cultural exchange

Athens and Filopappou Hill

Settling In

Adjusting to our arrival in Athens was a bit difficult for several reasons. On the one hand, this was the first time my sister Daisy and I were in Greece as adults and had full control over where we went and what we wanted to do. No longer were we beholden to every relative or family friend with an opinion if we wanted to leave the house. Instead, with my great aunt  and grandmother so old, it felt like we should be taking care of them.

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Endless food and drink means a nap is completely unavoidable.

Of course, though, Ioulia would not hear of it. “If we could make it all this time without you all here, we can make it one more week. Don’t worry about us, sweetie,” she said as she snatched the dirty plates from my hands as I made my way to the sink to wash them (she has arthritis in her hands and knees and yet insists on cooking and cleaning for us). “And leave please leave the dishes in the sink, μανάρι μου.” Her choice of words, first guilt-inducing and then endearing reminded me how unfortunate it was that in 25 years, I have spent maybe a total of 12 months in Greece with my relatives. There are so many things we missed from each others’ lives, and seeing the “grannies” (as we often referred to our grandmother and never-ending supply of great aunts) all well into their late 70’s and 80’s really hit that home.

The other element is that we both brought our partners with us to Greece, and Daisy and I–well, mostly me because I am a ball of stress–struggled to simultaneously manage our expectations as well as theirs. Despite any crazy family drama that was likely to come about, we wanted to make sure that everyone was having a good vacation.

The most striking part about breaking back into Greece and Greek culture were Greek people themselves. I mentioned it in my last post, but this was Daisy’s first visit back in a decade and the first visit back for me after seven years. To compound the experience, Daisy spent the last three years living in upstate New York filled with some of the nicest, milquetoast people on the eastern seaboard, and I had spent the last year living in Taiwan where people are generally quick with a smile and helpful in general. I love Greece, but Greek people can be mean. They are mean even when they are actually being nice, it’s just their default setting. It is as if passive aggression is the standard setting and many people hold a defensive paranoia of being accused of some form of bad manners. In a way, dealing with (especially) blue-collar Greek people is like dealing with the old fashion New Yorker. But Daisy and I adjusted well-enough by Day 3 or 4. We are half Greek after all and from New Jersey.

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Germany gets it.

 

The Americans Visit “Grandpa Hill”

**I am going to skip our actual first trip which was to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum. Both are wonderful destinations that anyone visiting Greece must see, but after five or six visits to the old pile of stones it’s just not interesting to me anymore.**

The hill is not actually called “Grandpa Hill,” but it’s the English translation I gave it because Φιλοπάππου (Filopappou) sounds similar to the words φίλος (filos, friend) and παππούς (pappous, grandpa). So it’s full English name should actually be “Friendy Grandpa Hill.” We chose to go for a hike this very hot and dry afternoon because it is one of the three “mountains” that you can see from the Acropolis, and a place Daisy and I had never been. It’s one of those nagging things when you go somewhere more than once you start to think, “well maybe one day I’ll go to that other place, just to see it.” Kind of like how one day I’ll go to the Empire State building in NYC, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in DC, or an Outback Steakhouse. You know, just to see what it’s like. The cool thing about Filopappou Hill, though, is that it is one of the last major landmarks between the port city of Piraeus and ancient Athens. Piraeus is still a port town, but Athens is no longer just the Acropolis and is now a vast swath of urban sprawl which includes Piraeus.

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A map of ancient Piraeus (left) and Athens (right) and the walls that lined the treacherous, long route between the two.

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Nowadays we just use the subway (grey line) and it takes like ten minutes to reach Ancient Athens (red pin)

What we didn’t expect was to encounter a totally deserted downtown Athens–that can only be described as one-part urban decay two-parts intense sunshine. Without any data plan in Greece, I pulled up a screenshot I had taken of Google Maps that morning. It’s just as good as actual Google Maps provided you are prepared not to have a zoom feature, can read in Greek, and are fully prepared to encounter roads that no longer exist.

The featured picture up top is actually the back entrance to Filopappou Hill. Other than graffiti, strewn across the ground was an assortment of garbage from every aisle in the grocery store (from condom wrapper to styrofoam). There were also a few (seemingly) abandoned structures with broken shutters, cracks in the plaster, and covered in graffiti and shaded by the errant palm tree. It was like a post-apocalyptic Miami.

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Jevon, chill as ever, rolls a cigarette to beat the heat.

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Not Sparta; Athens.

So here we are, a gaggle of American kids roaming around what is now turning into a combination of desert and a sparse evergreen forest. The sun was so hot and the air so dry that the surface of my skin felt like it was getting crispy, but I didn’t notice thirst or fatigue. It wasn’t until I stepped into the shade of a gnarled evergreen by a graffitied ancient milestone that I could feel the toll the sun and landscape was having on me. There was still more hill to climb, though. At the top of one south-facing bluff, thirsty and climbing to a high point to catch the breeze, my eyes were hit by an infinite blueness that dropped off the point of white-walled Piraeus town. The town opened into the port, which seemed so small from this distance, and the port splayed open to the Mediterranean Sea. The air was so bright and clear that the horizon was a perfect match between the blues of the sky and sea. It’s the blue of the Greek flag, the same shade that you paint tourist hotels’ shutters and roofs. It was a blueness that felt empty and full at the same time. And as I panned from the sea to the direction of the Acropolis, I was stunned at how easy it was to still pick out the shadow of the ancient road, more than 1,900 years ago. It was almost a straight shoot from port to capital, and it must have been a dangerous one. Cliffs, rocky earth, and farmlands meant that not only were we standing above an ancient road, but probably a graveyard, too.

As I dazed I could here the restless footsteps of my friends and sister. “It’s so HOT,” Daisy remarked brusquely from under a giant, black sunhat clad in a matching black romper. Hours of trying to shape and pull the hat’s brim around her face to block the changing angles of the sun had now cast a wavy Funyun-like shadow over her ruddy, rotund cheeks and face. Jevon lit a cigarette nearby. “First off,” I responded, “Jevon, don’t cause a wildfire, please. That shit is real. Secondly, let’s just skip the path winding up the hill and take a shortcut through those trees on this side.”

“Uh…Okay,” Daisy said as we started walking toward the evergreens. “Yeah, just watch out for snakes, okay?” I added as an after thought.

“What the? Are you SERIOUS? Fay, I’m not going in there if there are snakes,” Jevon only sounded half-scared, so I followed up with “I’m sure we will be okay,” and I started hiking ahead of the group. I spent six summers in Greece, but never actually saw a snake before, only tortoises, but for some reason hearing a warning about snakes was common in all my summer memories wandering into the “wilderness.” It was practically a reflex that I just warn everyone about snakes whether or not they existed.

