Monday, May 25, 2009

Hello, My Name is Teacher Lila

I walk into the classroom ten minutes early but, as usual, a few students have already come at least five minutes earlier and made their presence clear. Their identical, gray Rupert's American School* backpacks rest on their desks. (*Yeah, I've changed the name of the school - for privacy's sake.) Today's date, written in fresh black ink at the top of the white board, catches my attention.

"Oh, that's right-" I remember, "The student who correctly writes today's date on the board gets the first star of the day." It is the job, no - the privilege (the students go into a frenzy at every opportunity to touch the white board), of the first student to write the date on the whiteboard. And, for writing it correctly, that lucky student receives a star. I am just following the rules of the permanent teacher, for whom I am a substitute this week. Her class - and all of the classes at Rupert's American School, as well as most of the other American schools I've heard of in Taiwan - use the star system. It's a very simple way to keep kids motivated and challenge themselves, and at the same time dissuade them from misbehaving in class. Every time a student does something good, like writing the date correctly for the class, volunteering to answer a hard question, or reciting the weekly rhyme from memory - they earn a star. If they do something bad, like talk out of turn, play with toys during class or distract their peers - they lose a star. Each student's stars for the day are recorded on the white board, right next to each one's name, so everyone can compare the number of stars by each student's name.

Besides the date, the only other feature on the white board are the the students' magnetic name tags that line the right and left sides. Arranging the names in the correct order, corresponding to how the students sit in class, is the lucky privilege of the second student to arrive to class; and although the name-arranger never earns a star for the task, you can bet he or she relishes the time spent touching the names that go on the white board.

And why not get excited about it? - especially about the names! These students are here for the sole purpose of learning a new language. And, what is it to learn a new language, other than the practice of using a new set of names for things? Accordingly, the names printed on the magnetic squares are the students' American names, not their Taiwanese names.

As I've met more and more Taiwanese people, I have learned that everyone has an English name - or at least, everyone who has been formally introduced to me. As soon as any Taiwanese person begins to learn English, or begins to interact with Americans or other native-English-speakers, he or she assumes an American name. Often they chose their own names, or their parents might do it for them if they are young, or sometimes their teachers act the role of name-selector. Girls often choose names like Annie, Minnie, Maggie, Debbie, Candie...lots of names that end in "-ie." The most popular boys' names are Tommy, Jimmy, Peter, Johnson, Dick ("penis names," as my cousin pointed out to me) or Allan. In one of my classes there were three Allans (each one spelled his name differently: Allan, Allen or Alen) and there were another two phonemes of Allan in my other class. A couple students had really unique names, like Falcon; or, in another school, one student I heard about named himself Dinosaur.

I commend these Taiwanese English-speakers on taking this first essential step of renaming themselves in the language they wish to learn. Even though my own sensitivity to the interdependence between names and identity makes me shudder at the idea of losing one (and hence, risking the other) I also understand that in order to learn a second language, one must make a full-hearted effort at total conversion. Americans often use the same practice in foreign-language classrooms, assuming the name Paco or Yvette for Spanish or French class. This aids the transition not only from one language (qua one set of names; one set of sounds) to another, but also from one culture (qua collection of customs) to another.

Language is more than just a "specific set of names" for things: it represents an inextricable part of a culture. Every real language is tied to a context, a place in the world, people and their inherited customs. And the Taiwanese customs around names and naming are very different from ours, in more ways than just the sounds. In Taiwan (and China) a person's family name comes first, the reverse of the order in which we say our names, in English-speaking countries. Their "first names" (which come last) often do not set them apart, either, because many of them share the same names! Taiwanese parents take care to select the right name for their child, but their criteria is often very different from Americans': they usually pick names that have a lucky number of brushstrokes in the character, or - sometimes it's more complicated - the cumulative number of brushsrtokes in the characters of the family name, together with the "first name". There are only so many names that can have a lucky number of brushstrokes (all names with only four strokes are out!) so a lot of people have the same, albeit "lucky," names.

