Tag Archives: taiwan

Negotiation

For American tourists, negotiation in China is a blood sport.  Almost all native Chinese believe Americans are impossibly, spectacularly wealthy.  Almost all American tourists believe native Chinese businessmen are impossibly, spectacularly cunning.  A potent mixture of preconception.

My friend Matt and I had spent two weeks in China before we reached the Great Wall.  We had come to the Jinshanling section of the Wall to walk the four hour hike to Simatai.  Unlike the more popular parts, the walk to Simatai would take us over plenty of unrestored sections of the Wall.  Authentic experience, kind of.

Matt and I set off with two Swiss tourists we met along our travels.  Matt, a triathlete, set the pace.  I neglected it. ‘Walking’ is a misleading term for what you do on the Great Wall at Jinshanling.  Much of the unrestored Wall is a series of steep, crumbling slopes.  You use your hands almost as much as your feet. 

Each section of the wall is punctuated by a watchtower.  Genghis Khan once claimed that the strength of any wall equals only the strength of the willpower of the men defending it.  Today the Wall tests the strength of the willpower of the men and women climbing it.

Our willpower held out for an hour and a half.  The heat was grueling.  After a particularly arduous ascent, we reached the halfway point of our trek.  Matt plopped on the ground and rested his head against the thousand year old beige rock.  I complained about the heat.

An elderly woman approached us, bottles of water in hand. 

“Water? Ten yuan! Water?”

I sighed.  Travelers in China quickly grow weary of the ubiquitous hawkers, especially when they’re selling water at a massive mark-up.  Two yuan is a comfortable profit for a bottle of water in China.  Ten yuan is highway, or at least watchtower, robbery.

“You know,” Matt said “I’m not thirsty but why not try some negotiating?”

Negotiating is a necessary when buying almost anything in China.  After two weeks in China, Matt and I were familiar with the tourist blood sport of price bargaining.  We had to come enjoy it.

I called the woman back, speaking in English.  “Two yuan for four waters.” 

She shook her head.  “Eight yuan, one water.”

Snickering a bit, Matt tapped me on my shoulder and we started to walk away.  Walking away is the most potent weapon in a tourist’s arsenal.

“Okay! Okay! Five yuan each! Five yuan!”                                  

I turned.  “Tai guile!” I exclaimed, this time in Chinese.  Too expensive.  We walked to our sunny corner of the tower and sat down.

The women approached us again.  I groaned.  However, instead of continuing to pester us, the woman asked me if I spoke Chinese. I had just left Taiwan after a year on a Fulbright Scholarship.  My Chinese was passable.  I nodded. 

She felt me out with some simple, slowly spoken Chinese.  “Where are you from?  I’m from Mongolia.”

Taken aback by the women’s interest in something other than our bank notes, I answered politely: “We’re from America.  My name’s John.  Why do you work here?”

We struck up a conversation. I told her about my year in Taiwan, how much I enjoy traveling her complicated, beautiful country.  She told me about her family in Mongolia and how she walks four hours to work every morning along the Wall to sell water, beer and fans.  She gets home every night at 10 PM, watches over her grandchildren, goes to bed and wakes up at 2 AM to walk to work. 

The woman’s story took us all aback.  No longer feeling like savvy bargainers, we decided to buy a few drinks from her before we continued on our way.

She walked back to her cooler to pick out the beers.  I had translated as best I could while I talked to her, so my three companions knew her story and her schedule.  Matt collected forty yuan—ten yuan each– and handed them to her after she gave us the beers.

She shook her head and frowned slightly.  “No, no.  We said five yuan each.”

“Why won’t she take our money?” Matt asked.

“She says she’ll only twenty yuan like we agreed before.”

We tried once more to renegotiate, but she refused.  We had to accept the deal we had won for ourselves fifteen minutes earlier.  The woman took twenty yuan, walked back to her bag and put away the money.  She took out a fan, approached again and began fanning the Swiss girl in our group as we drank our beers, taking a motherly interest in the girl’s sunburned, exhausted face.

The woman and I chatted a bit more.  She complimented my Chinese and gave me some advice on how to tackle the rest of the wall.  Before we left, she patted me on the back and wished us all good luck.

She had won the negotiation.

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.

English Village’s Final Grade

Two hours ago, I finished the last English Village (EV) session of my life!  Hurrah!  Kristin and I high fived each other on our way out. 

I’ve started to collect my thoughts about a year at EV, specifically about whether EV should continue or not.  Last year’s ETAs argue that it should be shut down because EV is not an efficient allocation of government resources.  Now that I also have a year of EV under my belt, I feel qualified to weigh in.   I agree with my predecessors.

English Village is a nice concept, but it isn’t a productive use of our time, or of the city’s education budget.  Readers can refer to earlier posts for a description of what EV entails.  Basically, I read an English dialogue with local fifth graders.  Each student practices once or twice.  Each student visits EV only once each year, and most students visit only once their entire lives.

