Friday, August 30, 2013

Of Naked Emperors

This isn't Taiwan centric, although it seems to happen to a frightening degree in Taiwan. Let's be fair: and elsewhere, too.

Simply put, one great failure of capitalism is this:

A company needs to improve the English communicative ability of its staff. It's a large company with a generous training budget. Some money is allocated to English training. The person who oversees that training is an HR representative. While they generally have a grasp of things like benchmarks, showing improvement, KPI etc. etc., and may know how to achieve that in a managerial/office context (the extent to which this is actually true is fodder for some future post), they generally do not know how to achieve that in a teaching or training context. They know enough to contract that out, but because they have to be involved, they create the achievement benchmarks and try to cram the classes and seminars into their own rubrics.

I'm not against this generally, but the whole point of a good rubric or KPI is that the person who formulates it is someone who has intimate knowledge based on experience and training in the field they're setting achievement benchmarks in. In this case, it means any HR person who sets benchmarks for English improvement (which I'd argue they can and should do, if they have the appropriate knowledge) should be at least somewhat experienced and trained in language teaching. This is usually not the case, but for the money to keep flowing, someone in power has to set the benchmarks, and the flow of the money means that the person doing it isn't the person who best knows how to do it.

But I'm not writing this just to slag off HR people - some of them are intelligent people with a solid understanding of when, where and how much to get involved in training. They're not the main problem.

So this budget is set and a company goes about looking for trainers. Knowing there's a market for such things, companies pop up to provide teacher trainers for such jobs.

The companies that pop up also know nothing at all about training, language acquisition or English teaching. They are not totally useless - they do know about marketing, market potential, negotiating, contracts and sales. These are important skills and I am not arguing that all "management consulting" firms that provide English teachers to foreign companies should just shut their doors.

So the market-potential guy who wants to cash in (not necessarily a bad thing) on this demand hires some teachers. But he doesn't actually know anything about teachers, so he mostly hires people who "look the part", maybe with a few real teachers mixed in there, and some who aren't teachers but as experienced businesspeople who are native English speakers, they do have something to offer.

He then negotiates a fat slice of his new client's training budget, pays the teachers as little as the market will tolerate, set at just a little higher than the rate for the typical teacher in that country (say, Taiwan) - the rate is high enough to attract people, but not so high that he will be able to fill positions with only experienced, talented professionals. He looks up online what sort of credentials he should be looking for - he doesn't know already, because he himself doesn't know a damned thing about the field - and sticks them into his job advertisement, like plastic roses on a cake. Pretty, professional-looking but ultimately just decorative. He'll hire people without them because he doesn't understand what those qualifications are actually worth. To him they are truly just decorative.

He knows nothing about actual language teaching and as such, provides his new teachers with basically no support (what is provided is utter crap - not worthy of being called "training" or "support", but is billed as such because he's the boss, and the boss MUST know what he's doing). The teachers - some great, some good, some OK, some bad, some with potential and some without - do all the grunt work to meet benchmarks set by someone who isn't trained enough in language acquisition to set them with any degree of professional competence.

So he's paying the teachers about a third of what he's getting from the company. In return the company gets what should be talented, trained and experienced teaching professionals but instead gets a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the inexperienced. They're passed off as "the real deal" because nobody really knows any better. Nobody except the few trained teachers in this whole exchange actually knows what a good teacher/trainer is, so nobody thinks to do any QA (beyond those meaningless benchmarks).

The good teachers eventually get fed up with the no-nothing, no-support school and boss, and leave. They're not earning that much anyway. The bad teachers stick around because the pay is better than teaching kids. And there are plenty of bad teachers - the market will tolerate them because they can be paid less, and nobody at all in that system has a freakin' clue how to actually teach English. Not the administrators, not the school owners, not the students and certainly not the teachers. Nobody really cares, because nobody really knows what student achievement could be if they did only hire good people.

The boss, who doesn't know a damn thing about teaching, earns money from this whole teaching venture. The worst teachers earn an OK salary. The good people move on. The competent people (the students, the good teachers) lose, and the incompetent ones (the boss, the bad teachers) win. HR could fall on either side of this equation (I've met plenty of good ones, really).

What should be happening in a utopian world is this:  company needs English training. Company sets training budget and starts a search for competent teachers. Person who is a trained education and training professional runs a firm to provide such teachers and pays them a fair chunk of the course fee, as well as providing them with meaningful professional development. Competent teachers are provided at a fair rate, successfully fulfilling the company's need. HR knows enough to let these teachers set benchmarks for themselves, and they do (without setting bullshit achievement goals), because they are experienced, trained and talented, and assesses based on that. Everybody wins. Teachers who deserve good pay get it for good work, students learn a lot, HR is happy, and the person who runs the whole thing earns a profit they deserve for their marketing and sales.

This beautiful summation of how things should work is how business English training is too often marketed, in Taiwan and elsewhere. Everyone pretends to be a professional, everyone claims they provide a valuable service and that they, themselves, have the knowledge to be competent in the subject taught.

But we all know that's not how it is - the long-winded dystopia above is how things really work.

And here most of us are thinking that capitalism helps direct funds and skills in the most efficient fashion possible. Not so. It's a brilliant host for parasites whose only talents are sucking the system dry. Which, don't get me wrong, is a considerable talent (I certainly won't be entering marketing and sales anytime soon), but not one that deserves such a fat reward.

It won't change, because people trying to tap this market don't really want to hire good teachers - they'd have to pay them more. Good teachers don't want to get in the game because they have a very low tolerance for bullshit. HR isn't about to admit they aren't always the best people to set classroom benchmarks (although, again, I've worked with some really great ones), and bad teachers aren't likely to decide to either stop teaching or get better.

Color me disillusioned (and color me Captain Obvious, because I am sure any half-reasonable person has figured out this game already), but there you are.

Just yesterday I took on a course at a more traditional buxiban-like school, teaching test preparation. I had a meeting with the DOS for basic orientation. The DOS is certified, experienced and competent. He knows what a good teacher is and how to find and retain one. He knows what sort of training and development is required for his staff. He knows what skills to look for in a new hire to give students what they need. In short, he actually knows how to do the job he's hiring others to do. It's not a full time job - I still have my freelance thing going - but I'm looking forward to working there. A school where I get support! A school with real avenues to real professional development! A school where the person employing me actually understands what a teacher does and what a good teacher is worth!

That's such a huge change from the job I just left that I couldn't help but write about length. Now it's out...please forgive me.

But in my defense, we already knew the emperor was naked, didn't we?

Sent from my iPad

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Culture Fatigue: "I get it but I don't like it"

I had a conversation earlier today (OK, a thread of Facebook comments, DON'T JUDGE ME) about "cultural fatigue" - vs. culture shock - with a friend. The context: the curriculum where she works in Japan requires that a certain article on the topic be assigned, but the article itself is outdated, and not in a "this is foundational" way.

"Culture fatigue" is a concept I came across awhile ago, when I did some searching (OK, Googling, DON'T JUDGE ME) to figure out what was bothering me on a near-daily level, like a low-grade chronic ache, about my life. It wasn't depression. It wasn't my marriage. It wasn't my job. It wasn't my apartment. It wasn't my social life. It wasn't living in another country per se, and I wasn't unhappy with Taiwan overall. But it was something.

After our conversation, I did another search to see if anything new had been written on the topic, and came across this. It more or less perfectly encapsulates what sometimes bothers me about life in Taiwan (or long-term life in any country). His examples are generally money related.