Unfortunately, the American schools in Taiwan are not as clever as they could be in the matter of names. Whereas students take on real, American names which eliminates the obstacles associated with having a foreign-sounding name, it has become the sad custom that Taiwanese students learn to call their American teachers by the most un-American sounding, ridiculous form of address. Instead of calling their teachers by their first names (i.e. Lila,) their last names (i.e. Ms. Wright) - or even by their professions (i.e. "Teacher") they use an abominable alternative combination: "Teacher Lila."

This is the way all American schools do it. My cousin, when she teaches, is "Teacher Kate," her husband is "Teacher Luke," Rupert is "Teacher Rupert." There is no English-speaking place in the world that refers to teachers in this manner, and I feel like I am doing the students a disservice by allowing them to call me "Teacher Lila." Every time they know the answer - "Teacher Lila! Teacher Lila! I know! I know!" I cringe, I shudder. "Yes, Allan - I mean, Allan with a double-L-A-N." I feel as though I am living a lie...

Haven't you always called your teachers Mr., Ms. or Professor So-and-So, unless you were on a first-name-basis? And haven't you always called your Spanish teachers Professor or Professora So-and-So, and your French teachers Madame So-and-So or whatever - I mean, you used whatever form of address was appropriate and NORMAL in that language, right? Can you imagine how sorely a Taiwanese student would stick out in the States if he persisted in calling his teachers "Teacher Lila"? How embarassing! This is one of the inconguencies I found in the proposed values of the American schools and the actual practices.

Of course, calling me simply "Lila" would not have been much better. In Mandarin, Lila (pronounced "lai-luh") means "come here." When I found that out, I considered taking on a Taiwanese name while I was here, to avoid confusion and ridicule...

Finally - although I should have explained this first - What is an "American School"?

All of the schools in Taiwan that teach English as a second language are called "American schools". This is because Taiwan has chosen to focus its English language learning energies on American English, rather than British English. For some reason, every Asian country prefers one over the other, and so all of the English teachers in Taiwan are American (and Canadians, of course, will often suffice). Mainly, it's the accent that matters, but the text books and other teaching materials the schools use have an obviously American tilt, too. For instance, the story that one of my classes read, "My First Grade Play," was about putting on a Thanksgiving play. The story the other class read was about a girl's birthday party. All of the typically American birthday traditions were included (i.e. birthday cakes, blowing out the candles, baloons...etc.) And, since this particular birthday took place in the winter time, the story was also very instructive about fun winter activities (i.e. snowball fights, making snow angels, making snowmen...etc.) While assisting a student in correcting his last test, I noticed that the last story they read was about Halloween, ghost stories and stuff like that. "Spooky" was actually one of the spelling words on the test. I find this strange, but the curriculum coordinator clearly deems it educational. I suppose it is a good example of a word that is more than just a name: there is no Mandarin equivalent for this word. "Spooky" is part of our culture. And ghosts are a part of the Taiwanese culture, but in a very different way than are "ghosts" in American culture. Whereas we, Americans dress up in scary or funny costumes, sometimes pretending to be evil, sweet-toothed and hungry spirits on Halloween, the Taiwanese honor ghosts for a whole month of the year; by staying at home as much as possible, but keeping stores open, they give 'actual' ghosts free reign. No one dresses up, no one pretends, no one dreams up scary stories to tell.

I wish I knew the Taiwanese (Mandarin) word for "ghost." And yet... I'm not sure that learning this word would get me even one step closer to speaking their language.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Fireworks, again.

Fireworks are going off again. I don't even strain my neck to see if I can catch a glimpse, let alone get out of my seat to watch from the balcony. Every other day I hear fireworks going off, somewhere. Kaohsiung is not a constant party, although you might think so, at first, if you're a westerner hearing all the fireworks going off. But since I've been living in Taiwan, I've unlearned the happy, celebratory associations that fireworks normally bring, as when I hear them at home. Here, fireworks and firecrackers are often set off out of duty and fear rather than celebration and joy. Let me explain...

