About Me

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Yilan, Taiwan
I'm a Social Studies teacher and single mom from Colorado and have lived here for 9 years. Taiwan is an excellent base for us explore Asia, while living in relative (gun free) safety, while benefiting from a cheap and efficient national health care system. The people are amazing too. I have friendships that are 14 years old and I'm always making new ones.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Confuscius Confusion and Swimming Against the Current

                          (Preschool winter concerts turn into elaborate kindy graduation performances)
I'm all for going with the flow, most of the time. But I have had to put my foot down when it comes to navigating the dire straights of parenting a child in the Taiwanese education system. It certainly has enlightened my understanding of being a teacher here myself. Confucius birthday, better knows as "Teacher's Day" ironically is coming up (September 28th) so now is a good time as any to indulge our private and recent struggles of at times swimming against the currents.

                                                        (Here Z as a toddler is pretending to teach her friends)

For the most part Z's teachers have been amazing, from preschool and kindergarten teachers laid the foundation of "bopomo" the phonetic alphabet of the traditional characters. She was memorizing Tang dynasty poetry like a parrot, perfecting her impeccable pronunciation as a wee child. Elementary school was unknown territory, but her homeroom teacher and anchingban owner  (in Tainan) were superb; we all communicated well together, despite language and cultural barriers, which was helpful as my kid was going through a kind of lying phase, trying to use her drama skills to see how much sympathy she could arouse from adults. But with support and cooperation we got through it.

                        (learning Mandarin was easy when it was a song, the good ol' days)

There was one major incident where her Taiwanese language teacher in Tainan without my consent (or without informing Z's home teacher and anchingban) were filming my kid for promoting Taiwanese language, which scared the bejeez out of me and her anchingban for ten terrible minutes, as she was MIA. Then there was her homeroom teacher giving Z a flu vaccination without my consent, subsequently getting sick, which I was livid about, but let it go.

But what kind of education?

Recently, it was new territory going to a private, wealthy elementary school. It was in fact a terrible experience for my kid, being bullied ("haha you have no Dad, you have no one to take care of your mom!") on a daily basis. That class went thru 3 homeroom teachers in one year as the class was utterly unmanageable. She lasted a semester there before returning to the public education system in Yilan.

Its been a test in patience and understanding on my part to deal with this young teacher, and most likely the reverse is true as well! My kid certainly didn't help her relationship early on by inciting a class mutiny against teacher, for giving the kids too much homework. (Z was organizing the class to demand less homework- future labor organizer perhaps?). At the time I had to side with the teacher that the classroom isn't a democracy and the teacher is the captain. Now  considering the past few weeks of this new semester, I think my kid brilliant and perhaps forward thinking after all. There were times when I had to LINE message her, Z had been spending 4 hours doing her homework and was crying, and teacher responded by reducing the amount of copying of characters, which is great, but, I wish it was already at a sane amount to begin with.

                                  It bares repeating, kid learn better by creative playing. Here they are running  a noodle shop.

Last semester I had to have several meetings and even met with the principals to demand that my child be allowed to have her precious recess. Teacher being a good, traditional teacher, was taking away Z's only breaks to inflict academic punishment (copy and memorize). My view is that's counterproductive and harmful and teacher can be more creative with her punishments and rewards other than taking recess away. Even prisoners get time everyday to walk around outside.

I understand they have to copy a character a zillion times to get it in their minds. I copy characters myself and unfortunately those characters don't stay in my memory very long. Mandarin is indeed a time consuming language. I understand this is a Confucius culture where there was no need to think and question as that would lead to dissent, as much as recite. I appreciate my child can read and write Chinese, but when it affects her quality of life I am obligated as her mom to stop the madness and find the balance.

The proverbial dung hit the fan last night as my child in tears confessed that the past 5 days of trying to memorize her current assignment was an exercise in futility. Yes, once again its a Tang dynasty poem written over a thousand plus years ago and yes no one uses the language like that anymore, except possibly in a University essay, but still she has to memorize it. I was kind of shocked she was having so much difficulty. Her memory is in fact one of her greatest strengths (unfortunately for me sometimes). I tried to help her with her memorization (the blind leading the blind) as I can read the "bopomo". Yet she wasn't making any progress and was getting headaches and being generally stressed out.