Although occasionally, very occasionally, I've felt nickeled-and-dimed in Taiwan (a taxi driver taking an obviously inferior route, a dry cleaner charging me a touch more than I thought dry cleaning usually cost, a guy showing me a price on a calculator for a scarf (299) and telling a local woman the price in Chinese for the same kind of scarf (250 - and I did call him on it and I got it for 225 - "you should knock off 25 more for giving me the foreign price" I said, and he did!), mostly money isn't a problem. Things cost what they cost and yes, friends and relatives get a discount, but you the foreigner generally get the price that an unfamiliar local would get. At least in Taipei.

So these aren't my issues. Taiwan is a very different place from Colombia (I think I just won the "duh" award with that statement), and the culture fatigue issues I face are, understandably, quite different.

My examples for Taiwan are below.

Before I get into them, please keep in mind: I really do love living here. I don't mean these as an ad hominem attack on Taiwan. I could write a similar post of similar length on great things about life here and aspects of the culture that I find positive or preferable. I do not mean to imply that these happen every day to me (they don't) or that I think they make people here crazy or "inscrutable" (they really don't). I don't think all of these are "wrong" per se, just a very different way of looking at the world. My point is that these are the cultural norms that give me trouble; they are the ones that cause culture fatigue. It doesn't mean they are "wrong", just that I find them difficult to deal with.

In fact, because this sort of post tends to get people angry, I've gone ahead and highlighted in pink the areas where I try to empathize with, or at least understand, the other side of the issue.

- - Never knowing if "sorry, I'm just so busy these days. I still want to hang out and see you, I'm just very busy", after you haven't seen a friend in months, is really "I'm busy" (it can be - considering working hours and family obligations in Taiwan), or if it's a polite brush-off. In the USA I'd know.

- - The concepts of respect for rank and giving "face" to people higher in rank than you (I naively thought face was something everyone got in equal measure. Boy was I wrong), meaning that if you have a dispute with someone higher-up than you, even if you are right and everybody knows you are right, they may well not support you. This can happen in the USA too, but it isn't as common. I do get it - face is a big deal, and if you are judicious in giving it and then trying to get what you want through other means, it's not that hard to be successful. It just wears me down to have to do things this way so often.

- - Not imparting important, or even just pertinent, information if informing somebody of something too early (or at all) could make waves in the placid surface on the lake of social harmony. As in, the other day I was in the Eslite Dunhua cafe after a class, and I was hungry. It was about 2:30pm. I asked for the menu, saying "I'm quite hungry, so I want to order some food" in Chinese. They give me the menu. I pick out something healthy and light - the smoked salmon salad. They say "oh, I'm sorry, the kitchen is closed".
"OK, but I said I wanted to order food when I asked for the menu."
"You can have a cake!" (pointing to the cake display).
"If I wanted a cake I would not have asked for the menu because I can see the cakes."
"Oh, yes, that's true."
"So why did you give me the menu?"
"Excuse me, I don't understand."
"I asked for a menu saying I wanted to order food. If you knew the kitchen was closed, why did you give me the menu? Why didn't you just say the kitchen was closed in the beginning?"

I mean I guess it's possible that the server was either a.) not that smart or b.) not having a good day (we all have Stupid Days, it's OK), but this sort of thing has happened many times before. It's happened enough that I recognize it as a cultural tic and not just One Ditzy Waitress.

I get this one too: social harmony is more important than individual wants, and social harmony must be achieved and maintained (that's why we smile and shake hands after an argument at work when nothing's actually been resolved. OK). So you just go with it and assume the other person gets this on a cellular level too. The waitress probably figured, when it was clear I did not want a cake, that I would be all "oh, OK, well, thank you!" and not call her out on giving me a menu when I couldn't order anything. My calling her out disturbed social harmony. Her giving me the menu, however unthinking it seemed to me, was trying to maintain it. I get it, but it wears me down.

- - Related to the example above, the whole listening to your requests and suggestions, the person nods that he or she understands...then completely disregards them. Or, as you make a request or list a requirement, the person says that would be fine, and then proceeds to go against everything agreed on to try to get you to bend even after you've already said you can't or won't. Again, nodding and "understanding" uphold social harmony. Nobody can say directly that they don't agree or can't grant your request. So they don't say it. You are just expected to understand. And again, when this happens I know why it happens and I try to handle it with grace. But it wears me down.

Example: let's say you are asked to create material for and teach a series of workshops on some business skill. You agree, and you get to work. You say you will need a projector and screen in class. to show a short video in the workshop. "I understand." The morning of the workshop - no projector or screen. "Oh, we don't have that, sorry. You can teach without it." Yes, by changing my entire lesson plan with about ten minutes to spare, I can. ARGGGHHHHH. (One day I decided I was done. Done. I just flatly refused to do that when confronted with material changed without my knowledge ten minutes before class. "You can just teach this instead." "No." "But..." "NO. You get me the agreed-upon material or I won't teach. I am not joking. You have ten minutes." "But..." "Do it or this class doesn't happen." It felt so good.)

Or you tell someone you need a month's notice to clear time to do something on weekday nights, but weekends are generally fine. Then they call you up and ask when you are free in two weeks. You list weekends and one weekday night because it happens to be open. They call you and say "what other weekday nights are you free?"
"Oh, well, we want to do this on weekday nights. You said you could do that?"
"Yes, with a month's notice."
"Oh. I see. Well, could you try to free up those nights now for two weeks later? You have two weeks!"
"No, I'm sorry."
"Are you sure? We really want to do this on those nights."
"I already told you, to get those free I need a month's notice."
"Well, maybe you can try?"
"No, I'm sorry."

And then you are made to feel bad - well, if you let them make you feel bad - for declining to try, because you look like the uncooperative, inflexible one. The point is that they want to do something, and that means they'll try to bend every factor to fit in place to make it happen. That means asking you if you can also be flexible so they can make it happen (which often, but not always, may also benefit you). What you told them before...yeah, it means something, but if they need to ask for something you said you couldn't give to achieve what they want, they will anyway. It's not that they didn't understand, it's that this is a country in which almost everything is flexible if you know where to press, push, twist or bend, so they're hoping they can bend you. It's not personal. Again, I get it but I don't like it.

- - Lying, especially at work. Either employees lying to avoid being blamed for something, or bosses lying to try to manipulate employees into doing something they might otherwise resist (this covers 99% of "please finish this tonight, it's an urgent issue!"). Related: when you call someone out on that lie and the mood of the room turns against you, not the liar, because they lost face when you called them out for...blatantly lying. I do get that "lie" doesn't quite mean the same thing in Asia as it does in the West, but it doesn't blunt the force of the culture fatigue.

- - Not apologizing. I understand this one: apologizing puts an unnecessary spotlight on you in a situation where everybody already knows you screwed up. Not apologizing is a way to save face, but it's not like you're not accountable. People know. If you say it openly people don't let it go. Totally different from the US where apologizing is what you do to get people to let it go. I get it. I do. But I still get irritated when someone screws up royally and doesn't acknowledge it.

- - Very strange assumptions, to me, about what constitutes a "good relationship" or even "a marriage". Like, the idea that if you are moved to hire a private detective to spy on your spouse, that the problem isn't the marriage itself but his mistress (or her "mister"). Or that it's OK if a husband stands with his parents against his wife on some issue, and the wife is expected to cave (so happy that I don't have this problem: and it involves things like "my mother wants us to have a baby so we're going to do that", and if the wife makes a fuss she's the bad guy). Or that if he retreats emotionally and gives her, basically, The Fade, and she shows up crying on his doorstep, and he reluctantly goes back to her, but she has to sa jiao him to get him to do anything at all, that this is apparently a happy ending.

