Culture Clash

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:


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.

Part 2 – Emergency Surgery, Operation Simplification

It took five people to lift the stretcher into the ambulance. The EMT that had been attending me, a middle aged man with a plain face and graying roots, walked over to the driver’s seat and got in. As I was being lifted, Jevon said he would follow the ambulance with his scooter and meet me at the hospital. I shouted at him to take one last look to see if I’d left anything at the crash site and then the doors closed.

In the ambulance, a young EMT–a rookie no doubt–started running through the usual questions with me. The only problem was that it was all Chinese medical terms I didn’t understand I was able to figure out some of the things he was asking, but I wasn’t certain about what exactly I was answering. The older EMT shouted at him, ta tingbudong! (She doesn’t understand!), and the rookie sheepishly hung his head over his clipboard. He focused, instead, on tasks that required little-to-no speaking. Asking me to lift my right hand, he tried to put a pulse oximeter on my index finger, or at least he tried. I looked at my hand to see why this small task required so much effort, and saw my hand shaking uncontrollably. Eventually I had to steady myself with my left hand in order to put on the oximeter.

Now that so many minutes had passed, I was on the way to the hospital, and I was almost alone, I felt inclined to burst into tears. It wasn’t that I was in incredible pain, but so much stress had built up since the moment I spotted the van accelerating into the intersection. My body needed an outlet. Still, I didn’t allow myself to give in to the mental fatigue for fear of anyone interpreting my crying as emotional or mental instability of some sort. I am, afterall, a young woman in a culturally different country where few people spoke English. I heard once, in the U.S., that young female patients were most likely not to be taken seriously by doctors. In Taiwan, I already had language and culture as two strikes against me, I was not about to take a chance and give anyone another opportunity to not take me seriously.

The ambulance took me to Cishan Hospital one town over from where I live. We pulled up to the Emergency Room entrance. The older EMT opened the back doors of the ambulance to pull the stretcher out and the rookie EMT descended as the older EMT locked the legs of the stretcher at my feet. The rookie grabbed the head of the stretcher, lowered the legs, and pulled the entire gurney onto the pavement. But at the last minute I felt my head dip a bit too low for comfort and I heard the older EMT at my feet shout, annoyed, at the rookie. Luckily, the rookie hadn’t let go of the bottom of the stretcher and now was able to correct his mistake and readjust the legs so they were locked into place—for real this time. The older EMT muttered something to himself and took over pushing the gurney into the ER, leaving the rookie with his clipboard behind.

I laughed a little to myself because for a moment I felt like I was on a TV show and this was junior’s first day on the job. Laying back and looking up, The cement ceiling changed to interior ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights, and for all the noise that I had just been immersed in, the hospital was eerily quiet. As the EMTs pushed my gurney into place beside a hospital bed, I craned my neck to take in the emergency room. It was a small-ish room (compared to the U.S.) and though all the nurses and some of the residents and doctors wore face masks, I could tell the age gap between me and most of the staff was very small.

About four hospital staff crowded over me including one man that I assumed was a doctor because he appeared to be the only one in his 30s, the EMTs were still right in front of me, a new police officer arrived, and at the foot was Jevon looking a bit helpless. Ni hui jiang guoyu ma? They asked him. “Uh, no…” and then the staff turned to me, Ni hui jiang guo yu ma? And I responded Hui, yi diandian. (I can, a little). For the next 30-40 minutes, my brain was back in overdrive as I bounced back and forth between Chinese, English and charades. They asked me to slide over to another bed and I could really feel the pain in my leg settling in. Then the background evaluation began again starting with age, blood type, allergies, and a bunch of other things.

Finally, the doctor in his 30s spoke up in English, it was limited but it was good enough. He told me they would examine the wound now and my lungs tightened. I nodded and looked away again. The reaction was more subtle this time, but still I heard the, “ahh…ssss….,” from some of the staff. The doctor looked at me, “it’s quite deep. We will have to do surgery, most likely.” I was concerned, surgery? What about just a couple of stitches? The doctor told me he would call the surgeon to come in and examine it. He covered the wound with gauze and a bandage and then he left taking all the staff with him save the older EMT and the police officer, both filling out reports off to the side.

I was relieved to see that Frank, the Taiwanese co-teacher to my roommate, and my roommate, Tiixa, had arrived. I felt a bit more grounded now that there was at least one bilingual person around. I went over again how the accident took place. Then I was wheeled to a different part of the emergency room where all the staff and authorities descended upon me at once. Fonda arrived in the middle of the frenzy.

