short reads

364 days later

My last blog post was July 5, 2016, shortly before Brexit passed and months before Donald J. Trump became the President of the United States. What silly times we live in. As I look back on this blog, my growth, the time passed, and the change in environments I have experienced, I sense a profound sense of closure in a significant chapter of my life: my early 20’s.

When I began this blog, I envisioned a different direction for the blog to follow. One where fizzle-out-and-die would not be the end game for my biographical journey through Taiwan. However, my life took a pretty extreme turn for the worse and the better about two years ago. It has been nearly two years since I moved to Washington, D.C., and while my heart aches for Kaohsiung and Taiwan often, I’ve learned to love this new, adoptive home. In doing so, I have learned to let go of the past and accept present circumstances and the opportunities the future holds.

“Blank Goes Here” was a title given to a part of my life where self-determination was not the prevailing theme. As I reflect, the name was apt for the way I was living my life not too long ago. I had allowed myself to experience new things and be shaped by them; however, now, I feel like I have outgrown the brand, so to speak. I am no longer a blank waiting to be filled or defined by external forces. I have experienced, lived, enjoyed, and suffered enough to know that now I want to determine my own circumstances rather than allow my circumstances alone to shape me.

In one month, I will begin my life as a part-time student, pursuing my MBA in a city and school I have grown to love.  I am allowing myself to finally be the artist and not the canvas; to be the writer and not the page. It’s exciting and new and it feels empowering.

So with that, I close out this blog (for now). I’ll leave it open as a living document and testament to an amazing and formative part of my life, but it is a piece of me firmly in the past now. In the spirit of growth and rebirth and “see ya laters” rather than “good-byes” let me reintroduce myself. Hi, my name is Fay and I can’t wait to tell you who I’ve become.

Istanbul: Where I Get a Taste of What Tom Hanks Felt in ‘Terminal’ and ‘Cast Away’

I actually managed to fall into a deep, dreamless sleep somehow after hours of struggle. How long was I out? Two, maybe three hours? Why did I wake up? The pool of drool collecting on the hand tucked under my cheek was indication enough. Gross, I thought. My eyes still had no idea what they were looking at from their blurry, latitudinal purview. I could at least gather that I was looking out a window and it was sunrise. Glasses…please don’t be crushed. Glasses found under my stomach or ribs, status: not crushed. I sat up a little, jean jacket still tucked around my torso. Still looking out the window, I saw beyond the runways, a large mosque shining peach-orange in the hot, early sunrise. The call to prayer could be heard if I listened carefully.

I looked around. The passengers that were sleeping around me when I tucked myself in were still snoozing away, but with the regular morning hours upon us, more families with children occupied the vacant seats. Soon, I thought, there will be too much noise for sleep.

Unlucky for me, my flight from Seoul to Istanbul arrived early, extending my airport terminal prison sentence by an extra hour which meant I would be stuck in international purgatory from 4:00 A.M. until 2:00 P.M. The worst part was that I knew in my heart of hearts my flight to Athens would take off late. Such is the Mediterranean world. Asia, with all its comforts when it comes to customer convenience and service, was now behind me. I pulled out my phone and my mind and heart heaved in exasperation together, only a dismal 35 minutes had passed since I fell asleep.

Even at four in the morning, the Istanbul airport was bustling with people from every corner of the earth. Iran, France, Korea, Sudan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, Vietnam, the U.S., Yemen, Italy…I felt like I was in the center of the world. Protip: When you visit the center of the world, bring a book or Kindle because there’s no free WiFi.

