Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dear Santa...

(The following are excerpts of Dear Santa letters from my 7th graders)

Dear Santa: It is Christmas and my hope is to get a hand grenade from the Japanese. I think they are cool and I will paint a smiley face on it and throw it at the teachers. –Oscar.

Dear Santa: Please bring my mother a baby daughter. I think she is bored and it is good for women to keep a child when they have nothing else to do. -Thank you, Howard.

Dear Santa: I believe you live in the North Pole. That means you must like snow, but you do not get cold because you have fat. Please bring me a bag of pig babies I can keep in my bathroom. -Melody.

Dear Santa: I know you are busy delivering gifts to all the children in the world, but please bring me a baby snake. I like to watch them eat the mouse. – Becky.

Dear Santa of the North Pole: My sister Winnie says you don’t exist. She is a big, ugly girl with black eyes and black hair. Don’t bring her anything except for a bag of poo. Please bring me a lightsaber and the power of the force. - Your friend, Rich. (God be with you)

Dear Santa, My friend: Tony says you don’t exist. He is a small sickly boy with freckles and don’t bring him anything. Please bring me a cute baby puppy to hug and love. - Kevin, AKA The Chain Saw.

Dear Santa: My friend Gabby Chiang says you will live forever and you can eat ten thousand cookies in five seconds. That is like a vampire. I like the Twilight. I think Robert Pattinson is hot. Please bring me Edward Cullen and Window 7 (with touch screen) and a baby rabbit. -Your friend, Melody.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Merry Christmas To All

Well, Christmas in Taiwan came and went. The girls had visions of sugar plums, thats for sure. There were stockings and Christmas lights, and a little festival across the street with paddle boats, and a gift exchange at the girl's school. We also had a nice teleconference with the Colton House too and everyone is doing fine though we miss our family back home terribly.
Lauren Kinu got a late Birthday gift from her Grandmother in Oregon, and also got a photo album from her Dad. She is talking so much and is just a sweet little ball of goo.
Rebekah got a cool computer game and a little pink bike with a basket in front. We have gone riding every day since and she loves it, but toward the end, I know her legs get tired because she starts sucking her thumb and asking for ice cream with sprinkles.
Xi'an also got a bike, a little too big for her frame, I can ride it don't you know, but she did get skates and loves them dearly. Her favorite so far is to put on all her gear: knee, elbow, and hand pads with her big helmet and attack me WWF style. She will knee me to the head, "Does that hurt, Daddy?" Or elbow me to the throat, "How about now?" So basically, this holiday season, I just whimper in the corner until it's over. Love you all! Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Festival

Our school had its annual Christmas Festival and since Xi'an is a student in the kindergarten, she got to perform while I worked a booth across from the stage. Xi'an danced to the Tikki Room and I manned the "Snowman Smackdown" which was awarded first prize for raking in the most charity money.
Afterward my daughters got to sit on Santa's lap and finally get some Christmas spirit. This is Teacher Curtis doing the honors. Hardly anyone in Taiwan really celebrates Christmas and so when Santa asked the children what they wanted most said, "Uhhh, a sandwhich?" Xi'an said, (I got this straight from Santa himself) a Barbie Doll made out of chocolate and a new bicycle. Rebekah and Kinu were too terrified to get near him. Curtis didn't take it too personal though.
As stated, "Snowman Smackdown" was a huge success. Here Brian meets with a couple of his favorite students Anne and Tiffany.
Here is the finale, that's Xi'an dancing in the front row, all the way second from end on the right. See flickr pics for more fun.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Teaching Shakespeare in Taiwan

Six years ago I got serious about teaching Shakespeare by re-writing the Bard’s plays as ridiculous farces poking fun at different aspects of American pop culture. Starting with “Hamlet and Eggs,” my classes then moved to: “Much Ado About Yo Mama!”Midsummer Night’s High School Comedy,” “Bada-Bing, Bada-Boom, the Taming of a Mafia Princess,” “As You Like It- The Real World,” “Shrek Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet, the Musical,” and finally, “The Jedi of Venice, the Revenge of Darth Jew.” This time around, while here in Taiwan, my students will perform “MacBackstreet: A Tragic Tale of Murder, Corporate Greed, and Asian Boy Bands.”

To study the plays of William Shakespeare by turning our class into an acting troupe and acting, directing, and producing a performance for the public.

The Assignment:
Students will read a Shakespeare play, work in teams to translate each scene, then Mr. Hartenstein will take your translations and write a new script. This script will be edited for jokes and content, divided into roles of actors, directors, costume and prop people, music and light supervisors, and advertisers. We will practice during class each day for a month, students will be expected to know their lines and blocking, take direction and cues from peers, and produce this play on their own. Students will then write reports on their experience interacting with Shakespeare in a real live way. All money earned from ticket sales will be donated by students to a cause decided later. (Not a pizza party, sorry)

Today was the first day we started MacBackstreet (Macbeth), and over the course of this next month I will let you know how it goes. Wish us luck!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

In Search of Santa Claus

We started out on a Saturday morning in search of Santa Claus by going to the large department store to get our pictures taken with Kris Kringle, but there was no such luck. So instead we walked back to the apartment and I let the girls dig around in the dirt, burrying coins and drawing treasure maps later. Here we are at the end of the adventure cleaning off in a public fountain.
There were a lot of strange faces that passed. Don't let your children dig in the ground, that's unsafe and filthy. Asian parents don't like this kind of behavior.
But in the end, it was worth it. This is a photo of the outside of massive SOGO Department Store where we figured Santa was sure to be hiding. I'm still on the lookout. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

500 lb Pig in the Middle of the Street

Random Notes From This Week:
1. I can’t breathe. Air pollution in Taiwan is up 150% from normal. Industrial chemicals, traffic emissions, seasonal allergens, and high island humidity cause me daily asthma attacks where I have become chained to an inhaler. Despite this, I still insist on running three to four miles a day, and last week I ran a mile in 5 minutes and 45 seconds. The picture above is from my recent trip to the Chinese Medical University Hospital to have my breathing checked. Vital Stats:

Height: 177.8 centimeters
Weight: 71 Kilos
Blood Pressure: 118/82
Resting Heart Rate: 60
Oh, by the way, this is the old geezer who beat my breath score. I even checked with the nurse to confirm. Basically, despite my best attempts at staying healthy, Taiwan has given me the lungs of an 80 year old man.

2. There are a series of insipid inspirational quotes that hang over the urinals in the men’s rooms of each floor in our school. Some gems include:

“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
“There is no telling how many miles you will have to run while chasing your dreams.”
“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”
“Reach for the moon, if you miss at least your among the stars.”

Then directly beneath each is a picture of a pig with a surgical mask and a caption which reads: “Please show sympathy for the cleaners by aiming your urine stream into the bowl.” I read these everyday while invariably peeing on the floor.

3. A week ago Eva spoke to me for the first time all year. She came up to me in the hallway and asked for help on her writing. We ended up sitting for twenty minutes as she just talked and talked. At the end, she was surprised I was so interested in Chinese pop music and that we should talk again. I smiled warmly and agreed. Of course, I have zero interest in Chinese pop.

4. Today in class I looked up and three boys in the back where rubbing cleaning lotion on their ping pong paddles.

5. Last week in China, 11 children ages 9 through 12, were trampled to death as a cram school let out at 9:15 at night. The children were part of a 400 student stampede down a flight of stairs on their way home. School directors have been put on paid administrative leave. At our International School, we have the same problem of boys running in the halls, last week crashing into a teacher and causing swelling in his knee. To combat this, the foreign teachers have set up times for hall monitoring to keep the students safe. This morning I saw three boys recklessly fly down stairs past the school Director who did nothing and so I calmly turned the boys around and made them descend the stairs again. Not to be outdone, the school’s Director also pulled the boys aside and scolded them for ten minutes on not having their shirttails tucked in. He made sure I noticed his stern discipline.

6. Today while walking to the post office, I turned a corner and a 500 lb pig was standing in the middle of the street. Traffic was being diverted as a shop owner was quickly trying to lure the sow back inside with a handful of carrots.

Only in Asia.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Happy Birthday Lauren Kinu!