On my left arm was a newbie resident struggling (and failing at least five times) to locate a vein in my arm to get a blood sample and insert an IV drip. At the foot of the bed a man, who appeared in his mid-to-late 30s, wearing a worn Boston Red Sox t-shirt and jeans introduced himself in fluent English as the surgeon. He explained that the wound was to be cleaned now, and two male nurses or residents snipped off more of my pants leg and cleaned my wound with saline solution and their fingers as I twitched in pain (I had rocks in the laceration). Then, on my right hand there was a new police officer, portly with glasses who was keen on smiling through all his questions that were asked only in Chinese. He spoke directly, rapidly and determinedly, insisting I answer all his questions and ignoring Frank’s attempts to translate. I pushed the limits of my comprehension and eventually realized he wanted me to make the police report NOW at that exact moment while there were two fingers inside of my knee and a newbie stabbing my arm with a needle over and over again. I said no, and then Frank shouted from the foot of the bed, “He needs you to do a breathalyzer test, it’s just a routine thing.”



You’ve gotta be kidding me, I thought, can’t it wait a minute? Before I could accept or refuse, the police officer put a black, rectangular machine in my face and told me to blow into a hard, plastic straw. The officer read the reading on the rectangle gave me a smile and a thumbs-up, wrote the result on a clipboard and headed toward the reception desk. Just then, the driver of the van that I crashed into showed up at the side of my bed. Ayy, Teng bu teng? (Does it hurt?) And I just burst out laughing. Dangran hen teng! Zhende! (Of course it hurts, really!) And he nodded and backed off a little with his hands behind his back, observing the fiasco before finally losing interest. The newb on my left was getting anxious now as he stabbed my arm for a fourth time and the hose he used to tighten around my arm fell to the floor. Zhen de ma? (Really?) I hissed at him.

Jevon and Tiixa were standing at the foot of the bed to the left watching the fail take place. “There is really too much going on,” I said aloud to no one in particular. The resident ran to the other side of the bed to try my right arm, but when he failed again, I jokingly asked, Ni zhao bu dao ma? (You can’t find it?). I felt a bit bad after I said it, after all, he was trying to help me, but he took the remark as a sign and left. A nurse in a bright pink uniform arrived and I thought, “Oh thank goodness,” but that was before she struggled to find a vein in my hand, and upon discovering a suitable candidate began to manually pump the blood out of my hand, which required stabbing my hand with the needle at least ten times. Tiixa looked on in horror.

“That was disgusting and weird,” she told me later. “I feel like it’s everyone’s first day in ER,” I said to her and Jevon, “what the HELL.”


As quickly as they emerged, the staff disappeared and a different nurse appeared to take me to the X-ray room. Frank and Jevon went with me and we tried to make light of the situation. I was still so worried about having fractured something. I was placed in a giant room with a blanket on top of me to keep warm. The entire hospital felt like it was at a constant temperature of 60 degrees and lying still made it feel colder. The radiologist inside was another young’un, but was very polite and attentive. At one point, the board he placed between my legs (to shield the rest of my body from the radiation) tipped and leaned heavily on my knee. I hissed and winced and he rushed over “sorry, sorry, sorry.” Meiguanxi, I responded, and he let out a surprised “oh! Ni shou Guoyu ma?” and I responded with “Dangren, wo zhuzai Taiwan, dui bu dui?” (Of course, I live in Taiwan, right?) I assumed he smiled, but because of the face mask it was only a guess based on his eyes. Buhaoyisi, buhaoyisi  (sorry, sorry) he said and we both laughed it off; him from some kind of required embarrassment and me because I just needed to laugh. As he shot cancer rays into my body, I whispered to myself over and over again, “please no broken bones.”

The English-speaking surgeon returned, still clad in his T-shirt and jeans. The attire really made it hard for me to take him seriously at first, but I figured it was just a cultural difference that I had to get over. My dad, a former mainland Chinese citizen, sports a similar style back in the States. In his opinion, anyone could wear fancy clothes but it didn’t prove their skill or intelligence. To this day I have only seen my dad wear a tie twice in his life: once, in a photo from when he and my mother were married (it was a clip-on) and once, when I was in college and he had to go to a court hearing.

I was placed back in the emergency room and the surgeon made it clear that no bones or ligaments were damaged. “Oh thank god,” I exhaled, “so nothing important was hurt?”