The poem she doesn't understand

You can imagine my surprise when she confessed she had no clue what the poem was about, it was all meaningless. Yes she knows the characters, but the sentences? The poem's significance was totally unappreciated. Her teacher didn't even bother to explain the meanings and nuances, no one asked her to either. Even having lived here for seven years and understanding the influence of a Confucian rote memory system, I was still floored. No wonder she couldn't memorize it. Unlike being a toddler who could memorize poems mindlessly like a parrot, she is now a more sophisticated, thinking being. I am now suggesting her teacher to explain the meaning of future poems as I am unable to. I hope this approach would help her memorize it easier. I'm still appalled that I have to tell her teacher to in fact teach.

Its frustrating, most Taiwanese friends want to help, but they still don't understand where I'm coming from. They suggested books she had in preschool, or looking up the meaning myself on Google, or having their kid help drill Z. They don't get that memorizing something mindlessly is whats totally bizarre (to me). They say its useful for expressing moods, writing essays in the future, and I don't disagree, but that would require Z to actually understand the poem first. When I told a friend that this kind of education was why Taiwan was suffering in innovation he took it personally. I can't even communicate this with people who are supposedly friends, can I hope to communicate this with her teacher?

Fortunately, her teacher this afternoon backtracked and explained the poem to the kids so much that my kid feels like she understands the poem. Happy Teacher's Day to her indeed. I hope she will continue to do explain poems from the beginning for the rest of her long career. I learned that 1500 year old poetry is not to be taken lightly.  If its so highly esteemed than it should be explained in language kids can understand, so that they can draw their own meanings. My dear friend of 15 years told me she learned that poem in Junior High and her teacher took great time and care to explain it. She thought Z too young to appreciate it.

I love my new job and life in Yilan, if we go home prematurely its because I can't help my kid navigate a balanced life in this education system. She talked about wanting to "escape". I tried to explain its a stressful world, whether we are living in Denver or France or Yilan and she has to learn to manage her stress. We can't just run away or change schools. I suggest she ask questions early if she doesn't understand until waiting til the last minute to admit she's clueless (another legacy of the learning system here, students are afraid to ask questions and lose face.)

I've reached the point where I am planning to just flat out tell the principals she wont be going to University here, she wont be testing her Junior High years away to get into a local University. Heck, if we are still here when she's 20 its doubtful she could even be a legal citizen considering the current web of confusion for children of APRC holders. I'm just happy enough she is fluent and can read and write well enough. If I'm ok with that why isn't everyone else? Why is asking her teacher to teach, opening up a can of worms for some individuals? (who don't have kids and are not teachers of course.) The teacher handled it gracefully, I regret keeping her on her toes but she took a test for her enviable position out countless applicants, so I hold her to a professional standard.

Now I know why when I ask questions to my 9th grade social justice classes, that require them to think critically I get these blank stares. They never really have to think about meanings before, they cram just enough to answer a, b, c or d or mindlessly recite a beautiful poem.

9/ 25 Post update: Later last night my friend gave me the English version, and her opinion (being a teacher and Taiwanese) is that this poem isn't appropriate for children (being a drunken ode to wine and drinking written by a notorious and much venerated alcoholic), but it is beautiful and even in English quite difficult to understand, read here: I doubt my kid could appreciate this in English!

I made my descent from the Zhongnan Mountains that twilight had tainted blue,
The mountain moon followed me down as it rose high.
I looked back on the path taken,
Only to see belts of viridian traverse the hillside.
On my way I encountered a mountaineer and followed him home,
Where children came to open a gate made of twigs intertwined.
I passed the threshold to find a secluded path behind green bamboos,
As we walked along, our clothes brushed pass various vines.
Inside the lodge pleasant conversations abounded and I had a resting place for the night,
Accompanies by good wine, we were chatty all the while.
We got on to sing folk songs like Wind in the Pines,
By the time we had finished singing, many heavenly stars have retired.
I was drunk in merriment and in high spirit my company was,
In such ambience of joy, the world of concerns and politics was out of mind.

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