Sunday, May 12, 2013

Taiwan, Touch My Heart

 In the end, it was a remote control that did me in.  An insignificant, 6-inch, busted-up plastic Toshiba box with AAA batteries.  The final banana that broke this monkey’s back. 
It was a year ago, May 2012, and I was sitting in the main office of the Taichung International School with the admin staff and directors staring blankly at one another with and an unsigned contract for the upcoming year placed in front of me.  I had just said, “The most important aspect of the new school will be the continuation of the literature program I’ve helped build here.  There can be no drop off.  All these Chinese Department teachers who spy on the English Department and spread lies to parents and force students to not attend our class, has to stop.  English Literature is important.  If you’re going to memorize physics equations, you’ve got to have some poetry to balance out the soul."
 “Yes. Yes.” The administrators nodded. “But, did you get the memo?”

“The memo?”
“Yes, the one about the foreign teachers surrendering their air-condition remotes?”
 I took a long, slow, deep breath. Indeed, I had. But why on earth would they bring that up now?
“Look,” I said. “It’s 99 degrees in the classroom and 100 percent humidity. We’re dying. We need to turn on the air-conditioning during class."
The Taiwanese administrators conferred with one another. One by one they shook their heads. “But it is not 100 degrees. When it is 100 degrees, the school president has given permission to use the air-conditioning. This is part of our Taiwan is green policy.”
“So let me get this straight, I’ve worked here three years, I’m last year’s Teacher of the Year award winner, and a guy I’ve never met or seen is telling a 19 year teaching veteran that he isn’t competent enough to handle a remote control?"
 The administrators nodded. “It is a school policy.”

“What about the Taiwan teachers?”
There was a sullen pause. Finally, the director spoke. “It is policy that the Taiwanese teachers can use the air-conditioning at their discretion.”
 I stared intently at the man as he spoke, watching the words form little balls of spit in the corners of his mouth.  It wasn’t our first disagreement.  Dozens of times I’d come to him with suggestions about the school.  Everything from how we needed earthquake evacuation drills and unlocked fire exits and sports teams and dictionary sets and discipline procedures for when students start fires in class or threaten teachers with knives.  Every time he would laugh nervously or pretend to be distracted.  This time was no different. 
 Outside, the sweltering tropical heat was so languid beads of sweat formed on the school walls and through the closed window I could see the trees wheeze. Below the table, a mosquito bit into my ankle and sucked.

“One other thing,” the director coughed into my face, “our current literature program will not work at the new International program. We have brought in a national educational specialist who will streamline everything and bring a modern approach.”
“Streamline? Like when you decided to place students in English class by age and not ability?”
 A meek, high-pitched giggle twisted on his lips. “No. No. It has been decided that we must teach more… relevant coursework. Parents want pop songs. They are more culturally valuable that books. Students don’t even read books anymore. They have Smart Phones. So at the new school we will be studying one song a month: Westlife and One Direction and oh, what is the name of that girl…goldilocks?”

Another administrator looked at his clipboard. “Taylor swift.”
“Yes. That’s her! She’s excellent. Then in the end, they will be tested on their knowledge of the song.”
 I crossed my arms. “You mean, they will sing it?”

“No!” All the administrators laughed, “You think we are stupid, don’t you? No, they must write the song word for word. One mistake and they fail. Now, where is your remote control?”
There was nothing more to say. At this point, I handed it to them and said, “You can put it anywhere you want.”
I left the unsigned contract on the table.
         Back in my classroom, I closed the door and sat at one of the desks alone in the dark.  I couldn’t even laugh.  Had I really been here four years?  I looked at the pictures on my walls.  Greek myths of adventure.  Hall of Fame posters.  Poetry murals.  Yet for the first time I really wondered, what is it worth?
 Is it really just a lie?  These things I’d preached to students for years: Thoughtfulness?  Integrity? Passion?  Were they complete falsehoods I’d convinced myself were real to make up for the abuse I was taking on this job.  What was it for?  I might as well be digging ditches or washing dishes.  My reward would be the same. 
            So that’s when I applied.  Like my first job in South Korea all those years ago, I answered an advertisement for a position in a faraway country and suddenly my life was changed.  If education was actually a shallow and hollow business, then I was going to sell out completely.  I was going to the bottom end of the world and hire myself out to the top bidder.  I was leaving Taiwan to boil in her own juices and going to Saudi Arabia instead.

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