Little Lauren Kinu turned two years old this Monday on December 7th, surely a day that will live in infamy. Lately Kinu has just been blossoming by singing songs from school, although the translation of which is usually done by her sisters who say, "Wow, Kinu is speaking Chinese," and just continuing to laugh her way through life.
Her birthday was celebrated on Sunday afternoon, which is sort of a Hartenstein tradition. There was cake with blueberries and lots of presents. Her favortie was this stuffed Hello Kitty.
The day before I took the girls to the park to run around and kick soccer balls and take pictures of all the funny Taiwanese people. Kinu loves to lag behind and just watch all the comings and goings of people. She points at kites, likes to follow ants in the grass, and thinks chewing on straws is terribly silly.
I never thought I would be this fortunate to have children, and often I feel like it is me having the birthday as I watch them grow a year older. Everyone marks time in their own way, but over the last few years my life has become more about them than myself, and that has been wonderful. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Insight into the Mind of a 7th Grader

The following are random notes, side conversations, scribbles, and grammar excerpts from the weeks 7th grade journal check. Enjoy:

“Teacher Brian, would you rather be a jedi or a sith?
Would you rather have a sexy woman or one who is with you all day talking?
Would you have everything in the world for one year and then die?” - Rich

“Teacher Brian, one day you are very hurry to poo poo. There are three bathroom: One has ten poos in the toilet. Another has many caterpillars on it. Another has not tissue paper except soiled paper in the trash which you must use. What do you do?” - Melody

“If I had a choice, I would rather be able to kill everyone with my finger than fly in the sky, but it would be more fun to have a notebook if you write anyone’s name on it, they will die.” - James

“Teacher Brian, would you rather be superman or a ninja? Teacher Brian, what if the ninja was magic?” - Oscar

“Teacher Brian is not very tall, he is not very ugly, but he is colorful. I envy him.” - Michael

“In a house fire, what would you save: Money? Magazines? Basketball shoes? Pictures of you? Or your Mom and Grandma?” - Tony

“Would you rather be able to kill all the teachers or be a god with no power?” - Isabelle

“I would rather have a sexy girl but no smart.” - Kevin

“Teacher Brian, would you rather have a smart brain, 2 slaves, 2 sexy girls, or be a cool man?” Randy

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Day Trip to Tainan

(According to the Ministry of Taiwanese Tourism Brochure) "Chihkan Tower is the landmark of Tainan and its most famous historic site. In 1653 the Dutch built 'Fort Providentia' in this area, and the Chinese named it 'Tower of Savages' or 'Tower of Red-haired Barbarians.' Chihkan Tower is its official name today. Even though Chihkan Tower has survived different historical periods, it retains its rich and graceful architectural aspects. Crammed with various kinds of steles, stone horses, weight lifting rocks, stone weights, and nine story tortoises carrying royal stele carved in both Chinese and Manchurian, the courtyard looks like an outdoor museum. Chihkan Tower is particularly attractive at night."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Taiwanese Sports Day

With a portrait of the Taiwanese flag and beloved Sun Yet Sen behind him, our school's president dressed in Roman garb complete with breastplate and sword, and proceeded to pound his chest while addressing students, staff, family, board members, and the community at large. Are we invading China? No, it's the International School's annual Sports Day.
The foreign teachers were paraded in front of the thronged masses while the Indiana Jones theme song played and the president yelled into the microphone, "Everybody... happy... good day, yes?"
Kids dressed up in period costumes and in different ethnic and traditional clothings, some mocking others serious.
And oh yes, they raced around the track with lightning speed and agility. Some falling, others dropping the baton, but all showing great spirit and character. Which is part of the school's motto of Wisdom, Advancement, Grace, Objectivity, and Responsibility. A great day was had by all.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Gates of Hell are Always Open

My students are late. Yet again late. It is Thursday and there is morning assembly and this means the entire Junior High of 6th through 10th grade is sitting cross legged on the hard cement court quad to play their reed flutes and receive their public demerits and rewards and then return to my class fifteen minutes late dragging their feet while I stand in the doorway smiling. The lesson is completely ready. There are introductory journals, pre-reading questions and hand drawn pictures, vocabulary outlines, and higher-order thinking questions which require true reflection and deep thought already written on the board.
I have been busy.
My ninth graders are reading an excerpt from Le Ly Hayslips’ autobiography, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places about growing up in a peasant village in 1950’s era Vietnam. She describes the hardships, the struggles, the conflicts of peasants and communist fighters and all the while being stuck in the middle planting rice.
To get students ready I have an activity. I am going to role-play the importance of rice. I have five students come to the front to be my sons, and another five to be my daughters. I am the old woman, the mother. I roll my pant legs up and put on a triangular bamboo hat and wrap a shawl around my shoulders and bend my body like a question mark in front of them.
“Oh!” I spill the grains of rice on the floor from a clear plastic bag.
“Oh no, our dinner!” I cry. “Who will help me pick them up? Where are my children with the hungry mouths? Where are my children with the rumbling bellies? Who will help us to live?”
The students spend the next fifteen minutes of class picking up grains of rice off the floor. On their hands and knees under desks, behind the chairs, flicking off dirt and dust bunnies and putting them back in the clear plastic bag. It is all I can do to watch this and keep myself restrained. I want to scream. I want to howl aloud. It is a huge investment of class time, but I believe in the importance. I want them to feel what it is to go without, to truly suffer, to connect with the poverty of this story and discover how fortunate they really are. I know they’ve never worked a day in their lives. Rich parents have seen to that. Daughters covered in silk parasols. Boys pampered like princes. But not this moment, bent over on the floor, looking up at me groaning on the verge of tears.
“Oh Teacher, this is too hard.”
“Oh Teacher, we are so tired.”
I look down at them and point. “You missed one my child. How are we to feed the village if we waste even one?”
I had been planning this activity since the afternoon before. For over a month every Monday and Wednesday after school I have been tutoring a study group on the GEPT, a National Taiwanese Placement Exam for High Schools. It is of paramount importance if students want to attend a prestigious institution. Yet for each class period, for hours now, my students come to the group without study materials, arriving late, sitting and chattering to one another as I stand in front of them imploring for their attention. They don’t address me, neither saying ‘Hello’ or ‘Thank you,’ and refuse to participate or take me seriously, even cursing aloud when I push them to think about their futures.
So I quit.
The class is full of twenty students and I booted half of them out and spent the rest of the evening calling their parents on the phone. I said their children were rude and abhorrent. They showed no respect for me, the school, the effort, or the money the parents were spending. To my surprise, half the parents agreed with me. They told me to beat them next time, to take out a wooden stick or bamboo rod and beat them over the hands or thighs. I actually stared at the end of the receiver in my hand speechless. The other parents said it was my fault, questioning my ability, stating that I should know how to teach their children, that as an instructor it was my duty to volunteer to work extra hours, to show them the right way, to model hard work. I left the conversations empty and hollow. Didn’t they know I was volunteering my time? Didn’t they see how much extra effort I was putting into this job? What am I doing here? I thought. What am I doing with these people? It was absolutely shameful. It was then I planned the rice activity. Spilt rice: like all my efforts tossed and left to rot on the floor.
Time moves on.
A week later we are wrapping up our Nonfiction Unit, reading breaking news stories, collecting in-depth stories, connecting to human interest pieces, and pouring through magazines. I bring in stories of Taiwan’s H1N1 vaccination donations to other countries, toxic pollutant clean-ups in southern cities, and reconstruction after the late summer’s typhoons. I tell the students the following day they are to bring in a newspaper story and report it to the class. It must be current and they must explain why it was interesting to them personally.
Those were the guidelines of the assignment. Something they could hold up and present to the class. Something they could translate into English and speak about in front of a group. I had no idea it would completely backfire.
The first student to stand up was Jerry. “The story I have chosen is about the most expensive house in the world. It cost 480 million dollars, has 100 rooms and a kitchen that can prepare 800 meals. I like this story because I want to make enough money to buy it.”
“Okay,” I said. Shallow but acceptable, we were off to a decent start. I had no idea what was about to happen, “Thank you Jerry. Who is next?”
The next student was Aimee, “The story I have chosen is about…” she looked at her boyfriend Aden who whispered something in English. “Rape,” she said. “There is a father who had sex with his daughter and a mother who had sex with her son. This has gone on all of their lives. The police called it ‘ridiculous.’ I chose this story because I like shocking stories.”
The class was silent. These are 8th graders and I wasn’t sure if I should make a rule not to speak about graphic details. It was a public newspaper after all, and the reporting was real.
The next student to rise was Sunny, “The story I found was about kidnapping and torture. A man…,” she lifted up the newspaper headline to which the whole class groaned, “I want to kill him,” she said. “He kidnapped this woman and tortured her sexually with an electronic device for a month. Then she died.”
Sick to my stomach, I didn’t want to continue with the exercise. “How did the police catch him?” I winced.
“The man was so stupid,” Aimee replied. “He brought the dead woman to the hospital and said he found her. The police arrested him there.”
“Ummm, that’s repulsive.” I quickly went to the next student.
“My story is about a woman who had breast surgery,” Sarah smiles, “The machine that put plastic in her chest broke the bag and she almost died,” I think it is funny.”
“Sarah what? Why would you say that?”
“Teacher Brian that story is not so bad,” Michael, the smallest boy in class interrupts. “My story is about a school principal who was looking at naked pictures on the internet. He said they were emailed from a student but no one believed him.”
I was feeling dizzy. “Class, I think the stories you are choosing are…” I was interrupted by Shantelle.
“My story is even funnier. There was a man who smelled very badly during sex and so his girlfriend made him have an operation to cut out his glands. I chose this story because it is gross when people smell bad.”
“Okay, class stop!” I put up my hands for everyone to cease. “That is enough!”
“But Teacher,” Shantelle implored, “these stories are real. They are bad, but they happened. We must not be afraid to talk about them.”
“Yes, but your age. You are so young to see and know these things.”
The class laughed. “Oh Teacher Brian,” Tiffany said, “the Chinese have an expression, they say…” she murmured something incoherent in Mandarin, “It means, ‘The Gates of Hell are Always Open.’ People are evil. Nothing will change this. The sooner we know this the better.”
I stared at their faces. I wanted to tell them –No. That the world was full of good people doing good things, that lives would be measured by how much goodness one did, but I could see my words would fall on deaf ears.
It was Aden who saved me.
“I have a good story,” he said, standing with a newspaper cut from the front page. “My story is about Green Architecture in Taiwan. This is a model of a new building downtown that will cost 80 million dollars. Its outside is made entirely of solar panels. I chose this story because it is good for the environment.”
“Thank you, Aden.” I smiled, confident that we had turned a corner.
But from here the class fell apart: Tiffany reported on an 8 year old boy who fell into the river and was missing for three days before his body was found. She said as a writer she felt the image of a child’s body floating in the river was intriguing. “Intriguing,” she looked the word up in the dictionary to my dismay.
Quintin came next, reporting on a murdered four year old whose skull was bashed in by her mother and two aunts who left the body in an apartment bathtub full of ice next to an electronic spinning fan. “The woman was caught by police when she went on-line and asked a chat room how to get rid of a dead body. She was burning the remains when the police opened her door.”
By now my eyes are bloodshot.
“Class,” I begin pleading, “isn’t there anyone who can report something positive?”
“I can,” Dave raises his hand. Dave just got back from Beijing where he was traveling on business with his father. “My story is about the cool inventions of 2009. The first are ‘Translation Glasses’ if you wear them, they can instantly translate a word into any language.”
“I have another,” YoYo chimes in, “My story is about a meteor shower occurring last night. I chose it because in the city I can never see stars and I want the sky to be beautiful.”
“Me too,” Katie said, “My story is about Johnnie Depp, the ‘World’s Most Sexiest Man.’ He has won the award twice: Great actor, good father, and very sexy.”
Her enthusiasm almost knocks me over.
“Thank you class, thank you.” I see I am smiling too and can’t help myself. “You know, even when you were telling me these horrific stories, I still couldn’t believe it. I would rather hear something joyful, something clean and good. I know the world is hard and mean, but there is still goodness. I know there is.”
The bell rings. I have survived another class, another day. I wait for all the students to leave and I close the door and sit in the dark with my eyes closed and breathe.
The following day I am sitting in my office when a group of students enter. It is my GEPT study group. They have a card. It is addressed to “Teacher Brian.” Inside it says exactly the same thing:
Thank you for your time. It helped me a lot. –Louie
Thank you for teaching us. –Caleb
Thank you for using your time to help. –Robert
Thank you for your teaching. –Rex
Thank you, we learned a lot. –Yuno
Thank you for your words. –Ellen
I closed the envelope and put it in my desk. I still believe in the innocence of the world. I still believe that people can be good. The gates of hell may always be open, but may the gates of heaven never close.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hanging in the People's Park