“No, nothing important. Just fat and skin.”

The surgeon explained to me that they couldn’t do surgery until tomorrow afternoon because the operating room was closed and the anesthesiologist was not around. After the surgery, I would have to spend another day at the hospital under observation to make sure there were no adverse reactions to the procedure. If I wanted, I could be transferred into the city at a small cost and maybe I could find a hospital that was available to do surgery right away, but it was unlikely. I opted for staying in the hospital for two nights and all the Taiwanese around my bed nodded in agreement.

Getting comfortable in my new home for the next day and a half.

Getting comfortable in my new home for the next day and a half.

I was wheeled into an overnight room where I would stay with three other female patients; all of them were more than double my age. In fact, the entire time I stayed in the hospital, I don’t think I saw a single patient in the OR ward that was under 50 years-old. I was placed in the right back corner of the room, and when I got a look at the patient in the bed across from me I realized that despite the extent of the crash, I was very lucky. She was an elderly woman and her gaze indicated that she must have been either in an immense amount of pain, drugged out of her mind, or both. An hour later, the nurses would come and take her away for surgery and I would see one of her arms splinted and both of her eyes black and blue. Her lip busted and swollen and her leg wrapped in a bandage as well. Either this woman lost a tough match in the ring or she fell off her scooter as well. Once returning from surgery she would spend the rest of the night yelling in pain for the nurses and her relatives, vomiting, and moaning. Though it was immensely disruptive and aggravating that she complained through both nights, I did pity her somewhat.

The nurses told me that after midnight I could not drink or eat until four o’clock in the afternoon the next day, so I got to work. I ate a big dinner, almost a whole sleeve of Oreo cookies, some of the sweet bread I bought earlier and the taro milk drink (both weathered the crash intact), and at least 24 ounces of water. The water was necessary, but at the time I didn’t think ahead. Since the IV drip was already hydrating me, the water I drank only served to make me need to use the toilet. It was the most painful, slow, walker-assisted trek to the bathroom. The pain from my leg was immense now and as I gripped the walker, the IV needle in my hand piercing me, I started trembling all over. Jevon came with me to the bathroom to make sure I didn’t fall and there was a point where the aching was so intense I nearly cried and gave up on the bathroom at all. I wanted to just wait until after surgery the next day, but that was impossible. Despite the pain, I managed, and I managed again three more times during the night and the next morning because I had no choice.

I passed out around midnight, just after the nurses came to check my blood pressure and IV. I was hoping to sleep well into the morning, but at five o’clock in the morning the nurses were back to check pressure and IV and turned all the blinding fluorescent lights on. Everyone was awake, cranky and in pain. When the nurses left they forgot to turn out the lights and it prompted the old women to start complaining and shouting. Finally, some courageous hero turned the lights out again and all was quiet.

My co-teachers, Sam and Justin, wanted to visit me in the hospital once they heard about the accident, so both of them would come by at one o’clock during their lunch breaks. I figured that was a good time for them to stop by since the surgery was scheduled for either one or two o’clock. That morning, I changed out of my citizen clothes and into a hospital cap and gown, which is not a flattering garment because it opens up in the back and you’re expected to be naked underneath. When the nurses arrived at 12:50 P.M. to tell me it was time to go to surgery, I decided it would be smart to go to the bathroom before they put me under.

When I opened the bathroom door to limp my way on the walker to the gurney in the hallway, I was horrified to see my colleague, Allen, peaking in through the door and several voices I recognized coming echoing from the hallway. I made an attempt at some panicked greeting and begged Jevon, who was standing behind me in the bathroom to close my gown in the back. A nurse was rushing me out of the bathroom now and I refused to move. Hell no. I was not going to greet a bunch of people from work with my ass hanging out. Finally, the nurse realized my embarrassment, giggled and said she would hold my gown closed as I walked. I thanked her profusely and hobbled forward.

My heart melted when I saw the half dozen people that showed up just to make sure I was okay. The previous night in the overnight room, I was treating the whole accident like a light-hearted event. Cracking jokes, feigning health and smiling as much as I could to make the most of a bad situation. By morning I treated everything like it wasn’t a big deal and I would be well enough for my surfing trip at the end of the month. Still, seeing how much concern a little car accident raised made me feel really thankful for having these good people in my life. Sam and Justin were both holding two big boxes of apples and an additional bag of apples as get well soon gifts. I eat apples almost every day at my schools as a way to get something healthy in my diet, and that small feature of my life didn’t go unnoticed. Justin was also holding “Get Well Soon” cards from the students and Allen had brought me Kinder chocolates, another one of my lunchtime features.

apple boxes

Two boxes with six giant apples each.

