January 19, 2010

Christmas in Taiwan - Part III

As expected, everything moves in a blur, which is what usually happen in life when we have too much to do and are desperately clinging to the moments that are dying faster than we can hold on to them. In the morning I shuttle my Kindies downstairs for one last dress rehearsal before their big debut, their costumes falling apart before the rehearsal even begins. They do not look good, but they also do not look awful. They look like they were outfitted by a 25 year-old boy who haphazardly pieced together 13 costumes using scraps and a skeleton budget. However, I think my effort is sufficient enough that none of my peers or parents will think me a slacker. Watching my kids take the stage, I can say without hesitation that my costume ideas were a little too ambitious, but at least they are SORT OF recognizable. Sort of…

The children deliver their best performance during rehearsal, and I am both proud of how far they’ve come and terrified that they’ve peaked too soon. However, I am mentally prepped for disaster: “Don’t expect too much” some of the veteran teachers caution, “once they look out in the audience and see their parents, they will either turn to statues or begin the waterworks.” But everyone seems moderately impressed with my class during rehearsal, and I have to keep reminding myself that the kids are only three and four years old; if they do ANYTHING at all, including vomit while singing (“Away in a manger no crib for a BLAAAAHHHH!”), it will be marked as a victory.

After morning rehearsal and lunch, I hustle over to Elementary to prepare for THEIR mini-recital which is to take place during school hours. This performance is much more sedate, and doesn’t involve costumes or elaborate choreography, just each elementary class singing one Christmas tune. We run through our song, “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” a few times to warm-up, then head downstairs to Miro’s small basement auditorium for the performance. My class surprises me with more showmanship than I have seen during our practices, and they are well received by the other elementary school classes. As soon as we exit the stage, I make an excuse that I have to use the restroom and slip upstairs stealthily.

Upstairs, I slide red felt pants over my slacks and stuff a balled-up sheet under my shirt. I put on the red felt coat and fasten my black belt over my massive belly, then put on the foot-smelling scraggly white beard/mustache combo and red felt hat. The transformation is complete: I am now Santa Tommy.

I grab my red sack (pillowcase) full of candy and creep quietly back down the stairs, the sound of children singing wafting up the tile steps and gradually increasing in volume as I descend. At the landing I peer around the corner, keeping out of sight. At the far end of the room the elementary students (somewhere around 60 or 70 students) are all gathered together on the stage, mumbling the words to “Oh Christmas Tree” as the foreign teachers half-heartedly flail around and point to lyrics written on a giant sheet of paper. The small collection of parents that have gathered to witness the performances and subsequent cacophony begin to notice my presence, and they swing their camera lenses toward my shrunken, partially hidden figure. Suddenly, I dash from my hiding place and take cover behind a support pillar, once again out of sight. I smile as I hear a few of the children start to squeal, some of them exclaiming in loud whisper “Santa! Santa!” I linger just long enough to inspire doubt of my presence, then quickly tip-toe Grinch-like to the opposite wall, where I crouch and vanish behind a Nikon-wielding mom.

At this point, all of the children are now in an uproar. “Oh Christmas Tree” has been completely abandoned, and the students are all pushing their way to the edge of the stage to get a glimpse of the mysterious man dressed in red. I burst forth from my hiding place with a startlingly loud “HO! HO! HO! MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!” and jollily waddle up to the stage. Chaos ensues as if I am the most recent winner of American Idol. Everyone is shrieking, tearing, pushing. “HO! HO! HO!” I repeat, and I suddenly realize that I have not rehearsed any lines other than this. Thinking on my feet, I shout “WHOOOO HAS BEEN A GOOD LITTLE BOY OR GIRL THIS YEAR?????!!” The stage erupts with deafening chorus of “ME!!!! ME!!!” I reach in my bag and pull out a handful of candy, then gently toss the handful into the rabid mass that is balanced precariously on the ledge that constitutes the end of the stage.

Terrible idea. The hoard of ravenous students becomes a monster of arms and clawing hands, emitting screams of glee and horror and it rips itself to pieces with its own greed. Another handful of candy goes into the air, prompting the children near the back of the mass to start maliciously shoving in order to obtain a single piece of individually wrapped chewy goodness. Friendships are carelessly cast aside and all humanity is lost in the quest for these priceless prizes. The stage begins to look like the deck of “The Titantic”, and the students on the edge can no longer hold back the force of the crowd clamoring for lifeboats. In agony the first wave of children plunge over the side of the stage, meeting their untimely demise at the hands of the auditorium floor two feet below. It is too late to stop the madness now. I continue throwing handful after handful into the crowd, fueling the frenzy to dangerous levels.

