September 25, 2009

A River Runs Through It

The next day, Wednesday, my third day of teaching, I wake up feeling surprisingly well-rested and alert. I don't feel like I slept all that well the previous night, possibly due to some combination of sweating from every pore like my skin was a sieve and sleeping on a sheet-less collection of hard, coiled pieces of metal. But although conditions were identical to last night - sweltering heat, rock hard sleeping surface, noisy street sounds - my reflection in the morning's mirror looks bright-eyed, my muscles feeling relaxed and not at all sore or lethargic. "Probably just so exhausted that I had no CHOICE but to coma-sleep" I think, knowing it is much too soon for my body to be adjusting to the unfamiliar and rather uncomfortable arrangements. This, if possible, will take at least two or three weeks, and I am inclined to believe that last night was a fluke and I am in for more rough nights to come.

I walk to school once again, the scenery unchanged from the day before save for subtle difference that would elude most people, but because this world is still new, my senses are like sponges soaking up every color, sound, and smell, making secret observations about the shopkeepers' attire, the length of a streetlight, the depth of the shadows. It takes me 20 minutes to reach the the fruit stand, and by the time I do the moisture is soaking through the chest and back of my t-shirt and the fronts of my pant legs. Again I select my breakfast of one yellow apple (today I looked a little more thoroughly; no red or green, just yellow) and one ripe banana. The price is different today, and although my fruit was not weighed yesterday nor today, the check-out lady with deep lines traveling across her forehead and cheeks tells me my total is "er-ba" (sounds exactly how it looks: err-bah, except "er" is pronounced by inflecting down and "ba" is spoken with a high, strong tone...almost like a yell), which means nothing to me until I look at the digital price indicator, which tells me that "er-ba" is $28 NT. I hand the lady three $10 coins and take my fruit without a bag, wondering why my total was $5 NT cheaper than yesterday. I have no way to ask the fruit-stand workers, so I leave the question to hang in the balmy air, then let it fall and break into equal parts trivial and futile. I walk down the road while a million other questions, about everything and nothing, swim through the periphery of my thoughts, my consciousness sitting lazily and barefooted on the dock, catching the biggest or prettiest for my brain to measure, photograph, and throw back. I wonder if these questions will always exist, if they will continue to persist and come to sit with me in the quiet afternoons or long walks through the endless summer days? Or will they someday disappear, my wisdom answering those that are within my grasp and shooing the others away, replacing their nagging with the rhythmic creak of a rocking chair? The deepest parts of me hope that they don't.

This day continues to playfully mimic its predecessors though I arrive at school later than I did on Tuesday, right around 9:00 a.m. I can see a faint outline of a routine starting to form as I exchange casual greetings with the Chinese staff, Connie, and Kara; normally, the threat of sameness would unnerve me and, eventually, my whispering thirst for adventure would begin to call loudly for a radical change to be made. However, it seems that enough radical steps have already been taken, and my fickle nature is content to cling to the comforts that come with least for now. Walking past Kara, I see that she is busily working on some elaborate poster-sized teaching aid with creative fonts and full-color, eye-catching pictures. Once again, I hope that I am not expected to be creating such intricate visual accompaniment for my lessons. I suppose someone will let me know if I'm slacking; I have a little bit of leeway, I AM the new guy, after all. I sit on a desk and listen to the friendly bantering between Kara and Connie, watching the clock as the seconds tick by, thinking about the chronology of my lesson. I have decided that my teaching style will be similar to an effective workout, wherein the routine is changed often to prevent boredom and create "muscle confusion". In my classroom the students will be bombarded with knowledge from all sides, never knowing where the next hit is coming from, keeping them on their toes and mentally sharp. It sounds good on paper; I wonder how it will work in practice? Probably just result in total chaos. I have no contingency plan for this.

At 9:30 I go up to the room, taking the stairs two at a time to the third floor. I have become a familiar face to the kids now, and I whistle the theme from "The Andy Griffith Show" as I enter. Ian laughs like an idiot, and Howie (who normally looks meek and terrified) gets up and runs in a circle, tripping over Yuka and wiping out on his face. Luckily, he is unfazed, and the lesson commences. Once again, same as before, I begin with calisthenics, then good mornings, then speaking exercises. I teach basically the exact same lesson as yesterday, only with more energy and in a different order. The children seem to respond to my enthusiasm, which inspires me to act even MORE goofy and over-the top. At one point, as I am pretending to throw up a handful of colored yarn balls on Cynthia (which the kids think is HYSTERICAL), I look up to see Yvonne laughing at me. I smile, grateful that she is entertained and not disgusted by my teaching techniques or by the fact that I am fake-vomiting on a four-year old. I may just win her over yet. More "A! A! A!", more small plastic animals. The two hours goes by quickly with little downtime, and most of the kids are laughing and squealing by the time I am supposed to leave for lunch. Yuka and Jeffrey even come up and grab my legs as I am walking out, and I have to tickle them so they let me go. I am thrilled they feel comfortable enough to touch me now. Once their walls have crumbled, the armies of knowledge will have free reign over their tiny, moldable minds. Yes, I will use war metaphors often to describe teaching. The fight for the mind is nothing short of what it claims to be.

