Thursday, April 2, 2009

Taiwan lifestyle: The bargain that was Taiwan

After a few months I soon worked out the bargain that was Taiwan.

I didn’t much like teaching when I first arrived so I would search the vacancies section of the local paper for twenty minutes every morning for something else to do.

Children’s school requires native English speaker – North Americans only.
Adults school requires mature motivated teacher for evening, morning classes.
Foreign Teachers Required for Kindergarten. North American accent preferred
Foreigners required…I would get excited…to teach conversation to small groups.
Foreign Males Aged 22 – 30 Required…this may be it, I thought…for photo shoot.
Editor Needed for English Language…Hmm, still the same thing…
Engineer…Would be nice, but I don’t think I can bullshit that one.

Unfortunately, that was it: no marketing manager positions, you were in teaching heaven or hell depending on your perspective.

The conversation in the common room of the hostel wasn’t much better:

“How many students do you have?”
“Have you taught this page before?”
“Do you actually do these listening comprehensions?”
“The students can write but they can’t speak.”
“They do too many games here. What do you think?”
“How much time do you spend on drilling as opposed to games?”
“How many words do you think they can learn in one day? Do you set homework?”
“They are only six. Do you think they need to learn to spell?”
“What incentives do you offer to keep them quiet?”
“You put them in pairs and they never do anything!”
“Got to put them in teams and play them off against each other.”
“First time, and they are like teach them, and I haven’t got a fucking clue. What do they want to know? I don’t want to teach them something they already know. I don’t want to pitch it way above their level.”
“The students here aren’t very talkative.”

Then they would ask me stupid questions: “What do you think mate? Very quiet over there.”
I thought about telling them to shut the fuck up but I was a diplomat: “I am thinking about what you lot are saying,” I would reply. I am imagining killing you all so I don't have to kill you all.
I headed off to the school. My new work environment was taking a lot of getting used to. I was the only foreigner working in the school and my colleagues were all females. And of course not western females who I could bounce jokes off and expect to be called a chauvinistic asshole but polite girls who just smiled a lot because they either didn’t understand what I said or…um…were just polite.

I walked into the school, cursed the picture of Harry Potter on his skateboard, took off my shoes, dipped my head and entered the classroom.

I saw my teaching assistant Sara. “Sara, you are looking beautiful today,” I said.

“Jen di ma (Really?)” she answered. She feigned embarrassment, but sprang to attention like a neglected puppy, waiting to get her compliment whenever I arrived.

“Yes. Really,” I replied.

Taiwanese girls were refreshing non-politically correct: making there way in a male dominated world, conscious of not being seen as a sex object or having their integrity doubted, didn’t get in the way of accepting a compliment.

Then we had this groundhog day conversation:

“I too fat,” she would say with the same urgency; my opinion sought sincerely, my answer awaited nervously as if things might be different from the day before. Never did she getting bored or feel that my assurances were sufficient to placate her insecurities to the point where this conversation only need to be carried out once a week. At 50 kilos and 5ft 3 inches, her legs were apparently too big for a skirt -- The definition of good legs for Taiwanese was stick thin.

“No, no, no,” I would say. “Your legs are perfect.” I protested that her legs were shapely – which they were – but her calves were wider than the shin and that meant fat in Taiwan.

I looked at the book – and then the fifteen five-year Taiwanese a long way below me struggling with their bladder control. This weeks lessons was occupations; that was ten hours – two every morning – of pretending to fire guns, arrest the students and spray water hoses, among others. I had ten flashcards and the sentence “What do you want to be? I want to be…” to work with. It was Tuesday and I felt I had already done the subject to death.

“Sara, today we are going to move on, aren’t we? Perhaps split the class into two teams and discuss whether the death penalty has a place in modern society.”

“What?” she replied.

“Nevermind,” I said then turning to the kids. ““Okay, everyone stand up. What is it,” I shouted. I adjusted my skirt and started to type.

“Secretary!” they all shouted.

The compliment was necessary with my teaching assistant because I guessed, as I was still adjusting to being an American, it kept dismissal notices away.

Everyday was the same: Could you speak more clearer? More slower? I don’t understand your accent? What is a jumper? Letterbox? Petrol Station? You couldn’t turn around twenty-five years in just a couple of months.

I frequency also broke into sentences like this: “Look at all little buggars running round…won’t pay attention for a moment. I know I don’t understand, but I know he’s giving me lip…If any of them would bloody sit their little arses on a seat for long enough for me to finish a sentence, maybe they would learn something!…You didn’t understand a word, did you? I’M SORRY, TELL THEM TO SIT DOWN.”

