Thursday, October 19, 2006

Mt. Alishan, Taiwan

Early in October my school had testing for the students so teachers only had to work in the mornings. Because I don't speak Chinese much more than to give my address, buy bubble milk tea and say "I'm sorry," --- and I'm not a homeroom teacher, I got to take a day off right before the Moon Festival, also known as the Mid Autumn Festival. I decided to go on an adventure to Ali Mountain, 阿里山, as the locals know it. Mt. Ali is in the same county as Chiayi City, where I live. Because the area where I went to adventure, Zhongzheng Village, is 7,461 feet above sea level, it took hours to get there and the climate changed drastically during those 2 and 1/2 hours. As it turned out, I went even further up into the mountains to watch the sunrise at Yushan National Park on the following day. It was a wonderful experience, with a mystical beauty and a history going back thousands of years. Apparently, the Tsou aborigines were the earliest known inhabitants of the area. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, much of the cypress forest area of Alishan was logged. In order to transport the logs back down the mountain, a railroad was built. Today, that railroad is a huge source if pleasure to all who ride the Alishan train (including me). This is not your ordinary train or train track. I'm told there are only 3 of these narrow gauge railroads in existence in the world. While I took the bus to Ali, when I returned to Chiayi City, I took the train. A foreign teacher from Tainan City joined me in the adventure. That's probably a good thing. With my sense of direction, I would probably still be wandering around them mountain if Linda hadn't been along. Oddly, there was a school in the midst of the forest there..... maybe I could have gotten a job there teaching English. ;-) The whole time I was at Alishan, fog (clouds?) came and went. Back in the US, I never had much opportunity to spend more than a few hours in the mountains, or simply went through them getting from one place to another. So this trip seemed all the more mystical and beautiful. The temples and ancient trees scattered through the forests helped intensify the experience. One of the temples I saw in the forest, Tzuyan temple, has a Buddha which was a gift from king of Thailand to the Japanese emperor while Japan occupied Taiwan. It is said that the bronze statue is filled with gold dust. In the temple where the Buddha resides, is a garden with twisted vines and orchids. Much of the area still holds considerable Japanese influence, from the gardens to the temples and monuments, as well as the railroad itself and the cherry trees they planted after logging the cypress. If there was any possibility whatsoever that I thought this haven reminded me of America, it was completely forgotten when I came across the monkeys. Although not "tame" by any means, monkeys here will walk right up to you and extend a hand in hopes of a treat. I would imagine that people who explore deeper into the forest are able to catch glimpses of rare animals, birds, plants and other wildlife. I hope one day I can come back to Alishan and Yushan when I am more free to explore, but I will never be able to hike the steep trails or cover any great distance on foot. There is a Chinese legend which is listed in the Taiwan Insight Guide about the mountains here. Being a romantic at heart, I will take the liberty of quoting it here. "In ancient time, clouds and rain symbolized the mating of Heaven and Earth. It is said that a king of Sichuan made an excursion to Wushan, or Sorcery Mountain, where he grew tired in the middle of the day and fell asleep. He dreamed that a woman approached him and identified herself as the Lady of Wushan, saying, 'Having heard that you have come here, I wish to share pillow and couch with you.' When the lovers later parted, the woman told the king, 'I live on the southern slope of Wushan, on top of a high hill. At dawn I am the morning clouds; in the evening I am the pouring rain. Every morning and night I hover about these hills.'" Okay, okay, so that legend isn't romantic at all, is in fact rather sleazy. And just where would a mountain hiker come across a pillow and couch anyway? I do like the part about the woman being the morning clouds and the evening rain. We sometimes need fantasy to let us stop for a minute and look closer.... become those things which bring us joy and delight in the experience. If it takes a legend to cause us to pause and breathe in our environment, appreciate it on different levels, then let us share legends. Pictured here also is the Tree Spirit Pagoda, or Shuling Ta, as it is better known as in Taiwan.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Skipping ahead a bit...

So far I have not really mentioned my job here in Chiayi City. I haven't done that because I'm not sure I have it all clear in my own head about the job. I don't even know where to begin. I'm not even sure I can explain the job with any accuracy at all. I can give you the facts. I teach English as a second language to 557 students in 7th and 8th grade. I have between 18 and 20 classes per week. There are 38 students in each of the 7th grade classes (14) and 11 and 12 in the 8th grade classes. I am also supposed to have a class of Taiwanese English teachers on Friday afternoons, but frequently we have meetings instead. That isn't really a "class" as I am just supposed to talk to them so they can hear a "native" English speaker talk. That is sometimes difficult because I don't always have something to say and I am never entirely certain that the teachers understand that I am simply one American who has been a teacher in the Midwest for over 15 years. I don't represent all teachers in America and probably am not even "typical" in the way I think or in my values about education. Okay, okay.... if you are reading this blog you are probably laughing right not because you know me and you know that "probably" is a word I shouldn't have used in the previous sentence. I am not a typical Midwest Amerian teacher. When it comes right down to it, "typical" probably isn't a word that comes to mind when you think of me at all. But these people don't know that. To them, I represent America and I represent teachers in America. So... I take that responsibility very seriously and I take this job very seriously. What that all boils down to is that I am literally working my ass off trying to figure out what makes these kids tick and how to turn them into English speakers. At orientation, we were told not to expect miracles. If you recall, the name of this blog is "Why not?" And that should give you some idea of what my job is about. I get up in front of these 7th graders and "act out" their vocabulary. Try it sometime. Pick up a kid's book (early reader) and first act out the story. Then go back and act out the meaning of each of the "new" words. Remember, all of these kids already have words for every thing you are trying to teach them. Different words. What you are telling them is excess... added baggage to store in their heads, so you have to make an impression to make it worthwhile to hold on to that added term. "Groan" was a great one! Imagine 38 preteen and early teen kids all groaning at the same time after watching your dramatic examples. They are all taking this very seriously, too, hanging on to ever word or utterance. Those groans were sincere! And the best part is this.... none of the teachers walking past the classroom think a second thought about all the groaning floating out the door and windows! Ah, well, you would have had to have been there.... but here's something you might enjoy .... nap time! That's right! Nap time. Honest. I've been here in Taiwan since August 14 and I still haven't gotten over the "wonder" of nap time. Students nap. Teachers nap. Administration naps. Everyone naps. First time it happened I had been busy at the computer and oblivious to everything around me. I was working in the teachers' office. I got up, turned around, and was more than a little shocked to see all the teachers sacked out at their desks. Walking down the hall, peeking in the classrooms, my mouth dropped open to see all the students equally indisposed. Just last week during nap time a teacher informed me that we shouldn't run the copy machine while everyone was sleeping... it might wake them. Hee-hee. Probably around January I will be knocking some zzzzz's about 12:45 in the afternoon myself. I don't know how well that will go over back in the states when I return though. Another thing that really surprised me was the fact that there are no janitors to clean. The students do the cleaning themselves and the school generally looks very nice. Only once can I remember seeing any litter in the school yard and the hallways are often spotless. With 3,000 students, that is a real accomplishment. Hey, I did a nice job of avoiding to directly mention my "philosophy" about education, didn't I? And I've given no comparison of Taiwanese education to American education either, have I? Not really. I guess the cards are still out on that one. But at the moment, I will have to simply say that it is much easier to teach Taiwanese kids than it is to teach American kids.... at least from my Midwest school experience. That's a strange thing to say when I don't even speak the same language as the kids I am teaching..... but give us time. We will teach each other.