It was only my second or third day in Taiwan when I learned about this strange practice. I was sitting in the kitchen with Kate, speaking in whispers while Harley Jane had nap time upstairs. Suddenly, loud pops interrupted our conversation - and the lulling silence we had strained to preserve.
"Crack Crack Crack!"
Kate cringed, and rolled her eyes.
"Are those-" I began to ask.
"Firecrackers," was Kate sneered. I started to wonder what motherhood had done to Kate's sense of fun and revelry. A few more whistled through the air and nearly exploded the naptime dream. When it was clear Harely hadn't woken up, Kate went on to explain her party-pooper position.

Kate's neighbors had been setting off firecrackers on a set schedule for a week. She knows exactly when they set them off, because it repeatedly happens right after she puts Harely down for a nap. Was it for some special occasion, I wondered. No. Did some mischievious kids somehow get a hold of some? No, that wasn't it either. Why were the neighbors setting off firecrackers every day?

"Ghosts" was Kate's answer. Ghosts? I thought I had misunderstood her. She continued. "Yes, Ghosts. They were probably having bad luck or something, and have to set off fireworks to scare away the ghosts," Kate explained. She was obviously used to this. I paused for a second, reviewing what I thought I had heard come out of Kate's mouth. She might as well have added, "Duh!" at the end, just to really mess with me.

I don't know about you, but I don't believe in ghosts. I mean, I like to consider myself open-minded, but I have yet to be convinced of their existence. I am a lover of science and a follower of materialism, however lame and hum-drum that may seem. I can't help it! That's the culture I've been steeped in - a culture of the Scientific Method, the laws of physics, chemistry, all of that. I compulsively psychologize anything that sounds paranormal. I was raised by a psychoanalyst. When I hear "ghost" I think "complex".

In Taiwan, people believe in ghosts. They not only believe in them, but they often undertake peculiar rituals surrounding them, and go to extreme lengths to please them. In the case of Kate's neighbors, she guesses they were probably having bad luck with business or family affairs, or whatever, then called on the services of a spiritual specialist. He assessed the situation, diagnosed the ghost problem, and perscribed a strict schedule of fireworks and whatever other necessary measures, accordingly. If mental sanity is defined, not as an absolute state, but relative to the average person in a community, then in Taiwan, I am absolutely bonkers; here, ghost rituals are a long-established, wide-spread institution that virtually everyone but the foreignors takes part in.

Ghost Month, which takes place during the seventh lunar-calendar month, is dedicated to ghosts. During Ghost month, ghosts get to wander freely. Stores and businesses must remain open all day, as in, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, so that whenever a ghost might want to come in, he or she is free to do so. How convenient! Kate especially likes Ghost Month for this reason.

Unfortunately, Ghost Month also has its downsides. On certain days during Ghost Month people burn "ghost money" as an offering to the ghosts. Ghost money isn't real money - it's fake paper money. Tons and tons of fake paper money are printed, sold, bought and burned in Taiwan. Tons. The air quality suffers, but at least the ghosts are happy, right?

That is only the beginning of the ghost stuff...but all I feel like writing, for now.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Kaohsiung Hash

Last night I did my first Kaohsiung hash. And no, I'm not talking about Marijuana.

Kaohsiung Hash is a group of people that have a hash race every week - sometimes in the city, sometimes in the country. Three "hares" go ahead of the group to marl out the trail by putting chalk lines or turn-arrows on the pavement every few blocks or so to keep everyone on the same track. The paths they choose are always creative and a surprise.

I ran the entire hour and a half, energized by the sights and smalls of Kaohsiung at night - and the charm of the three friendly and playful Taiwanese hash-women with whom I kept pace for a good part of the hash. The path twisted and turned, down alleyways, across big intersections, up and down stairs, over the footbridge above the trains, through parks, down lit up street markets full of shoppers, street vendors, chicken and pork-scented smoke, and diners enjoying their dinner fresh of the wok or still on the skewer.