The Kaohsiung City Council supports EV for a few reasons.  First, they think it’ll help students learn.  Second, it accustoms students to speaking English with foreigners.  Third, it excites students to study English more. 

I have reservations about all three reasons.  Let’s start with reason one: EV helps students learn.  While certainly true, the question is whether EV helps students learn enough to justify the expense.  EV is a costly project.  The Education Bureau and Kaohsiung City spent a lot of money renovating and decorating the four EV spaces at Ling Jhuo, Taipin, SanMin and Futong elementary schools (overhead cost).  They hire managers and comanagers to run each EV.  Part of our salary goes towards the EV sessions we participate in (both constant costs).

Given that each EV session involves one or two repetitions of a dialogue followed by, at the three other stations, three English games, I don’t think EV teaches a student more than he would learn in two hours in the classroom.  The classroom is much less expensive.  EV was a bad decision with high overhead costs, but even for maintenance and staffing costs it is not a good way to spend money.

Reason number two: EV will produce more confident speakers of English.  Anxiety about speaking English to native speakers is a legitimate problem in Taiwan.  Students who graduated with high marks in English class often fall apart when confronted with an English-fluent foreigner.  More confident English speakers are a major asset for any country in our globalized world.

EV may contribute marginally to a student’s lifetime English confidence, but probably not by much.  When the eleven year old graduates from college a decade later, is her confidence really bolstered by that one time she successfully read the sentence “Where is the elevator?” at EV? 

Furthermore, I only spend eight or nine minutes with each group of seven students.  The students are at EV for two hours, but most of their time is spent playing games moderated by local parents.  If Kaohsiung perpetuates EV despite the problems involved, it should seriously consider adding more foreigners to the staff.  This way, at least EV could maximize its goal of familiarizing Taiwanese students with foreigners.

Reason number three: EV excites students to study harder in their English classes.  If you just watched kids head back to school after EV, you’d be sold on this point.  Most students are very energized by their experience.  However, you’d probably respond differently if you watched the student in English class a few months later. 

EV probably doesn’t have any medium- or long-term impact on a student’s interest in English.  Any assertion otherwise is a pretty fine example of theory ignoring the quotidian.  Recall the last exciting, one shot experience you had.  Odds are, you made all sorts of personal commitments to learn from the experience and work harder on [x].  Odds are, you didn’t follow through.  Now recall that you’re an adult.  EV deals with fifth graders. 

Without a doubt, the City Council and the Education Bureau strive to provide the best possible education for Kaohsiung City children.  Education is of paramount importance in Chinese-Taiwanese society.  I have had the pleasure of working with a few Education Bureau employees.  They are all hard workers who take their mission seriously.

The existence and perpetuation of EV is evidence of the gap between top-down intentions and bottom-up results.  City Councilors visit EV to watch one group read a dialogue, they take a few pictures, marvel at the authenticity of the hotel, and then leave.  Looks great.

What they miss is how EV does or does not affect daily, boring student progress.  If you have no teaching experience or week-to-week familiarity with EV, I can see how you’d come to false conclusions.  How quickly a students’ energy can be drowned by one bad test score or just two months to forget EV—those are all lessons teachers know very well.  Government officials often do not understand. 

The perpetuation of EV also attests to the appeal and importance of glossy photo-ops to government officials.  Kaohsiung trumpets EV in numerous publications and speeches.  EV is a sign of Kaohsiung City’s commitment to multilingualism and its innovative approach to learning.  An Education Bureau official in Taipei or Beijing doesn’t know any more about EV than a City Councilor.  If the pictures look good, assumptions are made about results.  Kaoshiung City’s reputation benefits from those quick assumptions.

Assumptions do not make results.  The only empirical study of the English Village model, conducted in South Korea, found that EV made no appreciable difference to English skills among Korean high schoolers.  It’s possible that EV impacts elementary schoolers in Taiwan differentially.  Yet the Korean conclusion gibes with my impression of Kaohsiung’s EV. 

EV is going nowhere soon.  This is only the program’s second year, for starters.  I hope a few changes are made to at least maximize effectiveness.  Bringing in more foreigners is a good start, as would lengthening the time spent.  Reforming EV would cost money, but at least it’d get it (more) right.

A Fresh Set of Eyes

I have less than one month left in Taiwan.  Although Taiwanese culture is always good for a few surprises every week (surprises which are cataloged here), much of what initially surprised me about my adopted home is now regular and expected.  My jaw doesn’t drop at night markets, crossing the street doesn’t raise my blood pressure, I can figure out when a Taiwanese person is upset with me, starving stray dogs don’t ruin my happiness, it’s easy to order at lunch box restaurants.  Seeing Kaohsiung and Taiwan through a fresh set of eyes might be fun.