The flight from Seoul was pleasant enough but I had not had a good night’s sleep in three days, which made laying down as soon as possible priority number one. First stop: the hotel airport. I knew it would be expensive, but it felt so seedy when they told me they charge by the hour, and infuriating to find out that for a two-hour nap I would have to shell out 115 euros. Plan B, I decided to see if a plebeian traveler could somehow pay her way into an airline lounge. Emirates, China Airlines, Qatar Airways, Air France, KLM—no one would take me. Overly made-up, thin women would barely even look at me as they shooed me from their desks. I could not have felt more like Oliver Twist unless I had an empty bowl and was covered in soot. I was desperate for some peace of mind, some privacy, honestly a clean bathroom would be nice enough (I would give a solid two out of five for the public restrooms in the airport). Not a chance. Finally, on my fourth lap around the airport, refusing to have Istanbul break me so quickly, I found a row of unoccupied benches, and taking a cue from the other single passengers, I sprawled myself out across five seats, used my purse as a pillow, my jean jacket as a blanket and passed out.

Little did I know, this was major foreshadowing for the adventures ahead.

The hours grinded by and I must have walked through every duty free shop, every cafe, and made at least 15 loops around the entire airport. The Turkish gift shop was amusing to me for a good 30 minutes. Every single item in that store could be found in Greece. The major difference? Language and whether or not the item was Halal. Again, major foreshadowing for the rest of the trip.

Finally, I found myself in front of my gate at 2:00 P.M., so done with the day. Ready to be in Greece; dying to see my sister after so long; longing to hug and kiss my giagia after so many years; dreading even another hour on a metal tube rocketing through the air. Luckily, the trip was hardly painful. I was seated next to a fellow American from Los Angeles who was on a solitary Mediterranean journey, who was reading the fourth book in the Game of Thrones series. “Hey, so, I’m a huge GoT fan and I want to read the books, but they are such a commitment. Do you think it’s worth it?” And so commence GoT geeking out until the Athens runway was in sight.

With the runway in sight, all conversation about Game of Thrones stopped. I couldn’t believe it: Greece, just below me! The airplane tires touched down and I felt myself actually shaking with excitement. I’m here. I’m back. I can’t believe it.

Photo credit: http://bit.ly/1YmvtJW

Reaching New Heights Hiking Bukhansan

Last Tuesday, I wanted to give hiking another go because Achasan was such an easy hike. This time, with my Airbnb host, I hiked Bukhansan, Seoul’s tallest peak. Standing at just above 800 meters, it makes an impression on the surrounding landscape. I’m not an avid hiker, but I do like new challenges. This was probably the tallest mountain I’ve hiked before, and it was a brutal two and a half hours to get to the top. My first hint that this would be a rough hike should’ve been that I couldn’t get a single friend to join me in the hike. On my first day in Seoul, my friends asked me, “so how do you want ot spend your time in Korea?” I answered with, “I don’t know, I’m up for anything, but what about hiking?” The response was met with a wary, “okay, where were you thinking?”

“Well, I heard Bukhansan is the tallest mountain in Seoul. It’s supposed to offer amazing views.”
“Uh…okay, wow. Bukhansan? Hm. Let’s think about it.”

Anyone that’s spent time in East Asia or South Korea, knows that such a vague answer usually means, “No.” Undeterred, I mentioned my plan to hike Bukhansan with or without company to as many people as I could. Finally, I mentioned the idea to my Airbnb host, Noah, and to my surprise he said he wanted to join. The morning of the hike, I dressed in yoga pants, a tank top, and my old running shoes. My purse carried two water bottles, my wallet, sunglasses, some peanut snacks, a roll of kimbap, and my phone. In my world, that means I’m ready to hike. In his world, and every Ajima (elderly woman in Korean) I met on the subway ride to the Bukhansan bus stop, I was setting myself up to sincerecly regret my day and possibly slide down a mountain face to my death. No matter. Even though I stood out like a sore thumb among the fully equipped, backpack-ed hikers, I was determined Bukhansan was going down.

I saw this Ajima, barely five feet tall, hop on her Harley just before our bus arrived. She rode up to the intersection and I snapped a picture without thinking. Why stay home and knit when you could ride your motorcycle into the sunset like a total badass?

I saw this Ajima, barely five feet tall, hop on her Harley just before our bus arrived. She rode up to the intersection and I snapped a picture without thinking. Why stay home and knit when you could ride your motorcycle into the sunset like a total badass?

