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Sometimes when I’m riding on the trains and looking at the backs of tenement buildings, I think I’m somewhere in the middle of a book set in turn of the century Asia.  Other times, when I’m walking in the streets that are lined with neon store signs, I think I’m in a postcard scene.  And when I’m on a bus, crossing Love River in Kaohsoing and I see the effervescent lights twinkling in the somewhat clear night I, I think I’m in a fairytale. 

I spent most of my day thinking about Kristen.  I thought about her last weekend when some friends came down and will think of her again when more company comes to visit next weekend.  I miss having her here to share thoughts and jokes.  I miss having her where I don’t have to worry about her.  Sorry Kris, I know you’re grown, but I’m still mommy!  She’s in Atlanta taking care of business and I’ll know she’ll be OK.  Better than OK!  I know she and I both need to get out of our own way and do what we need to do so we can embrace all life has to offer us.  Get out of our own way. 

It’s like when I was in Cameroon in Korup National Park. We’re in the rain forest and of course…it was raining.  I kinda have this fear of heights.  I was able to do the rope bridge to get into the park but I could NOT would NOT do the tree bridges to cross the ravines.  You know, huge logs that fell across these deep cuts into the earth and the only way to the other side was to walk on these logs.  HEck no, I wasn’t doing that!  I was scared hsitless!!  Then, this stranger takes me by the hand and leads me across.  OK, so he was experience and confident, but why would I have more faith in this stranger than in myself? 

I made it back and forth over about 7 or 8 of those bridges and after just a couple of them, after I realized what I had done, I realized I hadn’t wanted to cross simply because of my own fear.  I was holding myself back. 

So, why mention this here?  Good question.  Maybe I need to step a little more out of the pictures I’m living in.

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Yeah, MickyDs is here, too. No Quarter Pounders, but there are Big Macs, Cheeseburgers and Spicy Chicken sandwiches. The sandwich above this is a brand new fish sandwich. It’s like a fish big mac (that’s bread between the two fish patties.) The sandwich below this has been around a while. Instead of bread, the meat is sandwiched between rice patties. I haven’t tried it yet, but I have had a similar sandwich at Mos Burger and it’s pretty good. Don’t know why I’m sitting here thinking about McDonalds. I’m not hungry!!

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Yes I did mention visiting an aboriginal elementary school in Baolia. When we arrived, they were practicing a disco dance to traditional aboriginal music. Here, see!

Elections phase one have ended here with a new batch of legislators about to take office.  Next up, I believe in March are the presidential elections.  The main issue seems to be whether Taiwan should be (or is) independent or should be (or is) part of mainland China.  A poor economy adds fuel to the fire.  Not mentioned are issues about global warming.  Taiwan uses nuclear energy and recycles like crazy.  Yeah, I take and interest in local issues.  They are difficult to follow without knowing the language and the papers I read can be far short of reliable in their coverage of Taiwanese issues.  (Newspapers have only been legal here for 20 years!)   I have found a great blog that provides outsiders with insights on issues Taiwanese. 

Something that’s interesting about being an outsider is the way outsiders continue to ignore each other.  When two westerners see each other, there is a purposeful avoidance of eye contact.  They will not speak!  I find this odd and would really like to know what explains the phenomenon!  It’s much discussed on blogs.  And this shows a real irony in this situation –though westerners avoid speaking to one another, they find each other all over the Internet on blogs, yahoo groups, on Myspace and Facebook.  I don’t get it. 

Friday. Not only the end of the week, but the end of the semester. The tradition here is for staff to be given some sort of gift/token in appreciation for all the hard work. I received a lottery ticket from one of Taiwan’s many lotteries. Now, I have to figure out how to find out if I’ve won! A teacher’s dinner is another tradition. Our staff went to a traditional Taiwanese restaurant where we had a wonderfully festive meal. I enjoyed the rare opportunity to get to know the other teachers while we ate shark, shark bone soup, pork belly, fried rice with river shrimp, poached fish, fresh fruits and a dessert of sweetened, pureed iced green bean soup.

After all this, what better way to relax than to go to a hot spring! Lucky me was able to accompany Rose, her principal and her son (Andy) to a Baolai to visit a hot spring. We drove up into the mountains in northern Kaohsiung County and arrived at the Fun Chen Resort Hotel in a couple of hours. The spa is set in a town that is in the homeland of the Rukai aboriginal tribe. Many places exhibit and sell their art and craftwork. Our evening started with a small feast of river shrimp, rice, cabbage, fried tofu and plum chicken. Delicious!!!

One thing I’m learning about myself is that I’ve outgrown my sense of adventure. I’ve settled into being a Holiday Inn kinda camper. Our lodgings for the evening were actually in small cabins rather than in the hotel. When we walked around to the front of the cabin, the setting quickly and quaintly turned rustic. The log cabins looked out onto a picturesque mountain setting with the relaxing chirping off birds and the sounds of a nearby stream flowing by. Walk back around the cabin and it’s back toparking lot, hotel and city streets. Yeah, my kind of roughing it!