In addition to that small deal about her being my beloved sister, I was excited to host my sister Holly for ten days because she’d bring a fresh set of eyes.  Not just any set of eyes—genetically, she’s as close to me as I’m going to get.  Watching her experience Taiwan for the first time would permit me to observe a rough approximation of how I experienced Taiwan in early August.  Her curiosity would lead me to Taiwanese oddities than I now take for granted.

Another benefit Holly brings to the table—again, besides the small deal of humor, intelligence and insight—is her fantastic photography.  She took all but one of the pictures accompanying this post.  My sister raises the standard for photography on this blog.  In fact, the most perceptive readers may have already noticed that I’ve changed the header image above.  It’s a cropped version of a photo Holly took of me walking through Liuhe Night Market, which is the same night market depicted in my previous header.  This time around you can see my head in the center, observing the night market scene.  Not only is it a nice metaphor, it’s a pretty picture.

Holly, Kristin, Madalena and I went for some shaved ice. Holly doesn't love it as much as the rest of us. Taiwanese fruit is amazing.

Holly arrived at 11 PM on a Tuesday night.  Her first experience in Kaohsiung was the pristine MRT and then a twenty minute walk to my apartment.  What was her first distinctive insight into Kaohsiung?

“The subway car smells like a rain forest.”  Now, I know what you’re thinking—your sister is crazy.  Hear me out.  It does sort of smell like a rain forest.  I had never noticed this before.  The mixture of humidity in the dark, hot subway tunnels and the full blast air conditioning in the subway cars creates a damp, humid scent whenever the doors open and close.  A tinge of rain forest scent.  Right now my sister is crying bloody murder because I mercilessly teased her for this observation, but my coming’s clean is better late than never, right hermano?

Count the number of people who were staring at her as she took this picture. Gives you a sense of why I consider myself a local celebrity.

The next surprise for Holly was Taiwanese mattresses.  Mattress.  Oh, what a loose term.  Taiwanese ‘mattresses’ have more in common with wooden boards than American mattresses.  Taiwanese think Americans are hopelessly effete in our mattress selection: why don’t I just buy an industrial sized bag of marshmellows and sleep on that, they ask.  One’s back eventually adjusts to the firm mattresses here, but it takes at least two or three weeks.  Holly spent almost her entire stay sleeping on a slightly padded wooden board.  I was amazed by how well she tolerated this.

The private boating cove of Kaohsiung Harbor, ringed by Jhong Mountain.

This is the only photo here that I took. I enjoy watching elderly Taiwanese people play games and chat outside their shops on plastic chairs. It looks so different than anything in the U.S.

The long stairs up to the British Consulate overlooking Kaohsiung Harbor. Plenty of mainland Chinese tourists.

Food is the cliché surprise for Westerners visiting East Asia. Mainland China’s food is more exotic than Taiwan’s, but Taiwanese markets can catch one off-guard too.  The surprising part about Taiwanese/Chinese food that I think is underrepresented in Western media is how good so much of it is.  I was especially excited to introduce Holly to legitimate Chinese food.

A view from the western side of the British consulate. The Taiwan Strait is the visible body of the water.

A view from the east side of the British Consulate. Kaohsiung Harbor and the 85 Tower.

Judging by her e-mail to my mom, I’m not sure Holly was as taken with Chinese food as I am.  After the obligatory apology for taking so long to write, Holly begins her discussion with the following two sentences: “It’s been really fun so far. I’m looking forward to western food.” 

Holly did appreciate the Taiwanese take on the egg breakfast sandwich, which includes lettuce and hot sauce. I've gotta' admit they're on to something.

Well, now.  She writes that her two favorite dishes are Indian food from Hola Burrito! and the onion pancake from a street vendor near my apartment.  As for the barbecued squid on Cijin Island and the whole body-fried prawns, she lauds herself for being “a good sport.”  No mention of the Noddle Lady’s Noodle Shop noodles, although she mentioned at one point that she’s not a fan of noodles in general.  Rave review it is not.

You don't have to like the food to enjoy the Chinglish.

A piece of the aforementioned barbecued squid. You pick your squid, they barbecue it, sauce it and cut it up for you. Lovely.

Yet her reaction fulfills my wish for a weirdness gauge.  We both sat down at the same table with the whole body-fried prawns.  I dug right in, relishing the crunchiness and explosion of flavor that comes only when you keep the shell on the prawn and eat it all at once.  I lost my reservations about eating prawn shells long, long ago.  So long ago, in fact, I had forgotten I ever once felt such reservations.  Mission accomplished.

One of the stops of the beautiful, two year-old Kaohsiung subway.

One of Kaohsiung's many busy streets.

Ever since the famous HOLLA! PowerPoint, it was inevitable that my sister would meet my fourth graders during her visit.  She co-taught four fourth grade classes with Angela and me on Monday.  The kids were in high spirits and produced some funny moments for her, e.g. when they tried for the first time to pronounce “Egypt,” when they couldn’t seem to understand that people who look Asian might actually be Americans.  My favorite moment was definitely during Q&A time when one of the classes asked my sister—totally out of the blue, mind you—whether she has received love letters.  They followed up with a question about the precise number of love letters received.  I love my little students.  A full week after she left town, they’re still telling me: “Teacher John, your sister… so beautiful!”