Let's be fair here - not all, not even most, relationships in Asia are like that. It's one subset of people, one cultural meme among many. And plenty of Taiwanese would find certain Western relationship norms odd: I mentioned to a class I've had for awhile that of course Brendan knows of my not-terribly-many ex-boyfriends. We were roommates twice as friends: he's met most of 'em. It's really not a big deal. I know his history too. NBD. It's normal. Your past is a part of you. It would be odd to withhold it (of course you don't give lots of details, but you know, the general outline).

Well, they were shocked. SHOCKED! Apparently none of them had told their wives about their ex-girlfriends (not even general details - nothing at all, as though they never existed). They knew nothing of their wives' ex-boyfriends. "It's better that you don't get into that," they said. "That can create bad feelings. So there is no reason to say it."

My thought: if it creates bad feelings, there is a problem in your current relationship. And if you don't know at least the general outline of someone's past, I feel that you don't really know them. But those Taiwanese guys don't see it that way at all. My way is culture shock to them (not so much culture fatigue: they don't live in my culture; I live in theirs).

- - The acceptance of sexism as "that which we cannot change", even as someone espouses generally feminist ideals. It's fine for a woman to be President of Taiwan, or for a woman to be powerful (Cher Wang, Chen Chu, various General Managers and politicians), wealthy, successful. It's fine if other people's wives are breadwinners (among the younger generation, it's apparently more acceptable for their own wives to be breadwinners). If I mention that I am a breadwinner, nobody gasps. And yet, it's just accepted as "that's the way things are" when asked how they feel about how Taiwanese women are so harshly judged on their appearance and age, how divided-by-gender some industries are, how a wife is expected to submit in small but significant ways to her husband's family, that her husband's family is always the one given priority on holiday visits (nobody thinks to question how patriarchal it is to always give Chinese New Year's Day to the husband's side, and the less important day after to the wife's), that the husband's family has a lot of say in when they start trying for a baby, that a man can have support for women's rights and yet still feel that his son should grow up to be a provider, but that his daughter need only find a good husband.

Related: "women do X, men do Y". Men can say bad words; women shouldn't. Men are strong, women are not. Men prefer pretty women, women prefer rich and powerful men. Women love babies, men like 'em well enough. Women don't drink as much. When they do, they prefer light drinks, sweet cocktails, low-alcohol fruit beers, and fizzy, white or pink, light wine. Men drink whiskey and Kaoliang. Men shake hands with men, they don't extend their hands to women. Women may extend their hand to men. I am sorry, I just don't like this. I can try to empathize but this is a hot button for me I just want to scream "講三小!"

(That's Taiwanese for "WTF are you saying?")

Same with racism by the way. Seems everybody has egalitarian views on race, and yet everyone considers racism against non-white foreigners including Southeast Asians to be something that can't be changed.

This one? Well, if you come from a culture that values harmony, conformity, stability and tradition, it's understandable that you might throw up your hands at a difficult situation and say "it's our culture, it's always been this way, we can't change it". I can't come up with an "I get it" beyond that, though. I really can't. It just sucks.

- - "I have to" - when someone who doesn't actually have authority to tell you what to do...tells you what to do. "I have to diet this much, people will think I'm fat if I gain weight". "I have to have a baby, my mother-in-law wants us to". "I have to stay late at work, my coworkers will think I am not loyal to the company." "I have to make my kid go to buxiban for 200 hours a week, everybody else does so I have to, too". "I have to have a big wedding and invite 500 people I don't know." "I have to invest in my brother's idea for a milk tea stand even though I don't want to because my parents say I should." 'I have to buy an apartment near my parents even though I don't want to live in that neighborhood." The boundary god. My boundaries are such that they're practically guarded by an electric dog fence (and all of y'all except Brendan are wearing special collars - sorry). I want to scream "You don't HAVE to. You are CHOOSING to! And that's OK! You have decided that you'd rather go along with this social expectation than fight it. You think that's preferable for you. FINE! That's great! You do you! But YOU DO NOT HAVE TO!"

But, I've come to realize that what "I have to" really means is "I choose to, because going with the flow is preferable to me, but I want to express that the expectation is very strong and that maintaining social harmony is still more important to me than getting my own way, while also expressing that I am not really happy about it." So...okay.

This happens in the USA too: "I HAVE TO wear white on my wedding day because it'll upset my mom if I don't!" 

But I do kind of wish that people generally (not just in Taiwan) would be more cognizant of the differences between what they actually have to do, and what they choose to do, albeit under pressure.

- * - * -

If you've gotten this far and are fuming angrily about how much I hate Taiwan, how whiny I am, how I "just don't get it", well, mosey on back and read the stuff in pink, thanks.

I do feel, though, that this is difficult to talk about for a few reasons. One is that I do feel as an expat, that either I'm supposed to happily embrace my the culture of the country where I live, and if I really love it in that country, I can't show any irritation or criticism of that culture: either you love it or you don't, goes that binary thinking, and if you complain at all, you don't love it. It's not true, and people surely know that on some level (I get annoyed with constant complainers, but will defend anyone's right to vent a bit or complain for awhile even if they love a place).

Another is that I feel that as openminded, 21st century folk, that we're supposed to approach culture differences at all times with "it's not bad, it's just different" or even "their culture is BETTER than ours", and no criticism shall pass our lips lest we be labeled 'narrowminded', 'ethnocentric', 'culturally imperialist' or just 'racist'. Believe me, there are ways in which I do feel Taiwanese culture is superior, but there are times when I really want to say this: there are other ways in which I do feel American (narrowed down to my home country for simplicity's sake) culture has one up on Taiwanese ways of doing things. I don't think that makes me narrowminded or racist. Examples: I think that in Taiwanese companies, when you want to get rid of someone, strongly encouraging them to quit rather than firing them is better. People screw up, people are sometimes just not good fits. That's no reason to poison someone's chances, in a small country with a very interconnected culture, of getting another job and making something of themselves by firing them publicly.  But then the American way of insisting on accountability and prizing efficiency and "it's not personal, just fix your mistakes and get it done, don't waffle, don't get defensive, don't hide behind 'face' to avoid accountability" is probably better than the Taiwanese way of often getting defensive (due to loss of face) when publicly or even privately-but-directly called out on a mistake. Not that everyone in either culture always conforms to these norms, just that they are common.

Finally, the idea that "under our skin, we're all the same" applies to all people in all ways. It does not. Sure, under our different races we are all born with similar ranges of intelligence and stupidity, aptitudes and idiosyncracies, good and bad people. There's no gene that makes "Asians smarter at math", or "Jews better with money" or whatever. That's ridiculous and we all know it. But we actually aren't all the same under our skin. Not for genetic or racial reasons, but that our cultures make our outlooks and fundamental worldviews, well, fundamentally different. We're the same in so many ways, but different in others, and it's time we acknowledged that more openly. I don't think it's un-PC to say so.