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The sun takes a toll on Warren’s rational decision-making, but enhances his physical abilities.

Almost twenty minutes and two forks in the road later, we make it to the grand and glorious monument at the top of Filopappou Hill.

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Wait, is that it?

Needless to say, it’s pretty disappointing at the top. This was once a monument built to some important ancient-ish mayor or general as part of his funeral services. It was made out of the marble scraps of crumbling, unkempt temples and buildings built hundreds of years earlier. Then, it turned into a pile of unkempt marble scraps. If you look to the back of the monument, you can see how some people tried to “rebuild” and “restore” the original memorial by taking the scraps-of-scraps from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. You can tell by the handwriting and dates.

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Greeks have a long, weird relationship with graffiti. Also, you can see how Greeks gave up on recycling ancient marble and switched restoration practices to plaster and mortar.

We Meet Brimmy

Filopappou Hill was a major disappointment, but at least the view of the Acropolis was fantastic. Among the few tourists who also made the mistake of making a trek to Filopappou Hill, were a few couples, our group, and a lone teenager wearing an American flag tank top and thick-framed, black Rayban sunglasses. This was Brimmy. Actually, his name is Justin (I think), but ever since I added him on Snapchat, I’ve been referring to him by his handle.

Brimmy is a lanky, blond California kid no more than 18 years-old. When we asked him what he was doing in Greece alone he said, “I’m taking a gap year. Who needs college?” Brimmy is a genius. Almost in unison, Daisy, Warren, Jevon and I said “That’s SUCH a good idea.” Brimmy smiled because he felt validated. Greece was just one of his longer European stopovers, and it was for a much more noble reason than I could have imagined. Even though he looked like he belonged at a frat party, he was volunteering in Athens with a charity focused on the refugee crisis. He spent most of his days at a church teaching and playing with with little kids from all over the world. After a brief conversation with Brimmy, and after taking all the pictures we needed, we said our good-byes and headed down the hill back toward the Acropolis and eventually Monostiraki, leaving Brimmy at the top of the hill just where we found him.

A random snake charmer and one really cool tortoise later, we were back at the Acropolis park, walking along the cobbled bath that encircles the paid, gated part of the park featuring the ruins. We rounded a corner that presented us with a fork in the road: we could hike the Hill of the Nymphs, head toward the tourist traps, or take a side road into another part of downtown. But right in the middle of the fork, there was Brimmy awkwardly holding a pack of yellow American Spirits as if he was thinking about how to smoke them. We called out to him and he turned his head toward us almost instantly, surprised. He waved back and walked up to us. “You’re here, too, huh?” It was the start of a conversation everyone knew was going nowhere with no one in our group interested in extending the conversation. That awkward commentary of describing what is literally happening at the same time. Then Daisy lifted up a hand half-heartedly and saved, “well, bye!” and made the executive decision for the group to walk up the Hill of the Nymphs and leave Brimmy at the bottom of the bath. Brimmy’s face fell noticeably, even from behind the sunglasses and he made for the main path that circled the Arcopolis.

Seeing eager, young Brimmy full of hope, spontaneity, and the desire to make new friends reminded me of 2008-era Fay. It’s cheesy, I know, but after high school graduation, I left for the entire summer to finally escape the confines of parents and suburbia and I was ready to take the world by the horns. With a dejected Brimmy walking away from us, I could see just how dorky, young, and unsubtly needy I was back then. I turned to walk up the hill, but paused and said loud enough only for the group to hear, “I’m going to invite him to hang out with us.”

“What, why?” Daisy said, clearly not interested in an awkward tag-a-long.

“Because why not? He’s by himself. Where’s your spirit of American companionship?” I turned back down the slope and called his name in a half-yell, he was already on the other side of the cobbled path, and waved him over. When he saw that we were waiting for him to catch up, he broke out into a wide smile. It was like watching a puppy perk his ears up and gambol over toward his best friend.

We spent the rest of the evening hiking, talking at random, stopping for ice cream, and just enjoying the tourist experience. Brimmy said to go back to work later that evening, but European summer sunsets are languid and long, so it was hard to tell exactly what time “evening” started. Tired and sunburnt, we sat down at a restaurant at the border of the Acropolis and Monostiraki districts which specialized in μεζές (mezes are like tapas) and cheap beer. As the sun finally began to approach the horizon, Brimmy set his freshly opened beer down to check the time. It was almost 9:00 P.M. “Crap! I have to go home like now.” He chugged his beer, impressive for a kid who only graduated high school a month ago, and left us a 2 euro coin and his cigarettes as a “gift from home,” and took off.

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It’s possible Brimmy enjoyed the tourist experience too much

We Head Home

Realizing the time, I told the group to only eat a little bit because it was a guarantee that dinner was waiting for us at home and we had to some how muster the energy to get back, eat again, drink, chat with the relatives and neighbors, sleep, and wake up early enough to have a day of activities.

Already a few days into the week, we approached the subway station and only made a show of purchasing tickets for the metro. Having heard rumors that all metro transportation was free due to the economic crisis (and witnessing scores of young people not pay), we decided to be on the safe side as tourists that hitting random buttons on the machine for 30 seconds was as good as buying a ticket.

We dragged our bodies through the clean, marbled hall ways of the underground, boarded our train, and returned to our Athens HQ. At home, giagia and Ioulia had left the light on for us outside and were in the process of going to bed (by this time it was about 10:00 P.M.). When they heard us on the veranda Ioulia came rushing out to us. “Τι κάνεις, παιδιά; Είναι τόσο αργά! Πεινάς?” Just as I had expected, Ioulia had made us dinner.

“Daisy,” I called out to her as she and Warren were headed upstairs to shower, “we have to eat first.”

“Noooooooo….I’m so sleepy.”

“We have to, they have arthritis and they still cooked for us!” I knew in my heart that there would be no excuse that would satisfy my aunt. Besides, she was already inside fetching the tablecloth for us.

Καλώς ήρθατε! Welcome!

“Welcome to Aθens” shone bright over the the Athens International Airport facing the planes landing on the runway. This was the first sign of change for me: English. A lot more English than before. Finding English signs and translations in Greece (especially around tourist zones and during the summer) is not difficult, but there was just so much more of it this time around. To all my friends interested in traveling to Greece, put the phrasebook down. Everyone is bilingual in English.

At the airport, I met my sister, Daisy, and her boyfriend, Warren, and after some awful (yet typical) southern-Mediterranean-style missing baggage customer service (where the customer is never right and always lied to), we made our way to the metro that would take us directly to γιαγιά‘s (grandma’s) house.