Hiking Bukhansan easily takes a full day. First, it takes at least an hour and a half to arrive at the base of the mountain, by subway then by bus. Then it’s an increasingly steep and rocky climb to the top for two hours. If your legs aren’t ready for an endless stairmaster workout, then it’s better to save Bukhansan for another day. Also, be ready to sweat. No matter how much or how little clothing you’re wearing, hiking in July entails that you will be streaming with sweat. But it’s all worth it when you reach the peak. Maybe it was the altitude, maybe it was the endorphinsf from pushing my body to climb as fast as I could, but standing on top of Bukhansan’s windy peak and staring down at the green and hazy world below lifts your spirits like nothing else. You will also have a newfound appreciation for all the seniors climbing up along side of you. I only wish I could be a fraction as healthy and fit at their age as they are now. In another bad ass Ajima/Ajashi moment at the peak, many of them were drinking Makgeolli at the top of the mountain. Makgeolli is a milky alcohol and an acquired taste that resembles an alcoholic, watery yogurt in texture and taste. It reminded me of something that maybe our grandparents’ generations would drink during wartimes when options for something better were scarce.

I won’t post too much about the actual hike, so I can talk about Daegu in my next post. But leave me questions in the comments if you have any, and I will be happy to answer them!

Thumbs up, half way point!

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Old fortress wall near the peak. Noah takes another break (right) as he admits defeat to mighty Bukhansan.

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Munching on some kimbap near the peak. The altitude is supposed to make food taste better, but I think sheer exhaustion was a good enough flavor enhancer.

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The Stone Phoenix of Bukhansan. Probably not it's real name, but it works.

The Stone Phoenix of Bukhansan. Probably not it’s real name, but it works.

Of course they sell ice cream on the mountain and of course we got some.

Teacher, What Does @#$% Mean?

Some teachers dread the first moment they have to confront a kid using a “bad word” in English class. The main issue is how a teacher should go about confronting the student. First of all, it’s a “bad word” meaning it’s not appropriate for children to say, but to the kid it’s just meaningless mouth noises. Also, how do you answer the questions, “What does that mean?” or “Why can’t I say it?” Answering “just because,” never stems kids’ curiosities. You have to simultaneously explain the gravity of the explicative and its meaning without giving too much away.

Personally, I don’t think bringing up these words in class is all that bad. Words like “fuck” or “bitch” really don’t have the same gravity in Taiwan as they would in an English-speaking country. Besides, it’s not like my students don’t watch American movies or TV shows. Just today a 3rd grader interrupted class by shouting, “TEACHER! S-H-I-T!” When I asked where he had heard this word and informed him it was a “bad,” he said, “They say it in Furious 7 when they jump out of the plane!” American media has really normalized cursing in daily speech, so how can I blame my students for asking about it in class?

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t go out of my way to explain the f-word (I will only discuss that it’s a bad word if students bring it up), and I know some students really want to push teachers’ limits by saying “bad” things in class. But it’s a really innocent question when it’s coming from little kids, they just don’t know what they’re saying or why adults don’t want kids to say it. So I won’t shy away or squander any teachable moment. When my student further asked, “Teacher, zěnme jiǎng S-H-I-T!?” I answered calmly with, “Jack, kids don’t say that in English. Only adults…when they’re really really angry or scared. It’s better if you say ‘poop.” P-O-O-P. which means dàbiàn.” Everyone loved the sound of the word “poop” more than “shit” and they also thought “poop” was easier to spell. So today, my third graders added another word to their everyday vocabulary: “poop.” And I didn’t have to discipline anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings to explain that “shit” is a bad word.

However, there are moments when kids may get moody and their inquisitive questions aren’t innocent more. It’s genuinely disrespectful. My sixth graders fit this profile (oh, puberty), particularly one student: Jimmy. Jimmy is an underachiever in all classes, and I think it’s something that has compounded over the years by a sense of pride. When he was younger, his parents weren’t there for him so his grandfather takes care of him 99% of the time. His grandfather is very old, though, and is busy so there isn’t anyone to check his homework or to ask him how he’s doing in school. As things got more difficult, he had less motivation to try at school. Because classes are more challenging and he doesn’t do his homework, teachers think he’s not smart, so he tries less in class. And when he tries less and does worse, it reinforces the stereotype for teachers that he’s dumb.