Now this was a great weekend from the time in the springs and sauna, feeding fish in the mountains, visiting an aboriginal elementary school and stopping at a gorgeous national forest…it was all wonderful but sleeping on such a soft, plush mattress rather than my bed that reminds me of a coffee table, well, that was a slice of heaven!

The first semester has just ended. The school year is half over. Any progress? Well, I know I’ve learned a lot professionally and personally. Have my students? I hope so. I don’t give assessments in my classes so I have no real way of measuring progress. I hope they’ve learned that English is a way to communicate with the world. Duh?? You say??

A couple of months ago, one student needed a tissue. He asked Teacher Rose for a tissue in Mandarin and she insisted that he ask me in English. He asked me and, of course was given a tissue. A second student who witnessed this expressed his amazement “It works!!” (OK, he actually said this in Mandarin to Teacher Rose.)

I remember back in high school having the opportunity to speak French to someone to communicate with them and I was just fascinated that this was a real language, a real way of talking to people. Have you had this experience? Do you get what I mean?

Hopefully, by me being there, students and seeing English as something real.

Providing real learning opportunities for students is such a trendy thing to do in education that we don’t realize how much what we teach can sometimes disconnect from anything meaningful for our students. This is more and more the case if we’re sticking to using textbooks, pens and paper. technology is one way to enter the new world of student’s reality. If we don’t keep learning, if we don’t keep remembering what it’s like to learn we’re not being the best teacher we can be.

I do hope my students have learned half as much as I have.

Another weekend, another trip to Kaiohsoung. There could be stuff to do here in Pingtung, but there is not English service to let me know about it. Also, because of it’s bus system, and more reasonably prices taxi service, it’s easier for me to get around there than here.

So, last weekend Rose and I explore Mega 21 Mall. It’s an older mall than the Dream Mall, but not nearly as large. We saw “National Treasure 2” (great movie!!) and had dinner on the lower floor of the mall. It’s typical for large stores here to have grocery stores and/or restaurants in their basement. ) In 101 Mall in Taipei, it’s Jason’s. This is THE store for western goods.) Afterward, we went to a Hakka Exhibit. The Hakka are people who traveled here from China way back when. They are referred to as an aboriginal group and they are trying to preserve their culture on this island. I think that being Hakka is kinda like being Arab in that it is easy to say what it isn’t, but difficult to say what it is. Hakka language is not a written language and just that fact makes it difficult to preserve the culture. Fewer people are speaking the language. It is only transmitted through the home (as with Taiwanese). So, the exhibit display clothing, language (through the use of technology), music, prominent Hakka people, crafts and migratory maps. Aboriginals aren’t thought too highly of here, kinda like how Native Americans have been, continue to be, treated in the US. Even when in training to teach here, we were given many stereotypes about these peoples. I’m certain I have students from varying ethnic groups in my classes. I know what it’s like to be a student who is given few odds of success because of my color. I’m learning about the culture of these students, but in the meantime, I just see a room full of students all working hard, eager to please and such a joy to work with!

Friday, walking home from work, I noticed a blue plastic tent in the front of a home. I thought that perhaps they were having some repair work done. As I passed by, I noticed flowers and realized too late that someone has passed away and that this was the area to pay respects prior to the burial. I say too late because I felt as though I should have walked across the street as a sign of respect. I did bow my head as I passed and said a prayer but, before doing so I was able to see the photo of the attractive, elderly woman whose life was being celebrated. There was also incense burning, typical in Buddhist tradition.

After seeing this display, I knew what I would be in for later that night: firecrackers!! They typically last 2-3 days.

I’m not certain of the death practices here. I do know that death itself is a rather taboo subject. When someone dies, I think they’re often buried in Buddhist traditions, but not many people here do not really claim a religion. There are fireworks at night. This morning there was a lot of singing (chanting?) followed by a lot of musical drumming. Many, many people drove to the home to pay respects. I don’t know what services are conducted in the tented area, or how the burial services are conducted, or by whom. I have seen some of the cemeteries and they’ve been on the outskirts of the city. Families have large mausoleum type structures made of stone which serve as final resting places. I don’t know what colors are associated with death, or what superstitions there are. I do know that no one wants to live in an apartment where someone has died (they’re often rented to foreigners such as myself–hey??!!!). I know that 4 is an unlucky number. Some buildings do not have a 4th floor!

In case you don’t know, I have two blogs.  One is my librarian blog and this is the other.  They’re both hosted here on WordPress and sometimes I post to the wrong blog.  Such was the case earlier in December when I wrote this piece.  It’s long enough, if not interesting enough, to be re-posted, so here goes!

