Tuesday, October 18, 2011

My Experience Getting a CELTA Pass A

As many of you know, I recently took (and survived) the Cambridge CELTA course - I took it despite having taught for over five years because I no longer wished to be a very good “corporate trainer” (translation: teacher in a suit) who happened to not be certified. I wanted to be a fantastic teacher with a real qualification.  I chose CELTA because it was the only certification program that I felt I would really learn from after five years of teaching.

And I did – I felt that besides learning some new ideas and techniques for good teaching, that teaching 8 lessons and being critically assessed on all of them was extremely good for me. I went into the course thinking that timing and half-assed lesson planning were my problems, but learned that it’s in fact timing and Teacher Talking Time that I need to work on. Simply having a qualified person assess my teaching and give me action points was an immensely helpful learning experience. No other certification program would have given me that.

So, yes, all you other CELTA folks out there, I did get a Pass A (provisionally, but I have every reason to believe that that will be my final grade as well). After five years of experience and knowing from feedback, the clients I was given and their subsequent renewals that I was good – if not great – at my job, I’m happy to see that my grade reflects that (although I would have been fine with a B – that was the grade I was prepared to receive). For those who don’t know, about 70% of everyone who takes the CELTA gets a regular “Pass”. 25-27% get a Pass B and 3-5% get a Pass A.

There are a lot of personal experiences scattered about the Interwebs on taking the CELTA, especially the gruelling four-week course. At least one good post on the topic covers the writer’sexperience getting a Pass B, with tips on how readers can attempt the same. There are none chronicling the experience of someone who got a Pass A, which is why I’m writing this at all.

I can’t tell you “how” to get a Pass A, because even having got one, I don’t really know how it’s done. The criteria for the various grades are never clearly outlined – there is no (known) formula that says “if you get this many Above Standards on your lessons” or something, that automatically translates into a Pass A or B”. *

What I can say is that it was extraordinarily difficult, despite having come in with a lot of experience. I’ll be honest: I found the input sessions mostly easy (although I did learn a few things and pick up lots of ideas and techniques, broadening my repertoire), the written assignments not difficult in their content but certainly difficult in terms of the time and attention to detail it took to turn in something truly great. I did find the actual teaching to be a challenge – partly because my own style was a bit higher on the Teacher Talking Time that CELTA so rails against, and partly because being assessed and critiqued in great detail on a relatively short lesson that comes between two other lessons that other trainees planned is quite different indeed from how I teach at my actual job.

Basically, even with experience I had to work extraordinarily hard to hand in work and perform at a level that eventually earned me the A, and I don’t see how I could have done it without prior experience. I’d attend class all day, come home and work for up to four hours straight. In every other aspect of life I reverted to someone who has the mentality of a five-year-old because I was just so mentally shot to hell from how hard I was working. I ate kids’ food and drank a lot of whiskey. I worked all weekend almost every weekend (on the final weekend I managed to take Sunday off). I obsessed over lesson plans and nearly get headaches just thinking aout the level of detail I included in my Procedure pages. I stopped blogging, I stopped reading, I stopped watching TV and didn’t even check e-mail all that often – I did keep Facebook open in the background at all times though.

I highly doubt that someone on the CELTA course with zero teaching experience could get a Pass A unless they were preternaturally talented or had some indirect experience (ie one of their parents was a teacher or some such – that kind of exposure does have value). A Pass B would be possible, but a person with no experience who managed that would still have to be exceptionally talented.

I did note a few things that might have helped bump me from a B to an A. While there’s no set number of Above Standards that one needs in order to get an A or B, clearly the more you get, the better your chances are. The poster in the link above got 6 out of 9 Above Standards and got a B. I got 5 out of 8. Another trainee in my group – who was extremely good and actually had a teaching certificate already, just not for TEFL – got 6 out of 8, but I’m not sure what his final grade was. Another girl in another group also got 6 out of 8, but I’m not sure of her final grade, either. If more than half of your TPs are Above Standard, you’ll probably make it into the upper grades…or you’re far more likely, at least.

They tell you that as long as you pass all of your written assignments, it doesn’t matter how well you do on them, because it’s an overall Pass/Fail (and it is clearly announced that if you fail one assignment, you can pass the course but you can’t get a Pass A). That said, my final report noted that all of my written assignments were “of a very high standard” and that I passed all of them with no resubmissions. The fact that this was noted makes me believe that it had some impact on getting the A.

The tutors look in great detail at lesson plans, and this is one area in which I excelled – I mentioned above how I would give myself headaches over the level of detail I included. Every stage had ICQs and CCQs mapped out. If I was going to model instructions, I noted that, and how I would model them (with a student, with the board etc.).  I was very detailed in writing out what the students would do in each stage and I was very careful to check my Interaction Patterns to make sure there was as little T-Ss as possible. If your Procedure page for a 40-minute lesson reaches 3 or even 4 pages, you know you’re on the right track.