I go downstairs, talk with Connie a bit about how everything is going. Today I feel more energetic and am excited about the progress I am making with the kids, and this must be evident in my zealousness, for as I talk loudly her eyes get big and she leans back in her chair, as if she is being physical pushed away by my intensity. She offers warm words of encouragement, which I appreciate and take to heart. I also ask her about getting internet in my apartment, because even though I know my days are going to start becoming more fun-fllled and my free time is going to rapidly shrivel up to only evenings and weekends, I still like the feeling of being connected and the superabundance of information and entertainment that the internet provides. She assures me that she will ask Mia, who I have probably met in the past couple days but can't yet place a face to the name, to call the cable company and set up an appointment for me. "Just write down your address and bring it to the elementary tomorrow. We can take care of it then." Happy that I am becoming more permanent and proud of myself for my initiative (which I have been known to lack in the past), I reward myself by heading upstairs and stealing lunch from the hard-working lunch lady. I find a bowl and fill it with white rice, then cover the rice with some kind of broth and add several pieces of what appears to be chicken on top of this. This chicken pieces, however, include a large circular bone in the center, the bone showing the marrow from where it was cut on either end. As i head back downstairs, I wonder momentarily what part of the chicken this is from, then decide it is best if I don't know. I eat quickly and in silence, holding the small bowl close to my chin, my lack of profieciency with the chopsticks forcing me to spoon the rice into my mouth from point blank. I try the chicken, and it is slimy and fatty, but I eat it anyway for the protein. When I am finished, my lap is covered in fallen rice in spite of my best efforts, and I take my bowl back to the kitchen, wash it, and tell the lunch lady "thank you" in english as I leave. She either doesn't hear me or doesn't understand, for she makes no acknowledgment of my courtesy.

I walk back home, arms swingly lazily by my sides, the afternoon sun sucking up my energy and replacing it with a salty heat that squints my eyes and bakes the skin on my face and neck. I stop by the 7-11 and buy a giant bottle of water, drinking it as I walk the rest of the way to my apartment, not caring as the jolting movements from my walking causes some water to drip down onto my sweat-soaked shirt. Home at last, I strip down and jump in the shower, then sit in my underwear on the black vinyl couch, feeling the air close in around me and begin to draw the perspiration to the surface. Suddenly, I am extremely tired, and almost let sleep take me into its embrace of compacency before shaking myself back to life. "NO!" I mentally shout at the apathy and fatigue that is threatening to rip the consciousness from my body and rob me of my afternoon. "I have only been here a WEEK. I still have too much to see to be sleeping away all of my days!". With this I rise, put on shorts, a dry t-shirt, and flip-flops, and hastily leave the feeling of listlessness behind, disappointed, cursing itself for failing to recruit another convert. I have saved the day from the bloody jaws of incuriosity. It is time to go exploring.


  1. One day Mr. Tommy came into my life and I was never the same. A Taiwanese 4 year old.

  2. I keep trying to envision what I would have thought as a little girl if a wildly energized foreign man came in to teach me his language.

    I can't decide if I would have been terrified or thrilled.

    On the one hand, my preschool teacher was a sweet little old lady who, needless to say, never threw ANYTHING at me, let alone balls of yarn. She was, however, named Mrs. Johnson, which I pronounced Mrs. Guh-nonson as I had a slight problem saying J's. So I guess if a foreign man would have come in to teach and began each class by yelling and gesticulating wildly, and his name started with a J, I would have:

    1. Pronounced his name wrong in a semi-adorable fashion and
    2. Probably started crying at some point due to the unfamiliar nature of everything that was happening.

    Then again, he may have reminded me of my dad, who often both gesticulated wildly and threw me and my sisters up in the air and on the couches for fun when we were small, thereby thrilling us and terrifying my mother - much to our delight - all at the same tims.

    As you can tell, it's a tough call over here. I'm leaning towards thrilled're a pretty likeable guy. :)

    Keep on keeping your senses up. I miss that about traveling so much!! It's like every taste and texture is branded on you for years to come.