe I’m one kind of ink?”