Tuesday, August 5, 2014

An Invaluable Teaching Experience in Taiwan

Echoes of laughter, yelling, and heavy footsteps grow louder and louder as I approach the classroom. Taking a deep breath, I glance quickly at my lesson plans one last time and push open the door. As I step slowly into the room, I can feel the sudden stares of thirteen pairs of young eyes. Though many students are still out of their seats, with their arms playfully wrapped around each other and toys in their hands, the once raucous classroom immediately begins to quiet down. In the midst of all this, I ponder what to do next.

As another July passes by, I look back to the summer after my first year of college when I taught English to underprivileged elementary school children in rural southern Taiwan. Every day for two weeks, my teaching partner and I created a new lesson plan in which we incorporated activities we found most effective for teaching children. The experience was challenging at first because of the all-new environment and our language barrier. Our students’ knowledge of English was very limited, and my Mandarin speaking skills weren’t at a confident level.


Before arriving in Taiwan, I thought teaching English would be very simple because it is my native language. After a few hours into the first day of class, however, I discovered that was not the case at all. Since I taught fourth to sixth grade students, their levels of English were all scattered. Some of them were not yet familiar with the alphabet while a lot of the older students already knew quite a few vocabulary words. Even so, my teaching partner and I tried our best to create a rewarding learning atmosphere. Whenever we saw our students getting bored with a certain activity, we would quickly try to come up with a new learning strategy. Whenever we noticed someone struggling to learn, we would take the initiative to get to know the student and find out the best way for him or her to grasp knowledge. We would experiment with different teaching methods, including games, songs, and dances, to help each individual learn while having fun. Prizes were a very effective way of getting students to participate in discussions and behave during class, as they were always excited to see what we had brought from America.

Something interesting I noticed at the school was how students there have such close relationships with their teachers. When I was teaching at the elementary school, I would stay after school every day and spend time with my students and a local teacher. This teacher would play basketball with the students for hours after English classes, listen to everything they had to say and take care of them as if they were his children. To his students, he was a friend, father, and teacher all in one.

That experience in Taiwan was definitely one of my best summer memories, and it sparked an interest in teaching. If there’s something I definitely would like to do in the future, it would be to visit my students again.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Controversial Confucius Institute

In 2004, the Confucius Institute (CI) program was established with a mission to spread knowledge of Chinese language and culture around the world. Along with rising numbers of people interested in studying the language, these academic centers have hired and trained teachers, designed curriculum for teaching Chinese and educated people worldwide about fast-growing China. The institutes have also sought to promote friendly international relations and trade.


Chow Yun-fat as Confucius, still a figure of interest almost 2600 years after the Chinese sage’s birth

Sponsored by the Chinese government as part of the Ministry of Education, these nonprofit public institutes are run in universities, colleges, and secondary schools. The first campus opened in Seoul, South Korea, and today there are over 350 Confucius Institutes in dozens of nations. Most of these educational centers are located in the United States, Japan, and South Korea. The University of Chicago, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Stanford University, and Purdue University are just a few of the schools in partnership with Confucius Institute.

However, this growing number of institutes has also met with backlash.

China’s Confucius Institutes have been known to spread Communist propaganda through cultural exchanges at host schools. The United States and other nations in the West have criticized these government-run institutes for limiting academic freedom, keeping tabs on Chinese students studying abroad, and seeking to spread the country’s own viewpoints on controversial topics. Issues that avoid discussion include the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and China’s relations with Tibet and Taiwan. There have also been questions regarding Confucius Institute’s quality of teachers and academics.

Just last month, the American Association of University Professors requested that universities partnered with Confucius Institutes either terminate or reexamine their relations with these branches of the Chinese government. They argue that by allowing the Chinese government to control their methods of teaching, these universities in the United States have risked losing their integrity. Instead of being limited by these institutes’ narrow curriculum, restricted from meaningful debates, and controlled by tight staff hiring procedures, American institutions should fight for their belief in academic freedom in all teachings and research. If the Confucius Institute continues to clash with this notion of academic freedom, then schools should sever ties with the program.