What are your "culture fatigue" issues in Taiwan (or elsewhere)? Got anything to add? As long as you don't just dump on Taiwan (and even if you do, although I'd hope my lovely, intelligent commenters would be the sort to attempt understanding and empathy), I'd be glad to add to this list. I am sure someone else out there in Taiwan in the throes of cultural fatigue will come across this post and be able to see the source of their anger and frustration more easily. Maybe it'll keep an expat from exploding somewhere, or giving up and flying home in a fit of rage. And that would be all worth it.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Of Typhoons and Fighting Back: Consumer Rights in Taiwan

Several years ago, I took a series of one-on-one Chinese classes at TLI (Taipei Language Institute), and while my teachers were fine (not particularly trained, but nice people and I did learn from them - mostly I got in some good speaking practice). I didn't continue the course for a few reasons. Because I didn't like that my two hour block was split between two teachers - I liked them both but I really just wanted one teacher so we could progress more. Because I was not allowed to take any classes off and make them up (if I couldn't take a class, it was considered forfeit), but at one point one of my teachers took a few classes off and I got a substitute (again, really hard to progress that way), meaning she could take time off, but not me. Because at one point a teacher just didn't show up and I waited 20 minutes or so before telling TLI, and they got irritated at ME - apparently I should have told them almost immediately so they could find me a quick substitute and not have to do a make-up class (again, how does this help me progress?).

And finally, because one of my classes was postponed due to a typhoon day. When I asked when the make up would be, I was told there would not be one. I asked, then, when I would get my refund as I'd paid for two hours of class (it was an hourly rate) that I would never receive. I was told there would not be one. 

My teachers seemed genuinely surprised that I was upset by this: "but we're teachers, we're guaranteed certain earnings! It's not fair to us to not get paid because there was a typhoon!"

Okay. I mean, office workers and others get that courtesy. You don't have to go in to work but you still get paid. So I understood why they might feel that way, and why the school might back them up.

But this wasn't office work, and it wasn't a course for which you paid tuition for the entire term. This was paid by the hour. As I saw it, I paid for two hours of a service (Chinese class) and as such, I was owed the two hours I'd paid for. Otherwise I'd paid for something I'd never get. It would be like paying a plumber to come to your house on Tuesday, but he's sick that Tuesday, so he takes your money but says he's not coming. Or paying someone to translate your resume into Chinese by September 1st, but they go out of town unexpectedly until September 5th, don't translate your resume and don't return your money. 

As a teacher myself, if there's a typhoon day I don't get paid. I mean, we make up the class. I always get the money eventually. But I don't get it right then, for work performed that day. Is it totally fair? No, but you deal with it because that's what it means to work this kind of job. If it was so important to me I'd go looking for a salaried position, and I notably have not done so.

And my students? If there's a typhoon day, they get a make-up class. I have a student who pays me for ten classes at a time. Last week our Wednesday class (#9) didn't happen because of Typhoon Trami. If I'd then said, "well, #9 was cancelled due to typhoon, next week is #10" she would simply decline to be my student any longer. I teach her privately, but I don't know of any English school that would have any other policy. They'd lose too much business.

Taiwanese learners of English who take one-on-ones don't stand for that sort of bullshit, so why should I? I left TLI, figuring it was one bad experience and I'd just go elsewhere. I still wasn't fond of Shi-da, so after another tumultuous semester there, I decided not to return. I happen to think the most common "methodologies" (if you can call them that) used by teachers at MTC are atrocious, even outright wrong from a language teaching/Applied Linguistics perspective.

It didn't occur to me to complain, because I didn't realize something: typhoon day policies like TLI's are illegal. If you pay for a service by the hour, you are to receive that service or receive a refund. 

So I drifted for awhile, and finally signed up for one-on-one classes at Chinese Culture University. Again I liked my teacher, my class wasn't split in half, she helped me learn some Taiwanese, and I was mostly happy. I was told that in the event of a typhoon, there would be a refund or a make-up. Yay!

About halfway through the course, right after Typhoon Soulik (which did not affect my class), they sent me an e-mail saying that the rules had changed - in Chinese - "for the next term, in the event of a typhoon cancellation, there will be no make-up and no refund" the e-mail said. "I know we promised you this term that you would get a make-up or refund, so if there is a typhoon cancellation, we will help you to make it up. For the next term, however, the new rules will apply. We are sorry for the inconvenience."

So I wrote back (in Chinese, badly), saying "unless this rule is changed there won't be a second term. I've already told you that I lost money from TLI for this reason, and I refuse to accept that this may happen again. If I sign up anyway, your management may feel that this rule is fair and acceptable, but it truly is not. I don't blame you" (the admin who wrote the e-mail - not her fault) - "but I hope you will pass my message on to the boss to let him know that this policy is not fair to students and Chinese Culture University will lose students and revenue as a result. I simply cannot accept it and I am not prepared to negotiate."

She wrote back to say she understood, and would pass on my message. Nothing happened. I posted about it on Facebook - yet another school off my list because I could not abide this policy.  

A few people replied - and I found out that this policy is, in fact, quite illegal. 

I took it up with the government, sending in a complaint (in Chinese, badly), with screenshots of the e-mail I received. They sent me a letter within a week to say they'd received it and, as it was the jurisdiction of the Department of Education (or somesuch) that they'd sent it on to them. I didn't have to do anything. I got a letter from the Education department saying they were looking into it and to sit tight (but in Chinese Bureaucratese, of course). 

Then two weeks pass. Nothing. I begin to worry that CCU has some sort of 'guanxi' or relationships in the government and so they got them to just drop this complaint from a small fry like me. Damn it. I didn't really want to write an editorial or something like that, I just wanted it taken care of. I was assured again that the policy was quite illegal. One friend noted that his school used to have such a policy, but they had to change it to offer make-ups as students complained and the government came down on them.

On the last day of my course, Chinese Culture University gave me a final letter, again in Chinese Bureaucratese. I could barely read it; we read it together as a part of my class (my teacher was well aware that I was complaining and said she agreed with me). It said, after three or so bullshit points (they always do that), that in the case of a typhoon, there will be no refund but I will be able to schedule a make-up. 

Okay. That's fair! 

I haven't signed up with CCU again yet, as I can't really take an evening class right now, but the teacher who teaches Taiwanese is only free after 4:30pm. I want to see how my September schedule might work out before resigning. I couldn't help but note, though, that on my last day I was not handed a feedback form or a sign-up form. I was not contacted at all. It was done, and I couldn't tell if this was just them not providing good follow-up, them just assuming I'd take the initiative, or them thinking I still would not sign up for a new term...or them trying to indirectly tell me that I may have won the fight, but they didn't really want me as a student anymore, so to kindly not return. I have no way of knowing.

I just wanted to share this to let you all know: if you take a Chinese one-on-one class and your school (if you take it through a school) tells you that you won't get a make-up or refund in the event of a typhoon, that it is illegal, that you can complain through official channels, and that you absolutely should.  It's not even that hard to do.

Why they think they can have policies like this is beyond me - the Taiwanese would never stand for it. Do they think foreigners are dumb (I don't think so, but I have to wonder sometimes)? Do they think they can get away with it because there aren't as many Chinese schools as there are English schools, and less competition means they can get away with more crap (see: airlines)? Or do they think this is actually a fair policy (I can't believe they do)?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know this. The state of "getting things done" in Taiwan is not totally broken. Consumer rights exist (although property rights don't seem to) and even if you're just one person you can sometimes get someone to enforce laws that are on your side. DO complain. DO make a fuss. DO stand up for yourself. DON'T let them steal your money.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Good Haircuts for Western Women: Eddie's Moved!

Awhile back - several years ago, actually - I blogged about good haircuts for Western women.

