Tag Archives: reading

Heaven Lake

While I was reorganizing the family bookshelves last week, I found a novel entitled Heaven Lake by John Dalton.  Unfamiliar with the title, I was just about to throw it into the donation bin before the cover image of a Chinese woman leaning out a train window, the wind rustling her hair, caught my eye.  The plot summary on the back cover piqued my interest further.  In my hands, from some unknown source (I’m usually very aware of all the books that enter the home; my mother must’ve bought the book while I was away), was a book about a twenty-three year old American male in Taiwan.

There was really no choice at this point; I had to read the book.  My policy with novels is to screen my selections ahead of time.  In general I’m risk averse about reading bad books that won’t please or teach me as much as another book I could spend my time reading (if you want to develop the same lovely, stressful quirk, read The Fly Swatter by Nicholas Dawidoff).  This tendency is especially pronounced with novels.  Reading Heaven Lake was a big breach of protocol.  I hoped the book would offer me a chance to reassess my views of American-Taiwanese culture clash, as well as serve up a few nuggets of insight that I had never managed to notice or express. 

Overall, the book touched on the major cultural discontinuities without satisfying my curiosity for social differences that I had never noticed.  At its best moments the author captured Taiwanese or Chinese idiosyncracies that I had noticed but never put into words.  For example, the Chinese/Taiwanese woman’s love and mastery of the personal photoshoot.  The following is from a scene in which the main character, Vincent Saunders of Red Bud, Illinois is in a park with a female Chinese friend:

He eased forward and snapped a photo.  She held herself still, the same pose, which he puzzled over a while until she said “more” and he squeezed the shutter twice again.  He thought it a rather conspicuous activity, the taking of photographs so seemingly worshipful and private here in a public park.  He worried that to passersby he would appear a tactless voyeur.  Yet when they moved to other locations, a terraced cove of the lake, an ivy-backed archway, he saw camera-toting admirers trailing other young women.  Several were extravagant in their posturing, versed in an array of preening flourishes. . .

Credit to John Dalton: This is spot-on.  Whenever I walked through a scenic part of Taiwan or China, I saw at least three or four women, either with their boyfriends or girlfriends, posing like fashion models in front of attractive background scenery.  I would often wonder how these young women learned so many poses.  They had to study magazines, TV shows or newspapers.  There’s no way one woman intuits so many poses.

The poses ranged from goofy to sultry.  Even little girls as old as five or six had a repertoire of funny or cute facial expressions.  Elderly women never whipped out an unnatural pose, either because they thought their appearance unworthy or they can’t understand the vain, preening process.  Some men get in on the action too.

Not all women participate—as much as Taiwanese Katherine loves pictures, she has only three or four basic, versatile poses.  I have a few theories but no solid understanding of when or why the habit developed in East Asia.  Rather than bore you with them, here’s another very accurate, very funny passage from Heaven Lake.  Here, Vincent is traveling by train through rural China as he is served a plate of green beans with gravy.  Dalton highlights the perils and confusions of eating in backwater China:

He chewed slowly, mechanically, a dozen or more beans, until he noticed that mixed within the gravy were coarse brown specks, like small rice or wheat husks.  He raised the plate to his chin and realized, with an almost total lack of alarm, that these specks were actually medium-sized brown ants, Chinese ants, desert ants, perhaps, dead or motionless beneath the quagmire of gravy.

From the kitchen came a sudden boom of laughter.  Pots collided and rang out.  He stopped scrutinizing the ants and tried wrapping his mind around several different notions at once.  One: the ants had come aboard clinging to the beans and had been served to him accidentally.  Two: the waiter and cooks, bigots or pranksters, had salted his beans with insects and were now huddled in the kitchen rejoicing in their stunt.  Three: the ants were part of a peculiar regional recipe.  Try as he might, he could not decide which was accurate. . . . It seemed a dilemma he could scrutinize again and again over the course of a lifetime without ever arriving at one, irreducible answer.

Indeed.

Lessons Learned

In preparation for my trip to China, I’ve been reading many books and articles about the Middle Kingdom.  China Wakes by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret have been excellent.  Reading about a place beforehand is a good way to make the most of a brief visit.

Preparatory reading is also valuable before long visits to new places.  I read a lot about Taiwan before I arrived, both to prepare for my Fulbright interview and to make sure I didn’t make a fool of myself when I landed.  Professor Vincent Wang, the chair of the political science department at the University of Richmond and a Kaohsiung native, gave me a lot of excellent reading material.

As I was cleaning my shelves yesterday, I found an essay by John Hawkins, a professor of comparative education policy at UCLA.  Writing in the Harvard International Review, Prof. Hawkins points out the key cultural and institutional factors that he believes explain Asian nation’s K-12 education success.  The essay made a favorable impression on me when I read it in June 2009, and it only seems more impressive to me now. 

