Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Who are these kids? Coach's Perspective

Teaching in Taiwan has certainly been very interesting so far and after 2 and a half months here, I have come to one overall conclusion: it really is not that different than teaching in America! Obviously there are some fundamental differences with the cultures and as a result the kids act and react differently to the way I teach. In the States I tended to be very sarcastic with my students, some even call it my love language. Here in Taiwan the culture is very literal and even rigid at times. Breaking rules or not saying what you mean is not the norm. Most of my “witty jabs” that would have my students in the States laughing (maybe AT me but still) completely miss the mark here in Taiwan! Also I am realizing just how many southern idioms I have in my repertoire. First of all there is y’all. I am pretty sure most of the high schoolers have heard this phrase before but you can tell they are definitely not used to it! But just imagine if that great uncle or grandparent of yours that has never left Alabama were to travel to Asia and say something like “Man y’all sure are eatin’ high on the hog!” The Taiwanese would be more than puzzled. Maybe their conclusion would be that for lunch we would have pig ear (which I have tasted and actually enjoyed). Or maybe on a cold rainy Taiwanese day a southerner might say something like, “Good Lord its cold as blue blazes!” Now I am from the South and I do not even know what that means! My point is sometimes my inner “Bama Boy” lets loose with a “dadgum” or a “good gracious!” and I notice it more when everyone else has a blank expression and wanders what the heck I am talking about.

Another major difference with Taiwanese kids is their intense fear of rain. Some kids in the US might fear rain because they do not want to get too much water on their nice jacket or get their hair wet. The reasoning is a little different here. Asians apparently believe that direct exposure to raindrops is one of the major causes of hair loss! Folks, I could not make this stuff up if I tried so you know I am not lying. So, yes, this means that they basically believe that I grew up without an umbrella! Also, kids here are totally enamored with the fact that white people look so different than they do. If you have forgotten what I look like I will remind you; I have blue eyes and I am quite hairy. Both of these attributes make little Asians stare at you for several minutes at a time. I have little kids during PE come up to me and just look at my eyes and say, “Wow blue eyes, so cool!” At first I felt like a rock star but now I just say something like, “yeah but you have brown eyes, that is WAY cooler!” But my next story takes the cake. I will never forget when Alan, grade 4, saw my arm hair and immediately began to pet me and say, “so soft, so soft.” Normally that would weird me out but for some reason it was kinda cool so I just let him feel my hairy arm until he had had his fill.

Other than a few major cultural differences these are still kids with some of the same issues, fears, interests, hobbies and attitudes as any other student you would come across in the States. Here are a few examples The number one game of choice among middle schoolers is dodge ball. Girls in 5th grade think that boys are gross….and vice versa. High school students see how much they can get away with and manipulate what you say to benefit them. They glow when you complement them. Forth graders cry when they get out in kickball. They whine when it is hot. They rejoice when they win. Elementary girls get out on purpose so they can sit in the shade and play their own version of patty-cake. They like to talk about their pets, especially their dog that has a haircut to make it resemble a lion (seriously, more on this phenomenon in a blog to come)! They are addicted to first player shooter video games and looking up funny stuff on YouTube. High school boys like basketball and rap music. The girls pretend that they do too. Now I ask you this question: is that much different than the youth that you have grown accustomed to in America? Not to me. We are different in so many ways but at the end of the day the truth is….we are the same.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Confucius say...

So we finally became somewhat productive members of Taiwanese society and got around to starting a Chinese class. After two months of whining about not understanding what people say to us, we actually did something about it. We didn’t get on the ball quickly enough to join a class on campus so we decided to have a tutor come to our apartment. How posh are we? Anyway, this past Tuesday was our first session. We headed into the evening with mixed emotions. On the one hand, we were excited to finally be doing something to contribute to the alleviation of the communication gap that has loomed so ominously before us during our time here thus far. On the other hand, we were terrified that our tutor, having heard our butchered pronunciation and mangled tones, would either burst into a side-splitting laughter that would bring us all to tears or that she would be so offended at the massacre of her mother tongue that she would storm out of the apartment giving us a tonal tongue lashing. In either case, we would be left with our hearts heavier and our wallet lighter than when we started.

However, our fears were relieved when our tutor came to our door. As is the custom, she promptly handed both of us her business card with her contact information… and also a picture of her late feline companion. Plastered where a company logo might be was a photo of her dear kitty who, after being with her for the past 15 years, passed on to kitty heaven recently. I noticed that the name on the card was different from the name that I had been given on the phone. I figured that they had given us someone different until our tutor explained that she had taken on her cat’s name when she passed away. Trust me, I am not creative enough to make this material up. I knew that we had a winner. There was no way that cat-lady was going to make fun of my tortured Chinese skills.

We sat down, filled out some paper work and promptly started the lesson. For an hour and a half, we twisted our tongues, contorted our jaws, dilated and constricted our throats attempting to mimic the sounds that our tutor produced so effortlessly. “No, no,” she would say. “Curl your tongue back farther as you say it!” Or, “No, no. You should say it with more air. You speak lazy Chinese.” I’m not sure what lazy Chinese is, but I am speaking it, apparently. Then, as we neared the end of the lesson, she said it. I really had to look at her to see if she was joking and then hold back my laughter when I saw that she wasn’t. I thought that they only said things like this in bad kung fu movies but, it really happened, folks. “You know, Confucius say that…” I don’t remember what he said (mainly because I wasn’t able to follow her in the first place) but those three words made every second of the lesson worthwhile.