I see a small group of boys standing on the side of the stage, not partaking in the wonderful disaster. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” I shout at them and underhand several pieces of candy in their direction. Out of the corner of my eye I see Teacher Mia lunging to intercede, but she is too late. “They are being PUNISHED! They can’t have any CANDY!” she pleads. “Oh NO! NO! NO!” I yell at them, trying to correct my error. But it is too late. The only way to get the candy away from them now would be to tear it from their cold, lifeless hands. Oh well, it’s Christmas Time…Santa must have left his “list” at home.

Finally, my bag runs out of candy and Santa must make a quick getaway. I give one last “MERRRRY CHRISTMASSS!!!!” and dart up the stairs, out of sight. I change quickly into my “civies” and casually head back downstairs, where I am immediately greeted by a wave of pointing fingers and accusations of “Teacher Tommy is SANTA!!!” I am shocked! “WHAT!?!?!” I exclaim, my eyes wide in disbelief. “You mean Santa was HERE?!?! I missed him!?” Most of the older kids don’t buy it, but I can see some hope creeping into the corners of the younger ones’ eyes. Could it be? Did Santa really come to Miro?

My secret will stay safe unless somebody happens to get a whiff of my face. It still smells like feet…

January 13, 2010

Christmas in Taiwan - Part II

So here I am, the week of the Christmas Show, feigning composure while I try and figure out how I am supposed to accomplish all that is before me in such a short period of time. Luckily, I have been in this situation before. (By this I am referring to my last semester before I graduated from the University of Missouri, wherein I put off ALL of my final projects, including a massive 20-page Capstone paper, until two weeks before I their due date [I ended up writing just shy of 100 pages worth of research papers in this time]. I literally did not sleep or eat for two weeks; by the end my face was tanned and my eyes were scarred from the unholy glow of a computer screen. And, although the circles beneath my eyes took months to fade and the sugar-laden caffeine drinks eroded away my stomach lining, I somehow pulled it off. I consider it my greatest accomplishment, though completely unnecessary in light of the time I actually had to do all these things). Thus, I have learned that: a) for some reason, procrastination seems to work for me, and until something truly awful comes as a result of it, I will continue to embrace it, and b) everything always manages to get done, even if the task at hand seems overwhelming.

So I suppose I have not yet allowed stress to seep into and infect my carefree demeanor, but have silently begun making a mental “to-do” list nonetheless. Here are some of the high-points on the list:

1. The song I have chosen for my Kindergartners, “Away in a Manger” is far too short. Apparently the parents require at LEAST three minutes of adorable “standing on stage looking confused” video footage. Therefore, I have to figure out a way to lengthen it via audio-editing software. Thank God I own a Mac, hopefully GarageBand will afford me some solution.

2. When choosing this song I had envisioned a tiny Asian nativity scene, complete with tiny Asian donkeys and a tiny Asian “Angel of the Lord”. Yes, it would be disgustingly cute. However, in my planning I did not consider that I was going to have to MAKE all of these costumes. So now, while all the other teachers are mass-producing identical, matching reindeer costumes, I am trying to figure out how to make 13 individual historically accurate AND identifiable costumes while staying within our budget of $0 (that’s $0 NT for those of you who need it converted).

3. Last week, due to what must have been a brief stint of temporary insanity, I volunteered to play “host” for the Christmas Pageant, which responsibilities include but are not limited to: standing in front of a roomful of parents and informing them of what “act” will be next; trying to maintain some semblance of order as parents with three year-olds will most certainly be clawing their way to the stage in order to get a perfect shot of their child’s vacant-eyed mumbling performance; filling down-time by telling jokes/entertaining to an audience who, for the most part, does not speak fluent English; AND, last but not least, dressing up like Santa (Santa suit provided) at the conclusion of the show and asking the parents what they want for Christmas. I know, right? I though it was a joke as well.

4. “Well,” the Chinese Teachers reasoned, “since he is already dressing up like Santa ONCE for the Kindergarten Pageant, surely he won’t mind doing it for the Elementary School during THEIR recital either, right?” Of course not. Truthfully, I’d wear the Santa suit all day if the beard didn’t smell like feet. Anyone who has spent ten minutes with me knows I like to be in the spotlight, so even though I will act annoyed and put-out by this request, I secretly revel in it.