I owed Sarah a lot.

At break time I wandered over to the reception area to talk to Hsiao Fang, the receptionist.

“You want coffee?” she asked. I had a dilemma with her: she was good looking so it was time to move on from letting her buy me something everyday, but then I wouldn’t get the free coffee and cake. Still I knew my assistant would buy it for me – or some stranger on the street. That was a plus of Taiwan: I had never been treated so much in my life and it was beginning to get in my bones.

There was a saving grace to my accent, I could say whatever I wanted and nobody understood.

“No, but I’d love to squeeze your melons and spank your hide raw you saucy little wench?”

“Ting bu Dong (I don’t understand)” she answered.

“Melon, you know ‘melon?’”

“You want melon? I think we have.”

“You definitely have, me dear...unusual to see such good melons in Taiwan.”

“Taiwan have very good watermelon – my grandfather have the farm.”

“Does your mother also have good melons?”

“Of course - We Taiwanese have close families.”

"As I say, your grandfather should be proud.”

“You want the melon?”

“I want to see first”

“Why you want to see?”

“Not just see, but feel…need to know they are up to standard.”

“ ma jiang (How to say)," she said. "They already…(making a slicing action)..chiere.”

“Oh… not so good.”

“You don’t want?”

“I like my melons in one piece.” I shaped a melon with my hands. “Whole…no cuts…no slices.”

It looked like today was going to be a bad day. The boss wanted to see me.

“Can you be more enthusiastic with the song,” she said.

I suppose I still hadn’t got into full playschool mode yet. “I will try,” I replied.

The boss of the school then decided to come to the second hour with some parents and watch my class. I pulled out all the stops for the ‘Wheels on the Bus’ – I only glad it wasn’t posted on Youtube for my friends back home to see.

The Kindergarten only employed me in the morning; otherwise, I had another job on a Wednesday and Saturday but that only totaled 20 hours a week. The rest of the time I spent chasing private student, leads from agents like Amy and Lilly.

This afternoon was no different and as usual I was lost. “Amy, where is this place? I’ve driven along section 2 for 10 minutes. I don’t recognize anything,” I said.

“You lost again, what is the number of the lane you are?” said Amy not surprised.

“Seventy,” I said.

“So you not arrive yet!”

After having got the directions wrong so many times, I was permanently sure I was lost.

“You are late!” she continued.

“Yeah, I know.” I wasn’t going to admit I had already turned back once because I must have missed it, it couldn’t be that far. But it always was; I suffered from a perpetual need to shrink distances. A shell-shock from the unfamiliarity: in Europe, I had never learnt a word of any of the languages, but i had subconsciously learnt to recognize words and phrases on sign posts to show me the way, but here it was left at the first cool squiggle and right at the second. I had rang one too many buzzers, entered too many unknown offices, asked countless people where to go and endured humiliation through the knowing smile that I was a stupid foreigner. And I had called students only to find out, I didn’t understand their directions: ‘which road? Is that Ching Hsing or Ching Shan?’, then not wanting to offend saying ‘okay, no problem’ and sit helpless on the side of the street, often just getting in a taxi and going home because I couldn’t face being late. Sometimes, I would try getting into a taxi and say drive, desperately looking for something I could point at, before getting out no further forward - and I hated to get a taxi because it was admitting defeat, and a waste of money.

Half-an-hour later, hot, dripping with sweat and bad tempered, I got to the school not in the mood to give my demonstration. “A thousand apologies,” I said.

Unfortunately, the class of eight year olds who I was supposed to teach had already finished so I had to teach the pre-schoolers. All three and four years old, they sat crying and bewildered as I tried to teach them the lesson I had prepared for the older kids. That had been a waste of time.

Next possible student was a fifteen year old boy who wanted to study at home, an easy student. I found the apartment first time and decided my luck was on the change.

“Here is my son,” said a very confident mother who said she was also a teacher. It was a standard Taiwanese boy of the worst age: Jordan t-shirt, crew cut, slouched across the table, with an expression that gave away it wasn’t just this morning he succumbed absolute to his mother’s hen pecking and haranguing to get better results.

“Wait a moment. My husband and daughter also want to study. Maybe, you can talk to my son for a moment,” she continued. “This is my husband, he is a manager in an electronics company…And this is my daughter, she is an English student at Tai-Da (Taiwan’s best University). Okay, I let you teach.”

Too fucking kind, I thought.

“My name is Dan. Each of you, introduce yourself.”

“Hi, Dan. I am Eva and I am hoping to study art history in UCLA next year,” answered the daughter with a perfect American accent.