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On the train platform to travel into central Athens. Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/6bEvex

Despite total exhaustion, I forced myself to keep my eyes open and take in the scenery zipping by on the train. The sandy beiges and forest greens basking in the sunlight of the desert-like landscape completely contrasted against my last train ride from Kaohsiung to Taipei, filled with lush dark greens and heavy, metallic rain clouds. Then, the train dipped underground and it was only a few more stops until we reached our station, Εθνική άμυνα-National Defense.

My grandmother’s house is a short walk away from the station, but a short walk with luggage and in the blazing Greek afternoon sun with two other people in tow can be unnerving. I kept looking around to make sure that I was following the same route I remembered from 2008 (before the economic crash). And though everything looked familiar, so much was different. For one thing, the train station was so empty and the streets above, a central bus hub, were devoid of the crowds and migrant street vendors I remembered. As we turned the corner, following the brown-brick walls of the National Defense perimeter, I noticed that though all the buildings were the same, the businesses were not. In fact, many businesses were simply missing, leaving only ghostly storefront windows staring emptily at passersby. Luckily, the gas station that marked the next turn was still there and I knew immediately that I wasn’t leading the group astray.

We made it to the last turn, down a short alley to my grandmother’s apartment building, a four-storey white apartment building with Samos grape vines twisting up the building from my grandmother’s veranda on the ground floor and spreading across the side of the building and snaking across balconies like a monstrous hand trying to collapse the ediface. The grapes as well as the, now towering, lemon trees along the side of the house are the last living remnants of my grandfather. Decades ago, his family farmed grapes for wine (can my family be more cliché?) on the island of Samos, so when he married and moved into this building, he made sure to keep a piece of Samos with him.

The first peculiar thing I noticed was that the door was locked, which was unusual from what I remember of my grandmother; her door always open in the daytime to welcome neighbors and friends should they pass by. She was expecting us to arrive as well, so the door should have been open, but remembering a recent conversation with my mother about my grandmother’s advancing age and mental health made me realized that the door was locked because she probably taking a nap.

We waited quietly on the small veranda. I pressed the doorbell and heard the familiar, electric buzz. It should have been loud enough for anyone within earshot to stir from their siesta. After a minute there was still no sound from within. Bzzzzzt! As I pressed the doorbell again for half-a-second longer. “Γιαγιά, ήρθαμε!” My Greek, limited and clumsily returning, all I could remember was “We’ve come, grandma.” Finally, from inside, I could hear feet shuffling across the floor and approaching the door, moving rather quickly for her age. The door swung open with a mild groan and standing on the other side, eyes bright and at my chin-level, was my great-aunt Ioulia (Julia in English, but as I call her θεία Ιουλία).

“Ah-hoo! Φωτεινή, τα παιδιά ήρθαν!” She was smiling and yelling, full-blast Greek old-lady-style, toward the back of the apartment at my grandmother’s room, “Fotini, the kids are here!” And as she hugged me tight and kissed me three times, alternating cheeks, she let out a deafening yell into my ear “Καλώς ορίσατε τα παιδιά!” “Welcome, kids!” Ioulia is energetic and spry in spite of arthritis and her 82 years. She looked over my shoulder toward Daisy, but before I could reacquaint them, I could hear the slow shuffle of my grandmother approaching from her room.

**Note, all conversations are in Greek, and I will simplify some dialogues by writing exclusively in English.**

I was stunned when I saw my grandmother. In all my memories, she was small, elderly and cute, with salt-and-pepper, closely cropped hair that she probably dyed on and off. Standing before me, though, was a somehow even smaller, frailer γιαγιά with ashy-grey hair. She was at least 83 years-old, though no one is quite certain because in her time birth records were important, but not exact dates. Her smile was the same, though, and her eyes glistened when she saw us. I went through another bout of hugs and smooches, with my grandmother holding me tight “το Φωτεινακι μου!” “My little Fotini!” She pulled away to look at Daisy and Warren who were standing behind me, waiting for their turns to say hello.

Ποιά είναι αυτή;” she asked looking at Daisy. “γιαγιά,” I answered, “this is Daisy, remember?” and Daisy smiled and went in for her round of hugs and kisses. “Η Daisy; Po-pohh!!! κούκλα είναι!” Kούκλα means “doll” in Greek, and is one of the most endearing words grandmothers and other family members use to describe their younger female relatives.

Είναι και οι δύο κούκλες,” “They’re both dolls!” Shouted Ioulia. “Daisy has grown so much! I remember when she was so small,” and Ioulia held her hand out flat at hip-level. For Daisy, it had been almost ten years and five different shades of hair color since she had last visited Athens at 11 years-old. “Και ποιος είναι αυτός;” “And whose he?” My grandmother asked, almost in a retort, at Warren. Standing taller than all of us with long brown hair with a full beard to match, Warren stood out among us with his sharp Northern-European features and septum piercing. “Grandma, this is Daisy’s boyfriend, Warren,” I answered enthusiastically.

Γειά σου!” Warren said with a big smile. I couldn’t wait for her reaction. “Whose boyfriend?” Γιαγιά looked at me quizzically and mildly surprised, “Yours?”

“No, no, Daisy’s boyfriend, Warren.” I emphasized.

“Waarr-ey?” My grandmother stumbled over his name, “Warrrr-ey?” She tried again.

“Warren.”

“Warrrr-eyy-n?” Our sweet grannies both croaked over his name and failed again and again to pronounce it. We all laughed, and I looked at Daisy and Warren, “I guess there’s no ‘W-A-R’ sounds in Greek.” Ioulia tried one more time and I conceded. “Yes, you got it.” But she didn’t. Still, Warren, got his round of hugs and kisses, too. The first phase of our welcome was complete. Now, onto phase two, THE FEEDING. Which would continue over the course of the next week and the total three weeks we would spend in Athens. If you have ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, then you know Greek families love their children and grandchildren through food. This is why without fail, kids visiting Greek grandparents for the summer return to school in September as roly-poly as ever.

Τι θα φάτε;” “What are you going to eat?” Γιαγιά asked us as we all followed her into the kitchen. Again the excitement of explaining something foreign, like Warren’s presence, tickled me with anticipation. “Γιαγιά, Daisy and Warren are vegetarians.”

Actually, Daisy and Warren are vegan, but I had no idea if there was a Greek word for vegan.

“What?” She asked/shouted in the tiny kitchen that from my childhood always seemed so big. Ioulia interjected loudly, “Your mother already told us. No meat!”

“對–I mean–Yes, and no cheese, milk, fish, or eggs.” Habitually answering in Chinese, correcting myself in English, and then translating slowly into Greek was the first struggle of being back in Athens. I made the mistake of speaking Chinese to Ioulia and my grandmother often enough to illicit confused stares from Daisy, who had never heard me speak Chinese before. The brain can be funny sometimes.

