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?”
“Uhhh…”
“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.