Well, Eddie's moved and I thought you all should know. His new address is:

Pica Hair Salon
Eddie Tham
Zhongxiao E. Road Section 4 #76 3rd Floor (MRT Zhongxiao Fuxing Exit 3)

Eddie still, in my opinion, does the best hair in Taiwan, especially if you need someone who can handle Western hair. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Not-Really Doing The Delta in Taiwan: Preparation for Module One


I'm posting this - and more blog posts to come - because there isn't much talk of doing the Delta or having a Delta credential among teachers in Taiwan: this includes teachers who are more serious about actually teaching and aren't just kids looking to travel or older dudes who never really thought about doing anything else, or doing what they do now better (I know, I said dudes, not people. But I've never met a long-term female English teacher in Taiwan - or anywhere else for that matter - who didn't at some point seek out training and professional development in order to pursue it as a proper career. There seems to be a time limit on women willing to do this job without improving their skills and 'getting serious'. But, sorry to say, I've met plenty of men who are in exactly that rut).

So what is it like to be based in Taiwan as one works their way through the Delta modules? I aim to find out (also, I'll end up with a Delta) and I figure I may as well blog about it.

This is a "Not-Really" series because we're not really doing the Cambridge Delta course in Taiwan, we're doing Module One online, Module Two - well who knows, really, but if we can't get a Local Tutor here we're going to have to go abroad for it - and Module Three will almost certainly be online (but who knows).

Another option we could have taken but didn't is a 12-week intensive course (I think shorter options are available, though) - they're offered in various centers around the world. We looked into doing it at International House Bangkok but the up-front cost for both of us at that time was just not feasible (and we weren't really excited about repeating our four-week CELTA experience over even more weeks). Why Bangkok? Cheapest to live in of all the nearby cities, and the program director was very responsive. I got a good vibe. If we have to go abroad for Modules 2 or 3, we'll probably put them as our top choice.

These are, at the moment, the only option available for those who want to do this, and I do hope in the future that the number of people who do will increase.

Module One hasn't started yet, but we're already pre-reading for it, because we figured that'd be a good idea. So, some preliminary thoughts:

Why would you want to do the Delta from Taiwan, if you want to work in Taiwan?

The CELTA and Delta are not officially recognized in Taiwan, because the government is stupid that way. Sorry, it's the honest truth. After doing the CELTA, I truly believe that it's the best initial ELT qualification out there, it produces teachers with a good foundation in basic skills for the job, a foundation that further training and support can build on. If the government of Taiwan can't be bothered to recognize that, they're stupid. 

They're also paid for (maybe not literally, but close enough). They're not interested in having quality English teachers, they're interested in keeping wages low at buxibans, because the bosses have more influence than the foreign teachers. One way to keep wages low is to make it easy for the workforce to be unqualified - it's not like most people understand on a deeper, more complex level what a professional, talented, qualified teacher actually does. Doesn't take too much thought to put it all together: they don't want a qualified foreign teacher workforce, because then those foreigners might demand better pay, and the laobans wouldn't want that (the laobans don't seem to care much about good teaching - - generally speaking, they are not teachers, although some believe they are).

But there are other reasons to do the Delta, even if your home base now and for the foreseeable future is Taiwan. Here are mine:

1.) It will make you a better (real) teacher. The CELTA is an initial qualification. It doesn't make a full-on professional teacher. It's a foundation. The Delta, I daresay, will make you an actual professional who knows what they are doing. Besides being more impressive in interviews and demos, if you're going to be an English teacher for realsies, wouldn't you want to be the best one you can be? No matter where you live? Isn't self-improvement a good thing? I was impressed enough with the CELTA that I do believe a Delta is a good move in terms of professional development.

2.) It's affordable. It's cheaper than a Master's, and will count as credit towards that Master's. It's not dirt cheap, but that's OK. I felt that what I got from the CELTA in a highly professional center (ITI Istanbul) was well worth the tuition. I believe the same will be true for Delta. I trust the program. If you want to be an English teacher, a real, qualified one, it's a wise financial bet.

3.) It's practical. I will eventually get a Master's degree. I can't imagine not doing that. But Master's degrees in Education, Applied Linguistics and TEFL/TESOL tend to be theoretical, not practical. The Delta is a practical, in-service qualification and I value that over academic learning in this particular instance. Eventually I want both, but I place more value on the practical qualification first.

4.) It will prepare you for further education. Imagine if you were plonked down in a Master's program with a few years' experience and an initial qualification, and everyone around you seemed to know better than you what they were doing. I could imagine myself there, and I wouldn't welcome such a scenario (would anyone?). After the Delta I'll feel poised and learn-ed enough to enter a Master's program - a reputable one - with confidence. It also takes about as long as one semester of a Master's degree, meaning that if you choose the right university it'll count for a heck of a lot.

5.) It may not be recognized by the government, but foreign prospective bosses LOVE it. If your prospective boss is Taiwanese, they likely won't know a Delta from their butthole (well, that's a bit mean - some will. I'm really just drawing on my own experience at my last job. But in general it's true). This may or may not be their fault (it's their fault if they're one of those this-is-business-I-don't-care-if-you-can-actually-teach bosses, but not their fault if they are qualified teachers who, by dint of being from and educated in Asia, simply aren't familiar with it). But if your prospective boss is a foreigner - especially if (s)he's British - it won't matter what the government recognizes. You'll be gold.

6.) It's a good credential to have if you ever have to leave Taiwan but still want to teach. It's recognized elsewhere, and having it means you'll always be at the head of the pack when it comes to finding a job.

7.) It may someday be recognized in Taiwan. Don't get your hopes up, but there are people with a strong interest in seeing this happen. Maybe. Someday. One can dream.

8.) It can be done online. I know Taiwan doesn't generally recognize online Master's degrees, but I do hope that someday it will be different when it comes to recognizing a comprehensive Delta. After all, if you're in Taiwan there aren't many other options. You could go abroad for each module, but that costs a fortune.

Why are you pre-reading for this thing? Can't you just take it and read the books as they come up in the course?

Plenty of people have already blogged about why pre-reading is a good idea. I know you'll hate me for this, but I'm going to give you another list of my own reasons:

1.) Because there is a lot of terminology, and the sooner you are exposed to it, the better. It may seem silly to you now, but it counts.
2.) Because the course references scads of books, and if you haven't read any of them, you'll have to work your ass off. If you have read a few, life won't be so horrible for you.
3.) It gets you familiar with the sort of things you'll have to know to take the test (which is for-realz difficult, it's not a fluff course, nor is it a fluff exam).
4.) Because the rubrics are extremely strict, and you'll want to know that and understand how as early as possible so you can prepare appropriately
5.) Because if you're in Taiwan you probably had to order the books online, so you may as well crack 'em open. After all, this is not a course to take if you're not serious about teaching.
6.) Because I want to not just be good, I want to be great, fantastic amazing, whatever, and if I want to not only pass this test but shake it 'till I break it, I'll need to pre-read.
7.) Because although this is a practical qualification, there is an academic component. The sooner you get yourself re-adjusted to academia, the better. Academics generally don't go out of their way to write things in clear, concise, accessible ways.
8.) Because you probably won't have time to read every book cover to cover, but if you eventually go on to get a Master's, having done so will really help. A lot. A lotsy-lot.

And most importantly (so importantly that I'm putting it in hot pink):

7.) The Delta is aimed at people who have an initial qualification (preferably CELTA) and a few years' experience. The problem here is that they seem to assume that that experience came with things like "further training" and "support" and "a knowledgeable, qualified school staff". So they expect you to really know more than you did when you took the CELTA. Which you do, because you have more experience, but if you didn't get any further training or support, you won't know much more. So...if you're like me (zero training post-CELTA and the level of "qualification" of the office staff at my former company would be laughable if it weren't so sad), you'll need to pre-read just to feel like you can hang with the cool, experienced kids. You'll need to be Mike Wazowski in Monsters University, because you're not James P. Sullivan.