“WHAT?” Ioulia now had a reason to shout because who doesn’t eat eggs, dairy, and fish? Also, I was beginning to notice that “what?” and repetitive rapid-fire questions I could barely keep up with after seven years of no exposure to the language was going to be an on-going theme of this vacation.

“Daisy and Warren don’t eat meat, milk, fish, or eggs.”

“Neither meat NOR milk NOR eggs?”

“對–I mean–Yes.

“Nor fish? What about cheese?”

“No cheese.”

“Yogurt?”

“No yogurt.”

“NOT EVEN YOGURT?! Τι μαλακίες είναι αυτό;” “What bullshit is this?”

And i just laughed and laughed while Ioulia continued.

“So what do they eat? BEANS?”

“Yes, a lot of beans.”

Καλά,” she cast her eyes toward the stove dismissively but defeated, “I guess you’re going to eat beans.”

And yet, when the beans, pasta, and salad were served to the table outside, an ENORMOUS plate of feta cheese was set in front of Daisy and Warren. We all made eye contact and I grabbed a hunk of bread and pulled the plate closer to me, “Well, I guess she forgot.” But maybe she didn’t, and was just testing to make sure that I was telling the truth. Anyway, we ate even though we only wanted sleep because in Greece that is how you show your elders that you love them back. When the language barrier is so high, and you are forced to live so far apart most of your lives, you can make the sacrifice of little desires and needs in order to show that despite any obstacle there is still love. With my family, no matter where you end up or how much time passes, there will always be love and food.

To be continued.

**Featured image from Vasilis Porgiazis**

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.

Randy and Jonathan

Randy and Jonathan are twins, but you would never notice if no one told you. Randy is about 4′ 10″, dark brown skin tanned from the hours he spends outdoors, he’s a bit pudgy, but energetic. When he’s happy there’s no one that can stop him from smiling, laughing, or even screaming–even when the timing is inappropriate. He’s a quick kid, and his natural smarts come out when he’s feeling motivated. He wants to be the smart one in the room, and he wants everyone to know it, but it’s usually his misbehavior that people notice first.

Jonathan is about 5’1 which makes him tall for a nine-year-old boy. Like his brother, he’s darker than most of his classmates, but it’s less his color that sets him apart than his sheer height and girth. If this kid lived in the U.S., parents and teachers might push him to join football just so he could have a place to channel his energy. His defining personality traits are his aloofness and simplicity. He’s easily pleased and easily angered. Like his brother, he wants to be the smartest, most appreciated student in class, but he’s far behind his grade level and may even have a learning disability. No one knows about his mental disabilities for sure since his family refuses to send him to a psychologist for fear of hurting his feelings.

Jonathan and Randy, though easily tempered with abstract “points”, stickers, and verbal awards for good academic performance, are both ticking time bombs in a classroom setting. Often, Justin and I approach their class not with the mission of teaching English so much as with the hope that no one will cry, fight, or get hurt. We walk on eggshells for forty minutes balancing these two boys’ fragile emotions, along with their classmates’ (six others), because they are all easily affected by the boys’ mood swings. Sometimes, Justin and I succeed and the class goes swimmingly; kids actually learn English. When the students walk out, we cheer and pat ourselves on the back: we made it.

But sometimes, like today, we fail.

After a brutally long and exhausting day (and a less than ideal class observation by Fulbright), Justin and I were running out of energy. We just wanted to make it through our last class in one piece. We had a planned lesson, but our fourth graders have been behaving better than usual. The last few classes they were so engaged and excited to learn that we thought they might be ready for storytelling. I hoped it might make for an interesting diversion from the normal textbook work. After some “n” and “m” phonetics practice and the diffusion of a bubbling fight early on in the class, we got the students to gather on the floor and sit down for story time. The classic Eric Carle book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, seemed like a great choice to complement the food topics we taught earlier in the week.

We should’ve never broken the class structure knowing what we know about students’ behavior, but we had naive faith in their progress. As soon as the students sat down, sharp and short words were exchanged. “Don’t sit next to me.” “You’re touching my foot.” “You smell.”

Jonathan sat to my right, excited but a bit restless to hear the story and see the pictures. Randy sat far off on the left, near Justin. Within a few moments, the first student snapped. Wade, the brightest in the class, shouted at Randy. Randy made a rude face and snapped back. Wade stood up to shout at Randy, but I quickly asked him to sit near me. Jonathan shouted his disapproval of his brother’s behavior, hoping that condemning bad behavior would put him on the teachers’ good sides. Randy spat back some bitter words in Taiwanese. Story time was collapsing, and we were only three-fourths of the way through. Wade sat near Jonathan, far from Randy, and began to sob. Big, fat tears rolled down his face and hit the wooden floor. Randy was sadistically ecstatic. With Wade’s tears, Randy and settled some personal revenge between him, his friends and Wade.

Helplessly, I turned to Justin who was stoically observing the events transpiring. “What happened? What are they saying? What’s going on? Why is he crying?” Justin was slow to respond. Apparently, Randy had pinched Wade a few times very hard while Justin and I were not looking.  I was furious. In shitty Chinese I yelled at Randy, “apologize for what you did.”

Pai sei,” he shot back in Hokkien Taiwanese, a language totally unintelligible to me, but the words’ meaning was obvious. It was the most backhanded, evil, false apology I ever heard from a child. He even threw in a few bows in Wade’s direction for show. “Pai sei, pai sei, bu hao yisi” but Wade kept sobbing silently as Randy smirked to his friend, Jacky, and then decided the fight was over and the blister on his foot was more important. Justin appeared ready to continue with the storybook. I was not satisfied. “Justin, you have to make him apologize meaningfully. That was bullshit,” I told him with as much calm intensity as possible. Just then the bell rang to signal the end of the day. Derek, a small boy that started off timid in English but today showed much enthusiasm, asked to be dismissed. Justin allowed him to go and he bolted. Two of his friends followed closely behind and Ivy, the only girl and friendless fourth grader, trailed silently behind them. Only Wade, Jacky, and Randy remained. I sent Jonathan outside so as not to be a distraction. We needed to resolve this bullying problem. This was not okay.