The hallway outside the fourth grade classroom. The hallways are usually like this--open air, lined with occasional stone sinks.

The basketball courts behind the fourth grade classroom. Kids are amazed when I dunk on the seven foot rim.

I feel like this would make a fine cover for a teaching failure expose. Pay heed, Secretary Duncan.

In a serendipitous bit of outsourcing, my co-teacher Margaret’s daughter, Emily, offered to take my sister shopping.  Without revealing that I would’ve paid her to do so, I accepted Emily’s offer on my sister’s behalf and arranged a time.  I’m no shopper here (or anywhere, really), but I thought checking out Kaohsiung’s shopping hot spots would be good for Holly.

From the beach at Cijin Island.

Holly was initially a letter anxious about spending a bunch of time alone with Emily, unsure whether they’d be able to talk about much.  Fortunately, the girls hit it off wonderfully.  Holly knows six words in Chinese (“hello,” “thank you,” “sorry,” “I like,” and “firefly”), but Emily’s a capable English speaker.  They checked out the main spots and took a ride on the Hello Kitty ferris wheel I’ve discussed in an earlier post.  Emily spent hours making Holly a farewell present—a cardboard cutout teddy bear with photos of the two of them pasted on.  It’s amazing—pictures soon once Holly takes a photo of it and sends it to me.

Chivalry is quite obviously alive and well in Kaohsiung.

An amazing picture of a line of tuk-tuk drivers stealing an afternoon nap.

Holly came along on a Fulbright trip to visit a private American school near Kaohsiung City. She took a photo of this hilarious note hanging on a second grade classroom wall.

In my next entry I’ll discuss our weekend trip to Ali Mountain with a few other Kaohsiung ETAs and Fonda.  A highlight: we woke up at 3:30AM to walk five kilometers up a mountain to see the gorgeous sunrise.  Plenty more to come.

Go Northwest, Young Man!

Visiting Hualien reminded me how much of Taiwan I miss by living in a large city.  Taiwan’s a developed country, but a large percentage of the population still lives in small, rural towns on or around mountains.  Both the average standard of living and the tempo of daily life is very different a mile (or a few miles) high.  In search of broader understanding, I jumped on Taiwanese Katherine’s suggestion to visit a few scenic towns in Taiwan’s mountainous northwest. 

Our first stop was Sanyi, a town famous for its hot springs high up one of the mountains.  The journey there is worth comment by itself.  We took a train to Sanyi and then rented a scooter.  We stopped by a ‘famous’ noodle place (for non-consistent readers, I use quotations marks because Taiwanese are far too quick to describe a place as ‘famous’) and then drove off in the dark.  Katherine isn’t very comfortable driving up and down inclines, so I eventually took over all driving responsibilities.

Concentration was paramount during the drive.  Once we began our ascent up the mountain, all we had was a comically windy two lane road.  No shoulder, no street lights.  It looked like something out of a Lexus commercial touting anti-lock breaks.

I still can’t say I enjoyed driving for two hours up a windy road in the pitch black, but one part of the drive impressed me.  All of a sudden, after about an hour of altitude climbing, we descended down a huge hill.  We drove speedily down a sharp decline for at least a full twenty five seconds.  I realized about fifteen seconds into our descent that we must’ve been driving into a remarkably deep valley.  Sure enough, after the road leveled for about a minute, we started on an equally steep incline. 

Other than the small portion of the road illuminated by our headlights, we could see precisely none of the valley.  Not even the outlines of a mountain or a tree.  Katherine, raised to appreciate very different ancient cultural reference points, couldn’t connect with my feeling that we had just dipped into the Inferno, both Dantes driven along by our trusty scooter, Virgil.  Another memory I won’t soon forget.

Taiwan is famous for its hot springs.  A volcanic island, Taiwan is blessed with a number of rejuvenating hot springs locations throughout the island.  Some hot springs’ waters are known for specific benefits. Sanyi is specifically known for the epidermal benefits of its hot, soothing waters.  After a few hours guiding a scooter up a gigantic mountain, I was in the mood for something soothing.

Katherine is a master hotel shopper.  For a very low price, she found us a room that included a large, en suite wooden hot springs tub.  The hot springs relaxed my cramped shoulder muscles and left my skin feeling silky smooth.  I’m often skeptical of Chinese medicine and health clichés, but I can no longer deny the skin benefits of hot springs.  My skin felt wonderful.

A G-rated reenactment of my hot springs bath. This is the fruit of much Katherine cajoling.