The other two introduced themselves and I knew I was in for an hour and a half of hell. Daughter who speaks better English than me, husband who speaks English, but I can’t understand a word because of his accent, and son who can’t fill in the blank in the middle of a three-word sentence, when he is given the words, ‘I’ and ‘fat’. You teach a group and they are supposed to be similar levels but here I had the mixed class from hell: different levels, different age groups and different interests. Hell! Hell! Hell!

And, the girl was making me particularly nervous because she could articulate my crapness to my face, if she so felt.

“So each of you ask me three questions?” I said. This was classic time-wasting for people like myself who didn’t know where to start. I was actually justified in not knowing how to proceed because of my imbalanced class, but, unfortunately, as I needed the work I couldn’t walk out.

“Start with Simon.” Simon was the son.

Simon to his sister: “Ta suo shir ma.(What did he say?)”

“Ne wen ta 3 ge wen ti. (Ask him three questions?)” she replied.

“Shir ma wen ti? (What questions?)” It wasn’t all Simon’s fault, his mother and the education system hadn’t exactly worked on growing his initiative.

“Don’t speak Chinese please…Simon, ask me a question?” I pushed. One minute of awkward silence later and with energy levels dissipated to zero, I gave up.

“Okay, How old are you?” I asked.

“What did he say?” said Simon.

“He asked you, how old you are?” said the sister trying to be cooperative by speaking in English….“Ne je suei” Father not.

“So how old are you?” I repeated.

Five minutes later and under pain of death from sister and mother. “Fourteen”

“Good. What do you like to do?”

“….” In response to life’s pressures the boy had developed a go-slow technique that could hold back the sands of time and suck the energy from exploding hydrogen bombs…All the while the father sat expressionless and his sister smiled to deal with her inner excess of impatience.

“So why don’t you ask your father a question?” God that is so stupid, I thought, but all I was trying to do now was last the hour.

“Will you pay for me to study for my MBA?” asked Eva. When she repeated the question a minute later, her father gave her a look that unequivocally stated he didn’t want to discuss it now.

“See what he is like. I have given him a lot of face by getting into the best university in the country and he-”

“Let’s move on,” I said. This was beginning to sound like his family back home so the only thing was to do something from the motivated son’s textbook, a bit of pronunciation would pass the time.

I read a word I knew he wouldn’t get. “Garage.”

“Gara G,” he repeated.

“No! Orange…garage.”


No, not oranG, but orange.”

“…oran G” Five minutes later and I had his tongue out – like that was going to fuckin’ help – and was pronouncing at dead slow - “gar…age’- which was also pointless because nobody spoke that slow in the real world, and I should’ve moved on. I wanted to tell them: ‘Yes, I fucking know I am a useless twat and I should have given up and moved on from this along time ago, but to fucking what? This means I don’t have to think, I can use your crapness to cover my own.’

“I have a question regarding the use of the present perfect and past perfect…” said the daughter.

“I am sure you do,” I replied. And, unfortunately, as I feared, I didn’t have a clue how to answer, having to pull my weight as the teacher just to get out of their house.

Finished for the day I bought a small bottle of whiskey from the convenience store and sat in the park. I had just orchestrated stagnation, boredom, misunderstanding and inertia that would make David Brent proud. Yes, it was in fact impossible to teach that class but being a desperate bastard I couldn’t say no to the money. Worse I left a local with the knowledge she spoke better fucking English than me - And worse still, they wanted another class next week and no doubt I would turn up. I wasn’t adapting well to being a happy smiley teacher. I don’t know if I was cut out to be a children’s TV presenter and I disliked being ordered around by middle-aged Taiwanese women. I needed to go to a football match or something where I could swear and shout and be macho.

All he needed now was one of his students from the Kindergarten to walk by with their mother -

“Hello, teacher Dan,” called Emily, one of my four year olds.

“Hello Emily,” I called back desperately trying to hide the bottle of whiskey and so tipping it on my jeans.

I dragged myself up and thought about going back to the hostel.

Suddenly my phone rang.

“Hi, this is Jessica,” said the voice.

I had dated Jessica a couple of times and then kind of forgot to call her for a few weeks. “Hi,” I said. “How are you? What are you up to?”

“Ok, uh…um…That is why I call you. I want to say, I don’t think I perform very well last time. Um, if you want to meet again, I can do better.”

I was of course taken back. “That is ok…No problem...Well, lets meet up now.” I said.

And that was the bargain that is Taiwan: during the day having our macho credentials bashed teaching English, and then at night reinforced by local girls.

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