Finding the Rabbit
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Nihao, my fellow Americans, Scotspersons, Brits, and South Africans, how are you?
This is a glass candleholder that was handmade for me by Amy, one of the kids in my CE06 class. The purple color comes from a gelatinous fill inside the glass, and has shells and coral in it. It's beautiful. She made it for me at a craft stand in the night market, and was fairly dancing with the jitters when she gave it to me after class last week. I keep it in the place of honor in my room, on the shelf with my books and all the rocks I've collected from various places.

This installment is more like a diary than a newsletter, I think. There is some fairly big news, and some ramblings too. Not much has been happening here, though. A few weeks ago, my MP3 player broke, so I bought a new one. It's spiffy and white and not much bigger than a flash drive. Even better, it's got 1G of memory, and can hold a lot more music than my old one could. Posted by Picasa
The busy summer has ended at Shane, which means a significant drop in my hours, back down to somewhere near normal. Classes are still going fine. My two CE05 classes have merged together to create a single CE06, which so far has been fine. Of course, we’ve only had 4 lessons so far, and one half of this class is comprised of my five unruly boys, so this good behavior is doomed anyway. We’ll see how long it lasts. CE14, who has been tamed, is beginning to slip again, so I’ve come up with some…incentives for them, which seem to be working. Interestingly enough, my kindergarten, where the average age is five, is much better behaved than either CE06 or CE14. I can’t tell you why, but no horses here, and definitely no teeth.

Last week marked the end of CJ08, my junior high class, as I’ve known it for the past three months. For much of that time, that class was in danger of closing down. It only had three students in it, one of whom was leaving in September, bringing the roster down to two. My heart was breaking because I’d lose my favorite class, not to mention three hours of employment every week. Judy and Cheyenne’s language level is high enough that they would have had a hard time finding another class which fit their age level and school schedule. So Jennifer and I put our heads together and came up with a proposal for their parents (basically turning it into a private class), which they accepted! So we won’t have to lose them after all. Yesterday was the first day of the all-new CJ09, and like usual, it went swimmingly.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a beginner-level class, the kindergarten notwithstanding. Those who I had in my first CE01 and CE02 classes are now in CE06, able to chatter on about what they eat for dinner every night and what they do after school every day. But yesterday marked the first day of another class, a brand-new CE01. This class is ground-zero at Shane, kids who come in barely knowing “yes” and “no.” I had seven signed up, and six were in class yesterday, four boys and two girls. They were a good bunch, nobody too shy and nobody too obnoxious. A few of my boundaries were tested, which is unusual for the first day, so I’ve got one potential imp, but he was also respectful when he spoke to me, so I think we’re going to be fine. With groups of kids, I’m at my forte when they number around twelve, which is evenly divisible by two, three, four, and six, more than enough options. Anything less than that makes some games difficult, and much more is too chaotic. I’m very happy to get this new class, and hope that it grows as quickly as Clara’s new classes did. At this basic level, that’s a reasonable expectation. You can always find kids to put in English classes here.
The reason that my third junior high student, Monica, couldn’t join CJ09 is that she’s entering her third year of junior high, which is arguably the most brutal year of a Taiwanese kid’s schooling. Universities and high schools all have tough entrance exams, and the better the school, the harder the exam. So the third year of junior high is dedicated to preparing for these exams, which means that many kids are at school seven days a week. The schools here can run laps around the education slapped on a bun and thrown at you in America, but sheesh! I can’t say that I envy the kids here. There’s laughably lame, but there’s also too much. I see the effect in my own classroom: when asked to describe their favorite hobbies, or what they did over the weekend, more often than not I get a blank stare. What does an automaton do for fun? Not that my kids are really automatons, but you know it means something when the vast majority of them cannot catch a ball.