I was careful to use any new thing from a recent input session as soon as it was appropriate, and note that in my lesson plans, as well. In the real world you don’t need to do this, but if you If you’re really trying to excel, listen carefully to little things the tutors say: if you hear a tutor mention that using “teach” and “learn” in your aims or stage aims is a bad idea (and it is – “teach” is too teacher-centered and “learn” is too general), then don’t use those verbs in your aims. If they say “for any language focus, create a context and cover meaning, form and pronunciation”, well, do that. Every time. Even if you have to write that down on a piece of scrap paper and tape it over your computer.

Which, yes, boils down to “do what the tutors tell you”, but hey. Oh well. They’re tutors for a reason.

Other things that I felt worked in my favor: strong language awareness**, good rapport with students, confidence, good instructions, ability to adapt and create materials, good anticipation of problems, participation in input sessions and “professionalism” (be on time, don’t look skeevy, get on well with other trainees and coordinate lesson flow with those in your group, show leadership skills), and strong self-reflection and reaction to feedback.

Of course, a lot of this is easier said than done. I can say “oh you should cultivate a strong rapport with students” – yeah, great, but how do you do that? I can’t tell you. I know what works for me, but everyone’s style is different. This is why teaching is a lot harder than people give it credit for (and the profession has a surprisingly high number of detractors). There are no easy answers to things like “how to improve rapport” – it’s very touchy-feely. There are fewer clear answers in education than in other professions.

No guarantees or promises that doing all of this will get you an A, or even a B (like I said, I can’t tell you how to do that), but these are things tutors noted as my strengths, and a few of them were things that tutors openly said were important – for example, one tutor said quite clearly that a Pass A trainee “shows a high degree of professionalism, which includes being on time” (there were some late students).

It’s also quite clearly possible to get a Pass A while still having areas requiring improvement – even serious ones. I personally need to reduce my Teacher Talking Time. It’s hard for me to do, because I’m a naturally chatty person and I do have a strong personality. I like to really get to know my students, and I like for them to really get to know me, which often translates into my being more talkative and more at the front of the class than I really should be. If you know you have a similarly serious action point, but have shown clearly that you are taking steps to improve, are aware of the problem and are open to feedback on it, then it is still possible to finish the course while still needing to work on the issue, and get an A nonetheless.

I could also stand to work on my timing, and my lead-ins tend to take too long. I tend to latch on to a few great ideas and over-use them, for example doing similar lead-ins for each class (not on any report, I just know that I do that). When I get nervous, my eye contact shoots to hell and at least in the beginning my board work was a mess (much improved, still not perfect).

Basically, I’m far from a perfect teacher. I’m good, and I’m not shy about the fact that I’m good – I am so totally not into the paradigm where women and people in professions dominated by women are shot down if they are anything less than humble, if not self-deprecating, and goodness forbid you be confident or (gasp) self-promoting. I’m not perfect, though, and I could be a hell of a lot better. If someone like me who still has a lot to work on can get an A, clearly it is a goal that need not be dismissed as impossible (although if you have no experience at all, you are probably better off shooting for a B).

So, what real advice can I give? Not much, except this: if you set up your goal as “I’m gonna gits me an A!” then, well, it’s a worthy goal and all, but you’ll probably give yourself an ulcer, and stress so much about whether you’re doing enough or doing well enough that your freaky-outy stress will cause you to lose focus and actually do worse. Don’t look for a magic bullet or secret formula – there is none, and trying to guess at the magical combination of factors that leads to an A will just cause you to get even more freaky-outy. Always remember that it’s not a competition, so if you see someone who seems to be doing better than you, hey, you’re in it for four weeks with that person and you are quite possibly friendly with them – you are not in a race. There is not just one gold medal. Their good work does not mean you’ll get edged out for the one top spot, because there is no “one” top spot.

It sounds like a cliché but it’s really true: just work your ass off, do the best work you can do and don’t freak out (because that will affect your work).  Remember that the course is designed for people with no experience. Things you can do immediately, that take no innate or learned skill are to participate as much as you can in input, do your damnedest to provide as much detail as you can in your lesson plans, be on time and be receptive to feedback (defend yourself if you feel something said was really unfair, or explain your rationale, but don’t get defensive or argumentative).  If you are given a language focus to teach, learn everything you can about it (especially if it’s grammar), beyond what the textbook says. Even if you don’t plan to teach every aspect, know everything you can to better cope with questions or issues that may arise.

*One tutor said something along the lines of "We know we're not turning out perfect teachers, that's impossible in four weeks. After the CELTA you'll still need training. A Pass A tells employers that you can start teaching immediately with basically no training and little support. A Pass B tells them that you will need a lot less training than most new hires, but still require some. A Pass tells them that you are an average passing trainee, will need further training and support, but you did absorb the fundamentals taught on the CELTA."