Om nom nom nom nom....

Om nom nom nom nom….

gw card1gw card2

I had just enough time to say “hello” and “thank you to everyone,” before I gingerly moved my leg onto the bed and shimmied my body on the gurney. The nurse previously holding my gown now fixed my cap to make sure no stray hairs hung out. I waved good-bye to everyone and was wheeled to the OR with the small crowd trailing a bit behind. Once we reached the doors to the operation wing, only Jevon and Frank walked on with me and the surgery team gathered around. They were a young, light-hearted group and they were excited to have an American on their operating table. They asked me questions they assumed I didn’t understand and when I responded in Chinese they were giddy. The anesthesiologist, also the oldest doctor I had seen at the hospital, told everyone that this was a great opportunity for them to practice their English—in Taiwan, all professional doctors (including this anesthesiologist) learn English because most medical books are written in English—and everyone laughed that embarrassed, knowing Taiwanese laugh. Buyao haipa (don’t be scared), I said, Wo shi yingwen laoshi. Wo ban ni jiang yingyu, (I’m an English teacher. I will help you speak English), and this time the laugh was more genuine.  Jevon and Frank stopped at the final set of doors before the operating room.

When we arrived at our final destination, a room that felt like the 1980s with green walls that matched the outfits of the doctors, one of the male surgeons stretched his arm awkwardly as he prepared a sentence in his mind. “To welcome you to our OR!” and we all had another good laugh. Xiexie nimen de gongzuo, I said in equally awful Chinese. I wanted to thank them for their work, but essentially I said, “Thank you for your job.” The anesthesiologist was at my left hand and he prepared some white looking paste for injection into my hand. “This may sting a bit,” he said, “but don’t worry.” It felt like acid entering my veins, but I got over it. One of the female surgeons held a mask over my face and I thought, “any minute now they’re going to ask me to count backwards.” I looked back at the paste in the injection needle slowly diminishing as it entered my hand. I remember starting to say something again…

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.

Thank You for Choosing Our School

I just finished my first day as an English co-teacher, and it was such a long day. I started off at 5:30 A.M., the first time I awoke with the sunrise since August 2nd when I was still experiencing intense jet lag. At 6:15 A.M., Tiixa (my roommate and fellow rural ETA) headed out for a 20 minute metro ride to Kaohsiung Arena to meet one of our Lead English Teachers (LET), Justin, who would then make the 30 minute drive up to Qishan (aka: Banana Town). Justin then dropped Tiixa off with her co-teacher, Frank, and me with my co-teacher for the day, Sam. All ETAs get two co-teachers, mine are Justin and Sam. Sam and I then made the additional 30 minute trip to Shan Lin Elementary School (Shānlín guóxiǎo 杉林國小). All-in-all, it took almost 2 hours from wake-up to arrival. “I’m sorry it is so inconvenient for you to travel this far,” Sam told me with a sad smile as we pulled into the school parking lot, “but thank you for choosing our school.”

“It’s not a problem,” I replied, “look forward to the opportunity to teach here.”


From right to left: Sam (LET), Justin (LET) and Kristin (ETA) during a teacher workshop earlier this month.

We arrived at 7:30 as students were cleaning up the classrooms. That’s right, cleaning. Students meet at school an hour before they’re required in order to clean and prepare their classrooms after the long summer break. In a way, it is how they show their duty to their school, their education, and their teachers. Sam and I discussed the day’s plans: First, I would help her 3rd grade class with their textbooks and review of the alphabet; Second, there would be a school-wide assembly to introduce new students to the school and discuss rules and policies; Then, because the assembly would take up most of the day, we would eat lunch, nap and teach self-introductions in the 6th grade class as the last class of the day.

Fast forward to the assembly. All the students have taken their places and Sam and I are the last ones to enter the audio-visual room. Shan Lin has a grand total of 53 students in the school, so that meant ALL eyes were on me when I walked in: the strange, new teacher from Wàiguó (外國, foreign country). For the first hour, the principal lectured the students and initiated a cute introduction ceremony for new students and the new kindergarten class. They were brought to the front, presented and introduced, and the entire school had to practice memorizing the students’ names all the while the students stood at the front looking as adorable and clueless as possible. The introduction was so unlike my elementary school experience where a new student would remain a nameless face until (if) you mustered up the courage to talk to them during recess. In five minutes all the students had the new kids’ names memorized.

