Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ears of Corn

Teaching English is a real job, but few people treat it that way.

Shibboleth shibboleth shibboleth!
Photo from here

Yeah, I know, that will shock exactly no one, except maybe those who were under the impression that teaching English could never qualify as an actual career (and I know a few folks who think this way). There are enough people on both sides to fuel many debates on LinkedIn, expat forums and TEFL forums, and yet nobody's written a truly thoughtful article or blog post on the subject. I found a few basic posts (like this one) that I don't think fully addressed the issue, and nothing that was comprehensive. I've written about it before, but I hadn't really found my voice on the subject yet.

My stance on it is basically this: teaching is a profession. It's as hard - or harder - than law or business and at times can feel like you work similar hours to those working in law, medicine or the higher echelons of business (all that talk about how teachers get their evenings and summers off? Bullshit. Plenty of teachers not teaching children in school systems don't get that time off, and those who do usually use it to do all of the spillover work which can't be finished during the school day, even with free periods. Continuing education, thoughtful marking of in-depth student work that goes beyond basic testing as well as planning good syllabi and classes all take time). It's a profession that requires a degree and certification as well as continuing education.

First tangent: a lot of people who don't fully understand the role race, class and gender play in our lives and what lives are on offer to us will often say "the reason women tend to earn less than men is because they choose less-well-remunerated careers such as teaching over well-paid ones like law". First of all, this is not true. Secondly, even if it were, the underlying assumption is that teachers are not well-paid because of something intrinsic to the profession. Perhaps that it is "not that difficult" (except it is), or that people who are passionate about it are more likely to do it despite the low pay (which is true - how often do you hear "I'm so passionate about law, I'd be a lawyer even if lawyers didn't earn a lot of money"?). But what I suspect is really going on is that it's not that women often become teachers despite the low pay; rather, teachers are poorly paid because they tend to be women. Gender discrimination at work (pun INTENDED). The teacher-and-nurse effect.

I just made "the teacher-and-nurse effect" up but it really needs to become a thing.

Most people would expect this of a math teacher, a history teacher, a Civics teacher, a French teacher, a Chemistry teacher, even an art teacher. They would never stand for "well I don't have any experience but I'm pretty good at chemistry and the school gave me a quick training session so let's go!". They would never accept a teacher for themselves or their children who was not trained, and they would want a teacher who was not only engaging and fun, but also had long-term course plans and class learning goals, and knew how to take concrete steps to achieve them. "Well, I'm being paid $15 an hour, I don't know a lot about history but I'll learn it and then teach it" or "I don't have a degree in Calculus but let's just figure this out together" would not fly. Not in a public school, not in a university, not in a center of continuing education.

Even if you took a foreign language - the sort of class that (obviously) most resembles a TEFL classroom - you wouldn't be okay with "I'm a native Spanish speaker, I have no teaching experience but I have this book, let's go through this together". Maybe that would be okay for a language exchange partner, but not a teacher. You'd want someone who actually knew what they were doing, someone who had training in pedagogy and methodology and knew how to impart knowledge of and fluency in Spanish unto you. Merely knowing something doesn't translate (pun intended) into knowing how to impart knowledge of something.

Basically, we expect our teachers in any other subject to be professional. We don't always treat them like professionals - we pay them too little and give them few resources and often even less respect, which is why some great potential talents in teaching don't go into the field - but we expect professionalism.

So why is it that we don't expect professionalism from English teachers? Why is this the one area of teaching - a profession - where it's not treated professionally? What is so different about teaching English as a foreign language that any inexperienced rando can get hired to do it, as compared to science, math, Civics or French?

I honestly can't think of anything. In terms of pedagogy, the methods used in language teaching don't differ that much from methods used in any other subject, including the difficult subjects such as Chemistry. In terms of content, I don't see how it's all that different from French class in my high school - the language has changed, but the ways of teaching it are more or less the same. There is really nothing special or different about TEFL/TESOL/ELT etc. as compared to any other subject you may wish to learn.

Before I go any further: I know that English is not the only foreign language to suffer the scourge of untrained, nonprofessional "teachers". Certainly the vast majority of Chinese teachers are awful, or at least wholly untrained. There are good ones, but pedagogy in Chinese and Taiwanese TCFL (Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language - I just made that acronym up) certification/diploma programs, if it is taught at all, tends to be taught very poorly, not relying on the mounds of applicable research available, not taking advantage of current practices in LT methodology, and generally outdated. In TEFL there is a (wrong) assumption that a native speaker just spending time with students will cause them to learn English (well, not entirely wrong: they will pick up some English, but not in any easily measurable way). There seems to be a different (also wrong) assumption that if you are a native speaker of Chinese, that telling the students all about the target grammar - all about it, even aspects they don't need to learn when first introduced to a concept - and then plugging in vocabulary, will cause them to magically learn Chinese with minimal practice required (certainly at Shi-da we didn't get nearly enough practice and fluency did suffer as a result). And again, that's not entirely wrong: if you attend a class like this, you will learn some Chinese. It just isn't the most efficient way to do so. Certainly language schools aimed at tourists in various countries employ untrained native speakers who have taken a quick introductory course.

All of those fall under basically the same rubric of the TEFL model that I'm criticizing. My attempt here is to compare TEFL to teaching as it is professionally considered, and to language classes done that way, by trained, talented and knowledgeable teachers.

So yes, quite clearly, TEFL is a real job. It's a real career. It's teaching; teaching is a professional occupation. It's no different from teaching Biology or Geography (which, I wish Geography classes would get an overhaul too. There's so much interesting discussion and learning fodder there, of the Guns, Germs and Steel variety, although maybe not so much the End of History or Clash of Civilizations variety, and yet it's so often reduced to memorizing capitals and main exports. Now that I'm gaining more knowledge of the various elements of good teaching, and being knowledgeable about Geography, someone should put me in charge of a Geography class - we'd have so much fun, ohmigod).

