A letter home during our sabbatical year abroad
我們都很好 Damn keyboard!
Fighting with the Chinese keyboard aptly describes our experience of Taiwan: moments of pure frustration when the keyboard or website or sign or instruction or individual speaks only Chinese. It feels like a lifetime since we left Canada, and the experience here is so immersive, it is at times hard to remember that life is going on elsewhere.
I will never complain about the heat in Montreal again! Taiwan is hotter, stickier, and all-round sweatier. The first few days I couldn’t walk half a block without soaking my shirt. Naturally the first day we took a walk around the campus and got lost, but not before meeting a giant yellow and black spider, and a pond full of lotus, one of the most glorious, and gigantic, of flowers.
Our apartment is in a lovely, privileged part of the city. National Tsing Hua University (NTHU) is a mighty force in the city of Hsinchu. Taiwan’s brain trust consists of 7 universities and a technical park it takes the better part of an hour to drive through on a freeway. 100% of this country’s high school graduates can go on to university, and many find jobs at the world’s largest semi-conductor manufacturers and designers in the tech park. Though there are chip designers the world over, there are only a couple of places where they actually get made, and Hsinchu makes more than any other place in the world. Entire watersheds in this subtropical climate are devoted to these manufacturers’ needs, yet they recycle 84% of their water.
Feeding this electronic goat takes a lot of young minds, and NTHU supplies them. The scale of the school is astonishing: giant buildings devoted to one small branch of material chemistry, for example; something that would occupy at most a floor in a North American building. Most faculty live on campus, in leafy, gated housing on quiet streets free of the universal moped, enclosed by high walls topped by razor wire in a country where theft and vandalism are almost unknown. (The razor wire could be a military thing: Taiwan is locked in a staring contest with China, which occasionally escalates to saber-rattling, and Tsing Hua contains not only some of the nation’s most valuable minds, but a good deal of sensitive nuclear equipment. It is a thoughtful thing to live a block away from a nuclear reactor when there are nightly earthquakes.)
There is a strong sense of both hospitality and hierarchy here. University professors are highly valued; even if they are they are scruffy CanAmeriKiwis. ‘Distinguished Visiting Professors’’ wives and children, by association, are also reverenced. When the kids and I arrived without Scott, we were taken in hand by a team of graduate students. They put aside making the world a better – or at least a more teched-up – place to see to our every need. We were escorted to endless meals, sights and shopping opportunities. The sight of 4 young chemists arguing about which bottle of shower gel was the best value in a department store was bemusing.
School here begins at 7h45-15h10, followed by hours of homework every night and weekends, followed by math or Chinese or English school and sports and music practice on into the evening for the Taiwanese. Maeve’s new school friend Amy shocked us when she claimed to go to bed at 23h or midnight, and be up again at 5h30. She says 5 or 6 hours of sleep is considered sufficient for children, 4 for adults. Vacations are spent in school or preparing for stringent exams. Such a high value is placed on education here that students work constantly to gain an edge. Though I find this outrageous, a part of me also recognizes that these are the kinds of students my children will be competing with for university placement in the future!
I had planned to live the life of a Chinese gentleman while I was here: get up in the morning and do tai chi, visit the wonderful markets to buy meals, take Chinese, Chinese cooking, Chinese painting lessons…and write.
Hah. Instead I find myself working almost full time, trying to instill the basics of the English language, as well as the ability to sit still and listen, into a squirmy bunch of grade 1 and 2 year-olds from all corners of Asia, and all levels of English.
How did this come to pass? Our options for schooling our kids were either public Chinese school, private international school or homeschooling. The Pacific American school was steps away from both Scott’s office and our Guest House. But private tuition is upwards of CA$25,000/year/student. When I contacted them, they had recently lost a teacher, so they offered to let one child enroll free of charge if I would teach English to Grade 1 & 2. So I bit the bullet and agreed.
I have had cause to question my decision: getting my brain around the US Common Core, and then teaching daily classes to students with such varied levels of English comprehension is challenging. The school is mainly a high school for Crazy Rich Asian kids hoping to go to university abroad. Yesterday I passed a 14-year-old boy in the hall wearing a 50 Shades of Grey t-shirt. “My tastes are very singular.”
While it has been stressful and time-consuming, I can think of no better way to dive headfirst into a culture than take a job: my children are getting a great exposure to Taiwanese kids who speak English, every lunchtime we try a new Asian meal at the cafeteria, and I am reaping insights into the internal workings of a Taiwanese institution.
Case in point: the Taiwanese seem to have a morbid fear of airborne diseases. This isn’t surprising considering the subtropical climate, population density and heavy industry on the island. (Taiwan currently has its largest outbreak of dengue fever ever.) People don a mask if they are sick, might be sick, someone else is sick, might be sick, or there is just ‘bad air’ around.
So last week 20 grade 12 students called in sick during a heavy rainstorm. Our headmistress, irate, swore something must be done. The next afternoon, after school but during a faculty meeting with many students still in the school, they sprayed disinfectant in the hallways. No one is clear what it was (rumours abound: the headmistress says it was alcohol, the fireman formaldehyde), and perhaps the concentration was wrong. But the school was evacuated, several students taken to hospital with burns in their throat and chest, and many exposed people felt ill for days. People were climbing out windows. (The emergency doors, to no-one’s surprise, were locked. They are only opened for fire drills.) We had already left, mercifully.
