Wednesday, February 25, 2009

English teaching IV: It is all about the accent, California beach bum trumps Oxford graduate

Everyone knows that the Taiwanese love the American accent. I have heard it is better these days, but many years ago a British accent was a no-no, especially if you had a regional accent.

This is a true tale of what happened when I went to visit an infamous English teaching agent with a Swiss guy I had met in the hostel.

Marcus – the Swiss guy – and I took the lift down from the sixth floor of the hostel and squeezed past the scooters the other side of the metal door. This lane was typical for the older parts of town built around twenty years ago: four to six storey buildings either side, the lane about the width of two cars, the outside of the buildings dirty cement or bathroom tiles, drain pipe thick piles of wires running outside, no pavement, a storey-high wall running the length of the street, punctuated by wide red doors to access the second floors and above, and a smaller door to access the first floor. In most cases the people on the first floor had knocked down the wall, put in a pull down metal door, and turned the space in front of their front window into a car park. Most of the windows had large aluminum bar frames, and if we had a balcony it had been made into another room, and fitted with dark glass and wire mesh to protect against the mosquitoes and sun.

I guessed the advertising slogans read: “Experience the true wonder of underground living - above.”

It was only March but with the sun out we were already beginning to sweat - and it wasn't midday yet. The buildings on either side of the lane cast shadows over the side of the lane so we deliberately walked down the center of the lane trying to get as much of the sun as possible. Opposite a woman came out of a red metal doorway wearing a sun visor, before putting up a parasol - It wasn't the first time we had seen a woman with an umbrella; the sun appeared to be the enemy in Taiwan.
As we approached the main road the noise of scooters and cars started to pound in our heads, and the sun disappeared behind overlapping shadows from fifteen storey plus building - building of this height were the staple of the main roads.

"You want to get a bus?" asked Marcus.

Taxis were cheap, I knew, but at some point you had to get used to the bus system. "We should do really," I replied.

We both looked at the buses swooping in to pick people up. We had done some rudimentary research of the map of Taipei and knew roughly where we would be getting off, but still we would have to sit at the front of the both straining their necks for road names, getting up every five minutes to show the piece of paper to the driver. That was another thing: while they had met some people who spoke English, blue collar workers - taxi drivers, bus drivers, shop assistants, and most restaurant staff didn't. It wasn't easy to get about the city.

"Best not to be late today," said Marcus. "Want to make a good impression."

"Good point," I replied.

Marcus walked to the corner of the lane and palm down flagged down a yellow cab; it broke instantly causing a couple of motorcycles into emergency stops. One of them tapped on the driver’s window and stared at him, and the driver stared back disinterested, as if to say ‘what are you complaining about, you are not actually dead.’

“Wai guo ren (foreigner),” shouted the taxi driver in a panic. “Ne huei jiang jong wen ma (You can speak Chinese?)”

“I can speak the piece of paper, mate,” I replied.

The driver dropped them off on a lane very much like where we lived, and we wandered down it looking bemused - we had expected it to be in an office building on a main street, not in a residential building, and from there the term 'fly by night' or dodgy came to mind.

The lane was compounding the feeling we had from the phone call yesterday: we had called up and she hadn’t said ‘Grace’s English Teaching Agency’ in a bright sunny tone. It had been - ‘Yes??’- to which we replied - We are looking for teaching work - and there had been silence, to which we had asked politely if we could come to her office, and she had repeatedly for the fifth time the question about how we knew her. Finally, she had quickly given us an address…3rd floor, Alley 34, Lane 12, Fu Yang or something Road, and quickly put down the phone. And we had desperately tried to remember the address when it could have been Fu or Hu or Yang or Chang or Yong…God it was hard. It didn’t matter as everyone in the hostel knew her address, and the girl behind the desk wrote it down.

We rang the downstairs buzzer on number twenty-six. "Yes," came a voice in that same suspicious tone.

"We are here about teaching work," I said.

"Yes," she said.

"Can we come up?"

"Who told you to come here?"

"You did - We called you yesterday."

"I see…Hmm…okay."

She pressed the buzzer and we made their way up the dirty dusty stairs, pass the smell of foot odor from shoes and plastic slippers left outside on doormats outside iron bar frame doors. Burglary was supposed to be minimal yet everyone had a steel iron bar frame door on the outside of their apartment door.

We took off their shoes and went inside the office.

The inside of her office didn't reassure us: white faded walls, one desk for her and a couple of wooden classrooms chairs for them to sit on. There didn't appear to be anything to lose if she had to run out the door this second with all she could carry in one hand - and our salaries in the other.

"Hi. Nice to meet you," I said enthusiastically but she didn't respond.