I do wonder if the lack of respect for pedagogy/proper methodology and what it can do for one's teaching is something more ingrained: public and primary/secondary school teachers are expected to have this training, but professors and other academics, mostly, are not. I think in four years of college classes that I had maybe three professors who actually knew how to teach. They were all very knowledgeable, some were quite well-known in their fields. But they didn't know how to effectively impart their knowledge: it was all lectures, Powerpoints, multiple choice and the occasional essay question. Part of that is, of course, huge class sizes especially at the lower levels, but part of it seems to be this pernicious idea that if you know something, then you know how to teach it. Professors know their subject, therefore they can teach it, apparently. Except they can't. Most of my professors would have benefited a lot from some training sessions, not in improving their own knowledge, but in how to get that knowledge to us in an interesting, motivating and relevant way.

If you do go ahead and get yourself educated - a Master's or at least a string of reputable certifications (no online weekend courses), or even better, both - and learn how to teach, it will show in your work. The difference between you - a professional - and an untrained 22-year old (or even an untrained 42-year-old) will be apparent. You will be able to lift yourself out of the Expat English Teacher Gutter pretty quickly. Anyone with a shred of sense or acumen will see the difference. It is absolutely worth it, and that's why I'm currently pursuing a Delta, and after that, hopefully a Master's (we'll see: I can't afford a Master's, won't take out more loans, scholarships and fellowships are hard to get for students not intending to enter a PhD program, and for American students tuition is preposterous - and foreign schools charge us international student tuition which is also preposterous. I could cash out my IRA for it, but that would be stupid. I could retire for a few months on that! WOO! PARTY WHEN I'M 90!!1! So...let's see if the winds of life blow me that way, or if they just blow).

So why don't people treat TEFL as teaching in a professional capacity? If there is nothing to differentiate it from any other kind of teaching, why does it get the shaft?

Three groups of people are affected by this: owners/bosses, teachers/"teachers", and parents/students (depending on the students' age).

From the boss' or school owner's point of view, this is obvious. They can pay an unskilled, untrained "teacher" far less than a real teacher would expect, and treat them like unskilled labor (something a real teacher would never accept). These folks - often twentysomethings with little life experience, though not always - will feel they've gotten a lot if you give them a slapdash bullshit training session made up of a mishmash of cribbed notes from teaching textbooks, strung together with vague platitudes about "keeping it fun" and "engaging the student", hoping that the interesting foreign-ness of the worker, with a smidge of charisma from that worker, plus a few textbooks thrown their way for material, will keep up the illusion that the students are getting a professional service - all for cut-rate prices (for the boss - the students or their parents pay a premium of course).

Some owners, I presume, know that they're peddling shoddy product. Others don't know the first thing about real teaching or what it takes to be a professional educator, and truly do think that all it takes to teach something - including English - is to know a lot about that thing. And who better to know about English than a native English speaker? Nevermind if they don't actually know all that much about the grammar or underlying structures or history of their own language, and therefore can't teach it. Nevermind that they are unaware of the latest practices or past research on teaching methods so they can't employ them in the classroom. Nevermind that they haven't heard of even the most basic concepts in English, Linguistics or pedagogy and therefore can't refer to them. If you've never learned, or heard of, IPA, you can't use it when it would be effective (and it isn't always). If you've never heard of a "student-centered classroom", you can't work towards creating one. If you don't know the difference between PPP, TTT, TBL, Dogme, TPR, Audiolingualism, Grammar-Translation or the Communicative Approach, you can't learn about, and practice, how to use them in your classroom at the times when they'd have the most effect, or when to avoid them. If you haven't read up on research into the best way to introduce new language, you won't be able to consider it when you plan a class, and your approach may be substandard (or it may just be different, if you are extremely talented. Most people are not). You may base some of your teaching methods on inaccurate or misguided assumptions about language learning, or not really know at all why you are doing what you're doing - which is rarely effective.

The first type of owner recognizes the shibboleths that distinguish teachers from "teachers"; the second doesn't. In both cases, they don't care.

From the newbie "teacher"'s point of view, it's a relatively well-paid job - for the country it's in at least - that they can get right out of school, no experience necessary, and they get to live abroad. Makes sense, even if from a professional standpoint it doesn't seem very ethical: I'm going to go and pretend to be something I'm not so some school owner can charge people rates for my work under the illusion that I have the credentials! But since when have ethics ever played a big part in prosperous business models?

In fact I'd go so far as to say that a lot of those twentysomething unskilled workers fancy themselves teachers: intellectually they know that a professional teacher must have training and experience that they don't have, but there's a bit of cognitive dissonance going on, fueled by not a small touch of defensiveness: they are teaching, and they want to style themselves as education professionals; they know they aren't, so they tell the voice in their head that whispers "you need more credentials, you need more training, you need more experience" to shut up, and they gas on about how they are real teachers, how they're just as good, how their bosses are lucky to have them. They don't seem to realize that the reason their bosses chose them was because they lacked credentials, and therefore the ability to seriously negotiate compensation and treatment, not in spite of their credentials in the face of their massive - often delusion-based - "talent". They're college grads, they're used to believing that no matter what they do they'll be professionals, they'll be skilled, they'll be worth something. They're used to having that belief reinforced. I don't blame them for wanting to believe that they are more than they are.

I am definitely guilty of this. I was guilty of it before I had training or experience, I was guilty of it before starting the Delta, and I might still be a tad guilty of it up until I enroll in a Master's program. Until I realized how bad I was, I thought I was pretty good. Then I got to be pretty good, and all I want to be is better. But that process took awhile. So, I know of what I speak.

I want to stop here and note a few things before I get back on track.

First, that I am somewhat grateful to the TEFL industry for being what it is. I don't think I would have gone into teaching otherwise, and I wasn't doing very well at the bottom rung of the office ladder. I need to write a longer blog post about this at some point, but this is one way in which the USA screws over its youth. I didn't know teaching was right for me when I went to college, and so I didn't major in it. I "wisely" majored in the subject I'd enjoyed most in high school: I chose International Affairs because it was close to Social Studies. Social Studies + history + travel + language? Sign me up! By the time I knew I not only wanted to teach, but would be very good at it with the proper training and guidance, I couldn't afford a Master's program. I still can't: the deal was that my folks would help me with college, but I was on my own for grad school, and I shouldn't go until I'd worked awhile and knew what I wanted. By the time I knew what I wanted, I didn't have the money because, well, wage stagnation and wealth inequality are real things. Now, I bet they actually would help me if I asked, but tuition at an American school is far higher than any of us can take on and international tuition is not much better.