China issues a special stamp for the Confucius Institute, trotting out its #1 ambassador

There have been happenings regarding those accusations. In 2012, former Confucius Institute instructor Sonia Zhao reported discrimination against her because of her faith in Falun Gong. Zhao asserted how her employment contract explicitly prevented her from associating with the spiritual discipline, which is regarded as a threat by the Chinese Communist Party. The school where she worked, McMaster University in Canada, sided with Zhao and declined to renew its contract with Confucius Institute the following year. When the Dalai Lama planned to speak at North Carolina State University in 2009, the occasion drew opposition from Confucius Institute, and the university ended up cancelling the event.

In the United States and other nations where academic freedom is crucial, Confucius Institute’s restrictions may not be accepted for much longer. With the support of many American universities at risk, perhaps it is time for something to be changed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

More Than a Pretty Face?: Teaching Without Thinking in China

I have a Swiss friend who is infamous for his unwavering pragmatism in the face of invitation. If someone asked him if he wanted to do something – grab a bite to eat or go swim in the creek – he’d almost always agree to join in, if he didn’t have other plans: “Why not?”

I was thinking of him when I agreed to a money-making opportunity on Thursday. It was my second day in Qufu, a city in China’s southwestern Shandong province. It’s known throughout China as the birthplace Confucius, and nothing else. It’s a poor and gritty city, where air pollution has stained the sky perpetually grey and residents drive shabby motorbikes and half-constructed tuk-tuks through dusty streets. It’s called a third-tier city, and without its connection to ancient Chinese history, it would be nothing more than a gray blot among gray blots.


The Confucius Temple in Qufu

From Beijing, it took me exactly two hours by high-speed train to get to Qufu. Until the outskirts of the city, where the landscape becomes dynamic and mountainous, the view from a train window is painfully predictable. Miles of flat farmland are interrupted briefly by drab, hastily constructed cities and condominium parks, although to call these “parks” is misleading when there is nothing green in sight.

The unnaturalness of the cities – I passed Tianjin and Dezhou – is unrelieved by farmland, which too has a feeling of artificiality, with its square plots of land and pencil-straight irrigation canals. Every plot of earth is utilized, hardly anything left to nature’s command. Wilderness is an unfulfilled promise here.

The peasants working the field, surprisingly few and far between, looked small against such a never-ending backdrop, like tiny figurines moved by an invisible puppeteer. They worked with the same tools used by their ancestors thousands of years ago, and the only difference between their landscape now and then were the motorbikes, radio towers, power lines and water-heaters. Everything else was the same.

I had come to Qufu to meet up with my friend Matty, an old friend from high school who spent the last nine months teaching English at Qufu Normal University. We were sipping coffee at the campus cafe when he got a WeChat message from a friend, who worked for a “training school” and wanted a laowai to help advertise the school that afternoon.


Canadian expat and famous “laowai” Dashan (Mark Rowswell), for many a polarizing entertainment figure in China

“Do you want to do it?” Matty asked me. “They’ll pay you 100 RMB.”

I thought about it for a second. “Why not?” I said.

Three hours later, I was in the back of a three-wheeled motor cart being driven by a boy named Smiley. Sitting with me were Kate and Abby, two college students at Qufu Xingtan University and employees at the Excellent A Training School.

We drove through the dusty boulevards of Qufu, past the ancient walled town in the center of the city and out into the surrounding countryside, where rows of corn, which the locals call “sticks”, dominated the earth. Kate and Abby chattered happily as our cart buzzed past piles of freshly pulled crop surrounded by dirt-stained farmers. They teased Smiley whenever he went too fast through a speed bump.

We arrived outside an elementary school. There was a couple old tables and stools stacked along a wall, and Smiley threw them silently in the back of his cart and drove a few yards to where adults were standing patiently by their battered motorbikes, waiting for the school to get out. A red banner along the school gate read: Delve deeply into developing “educational safety”.

Most of those waiting were grandparents, as the parents were farmers and would be working in the fields until mid-evening. We set out the tables and stools, and Kate and Abby pulled out a pile of flyers, a sign-up sheet, and pen. What occurred next happened in seconds: we were surrounded by chirping old peasants, eager to hear my new colleagues’ sales-pitch.