It was thrilling. We dodged scooters, trucks and cars - usual city traffic. (You literally have to dodge sometimes; stop lights and traffic regulations are considered mere suggestions in Kaohsiung.) At one point, while we flew past a luminous baseball diamond, a feral dog (there are many here) lept from the shadows, barking and growling behind us. We ran faster then.

We passed by a whole community of dogs in one of the parks, where nine or so dogs stood barking at each other, at the air, at the night. An ode to the full moon. Other, human, revelers played their own music in the opposite end of the park. At least a dozen couples waltzed around one another to a portable stereo. "Oh yeah, they're always out here. You can always find people in the parks ballroom dancing at night," my fellow American hasher told me, almost bored. I had been talking about trying to find dancing in Kaohsiung all night, you know me, dance-obsessed. And that wasn't the only dancing going on, either. On a street corner bordering yet another city park, two Taiwanese boys practiced popping & locking, smooth slippery break-flowing to their boom box beats. I jog-danced past them, spinning in circles to show my appreciation. I would have stopped - God, I wanted to stop so badly - to play with them, but I thought I should finish the hash. My compatriot reassured me: "Anyway, you'll see people out here every night. Oh yeah, and the Taiwanese guys - they love to dance! In the clubs, too. More than the girls." (I will certainly investigate this claim, and I'll post my findings here when I do.) This comforted me somewhat. Plus, if I stopped anywhere along the trail that night I would have been utterly and irremediably lost.

I can't even describe how surreal it was at times when we would cut in and out of one city scene to the next, totally different one with almost no transition whatsoever except a thinly marked arrow. After we'd been running for an hour we started to spread out more and more. The path zigged and zagged around dark corners and especially narrow allies, and suddenly I found myself alone, pit-patting through an empty warehouse. It looked like it was probably the scene of a "wet market" by day (wet markets have mostly fresh produce, raw meats, fish, wet stuff...) I felt privileged to be alone in that space, unusually vacant and surprisingly peaceful - an unexpected but welcome respite from the incessant noise of city sound and crowds. To think: most people would only see that place during regular market hours, when it probably surges with people and their business; a thousand interactions happen a minute as people negotiate amounts, prices, their dinner, their livelihood, their way through the crowded aisles, a-buzz. And there I was, just me - and the soft rhythm of my footsteps.

I popped out of the warehouse and, just as abruptly as before - cut! - the scene changed again. I was in a dark little street where a stage was set up and a performance going on. About sixty people sat in an audience facing me as I emerged- I'm not joking! - and the stage was immediately to my right. I ran on through, the seated audience to my right, and others, standing, watching, on my left. Over the microphone I hear the loud and clear Chinese script, and as I ran past the stage I turned around and started running backwards so I could watch. There were two actors on the stage, both dressed in striking classical Chinese dress, one in blue, one in red. Their satiny robes glimmered in the spotlights. Their black quafts contrasted with their powder-white painted faces. They made wide, grand gestures, made even larger by the spiny extensions they wore on each fingernail - a uniquely Asian ornament.

I was all alone. All I could do was take it all in and watch. If someone else had been there I would have gasped something like, "Can you believe this! Isn't this amazing? Incredible?!" Or I would have just mouthed to them, "Oh my God" or "Holy shit" with my eyes wide open. Again I felt as though I wanted to stop, and stay, and absorb, and enjoy. How lucky was I! - to randomly enter such a special, secret show - probably somebody's birthday party in the neighborhood. I'll never know. I couldn't stop. So I kept running, mouth agape, bewildered, ecstatic, gitty - backwards - till I ran into a parked car...and had to face forwards again.