**About that language awareness thing – yeah. It’s tough, even with experience and especially with no experience. Don’t be afraid – when I started teaching, I was all “modal? WTF is a modal?” – which of course meant that I was not the best teacher. I learned, though, and I got better. I picked up my language awareness because I had to teach it. Actually teaching it did far more for my own in-depth language awareness than reading a grammar book ever could have done. If you find yourself, the night before a lesson, flipping through web pages or reference books going “WTF is a modal?”, don’t worry, you’re not the only one, and the next time you have to teach it, you’ll know it. You’ll get better. You’ll learn it in far more depth and detail than you ever thought possible because having to teach it does that – it forces you to learn it in a somewhat high-pressure situation. So go out and buy yourself a good grammar reference, pour yourself a drink and relax.

Friday, October 14, 2011

(Spoken) Chinese is Not That Hard

A well-known essay on Why Chinese is So Damn Hard recently reappeared online. I remember reading it back when it first appeared, agreeing heartily with the main points it makes – yes, the writing system is too complex and not very phonetic! Yes, classical Chinese is freakin’ impossible! Yes, the tones are irritating!

I still agree with much of it – forget Classical Chinese unless you’re doing it out of sheer love of the language or studying it in a scholarly fashion. The writing system is ridiculous, not very phonetic and not even easy for native speakers. I will go so far as to say that the writing system is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, in the world.  Basically, I agree with everything the writer says about written Chinese with one exception: the piece makes it sound like reading Chinese is as hard as writing it – it’s extraordinarily difficult, true, but not quite as Sisyphean as learning to write. I can recognize far more characters than I can write – which makes reading approximately one order of magnitude easier than writing.

It’s spoken Chinese where I disagree with what the writer is saying.

I don’t think the tones are as insurmountable – they’re tough, they’re hard to remember, they’re arbitrary and I agree that they go against how you’d normally stress words in the native languages of many learners of Chinese, but there are only four of them and these are challenges that a little hard work – no harder than figuring out how to utter a decent “r” sound in French or sentence stress in Korean – can’t overcome. While I agree that wrong tones can at times create nonsense or misunderstood sentences, this isn’t as big a problem as the writer makes it out to be: generally speaking even with a few misplaced or wrong tones, a listener can get your meaning by context. With a little practice you can stress important words in a sentence and still use their correct tone.

I also feel that the writer is not quite correct about Romanization systems – they don’t all suck. Tongyong sucks, and Wade-Giles sucks, and that random other one I sometimes see in Taiwan that isn’t Tongyong sucks, but I think Pinyin is fine. I have friends who disagree, and that’s their prerogative, but I find spelling in Pinyin to be much more regular than spelling in English, the words as they are written, when pronounced according to the rules of Pinyin do sound like what the word actually is – unlike with other systems - and once you master its few challenges it is a straightforward system to use (those issues are “x” vs. “sh”, the use of “i” which changes its sound depending on what consonant it follows, pronunciation of “c” and “q”, and “q” vs. “ch”. The umlauted “u” can be tough, too). These are challenges but unlike English spelling, predictable in every word. The rules of how to pronounce things written in Pinyin doesn’t change – I daresay if you can’t master it after a bit of practice, that you aren’t trying. It’s just not that hard.

In Chinese’s favor, word order is not terribly rigid (there are rules, and then exceptions like the construction, and ways to change around word order by using passive voice and a mock passive, and you can get your meaning across even if you change the order in many cases), the grammar is fairly straightforward with a few exceptions – and the group of verbs that use (v)起來 being two personal bugbears of mine – and far more streamlined than anything in the Indo-European tree, not to mention Japanese or Korean. Compound words are formed fairly regularly and without all the weird prefix/affix/suffix squeezing and spelling changes of English, and using words that as a composite create the meaning you’re after when a needed piece of lexis escapes you is something you can do fairly easily, and get your point across.

I would say the main difficulty in speaking Chinese are all of the homonyms – unless you have a strong sense of context it can be fairly easy to misunderstand someone who used a word that sounds just like another word, especially if they’re speaking quickly, in a dialect or very colloquially.

All in all though, it’s absolutely true that learning to write Chinese is horrifically difficult, so much so that Chinese will never be an international language, at least not a written one because non-native learners, especially adults, will simply not be able to master it in great numbers. Imagine a busy businessperson deciding to pick up written Chinese for work and take classes in his/her slivers of spare time – how far will they get? Not far at all. It just won’t happen.

It’s spoken Chinese where I think the writer is downright wrong. It’s no harder – and in many ways easier – than learning to speak many other languages.