So, as the days get crossed off and the calendar counts up to Friday, I diligently whittle away at the jobs on my list. Our class’s song is digitally cut, copied and spliced in GarageBand, breaching the four-minute mark while avoiding adding any new words or choreography (thank God). Costumes are made with some combination of construction paper, tape, yarn, and ripped up bed sheets. A script is written for the Pageant, complete with terrible jokes that won’t be laughed at. I practice my Santa voice and “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

Finally, Friday arrives, and though I am exhausted I greet it with a feeling of anticipation. The day feels surprisingly festive as I enter the school on the brisk 60 degree morning. I smile and try to cling to the small Holiday concessions that faintly glow with the Christmas Spirit – The small, fake Christmas Tree in the corner, the colorful decorations on the front window, the Chinese Teachers with red bows in their dark hair. Christmas may be on life-support, but it is still alive enough to whisper its song. I breathe deep and mentally sturdy myself for the day ahead, excited for the madness that is infused into the Season…

January 6, 2010

Christmas in Taiwan - Part I

Many of the English Language Schools in Hsinchu have decided to celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December, which falls on a Thursday this year. Other less accommodating institutions will even have their Foreign Teachers come in on Christmas Day, effectively ripping from this holiday whatever joy was left remaining after homesickness had dwindled the Christmas Spirit down to mere embers. Fortunately for me, Miro International Institute has decided to be gracious to its poor, lonely English Teachers and give us Christmas Day off, leaving us with a three-day weekend to sit alone in our small apartments in front of the Christmas Trees we don’t have, listening to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” on repeat, weeping openly and drinking cheap wine straight from the bottle. I guess Miro doesn’t consider any of us suicide risks.

However, in order to make possible this extensive and well-deserved vacation of ONE DAY, we teachers will be required to pretend that Christmas actually falls on December 18th. This, as many of you may know, is a lie. This ignorance of our beloved Gregorian calendar also means that we are required to prepare everything needed for Christmas an entire week early. “You teach English to Kindergartners and Elementary students,” you say. “How much do you really need to prepare?” Ah, good-hearted reader; let me enlighten you on the proceedings:
* * *
‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through the school,
Children were screaming as chaos ensued.
* * *
“PLACES!” I yell once more, and my three and four year-old students look at me like I’ve just asked them to amputate their own toes using only our bright green safety scissors. “Teacher, we KNOWWWW” they groan almost in unison, and I curse myself for ever teaching them this useful yet incredibly annoying phrase. “I know you know!” I cry in artificially cheerful exasperation, “Just ONE more time, I promise”. They all stagger to their assigned X’s on the classroom floor, arms swinging deadly in front of them in an exaggerated manner as if sheer exhaustion had caused their appendages to go limp. Kids are awesome actors. I push play on the small CD player and the opening bars to “Away in a Manger” begin to play. The children sway haphazardly, failing to achieve the simple choreography that Teacher Yvonne and I have created. In seconds a chorus of child performers on the CD sweetly sings the opening words of the song, but is quickly drown out by the incoherent shrieking of my children who are not actually singing words, but only sounds that resemble words. Their faces contort in painful expressions as they force their voices into deafening registers. They forget all the choreography. Thirty seconds into the song Howie falls over for no reason at all, his oversized head bouncing off the floor with a “thud”. I look at Teacher Yvonne in desperation because today is Monday; we are nowhere NEAR ready for the Christmas Pageant on Friday, which will showcase our students’ talent (or lack thereof) for the other students, teachers, my principle, and most importantly, the tuition paying result-oriented parents.

The entire process of preparing for the Christmas Pageant does not sound nearly as difficult or time-consuming on paper as it actually is. About a month ago the Foreign Teachers were told that we needed to select a song for both our Kindergarten class and our Elementary class (or classes) to learn and perform. For me, that is ONE song each – two songs total. “Piece of cake” I thought, and began searching both the internet and my memory for songs that I thought my kids in each respective class would enjoy. Picking the song for elementary song came easily enough: First, there was much less pressure to impress with my elementary class, as the performance would be low-key and during school hours, thus only being witnessed by the other students, faculty, and a handful of stay-at-home moms with video cameras. Secondly, being 9-11 years old, my elementary students had a fairly good grasp on English and I therefore didn’t need to worry about choosing a “level-appropriate” song. I settled on “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” which was upbeat enough to be difficult but not wordy enough to cause mumbling or frustration. I think this pick was met with as much approval as a ten year-old can muster when told that he has to memorize a song in a different language. (Remember learning “Silent Night” in German? I do. What’s the German word for “suckass”?).