So, TEFL allowed me a path into teaching that didn't require that I go get a Master's I couldn't afford, for a job that wouldn't pay me enough to pay it off in any reasonable amount of time. I am sure many very good teachers have taken this route, and the educational landscape is richer for it. I wholeheartedly support having this sort of route into teaching, although I'd like to see the model change (maybe a future blog post on that too - what a 'path into teaching, but not TEFL as it is now' might look like). I wouldn't be doing what I love today, with at least a shred of professional dignity, without that start as a twentysomething hack. I'd probably still be at some crap office job that I never got promoted out of, because I hated it enough to not be in a mental state to do well. It would have been a waste of a life.

Second, that as above, many good teachers do come out of this cesspit. The ones with a spark of natural talent that leads them to seek training and experience, to be better and to do better.

Third, that many schools, especially in rural or underprivileged areas, can't afford more than an unskilled twentysomething. There are professional teachers who would be willing to take a job like that, in rural China or a small Bolivian town or what-have-you, or even rural Taiwan, for low pay. A lot of them join the Peace Corps and do something like that. But not enough to meet the demand for English class among those with a bit of money in those places. Plenty of others would love the experience, but would expect a higher standard of pay and benefits that the school just wouldn't be able to offer.

In those cases, a twentysomething hack with a local teacher in tandem is still better than nothing, in terms of offering some sort of foreign language education to those who who want it and can afford it.

So, all that aside, back on track - what about the final group? Why do parents support this awful, unprofessional system? Unless they are paying markedly lower tuition (as may be the case with rural schools or schools in impoverished areas), they may simply be unaware. People without a background in education don't always understand what being an education professional is. That goes for students, school owners, parents and obnoxious people at parties who think they can tell you how to do your job. They may hear the teachers' and boss' "blah blah blah professional blah blah highly-trained teachers blah America blah" and believe them when they say that their words are "shibboleth shibboleth shibboleth", because they don't know better. They may just be lied to by the owner. They may know that the teacher is not a professional, but not realize that that matters and feel it's acceptable to pay high rates just to be in proximity to a native speaker. 

And of course, if they think it doesn't actually take that much training, talent, experience or knowledge for a native speaker to teach their language effectively, and that anyone who speaks English can do it, they'll feel more confident in trying to tell the teacher what to do (I will accept this from adult students in terms of what they want to learn, and will at least consider what they say when they express how they want to learn it. I don't teach children, but if I did, parents of children telling me what to do would get straight-up ignored unless their child was problematic and it was advice on how to deal with managing the behavior problem). It gives them a handy sense of superiority. Seems like a small thing to pay inflated tuition rates over, but what can I say?

That's really the crux of the problem, too: it's that school owners, often shrewd to the point of immorality, rake in huge sums of money by glossing over or entirely misrepresenting either teacher qualifications or the need for them. I suppose all's fair in business&war, and if someone is aching to pay too much money to get talked at by some white kid (because hiring practices really are racist), then they should be allowed to pay that money. If I want to pay a million dollars to snort cocaine cut with diamond powder, I should be allowed to do that (note: I don't want to do that). If a school advertises "look, we've got foreigners!" and folks line up to pay, then okay. If they advertise with "qualified, experienced native speaker professional teachers will help you gain fluency quickly and with ease", they're lying. Even f the "teachers" are qualified, experienced and talented, students still won't gain fluency quickly and easily. 

Presumably most parents and students want a good teacher for their money; a qualified and experienced one. Misrepresenting the teachers you are actually offering as worth the money - as more than they are - and then paying those "teachers" far less than you'd pay real teachers so that you can $$PROFIT$$, is thoroughly reprehensible. 

It also contributes to that same pernicious myth that it is not hard to teach well, that anyone can do it - and that for language teaching all you need is to speak the language, you don't need any knowledge of underlying structure, grammar, history or etymology. By hiring people who don't have that knowledge or ability (at least not yet), and paying them fairly well by local standards (although not well by international teaching professional standards), you're spreading the idea that this is all a teacher needs to be - that anything more is unnecessary, possibly even unwanted as it comes with demands for higher pay and better treatment. (That it also comes with better measurable outcomes for students is often ignored - I still don't understand why nobody, at least the students or parents, seems to care about this). 

That contributes to the norms of hiring cheaper inexperienced people, which makes it harder for the good people to get jobs. Quality goes down and fewer people bother to get qualified. Schools treat "teachers" badly, because these "teachers" are basically unskilled laborers, no matter how they're advertised. When qualified teachers want to get jobs, they often don't go into TEFL because they know it's a labor dispute minefield and their credentials likely won't be respected as they would in any other field of teaching.

That's a loss to us all. I suppose you could make the Libertarian argument that if quality goes down and nobody complains, then the quality was too high to begin with and if the market runs in that direction, then it should go down according to what people want. I reject this: those students still want to learn English. Whether or not you believe your "teacher" is a real teacher won't change the outcome of whether you've learned English to a satisfactory degree or not. It's like the market for medicine. Even if people are willing to buy your snake oil, the outcome will still be that patients won't be cured. In medicine (although not in homoeopathy) we have laws against this: if you are going to sell a product, it has to work. Learning a language is a lot more like medicine: you need a measurable outcome. It's not homoeopathy.

What's the solution for this? How do we get more people on the road to training, qualification and a professional career path and in the process raise the level of respect for TEFL as a career, as well as improve working conditions for those already in the field? How do we do that while also making it possible to become a teacher through a process of hard work and experience, without having to go back and get a degree that many can't afford, and when they were in school, didn't know they wanted?

I don't know. I suppose that really is the subject for another blog post.

I've gotten a lot of pushback on my stance on this issue in other discussion forums, so I'll just address some of the more common backwash here:

But certifications like CELTA and Delta won't make you a better teacher! If you are talented and have experience you can be a very good teacher!

I just don't believe this. If you are talented and have experience, you still need training to be a truly good teacher. It would be the rare prodigy who could do well without it. I don't care much where that teaching came from but I prefer reputable programs to "a teacher trainer at School X told me". Certainly it is possible to go that route and do well, but reputable programs are more likely to have measurable outcomes. 