After a few more failed attempts to illicit a meaningful apology from Randy and Jacky, I stopped Randy with my hand, still holding The Very Hungry Caterpillar, as he tried to storm out of class.  “Justin, you can’t allow him to go unpunished,” I said, holding Randy in place and turning him toward a chair. “This is not okay. He feels no remorse.” I was practically pleading with him to translate my meaning to Randy. Justin began to speak to the two boys intensely in Taiwanese and tell them why what they did was wrong. I understood nothing and I felt useless again. I only wished that I could speak to these kids fluently. Randy was more worked up than ever, Jacky hyping him up, and Wade was quickly realizing he better just stop crying and leave because nothing would come of the discussion. Alan, a Taiwanese-Canadian who works at the school, arrived and let loose on Randy. In his booming voice, he didn’t give Randy the comfort of Taiwanese, he berated the kid’s behavior and lack of remorse in harsh Mandarin. He shamed him and struck fear into his heart. I hate this method of discipline. It shows students that the only way to get respect is to be violent, and it makes students fear being honest about their emotions. But what could I do? With no voice, I have nothing to add in this situation.

Finally, Randy began to sob and then the sobs became wails. A mixture of Taiwanese and Mandarin dribbled out of his mouth along with sticky saliva that mixed with the dirty tears running down his face. After a few more minutes of loud verbal posturing to each other, Randy had two clear streaks down his cheeks where the tears washed the dirt and salt from his face. He felt overwhelmed, overpowered and somehow betrayed. Jacky, sitting on the opposite side of the room, began to cry. But something about the way he was crying seemed dishonest–like he was crying because he thought he had to prove his loyalty to his friend.

Somewhere in the argument was Randy’s explanation for why he physically hurt Wade, but I never heard what it was. All I saw was Wade pick up his things and leave the room. He’d cried himself out and all that was left was a hurt expression. But moments later, another wail. This time it was from outside the classroom. Wade was hopelessly crying because someone had stolen his shoes. Despair started to sink in for me. Why are these kids such goddamn punks? Later, I found out, that Derek was the shoe thief. His enthusiasm in class was actually fueled by the joy that he was not the one being picked on by his classmates anymore, they’d found another target. His desire to leave on time, asking with a polite “please” and “thank you,” was so he could head off Wade and snatch his shoes before anyone could see, thereby securing his position as “slightly cool.”

Alan headed outside to find out where Wade’s shoes were. I just wanted to run out and give that kid a hug, but I couldn’t leave Justin alone with Randy and Jacky, they would turn on him. We sat in silence for a moment and Justin returned to lecturing softly in Taiwanese as the two boys sniveled pathetically to themselves. The whole time I kept looking at Randy. This kid, and his brother, are in desperate need of a loving adult in their family to show them how to express their emotions nonviolently.  They are virtually alone in this world with only a mentally deteriorating grandma to care for them. Their father, aunt and uncle trade-off on the responsibility of raising Randy and Jonathan, but I use “raising” loosely. Randy was wearing the same shirt he wore yesterday, and it was filthy and damp from the sweat and dirt of playing outside every day. Between him and his brother, I’ve only seen maybe 6 different shirts.

Alan returned to the classroom minutes later I presume because my stress level made keeping track of time a bit difficult. At one point, Randy said something threateningly to Justin to the effect of, “just wait, I’m going to get you,” and Alan dived back into his bad-cop role sending Randy and Jacky back into tears. Finally, we calmed down, for the last time, and I decided to speak through Justin’s translations.

“Randy and Jacky, this is a classroom. In a classroom we come here to learn and be good students. I don’t care what happens outside, what social problems are going on. You settle that outside of class. When you come to English, you are a student. Nothing else matters. If you have a problem and want our help, then ask. Otherwise, behave and learn.” As Justin translated, Randy shot a fiery gaze at me, one that said, I don’t give crap what you say. If I were older and stronger, I’d show you. I locked with his eyes just as intensely and waited for the translation to end. “Randy, you’re right, I am not your friend, but I’m also not your enemy. I’m your teacher. If you want to learn, I will teach you and we could even have fun. But if you and Jacky want to fight every single class, this class can become the worst forty minutes of your day. It’s up to you to decide where you want this to go.” As Justin began to translate again, I walked to the front of the room and got four tissues and gave two to each student. They both wiped their faces and, beneath Alan’s mindful gaze, sputtered a tear-filled, “Thank you, Teacher Fay.”

After a few more minutes of lecture from Justin and Alan, the two boys were dismissed. I stayed behind last in the classroom to clean up, shut down the computer and turn off the power in the room. As I slipped my shoes on outside of the classroom door, though, I heard Justin’s voice intensely calling after Randy. Voices began to rise again and pretty soon the two brothers could be heard downstairs yelling.

By the time I arrived at ground level, outside of the office and beside the road, Randy was screaming and sweating. He was covered in water from the bottom of his shirt to his knees. Jonathan had thrown his backpack down threateningly and started shouting and pointing down the road. Both of them were transfixed on some spot or figure far down the road, something I couldn’t see even when I tried. But they continued their violent, eerie mutterings toward the spot in the distance. I took a better look at Randy who I noticed was really drenched. I figured someone must have come over and splashed him with water in another revenge-related incident. He was so furious. Like a hungry tiger pacing in a cage, he was trapped in a mental cage of anger.

Justin returned with a change of shorts for Randy, and Randy pushed them away. He started punching a screen door as hard as he could. As I went to pull him away from hurting himself, I asked Justin, “why is he wet? did someone throw water at him?”

“Not water,” he responded, “pee.” My eyes widened, “someone threw pee at him?”

“No, he got really upset and his nerves [sic] and he just pee himself.”

A long pause, and then, seeing Jonathan was getting more and more worked up talking to himself, I asked him to sit with me on a bench alone near the school basketball court as Justin handled this ever worsening situation with Randy. Before I could let his mind wander, I struck up a basic conversation with Jonathan.

“Where do you live?”

“I live in [some part of town I forgot]”

“Is it nearby?”

“No, not really,” he answered matter-of-factly and sporadically alternating his focus between the pavement and me.

“Do you walk to school, or does someone pick you up?”

“We walk.”

“How far is it?”

“About half an hour.”

“A half an hour? Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Every day? You do the walk every day?”

“Uh-huh.”

“It’s far, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And you live with your nainai (father’s mother)?”

“I live with my ah-ma (mother’s mother).”

Mama, baba?”

“They don’t live in the same house.” And it was at this part that I lost him. He went into some deep explanation about his family, but my vocabulary was too limited.

Near the school, Justin was trying to softly encourage Randy to change into the clean pair of shorts he found. Randy was adamantly refusing, and started off down the road, pushing Justin aside and beckoning his brother. Jonathan retrieved his backpack and walked along side his twin. Justin and I watched them until they made it around the bend and were out of sight, “Xiao xin, xiaopengyou.” Be careful, kids. I felt almost foolish saying it to them after everything I know about them.