Headed out into the People's Park over the weekend and ran into a Taiwan Aboriginal Culture festival. Cool dancers, booths, food, music, and people watching (see flickr to right), but all my girls really wanted to do was climb trees.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Shush Girl, Shut Your Lips

Teacher Jeffrey thinks he’s Buddha. He sits in his big chair with his big bloated belly at the far corner desk barking at students like they’re some waste of space and he’s got the keys to nirvana. “Marcus, come here now!”
Young boy with sunken shoulders slowly drags his body forward.
“Do you know why I called you here today? It is because you were acting stupid.”
The boy’s shoulders wilt like fallen rose petals.
“You disrupted my class with your incessant yammering. You disrupted the learning of others. You took my time. So I will take yours.” Teacher Jeffrey hands the boy an 8 by 11 paper to copy in his notebook full of long confessions about abusing time and classroom efficiency and apologies for not honoring the teacher. It will take the boy over an hour to finish the job before he turns it back in.
“Now hand me your demerit card.”
“Uhhh… I don’t have it.”
“What do you mean you don’t have it?”
“I don’t have it.”
“So you are underprepared as well as a miscreant?”
Blank face.
“Where is it?”
“My locker.”
“You should always have your demerit card ready if a teacher asks for it. Now go get it.”
The boy returns and hands the small note card to Teacher Jeffrey.
“You get one demerit for not having your card. One demerit for acting out in class. One demerit for wasting my class time. And one more demerit for wasting my break time. How many is that?”
“Speak up, you are a human being. ‘Uhhh…’ is not a word.”
“It is four.”
“Plus the five you already have. One more and a mark will go in your permanent file.”
“Yes, Teacher.”
“Yes, Teacher what?”
The boys face continues in blankness.
“Yes, Teacher Jeffrey. Remember, I allow you to use my first name to remind you I can be your friend as well as your teacher.”
“The boy nods.”
“Now go. I am sick of you.”
“But teacher Jeffrey?”
“Bye Bye!”
The boys droops into the corner of the teacher’s office, slumps down against the wall, and begins to open his pencil bag.
“Quit stalling, Marcus.”
He takes an ink pen and begins copying the detention work.
Teacher Jeffrey then changes moods. “Hey Doug, did you download Office Space yet? I still can’t believe you’ve never heard of that movie. It’s a classic.”
Doug takes his head phones off. He’s a big bear of a man. His body covered in black hairs and rolling flesh, sweating through his Hawaiian shirt. He’s been in Taiwan over ten years, ever since the earth quake in 1998 when the country lost most of its foreign workers and began heavily recruiting in the States. He was a teacher in Maryland, then and came over and never returned. He is married now, couple of kids, runs a school in his off hours. Looking at Doug makes me ponder. He is what I would have become if I’d never left South Korea.
I sit at my desk and try to avoid their conversation, but we are crammed into the English office on top of one another. There is absolutely no room to even breathe. The bell rings and I am up three flights of stairs. 9th grade reading class, just enough time to warm my coffee in the 4th floor Chinese math office, the only microwave in the building.
Ten minutes later and my students begin to trickle in. It is Thursday and they are late due to morning assembly which means the entire Junior High of 6th through 10th grade just sat cross legged on the hard cement court quad to play their reed flutes and receive their public demerits and rewards for almost an hour before returning to my class dragging their feet while I stand in the doorway smiling to greet them. The lesson is completely ready. There are introductory journals, pre-reading questions and hand drawn pictures, vocabulary outlines, and higher-order thinking questions which require true reflection and deep thought already written on the board.
I have been busy.
I want to discuss genre. We have looked at sci-fi, horror, fantasy, romantic, poetry, myth, folklore, diary, and journals, and today we are reading an excerpt from Le Ly Hayslips’ autobiography, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places about growing up in a peasant village in 1950’s era Vietnam. She describes the hardships, the struggle, the conflicts of peasant life amid communist fighters and all the while being stuck in the middle planting rice.
To get students ready I have an activity. I am going to role-play the importance of rice. I have five students come to the front to be my sons, and another five to be my daughters. I am the old woman, the mother. I roll my pant legs up and put on a triangular bamboo hat and wrap a shawl around my shoulders and bend my body like a question mark in front of them.
“Ohh!” I spill the grains of rice on the floor from a clear plastic bag.
“Oh no, our dinner!” I cry. “Who will help me pick them up? Where are my children with the hungry mouths? Where are my children with the rumbling bellies? Who will help us to live?”
The students spend the next ten minutes of class picking up grains of rice off the floor. On their hands and knees under desks, behind the chairs, flicking off the dirt and dust bunnies and putting them back in the clear plastic bag. It is all I can do to watch this and keep myself restrained. I want to scream. I want to howl inside. It is a huge investment of class time, but I have to believe in the importance. It is all I can hope for them to feel. Most students in our school have never worked a day in their lives. Rich parents have seen to that. Daughters covered in the latest fashions. Boys pampered like little princes. But not this moment, bent over on the floor, looking up at me. No, this moment, they are common rice farmers.
“Oh teacher, this is too hard.”
“Oh teacher, we are so tired.”
I look down at them and point. “You missed one my child. How are we to feed the village if you waste even one?”
Afterward their journal answers are astounding. Students write about their families, histories, and legends. Their memories are profound: Anne tells a story of her grandmother who was blinded as a girl of nine and now continues to live in her sixties. How as a little girl she worked in a factory stitching luggage and one day the needle came out too fast and poked her in the eye. Although she was bleeding, she refused to tell her brothers and said nothing for a week. Finally, her mother found out and the infected eyeball was removed from her body. Anne says even though the socket is empty her grandmother is still able to weep.
David tells the story of his parents. They owned a fishing store on the coast before striking it rich and moving to the city. He remembers as a boy collecting starfish and speaking Japanese with his grandfather who was colonized and still held great reverence for Emperor Hirohito. He explained that even though his grandfather was gone they still light candles every year on his birthday, opening the door at midnight to let his ghost come into the house.
This reminds Aden of a personal story. He grew up in Shanghai and the other students tease him about his mainland pronunciation. He is a handsome kid, and very well mannered, laughing off their taunts with the easy self-assurance of the naturally gifted and good-looking. Aden tells the class that while growing up, his grandmother would always take him for ice cream. She was a vain woman and carried a parasol to keep her skin from becoming too dark. Aden recalls taking it out onto the apartment balcony during a rain story and a gust of wind blowing it away. He watched it sail out over the city buildings and thought he was in such trouble. That was the day his parents told him they were moving to Taiwan and so he never forgot because he thought he was to blame. He said his life was like that parasol, this pretty, useless thing that could just blow away at any time.