Which forces me to add: it seems like the writer is committing the same mistake that so many have: associating Chinese mainly with the written form, and not focusing nearly enough on the spoken language. Written Chinese is not the entirety of the Chinese language, and I wish people would stop acting as though writing Chinese was the end-all and be-all of Chinese.

If you get adequate practice, immerse yourself if possible and try to do a good job of learning to speak Chinese the way you would learn any language, you can learn to speak it, assuming you aren’t one of those folks with no aptitude for languages (in which case any other language would be equally hard).

So why do foreigners struggle so much with Chinese? Why do relatively fewer foreigners who begin learning Chinese get very far? Why is it such a problem if speaking Chinese is no harder than other languages, and in many ways easier?

Because teaching methodologies for Chinese SUCK.  They S-U-C-K suck. They are aeons behind the latest ideas in teaching for EFL and the various popular Romance languages as well as German. I don’t know where Chinese teachers train to become “teachers” but I don’t have much respect for the pedagogy they’ve learned. I’ve written about it already here and here so I won’t repeat myself too much, but I will give examples:

To learn a language effectively, you need:

-       = Many and varied opportunities to practice: this means the receptive skills (listening, reading) in both extensive and intensive ways (ie generally/for pleasure or for comprehension/detail as one would do in class, the productive skills (speaking and writing – both for fluency and accuracy in terms of speaking, and free as well as guided for writing) – I felt, in Chinese class, that I was afforded few chances to practice and they certainly weren’t varied or targeted

-       Varying interaction patterns with a focus on letting students do as much as possible, with as little teacher-led time as possible – my Chinese classes were so teacher-centered that it was amazing we spoke at all other than to read from the textbook

-       Practice in different types of activities (there’s a world of difference between a discussion question and a ‘make a sentence’ or ‘guess the word’ game, as between writing a restaurant review and creating a poster)  - yeah, none of this. “Write ten sentences for homework using these words” and the occasional throwaway question was the closest we ever got to that.

-       A strong knowledge of how students best practice (example: asking students to read out loud, especially in turn, is one of the worst ways to handle reading) – we read every single reading out loud, and honestly, I didn’t understand most of them. Not because I couldn’t understand them, but the medium of practicing them made it hard to follow

-       Opportunities to create original speech – yeah, very little of that and when it did happen, it was mostly written and assigned as homework

-       Some testing, but not allowing testing to take over the main thrust of the course – we had dictation quizzes daily, tests after every unit and a test every three units. FAR too much testing. Of course there was a section in the feedback form that allowed you to say there was too little testing, but no bubble you could tick to say there was too much, and no room to write it yourself.

-       Tailoring grammar and time spent on it to how important/useful the grammar is, and trying to present it in ways that show students how to use it in the real world – not at all. All grammar was taught with equal weight in the same ineffective “do this exercise, there now you know the grammar” way.

-       Opportunities to practice, at great length, the grammar taught in various “situations” or activities – basically none of that, maybe a workbook exercise or two

-       Knowing how much vocabulary an average student can absorb in a given class time – the teachers would cram as much unit vocabulary into us as they could in any given class, and yes, I had trouble remembering it all because it came too fast, without enough practice, in a very dry form, not contextualized enough and without enough good examples of natural usage. We went around and read it in turns, which encouraged people to basically not pay attention and was not a good way to keep students engaged or interested. It certainly did not facilitate actually remembering the vocabulary.

…and a hell of a lot more. 

I mention these because these are all of the things that I observed, in my time at Shi-da, that the MTC does not do, and they’re supposed to be one of the better institutions. Chinese teachers ‘round the world still seem to think that having students go around and read vocabulary examples with sentences in turn, with no opportunities to actually create sentences, and then quickly going through a few grammar exercises and rounding it up nicely with quizzes and tests is a fine way for students to learn Chinese…but it’s not working. It doesn’t work. It can’t work. And yet that’s how Chinese is taught in so many places.

Oh yes, and I’ve said in previous posts that Chinese language programs lean far too heavily on Chinese for textbook/academic purposes and not for daily use, and that they seem to care far more about perfect writing than fluent speaking – both of which are fine for those learning Chinese for academia, but an utter mess for someone who just wants to speak Chinese already. And those who are learning it for academia? Either they are quite erudite but sound like a textbook (sorry J – but you’ve improved a lot in that area!) or they just don’t speak it well at all (as with a few people I’ve met, and heard stories about, as in ‘how did she get into the graduate program when she can barely string together a sentence in Chinese?’).

THIS is why foreigners aren’t doing a good job of learning Chinese – not because spoken Chinese is all that inherently difficult.