The actual piece of paper you get for CELTA and Delta don't mean as much as what you learn in the process of getting it. It bothers me when people denigrate what you learn on these courses without having taken them, or worse, assuming that they are more than they are meant to be. While a piece of paper won't make you a better teacher, what you learn in order to get that piece of paper will. 

The only real pushback to this I've heard is "no it won't" and that's too ridiculous to bother replying to.

CELTA and Delta are nothing - real teachers need Master's degrees or a teaching license after their bachelor's degrees, like a PGCE.

I'm a fan of a two-pronged approach: a Master's is great for theoretical knowledge related to the English language and to teaching. I would like one someday and am currently deciding which kidney would garner the best payoff with which to pay for it. But from what I've seen during my time in the field, a Master's doesn't provide a lot of great on-the-ground practical teaching advice. I've noticed it in ivory-tower comments on LinkedIn full of advice that would make no sense in most real classrooms, and noticed it in watching other teachers who certainly had the qualifications but weren't very good with flexibility or trying different, more student-centered approaches. 

So, in order to get that practical knowledge, I believe it would be smart for most would-be professional English teachers to also have a CELTA or even a Delta. The CELTA is thoroughly practical, and the Delta starts delving into the theoretical. After that, a Master's is the next logical move, to expand your theoretical knowledge base.

It's not that I think Master's are worthless, or that CELTA and Delta are the gold standard, but that they focus on two entirely different things, which are both valuable if you want to be a true education professional.

Pfffff! But CELTA promises to make you a great teacher, as though it can stand in for a real teaching degree. It can't!

That's true, it can't. 

But that's also not what CELTA advertises. They advertise an introductory course that will help you to become basically competent in the classroom without making a right fool of yourself. If you pass, which most people do, you'll still need a lot of training at your first place of employment. The CELTA grading rubric spells this out. If you get a B, you'll need some training, but not as much. If you get an A, you'll be fine without training (but everyone can benefit from receiving it). Almost nobody gets an A - around 2-5%. I got one, but I'm just special like that. (Actually, I'm not. I had good training before I did CELTA). 

A lot of people seem to think the CELTA advertises as a teaching certification on par with a degree - it doesn't. Or they think what the CELTA claims it offers is more like what the Delta offers - it's not. If you're going to criticize CELTA, do it on its own merits. 

The reason schools hire those inexperienced teachers is that the "qualified" teachers don't want to pitch in and always demand more. They won't go outside and hand out fliers for the school, they want more money - it's no wonder schools go for the inexperienced ones. 

This is technically true, but that doesn't make it right. A teacher is a skilled worker - it doesn't make sense, in terms of resource allocation, to have your skilled worker stand on the streetcorner with a signboard passing out fliers (also it makes your school look ridiculous, but that's a PR issue, not a teaching one). If you had a college intern, and an experienced logistics professional, who would you send outside wearing a sandwich board? Who is worth more in the office, creating something great? 

And of course they ask for more money - they have embarked on a professional career path. They have paid - often out the nose - for education. Business, legal, medical and other professionals all expect to be paid accordingly - why wouldn't teachers? You get a quality outcome.

But you don't get a quality outcome! I've seen as many bad qualified teachers as I've seen good un-certified ones!

Something tells me that line of thinking comes from anecdata. Of course there are bad qualified teachers - there are also terrible lawyers and shitty speech pathologists and horrible doctors. But on average, not just along the lines of some anecdote about a bad teacher you knew once, but as a statistically significant group, teachers who are qualified do provide better outcomes than those who are not. I wish I could quote a study on this, but I can't. Someone should do a study. Especially as I'm putting on scientific airs I can't easily back. 

And those un-certified talented teachers? Probably got their training unofficially in one or more of their previous jobs. And that's great - I'm not saying they don't exist. I'm not saying they shouldn't be recognized (some sort of reputable program that could certify such teachers after a survey of their work would be great, but is not likely to come about and might not be trusted). But these are not Fresh Off the Plane kids we're talking about here. 

What a teacher does is not measurable, therefore it can't be jammed into a certification or degree program. 

First, all sorts of professions do things that are not measurable - social and political scientists comment and analyze non-measurable outcomes. They are still considered professions. (I know a lot of hard science types would like to think they're not, but I'd actually argue the soft sciences are more challenging as you're dealing with squishy unknowns - analyzing something immeasurable without as much access to clear data is much harder than analyzing based on hard results). 

Secondly, I would say that what teachers do is measurable, or at least it can be. The state of the global testing industry is pathetic, and I don't believe the tests given today consistently measure student ability or learning. But good testing is possible - tests with construct and content validity, integrative, direct could do a lot better than the way students are tested in most schools today and get a truly measurable outcome.

In my own work, I feel that what I do is measurable. My IELTS students come in, and when they go out their mock test scores are higher than when they came in, and they score higher on the real IELTS than they would have without my class. My long-term students show measurable improvements in systematic errors - if I wanted to, I could in fact graph their improvements in past tense consistency, correct usage of perfect aspect, correct usage of prepositions in various circumstances and more. I could measure how many sentences per speech block were correct at the beginning vs. the end of the class. I could do identical beginning- and end-of-course role plays that could be analyzed for language learned. 

But these certification programs all force students to adopt one kind of teaching style which may not be the best. And degree programs teach young teachers to stifle creative lesson planning.

Spoken like a person who has never been through a certification program (I can't speak for degree programs, but at least in my observation that's not the case). CELTA and Delta don't actually push one teaching style on you, and in my courses they've been pretty open to any style that's effective, and any style that reflects the teacher's personality. They're not trying to create clones or automatons. Sure, CELTA advocates the communicative approach, but what else would you advocate? There's nothing new on the horizon, or at least nothing so new that it's unseated the communicative approach, and it's arguably the best of the lot that we have, although it's okay to let ghosts of teaching methods past inform your lessons. And a truly innovative new idea, while unlikely from an inexperienced teaching student (few if any of us are nascent Steve Jobses of teaching), if effective, would probably be embraced or at least allowed to pass. 

"Theyre all 'student-centered classroom, less teacher talking, the activity must be communicative'! No creativity! It's mind control!" 

First, having been at the weird end of cult recruiters in my neighborhood (and it appears I'm not the only one - there's a new blog out exposing these people, but I won't publish the link until I vet it further and talk to some people), I have an idea about what mind control is, and teaching degree/certification programs ain't it. 