Justin, Alan and I regrouped outside of the office to get the details of what happened before the boys left. “When they were on their way out,” Justin started, “Randy looked at me threateningly and pointed, so I went after him to ask him what was wrong, why he was threatening me. When he started explaining, he started getting more and more….nervous and tense. He wanted to go home. I told him that I would call his grandmother, father, aunt and uncle and tell them not to hit him when he got home and then he just…pee himself.”

Alan smirked for a split second, but without breaking my gaze with Justin I said, “you know this means he’s abused at home right? He’s being physically and/or emotionally abused if he’s that scared and anxious.”

“Yes, I think you’re right.”

“But, isn’t there something we can do?”

“Well, no one’s going to go check on them and then sue his dad,” Alan interjected, “besides, this kid thinks he’s hot, tough shit. He only peed himself because he got scared of me.”

Ignoring Alan, I tried to indicate my concern. “In the U.S. when a school suspects child abuse, they call a social worker, a government worker to investigate. Can’t you do something like that in Taiwan?” I wanted an honest answer, not an off-the-cuff sarcastic one. “These kids are nine years-old,” I pressed and then turning to Alan, “if they are only able to express themselves through shouting and violence it’s because the adults in their lives have only shown them that way. The adults in their lives make them feel vulnerable and fearful.” Turning back to Justin, “Is there someone that we can call?”

“Yes,” Justin said, “I think we need to call. I will talk to our director to call.”

“I understand the dilemma,” I said hoping to address an unspoken concern, “people turn a blind eye to private matters, but this isn’t private anymore. These problems are being brought to school every day and it’s only going to get worse as they get older.”

Then I looked at Alan again, “we can yell at them as much as we want but it won’t teach these kids how to be normal and learn to resolve their problems. You’re teaching them that intimidation is the only way to get respect. This is school, not prison. If we don’t change our school’s culture and teach these kids respect or proper communication, we are not doing them any favors when they become adults.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Alan said finally, “but how are you going to change this school. No one can change these things, it’s just the way it’s always been because no one really cares.”

And in that instance I felt that Alan was right. How much can I actually do? I can’t speak anything but English, really. The staff and me aren’t close, and I’m only at this school part-time. Without a voice of my own, I feel like my power is limited to lessons that Justin and I manage to pull off in class. By June, I’ll be gone from these kids’ lives and the school will boast that it once had a Fulbright ETA teach at its school, forgetting that most disciplinary issues were never resolved enough for meaningful English lessons to be taught. After today, even though I want to make a difference, I’m at a loss for how I can actually leave something behind at this school with these kids. It feels almost impossible.

Being Sick in Taiwan

The only way I can explain this cultural characteristic is in this way: Taiwanese people are super socially sensitive.

What I mean by this is that they are some of the most helpful and warm people I’ve ever met, to an almost overwhelming level. For instance, if you walk to a street corner in Kaohsiung City holding a map and looking confused, in a few minutes someone will come over and try to help you–in varying forms of Chinese and English. They may even go out of their way to walk you to your destination.

Since my arrival, I have had some minor inconveniences associated with moving to a new place: lack of fluent Chinese, getting sick twice, living far away from the city center, moving even farther away from the city center, no car, not sharing an apartment with my partner. They aren’t real problems and I usually manage similar issues on my own. Few people back home would consider that unusual. But this isn’t the U.S. At no point during my stay here was I without the concern, helpful advice or support of any Taiwanese colleagues and friends who knew about these “problems.”

In August, when I got sick, I had to miss the morning session of a day-long pre-teaching meeting with all the LETs (Lead English Teachers) and ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) from Kaohsiung. I felt better by the afternoon and snuck back into the meeting at some point during lunch, hoping not to be disruptive. As soon as someone spotted me, I was flooded with inquiries about my health from more than a dozen people. “Are you okay?” “Shouldn’t you stay home?” “Do you need to lie down?” “Is it your stomach? You should drink some tea. Please have mine.” “If you eat ___ with ___, it’ll make you feel better.” “My husband is a doctor, I can set up an appointment for you today.” I exhausted all the variants of the phrase “I AM FINE I FEEL BETTER NOW THANK YOU,” until all had energy for was simply to smile when someone expressed their concern. The concern was sincere, but it made me wary of ever mentioning any illness or issue that could befall me in the future.

Alas, I went through this ritual again this week thanks to a minor bout of food poisoning. I knew it wasn’t serious and that the food I ate was probably cooked in gutter oil, but I definitely couldn’t go to work on Monday. I just needed to wait for the food to pass through my system, ya know? Like getting over a hangover. I texted my coteacher, Sam, in the morning to inform her that I would be absent. An hour later I get a text from my principal, “so sorry to hear about your illness. Hope you feel better soon.”

Right after, my cell phone rings. It’s the Fulbright director downtown (~50 km away). I pick up and she quickly asks if I need her to drive up to bring me food. I politely decline and say it’s fine. I can manage on my own because I have food I can cook in the fridge.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, thank you, don’t worry.”

“Okay,” she responded, “but I’ll ask Frank to bring you a Fin.” Frank is another coteacher up here in the rural areas of Kaohsiung, and Fin is a sports drink. 30 minutes before lunch, Sam, who is currently suffering through a tendon injury in her foot, asks if she should come by and bring me lunch. She is willing to make the 40-minute drive during her lunch break. Again I say, “no please don’t worry yourself with that. I won’t be eating today anyway. Just drinking lots of water.”

“But what about rice? I can bring you rice.”

“No it’s okay, if anything I have some food here to cook.”

“Are you sure? Do you need me to drive you to the doctor later?”

“I’ll be fine, thank you so much.”

“Okay,” she says, defeated, and then proceeds to explain to me different types of bland, carby foods I can make so that I won’t irritate my stomach. The concept of “not eating” in Taiwanese culture does not exist. Skipping a meal is worse than eating too much or being late. After all, the thinking goes, how can you do ANYTHING if you don’t eat first?

An hour later, I hear my roommate, Tiixa, call me from the hallway. She and Frank have stopped by the house on their lunch break to check in on me, bearing passion fruits. Delicious, but again we go through the gamut of “are you okay? what did you eat? are you hungry? do you need anything? I can drive you to the doctor. I can drive you to downtown Kaohsiung, or I can buy you something from downtown and bring it back.” I reassure Frank that I am indeed okay and alive. I’m just waiting for my body to cleanse itself. Okay,” he says, defeated, and then proceeds to explain to me different types of bland, carby foods I can make so that I won’t irritate my stomach. Afterwards, I thank them both for the concern and the fruits and they head back to their school to finish out the rest of the day.