So to show that he’s not “dumb” and doesn’t need school, Jimmy has taken to becoming a class clown among his friends. Teasing and insulting teachers is his specialty. He’ll insult you just enough so that you can’t really punish him, but you still look like a fool in class. With Jimmy though, I don’t like punishing him because all it does is take him out of class and he misses even more material. Sometimes, though, you have no choice. For example, a couple weeks ago my students filed into the classroom, my co-teacher, Justin, had not yet arrived, and Jimmy showed up just as the bell rang. With a big smile on his face, looking right at me, and for reasons I still don’t understand Jimmy said “fuck fuck fuck fuck” and laughed. He thought he said it just out of earshot, but being the native speaker I am, I could hear and see exactly what he was saying.

Me: Jimmy, why did you say that? You know what it means.
Jimmy: *stare*
Me: Jimmy, why did you say that in class?
Jimmy: *stare* Because class is boring.
Me: You just got here, why is it boring?
Jimmy: *staring and smiling then muttering something*
Me: Jimmy? If you don’t want to be here, go.
Jimmy: *stare* shénme? *shakes head and smiles* No.
Me: Jimmy, you have to leave. Go see Alan or Justin, but you can’t stay here.
Jimmy: No.
–15 long seconds of silence–
Me: Nǐ kàn, wǒ bù xiào! Zǒu kāi. (Look, I’m not smiling. Go away aka “leave the class”).
Jimmy: *slowly leaves the room, slamming his books on the floor*

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I felt really guilty afterwards about my tone and how I kicked him out of class, but sometimes when a student is being brazenly rude you have to nip it in the bud. Jimmy later came back after visiting Alan and apologized to me in the front of the class, and afterwards I helped him catch up with the work he missed. I tried to make the best out of a bad situation. If this kid ever needs my help, I’m here for him, but if he wants to actually insult me then I will get mad, but I’m still here for him–ever so grudgingly. Still, Jimmy is only 11. He’s not that young, but he’s by no means old enough to understand real consequences yet. I hope other teachers could understand that, too. Teaching wrenches every last ounce of your patience out of you because you’re meant to serve small, clueless versions of adult people who still have no idea how the world works yet and you are not allowed to give up. As adults, we have all these social rules and norms that we’ve built and accepted, and here come these tiny lightning bolts of emotion and energy to throw our entire system out of whack.

So next time a student asks you “teacher what does #%@! mean?” Stay calm and tell them a truth, or as much as you can. “It’s a mean word for ‘butt’,” or “It’s not something nice people say.” If possible, even give them an alternative. In Taiwan, talking about “poop” is not taboo, so teaching kids the word “poop” gives them away to talk about a normal subject in a different language. Sure it sounds weird to us English speakers, but whatever! Learning!

The Interim

I wanted to write a real post this week, but four days of food poisoning or some kind of infection kept me home and feeling miserable. I’ll just let you know a bit about my current situation before I post fully at a later time. While I was at home, I was mostly keeping up with the news (i.e. Chile volcano, Nepal earthquake, Baltimore) and, whilst trying to stay somewhat positive in a really sad time for humanity, doing some serious research on graduate school programs.

After missing my first half of the week at Shanlin Elementary, I started the second half of the week today at Ximen Elementary. I’m still not feeling physically at 100%, but I’ll get there soon enough. Classes went well, I’ve got some new ideas for activities that I want to try out this Thursday and Friday. The school year is winding down, so I really want to end English class on a high note rather than maintain the doldrums of a reading and writing-focused class.

Today at school, though, I got some news. I can’t talk about it, but it was heavy. It just made me feel so small and pointless. I felt culturally and professionally unprepared to handle this information and I really don’t know what I can do to make things better. The only thing real I know or understand right now is how I felt after hearing this information. It was the first time in Taiwan where I really felt like hitting someone out of anger. What I would give for a gym with a heavy bag right now. Since my body isn’t up for a run or a hike of any kind, in order to blow off steam I decided to just mindlessly scooter for an hour.