So what would be better - a teacher-centered classroom? More teacher talking (note: this can at times be okay - and in my CELTA and Delta courses it was seen as potentially okay, depending on what the teacher was talking about and why)? Activities that don't urge the students to communicate or speak? Huh? 

Creativity is usually enhanced by training and experience, not diminished by same. The most creative lawyers can be creative because they know the law and can pick it apart. The most creative doctors can be creative because they know enough to know where a new experimental treatment may come from. The most creative businesspeople can see opportunities because they know the market and have experience in watching it change. The most creative person on your team is probably not your intern (and if it is, then training that intern will make them more creative, not less). It's no different with teachers.

But small schools in poor countries or rural areas can't afford these fancy spoiled foreign teachers!

That's actually true, and it's one of the few times in which I'd say hiring an inexperienced native speaker is better than not hiring anyone at all. This isn't a black-white thing.

* * * 

Anyway, this has been a very long blog post, but one I hope people will read to the end. I've enjoyed writing it - I hope you enjoy reading it! 


Monday, July 21, 2014

Normal Women Existing

Image borrowed - please don't sue me! - from here

Yesterday I was sitting on the Taipei MRT in one of those sections where seats run along the walls rather than sticking out in pairs. Across from me there was a string of women - one dozing, one on her phone, one reading, one just sitting. They spanned several decades in (guesstimated) age and were for all intents and purposes, totally normal. Not a one of them looked much like any of these women:

From here, here, here and here

(I had to google "asian women haircuts" to even get a search results page not full of softcore porn, but I suppose that'd be true for any search involving photos of women - we're objectified no matter our race). 

I don't mean to say that a beautiful woman can not also be a normal woman, although I don't buy into the "everyone is (physically) beautiful" myth: everyone is beautiful in multidimensional ways, but some people do possess more physical beauty than others and most of us are just average. So those who are notably physically attractive are, in some sense, not normal. That's not a bad thing, or a good one - it just is. 

There was nothing unusual about seeing this group of average women, who ranged from ponytail-sporting student to mom-with-kids to office worker to obasan. But it got me thinking about one tendency in male expat circles to fetishize Asian women (BIG IMPORTANT NOTE: that's not the same thing at all as dating an Asian woman or loving an Asian woman. I'm talking more about the way some expat men - and men back home, too, to be honest - talk about Asian women, and not touching at all anything having to do with relationships). 

You know, the usual: they're all so beautiful, they're so cute, they're so slender, it seems like all of them are! You can't walk down the street without seeing a gaggle of Asian beauties! It's not like my home country, where most women are frumpy, fat or ugly and you only sometimes see ones who look okay. Asian women (all Asian women, apparently - this statement is never qualified) are just so lovely and slim and cute.

There's nothing wrong with seeing beauty and admiring it, but these statements, and the thoughts behind them, are pernicious in several ways.

First, there's a very strong tendency to use these statements to imply that all, or most, or a disproportionate number of women in Taiwan (or whatever country - I am talking about Taiwan because I live here) are somehow better or more beautiful than women in whatever your home country is. And I just don't think that's true. From my observation, anyway, every country has its attractive people, it's majority of average people, and its not-so-physically-attractive people, in roughly the same proportion. To insist that Taiwan has more gorgeous women is to imply a sort of fetishization or racialization: this race is better than that race. Taiwanese women are better than women in my home country...based on what? What's different, other than race? 

I don't see them as all that different. I get on the New York subway, I see a string of average women and a Dr. Zizmor ad. I get on the Seoul metro, I see a string of average women and a plastic surgery ad. I get on the Taipei MRT and I see a string of average women and an overly-photoshopped ad. 

So that attitude diminishes some women based on their race, and elevates other women based on their race, based on very little evidence. 

What that does is imply that all you see are the beautiful ones - which may be true, and in fact probably is true - while not seeing the average ones at all. As though they don't exist. Of course a country would have lots of beautiful women if all you saw - the only ones who existed to you - were beautiful women.

Which leads me to my second point - it adds a layer of invisibility on any woman who does not fall within those magical parameters, if the thing you say most often about the people in your adopted country is how beautiful the women are. It means you don't see all the women who fall in the fat belly of the bell curve. They are quite literally invisible to you; they do not exist. That is a shitty thing to do to anyone. It comes very close to saying - if it does not say outright - that women who do not meet your standards for beauty don't get to be a part of the universe. 

It means you don't notice the diversity of the society whose country you are living in - whose country took you in (perhaps grudgingly - we know how Immigration can be - but they did). It means you don't notice every grandma, every makeup-less office worker, every mom with kids, every manager in a power suit with pumps, every artsy type, every expat woman (not to mention every Taiwanese man - although that's a different post). Even when they're in your field of vision. Even when you are at the same event. 

And don't think we haven't noticed how that manifests in real life. Have you ever had to lead a seminar while your horndog co-teacher salivates over the two pretty female students (and ignores the fortysomething female manager, and the makeup-free student in a plain singlet and ponytail)? Have you ever been walked right into by men and women who buy into the beauty myth, because they either don't see you, or don't think they should have to make space for you so that you can also have space in the world? Have you ever had a shoulder bump, when you saw someone coming and swerved your shoulder, figuring that was all you had to do to make space, while the other person moved not at all and whacked into you anyway - as though you were supposed to make all of the space and they were not required to make any? Have you ever felt unwelcome at an expat meetup because the demographics of the attendees were: average expat men, some above-average attractive Asian woman, one or two average Asian women, and you? And so you and the other average-looking women talk amongst yourselves because you are completely ignored by everyone else? Have you ever read expat blogs or Facebook posts and noticed how often they talk about "Taiwanese cuties" as though they are the only women who exist in Taiwan? As though the only people who exist in Taiwan are "Taiwanese cuties", white men (them - and they are almost entirely white), and maybe their boss? No average women, certainly no expat women, average or not, no older women, and no Taiwanese men of any age? Have you ever seen an older woman - an obasan - get seriously manhandly because yet another person has tried to claim her space on the sidewalk and she's had to literally push to get it back? 

