Started with condom jokes and hippo porn, can you believe that’s my opening? It’s 5 p.m. and I’m about to read Frost’s Mending Wall to a group of twenty-two Taiwanese 9th graders and they are so deprived and vile, I must resort to toilet humor to make them actually stop talking and come to their seats. It’s beyond futile. Shameful really. But for some unknown reason to me, I am hopeful they will understand. That somehow they will see. This is Robert Frost. My Robert Frost. I read this stuff out loud to blank walls. I could read it to some heathen high schoolers with my eyes closed. “I have come after them and made repair, where they have left not one stone on a stone.”
There are classroom groans. Lacey is cutting her hair while Shannon copies her math homework. Lewis is reading a car magazine. Dave is crackling a Rubik’s Cube, yes, they are popular here among Asian nerds, and I confiscate it and throw it out the window which causes Dave to sigh. Gabe is sitting with his back to me talking to Quintin. Anne is asleep. Roy is texting with his hands under the desk as if I don’t know what he is doing… I begin reading. I have the discussion questions on the board. I want to ask them about this new graffiti artist I see around town that calls himself “X-Panda.” His work is so silly, so inspirational, so goofy. He marks the walls of the city with the insane. I want to know if they have seen him, know him, what they think of it. I have the book in my hand. I have Robert Frost’s words to guide me. Most of the time people care nothing if they smear you, blow your life apart, knock you down, but they can’t hurt me today. Nobody hurts me when I’m holding Robert Frost. “And on a day we meet to walk the line and set the wall between us once again.”
Somewhere in the middle of the story I take a break and we talk about the internet. Recently I’ve been reading about Cloud Computing and Google’s insatiable need to digitize the known universe, and how nobody seems freaked out about this. It’s as if the very notion of spying in our post 9-11 world is just readily accepted as a necessary evil. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Send an innocent gmail to your grandmother about the killer dimsum you ate before catching the latest Matt Damon movie and watch the margin advertising on her reply about nearby shooting ranges, local Chinese take-out numbers, and star / gossip news rags for sale. It’s creepy. There are no safety lines on the internet. “He is all pine and I am apple orchard.”
Scarier still is Google’s inability to crack the Chinese nut of censorship and it’s stranglehold on political characters. (See Ai Wei Wei) Do an image search on Tiananmen in America and you’ll see that dude in white shirt and necktie staring down a row of tanks, do the same search in an internet café in Beijing and see kids flying kites over portraits of Mao. Case closed. “Before I build a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.”
It’s the same censorship with my students. They want me in their life but only up to a point where it’s comfortable for them. Come in and jump around and dance, just don’t ask me to open a book and read. Play and tell stories, but don’t make me write more than fifty words. Tell jokes and keep it light, but don’t tell me how you really feel about the world, about your life, about what you see in me. I can take anything but that. Just make me laugh, make me feel good, be on demand. It’s the biggest problem I have here in Taiwan, students that don’t care at all about me as a person. “You’re the teacher, you stay over there. I’m the student, I will stay over here.” That’s fine. We can go at it that way. If you promise to graduate and move on and forget you ever took my class, I’ll promise to do the same. What a pity, huh? Good fences make good neighbors. Yes, indeed.