Kate and Abby handled them with ease, handing out flyers and explaining the benefits of the training school. Some of them listened intently, while others hung around, entertained by the commotion. Within minutes, Kate and Abby had six names and phone numbers on the sign-up sheet.

Pad of Paper & Pen

Ready for business!

The Excellent A Training School promised to improve students’ English grades; hence, the suspicious “A” in the school’s name. For a few hours a day, at 380 RMB (or US$60) for 30 days, the students would receive English lessons and lunch. The training school targets the farmers because many of them hadn’t received a good enough education to help their children with homework.

Training schools are highly popular in China, and the competition between them is high. Kate estimated that in Qufu alone, there are over two hundred. Training schools don’t all focus on English, either; there’s a training school for nearly every subject, from science and math to music and writing.

A Qufu resident whom I spoke to, a college student whose English name was Peter Philadelphia, works at another English training school during the summer. He was critical of them, believing they focused too much on boosting grades and not enough on improving students’ learning abilities. “I wanted to improve their learning, but they only wanted me to do their homework for them,” Peter lamented.

In the birthplace of Confucius, who taught unquestioning loyalty to ones’ superiors and stressed the importance of test taking, this seemed like a completely normal problem to have.

Kate’s school, of which she is the manager, was started three years ago by a 24-year-old graduate of Qufu Xingtan College. They currently employ three teachers. All of them are college students, as it is illegal to employ officially registered teachers at a training school. (They’re cheaper, anyway, Kate added.) For one month of teaching, they receive 2000 RMB, around US$300. One of the photos on the flyer was of a white man teaching a classroom of Chinese students and was captioned, “Our foreign teacher.” The other was of a crowd of children and read, “Watermelon competition.”

The gates opened, and a crowd of boys sprinted out like racehorses. Some of them ran over to our table to see what was going on, but most just hopped on the back of their grandparents’ motorbikes and sped off. The school was next to a busy road where motorbikes zipped alongside giant trucks carrying sand, gravel, wood, and other construction materials. When the kids rushed out of the school, the street erupted in the sound of car horns.

I pointed at the trucks: “Why are they honking?”

“So the kids know not to run into the street,” Kate answered, matter of fact.

By the end of the session, the Excellent A Training School had collected twelve names and phone numbers. Three of the new sign-ups made 100 RMB deposits to reserve a spot in the upcoming class period.

I hadn’t said more than five words. “Why did you bring me here?” I asked.

“So the parents will believe that the education is more official,” Kate said.

My white face had added legitimacy to their English teaching business: I was paid $15 to sit and smile.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

How Do Asian-Americans Break Through the “Bamboo Ceiling”?

Whenever I ask people if they have any Asian and Asian-American blog ideas, the typical response I would get is: Have you written about the model minority? And the answer is no, I haven’t directly addressed this topic (and am not particularly excited to tackle it) because I didn’t think I had anything substantial to add to the already robust literature on model minorities.

But, as it would happen, I stumbled upon an interesting term dealing with the model minority stereotype that I have not heard before: “the bamboo ceiling”. Going in the same direction as my last article on Asian-Americans and leadership, the bamboo ceiling is like the so-called glass ceiling. Women and many people of color say they hit a glass ceiling when it comes to executive level or leadership roles in the workplace, but do Asian-Americans face additional hurdles and get shut out of top jobs because they are seen as model minorities?


Watch out for the shards

Asian-Americans have the highest level of education and income in the country. Yet, according to a story on NPR and DiversityInc, Asian-Americans make up only 2.6 percent of the corporate leadership of Fortune 500 companies. Asian-Americans have the education and the skills and abilities, but why are they not better represented in corporate America?

Is this institutional racism? Do Asian-Americans not look or act like how leaders are supposed to look and act? What are our associations with Asian culture and model minorities and what is our understanding – the norms and expectations – of leaders in Fortune 500 corporate America? Do model minorities not possess leadership attributes?

Asian-Americans are dealt a double whammy. For starters, the organizational culture of corporate America is set up in such a way that people who are not white and male are already at a disadvantage. The farther you go up within an organizational structure, the more white and male, the less minority and female those organizations almost all become. Second, when people think of leaders and of Asians, there is almost no overlap between those two terms.