If the theme of the first night was epidermal pleasure, the next day was all about culinary pleasure.  Our first stop was Tofu Street (dofu jie), a two-hundred yard single lane road lined with tofu shops and restaurants.  Tofu is a staple of the Taiwanese diet.  Nutritionists consider it a ‘super food’ because of all its health benefits (e.g. it’s a rich source of protein without any of the negative effects of eating meat).  Tofu street was a one-stop-shopping emporium for every conceivable variety of tofu.

Of course, Tofu Street had its very own ‘famous’ restaurant.  I scoffed.  This time around, however, I think maybe Taiwanese were on to something.  The restaurant was one of the best cheap restaurants I’ve ever visited in Asia.  We each had a bowl of noodles and split some fried tofu.  The tofu was the main attraction, but everything was delicious.

By ‘cheap’ restaurant I don’t mean low-brow.  Only recently have I started to realize that, in Taiwan and China at least, there’s a certain type of restaurant that doesn’t exist in the U.S.  Like the U.S., Taiwan has your run of the mill Western-style sit down restaurant.  It also has food stands. 

What the U.S. lacks are the cheap, informal ‘restaurants’ that predominate in Taiwan.   What do they look like?  The owner buys a small kitchen on a part of the first floor of a building.  He or she then buys a bunch of foldable chairs and plastic stools and scatters them around the interior space and out on to the sidewalk.  Customers place their orders at the kitchen, stop by a chopstick/soy sauce stand to gather what they need, and sit and wait at their tables for their food.   Western-style sit down restaurants with wooden tables, table cloths or placemats, prelaid utensils etc. are very popular here, but they’re more expensive and less well attended than the cheap restaurants.    

So as not to sound too repetitive over the next few days of writing about trips to mountains, I'm not going to delve into every beautiful moment touring the natural landscape. I'll let pictures speak their thousands of words.

A fresh water stream from the melting snows atop Yushan Mountain, Taiwan's tallest peak. I wanted to cool down my feet after a little hike.

Anyway, back to the narrative.  Our second culinary stop was quite different than Tofu Street.  “Shokolate” is an upscale chocolate shop built in English manor style in the middle of wide, trimmed green lawns and flower garden paths.  An appealing testament to upper-middle class Taiwanese folks’ wish to experience European culture.  I thanked the heavens for my many paid tutoring jobs, bought five gourmet chocolate pieces and sampled them with Katherine in the middle of one of the lawns.  It felt really strange to eat gourmet chocolate (in Western flavors like ‘Earl Grey’) on a manicured lawn set on the side of a Taiwanese mountain.  

One of Shokolate's display cases. This set would not be out of place anywhere in Paris or Trieste.

Next up was the town of Dahu.  Dahu revolves around the Dahu Strawberry Farmer’s Association.  The farmers run a large market selling hundreds of varieties of strawberry products.   I ate strawberry-flavored sausage, made by brushing strawberry preserve on grilled sausages.  Delicious.  We tried puff pastry filled with strawberry custard.  Delicious.  I drank a tall glass of iced strawberry milk tea.  Ibid.  We rested a bit and waited out a rain storm in the market’s café, marveling at the strawberry splendor.

Katherine making out with her strawberry puff? She enjoyed it a little too much.

You know you're in Taiwan when there's a line to take one's photo with this giant strawberry.

Our final culinary stop of the day was at the awesomely-named ‘Mile High Café.’  Guess how high in the sky it is.  It’s a family-run restaurant built on the side of a cliff.  If you jumped over the railing at the far end of the restaurant, you’d fall pretty far.  A legitimate cliff, with a beautiful view of the mountains and valleys extending as far as the eye can see.  The restaurant churned out high quality Taiwanese foods like hot pot and tofu with tomato.  Another excellent meal.

A view from the Mile High Cafe

The Mile High Cafe is in the same town as ginger farms. The snowman's body is made of ginger. I can't get over how truly absurd this is.

The aesthetic inside the Mile High Cafe was a microcosm of Taiwan’s cultural hodgepodge approach to upper-middle class dining.  The really elite places are always faithful representations of Eastern or Western culture and cuisine.  My favorite places are the upper-middle range restaurants, the kinds of places where you can sit on nice chairs yet eat on disposable table cloths (traditionally, Taiwanese meat consumed at restaurant will still have some bones, so you’re expected to take the bones from your mouth with your chopsticks and just leave them to the side of your rice bowl), where the service is excellent yet you’re still expected to get up and go to the rice cooker to scoop yourself some rice, where the speakers play a steady stream of Louis Armstrong yet the owner’s mother sits by the door selling freshly picked Taiwanese plums.  A delightful mélange. 

Our hotel for the night was priced at the upper-middle range, but its cultural representation was spot-on.  ‘Maison Philo’ (French for “The Philosophy Home”) is a European-themed hotel run by a native Taiwanese woman.  It was one of the most charming hotels I’ve ever visited. 