The class was quiet after that story. Letting his words sink deep into our skin.
These are the moments I have always loved as a teacher.
In America, I want to say there were these moments in every class I ever taught. Magic moments of the profound, where anything could happen. I remember taking Shakespeare students out into the mist of the baseball field to read Lear’s “Blow, winds and crack your cheeks!”, holding relay races in the hallway or impromptu singing conversations just for the sheer joy of it. Once during a late 7th period class, my body weary, I tapped a sophomore student on the arm and said, “Tag, your it!” and I led the entire class on a free for all chase through the cafeteria. All in the name of fun. Just having fun. Just loving this job and the students and the ability to share common experience and joy with one another.
I always felt that was the most important thing I was doing, making school fun. I don’t know where that feeling has gone these past few months. It’s like it has flown away on Aden’s Shanghai wind.
Later that afternoon I grew restless and was wandering the hallways and came upon Teacher Jeffrey's English classroom of 7th graders. He was drilling grammar into their heads and had them at the board writing sentences.
“My name is _______”
“I am twelve years old.”
“My favorite color is _________”
I watched through the window for a spell and then walked away disgusted.
The following day I had the same students for Social Studies. (Yes, stop laughing, it is one of my classes) As students entered the classroom I had instructions on the board: While flying internationally on a school trip, our airplane crash landed on an island. The following students survived, while these other students are wounded. It is over 100 degrees out and there is no water, food, or shelter. The terrain is beach and mountainous jungle and there appears to be a native population on the island that is hostile. What do you do? How will you survive? How will you be rescued? Go.
Of course, I stand in the corner saying nothing, just jotting down notes as the class erupts in crazy conversation. Some students want to elect leaders, others want to hunt animals for food, still others want to invade the native camp for food. It is hilarious. Afterward we read an article about the disastrous Biosphere 2 as we introduce the topic of “What is Culture?”
I tried to explain the class later in the staff room to Teacher Jeffrey but he was baffled by my description.
“You mean you can get them to do that? Real classroom stuff?”
“Sure, they loved it.”
“But, so many of them seem so disengaged. It’s as if they are lost.”
I told him I understood, but that I have always had success when I focus the student work on their intellect and not merely language ability. Students always know so much. They are so multi-faceted. They have seen movies and read so many different things, talked to grandparents who have lived amazing lives and seen their friends struggle and fail. I told him I like to tap into this intellect whenever I can.
He shook his head in disagreement. “I understand, but I don’t think that is always possible. Not with my groups of students anyway.”
I let it go. What was the point in pushing any farther? Besides, I was basking in the glow of a great class. Today's magic moment? The students wounded from the airplane crash huddled in a corner around their iPhones. While the rest of the class argued who would become leader, they were singing aloud: “Shush girl, shut your lips. Do the Helen Keller, and talk with your hips. I said, ‘Shush girl…’” The three girls were cracking up and slapping each other on the backs to my amazement.
It struck me as odd so I had to go over.
“Do you even understand what that song means?” I asked. “It’s terribly offensive.”
The girls giggled. “Yes, but we are destroyed from the crash, our bodies are broken, our mouths and arms and eyes are gone, but somehow we can still dance.”
I liked that. As a rule for my life, I liked that.
That afternoon I had my 9th graders again and I took them outside to play some basketball. We had been talking about taking a study break and the afternoon was perfect before the autumn winds picked up and winter settled in. We played eight on eight and it was fun to run and sweat with the kids. I didn’t take one shot. Instead I tried to set each student up for a basket, even switching teams after my first team won. Most of the time we just laughed though. Tiffany chasing Anne like a maniac and Dave traveling wildly with the ball with his tongue hanging out like a reverse Michael Jordan. Aden was a little water skipper, man, that kid is fast, and even Mary and Shantelle scored, despite screaming bloody murder each time I lightly lobbed them the ball. It was magic, in the fading afternoon light of a Friday. Pure magic. All of us, so different in our abilities and talents. Yet thriving, surviving, loving it. Just magic.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Five Things I've Taught My Daughters Over The Last 48 Hours

1. How to fold and scarf a slice of pepperoni pie in a crowded pizzaria.
2. How to successfully mime "eye drops" at the local Taiwanese drug store.
3. How to navigate a Chinese self service pump... compliment the ugly attendant on her cute shoes and she will help you.
4. How to make a living room tricycle obstacle course using lawn furniture and stuffed animals.
5. How to hold your breath and pray during a 6.0 earthquake while looking out the window of your 19th floor apartment.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cyclopes Song

In the autumn months, storms of dust rage against the northern part of Taiwan, covering towns in thin layers of sand and silt. Water canons are brought out, the windows of offices and schools shut tight, the streets and cars are covered. A state of emergency has been called. Even south, the dust reeks havoc with my eyes and throat. I’m like many others. I stood in class this morning with one eye swollen and white pus running down my cheek thinking, this is it, I’m going to go blind. It made me think of Cyclopes standing on the shore after Odysseus has disabled him, calling out to Poseidon, his father, for help. I waited all day to see if my eye would heal, while the sky though, brilliant in color, held up a mirror, showing me what I look like, with my one burning eye.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Let the Wild Rumpus Start!

As a kid growing up, Halloween was always the best holiday because it was my sister Lisa's birthday, which meant we would trick or treat around my grandmother's house in Lake Oswego and then put all the candy aside and have cake and ice cream, in costume. (By the way, Happy B-Day sis,) So for this year, far from home, Brian and the girls dressed up as, what else, Wild Things, and had a little rumpus through the streets of Taiwan. (See Flickr pictures for more)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy Halloween

On the Eve of Halloween and who knew? The Taiwanese love it. Students and teachers have decked the school out in dangling skeletons, severed bloody heads, hovering vampire bats, and glow in the dark jack-o-lanterns. It’s a sight to behold. The students know all the stories: That Frankenstein was really a doctor who took body parts from graves, the Mummy was once an Egyptian king entombed with all his gold, a Werewolf only howls by light of the full moon. It is impressive, their knowledge of western culture. We spend the last day of the week bobbing for apples, trick or treating each class door, and painting our faces like monsters.
One of the teachers told me the reason the Taiwanese are so into this holiday as opposed to Christmas or Valentines is that they actually believe in ghosts. Twice a month, according to the lunar calendar, ghost money is burned in urns outside businesses and homes. Yellow paper bills with different images of rice bowls, cakes, shoes, and games, things that ghost ancestors would need to keep themselves healthy and well as they watch over the living.

