Saturday, December 27, 2008

This Taiwanese Childhood

For those of you who have noticed the absence of a real post over the past month or so (I know at least three people who actually read this regularly), I apologize.  There are, of course, the usual excuses--the holidays, field trips, and family visits--but in addition to all that fun, I have been hard at work.  I am in the midst of a frantic attempt to complete a graduate school application.  The biggest commitment siphoning away my time as of late, however, has been my stint coaching a team of students to compete in the Kaohsiung Rotary Storytelling Competition (from hereon referred to as The SC).

Like so many things in Taiwan (lunch dates that become daytrips, sports days that include discomfort-inducing bellydancing performances), The SC involves more than the name implies.   Groups of 1-5 students must recite a 7-minute story in English from memory on a given theme before a panel of judges.  This year's theme was "Making Your Dreams Come True!"  Oh! But there's more!  Costumes, props, songs, dances and background music are not prohibited, which means they're implicitly expected!  The absence of these elements will probably result in a score of 0 for "Creativity."  Other criteria include "Performance" and "Content," the latter of which accounts for a whopping 50% of the total score.  The enormous weight put on this final element means that teachers are also being graded in this competition, since few schools would risk "losing face" by allowing their students to write the story.  

Clearly, the whole affair thrills me to tears.  Taiwanese kids, after all, have so much free time on their hands.  Surely we wouldn't want the children here to twiddle their thumbs during those wide-open hours between the 7am-4pm schoolday and their afterschool+weekend cram school classes.  It disgusts me to see those lazy 8 year-olds leaving the Hess English School near my apartment at 10 pm.  How should we teach these kids better discipline?  I know!  By making them memorize 7 minute speeches in a foreign language!  That'll whip 'em into shape.  

Now, I'm not against academic competition.  I recognize that this is a good opportunity for these kids to practice speaking English.  Heck, some of the kids who performed their stories even looked like they were having fun!  At the same time, the kids here are already under so much pressure.  The star of my SC also happens to be the smartest kid in school and the point guard of our championship-winning basketball team.  The basketball coach tried to make her skip our morning practices so she could attend his.  "She's our point guard, and she only comes to 2/5 weekly practices since she has so much else going on," he argued.  

"We only have one more week," Shu-ting pleaded.  "You can have her back after Saturday."  He finally relented.

The most infuriating part of all this, however, is that Shu-ting and I were forced to particpate with only 2.5 weeks left before the competition.  We successfully managed to avoid the Reader's Theater (RT) competition held by the Bureau of Education only one month before.  Only a few weeks ago, I laughed at my stressed-out roommates as they wrote stories about hip-hop dancing  hippos and trash-picking pandas for their wealthy, uber-competitive downtwon schools.  Two weeks later, my Academic Dean called Shu-ting and I to inform us that the Bureau had specially requested us to participate.  Since most other schools already participated in RT only one month ago, few schools registered for The ST.  They were burned out from RT.  The contest was being organized by an outside group.  Worst of all, the prizes for winning were insignificat--a few book coupons and a stack of certificates of participation.  

I suspect were were chosen as the affirmative action candidate.  Xiaogang District, where my school is located, is the poorest district of Kaohsiung City.  Technically, it's not even in the city; it's an industrial suburb whose industries have mostly moved to Mainland China.  No other schools from our district signed up for the competition, making me believe that the Bureau just wanted some representation to balance out the rich schools from the downtown area and northern suburbs.  

So, with two weeks to go before showtime, I wrote a story (and made it rhyme since apparently I, too, would be graded), recorded practice CDs and constructed turtle signs out of scrap paper.  My kids gave up lunch breaks, study halls, basketball practices and precious free time to memorize the script, practice their pronunciation and learn to perform before an audience (the other schools already knew how to do this from participating in RT).  In the days leading up to the competition, I became increasingly nervous.  Winning didn't concern me, but I feared that my kids would see the other schools who had so many advantages--competition experience, more money for private English tutors, extra prep time, and even teammates who previously had lived in the US--and feel badly.

But our seven minutes came and went, and I couldn't be more proud.  True, there were forgotten lines here and there and I'm not sure how we looked compared to the team before us, who prepared full animal costumes, 2 songs, a dance, and confetti.  Needless to say, we didn't place.  Then again, I don't really care.  My kids worked hard and seemed satisfied with their overall performance.  And if that's not enough, at least we weren't the group that told "The Story of Helen Keller."  (They were being coached by a nun.  Are you surprised?)

The best part of my day was going to McDonalds to celebrate after our performance.  We ate too much ice cream and stuffed french fries in our upper lips to imitate vampires.  I pretended to get mad at the who boy who trespassed into the McPlayplace, despite the fact that his height clearly surpassed the maximum limit.  They saw through my act and we laughed. A lot.  And for a brief moment, I almost believed that a Taiwanese childhood wasn't so different from my American childhood after all.


Amy Chang said...

I feel similarly about the children in China (and the rest of East Asia, save for NK). Perhaps I wish that they had more freedom in their childhood, but it's all relative, right? Children have this uncanny ability to make un-fun things fun. I really liked this post!

The Chao said...

Dear Amy,

I have often felt the same way about your blog posts, but have yet to figure out how to leave a comment there. I guess I could email, but it seems weird to email in response to a blog post. So if you see this, I like your blog!

I've been thinking about this freedom in childhood question. Do the math and science achievements of Taiwanese students make up for their lack of what we would consider a normal childhood (you know, little league soccer, play dates, that sort of thing)? I mean, American children for the most part suffer from abysmal math and science literacy (myself included). I guess it comes down to what's more valued.

It's worth nothing that Taiwanese schools are trying to get their kids to be more "creative" while American schools are trying to make their schools more proficient. Kaohsiung has created a Creativity Center (because nothing says "creative" like containing creativity in a single classroom), while the US has decided to do more uh.. standardized testing?

This is a strange world indeed.

Thoughts on life said...


You have stumbled across the paradox of "No Child Left Behind" in the US. That program presumes that a child's failure to perform is linked to someone's failure to teach (and our testing to confirm it all). I always use the example that if I had a great track coach, I should be able to run a 4 minute mile. No predisposition or talent factored in.
Now in your new culture, the presumption (according to Cressy, our Chinese PhD 'daughter') is that hard work is the essence of success. So the community values a work ethic. Their conclusion, however, is that if you don't succeed, you didn't work hard enough.

Some US scientists I know have always said that American graduates can outthink their Asian counterparts, but their Asian peers can out-calculate them...

I worked with a group of Asian PhD engineers -- and a regular lunchtime discussion was whether they wanted to raise their own children like "Americans" or whether they wanted to raise them like they had been raised. Their narrative in that regard was that they were all successful employees, but that they had no happy childhood memories. Their concern was that allowing their kids to be more "American" would produce happier childhoods, but possibly mediocrity as adults.

Your kids are lucky to have someone share their experience -- and all of us are well served by you all getting a chance to see the Asian side of education...because in the end, BALANCE is what we are all trying to achieve.
Good work!
Katie's Mom