Prof. Hawkins highlights these particulars about education in East Asia (and, by extension, Taiwan):

  • Culture
    • Confucian values of self-denial, fortitude, patience, rote learning and delayed gratification make for better students.
    • Confucian values of family hierarchy make students more obedient to the demands of their parents, who in turn influenced by Confucian values demand high educational achievement from their children.
    • The nationwide civil service exam, which began hundreds of years ago in ancient China and which continues today, bred a meritocratic ethos in the education system.  Unlike poor communities in the West, children and parents in poor communities in East Asia believe that hard work at school pays off.
    • East Asians believe that “making errors is a natural part of learning and not to be mocked or considered failing” and that “effort trumps. . . innate ability.”
    • Structural differences
      • The national government exerts more control over standards, curriculum and finance than national governments in the West.
        • Easily understood standards for teachers to follow, and the government can make sure textbooks and teaching materials are designed specifically to meet the standards.
        • Nationally guided decisions about financing reduce the ability of wealthy individuals to sway school funding decisions.
  • Longer school day, more school days in the school year
    • Students are given exercise breaks in the middle of the day, which especially helps young boys concentrate in the classroom.
  • Less tracking by ability
    • Low and middle ability students are in the same classes as high ability students, which may help those students make valuable friendships with higher-income families as well as ensure that middle ability students receive challenging inputs
  • Cram schools
    • 60-80% of students attend cram schools.  These schools provide additional instruction in core subjects.
  • Teachers are much more respected and better paid than they are in the West
    • The average income in Taiwan is about USD$20,000 per year.  A senior teacher (teaching for 8+ years) makes almost twice that amount.
  • Teachers are surrounded by a support staff of counselors and others who allow the teacher to focus solely on planning and delivering academic lessons. 

One can quibble with individual points, but Prof. Hawkins’ overall analysis is solid.  Contrary to popular belief, Taiwan’s K-12 successes aren’t entirely attributable to culture.  Structural differences play a major role, although they’re probably less important than the cultural differences .  Please don’t take the previous to mean that structural differences aren’t crucial: your car needs an engine more than the wheels if it’s to move, but you wouldn’t then say that the wheels don’t matter!

With the Obama administration pumping billions of dollars into adjusting the structural features of US K-12 education, it’s interesting to note how many similarities there are between Taiwanese and USA educational institutions.  Like US teachers, it’s very difficult for a Taiwanese public school teacher to get axed.  Like most US teachers, Taiwanese public school teachers have successfully resisted efforts to have their performance measured by student achievement on yearly standardized tests.  Perhaps even more interestingly, Taiwanese education administrators are also trying to pass measures loosening employment strictures and legalizing test score-based performance review.  There’s an emerging international consensus that accountability is a good thing.

Some of the Obama administration’s desired policies, like uniform national reading and math standards, are already part of the Taiwanese education structure.  Taiwan’s success is positive advertisement.  Consistent standards mean that schools in rich, urban Taipei teach the same lessons and use equally helpful textbooks as schools in rural, backwater Rueli.  Substitute “Upper West Wide Manhattan” and “Jackson, Mississippi” and you’ll realize how much consistent standards can mean.   

Yet consistent standards are idle, even pernicious, goals if there are vast funding disparities.  This was the major failing of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind act: it set tough standards for high-income and low-income schools and proceeded to do nothing to help the low-income school achieve those standards.  It’s like telling two racers they have thirty seconds to complete a lap while one racer sits in a Ferrari and the other has rollerblades.  To make matters worse, the Bush administration would then penalize the slow racer by taking away his rollerblades.

The much more equitable Taiwanese funding pattern is, in my opinion, the single most important structural difference between Taiwanese and USA schools.  A public school here receives funding based on the number of students it has, period.  The Obama administration, in a nod to futility, has not pressed for any serious changes to the US status quo

Funding matters a lot.  One lesson I’ve learned from my time here is that the old refrain “Gosh, we pour dollar after dollar into the school system and it’s done nothing!” is a poor argument against greater investment in schools.  Sure, government has misallocated funding in the past.  It will probably do so again in the future.  But finances are extremely important to establishing broadly accessible, high quality education. 

Kaohsiung neighborhoods aren’t quite as socioeconomically segregated as many neighborhoods in the US, but they’re not far off the mark.  Nevertheless, my working class school is filled with working class kids who can kick it with the upper middle class kids in my residential neighborhood.  No small part of this situation is the similar levels of funding afforded to each school. 

Cram school and private tutoring for the rich kids will put them at an advantage, but their advantage is much, much smaller than the advantage a Scarsdale kid has over a South Bronx kid (excuse the New York reference, non-New Yorkers).  To top it all off, the end result isn’t less achievement for the Scarsdale kid—it’s greater overall achievement for the country’s youth!

There’s so much to discuss in Professor Hawkins’ essay, but this is not be the forum.  As it is, I’ve only given you the Cliffnotes version of a far more complex argument about two of the topics he raises.  I hope my upcoming studies at York afford me the opportunity to study all of these issues more deeply and reach better informed conclusions. 

Whatever the case may be, I know for sure that the USA has a lot to learn from East Asian education systems.  The final test will be whether we choose to implement the solutions we can identify.  Future prosperity rests on our grade.