The Cōngmíng Ceremony was next. All the new students were ushered under an arch of onions as a way to being inducted to the school. In Chinese cōng means “onion” and it is a kind of pun because it sounds like cōngmíng which means smart. By making all the new students walk beneath the arch of onions, they were joining the ranks of “the smart students of Shan Lin.” You might think it’s weird, but as a lover of puns I found it wonderful.

Following this induction, the principal spoke for about 20 minutes about the importance of English and introduced me to the student body. During his speech, which I only caught maybe 30 percent since it was in Chinese, I realized how much hope and faith this principal had in the Fulbright program to ameliorate the school’s dismal English language achievement scores. The previous week, I co-taught with Sam and Justin on a “practice class” made up of 4th and 5th graders from downtown Kaohsiung. Their English language knowledge for their age group was amazing. They knew full sentence patterns, vocabulary for several subjects and English classroom commands. Before we even taught our lessons, our students already knew the vocabulary. In my 3rd grade class at Shan Lin, students were just trying to remember “my name is…” and their lowercase and uppercase alphabet. I turned to Sam during the principal’s speech, “This has gotten very serious.” She nodded, “yeah, a little. I’m sorry,” a short pause and a shy smile, “thank you for choosing our school.”

The following hour-and-a-half of the assembly, teachers lectured and played videos about some serious life issues. Like smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, chewing betel nut, AIDS, and bullying (which included sexual harassment between friends). In the competition of waning attention spans, the kindergarten class was the first to go. Since I was seated in the front row with them, I could see their limp bodies sinking lower and lower into their seats. Dead eyes, blank stares, unsure about their purpose in life. The 6th graders were next, they teased each other, joked, shouted out because their pent-up puberty energy would not allow them to sit still for more than 10 minutes. They had to be publicly scolded a few times in order to quiet down. It was about 11:15 A.M. when I started fading as well. My eyes locked with one of the kindergartners that I saw staring at me on and off for the last 30 minutes. He was seated backwards in his auditorium chair and as soon as he got bored of our staring contest, he turned to face the back of his chair and started to lick the entire thing. The entire chair. And no one stopped him.

Zoooooom past lunch (which was pretty great) and naptime (which is for students AND teachers), and arrive at drum class. Every Monday and Wednesday, students grades 3-6 play the drums for almost two hours. It’s pretty intense, and a great way for them to exercise in the shade (since they play in a shady courtyard). Seeing them practice is really cool, too, because it was the first time I saw them obediently working together. The only problem with drum class in the middle of the day is that the students only have one class afterwards, but they’re way too hyped up to focus.

They're louder than thunder.

They’re louder than thunder.

The 6th graders arrived to class almost 15 minutes late, and stumbled in the room screaming AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS in an adrenaline-enriched mania. I was shocked at their behavior, but I didn’t want to discipline them right away without seeing how Sam handles these situations. Saying little, she put some mops and brooms in their hands and they began to clean and set up the room while still screaming at each other. I tried to calm them down by getting them to focus on specific tasks, all the while using English-only commands. They resisted me at first, simply making fun of my accent or the mimicking the words I was saying without knowing their meaning, but most followed my directions eventually. Oh, the power of an Confucian-based culture. In the U.S., when students misbehave on purpose, they go all the way to show the teacher they do not care about them or anything they say. These kids were still about 50 percent invested in pleasing their teachers. Sam and I took the last five minutes to do a quick intro to what English class would be like for tomorrow, and thankfully, I was able to create an “angry teacher face” that got them to be quiet long enough for me to teach them, “I don’t understand, please repeat that.” So they would stop shouting, Shénme yìsi? Tīng bù dǒng aaaah! (“What’s that mean, I don’t understand!” 什麼意思?听不懂啊啊啊).

Then the bell rang and they sped out of the room.

Sam looked at me and I just stared back at her. “Wow….” I quickly followed up with some probing questions about classroom structure and discipline, and our conversation focused on better classroom management activities for tomorrow. “At least you made it through the first day!”

“Yeah, it wasn’t so bad. They just have so much energy,” I was trying to be delicate. “Yes,” she said, “they can be monsters.” Suddenly, I saw Sam’s eyes light up and she broke out into a full grin, “Thank you for choosing our school.”