We’ve only moved the old boy network into the good ol’ boys club

In my last article, I wrote of my own personal struggle to balance both Asian and American values, particularly staying modest yet having a presence in a group. It may well be the case that many Asian professionals arrive in the workplace with a set of cultural behaviors, such as ways to relate themselves to superiors and elders, that is a recipe for invisibility. These behaviors include having a hard work ethic where you are focused on pleasing your boss and doing an outstanding job on your assignments, so that social relationships are put on the back-burner, or you don’t let others know of all the good work you’ve been doing.

Yet, even if you are gregarious and brag often about all that you have done for the organization, your colleagues and others who meet you may still see you as a smart, hardworking, and unthreatening model minority. I know, because despite how I acted during my 4-week business program with the Fullbridge Program, my coach told me that I have “soft edges” and do not need to worry about being perceived as disrespectful or mean. I thought, at times, that I overstepped and was quite mean, but I was “soft” enough so I got the benefit of the doubt.

This, then, is the bamboo ceiling that Asian-Americans face in the workplace: goody-two-shoes, unlikely to reach leadership positions that need tough, authoritative personalities. Asian professionals and leadership roles don’t quite match up. The bamboo ceiling exists, and it’s a bitter reality.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Is Taiwanese Healthcare a Model to Emulate?

Healthcare. That word in the United States draws controversy from all sides of the spectrum. Our nation’s healthcare reform debate is an ongoing political issue, as the United States is still the only industrialized democracy without universal health insurance.


Imagine a small island nation over seven thousand miles away. Here, residents may visit a clinic down the street and meet with a doctor they haven’t seen before, without scheduling an appointment. When meeting with the physician, they present a medical card that contains a chip with all their medical records. The doctor has immediate access to these patients’ medical history, any drugs they are taking, and other important health information.

Though quite different from what we’re used to in the United States, the above scenario depicts the healthcare system in Taiwan. When I visited last summer and stayed with my cousin and his family, I had the chance to learn more about how the country’s health insurance system works. Since 1995, Taiwan, with 23 million residents, has had a universal healthcare system called the National Health Insurance (NHI). This form of socialized medical care allows Taiwanese citizens and residents to enjoy the benefits of a single-payer health insurance system.

My first week in Taipei, where my cousin lives, his three-year old daughter came down with a cold. On a Saturday morning, I tagged along with his wife and the child to the hospital.

What first caught my attention was how no appointment had to be made; another that struck me was how little time we had to wait at the clinic. Within a few minutes, a pediatrician escorted us to her office and my cousin-in-law handed her a medical card. My cousin’s daughter was given a checkup and rescribed some medicine. What also surprised me was that the medicine only cost 100 NT, which is just over US$3.


Why not: the actor Jerry Yan in The Hospital, a popular Taiwanese television drama

Though Taiwanese citizens have equal access to healthcare, the country spends only about 6.6% of its GDP on health expenditures, while the United States spends more than 17%. Residents of Taiwan pay a monthly fee for the NHI themselves, and their companies pay for a portion of the fee. The vast majority of patients and doctors in Taiwan are satisfied with this convenient and affordable system.

Of course, there are also costs to having unlimited access to healthcare. With a lack of funds, the Taiwanese government has had to borrow money from banks. Additionally, with the convenience of healthcare, there is a large number of patients relying on too few doctors. When patients pay frequent visits to the doctor, it causes doctors to limit the amount of time each patient can be seen.

With a system that promises equal healthcare access, Taiwanese residents take care of each other. In the United States, healthcare is seen more as the responsibility of an individual. Perhaps these two nations’ different systems stem from this cultural disparity.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

For Many Students, When Summer Starts – So Does School

“What are you doing this summer?”

When a lot of Asian students are asked this question, “summer school” – followed by a glum look – is a typical response. For many children, “summer” means attending fun camps, traveling with family, or relaxing at home without the stress of schoolwork. But for many other students, “summer” means getting ready for more school.

Elite high school entrance exams, the SAT, ACT, or simply keeping busy are all reasons why so many Asian parents send their children to “cram schools” during the two-month vacation.