We said our thank you’s and goodbye’s and Chris and I sat back down at our table trying to digest everything that we had just taken in and repeated the one sentence that we were able to produce with any success. “Wo shi lao shi.” I am a teacher. Hey, baby steps, right?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Keys to an Athletic Tournament

First of all, let me take a moment to apologize to my faithful readers for the long intermission that I have taken between posts. It has been a busy couple of weeks but I will do my best to keep it from happening again. Thank you for your fidelity despite my neglect.
This past weekend, Chris and I chaperoned a trip down to the southern part of the island to a city called Kaohsiung (that is the Romanized spelling, though I found that it is really pronounced something more like “Gow-shung”. Why spell it that way? I’m not sure but I have been trying to get to the bottom of it all week.) Anyhow, after a hectic volleyball and soccer season consisting of two volleyball and one soccer games, it was time for the season-ending tournament where international schools from all over the island competed. Chris was selected as one of the teacher chaperones because he is athletic director and I was selected mainly because my husband is the athletic director but I was also given the proud duty of yearbook photographer. Never having been an athlete myself, I was first introduced to tournament life three years ago through Chris’ coaching escapades. Now, we have noticed many things that are different between the Taiwanese lifestyle and our own, but few have been more pronounced than this little sporty sojourn.
The first difference I have already mentioned and that is the number of games played in a “season.” There are only a handful of international schools within driving distance of our school and local Taiwanese schools don’t have sport teams so, logistically, we really can’t schedule too many games. But, the real reason is this. The Taiwanese people don’t care about sports. I know, to some of you avid Auburn or Bronco fans, those words might seem like sacrilege, but it is true. Here, after kids finish a day at school, many of them head off to piano lessons. After piano lessons, they go to their Japanese tutor and then to their math tutor. Then, they have to hurry home in time to swallow some dinner before their cello teacher comes by for a lesson at home. This hardly leaves time for athletics.
When the first game of the tournament started, I noticed the second difference. Where were all of the fans? Now, I recognize that the tournament was far away, but it was pretty much the equivalent of State back home. Not one of our parents made the trip with us and, in fact, out of the eight teams who competed, there were two sets of parents there. Two! It kind of makes the idea of having a cheerleading squad a little bit ridiculous. The lack of a fan base didn’t seem to bother the kids and they were content just to have their coaches and teammates there cheering them to… well that brings me to my next point.
Let me just say this. Don’t judge us because our school is small and this is the first year to have a high school so, let’s just say we came up a little bit short. Okay, a lot short. Our volleyball team not only didn’t win any matches, they didn’t win a single game. But, talking to them during and after the tournament, they really were okay wit that. So many times you hear a parent or coach persuading their little leaguer to buck up because, even though they lost, they sure played well. But that was what these girls really thought! They didn’t care that they came in dead last, they had a great time doing it. Our boys’ soccer team won one game and you would have thought they won the entire tournament. The fiercest competition that I found was not found on a court or on a field, it was in the room where the girls slept.
Since the tournament was so far away, we stayed the night Friday night at the school. The boys were given the gym to sleep in and the girls were given the music room. I was sitting in the gym watching some kids play around after our first game on Friday when I heard one of our students say that another student was needed down in our room. Not wanting to miss what was going on (for more reasons than one), I followed them. I was shocked to find that in our room, the students had pulled out the piano and were having a piano playing competition! And, I am not talking about Chopsticks or Heart and Soul. I’m talking about Flight of the Bumblebee type stuff that totally blew my mind. Their fingers were flying across the keys while others stood around cheering them on or critiquing their use of the pedals. I have to say, it was quite unexpected but very entertaining. Kids who I can’t get to turn in one paragraph of homework were showing off their musical prowess with Bach.
All in all, the tournament was quite enjoyable despite the lack of trophies and it was a wonderful cultural training for us. We’ll make sure to brush up on our Tchaikovsky before basketball season.

Monday, October 6, 2008

When in doubt...say yes

For anyone thinking about spending time in a place where you don't speak the language, I have a few tips on the do's and don't's to help you get along in daily life.
Let's start with the Don't's:
1) Never think you are above pointing and gesturing like a neanderthal. You'd be surprised how many people actually enjoy a game or two of charades. Besides, you really haven't lived until you've ended a conversation with a complete stranger with your leg hoisted up on their desk while you make doggy paddle motions with your hands.
2) Don't think that speaking louder will suddenly make someone speak your language. We've been on both sides of this experiment and it hasn't turned out well yet. No matter how slowly or at what volume the lady at the grocery store explains how I am supposed to prepare the mystery food I have just purchased, the Mandarin switch is not going to turn on, no matter how much we both want it to.
3) Don't underestimate the power of "please" and "thank you." You may not be able to be fluent overnight but you can at least be polite.
4) Most importantly, don't take yourself too seriously and don't get frustrated. When you tell the clerk at the 7-Eleven that you are a stupid monkey instead of asking for a bag because your tones are off, the best thing to do is just to laugh it off. After all, they are already laughing so you might as well make them laugh with you and not at you.