For me, it's a big fat "YEAH" on all of these. And the myth of "all the beautiful Asian ladies" perpetuates it. If it's all the beautiful Asian ladies, then the not-physically-beautiful ladies, of any race, simply don't exist.

I know I'm going to get some shitty comments like "well I think Taiwanese women are just so pretty, but that doesn't mean I ignore other women or Taiwanese men, I notice them too!". Sure. This doesn't mean that every guy who has this attitude towards women in Taiwan walks right into other people on the street - or expects them to move - or that they totally ignore any other people. Just that these attitudes run in tandem and one feeds the other.

Finally, but briefly - it perpetuates a sense of competition among women - women who have bought into the beauty myth, anyway. I don't blame them for buying into it: there are a lot of rewards to playing that game, if you win, or even if you rank. If I thought I could rank, there's a chance I'd take a hard dive into the shallow end too. If it's all the beautiful Asian ladies, then the average Asian ladies feel pressure to try harder to get into that world. Whether or not they give into that pressure, or take care with their physical appearance for their own reasons, is another blog post that I probably won't be making, because while I can talk about a woman's experience in Asia, I can only go so far in talking about Asian women. I'm not an Asian woman; I do not really have that experience. It's just not my turf.

It's what drives commentary that runs along the lines of: if you don't like how you are ignored in favor of Asian women (not a word about how other, less "cute" and "lovely" Asian women are also ignored), then try harder! Slim down, buy some cute clothes, put on makeup, try harder! Basically - don't like the game? Compete anyway! My approval must matter to you. (Fortunately, it doesn't). As though it doesn't matter if the game is valid or not - we all must play. Refusing to play is blasphemy.

It's also what commentary that assumes that everyone who mentions racial fetishization of Asian women - or the comparative non-existence of any person who is not an attractive Asian woman, feels either bitter or threatened. I would not say I'm bitter - annoyed, angry, yes, but not bitter. I do not need or want the approval of these people; but I will insist that I exist. I don't need flirty attention (not only do I not want it from them, but I get all I need at home with my husband, thanks), but I will insist that my race and my looks not demote me to someone who deserves less respect as a human being. I am not threatened: I neither need nor want these men to be attracted to me. I'm not even in the game - I'm married. I simply want to exist. 

That's why it is simply not okay. 

It's time to notice the grandmas. It's time to notice the women over thirty. It's time to notice the moms and the managers, the wrinkled and the portly, the plain-faced and bespectacled, the tired-eyed care workers, the makeupless and the (oh horror) Western. You don't have to be attracted to us, you just have to acknowledge that we exist and treat us accordingly. That means teaching a seminar rather than ogling students. That means giving us space on the sidewalk. That means listening to us without condescension. That means stopping with the whole "Asian women are all so gorgeous!" bullshit, because they're not. Some are. Some aren't. It means acknowledging that someone other than a fellow male expat or a pretty Asian woman might have something of worth to offer, and respecting that person accordingly.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

I'm back! And the anthology my work is incl

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I haven't posted this month because I spent most of it in the US, attending a friend's wedding and visiting family. 

I came home to a keyboard that won't type the letter "f" (I have to copy-paste), dead plants, two healthy but upset cats, a destroyed paper lamp, stuff otherwise taken care of. But overall I'd say more bad than good. 

But I also came home to this! My paper copy of "How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia". I've already read it, of course, but it's nice to have a real paper copy of a book you're included in, in your hands, in real physical print. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Strories of Expat Women in Asia" launches today!

Guess what!

I'm currently in Seoul - not permanently, just for a short vacation - on the way to the USA to attend my friend's wedding. After our tour of the DMZ, we took refuge from the afternoon rain in a traditional hanok (think like an old-school courtyard house of the similar type found in many East Asian countries, but this one is Korean)-turned-coffeeshop. I'd post photos, but blogging on an iPad is not easy, and I'll have to skip that for now.

And guess what else!

"How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia" launches today! It's available on Amazon as an e-book and paperback, through Barnes&Noble, Apple and several other outlets (check the editor's blog for more information) and coming soon to select bookstores in Hong Kong.

If you're interested in knowing more about the anthology, and my contribution to it, check out Taiwanxifu's review of the anthology focusing on my contribution, titled "Gods Rushing In". 

It's not available in paperback in Taiwan unless you want to pay preposterous shipping charges, so if any Taiwan based folks want a copy in paperback - if e-books just don't do it for you or you want to show off to your friends by having it on your bookshelf - let me know (you can leave a comment with your e-mail address here. I won't publish it, because I bet you wouldn't want your e-mail address broadcast to the world as a spammable or hackable account, but I will get back to you and can arrange a paperback copy).

I'm really excited about this - I'd known it was coming for awhile but it's something different for it to be real, for the book to be available. Even one story in an anthology is something, especially as it is the first thing - other than job reporting on local issues in a regional newspaper in high school - I'd ever really submitted for publication. I saw the call to submissions on a lark, I thought about writing something and put it off for weeks...then on the day submissions were due I sat down in a coffeeshop and hammered mine out. I didn't even proofread it - I gave it to Brendan to read, made a few adjustments as per his recommendations and sent it a first draft. What the hell, right? May as well see what happens.

One always imagines writing as a career - or a side hobby, or freelance gig - as something that you have to toil at for years, submitting manuscripts, stories or pitching ideas, and facing rejection after rejection before you get one fateful acceptance. And I know that while I can write, I'm not the most talented writer ever to walk the earth - I can write, but so can millions of other people. There is nothing particularly unique about my writing ability. So, given all this, I certainly did not expect that my first draft "what the hell" submission would be accepted. I was, frankly, surprised to be proven wrong. What the hell indeed!

I may have written all of that in a post before - I can't remember - but it's what I'm thinking now.

So, I hope you'll check it out. Everyone who contributed to "How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit" put a lot of work and a lot of heart into their contribution, and I do believe - after having read it myself - that it is worth your time.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hukou Old Street: A Photo Essay

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To get my mind off of the tragedy that is the Taipei MRT stabbing, and the less-surprising-yet-still-saddening Santa Barbara shooting (hey, let's make it legal for misogynist assholes to legally buy guns! Nothing could possibly go wrong there!), I decided to post some photos from a recent day trip to Hukou Old Street.