Once I got back to town, I just drove straight toward the mountain range at the edge of Meinong until the road began to wind and narrow into the foothills and eventually became a dirt path. Out in the woods near a dried up riverbed (Kaohsiung is still experiencing drought), I sat on my scooter drinking iced tea and watching the coconut trees shaking in the wind. Unlike in the valley of Meinong, the mountains are shrouded by heavy, grey rain-shadow clouds. When you drive from the hot, sunny valley into the cool, dark-green mountains in the afternoon, it really feels like you crossed between seasons. I sat there and let the butterflies drunkenly flutter in my face and the mosquitoes greedily bite my calves as I sipped, stared, and pondered “what’s next?”

I thought about how Taiwan and the U.S. share a a culture of “projecting success.” We all try so damn hard to look as impressive as possible to our friends, family, colleagues, and potential connections. But as we’re building ourselves up, it’s not so often that we can watch directly in front of us someone else who is being torn down or prevented from participating in this culture we’ve created. In fact, those that obviously fail to impress or conform to social standards become the rest of our motivations to try harder to appear successful. We use society’s rejects as motivational posters for our subconscious minds and we allow these “rejects” to become dehumanized in our quest to “be better.” But because of where I work and live, I can watch society’s future rejects and idols being made before my eyes. I’m watching children being forced into the roles adults expect them to play for the rest of their lives, and I find myself hoping that the kids won’t obey. After thinking these many thoughts through, I was eventually tired enough to want to go home.

It’s been eight months of co-teaching and I thought by now I would be settled into my schools and there wouldn’t be any setbacks I couldn’t handle. With just two months left in the school year I hoped for a smooth ride into June. Nope. That’s the thing about being out in a forgotten part of Kaohsiung County where farm animals out-number humans: nothing goes as expected because if it did, would it make a difference?

I hope I can stop being so vague with ya’ll soon, but it all depends on how school goes tomorrow. As soon as I get an update on what has happened since this afternoon, I’ll be able to update back here.

Returning with Winter

One week after my scooter accident and surgery, I returned back to Shanlin Elementary School to co-teach. Many friends and colleagues remarked at how quick I returned to work. “I can’t believe you’re already back? Shouldn’t you rest more?”

Maybe I should, but to be honest I didn’t want to. On the one hand, I feel fine. My bones and muscles are still strong and I even do some upper body exercise in my spare time to keep myself from becoming a couch potato. On the other hand, it’s crazy boring to be injured. My first two days home from the hospital were the worst because they coincided with a dramatic change in weather. Until now, Kaohsiung has maintained sunny 80-something sunny days dipping to low-70 nights–partly thanks to the worst drought in nearly a decade. But on that Thursday the weather dropped more than 20 degrees and it rained on-and-off all day. So there I was at home alone and cold, nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no way to get to nowhere anyway (my scooter was totaled in the crash). The consequences of all my time spent at home were over 100 pages read in River Town by Peter Hessler and the creation of three apple pies.

Though walking was (is) still a struggle because I can’t bend my knee, the first Saturday out of the hospital I spent most of my day out of the house. I spent pretty much the whole day at Cishan and on Sunday, a fellow ETA and my roommate in Kaohsiung City came to visit and we spent the day walking, scootering and picking tomatoes. It’s harvest season for turnips and tomatoes in Meinong, and the weather is like September in New Jersey, so I just couldn’t resist going out. By last Monday, I was ready for a return to normalcy.

Needless to say that in a school of only 53 students, important information gets around and news of my crash and surgery were well-known by everyone. The first students that spotted me in school were my first graders. From across the school’s front yard they spied me as I limped across the parking lot from the car that I had been driven in. I made my way down the hallway toward where they were gathered, playing games and laughing, but when I approached them, they all fell silent and, with chins tucked in, resting on their chests. Their big, curious eyes followed me as I walked until I stood before them. They were waiting until one of them was brave enough to speak. Rachel, one of the first graders that often runs with me after school, spoke first, “Teacher, were you in a car accident?”