It is a bit creepy, mind you. This is made even stranger when students begin speaking openly about seeing ghosts in everyday life. “There is my grandmother who sleeps in the upstairs room. We see her rocking in the chair even though she has been dead for years,” Taylor, a neat and tidy looking 7th grader admits. “My father’s brother visits on New Years,” Kevin, another eager 7th grader states. “Sometimes he brings me gifts I find under my pillow in the morning.”
“Oh really,” I ask. “How are you so sure it is him?”
Kevin’s face suddenly becomes very serious as all the other students lean in toward him.
“Because he kisses my forehead before he leaves, and I always awake to see the door close behind his shadow.”
I let it go. I guess, I like the idea of ghosts too much to disagree.

Friday, October 30, 2009

gods and monsters

Eva’s fingers are in her ears again. She is rocking back and forth in the front row of class hissing to herself. She will not listen to me. She will not listen to a word anyone else has spoken. She has shut down, malfunctioned like a robot spitting paper tape: does not compute, does not compute. I want to tell myself it doesn’t’ matter. She is not my daughter. She is not my friend. She’s only a student in the school who happens to be in a class I teach. It doesn’t matter. It’s as if she isn’t even real, and only random chance we met at all. She might as well be a ghost, a figment of my imagination. I don’t care if she tunes me out. Really, I don’t.
Besides, there are always others.
Tony is a deep thinker. Can you imagine, a thoughtful Asian boy, are you kidding me? One who doesn’t see me on the street and point, “Hey, you guy! ‘Hello.’ ‘Puk Yoo!’” or play hanging brain in the bathroom or shoot spit wads at girl’s hair or knock the books out the arms of the weaker half-lings. He actually takes deep breaths before answering questions. He actually writes more than a couple of words in his journals. He is a thoughtful, young Asian male. Do you know how rare that is?
Then there’s Oscar who has really turned a corner. All it took was time, I guess. Me sitting with him during break time and asking him about books. That’s all it took. Then Michael, the Canadian kid, who’s father asked me to keep an eye out for. We’ve been trading drawings ever since I busted him for mocking me in class, simulating my hand motions, laughing me up behind my back. That was a good conversation. Though I wanted to pop him one in the nose when I caught him, this kid I’ve taken it upon myself to spend extra time with, to help mentor, to listen to, to give just an extra five minutes a day when there isn’t one minute left to squeeze, making me look stupid to others, poking fun at me because it is easy, because I am the foreign speaker in a foreign land. It makes him feel better about himself. I set Michael straight.
I could have made him clean toilets for a month. I could have made him write a speech and read it to the administrators in the office. I could have called in Director Wang who would have taken him to the basement for discipline training and just washed my hands of the situation. But no, I just asked him about his friends in Canada, the ones he left behind, the mother he left there as well. That was all that took.
Well, that and the Greek myths.
The unit started a week ago. We read how Prometheus steals fire for humankind because Epimetheus gives the best skills to animals, how Hades steals Persephone which causes the world to freeze in winter, and how Hercules tricks Atlas into stealing the Three Golden Apples and take the weight of the world back on his shoulders. It’s a lot of stealing for a people famed for bearing gifts. We pause at the tale of Perseus though, because once again I try to reach out to Eva.
Perseus is a boy whose mother marries a king, and he wants so desperately to please this man that he promises to bring back the head of a Gorgon. It is an impossible task. One only a thoughtful boy should aspire to. I have Tony begin reading the textbook story aloud, helping him through the words, how he first stole the eye of the three Gray Women Witches and then was given winged sandals by the Nymphs of the North, who also prepared him with an invisible cap and a sack made of magic that can hide anything inside.
“How nice would that be,” I ask the class, “to have a bag one could put anything in and it would suddenly be invisible to the world?” I stare at Debby in the front row seated next to Eva, “ What would you put inside?” I turn to Oscar whose eyes are like saucers of black soup, “What problems, fears, sacred objects would you hope to conceal?” Then I motion for Tony to continue reading.
We see how Hermes gives Perseus an unbreakable sword and Athena a mirrored shield, and he sets off to find the famed cave of the Gorgons. Out over the wide sea he flies, to Medusa, the snake haired monster whose stare can change men into stone.
It is here I stop. The reading is hard and the students have many questions:
“Why do gods favor one hero over another? I thought gods love all men?”
“Why does the hero have to adventure at all, he’s the king’s son, shouldn’t he just lay by the swimming pool and be happy?"
“Wait, Perseus doesn’t’ kill the Gorgon, Hercules does, I saw it on the Disney movie.”
“No. No. No,” I wave my hands like white flags. “Let me tell you the truth about gods and monsters. For Perseus may be the hero of the tale, but the most important figure is Medusa herself.”
I turn back to the board and begin drawing the figure of a woman with snakes growing out of her head. Lively. Writhing. Twisting and snapping. Asps and mambas, cobras and rattlers, and all around her the statues of men set cold in stone who have tried to slay this beast, looking into her eyes by mistake, and paying the terrible price.
“But do you know how she got that way?” I ask.
“Medusa wasn’t always a monster? Did you know that?”
I walk from the board and stand directly beside Eva in the front row. She still has her fingers in each ear, staring at the floor, willing herself away as if her feet could also sprout wings. Despite this I continue telling the story of Greek mythologies most misunderstood villain.
“Medusa was once a beautiful priestess in the temple of Athena, so rare her beauty in fact, that some suggested she was even more glorious than the goddess herself. She caught the eye of many of the gods, including Poseidon, who disguised himself and raped her in the temple. After this, Athena punished her for desecration and turned her into the terrifying beast, unable to look upon another man again without sending them to their death.”
“But,” Oscar cried, “it wasn’t her fault. She is punished for someone else’s crime?”
“Who said life was fair? A transgression was committed and someone must pay.”
“But she was a good person. She worked in the temple. She prayed.”
“That hardly matters, does it, bad things happen to good people all the time.”
The class is silent. No one wants to speak or think. We can only look at the picture on the chalk board and fear, sorrow, pity, and try to understand. I tell my students that over the years I have known many Medusas. Women turned monstrous victims after an abuse, a mishandling, an aggression. “In fact, if you live long enough, you’ll probably meet one too.”
It is then I notice Eva. For the first time in a week she is staring up at me. The rocking has stopped, but her eyes are welled up with hate, her fingers digging deep in to her ears, hands shaking along the sides of her head in agony. She does her best to cut me to shreds, to turn me to stone, to make me cease speaking, but I will not. Instead I fill up my eyes with compassion for her and smile. “It is not that bad,” I whisper, “Because this monster has a gift for the world.”
It is then I direct the class to keep reading. We see how Perseus slays her, sneaking up with his mirrored shield and lopping off her head. Then the monster is healed, yet out of the blood spraying from her decapitated corpse her children spring fully formed. Then the most magnificent thing happens, Pegasus, the winged horse, flies from her body as well.
“Don’t you see class? Out of this pain, out of this tragic sadness, something beautiful occurs, a creature of profound glory is born and Medusa is monster no more. She is released. Through this myth her pain is gone.”
We discuss figurative language then, just briefly. For the last couple of classes I’ve been ending with hyperboles to prepare us for the Homeric Similes to come:
“Teacher Brian is as mad as Ares.”
“Teacher Brian is as pretty as Aphrodite.”
Okay, I know, I’m just trying to make a bunch of 7th graders laugh, and it ain’t easy. I never see it as a weakness to make myself the punchline of jokes. My colleagues though, see it differently.
“If you don’t respect yourself, how do you expect the students to?” Teacher Carl shakes his head.
“Oh, I would never say anything personal about myself to a class,” adds Teacher Margaret. “Why give them the ammunition?”
I listen, I really do, but I guess it’s just not my style to worry so much about how I am perceived. There are more important matters, like metaphors. I give the class a definition. “Metaphor: A comparison of two unlike things for the purpose of defining something better. What kind of examples can you think of from the story?”
The class looks at me with no expressions. Suddenly they have fallen asleep. They are dead fish dropped in a boat. Motionless. Lifeless. I want to give them a hint.
“Okay class, these monsters and gods… how are they metaphors for the fears we carry inside?”
Sometimes that’s all it takes. Oscar raises his hand.
“Hades is a metaphor for how we fear our desires. It is best to hide them, keep them underground, when they come out they destroy the world.”
“Good, what else?”
Michael in the corner raises a finger, “What about Prometheus, he didn’t have to steal fire for humans, but he was afraid of not making something the right way and then having to watch them suffer.”
“Even better, somebody else?”
The class is quiet. Eileen is playing with her bangs and Melody is drawing a pink pig in her notebook. Kevin is picking his nose and Rex is counting the seconds on his watch until the bell rings. I go back to the board. “Class I want you to look at Medusa’s face, because we are going to create a mural.”
I toss bits of chalk to the students. Red. Yellow. Orange. Blue. I direct them to come to the board, to draw snakes coming out of the serpentine beast , to give each a name of a fear they have inside, to see if we can’t create something beautiful out of the sadness of this story. Suddenly the class is alive again as students rush forward in droves.
Their images are nightmarish: Michael draws the head of a snake as a woman living in a burning house with a smiling family that is not his own. Oscar’s snake head is similarly ghoulish, a body dangling from a tree while other students point and laugh. Eileen draws a graduation cap with tassels. It is angular and in depth, but she crosses it out and writes stupid across the top, and then sits down. It is then I notice Eva.
She has not moved. While the entire class has raced up to the board she continues to sit with her arms crossed staring. I approach her slowly, kneel down beside her, ask her why she won’t draw. Her eyes are swollen and scowling, her voice low and disturbed.
“Because I hate this class. I think it is very boring. I don’t understand anything you say and I think the way you teach is very stupid. You tell stories that are not in the book and hurt my head. I will be glad when you go back to America. I will not miss you at all.”
Her words hang in the air between us. Frozen, my feet won’t step. My arms won’t bend. I just kneel beside her seething. I wish I could give her an unbreakable sword, a magic bag to hide her fears, a mirrored shield to deflect the world and keep it away. Instead I go to the board, start writing the names of students in hyperbole.
“Teacher Brian, what are you doing?” Oscar shouts. But I don’t answer. Instead the class reads:
When Michael speaks about his mother I feel I can swim the whole Pacific Ocean.
When Oscar talks about books I believe I can fly.
When Eileen shows me her poetry I know I can always find happiness.
When I see Tony with his friends I remember there is goodness in the world.
When I see Eva I never want to give up.
The class reads each sentence out loud. There are others. Plenty, really. Then the bell rings and we all move toward lunch. I tell myself, it really does matter what these students think because I want them to see their own beauty. I want them to believe their lives are mythic and full of the possibility of adventure and healing. I promise myself I will never stop. I promise myself it is worth it. It is worth everything to show them this. Really, I know it is.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Life of a Single Father