And yet, despite this broad disparity between education levels, Taiwan continues to worship America as the land of opportunity, and America continues to spit upon university degrees earned abroad, as if there was an overwhelming probability that their “foreign” education would be a much lower quality than what’s served up at home! To me, that’s akin to movie theaters not letting you bring in your own food. Your choices are the overpriced crap that they offer, or nothing. Of course not everything offered is bad – they do sell water – but a large chunk of it isn’t very useful.
After a year, my Chinese is passable. Sure, I run into brick walls every day (getting very good at that, in fact), but I can get by. I haven’t had any formal training, partially because I haven’t wanted to spend money on it and partially because the last thing I want to do is study, but I’ve become quite good at befriending restaurant owners and using their menus to learn from, or watching TV, or signs I see on the street, or bus and train schedules. I also make use of people who want to practice their English with me, and try to respond to their questions in Chinese if I can, and ask them how to say it if I can’t. After all, Mandarin Chinese is only the most difficult language in the world to learn. Its grammar is very simple, but pronunciation is the killer. Grammatically it’s quite simple, but pronunciation is the killer: Chinese is full of internal vowel sounds that are differentiated only by their tone, or emphasis, which are often hard to hear and even harder to remember. Take the word “gan” for instance: it can mean “and” or it can mean “f----k.” Not a word to mispronounce. Luckily, the Taiwanese are quick to forgive. They might mow you down on their motorcycles but they’ll smile and nod if you accidentally swear in their face.

Which has given me some insight to the struggles of foreigners in America. The war that my country has waged on immigrants thoroughly disgusts me. I don’t mean economically, or health insurance, or driver’s licenses; those are separate issues. I mean the demand that every foreigner who so much as thinks about coming to America speaks English. Which is, by the way, the second most challenging language on Earth to learn. English is a mongrel tongue, stemming from German and French. Pronunciation’s not that hard, but the grammar is so convoluted and at times mystifying to learn. But even that’s beside the point. I get incensed whenever I hear some bonehead snarling, “Speak English!” Riiiiight…..because everyone is zapped by a Holy Tongue the minute they cross the border, and they’re retaining their old speech just to annoy you. Learning a foreign language cannot happen overnight. The Puerto Rican taxi driver or the Mexican waitress might actively be taking English lessons, but all that’s down the drain the moment one of the bozos among us opens his or her mouth. Nice going. At any rate, like we can talk: there are at least a billion signs in the good ole US of A which say things like “Bobs Hardware Store,” or, “The “Real” Food Store,” or “Used Car’s For Sale.” Hypocrisy at its finest.
This year, the Moon Festival and 10-10 Day (Independence Day) fall pretty close together, so we get a few days off from school. My friend Rodger is planning to come up to Keelung for a day or so, and then I’ll go back with him to Taichung for another day or so. Should be fun. Then, less than a week later, my family’s going to come visit me for a week, so I’ll get even more time off. I’m planning to take them down to Hualien, reportedly the most beautiful part of the island, which I still haven’t been to yet. I promise I’ll post pictures on that trip next month.
Last week, I passed my one-year mark in Taiwan. And it looks like it’s going to be an even seventeen months: my plan is to leave in February, just after Chinese New Year. As much as I have enjoyed teaching and being here, it’s coming on time to get home again. My life has begun moving in another direction, and that’s away from teaching children. I’ve been doing that for most of thirteen years, and it will be drawing to a close within the next six months. It was interesting, being in training and meeting the other foreigners who’d just arrived like I had, and talking to them about what got them here and what they think of teaching. Most of them came because they thought it’d be a cool experience or a good way to experience another culture. In other words, a beginning, or a hiatus from something else. I was the only one who came here to finish something. Teaching English overseas has been like a combination final exam and graduation trip in my career: hard work, and great fun, too. It is its own reward. Because of that, I knew I’d be staying less time here than everyone else, but long enough to accomplish what I needed to do. And I have. In the next few months, I’ll have some final strings to tie off, and then I’ll get to experience the new FAA regulations along with everyone else. Hooray. But first…
Last week, my friend Rodger invited me to join him and some coworkers on a trip to the Philippines during Chinese New Year!! So, after I finish working at Shane, I’ll fly down there with them for one week of hiking and snorkeling. This, I am looking forward to very much. After that, we’ll fly back to Taipei, they’ll go back to work in Taichung and I’ll head for the States. A graduation trip for a graduation trip!

Okay, that’s all for now. Thanks for sticking with me through all that. As always, let me know how you’re doing when you get a chance.

There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign. - Robert Louis Stevenson

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Location: Keelung, United States
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