“Yes, I was,” I told her.

“Were you on your scooter.”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Where did you get hurt?”

“On my knee,” and I pointed at the injury that was under my exercise pants (the only pants I own that fit loosely around my bandaged leg). I saw some second graders gather behind the first graders and step on tip-toes as they tried to see over their friends’ heads.

Laoshi,” Jason, a bubbly second grader, interjected, “does it hurt?”

“A little, but it’s okay now. I’m better.” The students’ eyes were flitting back and forth between me and my leg. It was like they didn’t believe me, like they thought their yingwen laoshi actually died and came back to life as a zombie. At least that would reinforce the legend I have built up around myself earlier. Eventually, their grave silence and childish curiosity were too serious for such an early, beautiful morning. I decided to limp away to my classroom instead. “See you later,” I told them in English, and they returned to their games and playtime, but some still eyed me from around the corner, as if to make sure I wouldn’t turn back around and bite them.

The 8:00 A.M. melody played over the intercom to signal the start of morning announcements. Everyone gathered in the courtyard. I showed up as most of the students were assembled, to the surprise of my co-teacher, Sam. “I’m sure it will be okay if you just sit down during the session. No one will say anything.”

“No, really,” I responded, “it’s fine. I feel okay. I’ll sit after we’ve done the weekly English phrase.” Sam was hesitant to accept my decision, but she agreed in the end. To lighten the mood I added, “besides, it looks like the kids need to make sure I’m alive. They are all looking at me very seriously.” It was true, as I made my way to the front of the courtyard with the rest of the teachers to greet the kids, I was seeing more eyes than usual intent on my presence.

Returning to Ximen Elementary School wasn’t nearly as dramatic, and I was feeling exponentially better every day. As plopped into my desk chair in the school’s office I stared at my computer monitor struggling to think of what to prepare for class. The entire week I had been waking up at 6:30 A.M. in order to carpool with colleagues to work 7:00. I asked Justin to debrief me on what he covered in last week’s lesson plans. When he finished speaking, he turned to swivel his chair and face his computer, but stopped and turned back toward me.

“By the way,” he said, “we have to watch out for Daryl,” (Name changed because the issue is sensitive). “What? Why?” I responded.

“Well,” he said slowly, “he’s been getting bullied a lot last week and this week. He might have tried to…” and he trailed off as he mentioned that Daryl was seen precariously close to the edge of a balcony on the second floor. “Don’t worry,”Justin rushed to say seeing my jaw drop, “All the teachers are handling it and keeping an eye on him.” I was in shock and from that point decided, English was second to keeping my students happy. I had a moment’s epiphany as I decided to search online for different summer camp and team-building games.

Incorporating these activities into classes that already don’t get along with each other was a struggle. Kids bullied each other, refusing to listen when another was talking, laughing at the teacher’s instructions and trying as hard as they can to rebel any sense of getting along. In my sixth grade class, one of the more divisive classes, I decided to try “Two Truths and a Lie” in Chinese. I thought if I got kids to talk about themselves, they wouldn’t have to worry about being partnered with someone they didn’t like. Also, it would be a chance for others to get to know him/her better in a formal, safe setting. The first two rounds were reassuringly successful, but the game unraveled from there.

One kid wrote a single word down: “爸” or “dad.” After I confusedly asked him to explain what he meant by “爸” he just stuttered, giggled awkwardly, and looked down. I looked at Justin who looked just as confused as I did, and pressed the student further. It slowly became apparent that this sixth grader has the Chinese reading and writing level of a third grader. He was felt that he couldn’t participate at all since he was not able to write down his two truths and a lie. Another student laughed at him as he tried to duck away behind his sheet of paper, feigning cool apathy. The next student, Yale, struggled to read aloud his two truths and a lie, choking on giggles. Apparently, he wrote two obvious truths (“I have a grandpa” and “I have hair”) and one obvious lie (“I am dead”), and was so impressed by his own comedic genius that tears were running down the sides of his face. Emboldened by Yale’s silliness, his twin brother, Harrison, proceeded to read out FIVE obvious lies including “I don’t have a brain” and “I’m 30 years-old.” Then the class devolved into an anarchy as kids got so excited with laughing, they got out of their seats and began running around the room and sliding across the floor. After Justin and I wrangled them back to their seats, we quickly proceeded to the original lesson plan: “How Can We Get There?” And reviewed the vocabulary words about transportation.