The Delta website recommends two years' post-CELTA experience. Other bloggers say it could easily, perhaps should be, more. But with no support or ongoing training, more time won't make me a better teacher. I've reflected as much as I can reflect. I work to improve, but feel a bit rudderless. With that kind of obstacle to overcome, knowing that even if I had more "experience" it wouldn't matter much, I have to pre-read.

OK, so what should I pre-read?

1.) Beyond The Sentence - this is discourse analysis. a fairly easy book to pre-read, you can plow through it without needing a course tutor to walk you through it. Also, totally fascinating and I don't mean that sarcastically. This is an especially good book for terminology - keep a notebook of new terms you come across. Stuff like deixis, parataxis, anaphoric reference, adjacency pairs etc.. If it sounds fancy and Greek, write it down like the good little nerd you are. These are very likely to be on the exam, and the sooner you are exposed to them, the better.

2.) Linguistics for Non-Linguists - I will be a linguist someday (DAMMIT!) but for now, I am not. I have not read this yet but Brendan either has or is currently in the midst of it, and says it's easy enough to read, accessible and interesting. I trust his judgment, so I give it a thumbs-up.

3.) About Language - I haven't read this but it comes highly recommended from several trusted sources, many of whom say "if you read one book before the course, make it this one".

4.) If you didn't read it for CELTA, read it now: The Practice of English Language Teaching. I am a very big fan of this book. Our CELTA course was basically a vehicle for inserting the knowledge, with practical use, from this book into our brains Matrix-style, and I ain't complainin'.

5.) Delta Module One Exam Reports - read, read, read, and note the correct answers and why the incorrect ones are so. Read more than one (just Google, they'll come up).

6.) Anything else that strikes your fancy on the reading list (varies by center).

7.) Blog posts like this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one and this one.

8.) Get yourself some Quizlets

There may be more - if so, I'll come in and edit this post.


1.) for pickup at 7-11. Most titles take time to arrive, they're not immediately in stock.


Anyway, that's all I've got for now. Check back in later when I've actually started the course!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Sun Moon Mainlanders

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OK, so, I figure mostly what people want to see are photos.

By the way, I am really sick of only being able to post small photos while about 2/3 of the browser window are taken up by green nothingness.

I can't change the widths on this template, and don't want to move to Wordpress just yet. Any suggestions for good templates that will allow me to have a far wider text-and-photo section without all the empty space on the sides, so I can post much larger pictures? I'm really, really not tech savvy at all (I can haz computator!) which is why I stick to pre-designed templates and don't have my own.

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Anyway, people always say getting to Sun Moon Lake is tough: it's not really. You can take a bus directly from HSR Taichung Station. Or take a bus to Taichung City - make sure to get one with a Taichung Railway Station destination, not Chaoma Terminal, which is halfway across the world from downtown Taichung and basically sucks. I don't know whose idea it was to build that thing out in the middle of nowhere, but there ya go. The bus will let you off in an area that is an easy walking distance from tons of other buses that go to Sun Moon Lake: if you're let off on Shuangshi (雙十) Boulevard, just pick any given one and ask about buses to Sun Moon Lake, or to Puli with a transfer. If you're let off in front of the actual train station, ask at information about the Sun Moon Lake buses, or just hop any bus to Puli and change.

There is, according to the guidebook, a bus straight to Sun Moon Lake from Taipei, but I have never seen nor heard of this theoretical bus in real life.

Once in Puli, either bus station should have buses to the lake. Or just show the characters to the driver, who will tell you where to get off.

"I, for one, welcome our new fedora overlords." photo 182944_10151806263671202_1825991549_n.jpg

I got to Taichung before Brendan, who had to work late due to postponements from Typhoon Soulik the week before. So rather than hang around the random hotel I grabbed, I hopped a cab to Fengchia Night Market on the outskirts of town (because I'll be damned if I'm going to tolerate Taichung's craptacular "public transportation" joke of a system). What a great place to spend an evening eating and shopping - recommended for anyone with any time in Taichung after dark. Probably the best part of that whole godforsaken city.

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We hit up Sun Moon Lake the next day after arranging a fairly inexpensive homestay, given the summer weekend rates (NT$2500 - okaaaay).

As I said in my previous post, it's really amazing that I've managed to spend 7 years in Taiwan and only now visit Sun Moon Lake for the first time. Generally speaking, I enjoyed myself more than I thought I would, and while touristy it wasn't as horrific as I imagined it might be. I would even go back, although it's not at the top of my list.

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There really weren't quite as many tourists as we thought there'd be, but that doesn't mean there weren't any. As you can see here, the ferries were straight-up packed, mostly with Mainlanders, but some domestic tourists as well.

All in all my favorite parts of Taiwan are the parts that aren't saturated with tourists (I guess this might cause you to think I like very non-touristy Taichung: you would be wrong). I liked Kending OK, but I liked Cow Mountain Beach more. Taroko Gorge is beautiful but I left my heart on Hehuanshan. Jiaoxi is fine but my soul really sings in the East Rift Valley. I've never been to Alishan, but dollars to doughnuts I'd pick Lishan over it any day. The Museum of Contemporary Art is by far my favorite - preferable to the tourist-packed National Palace Museum (which I've never really gotten into, although I don't deny it's packed with priceless treasures).

Even in terms of domestic tourists, I don't really like places full of 'em (although I don't begrudge them enjoying their own country, of course). I'll take a quiet Dihua Street over a packed Sanxia Old Street, a puppet show in a night market to some big traditional production that requires lining up, Yuemeikeng over Wufengchi, the Xiaotzukeng Old Trail over Jiufen (although I do like Jiufen), Donggang over Yilan, Fushoushan Farm over Cingjing Farm.

So I wasn't really expecting to love Sun Moon Lake.

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I wasn't wrong, per se. I didn't adore it. I liked it well enough. Years of exploring the less touristed nooks and crannies of Taiwan, and being able to explore Taipei on relatively quiet weekdays, have meant that I've become acquainted with what it's like to live here without the tourists, be they Taiwanese or Chinese, or from any other country. What it's like to partake in activities that locals themselves are partaking in, or even talk to locals who aren't trying to sell me something (the good thing about Taiwan is that even the locals that are selling you things are generally honest, friendly people. Unlike, say, most of China).

So many Mainland tourists. photo 1014029_10151806268216202_1309692207_n.jpg

My main complaints?

First of all, the Shao aborigines are getting fucking shafted. We didn't poke around to see if most of this tiny tribe still live in shoddy temporary housing since the 9/21 earthquake, but most do seem to live a working class life - anywhere from outright poverty to middle class just-getting-by.

With all the money that gets poured into Sun Moon Lake from the tourist hordes of Asia, who stay in lakefront hotels and by bags of tourist crap to take home, who drink Starbucks (and buy the mug!) and eat subpar food in banquet-hall like tour group restaurants, who stay at the Lalu, go to spas and have afternoon tea, charter boats, rent cars and cycle around, you'd think the Shao would be doing pretty well seeing as this is their land and all.

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But nope.

Many own shops (I think I could tell which were the aborigine owned shops and which were owned by Hoklo or otherwise Chinese-descended people dressed like aborigines) or restaurants, but most seem to be completely passed by by all the money that runs through this area.

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Certainly, you'd think we could do better by the aborigines - whose land this actually is - than to build the Lalu and then exhort richie-rich types to come stay here and then take pictures of locals in traditional clothing with beads and headdresses and such for a pittance.

You'd think, rather than even build the Lalu, that they could make sure all of the Shao have non-temporary, secure and livable housing - something they lacked (and may still lack, I'm not sure) since the turn of the millenium.