For the next few hours my phone is quiet. I nap, I read, I write, and I drink lots of water all day. By evening, I’m feeling well enough to hop on my scooter and make a grocery run. I come home, make some rice porridge, eat and go to bed early. I wake up the next morning and get to Shanlin Elementary earlier than expected. I’m greeted by a group of third graders rushing over to me, “LAOSHI ARE YOU OKAY?!?!? You weren’t in school?! WHY?! What’s wrong?! Are you sick?!” And so it goes….

The Shortest Field Trip to the U.S. Ever

This is the first week where teaching twenty classes a week totally drained me, and I think it’s due to the fact that kids’ attention spans are so short and their energy levels are so dang high. I’m not sure if I ever introduced my workload in this blog, actually. I teach at two small elementary schools (Shanlin and Ximen) in the Kaohsiung countryside and I co-teach grades 1-6.

A general challenge to being a foreign teacher in tiny, rural public schools with low academic achievement is balancing competing expectations. From students’ expectations of class, to my expectations, my co-teacher’s expectations, the administrations of both schools’ expectations, and Fulbright’s expectation. As a native English speaker stationed for the year, sometimes I think that the schools expect me to float benevolently into all the classrooms and sprinkle English pixie dust over the students, magically making them motivated to try their best in class.

Instead, I’m trying to coalesce cultural learning and language learning more into classes. I have to present “American culture” to the entire school at Ximen next Wednesday, and it’s helped get the gears turning in my brain. Today, I asked the 5th grade class in Ximen to prepare some questions they had about American culture. Here’s what I got (translated from Chinese):

  • What kinds of houses do Americans live in?
  • Do Americans drive the same cars as Taiwanese?
  • How do you eat salad?
  • What is an American elementary school like?
  • What kind of flowers do you plant?
  • What do American kids look like?
  • Is America fun?
  • Where would tourists go in the US?
  • How was the US founded?
  • Do you have a lot of castles?
  • Is there KFC?
  • How many haunted houses are there?

To answer the house question, I turned to Google. First, I went to Google Maps and found my home in NJ, and then to my great surprise, I found out there is street view for my address and the rest of my neighborhood. It was an amazing experience to take my class on a brief virtual field trip through my hometown (some pics are as recent as July 2014 the same time as when I last visited).

We started our trip at my house–photos last taken in the fall so it was seasonally accurate. The house I grew up in was originally a one-floor log cabin, but my dad renovated and added onto the house over the years as our family grew. The front facade has a vague English-style triangle roof with storm-cloud blue siding, and behind the first triangle rooftop is an addition that towers over it with the same style roof that is slightly off-center. Also, the siding color on the addition is more sky blue, making it look even more awkward. There is a set of cement steps that lead to the front door and a short, brick walkway from the curb to the steps. On the left of the steps is a giant, blue evergreen that crowds and unbalances the picture, and on the right of the walkway is a stumpy, green evergreen that marks the beginning of a wider lawn crowded by a large oak tree, a small red maple, a shrub, and a copper bird bath with fake birds. I’m describing my house in such detail because it’s a kind of unusual. It’s like the fun house version of what the suburban white-picket fence house should look like. And yet, basked in the colors and sunlight of autumn, it didn’t look half bad. When the street view image finally loaded, the kids freaked out, “whaaaaaaooooooooo, wooooo, ahhh” for a solid 30 seconds, “Americans live in such nice houses!” “Teacher, are you rich?”

“No, no, I’m just middle class. Lots of people live in houses like this…USA has a lot of space.”

We started walking north, up a small hill that I’ve biked over more than a thousand times as a kid. We reach the top and I point out the library on the right. “Nàme xiǎo!” (那麼小) “it’s so small!” “Yes, because it’s a small town,” and we turn around and head back down the hill. Instead of going back to my house, I make another right and head to the main road where I turn south and the town opens up. Again, on the right is the local fire department after a recent million dollar renovation. Crickets. We walk on.

At the next street is a new 7-11 that’s much bigger than the ones in Taiwan. To these students, 7-11s only exist in Taiwan so when they see the familiar trademark the room is electric. “Wowww, cool!” was the first time one of the students took the initiative to speak English first.

Parked on the side of the road is a grey garbage truck, but the kids don’t notice. I point it out and they are amazed again. “Waaaoo, zhème dà!” (哇, 這麼大) “Whoa, so big!” The rest of my town is pretty boring, so as we walk on the students are looking for anything to comment on. Peggy asks an interesting question, “Why are all the streets cracked and broken?” I thought for a second, chuckled and answered, “politics.” Because they really were in disrepair, but until I came to Taiwan (where most infrastructure is well maintained) I thought that’s just what streets looked like. “Teacher, this is New York City, right?” Not even close.

Taiwanese garbage truck. They play classical music as they do their rounds so people know to come out and throw their trash out themselves.

Taiwanese garbage truck. They play classical music as they do their rounds so people know to come out and throw their trash out themselves.

Off we go, New York bound. First stop, my old apartment in Harlem/Hamilton Heights. It doesn’t have the homey feel of my parents’ home in New Jersey so they weren’t impressed, but questions kept coming. “Do you own that apartment, too?” “Are all those cars in front of the building yours?”

“Teacher, can we see Freedom Goddess Statue?!” (Statue of Liberty). We speed down 200 blocks south across the Hudson River to Liberty Island and the kids again were in uncontrollable “oohs” and “aahs.” After they settled a little, I searched for my former office on Madison Avenue so they could see some business buildings. I showed them the building, a mere 30 stories. “Whoaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, teacher you worked inside there?” “The buildings are so big!” “Teacher, why did you come to Taiwan?” “Where’s Spiderman!?” We strolled north on Madison Avenue, my old lunch break walk toward Central Park. “Teacher! Can we see Central Park?” “Are all those yellow cars taxis??” “Wow, there are so many cars.”

We reached the corner of Madison and 56th Street and I decided to turn the camera upwards so they could see more buildings (definitely not the best NYC has to offer), but I was working with what I had. All I heard was one kid say in English, “so beautiful.” And then, in Chinese, echoing throughout the classroom, “Teacher, can we go inside the buildings?”

“No, I’m sorry we can’t.”

“Are there haunted houses in the U.S.? Can we go inside the haunted houses?”

“No…..” Seriously, what is up with these kids and ghosts/zombies here?

We turn again and now we are on 5th Avenue, passing Bergdorf Goodman and Trump Plaza. “iPhone! iPhone!” The kids start yelling as we passed by Apple’s NYC flagship store. Then we turn left to enter the park passing by the horse and carriage tourist traps. As The Pond comes into view, the students are silent in anticipation and then suddenly the jarring feeling of being whisked back to Ximen as Google Street View ends. “Oh no, it looks like we can’t go any further.”