In another class where I knew gossip and cliques thrived, I thought I would play “Telephone” the whisper game that shows how gossip may start with a true fact,  but could turn into a lie after many people have retold the story. I completely missed the mark on that one as well. Where English spoken language leaves room for misinterpretation when volume is obscured, tonal languages like Chinese mean that the information will likely be received more accurately as long as the tones are communicated accurately enough. In other words, when I played this game in middle school, by the time a sentence reached the end of a chain of people, it was totally transformed. But for my fifth grade students, the sentence went from the first to the last person in class totally intact. I tried to rebound from the failed diversion to explain that “gossiping is bad,” but instead I think I just sucked the fun out of the class. We went back to learning about days of the week, and forgot about the earlier part of the class.

One of the toughest personal challenges I have confronted as a new teacher is finding a balance between, “involved and concerned teacher” and “ineffective and over-involved teacher.” Whenever an issue arises in class or among my students, should that issue be a problem, I have this reflex to want to find a way and solve it. Thus, when I witnessed poor discipline and bullying in my classrooms, I wanted to apply all the leadership workshops, guidance counselor workshops, summer camp activities, and college icebreaker games that I could to remedy the situation. I would say that about 10% I made some headway, but most of the time I find that my strategies and plans come up short. I’ve only been a teacher for five months now, but there are already many mistakes I have made (and learned from) that I wish I could go back and fix.

Am I doing a disservice to students by taking so much time away from subject matter to focus on behavior and cooperation? Especially, if these tangents may fail to miss the point? Would I be better off sticking with what I know (English) and ignoring the fundamental flaws and in students’ actions for the sake of learning more subject material? Is my job to teach the material or the student? Even after I’ve posted this and thought about it a while longer, I still don’t think I will be able to answer my own questions.

Teaching Thanksgiving to the Taiwanese

How do you share a holiday that has a messed up origin story, but has many positive connotations today? That was the question I had to argue in my mind for the two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. On the one hand, there were fun activities we could do in class related to Thanksgiving. On the other hand, there were a lot of complicated issues with the holiday that I just couldn’t get into with an elementary school class.

In the end, I made my Thanksgiving lesson about three things only: Eating a huge dinner with your family, being grateful for the good things in life, and turkey. Overall, my lessons went over great. Kids were actively engaged and they found turkeys fascinating and hilarious. This one turkey video I played, posted here and a mere 19 seconds long, is totally worth checking out.

The lesson was also a way for students to get to know an American holiday that they know nothing about, but not totally unrelateable. The Lunar New Year has many of the superficial characteristics of Thanksgiving: family reunions, eating a lot of food, watching TV afterward. I was happy that my students had the opportunity to see that different cultures may have their own quirks, but aren’t totally incomprehensible. There are things Americans and Taiwanese can share in common.

Some activities we had: pin-the-gobbler-on-the-turkey, throw-the-sticky-ball-at-the-turkey’s-gobbler (while blindfolded), write and draw what you’re thankful for, hand-turkey drawings, and eating pumpkin pie (we managed to get 40 slices out of one pie!). By far the two big hits were the sticky ball game and pie eating. Unfortunately, as usual, I didn’t take many pictures, so for your enjoyment please see my adorable first graders below:

Thanksgiving Grade1 SL - 2

Getting started on making those hand turkeys.

Thanksgiving Grade1 SL - 3

Just being a six year-old.

Thanksgiving Grade1 SL - 4

Yes, I have favorites. Yes, she is my favorite.