You'd think.

Kind of sickening, really.

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Next up? Falun Gong.

I may be an atheist, but I am one that is all about religious freedom (after all, religious freedom also means freedom to not practice a religion), and as such, although I don't believe in the doctrines of Falun Gong, I do support them having the freedom to practice as they wish.

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Every tourist site popular with Chinese across Taiwan is chock full o' Falun Gong, espousing their views and quietly protesting-through-meditation right in view of passing Mainlanders. It's almost like a symbiotic relationship at this point (except not): Falun Gong need Mainlanders for an excuse to give themselves exposure, and Mainlanders wouldn't lend the changes to the local areas they visit that they do without Falun Gong protesters nearby.

So I gave 'em a 加油 just to piss off any Chinese tourists who might believe the government propaganda (not everyone does).

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The peaceful view from the upper Xuanzang Temple

The worst of the tourist crowds was at the famous Grandma's Tea Eggs at the pier below the two famous temples to Xuanzang: the old Japanese one, and the newer, bigger, fancier one which currently holds a piece of his skull. I have no reason to believe it's not really what it purports to be. I'm more skeptical of the little white nuggets said to be relics of the Buddha. The first temple was overrun with Mainlanders, and while picturesque, we didn't stay long. There was no peace and quiet anywhere.

This is one point at which I really felt the tourist development hindered a local experience most of all. Of course, I too am a tourist: I'm a part of that crowd, not apart from it. But fewer tourists generally could be had with fewer Mainland tour groups more easily than with fewer Westerners (of whom there were a fair number, but not really that many).

This is where I really felt a cultural difference, too: the Chinese tourists moved in huge groups, masses really. Human amoebas. They were loud. They didn't respect lines or waiting. They hogged space. They weren't unfriendly, but weren't a positive addition to the atmosphere. You could almost see the annoyance on the faces of Taiwanese and Japanese tourists who wanted to quietly enjoy the temple (I know a few people will respond to that with "What? Taiwanese tourists? Quiet??! No!" but trust me on this one).

Instead, we took the Qinglong Trail to the upper Xuanzang Temple.

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The trail was beautiful and quiet, and quite easy, with only a few spots where the recent typhoon downed some trees and a few steep sections (both up and down), but only a kilometer in total and nothing any normal person couldn't do. The only downside? The mosquitos that infested each resting point. They were the little black kind whose bites are super itchy: not even White Flower Oil can stop the itch, which penetrates deep into the skin.

At the top I was so desperate for something to alleviate the itching that I bought some cream on the recommendation of a shop owner below the temple, which worked (the cream is called "White Flower Snow" and is more potent than White Flower oil. It won't kill the itch permanently but you'll get a few hours of relief).

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The only other hikers were a few independent tourists, all of them polite and friendly. Xuanzang Temple, the one at the top, was one of my favorite stops on the trip. The famous Ci En Pagoda above it is closed for repairs (damaged both in the recent earthquake and Typhoon Soulik) and so the tour buses aren't all stopping at Xuanzang Temple - it's just not worth it to them, I guess, without the pagoda to visit further on.

This meant that the upper temple was blissfully quiet. It reminded me of visiting Nikko, in Japan, except Chinese style (duh) and in the summer, not the winter (duh). But the whole feeling of quiet temples on a hill with tall trees was very reminiscent of that trip.

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The best part? You could get a drink - hot tea, water, whatever - and donate what you wanted (we donated NT100) to the temple for it. Then you could take it to the verandah overlooking the lake and just drink your tea quietly and enjoy the view, with some other Taiwanese daytrippers and their families generally being lively, but not overly noisy. What a relief after the crush of people and noise at the lower temple!

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These guys (first shop as you exit the Qinglong Trail), sell 白花雪 cream, which kills mosquito bite itches and other skin irritations.

Decisions, decisions... photo 581445_10151806267331202_335393531_n.jpg
So many choices! 

We had to walk back down the way we came, as the bus wasn't coming for another hour and we couldn't be bothered to wait for it, and Ci En Pagoda was closed.

The way back was not quite so lucky for us: a few Mainlanders were loitering around the base of the trail (I could tell by the accents), dropping the plastic baggies that their tea eggs had come in along the sides. I wouldn't have minded the crowd there, but the littering was really not OK.

So, rudeness be damned, I walked in front of one of the offenders, reached down, looking her right in the eye, picked up her tea egg baggy that she'd just thrown onto the forest floor, went "ㄔ!" (cchh! - the Taiwanese way of expressing wordless irritation) and threw it away all within sight of the group.

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On the Qinglong Trail you'll pass a betelnut farm.

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After that we took a ferry to Itashao, where we had pigeon and mountain pig for lunch, cooked up by a local Shao woman. It was goooooood, but very meaty and we did miss the addition of some sort of vegetable. Otherwise, Itashao kind of depressed me: Shao (and possibly other) aborigines in their traditional garb, seemingly not because they wanted to be, but because it was good for business. Wear what you want because you want to, not because it'll get more curious tourists to buy tchotchkes (on the other hand, tourists buying tchotchkes is what keeps many locals gainfully employed).

Again, I felt that tons of money runs through Sun Moon Lake, and the aborigines whose land this actually is and should continue to be get very little of it. They live pretty normal, even impoverished, lives, allowing people to take pictures, dress up in Shao clothing and get their own pictures taken, and buy keychains and such...and then the big developers behind the fancy hotels that obscure the view from Shuishe rake in the most profits.

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I asked this kid, "what's the best country in Asia?" photo 1000197_10151806266556202_1311455646_n.jpg
I asked this kid which part of Journey to the West he liked the most, and he pointed to Taiwan. I'm pretty sure Journey to the West never went through Taiwan!

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I also wasn't big on all the big hotels in Shuishe hogging waterfront view space. It's all advertised as "come see this beautiful lake" but unless you walk out of town, you can't actually see it unless you get an expensive hotel room overlooking it. Ridiculous.

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No tourist trip would be complete without a selfie!

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If you walk out of town towards Wenwu Temple (which we didn't get to stop at - I'd come back for that) you can see more of the lake's actual beauty. Too bad so little of it is visible from Shuishe itself.

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My favorite stop was pausing to watch dog trainers teach German Shepherds how to swim! Dogs can swim in Sun Moon Lake, but humans aren't allowed to except once a year in a race.

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Our cute homestay had really, just too many bears. photo 544467_10151806264141202_407286678_n.jpg

Our homestay was cute and, well, homey with free breakfast and a balcony overlooking a 7-11 and car park. A few too many bears for my liking, but it was affordable and accessible.

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Some tour group taking a group photo - otherwise Shuishe, while touristy, wasn't totally crawling with tour groups.

They're more Taiwanese than I am. photo 969345_10151806263856202_1944399518_n.jpg
These guys are more Taiwanese than me, with the cameras and the cycling and the athletic performance gear and the group meal.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

"Every Taiwanese Man Knows The Truth": The 洪仲丘 Protest

"Every Taiwanese man, when they heard about Hong Zhongqiu, knew exactly what happened. The "crime" or "mistake" he made doesn't matter, the expected punishment doesn't matter, the investigation doesn't matter. We saw that report - every single Taiwanese man - and we knew it."

- a student


I attended the protest in memory of 洪仲丘 (Hong Zhongqiu - Hung Chungchiu is how I think it'd be spelled in that Romanization system I never learned) tonight, which was also an anti-Ma Yingjiu protest (we need more of those), with a few anti-nuclear power folks, and a larger protest against military abuse/torture, especially directed at whistleblowers (some say Hong was that, others say he was a much-disliked troublemaker).