Selecting a song for my Kindies was a little trickier: First, I had to make sure the song was easy enough that the children could, maybe, actually learn to say some of the words, as parents and administrators would certainly be listening with sharpened ears, judging my performance as a teacher based on my students' ability to articulate and pronunciate. Any repetition of phrasing was vital to this point. Furthermore, the song had to have words that lent themselves well to some movements or choreography. Lastly, and most importantly, the children had to look as cute as possible while performing the song, as the Pageant would be held in the evening thus allowing every known relative of every single child to be in attendance. It was, we were warned, a "Big Deal". Taking all these factors into account, and after much deliberation, I decided on “Away in a Manger” for its slowish tempo, its repetition of the phrase “Little Lord Jesus” and the eased at which I could come up with simple hand-gestures to illustrate lyrics like “asleep in the hay” and “no crying he makes”. At the time I was proud of my selection, and confident that I could make it into a hit. But in the coming weeks my self-assuredness began to wane, and it became apparent that I had made an awful mistake...

January 3, 2010

Christmas in Taiwan - Preface

A few weeks ago, Dad wrote me a short email asking me how things were going, making sure that my financial, mental, and emotional states were all in harmony and that I was not yet becoming mired in regret or homesickness. I assured him all was well; I was still enjoying my experience here, and my desire to be reunited with my friends and family had not outweighed my intense longing to satiate my lust for adventure, growth, and exploration. He ended our correspondence by warning that the Holidays are always the hardest part about being away from home – at least, that’s what he remembered from his time spent abroad in the Dominican Republic and points beyond.

I took his cautioning to heart, especially knowing my propensity to sway toward a “grass is greener” mentality and my past bouts with seasonal-affective disorder (self-diagnosed, of course, and never to the degree of requiring medication – at least, I never thought so. Past friends and girlfriends may claim differently). However, I was also confident in my ability to keep my head up and grind through the lonely Holiday season, as this is not my first Christmas away from home. Last year, I spent the winter in Keytone, Colorado, starving to death in one of the most beautiful places in the world. As is consistent with other negative experiences in my life, I tend to blot out the bad memories and romanticize only the good, but I do remember these points about my Colorado Christmas: 1) Giving, literally, my last $20 to my friend Baz (Australian, my best friend in the Stone) to cover my share of Thanksgiving dinner, which was comprised of tuna sushi, mash potatoes from a box, and a giant turkey. After dinner we crowded into Baz’s undersized dorm room and played drinking games, pretending it wasn’t actually Thanksgiving and we weren’t all away from our families. 2) My girlfriend at the time Stephanie coming to visit for Christmas time. I couldn’t tell you what we did or where we went. I just remember it felt nice to not be alone, but that feeling was overtaken by the shame of being too broke to buy anyone anything for Christmas, including her. 3) For New Year’s, I fell asleep at 10:45 p.m., before the Ball even dropped. I had no money for booze, no one to kiss, and my prospects for the Upcoming Year were looking bleak and directionless.

So, although my Holiday experience last year was viewed in a generally negative light, I had made it through with my sanity and shreds of dignity. This gave me hope for my second Christmas away from my family. After all, this year my situation is significantly improved from my destitute days in Colorado; I now have money, I have better friends, and I have reached a point in my life where I am genuinely excited to be where I am. However, I am also learning not to underestimate the impact being in a foreign country, and how removing myself from the familiar can take a larger toll than just the pangs of grief that being physically separated from the warm glow of loved ones can create. In Colorado, at least Christmas – in all its beauty, pageantry, and commercialism – still existed, and there was some comfort knowing that the good tidings of Christmas were surrounding me even if my family and friends were not.. It is not nearly the same here, as it seems like the Spirit of the Season has been surgically removed, leaving a lifeless travesty, a hollow shell. Going into the week before Christmas, the debate is still raging in my mind: Is it better to be immersed in the essence of Christmas Time but to do so in isolation from the people that give true joy to the Season (as I experienced in Colorado), or to simply bypass the Christmas Spirit altogether and half-heartedly celebrate a shallow reflection of a holiday that barely resembles the Christmases in my childhood memories (as things seem to be in Taiwan)??? While the conclusion may not be reached anytime soon, I only hope that the loneliness here will not cast a pall on my memories of this country and this experience.

I go into the week before Christmas feeling optimistic, but having armed myself against the inevitable tinge of sadness that always seems to accompany the cold weather and the shortened days. I know others, even in the presence of warm fires and warmer hearts, are experiencing some of the same sadness as me, a sadness that can’t be fixed by presents or proximity to those we love. At the very least, I know we are in this sadness together, even if we are apart. It is our job to fill this emptiness with whatever we can hold on to…

(to be continued…)