Thanksgiving Grade1 SL - 5

Coloring while the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special plays in the background.

Surviving the Fourth Grade

I don’t know what it is, but maybe the fourth grade is the sweet spot of human development where kids are carefree, fun, and trusting of adults, but not rude and hormonal like teenagers. I’ve spoken about my fourth grade classes at both of my schools before, and I know it’s usually nothing but horror stories, but this time it’s different.

As November wears on, I’m noticing a change in both classes. My co-teachers and I tried a variety of classroom management tactics (assigning jobs and roles, diversified class assignments, etc.) to get our kids to behave well. Rather than turn our kids into silent, docile creatures (like we hoped), we have given our students so many things to focus on about class that their brains have fewer distractions. What is left behind after the distractions are gone are students’ natural willingness to learn.

And dang, these kids are smart! On Wednesday, we breezed through the 40 minute lesson and ended on time. Everyone knew all the answers, kids were answering quickly, they were excited to ask questions. Even the girl in the back of the room who never speaks was silently doing the specialized classwork I had assigned her, AND SHE WAS GETTING THE ANSWERS RIGHT. :O

I’ve spent the last four months ready to give up on these two fourth grade classes at the end of every week. I’m glad I didn’t because it is amazing how much they have learned/been learning this whole time. When class wrapped up on Wednesday, I was left with a strange feeling. Pride? Joy? Hope? Accomplishment? None of the above. For the first time in months I felt the absence of stress. I don’t even know what to think other than I’m going to run with this for as long as I can.

Some photos of my fourth graders at Ximen Elementary School being adorable:

Teamwork

Using the power of teamwork to help the shortest kid in class score a point.

Swoosh

Swoosh

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Taking Time in Taiwan

Living in Taiwan as an American sometimes has its challenges, mostly culturally. I’ve had to learn what is “normal” for me usually doesn’t apply to my host country. Some examples: the concept of personal space, the driving culture, the idea of chasing after a garbage truck every day rather than leaving your garbage on the side of the street twice a week, nap time, and the complete absence of “Happy Hour.”

But one thing I cannot get used to is the Taiwanese concept of time. I don’t get it.

As some background, I have Chinese family members and I have lived in Mainland China, so from these direct experiences I can say that time and promptness is important in Chinese culture. In China, you invite someone to a party at 8:00 P.M. and they arrive no later than 8:01. In the U.S. you host a party for 9:00 P.M. and you know that the guests will start arriving at 9:30 or 10:00. While Taiwan holds the same standard of promptness for public transportation, the concept of time in the education system feels almost totally non-existent.

Most of the classrooms in my school either have no clock, or a clock that isn’t working and/or shows the wrong time. Students are almost never on time for class, and when they are late, there are no punishments or scolding, it’s just accepted. Sometimes the perpetrators of students’ tardiness are other teachers who forget to dismiss their students or choose not to. In one of my schools, my sixth grade students are regularly 20-30 minutes late from their previous class and it’s considered totally normal. In another instance, my third graders are late 10-15 minutes because they are “drinking milkshakes,” a nutritional protein shake donated to our school that all students must drink in the morning.

I’ve tried to drill into the heads of my students that being prompt is important, but it has had no effect. I’ve spoken with teachers about how lateness affects the quality of their English lessons, but no results. Yet, I know, that if I make an appointment with the same teachers to meet for dinner tomorrow at 6:00 P.M., not a single person will show up later than 6:05. I just can’t understand where the disconnect lies, but it’s extremely frustrating especially because in the United States our concept of time is totally different. If you have a class at 10:10 A.M. and the teacher/professor says, “show up on time or don’t show up at all,” you will show up on time or else serve whatever punishment they set out for you. In my experience, being attentive of time means that you’re more likely to value time and what you do with it. It makes a person more efficient and even logical, and the idea of not teaching promptness v. tardiness to children is just as bad as if we never taught them how to use a computer.

I have nothing else to say. This time there is no logical philosophical or cultural conclusion. I just like complaining.