If you know me, you know I have a tendency to fuss about things.  And if you know me really well, you’ve heard me fussing about things hear in Taiwan.  But, no one has heard me fuss about the children in Taiwan.

A lot of people wondered how I would make out teaching elementary students.  When I taught at St. Rita, the youngest students I had were 5th graders.  Here, I currently have 4th, 5th and 6th grade and next semester they actually plan to give me third grade.  I really prefer the older students, but I was (obviously) looking for something different when I came here.   So, I was quite open to this experience and what it might offer. Honestly.

Today, walking home from school, I realized how much I really like my students.  I am so comfortable and relaxed with them.  It doesn’t always seem that way given the cultural divide we have, but they make me smile and I really care about them.

OK, so it took me until October to realize I’m teaching a set of identical twins.  I’ve been told I have another set of twins, but I haven’t figured them out yet.  Remember, I see 600+ students once a week.  I am not expected to know students names, as teachers don’t know their student’s names here.  I cannot say much more to my students than ‘hello’  and ‘how are you’.  I can ask the 5th grade ‘What’s the matter’ and ‘What are you doing’ and I can ask 6th grade ‘When is your birthday?’.  Some can understand ‘What is your name?’ .  And I only know about 6 phrases in Mandarin, none in Taiwanese.

My students have no boundaries.  They will yell, scream, shout and run whether they are in the school, street or this apartment building.  They will take things out of my hands, read my computer screen and enter adult conversations.  Does reading that make you as crazy as it does me??!!!  It looks like children are in control everywhere they go, but that’s me with my western eyes.

Every class has a class leader.  This child is often who the special area teacher consults if there is a concern about a student.  This child can call their peers to order and is who the teacher turns to in order to dismiss the class.  Younger classes have the leader appointed by the teacher while older students select their own.  This position is an enigma to me.  It is the rare time when children have demands placed upon them.  This child is respected, and obeyed, by classmates.

I know of things children have done, things for which we would suspend or expel them.  Like children in Taipei coming to school  under the influence of drugs.  Or another young students pulling a knife on her classmates.  The child is sent back to class and the school makes no big deal of it.  I don’t know the language or culture well enough to know how society deals with them, but the school goes on as normal without missing a beat.  The child isn’t shamed or punished.  They don’t receive grandiose negative attention and they don’t feel abnormal.  Do we make too much out of these behaviors??  They not enough?

You’re going to have to read this again and process it.  If I’ve written it well enough, maybe you’ll ponder this.  I’ve thought about it a lot.  It was difficult to even begin to comprehend what happens here because I’ve been jaded into believing I come from a culture that values children.  But,we don’t.  We neglect children, rob them of their childhood and ignore them.  We dress them like little adults and even let too many of them raise themselves.  I struggle now to understand the concept of valuing children.  What does it really mean?  How do we, as individuals and as a society, really treat children we value?

What I’m noticing here is that children are allowed to explore.  They’re allowed to remain innocent and inquisitive.  They’re a meaningful part of the community as exhibited through the way they’re allowed to freely enter adult circles.  They’re not told to quite the screaming, or yelling and they can joyfully express themselves.  I get the feel that children aren’t put into their place and confined to act accordingly.

You better believe it drives me crazy.  I am old and I am American and I don’t quite have these standards.  But, this isn’t my house!  And the children take correction as easily as they take a compliment.  They want to do better!  I think of words like trust, gentle, laughter and fun.  Yes, I’ve seen some very sad faces.  Anger.  Frustration.  Sleeping in class.  Doubt.  Discrimination. And I’ve seen students who will not let their classmates fail.   Who don’t mind staying late to finish work and who will write it and re-write it until it is correct.  And who thank me for correcting them!

Tina wants to teach me Mandarin.  I have another wonderful student who’s name I don’t even know who spent about 2 hours writing a classical Chinese poem in calligraphy for me just because I wanted to see some of his work.  I have a group of girls who come to my room during lunch everyday to play Uno.  Today, one of the kids used the magnet poetry on my chalkboard to write in Mandarin “teacher is beautiful”.  I won’t get to take a picture of it because the boys had to ‘one better’ them and write ‘teacher pretty’ in English. I had a student move to Vietnam and before she left, she did her best to write me a note about how much she will miss my class.  I am so disappointed that I don’t even know her face.   There’s a little third grade boy and girl who get a kick out of slipping up to my room after school just to say ‘hi Teacher Campbell’ then they get tickled-pink and run back down the hall!!  Just like back home, its the students are able to get me through a bad day.  I feel like I barely give enough in return.

In August, 2007 I will be leaving Indianapolis with my daughter, Kristen, to live and work in the Republic of China (Taiwan). This will be my fiftieth year on this planet and my first year living in another country. This blog will let you join us on the adventure!
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Chikky Soup Meets Stinky Tofu by Edi Campbell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
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Taipei

January 2008
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