The cheerful screaming is now replaced by groans and moans, so I quickly zoom out and whisk them off to Conservatory Water off 72nd Street, a popular pond for model sailboats. Luckily, someone at Google had the idea to Street View this popular destination so our trip is able to continue. We take a walk around the water, people watching and looking at some statues, and then Google Street View ends again. Before they can be disappointed, the school bell rings.

“Xiàkè!!!” (下課) as they gleefully run out the door. I guess it doesn’t matter that we didn’t visit Times Square.

Teaching: You’re Winging It

I have a class of really rambunctious 3rd graders at Shanlin Elementary School. By rambunctious I mean they are so bold as to literally stand on their chairs and scream in unison at the start of class. That was day one and I never looked back. I decided to make a behavior game for the month. Each student has their own cup at the side of the room with their name on it. If they behave well, speak in English first, or do something worthy of applause, they receive one chip in their cup. If a student refuses to participate, refuses to speak English, or interrupts a teacher or student, they lose a chip. At the end of the month, the student with the most chips wins a “prize.” I still haven’t revealed what the prize is because I don’t know. And yet, even though my students are only sort-of getting the behavior game and they don’t really know WHAT they are trying to achieve, winning is really everything to them.

During our review game between two teams, Team 1 lost. Team 2 got two chips in each cup for working together to get the answers and Team 1 got one chip in each of their cups for participating. Cue the waterworks. Half of Team 1 was crying in the front row, angry grimaces on their faces and the other half were slamming their books on the table while staying verbally silent. Meanwhile, Team 2 beamed across at the other team, enjoying the fact that they had won nothing but gloating privileges.

Should I be proud of this moment or disappointed? Team 1 is learning a hard lesson right now: sometimes you try, but you still lose. But Team 2 shouldn’t get to bask in the glory of someone else’s faults. So I asked my co-teacher, Sam, to directly translate for me as I tried to rein in some of the damage I had done. “In the United States, when we lose as a team, we don’t get angry or cry. Instead, we tell the other team, ‘Congratulations,’ and we work harder to win next time. This is called ‘sportsmanship.’ Don’t cry, we have the whole year to play many more games. This is just one game.”

Maybe this monologue would’ve landed in a room full of 10th graders, but these 3rd graders continued to shoot laser-like glares at me. Nothing had changed except that now they were quiet. Clearly, this was more than a game because it literally shook their world.  I better not fall asleep around these kids, I thought to myself.

*~*~A few classes later*~*~

My second most-misbehaved class is the 4th graders. There’s only four of them, but that makes it easier to rebel because there’s no sense of group unity or competition. They just yell. Before I continue, I should preface that I usually wear pants or a long skirt when I teach classes because I have a left leg deformity that is quite distracting to little kids who are typically at waist level and have no question-impulse control. Yesterday, I forgot about my pants-only rule and wore shorts. Normally, wearing shorts is no big deal around adults because they ignore it, but around kids, oh jeez. ALL day I had kids staring at my leg, distracted and confused. It’s not that it’s uncomfortable to deal with their leery eyes, it just makes it hard to teach English. I explained my condition to some of my classes (“some muscles never developed,” “no it doesn’t hurt.”, etc.), but the best explanation was in the 4th grade.

Out of nowhere, a student (who had been eyeing my leg all afternoon) interrupts the lesson speaking Chinese, “Laoshiiiiiiiiiiiii, LAOSHI ARE THERE ZOMBIES IN AMERICA?!” Sam had to translate the word “zombies” for me, and I immediately realized this was an opportunity of a lifetime. “Zombies? Yes. Lots.” Sam was a bit surprised and switched to English, “What? Are you really going to tell them…”

“Yes, yes I am. It’s okay, I’ll use English.”

Student 1 (all in Chinese): Really?! Fay laoshi, are there really zombies in the U.S.?! *All students eyes focused on me*

Me (in English): Of course, where else would they be?

Student 1: Have you ever seen them?

Me: Sure, they mostly come out only if they are hungry.

Students: O_O

Me: okay, let’s go back to English class—

Student 1: LAOSHI!! Have you ever been bitten by one?
**Sam quickly translates for me**
Me: Yes, twice.

Students: O____O

Student 2: Where? Show us the bite!
*I proudly show the class my left calf in all it’s deformed glory*

Student 1: So you’re a zombie?!?!

Me: Well, not right now, but someday I will be….and when I’m hungry I’ll bite you!

*Student 1 screams and runs away*

Me: Okay, Sam, I think they are ready for English class now.

 The last few minutes of English class had suddenly become more serious now that they “knew” the foreign teacher was a zombie.

At Ximen Elementary School, the “wild ones” are the 4th and 1st graders. It’s not that they are exceptionally loud or that they interrupt all the time. It’s the way they interrupt. One minute you’re facing the board and the next you’re turned around to find one kid half outside the door picking his nose and another under the table literally rolling-on-the-floor-laughing. For no reason! And they are always sweaty. These two classes are usually so hyped that finishing a lesson seems literally impossible. And yet….

My LET, Justin, and I tried to brainstorm some ideas to get students motivated enough to learn English in their free time. Justin had the idea of sparking students’ interests by allowing each student to select their own English picture book from the library. My idea was to use the computer to give students “digital language” skills so they could look up English things on their own. But we both realized that most of our students are far behind in phonics and reading, and that both ideas weren’t feasible at that moment. We decided to try out a simple phonics lesson with the 4th grade to see how it would go.

All 4th graders already know the alphabet, but few know how the consonants and vowels sound like within a word, let alone how to sound blend on their own. Whenever they speak English, they’re usually mimicking the way they heard it pronounced before without knowing how to pronounce it on their own. So we made up a new lesson on the spot: “-at” ending words with easy starting letters, “B, C, F, H, S,” (“bat, cat, fat, hat, sat”). Yes, this took more than 20 minutes, but why was it so amazing? Because for the first time, these students weren’t copying the sounds they heard said by me or Justin, they were trying to sound them out. And with these words you can actually make a WHOLE SENTENCE! “The fat cat sat at the table with a bat.” Okay, some preposition issues and a new vocab word, but with the help of some pictures they can actually see the words they learned on their own.

Tomorrow is another long day, and this year is still just beginning, so I know I shouldn’t harp too much on today’s tiny victory. But if you don’t celebrate the little achievements, then you won’t be able to truly appreciate the big accomplishments, right? After the past few classes, I adjusted my personal goals for the classes I’m teaching this year. Initially, I was hoping to make at least the 5th and 6th graders somewhat computer literate in English so they could use it to their advantage. Now, I hope that from 3rd to 6th grade in both schools, all students will be able to pick up an English text and at least sound the words out. They don’t have to know what they all mean, but at least they have the skills to sound out the word and look it up in the dictionary. Small goals, small goals.

Let’s see how it goes.