Initially, one is struck by the strange shape of the hotel.  I couldn’t really see it, but the owner told Katherine she modeled the shape of her hotel to represent an owl’s head.  All I saw was a circular white building with large windows. 

The exterior of the Maison Philo

If there’s anything to nitpick about the hotel’s fidelity to its cultural model, it’s how over the top (yet consistently accurate) it is in trumpeting the owner’s understanding of European culture.  You walk through the large oak doors and are immediately confronted by a mural of Raphael’s “Academy.”  Probably not what you’d find at your average French B&B, but who can argue with the “Academy” as a choice? 

How can you argue with this?

The philosophy major in me deeply appreciated the way the hotel owner ordered the rooms.  No numbers.  Names.  Specifically, the names of famous philosophers.  Each of the four rooms on the second floor was named after a famous philosopher, and then decorated according to the national style of the philosopher’s home.  Katherine chose Bertrand Russell because she liked the English style, but one could choose Aristotle, Descartes or some Arab philosopher I couldn’t discern because I can’t read Arabic (heck, I was impressed I could read enough Ancient Greek to read “Aristotle”).  Each room includes a few translated, dog-eared copies of the resident philosopher’s works.  Was I swooning almost as much as Katherine?  You bet.

One of Bertrand's walls

Katherine’s full swoon set in when we visited what to me was hands down the oddest part of the trip: a castle in the middle of a Taiwanese mountain range.  Before you rush to your Encyclopedia Britannica (or—who are we kidding?—Wikipedia), note that this ‘castle’ is not what most Westerners take to mean castle, viz. a large residence which long ago housed aristocrats.  Instead, the ‘castle’ is a recently constructed, modernly furnished restaurant/giant photo op with a really pretty view of a nearby valley.  If Shokolate and its gardens was faithful enough to its ideal to simply confuse, the castle was so off the mark it was just hilarious.  I try hard not to snicker at the enthusiasm of Taiwanese for Western treasures, but I couldn’t help myself at the castle.  In its own right it’s quite pretty and it has a drop-dead gorgeous view from its restaurant, but it’s a far, far cry from a legitimate castle.

Just like the Tudors used to make!

A castle it may not be, but the food was good. Even these chips.

I bet this mean tiramisu eclipses anything concocted in the court of the Sun King!

I wound up spending most of the weekend at tourist spots, removed from the small rural towns.  The indelible images of the weekend were the beautiful views of the mountain ranges, the Inferno’esque descent into a pitch black valley, the soothing texture of my post-hot springs skin, and the strange castles and chocolatiers dropped in the middle of nowhere. 

Yet I continue to be drawn to the small towns.  I’m a city kid, through and through.  By the time I register that I’m driving through a small town, the town is halfway behind me.  I can’t really imagine how I’d get on two miles from sea level, living with one hundred other people two hours drive away from the market.  I’m always enchanted by the image of the old Taiwanese farmer sitting on a plastic chair outside his small, corrugated metal roofed house.  It’s such a mystery to me.  It may not sound like it when I write about it, but that guy in his blue chair remains with me just as much as the taste of Earl Grey gourmet chocolate or strawberry sausage. 

The man in the chair also represents another significant fact: Taiwan is a developed country, one of the thirty most affluent “places” in the world (note the word “places,” State Department lawyers!).  But the average income here is only slightly more than half of America’s.  This place often strikes me as a pretty poor country, mostly when I venture out of Kaohsiung.  Taiwan doesn’t need your charity, but an accurate mental representation of Ille Formosa requires an awareness of how far Taiwan has yet to grow.

Two Big Tigers & One Small Fear

Who knew there’s a Chinese “Frere Jacques” spin-off?  Yesterday Angela and I taught the fourth graders English words for  body parts.  The centerpiece of the lesson was “Two Big Tigers,” a Chinese song set to “Frere Jacques” music:

Two big tigers, two big tigers

Run so fast, run so fast

One has no eyes

One has no ears

Really weird, really weird

Poetry it is not.  Nevertheless, it’s good for ginning up interest.  One teaching lesson I’ve learned is that there’s no successful teaching without student attention, there’s no attention without good behavior, and there’s no good behavior if the students aren’t interested. 

Thus, I wound up singing “Two Big Tigers,” in Chinese, by myself, in front of the entire fourth grade. 

My Chinese has developed nicely this year, but it’s nowhere near stage ready.  Angela had to lean on me pretty heavily, pointing out how much interest and attention my singing would create.  I reluctantly agreed. 

Why was I reluctant?  They’re only fourth graders.  Who cares what they think?

Normally, I’d agree.  We ETAs don’t mind how kids giggle at our mistakes because it’s a symptom of the funny sort of reverence they have for us.  For example, my kids laugh when I don’t catch the chalk I toss in the air to entertain them, but it’s only because I usually catch it.  When teacher makes a mistake you need to take advantage of the opportunity because there are so few chances.  I remember what it was like to be an elementary schooler.