I thought Chinese people were supposed to be mannered. I had been preparing to swear 100% loyalty to my first Master, but I was quickly finding out that was not always the case. From what I had heard Masters were regularly casting pupils into the wilderness without their last month's pay, and pupils were running off with the Master's best clients.

"So where are you from?" asked Grace.

It was my big moment to pretend to say I was an American. I prepared myself to say Mississippi, but it stuck in my throat to say I was American. The English invented the language didn't we? - How could he possibly be the one with the accent?

"Where are you from? South Africa?" she asked.

"England," I blurted out thrown by her suggestion.

"Really? You have the unusual accent?” she pushed.

I got my passport out of my pocket. “I am English. Here. Have a look at my passport.”

“Yes, that is good you have an English passport now. How long you live in the England?”

“Almost all of it - The accent is from my parents,” I replied smiling again, refusing to lose my temper. It seemed my west of England accent was destined to be patronized wherever I went.

“Anyway, when you go to the teaching demonstration, maybe, you take the passport. With your accent I think the school like to see,” said Grace.

"English comes from England," I said now getting a little annoyed.

"Yes, I know," she said like she was just trying to be polite. "But Taiwan likes the American English. Many students won't accept you."

"Americans have the accent -" I wanted to say, there was no such thing as American English, but I decided to retreat; I had to lose this battle, if I wanted to win the war.

“And you…uh…Marcus…Where are you from?” she asked. Marcus had to come to Amy because he was Swiss, and therefore unable to produce a passport of a native English speaking country and work legally.

“I am American…Alaska,” replied Marcus. He had chosen Alaska because he needed to name a place in America she hadn’t gone to -- Grace spoke good English and this business was a profitable one, so he guessed she had spent some time in the ‘Land of Freedom.’ It was a rule of thumb: if Taiwanese had enough money, they had been to America, and he didn’t want to find out they might have had the same teachers or gone to the same restaurants.

“Yes, that is good. I study in Seattle for three years,” she replied.

Marcus let out a little sigh of relief. I, for my part, sat impassive enjoying the irony of Marcus’s new national identity and the implications for myself.

“Uh…So how do you know about me?” Grace asked them suddenly as if the question should have been asked earlier, and all of what had gone before was pointless.

“Some people in the hostel recommended you,” replied John.

“What did we say?”

“They said you are a good agent,” chipped in Marcus while thinking they said you were the last chance saloon of desperados like us.

Amy moved on satisfied we were diplomats. “So you know each other?”

“Just met in the hostel”

“How long are you planning to stay?”

“At least a year.” We had been told to say this and that it was a waste of time: she wasn’t going to train them and there was no work permit or contract being offered, but you still had to go through this lie. She wanted to know you weren’t going to desert your students and go back to Thailand and lie on the beach for at least a year. Again, pretty pointless as Amy’s teacher/student relationships usually didn’t last a year.

“So you two want to teach English?” Grace knew this was a stupid question, but….

“Yes,” I replied before it was too late.

“I am a teacher, I taught in Japan for 1 year,” replied Marcus.

Amy was warming to Marcus. She knew that nobody who came to her ever had experience (it wasn’t the point, in fact, that would mean they wouldn’t stay long) but she wanted to see who would adapt quickly to lying…uh…sorry, to teaching, that was.

“You teach English before Dan?” I was stumped, realizing I had missed the boat with the lie, but telling the truth wouldn’t help either.

“I have never taught English, but I think I can do it because I have lots of work experience, including training,” I snapped before sitting back to let the shame of my own stupidity wash through me like a giant wave.

“Okay,” said Grace after a brief silence in which I waited to be thrown out of her office. “Marcus you are no problem because you have the American accent, but Dan I not want to waste your time so I explain to you. You say you are English, and you know Taiwan like the American accent. You are the good teacher, I can feel...but seventy, eighty percent of my work is for the American or Canadian. You know if you want to work a lot of hours it is hard. I can give only give you a few students, and one is here and the other there. You know you cannot buy a motorcycle so it is very hard to get around this city. I have a job for you in the Chiayi, that is in the south of Taiwan. They don’t care the accent there, as long as you can speak some English. You also get the free place to stay, good salary…it is very easy to save money.”

“Thank you, I’ll think it over if I may,” I replied smiling wider than ever, almost about to break out in laughter. I had been told she would try and push a job in the south of Taiwan on me, but I had also been told if I thought Taipei was a little different, I hadn’t seen anything yet. I had no intention of taking the job in the south.

I started to laugh again because the ironies were just too many to mention, the biggest being Marcus was from Switzerland, and by virtue of his English teacher being American when he was young, was now eminently more employable than myself. I left shaking my head, fighting off a cynicism that had people looking down on me for speaking with an English accent.

From now on I would definitely pretend to be an American.

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