"Somebody has to do it, so... why not me?”

By Dr. Christoph Merkelbach / International volunteer from Germany

 

My parents taught me that a fulfilled life consists of four equal parts: a good and satisfying job, a healthy and sporty lifestyle, arts and music, and last but not least, service to the community. I grew up in a middle class catholic German household in Aachen, Germany, a suburban area bordering Holland and Belgium. My father was working for an insurance company, and my mother became a teacher, when I was eight. My older brother was born deaf and autistic, and I was the cute, little blond guy, the dream – and sometimes nightmare - of all mothers. I had a very happy childhood, having my parents and brother around. We lived in an open house, where we often had friends over; my parents took in people who were in need. They went regularly to concerts and gave many parties to lots of friends and family members. They were also very involved in community services; a big part of their life was dedicated to their work for the deaf. Over the years, they literally built a deaf community center with their own hands.

Dr. Christoph carrying one of the babies in Harmony Home

Coming from an active and socially-involved family, I naturally became interested in social work: I studied nursing and expectedly, this led me to frequently be in contact with AIDS-patients. Most of my colleagues, even the doctors, were scared of these patients who just had single rooms, very short visits, and hardly any comforting conversations with anyone. However, I remember one old volunteer nurse, a catholic nun, who was very compassionate, helpful and friendly. I will never forget her comment to another colleague: “It’s not our job to judge, but to help. We all have learned to read, so go and read the relevant literature!” This great catholic nun was in her mid-eighties.

Back in 1985, some friends and I decided to open a telephone hotline for people with HIV and AIDS to welcome them with open arms and hear them out with “open ears”. At that time, AIDS was given a very low priority by the government in Germany and in all other parts of the globe. People assumed that only gays, prostitutes, and drug users would be infected – and this assumption turned out to be fatally wrong.

At around the same year, I moved to live in Berlin, the biggest gay community in Germany, if not in Europe. Enjoying the glamorous nightlife of the city, I was quickly confronted with the reality of gay life: AIDS. Many of my friends were infected with HIV, a sure death verdict at that time. After retiring from my job as a nurse, I started to study Linguistics, Chinese and Foreign Language Teaching Methodology. During my studies I lived for one year in Shanghai to learn Chinese. After I graduated from the University I moved to Taiwan and worked hard on my second professional career. Then fate struck me at the age of 35 --I was diagnosed with a rare kind of cancer and had to undergo a major surgery. At this time I learned what friends are for: of course, my parents came to Taiwan to look after me, but my Taiwanese friends (this astonished us the most) were at my bedside 24/7 for more than two months, and to top it all, they generously attended to my parents’ needs during their stay in Taiwan. Frankly, I didn’t expect so much compassion. Being a foreigner in this country, this was the most overwhelming experience I’ve ever had. During the whole time of my recovery I had tremendous support from my Taiwanese friends and even from people I didn’t know. Now I know it’s true: when Taiwanese are highly praised for their hospitality, they are commended for being big- hearted.

Now, I work as an Associate Professor of German Language and Teaching Methodology at National Taiwan University. I do sports everyday, and I sing in the Philharmonic chorus of Taipei City. I have been stably living with my significant other for 14 years now. I enjoy life! But one day, I felt something was missing: It was the evening before I left for a research trip abroad; I was wandering through the streets of Taipei, when I saw two little kids playing at a convenience store. They were cute, and I watched them play. Later, I thought it was strange that nobody seemed to be watching over them. Suddenly, an elderly lady approached me and said, “Watch out! These kids live with AIDS-infected people residing in a dark store across the road.” I got really angry (I easily flare up) and told the lady off and left the store.

Enjoying ice cream with the kids on a sunny day.

Arriving home, I told my partner about the incident, and we decided to check out the place online. Later, we found out about Harmony Home, and I decided to volunteer after returning from my six-month research trip. I even dreamed of adopting a child. Well, things are easily said than done. When I came back half a year later, I found out that the neighbors – mostly intellectuals with high university degrees – have forced Harmony Home, with a court order, to leave the area. I was quite stunned, but nothing more than that. Yet, I was still contemplating to adopt a child with HIV. But a good friend, a father of three children, suggested that I could get involved with the group and try to ensure a proper education for those kids.

Months went by, and as the vivid impressions of my life abroad gradually faded, I again thought --something is missing in my life. This time, I finally got the drive to look for Harmony Home again. I found them, and I paid them a visit, just to check out what I could do. The first meeting actually took me by surprise: babies, toddlers, children of all ages, I didn’t expect this; Sick adults of all ages, persons in a vegetative state. The whole scene reminded me of Camus’ The Pest. Being trained in Germany as a nurse, this setting quite shocked me. However, I was even more surprised with how much respect people gave each other; how much love they were offering each other. And how much compassion they had to offer! A big –sometimes chaotic -- family has just moved right into my heart.

Learning new things with Uncle Chris

It has been nearly two years now since I’ve been involved with Harmony Home. I am looking forward to every Friday to do different jobs at the place. Sometimes it’s tiring, sometimes it’s boring, but mostly it is exciting. But every Friday feels like a real life, a vacation, away from the academia. And most importantly, I am satisfied, at least once a week, with my life.

This year I also had the opportunity to take some of my students from NTU for a required service class to Harmony Home. I was pretty sure that no student would want to enroll into this class, due to its nature. But I was surprised that eight students showed up at the first meeting, and later even more. Nobody seemed to be afraid; everyone was willing to help and not shy to do so. We were lucky to have a grant from the Ministry of Education, so we were able to acquire some toys and stationery for the children. We baked cookies, went to the zoo, and went for long walks into the mountains. My students were very helpful --they helped, even after class, to move furniture and clean our new home. I am very happy to know that their work at Harmony Home left a long lasting impression on themselves and on each of us.

Dr. Chris with Nicole Yang, founder of Harmony Home

Once a student asked me why I spend my spare time at Harmony Home, and the simplest answer to that is “somebody has to do it, so.... why not me?“ I am very grateful to be a part of Harmony Home. I enjoy it very much. And this fun seems to emit positive vibrations to my friend: The owner of the German Bakery “Oma” donates her left-over cakes three times a week, other friends donate baby’s clothes and again, others come to volunteer in whichever way they could.

Being with Harmony Home gave me the opportunity to meet many real day heroes, all in their unique ways; being a volunteer gave me a totally new insight into Taiwanese society. And I know that I am happy to be here every day!