Get some good Chinese teachers to really make changes in how the language is taught, and get classes with real practice on all levels of the language, and you’ll see a massive uptick in foreigners’ ability to master the language: the spoken language, at least. The problem isn't the language - it is 100% the piss-poor methodology. There's no excuse for it. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Notes on Autumn Leaves

I'm currently with Brendan, visiting my in-laws outside Bangor, Maine. Today we walked - I can't rightly say we hiked - several miles of scenic forest trails and an elevated "bog boardwalk".

I grew up in upstate New York, not quite England but culturally not that dissimilar. I am quite obviously very familiar with the concept of changing leaves in autumn. I grew up with Autumns in which the leaves turned every amazing shade of red, orange, yellow, gold, lime, burgundy and brown. I never thought of them as anything special, or anything worth running out with a camera to capture on film - they were just a part of everyday life.

Taiwan does not have leaves that change in autumn, although I guess some parts of the country, up in the mountains, might have it to an extent (I once saw a color-changed tree on Yangmingshan, woohoo!). I haven't been home when the leaves change in years: we usually come home in late summer or late winter and miss it. It's therefore been something like half a decade since I've seen leaves changing color.

Far from being jaded about it, it was like I was a kid, or a tourist from a tropical country - the excitement over the beauty of seeing such vibrant colors in nature, splashed on trees and mottled with bright hues out to the horizon was something I hadn't experienced since early childhood. Like the beauty of the Hudson Valley, it just gets lost on you if you're exposed to it for too long.

I find that interesting - something I hadn't even been able to take for granted because I didn't notice it long enough to dismiss it, like the beauty of autumn leaves, became something new, exciting and to an extent sentimental simply because I hadn't seen it in so long. Now I can appreciate it. In 2006 I didn't even notice, let alone care.

By the way, there are black bears in the woods where we were hiking. Chances of seeing one are basically nil, but I did comment that if we did encounter one and get mauled, the local headlines would read "Former Maine Resident and his Non-Maine Wife Killed in Vicious Bear Attack".

Earlier in our visit we went to downtown Bangor. I've said before that while I don't wish to live in a small town or a cold climate, that I happen to like Bangor and if I changed my mind about both of the above, it would be a lovely place to live (for now I'm content for it to be a lovely place to visit). Not so for my own hometown, which was flooded during Hurricane Irene, to which I snarkily replied that I wish the whole thing had washed away.

I like Bangor for its pre-war architecture (lovin' that understated Art Nouveau type on the McGuire Building) and revived downtown, and compare both it and nearby Orono quite favorably to Highland, NY (where I grew up). Downtown Bangor has a few shops - some hippie-dippy, some cute, some fashionable - a neat bookstore, an awesome antique shop, more than its fair share of pubs and drinking establishments, a Japanese restaurant, two South Asian restaurants and a Thai place, among other things. There's not enough to keep me occupied long-term but there is quite enough for a longer visit.

Basically, I'm not down on all small towns. Just the one I grew up in! (I was one of the few liberals in a town of conservatives, a non-Catholic in a town full of Catholics - or for that matter a secular person in a religious town - and a Polish-Armenian who hated soccer in a town full of athletic Italians).

Over the course of our friendship and relationship, I've exposed Brendan to my cultural heritage, mostly by culinary means. I am still sorely disappointed that he doesn't like olives, even the expensive kind (which are cheap in Turkey). I've made sure he's tried lahmacun, tabbouleh, good kielbasa, fish cookies, hummus, various olives, done the whole "forage for a plate of cheese, bread, olives and other tasty things for a meal", introduced him to ketchup on eggs (a family staple - he didn't take to it) and recently made him latkes with sour cream and applesauce, which may not be my culture (I'm not Jewish), but it is something that reminds me of growing up in New York - even if it was the state, not the city.

So it was finally time for Brendan to introduce me to the food of his cultural heritage...

So we drove out...

...stopped at a convenience store...

...and bought...


...whoopie pies.

At one point before we bought them, I saw them for sale and asked Brendan about them. Another guy at the counter said "you're not from Maine, are you?"

No, no I'm not.

I also made sure we went here:

Which may be a Canadian thing, but there is one in Maine and Brendan was born in Canada so there ya go.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Stabbing Foreigners, Moonlighting Strippers and Other Fun

There have been a few posts coming out about Taiwan that, while I wouldn't say I entirely disagree with them, I feel they present foreigner-Taiwanese relations in a light that is not entirely correct or fully realized, or skewed in some way.

A story coming out about five Taiwanese down south who stabbed a foreigner (an Indonesian worker in Kaohsiung) - and some commetary on it - is one.

My issues with this are threefold:

1.) Someone should really address the fact that many Taiwanese see foreign labor in working class jobs - the 外勞- very differently from how they see Westerners or Asians from developed countries. The former tend to be Indonesians, Thai, Vietnamese and Filipino (and some throw Chinese foreign brides into that category). The latter tend to be office workers, engineers, English teachers and other expats in better positions. Nobody calls them 外勞, often they get the more complimentary 外國朋友.