1) The first thing that I have learned to do when someone speaks to me is to smile. I may have no idea what they are talking about but at least I can be pleasant to look at, right? I have found that a nice silly grin beats "deer in the headlights" any day.
2) If after a big grin, the person doesn't realize you have no idea what is going on and they continue speaking to you, I enjoy giving them a nice "knowing" chuckle. You'd be surprised how many times a friendly chortle is appropriate in a stranger's conversation. If it isn't appropriate, this will hopefully really drive the point home that you are quite in the dark about what the other person is saying. And, it usually makes the other person laugh and gives them a nice story to tell their friends.
3) Use what you do know. I have gotten a few "deer in the headlights" on the other end since my pronunciation is so ridiculously bad but I have also gotten what I wanted more times than not. I heard once that the reason that Harry Caray led the crowd of Cubs fans in singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" every seventh inning stretch was because he was so bad, everyone thought they could do better so everyone joined in singing. So, I will call my attempt at Chinese the "Harry Caray Effect". I butcher their language so badly, they have to know that their English is going to be better than my Mandarin and so they try it.
4) My final tip is a dangerous one but has served me well thus far. When in doubt, say yes. You can tell when someone is asking you a question in Chinese because their sentence ends with "ma?" So, if someone is waiting for me to answer them, I have just learned to say, "yes." It is kind of like a quick game of chance. Ooh, what have I ordered this time? It makes opening the carry-out bag for dinner much more exciting. We've had a few negative surprises like the watered down peanut butter juice for breakfast the other day, but mostly they have been positive, like last night when the lady just kept adding more food to our bag with no extra charge. Hopefully we didn't offer her our first-born in exchange for fried sweet potatoes.

I hope these tips were helpful. Happy communicating!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

From Fajitas to Titanic

Seeing as how we’ve been here for two months now, I think that it is about time for us to tell you what we are actually doing here. I am going to describe my day in this blog and Chris will describe his later.
I knew that I would be teaching English but as an unexpected surprise, I am also teaching one section each of French and Spanish. Who knew that I would actually be able use romance languages in the Orient? Teaching Spanish pronunciation during the first week of classes brought some unexpected challenges.
“Remember, the ‘j’ in Spanish is pronounced like an ‘h’, just like in the word… (to self: wait a minute, they have probably never heard the word ‘fajita’ before in their lives, I’ll give it a shot anyway) fajita.” After silencing the rising hum of “huh?” and “what?” that overtook the classroom, I attempted to depict this Mexican cookery. Imagine trying to explain a fajita when your audience doesn’t know what a tortilla is either. The quote of the week came from a student offering his input about the foreign delicacy, “Oh yeah, I think they have those at TGI Fridays.” Ah yes, the great Mexican tradition of TGI Fridays.
The English classes that I teach have been a stretch since I have never taught English before, but they have also been a blast. Both classes are specifically English writing classes. The first writing class is what we have deemed the “IEP” section. This stands for “Intensive English Program” and is designed for students with extremely limited English or learning disabilities. I wasn’t sure exactly how limited their English was going to be before classes started. After all, they were admitted to an all-English school, right? They must be at least mildly proficient. Wrong. It was from this class that I had the famed tear-shedding incident. After the first day of school, apparently two of my six students from this class went home and cried to their English tutor who promptly called the school to see what monster would do this to his precious students. Oops. Apparently, they got over it, because they came back and very rarely give me dirty looks.
Now, I know that this is against the rules, but I have to admit that this class might be my favorite. Their English ability is so low that it is like teaching kindergartners who don’t pick their noses or pee in their pants. They get so excited when they actually understand when someone is trying to be funny, they crack up at the simplest things. When we talked about asking questions, I asked them, “Do you sing in Bible class?” and they said they did. Then, I asked them, “Do you sing in science class?” And the class erupted in laughter. Now, if you know me, you know that I love for people to think that I am funny and this class makes it really easy. Maybe that is why I like them so much. In this class, there is a sweet girl named Cindy who thinks that it is a travesty that Chris and I don’t have any kids yet. “Why no baby?” she asked me one day. “Baby so cute!” I wanted to pinch her cheek and say, “No, you so cute!” But, I refrained.
My other writing class is also full of characters. Their level is much higher than my IEP’s but they still need help to get them to a high school level. In this class is a friendly young gentleman named Leo. Leo is a portly freshman who likes to randomly burst into song. I’m not talking about songs you would normally expect from a high school boy. I’m talking about “My Heart Will Go On”, “Shepherd of my Soul” and other songs of that nature. He often compares himself to a panda in his writing which is a relatively accurate description: big, clumsy, but also sweet and charming. He is so eager and full of energy, you want to laugh at him and yell at him at the same time.
There are many more but as this is getting long and I have lesson plans to write, I will leave you. Sing a bar of “My Heart Will Go On” for old time’s sake, you know you want to.