The next day the headmistress held an assembly apparently to inform the school they should be grateful. At the subsequent departmental meeting, the mostly western faculty expressed their anger and desired assurances that this would not happen again without some notification. They were shut down by the Taiwanese teachers. Any attempt to discuss the incident with staff, to request teachers be notified next time, to request clarification about what product had been used, or even to suggest a more formal policy be established, would be seen as an attack on leadership. Teachers might be blackballed and contracts not renewed.
These hierarchical traditions may also be reinforced by Taiwan’s soup of Confucian/Taoist/Buddhist beliefs. Not apparently strongly held (when I ask for more details, I tend to get a shrug), they are nevertheless faithfully observed. We were treated to the spectacle of families offering enormous meals at the front of shops and houses last week during the closing of Ghost Month.
The fatalism associated with these beliefs may also be why the Taiwanese are willing to accept being gassed for the greater good. It certainly seems to be the only explanation for their approach to scooter traffic. There can be hundreds of these buzzing things at rush hour, laden with kids, groceries, dogs, driven with a complete disregard for safety by people in flip flops or stilettos. I suspect there is a grant in it for the intrepid soul willing to research equating Taiwanese driving habits with flocking behavior in birds: just don’t hit the person next to you.
The Taiwanese appear to have eyes in the back of their heads for these hazards, whereas the kids and I took a while to develop the proper defensive attitude: you may be assaulted by a moped at any time in any place: on the sidewalk where they are parked by the hundreds, inside buildings. There is a giant, 4-floor moped parking garage at the entrance to the university.
I try to be leery of superlatives, but I am willing to go out on a limb here and say Taiwan may have the best food anywhere. Or at least the most. You can tell a lot about a place from its colloquialisms: In Taiwan, friends don’t ask how you are, they ask if you have eaten. Nobody appears to cook at home: half the nation seems to be making food for the other half. Tours are culinary: you move from temple to food cart to park to food stall, with a stop in a restaurant at the end. The main temple in Hsinchu is completely obscured by food stalls.
Taiwanese cuisine just seems to do more: we boil, fry, scramble and cook with eggs. The Taiwanese boil them in tea, or put them in horse manure for a thousand years. (Not really: Thousand-year-old eggs simply look and smell like that – probably how the delicacy got started.) My children have bravely consumed pig’s ears, cow stomach, intestine, and heel. They manage chopsticks easily now.
Our great passion is bubble tea: Unique to Taiwan, these large tapioca balls (often combined with small coconut squares and tiny pieces of green jello from a local plant) are sucked up with juice or tea using a wide straw. Sounds awful right? We get one every day before homework.
Part of the problem may be that the west just doesn’t have the same appreciation of the jellied texture: here jelled things are constantly consumed. At the local food market, there is a vendor of jellied products: great blocks of green, bags of tapioca balls, squares and rectangles infused with unidentifiable flavours: the mind boggles.
This is a nation that loves to put things into warm water: the aisle devoted solely to ‘ramen’ at the grocery store is the size of a Costco aisle, only longer. Breakfast is often a mix of ground nuts and grains in warm water. Everywhere there are water dispensers offering cold, warm and boiling water. There is one on each of the 8 floors of our Guest House. They have reduced the wastefulness of water bottles, as everyone carries a reusable one.
We have finally joined the modern age and bought a smart phone. Do they have the internet in Taiwan? Boy howdy! Not only does every second store on the street outside the university sells phones, but some sell the parts to make your own. (The other stores are coffee shops.) They are such a status item that kids buy the latest phone when it is released. (The Taiwanese are among the world’s most cash-rich people. Banks have been largely government welfare institutions, and the superstitious Taiwanese play the stock market like a lottery.) The devotion to smart phones make sense for these students, who drive the technology. There is little time to engage in more traditional activities if you must study all the time.
Waygo is an app for your phone that uses the camera to isolate a Chinese text, then translates it for you (Google has something similiar now). It works for menus, but little else: when Scott tried to use it to translate an officious note he received from the University, the only translation it achieved was: ‘bun liver.’ So now when something is inscrutable we call it ‘bun liver.’
Though we do still have frustrating moments with Chinese inscrutability, it is often overcome with my favourite thing about Taiwan: walk into any restaurant, linger too long on a street corner, or just walk up to any person and speak English. Within seconds the cell phones will be out, and moments later someone will dash in, eager to put their best English at your service. When I asked the caretaker at a temple for directions to the Glass Museum, she marched out, commandeered a horde of sheepish young men, who then walked far out of their way to escort us to the door of the museum. The hospitality here is amazing.
Okay, got to go: another earthquake just shook our Guest House tower. Magnitude 5.6 – scarcely worth remarking here, it seems. Yikes! I think I prefer -40C. I guess it’s all what you get used to.
BTW, the Chinese message? 我們都很好 means ‘we are fine.’ (We think!)