To this end, a friend of mine has mentioned something he once saw from a bus window: a protest against foreigners. I'm not sure if the signs said "Foreigners Go Home" or "Foreign Labor Go Home" - a big difference when rendered in Chinese, but it was pretty clearly aimed at foreign labor. They weren't telling the English teachers to hoof it back to Canada. It's racist and wrong, I know, but that's the attitude.

This isn't fair or right, and certainly not every Taiwanese person feels this way, but it is something that is sadly common. The foreigner stabbed in the case above was an Indonesian worker. I'm certainly not saying that this makes it less serious - far from that. It's just as wrong no matter who the victim is. My point is that this post makes it sound like roving gangs of angry Taiwanese youth are happily stabbing English teachers and foreign office workers in the street. They're not. Heck, they're not out stabbing foreign laborers, either - this is an isolated incident and not an indicator of widespread violence (although violence against foreign labor is a bigger problem than violence against Western/non-working-class expats).

2.) As above, this was an isolated incident. There are simply not wand'ring gangs of disaffected youth waiting to stab us in the streets. Michael Turton's link to this post made it sound like there are groups of angry Taiwanese gathering like the KKK to take out foreigners. Simply not true. No country is 100% safe and Taiwan has its share of crime problems (mostly mob-related, some two-people-in-a-feud or family related, some just random acts of violence), but Taiwan is relatively safe. You're almost certainly not going to get stabbed in the street for being a foreigner.

3.) I don't care for the first part of Ozsoapbox's post:

You’re treated differently (usually positively) simply because you don’t look Taiwanese, people stare, they’re perhaps more careful about what they say and of course there’s always the familiar ‘OMG WAIGOREN WAIGOREN!’ calls you hear randomly.
Calls to which the equivalent in the west would be going up to an Asian looking person, pointing and shouting ‘OMG ASIAN ASIAN!’ 
The first sentence is true - you are treated differently often positively, because you're a foreigner, but that's true around the world. It's not unique to Taiwan. It even happens in New York.
I haven't found that people are more careful about what they say - if anything I feel people say more outrageous things to me because I'm not Taiwanese, so people who hold their tongues among Taiwanese for fear of social exclusion will tell me their uncensored opinions because I'm different and can't exclude them in that way, or I might be more accepting. Sometimes these opinions are refreshingly honest and insightful. Sometimes they're downright racist or ignorant. Like people everywhere.
But mostly, it's simply not true that shouting "Waiguoren!" at a foreigner is the same as a foreigner shouting "Asian!" at an Asian person. Neither is a good idea, and I don't condone either, but c'mon. Our home countries are generally speaking far more diverse than Taiwan. "Asians" are not an anomaly or unique, at least not where I'm from. They don't stand out. Many people of Asian heritage were born and raised where I was from, meaning they're just as American as I am. It's very different to go up to an Asian in, say, Washington DC and shout "OMG ASIAN!" than to go up to a foreigner in Taipei and do the same thing. I'm not saying it's a good idea (I refuse to go down the "different culture, they don't know better" route because I don't believe it's true), just that it's not the same thing. We really do stand out. We are a relatively rare sight. It's human nature worldwide to notice things like that. I'd love to see a world in which nobody commented on it, but for now we're stuck with what we have.
Anyway, really, for those of us in Taipei - how often do you get the "WAIGUOREN!" treatment? Maybe from very small children who don't know better (true of children the world over - American kids say similarly embarrassing things) but from everyone else, including older children, does this happen at all in places with high concentrations of foreigners? I don't know where Ozsoapbox lives, but I have observed that once you get to an area where foreigners are not unique, not an anomaly and don't stand out, people stop commenting. Why? We're all still foreigners. We're still not Taiwanese. We still look different - it's because there are enough of us, like Asians in most American cities, that we don't stand out. And poof, the problem disappears, because it wasn't a problem of racism to begin with. 
There's also this post - and I'm commenting on it as a foreigner who doesn't feel connected to the foreign community. I'm not saying I'm "Taiwanese" or that I don't have expat friends, but there is a community of expats that I don't really feel I relate to or connect to.
Sure, one of the two people mentioned in the altercation was a foreigner, but I see nothing in the news item that indicates that the Taiwanese treat all foreigners as the same or as a cohesive "other". The same altercation could have taken place between two Taiwanese people and been largely the same, albeit without "illegal work status" issues (though "moonlighting as a stripper" would have been mentioned) or the word "foreigner" used. Otherwise, all I see is an indication that there was an altercation and one of the two happened to be a foreigner. Not any sign that all Taiwanese think of all foreigners in a certain way and treat them as such.
The same goes for the full article - I don't think many Taiwanese would think that moonlighting as a stripper is "appropriate behavior" for another Taiwanese, either (but that has more to do with conservative values). As for the guy in question, the law is the law. Just because there's a law that a foreign worker can only do for a living what his/her work permit states doesn't indicate that Taiwanese all think of us as One Big Group of Other. I also get the strong feeling that the government is more concerned with foreigners moonlighting in dodgy industries (such as stripping) or downright illegal ones. If you work as an English teacher and freelance teaching private classes, editing, doing IT work or whatever else, well, that's technically illegal but not something to worry too much about. Those aren't dodgy situations that are likely to get you deported. 
The article itself is kind of ridiculous, though. "Foreign workers to be targeted"? Um, so they're going to hunt us down in the streets and corral us into deportation cells? Hardly. Why the alarmist headline? "Good samaritan"? Say WHAT? Does that even make sense?