Let’s face it, times are tough. Yet sometimes it really is as simple as a Dad, his three kids, a thermos full of green tea in his backpocket, a blustery day, and a panda kite at dusk running through a park named in honor of fallen communist comrades. As SungJoo and I move toward an official separation, the one thing we have agreed upon over the last two years without fighting is to put the kids first, and this means staying in Taiwan for their early education. So while she took custody over the summer, I take full responsibility now for the next seven to nine weeks solo while she travels. Believe me, the thought of working full time and raising these kids in a foreign country without any backup or ability to speak the language is daunting. But life is all about these twists and turns, isn't it? Anyway, all I can say is this: today I smiled, and who ever reads this, if you read this, count yourself blessed, laugh wildly, drink deeply, show the ones you love how much they mean, dig deep, live well.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Note To Your Inner Jazz Man

The Taichung Jazz Festival kicked off this week in the People's Park right next to my apartment and it was a wonderful event attended by scores. But... note to future English performers, when singing in front of five-thousand native Chinese speakers, don't come to the chorus and excitedly shout, "Come on, sing it!" I mean, come on now.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Through the Arbor

Tiffany is tired of getting hit. She groans and rolls her eyes and chatters wildly in Chinese speaking with every part of her body. Arms swinging bamboo canes. Fingers wooden snapping rulers. Feet spanking riding crops. I want her to explain. I ask her to show me what the other teachers do to my class. I want to know.
“Our Chinese teachers expect us to be perfect,” she cries. “She hits us if we leave garbage on the floor. She hits us if our exam scores are low. She hits us if the chalkboard is not perfectly clean. She hits us for everything.”
“Yeah,” Aden admits. “If we spin our pencils and they fall on the floor she hits our face with a rolled up notebook. If we talk in class, she pinches our ears.”
I try to feign shock. I want them to see how outraged I am, but I know the truth. I have seen it before. It is just the Asian school system. All the students have stories. Dave had hot glue dripped on his palm. Jerry had a wire hanger snapped across his thighs. Anne had the top of her head struck by rubber tubing.
I listen. I see their bruises and skin marks, their welts and tears. I don’t shy away.
“You know, I always felt scars meant you have lived?” I say it to the class who has fallen dead silent. “There is wisdom in those jagged lines.”
Tiffany, Aden, and the others drop into an eerie submission as I tell a story of my first born. How last summer we were rolling on the carpet, making forts in the furniture, leaping in somersaults while Shawn Johnson’s floor exercises kept us up late. Then it happened. I left the room for a moment and returned to find Xi’an screaming. She had climbed the sofa and made a backwards flip onto the window sill, crashing her face against the hard wooden edge. Her temple was bleeding, the skin just hanging in a tiny clump. It was midnight when we arrived at St. Vincent’s Emergency Room, and three hours later before a doctor finally stitched her up, assuring me he had daughters of his own, that there would be no mark left. I shook his hand. I believed him. Yet every day since I have looked at that scar above her right eye and it hasn’t gone anywhere.
“She has a story to tell,” I explained to the class. “Her scar is like a map to her life.”
None of my students are listening. They stare out windows. They stare at the floor. They do their best to stare anywhere but the center of my eyes. There is nothing to do but drop it and go on. On the chalkboard is a question left off the schools 9th grade reading test. The one I wrote. The one the other American teacher said was too difficult for her students. She said they can’t do it. She feared their scores will be low and the school reputation will suffer. She stated it will make my class look superior to hers and that will cause a rift. This is the same woman who came to me at the beginning of the year and said there would be no competition between teachers. She was a retired English instructor from Omaha. She’d taught middle school for two decades and she and her husband just wanted to travel, just see the world, she was teaching not for the money but for fun.
I agreed to take the question out but wrote it on the board to read my student’s answers:
Question: What do you feel is the unifying subject and theme so far this year in all of the stories we have read? Cite a quote from each story to defend your answer.
My students quickly went to work. There was borrowed paper passed through the aisles, scribbling pencils, and eraser marks blown off desks. There is silence for the first time all day. I walk to the window and look out over the city. Mid-day. Dilapidated buildings lost in black soot smudges. Tenement housing hanging in industrial smog. Two men crouch beside buses smoking beneath a palm tree. It’s warm, but a cool wind blows from the south. Autumn is coming. Down the hallway in the music room the bamboo flutes play. It is the same song they have been practicing for weeks, a shrill raining of high pitched notes screaming through the school. There is no concert. No performance. Just the test. Student after student must memorize the song and play it perfectly for the teacher. Any flaw. Any squeak or crack in the melody, any forgotten note, and the student must play it again. I know all about this song. It permeates our class and the students lift their weary heads in agony. They will be tested on it this afternoon.
The bell rings. Break time.
The classroom splinters into blurs. Dave and Quintin run out with a bouncing basketball. Anne, Sandy, and Tiffany open Japanese comic books. Katie and Jason pull out computer English dictionaries and polish off an SAT prep test. I scan the groups, looking for shared interest. I am seldom approached by students here. There are no impromptu conversations in the hallways. Students don’t drop by just to chat. Even if they did, I wouldn’t have a place to sit with them. I stand for a moment by the blackboard and think about Betty form 7th grade. She is a new student to the school who arrived this week. Looks normal. Dresses normal. But Betty refuses to speak. Her father said it started in 3rd grade. One day she just stopped talking. There are whispers. Murmurs. But for all intent purpose she has become a mute. She sits in writing class and plays with her bangs, just over and over rubbing the hair in front of her eyes. It creeps her classmates out. No one will partner with her. No one even sits by her. I go to Sophia my boss.
“This girl needs help.”
“I understand your frustration. But in Asia we do not have anyone who serves in the role of counselor.”
“Counselor? That’s a good start, but she needs a psychologist. She…”
Sophia cuts me off. “Brian, yes I agree, but there are no psychologists in our country that treat students unless it is a severe case. Besides, parents would never agree to send their child to see a doctor because of losing face, you know, the shame.”
I catch myself and turn back toward the window. My mind has been wandering a great deal lately and I need reality. In the corner of the class Aden and Aimee are reciting poetry from a book. It is choppy and memorized, sounds like a computer spitting out paper. I ask them about it and they explain it is an ancient Chinese ode written in the 13th century. Excited, I ask them to translate.
“Oh, it is too complex. We don’t even understand what it means.”
“But, why are you learning it?”
“For Chinese language class. Our teacher insists we recite it back to her.”
“But…you don’t know what it means?”
They laugh nervously. “She will beat us if we refuse.”
“I see.” I pick up the book and study the characters. Swerving brushstrokes of precise calligraphy. Curing, arching, swooping lines. Even the casual observer can see the beauty in just the script, let alone the meaning. “Do you ever memorize poetry just for fun?”
They look at me like I am stupid. The bell rings. Break time is over. Time for class to being again.
After students reassemble and pick up their pens, I move to the front of the class. I have been singing a great deal to them and so they sense another burst of music coming. Yet today is different. Today I give them Robert Frost, The Road Less Traveled. It is out of memory. A poem I learned my junior year at Colton High, just pacing in the hayloft thinking to myself. I get to the last line, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I… I…”
When I finish Sunny raises her hand. She is hard of hearing and the other students call her “Grandmother.”
“Teacher, are you finished?”
I nod.
“Good.” The class laughs.
Dejected I move to the chalkboard and instruct students to sit quietly and finish answering the question from the previous class.
“Teacher,” Anne asks, “Why are we doing this? We will not be tested on it.”
I survey the class faces. “For my admiration,” I gave what I thought was a warm smile. “Isn’t that worth something?”
All the heads shake. “Teacher,” Aden replies, “You are good, but we need a grade.”
We spend the next forty-five minutes going over their answers. I show them why certain responses are favored over others, how logic can be demonstrated through precise phrasing, how cited sources support an argument’s credibility, how academic language is a practiced form but can also offer creativity. It is good. The kind of class where I am covered in sweat at the end. I check the clock. Ten minutes to go.
In a sudden burst of energy I rally the students. I haven’t pranked another teacher yet, and I’ve been looking for my chance and this is it. The students take little convincing. They assemble their bamboo flutes and we creep through the hallway toward the music teacher’s room. I remember asking them the name of this melody the first time I began hearing the song weeks ago, before it invaded our classroom every day, before it started flooding the hallways of the fourth and fifth floor, and appeared in my sleep.
“It is called ‘Through the Arbor,’” Tiffany replied. “It is a Japanese song. It says, ‘You go your way and I go mine, through the arbor,’” she began to hum.
“But I thought the Japanese were aggressors here. They occupied Taiwan for years. There were brutalities? War crimes?”
“We have forgotten most of that. Now it is just a song we learn for school.”
“I see.”
At the music teacher’s door we begin to play ‘Through the Arbor.’ The students are a bit reluctant at first until they see me get into it. I stand in front conducting, waving my arms like a madman until the door bursts open and their music teacher leaps forward seething. She is raising her hands in anger. Her fists are clenched and her cheeks are bright red. Our eyes lock. It is a moment of unique and subtle understanding. We both bow and smile, and she steps back into her classroom as the bell sounds. I walk back with my class in silence. I stay an extra minute or two to make sure there are no stragglers. The kids are busy chatting and laughing with friends who have rejoined the room. No one speaks to me. It’s as if I don’t exist. I pack my bag, fold a couple of beaten text books under my arm, and bow as the next teacher arrives to take my place. I have another class then lunch. Then four more classes before the bell rings and I can go home.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Post Secret