I don't know how much I'll end up participating in future hash races, not because I didn't thoroughly enjoy my experience, but because there is also a large drinking culture surrounding the hash. At the end they go through this big ceremony called "down downs," basically big frat-like drinking rituals with lots of call-and-response chants and name-calling. I drank water. And after your third hash they give you your special hash name, like "The Pickler," "Full-on-Felacio," or "Dick-a-licious," which are all examples of current hash members. I mean, maybe some people really like that aspect of the hash scene, (for instance, Dickalicious - flaming homosexual - told me just loves!! his name!) but I can't imagine liking a name they pick for me. It's not easy here to find a cool social scene that's not centered around drinking. People drink a lot here. Even immediately upon finishing a ninety-minute run. Don't they produce any endorphins?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Night Market

This evening I decided to take a little bike ride around Kaohsiung, to check out the town, explore my turf. I happened upon a night market. Asia (at least Thailand and Taiwan) has night markets. They are pretty much what they sound like: markets at night. They are busy, electric and ecclectic places. Mostly, this one had food - fresh produce, died food, green tea, raw and cooked meats and seafood, sushi, this weird colorful gelatin stuff, seaweed, "thousand year old eggs", all the classic asian goodies. The night markets also have lots of clothes, cheap sunglasses, and a few other odds and ends... The great thing abuot this market is that they have little trays out filled with little bits of whatever they're selling so you can sample them. I took this opportunity to try some of the things I've been eyeballing from afar for over a month now and still hadn't tried.

This is a picture of a thousand year old egg. I don't actually know how many years old they are, but tonight was the night that I decided to find out what they tasted like. As a matter of fact, they're quite good. I only had a tiny little piece of one small enough to be eaten off a toothpick, but it didn't seem nearly as bad as they look. It tastes like egg yolk that's been sitting around outside, and...well... it's like a good aged cheese - but egg - and very different tasting than cheese... Anyway... Oh, and they are goose eggs.

I had some other interesting things while I was there, but my favorite moment of my night market experience tonight was at the dried goods stall. I slowly walked by the old man's stand, eyeing the spread of dried fruits, roots and beans in front of him. He called out to me in Chinese, pointing to the dried black berries sitting atop the sampling pedestal in the middle of his table. He had a big grin on his face and kept pointing, until I tried one. It was delicious. He kept talking to me and pointing, inviting to me to sample each thing he had prepared for sampling, and I did. I wish I could tell you all the things I tried, but I have no clue what they are. He told me what each one is called - that's not the problem. It's just that he was speaking Chinese. It was marvelous. I had no idea what I was eating, and NO idea what the vendor was saying, but I still wanted to hear it, and he happily persisted in speaking to me in his native tongue. I even tried to ask him questions, and he would answer them - or try to - in Chinese. You might think this sounds like an incredibly frustrating experience, but I sincerely appreiciate this man's approach. Instead of changing they way he does business in order to compensate for me, he just went alond doing what he always does, and I was the one who had to play catch-up.

One of the things I love most about Taiwan so far is that it is a real place. What I mean by "real" is that it doesn't need me, the foreigner, the westerner, to be here in order to thrive. It's not like Thailand, heavily dependent on their tourism industry and all the white people who come there to spend their money. In Thailand, even the street vendors selling local handicrafts, knockoff sunglasses and Beer Chang t-shirts know enough english to lure you in: "You like? Special price, just for you. Good price for you. How much you pay?" You wonder what would the vendors, the thousands of hotel employees, the tuk tuk (Thai taxi) drivers be doing if there weren't all the tourists? Would they still be harassing the locals? "Tuk tuk? Tuk tuk? Tuk tuk!!" (God, they are annoying!) You wonder what Thailand was like - or would be like - if it were just being Thailand for the sake of Thailand, not Thailand for the sake of tourists. All I'm saying is at times it feels fake.

In this respect, Taiwan is completely the opposite; it is completely "real". There is virtually no English to be found and the city, except on the major street signs, under the Chinese characters. When you buy something in a store, the cashier will tell you the amount you owe in Chinese without batting an eye. (I either peak at the digital screen to find out how much to pay, or just hand over a couple hundred NT and see what happens). No one hassles you to buy their stuff or take their tuk tuk. Taiwan doesn't care that you are there, and I love that!