Occupy Taipei!

Occupy Taipei is coming on Saturday!

I won't be there - I'll be somewhere in Massachussetts between my parents' house and my in-laws', but I wish I could be there.

On the bright side, I'll be in New York twice next week and hope to get the chance to stop by Wall Street, stand around and shout socialist slogans, because I really do believe in what Occupy Wall Street is trying to do - even if the media doesn't seem to understand it.

It's no secret that I teach in a lot of financial institutions - the whole gamut of that industry, not just banks. A lot of my students and some of my friends work in Xinyi near where Occupy Taipei will take place, and work for the institutions that the protesters are decrying as aiding the "1%" and taking money from us 99%. I justify this by reminding myself that the economic structure of Taiwan is not the same as that of the USA. Pay disparities between the normal and the very rich aren't as pronounced. It's not as wealthy a country in absolute terms (even if it has a PPP higher than that of Japan, meaning that the average Taiwanese enjoys a higher standard of living than a similarly positioned Japanese person). Americans are being crushed by student debt - an issue most Taiwanese don't face: rare is the Taiwanese student who pays his or her own way at a private institution, and the public universities, widely acknowledged to provide a better education, are affordable. Americans are being crushed by housing debt: while the real estate market in Taipei City is facing some major problems and massive price inflation, the issue is more that new buyers and families needing to expand can't afford to live in Taipei City - it's not people who bought McMansions and can't meet their mortgages (or regular folks who bought modest houses and still can't afford them due to layoffs or structural problems in the economy). I don't see Taiwanese crushed by medical debt or health care they can't afford: the excellent NHI system takes care of that for the most part.

The issues I see in Taiwan are different: new graduates and entry-level workers are ridiculously underpaid. I'm sorry, but in Taipei especially, for the hours they put in, $25,000-$30,000 NT a month is simply not acceptable. I wouldn't work so hard for such little pay, and I wish there would be a grassroots change, spearheaded by the young, who refuse to work so much for so little. I see new graduates who can't get a job (which, come to think of it, is just like the USA) because their qualifications are nothing special. I see management that honestly and truly does not care about employee well-being and work-life balance, no matter the age, seniority or level of the employee. I see them willing to let valuable employees go rather than pay them fairly or ask them to work reasonable hours (the worst of this is in the accounting industry - don't even ask the hours that an auditor, especially one in their first two years of work, has to put in. It's criminal.)

I see a country where people use tradition as a reason why young people live with parents well into their twenties or even thirties, while everyone ignores the truth: this generation doesn't live at home entirely because they want to (although some surely want to), or because their parents won't hear of them living on their own if they're unmarried (although some parents surely do insist on this, and some children do capitulate). They live with their parents because they have to: they don't get paid enough to get their own accommodation.

I see a country where there is still workplace gender discrimination - although it's much better than the rest of Asia and continuing to improve - and couples are choosing not to have children because a.) they can't afford it or b.) the wife doesn't want to be the one pressured to give up her career or take on more than she can handle. I see a system where childcare, if you don't have parents close by who can watch your child, is just as unaffordable as in the USA.

That is why I'd have liked to join Occupy Taipei (with apologies, but also no shame, to my friends in finance). That's why I regret that I won't be in Taipei for it. That's why I hope it takes hold and is still going on when I come back. I may work with many businesses, but that doesn't mean I don't see the problems therein.

Monday, October 10, 2011


Today may be the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China, but I'm not celebrating (I'm not even in Taiwan, to be honest). It's not the 100th anniversary of Taiwan, the Republic of Taiwan or even an independent and recognized ROC.

When that happens, I'll celebrate.

The Various Kinds of Me

So our course is finally (finally!) done and I'll have more time for blogging from now on. I have a lot to say about Turkey but I might wait a few days until we're in Maine and have some time to relax to write up my thoughts on our time there. I still feel more attached to Taipei, but a month in Istanbul with an honest-to-goodness apartment, social life (everyone on our course got along extremely well - the chemistry was just phenomenal and we went out for lunches and every weekend), routine, dinners at home and neighbors who recognized us...well, that made me feel like a part of me has experienced Istanbul expat life, too.