A kid named Rich said "Hi" today unsolicited. It was the first time in two weeks a student said either "Hello," "Thank you," or "Goodbye" to me. I love it here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bamboo Forest Hike... Finally

Driving south to Nantou County in the misty shadows of Fenghuang Mountain, Sitou National Forest finally provided me with some autumn hiking and relief from the city. The site is maintained by the College of Agriculture of National Taiwan University and there are a number of experimental species of trees, evergreen lined paths, and stunning sights. Of course, our favorite was the Bamboo Forest, with sketchy bridge and fun little pagodas next to reflection pools to squat and nibble grapes next to. The Sunday afternoon was drizzly and a little chilly and reminded me of the Oregon Gorge. A nice little slice of home for me and the girls.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Billie's Hands

(9th graders write summary paragraphs and analyze for symbolism)
It was always about Billie’s hands. Looking back now, even in the beginning, her hands were the most marvelous part. Men on the street would disagree. Oh, they came out of the woodwork all right, popping heads out manhole covers, craning necks beneath covered stops as their buses rode off without them. I remember one sad dope actually ran out of a coffee shop to stop her on the street. He didn't usually do this, mind you. In fact, he was married or had a girlfriend or some fiancĂ©, but he just had to tell her, just had to let her know somehow that she had the most remarkable face he'd ever seen. Beyond beautiful, yes. Wide, doelike eyes. Cheekbones on stilts. The kind of skin cocoa butter gazes upon in jealous moans.
Billie’s nose crinkled. A wet cat perturbed by a sneeze that wouldn't come. She shrugged it off. At one point or another, every man she knew had said she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever met.
"If only they knew." She whispered as we boarded a downtown train.
"Maybe it would be easier if they didn't." I replied.
It was here the class stopped me.
"Why is she with you?" Rex, a lanky boy in thick coke bottle glasses asks. Eileen, a pug-nosed girl with a side ponytail agrees. "Yeah, Teacher Brian, if she is so beautiful, why you?"
It was not a rude response, not like those dimwitted boys in text books who ask middle aged women their count in years or obese men their weight in metric tonnage. No, it was just the curiosity of youth. If I were to have any success teaching at the middle school level in Taiwan, it was something I just had to accept and move on.
I explained to my class it was because I was the only man who never said it. That she could tell I wasn't obsessed. I mean, Billie was something. She could tumble out of bed, wrap a bread bag tie around her hair and still be stunning, but what made other men boozy with desire only bored me. I wanted Billie for another reason.
“You see,” I said to the class. “Billie could play the cello like Dagda's harp.
It was her mother that pushed her into it. Inadvertent at first, driving her in minivans for soccer games, laying card table displays outside grocery stores with girl scout cookies, all the while chatting wildly about her daughter's future: First SAT and ACT prep courses and summer mathnasium classes; undergrad at a reasonable state school where she could focus on engineering, either chemical or industrial perhaps, then on to med school where she would shine like some brand new form of currency the world had yet to develop. An engineer slash doctor, one who could design and build the hospital and treat patients too.
The mother used to stand over Billie at the kitchen table pointing a wooden spoon at the calculus book. "You won't be allowed anything until you finish."
"Mom, even the Asian kids take breaks."
"They are not you."
Billie’s fists would tighten like twisted roots.
"And no cello either, not until the math is done."
I stop to make sure the students understand. These are only 8th graders mind you, but very sharp. I explain how after the divorce, Billie’s mom hid the cello her father bought all over the house to keep her daughter from playing. In the closet, behind the shower curtain, once even locking it in the minivan's trunk.
"Why?" Bradly asked. He’s a bug-eyed peculiar kid. The appointed leader from the Chinese homeroom teacher who brings me the ledger to sign as proof of my lectures after every class. He handles the mopping of the fifth floor bathroom and is entrusted with the all important classroom air conditioner. He doesn't understand how a mother could hate her own daughter's beauty. Why parents would pit a child against one other. It was at her father's insistence that she begin music lessons, that she showed real prowess a plus. Yet that it drove a wedge between the daughter and her mother couldn't have brought more delight to the man, who was a gambler and a cheat, a liar and a philanderer of women.
Billie would tell me this as she took out her bow and plucked the strings. "My mother came to despise my playing as she also despised my father." She would rest the bridge head upon her shoulder and twist tune it with her fingers. "When he left, it became my way to enact revenge upon her driving him off."
"And a way to remember him?" I offered.
Billie smiled the radiant way that stopped men dead in their tracks. She began to play feverishly passing the bow upon the strings. A Mendelssohn piece, full of crescendos and sweeping motion. Eyes closed and trancelike, most men might have lunged at her, taken her in their arms like a fiend, but not me. I would only sit back and marvel at the beauteous work of her fingers on the strings and wonder how this glorious sound was spawned by something as barren as hate.
This is about the time in the story I stop and move to the chalkboard. Over the past two weeks we have gone past plot and foreshadowing and now we are on to symbolism. We’ve discussed how one sign can mean so many things, each one deeper than the next: The Olympic Rings. The ying-yang. The yellow smiley faces that read ‘Have a nice Day,’ and corporate logos like Nike and Microsoft. We’ve colored pictures: Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” and Gauguin’s “Midday Nap.” I’ve even been playing them music to elicit feelings: Mingus’s “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Fantasia’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
And this brings me back again to Billie.
Rex raises his hand again. "Teacher Brian, go back to the story. You didn't tell us how you met?"
"Yes. Yes." The students cried out, and so I put down my chalk and began again.
I explained how when I met Billie I was working as a janitor at a theater company downtown. I'd had many jobs before becoming a teacher. I pumped gas, sold clothes, flipped pizzas, and even scrubbed toilets. I said how I liked working these minimum wage jobs surrounded by grizzly transitory men who lived on the fringes of society. The kind of men that never graduated schools but were experts in fields of manual labor. They used to call me names. Poke fun at my education. Make me do the menial work like wiping out urinals and scraping gum off the backs of seats and then smirk to themselves like they were somehow keeping a secret score. I didn't care. The best part of the job was listening to rehearsals. The musicians played for me for free. Singers, famous and local. Big bands. Broadway shows. I would sit to the side of the auditorium and watch, and this is how I first saw Billie. She sat on the stage a long time before playing. Just strumming the music in her head in silence. Her hands moving back and forth in perfect symmetry without making a sound, and as she studied the music I studied her. Knew her intimately. So when she began to play I anticipated her movement, it was like making love from a distance. Sensing our way. Trusting ourselves. Afterwards she was leaving the theater and all these hard men would stop leaning on their brooms in amazement of her beauty and pretend to get back to work, but not me. I walked right up to her.
"That Vivaldi was amazing
“You know that piece?"
"Of course, but not as well as the Mozart."
The men with the brooms froze as something between Billie and I clicked. We became instant friends. I explain to my students how after her concerts I would stand in the back and watch, just grinning, as all the people approached her for autographs outside her dressing room. She would wear a black gown and smile at me from down the hall. After everyone left, and the lights were turned off, and I locked the back door, we would drive to quiet places and drink tea, and talk about the music she had just played. This is when Billie told me, that the reason she plays the cello was to spite the woman that drove her father away, but that no matter how loud or fierce she played, the music would never fill the holes inside her, the deafening pockets of loss.
Then one day her mother began showing signs. It had been going on for some time slowly, forgetting things, her keys, birthdays, now she was driving off to the grocery store and ending up at the beach. Police officers were called to escort her back. Once she even forgot her own sister who came to visit. Then her memory rapidly began to decrease. She would stare at Billie screaming, "Who are you? Get out of my house."
"Mother it's me. Your daughter."
But the woman fell so deep into dementia that after half a year her body was reduced to nothing more than a twisted coil. There was no one to take care of her except Billie’s father who by now was an angry and bitter drunk. He laid the woman's body in a bed in an upstairs room and left her to die. Billie was inconsolable. She stopped touring even and ran through a string of men. All of them after one thing, her body, her beauty, the possession of her, and then would leave her broken and alone. We spoke little during this time, but then one day I got a call. There had been an accident. Billie had been struck by a car while walking home. Both her arms were broken. I rushed to the hospital and found her laughing. "Look at me," she said. "They say I may never play music again. Now you will never want me.”
We drove to her father’s house and laid her in the room next to her mother, and there she sat for two months, just staring at her mother's withering body falling deeper and deeper into itself.
I stop in front of the class then. I had been moving around the room and was now wringing my hands. “Can anyone tell me what the symbolism in the story is?”
Kevin, a handsome boy in the front row raised his hand, checking his notes before answering. "The symbolism in the story is the mother’s body. It means her love is dead.” "Okay, I like that." I pause for a moment. "Anyone think of another?”
The classroom full of students stare back at me shaking their heads.
“What about the music? Pug-nosed Eileen offers. “It is between love and hate.”
"Good. Keep listening."
I described how Billie was in these white arm casts made of white plaster and hard gauze. I mimic her body held captive in traction. How she sat like this staring at her mother for weeks while she healed, speaking to herself, listening to the music in her head, humming it aloud in the room. Then one day she began tearing them from her skin. She went into the kitchen and took out a knife and began slicing away, cutting, ripping the cast off with this blade until she finally could get at it with her nails. Then she dug deep, pulling the last shards of sticky bandage from her arms. Billie found the cello, she didn’t have to look hard, it was laying on the bed in the other room. The bowing of the strings came natural. The movement of her arms and shoulders in rhythm with the music a perfect balance to her memory. She was back. She was alive again. Laughter erupted from her lips, surprising her. She looked at her mother, a twisted and lifeless thorn. Then Billie began to play, speaking to the dead woman for the first time in her life.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Rabbit in the Moon

