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.

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