There are two points that make singing in Chinese a more stressful act than normal.  First, our kids really love criticizing our Chinese.  They cackle, whisper to each other and writhe around in their chairs.  I’m sure part of this has to do with our being English teachers and giving these kids English grades that in many cases will lead to kids getting chewed out by demanding parents.  Teacher John can’t speak my language well, yet I’m the one with all the problems just because I can’t speak his language well.  Whenever Teacher John botches a word, group pile-on in retribution.

To exacerbate the situation a bit, most of us are relatively insecure about our Chinese skills.  Chinese is a tonal language.  It’s easy to make a big mistake.  We’ve all made big mistakes.  Public speaking—nay, public singing—in Chinese is a big step.  I put so much work into improving my Chinese, it’s defeating whenever any native speakers disparage it.

As it turned out, most of my fears were unfounded.  Five of my six classes took my stilted, error-ridden performance in stride, focusing on the fact that I gamely agreed to sing in Chinese.  Only one part of one class chose to focus on the fact that I completely botched the word “ears.” 

I know it may be drawing too much from a single example, but I interpreted the generous reaction as evidence that my bond with my students has strengthened over the last few months.  As some of you may recall, I’m one of only four ETAs who will spend the entire year at one school.  I’ve had seven months with my young pledges.  Their reaction yesterday was a lot more supportive than it was four or five months ago when I agreed to mutter some Chinese.  I think they look at me now as both a friend and a teacher.

One of my favorite students gave me a gift at the end of class “because you sing good!”  She was completely sarcastic, but in a friendly, “nice job, buddy!” kind of way.  One of the more frustrating things about this year has been my inability to really get to know any of my students.  Yet with a few students I’ve at least come as far as good-natured sarcasm.  It’s a meaningful development to me. 

Sure, it like a cross between a Roman theological nightmare drawing and Japanese anime.  It won’t win any awards.  But it’s now propped on my shelf, and it’ll stay with me for a long time to come.

A Normal Conference

I’ve had very few opportunities to wear a tie in Taiwan.  Yesterday was one of them. 

Charles, Kevin and I presented at the 27th Annual International Conference on English Teaching and Learning in the Republic of China.  Psychologists, applied linguists and ESL/EFL teachers from around the world converged on Kaohsiung’s Kaohsiung Normal University for the two day event.   Representatives hailed from countries like Japan, the U.K., Ireland, U.S.A., Korea, Japan, Thailand and more. 

Speakers presented papers on various topics, ranging from the densely theoretical to the practical.  Some of my favorite titles include: “Occupied or Immigrating: A CDC Perspective of the ESP Pedagogue” (what?), “Teachers’ Beliefs in Sociolinguistic Instruction in Communicative Language Teaching: The Cinderella in Taiwan’s EFL Classes” (Dear Professor, any cutesy interest you ginned up with the Cinderella reference was buried alive by everything before the colon), “Why Do We Need an Adequate Theory to Describe and Explain Learners’ Behavior?” (Good question), and “A Study of the Correlation Between EFL Learners’ Collocation Competence and the Use of Collocation Learning Strategies” (Is ‘collocation’ a vegetable?).

Attending the conference was very convenient because Kaohsiung Normal is two blocks away from my apartment complex (a “normal” university, for those wondering, is a teacher’s college). 

Kaohsiung Normal’s proximity to my apartment helps answer the obvious question: how did three under-credentialed 20-somethings wind up presenting at such a conference? A classic case of effort meeting opportunity.  Fulbright asked Kaohsiung Normal to select three professors to advise we ETAs this year.  The university and its faculty are nearby and therefore easily reached; Kaohsiung Normal was a logical choice.  One of the advisers, Dr. Susan Shih (or Dr. Stone as we call her because her last name “shih” means “stone” in Chinese), chaired the conference this year.  She asked us to present about our experiences.

I woke up Sunday morning and almost put on a suit before remembering that college professors dress like bums.  Wearing a blue suit to an academic conference is like dressing up as Lady Gaga to attend a Southern Baptist Convention mixer.  I decided to play it safe and wear khakis, a blue dress shirt and an orange-and-navy rep tie. 

The decision turned out to be a good one.  Although Taiwanese are in general less formal dressers than Americans, the Taiwanese professors at the conference all wore suits and pant suits.  As predicted, the Western professors looked like they had recently been mugged.  In my tie and shirt I looked like a walking embodiment of cultural compromise. 

Our session ran from 10:30-12:00.  We were placed in the largest room and had about sixty-five spectators, by far the largest group of people of any of the concurrent sessions in our time slot.  The general theme, it seemed, was “practical ideas about English teaching.”  In other words, we were assigned the small sliver of time dedicated to discussing the practical utility of all the theories bandied about all weekend.