Standing at the dried goods stall, I didn't feel hassled, pressured, rich or special. If anything, I felt a little bit silly, like a child pointing and asking questions at anything and everything new. I ended up buying a bag of chinese herbal remedy lozenges. I thought it was some very exotic fruit chopped up. Its this herbal mixture that's formed into a chewy paste with dried orange peel on the outside, and it's chopped into bite-size pieces. It's got a nice menthol effect when you chew it and it's supposed to be good for your throat when you are sick.

At another stall I got a big bottle of freshly blended up guava. Just guava. Where else can you get that? I love Taiwan.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Robert's American School

Tomorrow I meet with Robert, a foreigner who owns and runs "Robert's American School" here in Kaohsiung. I responded to his post on the Kaohsiung yahoo group about substitute-teaching for a week. I'll be teaching ESL, of course. That's what all the foreigners do here, pretty much, and that's what I came here to do.

Jobs are not hard to come by here. Robert wasn't the only one who I contacted about subbing, and he wasn't the only one who responded to my inquiries, either. There are lots of opportunities. A surprising number of teachers and schools solicit the local Kaohsiung yahoo group with posts: "English teachers needed", "sub needed soon!!", "Looking for part-time English teacher"... I lost track of how many I responded to after just fifteen minutes. Only hours later I had e-mails back from some of them offering me the job, asking me if I was still available to teach.

I actually have a long-term (not subbing) job teaching ESL already lined up for me, too. That starts in June. I had that job before I even got here. When I arrived, my cousin told me that a couple of her friends had job openings - did I want any of them? "If you want it, it's yours." Just like that. That's partly because my cousin has been here for six years and is familiar with many of the ESL teachers in the area, and partly because there are so many job openings.

I have never taught English in my life. I have taught ballet, jazz, tap and hip hop to young boys and girls. To start teaching ESL in Taiwan, all I have to do is show the school my college diploma, then they help me get a visa. It's really simple.

It's even easier to get a subbing job. Like I said, I just responded to a post on the local yahoo group. In Robert's first e-mail to me he said, "Cindy told me you were interested in taking those subbing hours. That's great. Come by the school so we can meet in person. Have you ever taught before?" The question about my teaching experience was more of an afterthought than anything else. When I called Robert this afternoon our conversation was extremely brief. "Have you taught before?"
"Uh, well no-"
"-OK, well you can sit on a class. Or two- the kids have a lot they have to cover the week you're subbing."
I couldn't believe it was that simple to get a job. I don't even have to present my diploma to sub, or have any experience at all. When I told my cousin she scowled, "Why two classes?" In the Taiwan ESL community sitting in on more than one class is newbie-preparation overkill.

I meet Robert tomorrow afternoon, after he finishes teaching for the day. The subbing job, assuming I do get it, starts on May 13th. You can expect to hear more about that later.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

First blog. Ever.

This is my first blog entry of my first blog. Ever. As I was gearing up to leave the country on my journey abroad, a lot of people urged me to start blog and update it regularly during my travels. It has been a little over four months since I left the States on Christmas Eve, 2008, and I have been to New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, and am currently in Taiwan. I know it's taken me a while to start my blog, but better late than never.

I have never been a blogger, have never considered myself the blogging type, so please feel free to interact with me through this site. Ask me questions, comment, free associate...(or not) I have no predetermined or set plans for everything in my blog, so if you want to see something or hear about something in particular, please don't hesitate to offer suggestions or make requests. I find it difficult to decide what to select to put in my blog and what to omit- so many different adventures, a bazillion photos, and a mass of little facts and anecdotes compete for my attention (and I am ultra-ADHD, so you can imagine what that's like).

Lila Writes blog is basically a journal of my experiences abroad, what I've been up to, and other things I think are interesting that I've learned here and there along the way.