I really adored it - Istanbul is an awesome city. Gorgeous and varied architecture, from Byzantine churches to grand mosques to 18th and 19th century European grandeur to touches of Oriental Express Art Nouveau to pre-war rowhouses to modern concoctions. Phenomenal food is everywhere, as well as fantastic shopping. Hills which are hell to climb but afford dazzling views. Friendly people, lots of street cats that are clean and well-fed (but not owned by anybody). All that is topped off with a nightlife that puts both DC and Taipei to shame - it's on par with New York but in some ways better - there is an entire neighborhood (Beyoglu around Istiklal Caddesi) on the Golden Horn that goes nuclear at sundown, with seemingly infinite choices for bars, dancing, cafes and food. Not even New York has something like that (although some places light up more than others). Let's just say that we partook generously of it - which is a lot more fun when there are ten of you and everyone needs to blow off some stress. I would totally stay - even live - in Istanbul again.

Now we're "home" - or at least on our way. Yesterday afternoon we landed at JFK and met my parents, spending the night before heading back to the airport (where we are now) to visit B's parents in Maine.

Being home, even for just an overnight - we return to my parents' next week - has made me think about who I am in Taipei, who I was in Istanbul and who I am in the USA. The Jenna who ate her mom's eggs, bacon and blueberry muffins this morning and helped putter around the kitchen she knows so well, who cuddled the two cats and took a lovely post-flight bath in the huge upstairs bathtub is basically an adult - and much more mature - version of the Jenna who last lived in that house in high school. The Jenna who lives in Taipei sometimes feels like a woman who experienced entirely different formative years than she did. You wouldn't have expected that Jenna to have grown up in a small town, and she's really nothing like the dorktacular girl that went to high school in that same town.

The first Jenna is the one who was always a little eccentric but is ticking all the right boxes as she grows older. It's the one who had a big, local, family wedding to a beloved-by-parents guy. It's the one who knows how to build a hearth fire and which apples are the best to pick, who knows a lot about LL Bean winter gear and is no stranger to chasing deer off the lawn. It's the one that would have probably made a really good school teacher or office worker and wouldn't have traveled that much outside Western Europe, and would probably own a house and car now.

The second one is more than a little eccentric without actually being insane. She's the one who had a big but non-traditional wedding in a crazy fuchsia dress to an awesome, adventuresome guy who also travels the world. It's the one who knows her way around an urban jungle and can tell you where to find the best siphon coffee bar, who knows how to bargain in a foreign bazaar and is no stranger to the realities of city life or how things (generally) work in foreign countries. It's the one who will never work in a public school (teachers deserve more support and higher salaries than what they earn in that system - and I deserve better, as well) and couldn't stand office life. It's the one who regularly gives her parents heart palpitations with her travel choices...and may never own a house or car (although an urban or semi-urban townhouse someday is not out of the question).

The first one is familiar with the way the light hits the Hudson River in the morning and lives near New York City without actually visiting it often. The second can tell you what it smells like as you bike along the trail from Jingmei to Zheng-da and stops in New York whenever she can. The first speaks French. The second forgot most of her French and speaks Chinese.

It's hard to explain, and harder still to draw a clear line, but it's there - Taipei Jenna isn't quite the same as Hometown Jenna. Neither were the same as DC Jenna - that one dated a few inappropriate guys, had a lot of friends but not a raging social life, worked in a cubicle and had a lot of growing up to do, and went out on the weekends to nightspots she didn't even like all that much. And of course there was Guizhou Jenna and India Jenna, and more recently, Istanbul Jenna.

They're all different women, and that's not just the result of growth and the passing of time. Their different facets come out not just as I grow, but as I live in different places. When I come home, the old me comes out a little more (ever heard the old story about how when you're around your parents, you revert to a lot of your childhood behaviors and ways of dealing with them despite the fact that you're all adults?), and the me who lives in Taipei recedes a bit.

Everyone is influenced by where they are and the places where they live or visit - not even necessarily for a long time. A week in Bangladesh could very well blow the mind of a lot of people I know (it certainly blew mine). I do think that expat life magnifies and deepens that. When you live in another country, especially one with a wildly different set of cultural norms, you absorb more of that place and change as a result. I have felt for years that my study abroad time in India is what knocked the Hometown Jenna's pinball down a wildly different course. She's the reason why Guizhou Jenna and Taipei Jenna got the chance to exist. Taipei Jenna made Istanbul Jenna possible. This is hardly a Nobel-worthy insight, but it's one I'm writing about now because my visit home made me more aware of it.

I quite liked Istanbul Jenna, though. She was a hard worker with a lot of friends who knew how to party. I hope she sticks around for a bit in Taipei!