Homework and summer studies are now the norm for more students, starting at younger age

I grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey, in a small suburban town with a large Asian population. Since early elementary school, classmates attended afterschool programs to brush up on their math and reading skills. Hagwon and buxiban (“cram schools” in Korea and Taiwan/Mainland China, respectively, who have made their way across the Atlantic to the U.S.) were commonly heard words.

In the midst of fractions and phonics in third grade, students would be busy solving for variables and reviewing vocabulary flashcards. When other students played sports and attended Girl Scout meetings as extracurriculars, many Asian students headed to Kumon, C2 Education, and Honors Review.

Of course, the SAT was a huge focus when high school started. At my high school, many Asian students were sent off to SAT prep schools for at least one summer. Though attending school eight hours a day for seven weeks may not seem like a very appealing summer activity to most teenagers, I felt pressure to enroll in SAT courses because everyone around me was doing so, and if I didn’t spend that extra time preparing for the exam, I would definitely fall behind.


New meaning to a “working” holiday – is this what we’ve come to?

I have lived in my hometown all my life, and over the years, I’ve noticed more and more Asian-owned learning centers opening up. A growing number of parents are investing money into their children’s education by sending them to these for-profit academies. Children are being tutored for longer periods of time, and they are also starting younger.

This phenomenon stems from East Asian countries and the high value they place on quality education. Students in East Asia continue to outperform their Western counterparts in academic performance and international exams. When their children are very young, many Asian parents begin to emphasize the value of education.

The summer after my first year of college, I taught English to underprivileged elementary school students in rural southern Taiwan. Though many of these children’s parents worked long hours for little pay, a lot of my students attended buxiban after six hours of English class every day.

When I was a teacher’s assistant at an English-Mandarin bilingual school with a large percentage of Chinese-American students, I noticed that many children rushed off to tutoring programs when the school day ended. But what really opened my eyes while interning at the school was though most students there were born into low-income immigrant families, the teachers were excellent, children were enthusiastic about learning, and attendance was near-perfect.

Whether it is doing vocabulary drills or solving equations, when summer finally rolls around, it is certain that many students will be busier than ever.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Growing Up as a Chinese-American

I am an ABC, an “American-Born Chinese.” My parents were born in China, but I was born in California.

California has long had a vibrant Asian population; I blissfully grew up in an Asian bubble. Kids did not tease me on the playground nor did they pull the corner of their eyes while chanting pseudo-Chinese sounding words.


Hey. Kids are jerks.

The dichotomy that many Asian-Americans expressed while growing up somewhat baffled me: I couldn’t relate to the hardships they faced in trying to become “more American.” I did not understand why they would feel embarrassed to use chopsticks in public, or why they would opt for the “all-American” burger or slice of pizza at lunchtime. I was not ashamed of my Chinese heritage and I openly practiced them without the need to hide my roots. I used chopsticks along with forks and knives in the same meal; I added wasabi peas to trail mix and brought it to school for snack time. For lunch, I ate chow mein with hot dog bits.

I felt that my Chinese practices and American practices seamlessly fused together. Growing up, I did not push aside the Chinese side of myself.

But I wanted to.

It would mean leaving behind the discipline and pragmatism. My parents avoided all frivolous expenditure that they believe would distract me from my studies. They saw vacations as something that would divert my focus from school and make me long for “fun”, so I stayed home during school breaks and learned the multiplication tables instead of going to Disneyland. I did not have stuffed animals or game consoles: such toys had no place in our household. Nor did I have jewelry and accessories. My parents were not going to encourage me to be some flirty “party girl” who cared more for fun than academics.


Diversity even in sleepovers

That goes to say, I did not enjoy the themes of the American “coming to age” culture: sleepovers, parties, dating. I wanted my childhood to be about the whims and enjoyments that categorize mainstream American youth, but it was an unrequited fascination.

Yet, I don’t resent my upbringing, though I do wonder whether I would be the person I am today without it. Would I still have the habit of compromising more than I should? Would I be more vocal with my thoughts and opinions? Would a more liberal upbringing have made me more self-confident? Would I still have had my eating disorder?

I know that I am who I am today because of my parents and how they raised me. I am grateful for my family and for the part they have played in making me the person I am proud to be today, shortcomings and all.