(Official school memo for ‘Moon Festival’ passed to teachers to work into curriculum)
On the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, the moon is round. In Chinese culture, this means families return home for a reunion. This celebration is Moon Festival. Every Chinese know this. This holiday accompanied by some sort of special food. On Moon Festival, people eat moon cakes. This kind of cake filled with sugar, fat, sesame, walnut, the yolk of preserved eggs, ham, or other things. In Chinese fairy tales, the fairy Chang Er, a wood cutter named Wu Gang and a jade rabbit which is Chang Er’s pet, live on the moon. In the old days, people paid respect to the fairy Chang Er and her pet, jade rabbit, which Chinese people believe is the face of the moon. The custom of paying homage to the fairy and rabbit is gone, but the moon cakes are showing improvement every year. There are hundreds of varieties of moon cakes on sale before the arrival of Moon Festival. Some moon cakes are very high quality and very delicious, some are very bad. Cough. Cough. An overseas tourist is advised not to miss it if he or she happens to be in Taiwan during the Moon Festival.

Useful Expressions:
1. Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!
2. Would you like some moon cakes?
3. Please join us for a Mid-Autumn Festival barbecue
4. Just look at the beautiful full moon

Saturday, October 3, 2009

My Little Buddy Rebekah Bidan

You be the Mac and my yummy, yellow cheese
The whispered Gesundheit after my loud sneeze
The microwave that boils my spicy Ramen noodles
The creamy, gooey filling in my sweet German strudels.

I’ll be your scissors, your paper, and rock
The sesamed veggies stir fried up in your wok
The gum drops, the Skittles, your green M&M’s
Your Wizard of Oz Scarecrow, Your Dorothy, and Aunt Em

You be my Apple Jacks, my Coco Puffs, and Cap’n Crunch
The Easter Eggs I gather on the grass in a bunch
My Chiquita bananas and Rice-A-Roni treats
My Mickey Mouse pancakes and Malt-O-Meal sweets.

I’ll be your Nutter Butter, Chips Ahoy, and Keebler Elf
The Chronicles of Narnia and Aesop’s Fables on your shelf
The Aunt Jemima maple syrup, the Animal Crackers in your soup
The Snapple, and Cracker Jack, and Wham-O Hula Hoop.

You be my magic beans, my tart Jelly Roll
My Cherry Garcia, my Ace in the hole
My creamy Jiff sammies, my Lucky Charms in a bowl
My Oscar Mayer Wiener, my World Cup Goal

And I’ll be your croquet set, your bearded garden gnome
Your Easy Bake Oven, your Mr. Bubble foam
Your gondola ride, your road that leads to Rome
And I’ll always be Daddy, and you can forever call me home.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How Come You Don't Write About Kinu?

(Little Lauren Kinu just moments after the scene of the crime. Guilty as charged)
Made a drastic mistake this week and took all three girls swimming in the pool beneath the apartment. Xi’an is an otter and leaps from my legs like some amphibian cartoon character, shimmering under the water like a fishing lure back and forth from the ladder to my legs and back again. Rebekah wears a life jacket and likes to be thrown into the deep end like a medicine ball for over an hour and she never once stops singing the Mama Mia soundtrack. Egads! Little Lauren Kinu is still a baby and I hold her the whole time. Bobbing up and down. Her little smile and giggles bouncing off the tile walls. Joyous, right? Being a dad is the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced, right?
Then it happened.
Rebekah was about three feet away when her legs got tangled in the ropes of a floating life preserver and went face down. I got to her soon enough but she swallowed enough water to make her puke. An entire lunch of orange crab cakes and miso soup with rice came burping up onto the water like some heinous, float-attacking amoeba stain, lurking upon the water. It was then I noticed Kinu was not wearing a diaper under her baggy suit and the yellow spray of diarrhea shooting out in the other direction across the water. There was nothing I could do. Standing there, shirtless, in the middle of the pool, with a hysterical, vomitous, half drowned child in one arm, a shrieking, scat geysering toddler in another, and my eldest, in goggles, swimming innocently right in the middle of it.
There is nothing for a poor father to do but flee.
So we did, leaving a disgusting trail of water, puke, runny poop and disgusting stares across the pool, through the lobby, into the elevator, and all the way past my front door right into the tub. And people ask me all the time, why don’t you ever write about your youngest? Kinu…? Kinu who? Standing over the three girls, drying them with towels while they laugh at me, “Daddy, you so funny. Why are you crying?”
“Oh, nothing girls. I just remembered I have to go clean it up.