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The good things about Hukou Old Street: the train station for it is on the local line (not far from Hsinchu) from Taipei, meaning it's easy to get to the town. It is not quite as 'discovered' yet, with far more people inviting you into their traditional homes-cum-shops to peruse antiques than stores selling soap, camphor balm, brown sugar cake and plastic children's toys (they still have those things, but they are far smaller in number). The street never gets fully crowded even on a kinda-sunny Sunday. The buildings and their decorations are remarkably well-preserved. The area has a lot of down-at-heel local color and friendly folks.

The annoying things about Hukou Old Street: first, it's not that close to anything else. Second, while it's easy to take a taxi there from Hukou train station, it is not within easy walking distance and the bus between the two comes rarely. There are not taxis lining up to take you back to the train station or wherever. If you don't have your own transportation, I suggest getting the phone number of whichever taxi took you so you aren't calling taxi companies from a Hi Life when you're ready to go back, hoping one will have a car they can send your way. Because, uhh, I wouldn't know anything about that, no sir.

This is one drawback of living in Taiwan: it's a developed country and as such has an urban metro system, in Taipei and (slowly but surely) in Kaohsiung, worthy of the first world. And yet, much of Taiwan remains rural: it's not "poor" enough that there needs to be public transportation for a populace that can't afford cars, but not "rich" enough that it has the excellent public transit infrastructure of, say, Japan.

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But once there, the old street and surrounding town is a great way to spend some time - I recommend, to the best of your ability, tacking it onto something else - not sure what, as it's not near anything, but something. Including time spent eating you could spend a morning or an afternoon here, but not a whole day.

Which may be why it's not packed to the gills with tourist junk and the tourists who buy it like other old streets, so perhaps that's a blessing in disguise.

(Don't get me wrong, I like some of the tourist junk. I use the camphor balm and love brown sugar cake, it's just...I've seen it all. I'm happy to see that Dihua Street is going more traditional+upscale galleries and Hukou is maintaining its traditional flavor).

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At one end of the street there's a church - worth a quick look. At the other, a temple (beyond the temple there are some rural farmhousey-type areas you could walk around in, although beware unfriendly local dogs).

One woman invited us to enjoy some tea in the loft/top floor of her house - the first floor was full of antiques - most for sale. The seating area and tea set:

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Not bad, eh?

She doesn't invite everyone up, so don't push her...but you may be pleasantly surprised!

Another friendly old fellow with a clip-on mic and megaphone invited everyone in to see his collection of...things, which seems to have taken a Hoarders level of dedication to amass. For example, this thing is not creepy at all:

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This guy had a huge obsession with the KMT, wearing a fake KMT politician vest (he was not a politician) and collecting various Party bric-a-brac which was interspersed with photos of him shaking hands with KMT dignitaries, Hello Kitty piggy banks, Three Wise Men on camels, Ronald McDonald figurines and horrifying light-up faces in faux tree trunks. Also, clowns.

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All in all, it was pretty enjoyable, even if we really stretched out our mealtimes to make the trip all the way out to Hukou worth it.

If you're into old streets and Japanese-era architecture - and I am - and you're willing to go out of the way for a bit more authenticity, Hukou's a good choice.

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I mean, it doesn't get more authentic than that, does it?

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Loved the decorations on the traditional buildings.

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Another nice family invited us to the back of the house to see their antique brass bed.

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The temple is a pretty basic temple, nothing you can't see elsewhere, but it has a nice atmosphere...very peaceful, no scaffolding or corrugated tin roofs. And a few nice surprises like this little elephant hiding in the ceiling beams:

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And this gorgeous black-and-white tiger painting:

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There are a few restaurants, the most famous of which is in the old theater (the food is pretty good - not life-changing, but good enough), and plenty of snacks. We also got ginger tofu pudding (薑汁豆花) - honestly, not as good as what you can get in Sanxia at the much busier Old Street.

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But, of course, a visit to an Old Street is incomplete without a piece of plastic junk. I thought this happy green poop-shaped container holding Smartee-like poop candies was a good choice. He sits on my desk now.

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From there, we weren't hungry enough to head out to Miaoli for a good Hakka dinner. It wasn't exactly convenient to get to Hsinchu or Zhubei, although we considered stopping in Zhubei for Titty Tea's tasty brownies and good beer before heading back to Taipei from there (I know a place in Hsinchu city that does shabu shabu with congee broth, but we weren't hungry enough to eat that soon and I didn't have their information readily available). In the end we just went back to Taipei (after *cough* waiting at a Hi Life for a taxi to finally come get us) and had dinner there - we got back in plenty of time.

Just to show you how friendly and open people can be in Taiwan, I mentioned the taxi kerfuffle to some Hsinchu Science Park students and two of them were all "you should have called me! I would have given you guys a ride, no problem!" (Hukou is about a 20-minute highway trip from Zhubei). Awww.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Updated Post: Atmospheric Coffeeshops in Taipei

I've updated with several new spots in Zhongshan, Dihua Street, Heping East Road and even inside a few temples!

As usual they all make it in for different reasons, which doesn't necessarily mean they offer the best coffee in Taipei. Some are in vintage or historic buildings, some have interesting decor, some have great architecture or a great view, some feature art galleries or small shops, and some just have cats, because cats!

we are all tiny humans

I want to say something about the tragic subway attack in the greater Taipei area yesterday, but...while I have a lot of thoughts and feelings, there isn't much to say. I stayed home last night - feeling tired + having an in-home class + torrential rains = just not going to bother going out - and watched my Facebook feed explode with the news. It felt like Taipei was a city besieged yesterday, between the typhoon-like rains (at least it'll fill up our reservoirs?), the earthquake in the morning, and the absolutely-unheard-of-how-could-this-happen stabbing last night. At that point, I didn't want to go out.

It's not that I felt unsafe: I didn't. It was just a feeling of listlessness, and like a child, craving familiarity and certainty when unexpected terrors come out.

First thought: this doesn't happen. Except it did. Taipei is one of the safest cities in Asia. The murder rate is remarkably low, and of the murders that do occur, the vast majority are between people who have a quarrel with each other: random murder, strangers-on-strangers, is virtually unheard of. I use the present tense because I refuse to believe that this is the start of any sort of trend. No. This is the exception that proves the rule.