We ETAs were preceded by a professor from Taipei who spoke about his proposal to require all Taiwanese elementary schools to begin English education in the first grade instead of the third grade.  As he rattled off his reasons (e.g. greater trade opportunities in the future), I was struck by how earnestly the Taiwanese policymakers and researchers in the audience nodded along.  Taiwan takes multilingualism very seriously, and for all the right reasons. 

Kevin spoke first about what aspects of English teaching jump out at first-year EFL instructors like us.  Charles followed by discussing the major pedagogical and institutional differences between the American and Taiwanese public education systems.   They both represented our program well. 

I had decided beforehand to take a more direct approach to addressing what I knew would be a crowd of applied linguists and English teachers.  My topic was “Theories About Effective English Teaching: Some Remarks on Praxis” (I couldn’t resist throwing in a fancy word).  I began by telling the audience about the crash course in ESL/EFL instruction theory we received after we first arrived in August.  This topic led to the funniest moment of the speech, when I misremembered how long the orientation lasted:

“The Fulbright Foundation and the Kaohsiung Education Bureau had us sit for a month-long orientation in education theory and—“

One of the professors who taught us at the orientation piped up from her seat: “It was only week long, not a month!”

Her interruption could have made for a rough start, but it was actually a blessing.  I loosened up the audience with a quick response: “Well, it felt like a month.”

I then went on to talk briefly about three of the most well known theories we heard about, and discussed our (i.e. the ETAs) collective sense of how useful they are.  The whole thing took seven or eight minutes, which, as some of you may know, is right in my comfort zone.

It was the first formal speech I had given in quite a while, and it felt really good.  I enjoy public speaking more when there’s something at stake than when there’s not.  In this case, I felt that a good performance might open a door.  As it turns out, I was right: a professor from another university in Kaohsiung asked me for my e-mail address so we can arrange a time for me to elaborate on my thoughts in a longer address to the entire Applied English department at her university.  She’s yet to actually e-mail me (it’s been a day), but it was still flattering. 

Only after Dr. Shih made a comment did I realize I had just presented at my first invitation-only academic conference.  The time made for Kevin, Charles and I to speak was given preference over dozens of papers sent to the conference for review.  After hearing this point, I was glad I had put a solid amount of time into preparing my presentation.  I was also a little proud of myself.

Although my presentation was my focal point for the weekend, it was only a small part of the conference. The starring role went to Dr. Richard Kiely, a respected professor of applied linguistics at the University of Bristol, U.K.  I honestly knew nothing about the world of applied linguistics before the conference, but Dr. Shih told me Dr. Kiely is one of the top four or five applied linguists in the world.  Therefore, I decided to return later in the day to watch his keynote address: “The Craft of the English Teacher.”

The thesis of Dr. Kiely’s talk was that, in the context of performance assessment and professional development, an experienced teacher should be treated like a master craftsman.  By this, he means that an experienced teacher should not be simply criticized or told to instruct students in a particular way.  Instead, an experienced teacher should be asked to explain to an administrator or evaluator why he or she made the decisions she did.  The teacher will, in the process, discern grounds for improvement or alteration himself. 

By pure chance, I ran into Dr. Kiely after his presentation.  I took the chance to raise an issue with him that bothered me, viz. surely some teachers have bad habits and surely some of those teachers with bad habits won’t recognize their bad habit/don’t care to change it when they’re describing their decision-making process in the classroom.  How does your model improve their performance?

Dr. Kiely’s response, in essence, was that a continued program of professional development based on guided self-review (i.e. respecting the teacher as a “craftsman”) will still lead teachers to correct their errors, the difference being that teachers arrive at the conclusions themselves.  Disinterested teachers are more likely to make changes to their approach when they’re not being dictated to.

I’m not entirely sold by his response (if a craftsman built you a crappy canoe, would ‘respecting the craftsman’ require you not tell the craftsman that he builds crappy canoes? ), but I think there’s a superb idea lurking in his position.  Why don’t more school districts and countries with especially contentious teacher-government relations consider reforming their “continued professional development”/evaluation systems to more closely mimic Dr. Kiely’s model? 

Experienced teachers (i.e. teachers with a minimum of five years teaching experience) would agree to the use of test score data and an evaluation with their principal based on Dr. Kiely’s “respect for the craftsman” model.  The teacher would be asked to sit down with an administrator and discuss a videotaped lesson, explaining her decisions and expected to come up with a few ideas for improvement.  The teacher would not be given a list of changes she must make.  Direct constructive criticism would be reserved for new teachers or teachers with subpar test scores/subpar performance on other performance measures.

I think this procedure would help alleviate some of the pent up mistrust between teachers, administrators and government.  The ethos between teacher and trainer would change.  So long as there are criteria like test scores to ensure that totally disinterested teachers can’t just coast along, I see the utility in Dr. Kiely’s idea.

Thanks to Professor Stone for inviting me to participate at the conference.  I had fun and learned some things in the process.  Now it’s back to presenting to the really tough crowd: fourth graders.