It was more than "tens of thousands" as news reports say - by the time I got there you could barely move and it was more like 100,000 at least, probably more like 150,000+.


This is the biggest protest I've seen since 火大 and even that didn't seem to convene quite as many people on Ketagalan Boulevard between Dongmen and the Presidential office, running all the way to 228 Park, past NTU Hospital and the library and CKS Memorial Hall.

The thing is, these protests happen pretty often in Taiwan: it's something unique about the country that sets it apart from China, that's for sure. They let the people vent their anger and show their frustration, but nothing much ever happens. People feel like they've done something, they've stood up to speak their minds, they've lent their bodies to the headcount at these events. Then everyone goes home feeling energized...

...and nothing changes.

Not so different from the USA, really. Can't help but make one feel a bit disaffected and cynical (cynical? Me? NAW!).


And of course because Les Miserables was a recently popular movie, people had to break out into a Taiwanese version of Do You Hear The People Sing? You can listen here:

Someone even left a sign in CKS Memorial Hall MRT station that said "Liberte, Egalite, Fraterite". I don't really mind if they want to appropriate the French Revolution (although enough heads rolled in that that maybe it wasn't the best choice...but...but...Les Miserables!) but the t-shirts that said "WE SHALL OVERCOME" were an appropriation too far in my opinion.


The catalyst of this protest was the death of Hong Zhongqiu - a corporal in the army doing his obligatory military service (something being phased out currently). He was put into solitary confinement - some say in a hot room with no windows or water, others say he was forced to do punishing exercises in the hot sun with no water - and died a few days before he was set to be released. Still others say tapes of what went on show proof of torture. Some say the punishment would have killed anyone, others say he was not fit to withstand it, but the army doctor who should have said so instead pronounced him fit to withstand the punishment.

Accounts differ as  to why he was treated this way - some say he reported that his superior officers were bullying the conscripts into keeping their bunks clean, although their own quarters were a mess. Some say he blew the whistle on financial wrongdoing and bribery (this is not proven, just one thing I've heard), some say it was for bringing in a mobile phone with camera that was not allowed to the base, still others say "mostly the superior officers just didn't like him, he was seen as whiny, bratty and soft, not taking orders".


All the eyes you see - many of which also say "Big Citizen Is Watching You" are meant to convey, from what I was told, that while the government and military may try to cover up what happened to Hong, among other things - more people whose family members died in the military under similar or suspicious conditions also took the stage - that the citizens are watching them. The teardrops are red to symbolize blood. People shouted everything from 洪媽媽加油!to 馬英九下台! to (something something) 黑目" which not even my Taiwanese friend could fully understand, so I don't think my lack of understanding was a language barrier.

I didn't bring this issue up in class - for once, my students did it for me. Every single class I've had with male students has involved them bringing it up enthusiastically. In some one-on-ones I heard private horror stories (and one guy who defended those who punished Hong, saying "I agree the punishment was too severe, but his actions did deserve punishment" - maybe, but no punishment that might result in death is acceptable or appropriate). One class involved five men talking at length about their own experiences and sharing their stories.

What my students (male, mostly in their 30s and 40s) say is this (and I quote from memory, with cleaned-up English so mistakes don't get in the way of the message):

"Every Taiwanese man, when they heard about Hong Zhongqiu, knew exactly what happened. The "crime" or "mistake" he made doesn't matter, the expected punishment doesn't matter, the investigation doesn't matter. We saw that report - every single Taiwanese man - and we knew it."


"Those guys doing their obligatory service, they are usually college graduates. And their superior officers are career military guys. The guys who become career military are usually not that smart, they are encouraged to do that because it's a secure job, you can make money and you can leave the service in 8 years and get a pension for the rest of your life (me: it wasn't clear when you could draw 50% of your pay and how long you had to stay to draw 100%). So the not-smart guys do that instead of college, and actually you can even start in high school and go to 'military school'. That will count towards your 8 years!"


"So you can leave by 35 and get your pay, and still get another job and have double income! If you are not a smart guy, that is a really good idea. So these dumb guys, they see the new kids coming in. If you went to Taida (NTU), you are a Master ("have a Masters"), you are from Taipei or you are handsome, they will bully you and treat you like garbage."


"They will see your papers and say 'oooh, you went to Tai-da, I see! You are a Taipei boy!' and you know you are in big trouble for the rest of your service. And they do all these bad things. They bully you. Actually, they will do things like say 'OK, here is a treat for tonight! We'll all go out to dinner!' but if you are doing your service, that's terrible news! Because you have to pay for your superior officer, but you earn very little money. So they get a free dinner, and you pay at least NT$1000 for that. That happens once a month or so. They steal your money this way."


"When I did my service on Matsu on the north island, the officer would give me NT$50 and say 'get me beef noodles'. But the beef noodles are NT100 or so, and when you are on the base on Matsu you have to take a taxi to get to any beef noodle shop. I told him NT50 wasn't enough and he really beat me! So next time I just took the NT50 and used my own money to take the taxi and buy the noodles. That was his plan, actually."


"Basically everybody knows these guys are assholes. They always treat you badly. Only stupid people join" (me: OK, that is maybe not fair, or at least I can't say I totally agree with that view, because I just don't know if it's really true. I am sure some intelligent people become career military officers. So this quote does not reflect my personal viewpoint) "and I can tell you it's true. I taught in the military school, and those guys failed all their classes before. I had to teach them fractions! Just fractions! And they still failed! And they always hated me because I already had a Masters. And I got really good at typing in Chinese bopomofo, because the officer would take some report or idea from books and tell me 'I need this typed as a report, do this by tomorrow' so I would copy it into a report and he'd pass it on as his idea, and when I got that work I knew I would have to work all night. So I learned to do it quickly. I did not dare to tell him no, or that he was a cheater."


"I taught in military college. My study was cryptography for my Master's and they treated me so badly, because I went to top schools in Taiwan" (it's true, he did) "and I had to teach cryptography to those guys who would become generals or something like that. I can tell you, they are very bad, they are actually stupid! And these are the guys in charge! They are the ones who have the chance to be secret agents in China or somewhere, and they usually do a bad job because they are too stupid to understand basic cryptography. But my job was better than [student who taught fractions in a military school]."


"In fact we all know about this stuff. The new kids are hit or punished in a bad way. And the officers are terrible. Very stupid and corrupt. Always cheating. Always telling us to do things, but they can't even do the same things! Always giving us too many exercises or something that is useless. But you know that, and you have to keep quiet. Just be quiet, just do it, just finish."


"I don't know why he wanted to say something or do some complaint. He knows he will be punished for that! Every Taiwanese man knows that! You just be quiet and shut up and do your work and then you can leave."


"The system cannot change. Those guys in charge, they have friends and know the politicians. And usually for generals you get that job because your father was a general. So we know the system will not change."


"Maybe slowly it can change, but I think 100 years. Those guys won't let it change. So the important guys don't get any punishment. We are so upset about the verdict, but it's not a surprise. The important guys never get punished."


"Actually the people who signed the report on Mr. Hung, they don't really know his situation, because they are high-level guys and he was just a young man. But they know the system is bad. We all know it. Nobody can change it."


"I worry about my son, he will have to do that soon. I tell him, 'just shut up and do what they tell you'.  don't want him to die. Just be quiet. You can't change the system."


"And that is why every Taiwanese man knows the truth. We saw that news and we thought - agh! - because at that time, that was also our life. We know. We know. They can't lie to us."