And I know this. Taiwan is safe. This is the exception that proves the rule. But I couldn't help but feel stressed last night, and listless again today. I did not feel unsafe, I just felt upset.

Why? In the USA I can't imagine I'd be so upset about this sort of thing happening (of course, I would be upset, but not quite in the same way). I hate to say it, but I almost expect it from the USA, or at least, it happens so often that when it inevitably happens again - "where now? Elementary school? Movie theater? Post office? Government building? Okay" - I just feel like...'Murica. It could be because I live in Taipei, so this hits closer to home - that could've been me and all - but even when I lived in the USA I felt that all us tiny humans waiting for our tiny lives to be snuffed out in a chaotic universe of order and entropy faced that danger daily. For eight years in Taiwan, I never felt like I faced any. I felt like more than a tiny human: I felt like a human who wouldn't be naive for being shocked, rather than inured to, violence.

But when you live in a country where this just doesn't happen - I mean it, even though it happened, it just doesn't happen - when it happens, it shocks the bejesus out of you. You get used to a better life, a life where you are not always fearing for your safety, so when random violence happens, it hits deep.

I do not want inurement to violence to be a shibboleth that separates us 'MURICANS from Taiwanese, but it seems that, to some extent, it is.

And I don't think I'm the only one. When I did go out today (and took the MRT - there is no reason to be scared) it felt like a pallor had fallen on the whole city. Everyone looked upset, frustrated, wary or just plain tired. Like they wanted to occupy something, but occupying things wasn't producing any more results than not occupying things because nobody important ever listens. Nobody listens to the tiny humans peeping and cricketing. Like they wanted to reassure themselves that their country is safe (and it is!).

I'm angry at that kid. We're all angry at that kid. He wanted to "do something big" - well fuck him. He took the easy way. He didn't learn, or strive, or work, or apply himself, to do this. He just took life, made four families miss their loved ones for no good reason, for his own tiny goals, played a god I don't believe in, because that was easier than making something of himself. We all want to "do something big". I want to "do something big". If you want to "do something big" you work for it. You learn for it. You strive for it. Killing four people and injuring dozens more isn't "something big" - it is something very black and small. He did something small. Any idiot - any loser - can take out a knife and start slashing. He is a tiny human with a tiny heart and no morality whatsoever.

At the same time, I feel sad for that kid. Empathy, even.  We can only speculate on why he did this, but I can't seem to stop speculating (I know....) He wanted to feel "big", and I suppose playing god is a way to trick yourself into that. That meant he probably felt tiny. A college kid, looking at a 22k future, wondering how on earth he could do something big in a world that seemed so determined to keep him tiny through power structures built in order to keep powerful people happy while everyone else begs for that 22k and is told to feel happy they get even that. He may have felt hopelessness, he may have felt anger. Perhaps entitlement. Perhaps he felt that he had to be the second or third biggest asshole in Taiwan for a year (Ma Ying-jiu and his puppeteer might qualify for assholes #1 and 2) in order to make any mark at all.

Well, we all feel that way. Some of us are afraid to admit that we might see some of ourselves in him, whatever his motives:

If this murderer was from a single-parent family, we close the case and we start to review the mechanisms of single-parent family counseling - ethics groups might come out and say "love is loyalty for life, oppose divorce!" People will believe that children from Taiwanese single-parent families are more likely to become problem children and commit these crimes.

Similarly, if he were a homeless murderer, or he was gay, or he only had a junior high school education or was from a lower-income family, if the murderer came from the east (ed: I don't understand this part), the murderer has depression or chews betel nuts or had ADD/ADHD, we can all close the case because it's easy to attribute the causes to these reasons. Followed by a variety of experts to discuss how we can come out with "counseling", "change", "care" of these people. Then the media, pundits, and education continues to fuel these "social problems". The stigma would continue to replicate indefinitely.

We are accustomed to stories in film, on TV and in comics, instilling a duality into our thinking: that there are good guys and bad guys in the world. Those who do bad things must be the bad guys, and they must be bad for a reason, he is not the same as me, so he is a bad person. So everyone becomes a detective, changes the reasoning of experts and thinks they can read minds. We cannot understand, but also refuse to accept that these things can be done by our hands, from our side - from people like us.

So you will not see someone saying, "because the murderer is from a heterosexual family, is an adult dependent on his parents, so..." Noone would say , "because the killer is in Taipei, so ... ", " because the murderer was a man, so ...", " because the murderer has a Facebook account, so ... ". Obviously these conditions are true, but you will not note them as factors - that would be stupid. But why label other stigma (single-parent families, homosexuality, depression, mental illness) even if they exist, unless we want to say that everything is an influence?

We are constantly looking at those people with distinctive labels, just because we are afraid that we are the same as them, we are afraid to face the fact that we received the same education and grew up and were educated in similar environments. Our fear is that there are not only good people and bad in the world.


That's yet another reason why this has affected me so much - because there is not, and possibly should not be, a "reason" or a "label" to put on him that we can then stigmatize or use as a rallying point to further our own pet causes or prejudices. That he's a kid, just a kid, and he's not as unlike the rest of us as we want to believe.

That this is the game of thrones (after a fashion), and winter is coming, and there are far more in-between people than good or bad, and we are among those in-between people. That people just like us can go on a stabbing spree in the MRT because he felt he couldn't be "big" in any other way, that someone not so different from us did do this.

That we are all specks of dust caught between order and entropy, that there is no grand plan for us. That we are all dust motes on a pale blue dot, dust motes on a dust mote, and we all want to do something big...but we can't, because something that small can't do something terribly big.

Even within our own little pale blue petri dish, where what one speck of dust does can affect the whole, where we can, in our own little enclosed environment, do something "big", deep down we know this:

We all have 22k futures.

Most of us are not built into the power structure, and if you are, you were born into it. I was born more into it than others because of my passport, my education and the color of my skin. It's designed to be hard to change, even as we are told, ad nauseam, that with a little bootstrappin', we can change it. That if we want to, we can really do something big. Take that 22k, hon, and like it! Work hard, give us more, chase that carrot on a stick, that robot rabbit on a racetrack, and trust us. You can do it!

But we can't.

We are all tiny humans.