The Powerful Powerless

Superhero-Kid

There’s a thin veil of power and control when teaching those who don’t share your same native language. Sudents might respectfully listen to what you have to say and maybe they can get the gist it, but inevitably there are times when the inability to articulate instructions in an understood manner results in mutiny: the students can’t understand you so they do what they want or nothing at all. This thin veneer of pedagogical influence is even more frail when dealing with toddlers and preschoolers– those cute uncalibrated snot buckets that I liken to miniature uncalibrated robots.

When hiring for teachers of young learners, many buxibans in Taiwan will ask about classroom management skills. This, I feel, is pointless. It’s easy enough to offer up some bullshit about a foul-proof method you’ve contrived to control thirty or so Taiwanese 5-year-olds whose English proficiency stretches little beyond  “Hello how are you? I’m fine, thank you,” but a more honest response might involve explaining how you plan to make an example of the first student who cuts up, no matter how minute the infraction. Answer a question without first raising your hand? Minus 100 stickers. You might send a kid home in tears (it took him all semester to earn those stickers), but the message–this teacher is not to be fucked with– will resonate with the rest of the class, and if you’re lucky, the entire student body.

Regardless of any class management method you employ, at a certain point the kids are so young and the language gap is so wide, that asking a non-Chinese speaking foreigner to brave such a classroom alone is about as useful for teaching English as plopping a group of students down in front of a stereo and cranking up The Very Best of 2 Live Crew.

I teach a very young group of students –we’ll call them the Tangerine class–and luckily I have a Taiwanese co-teacher to help heard them around and fill the lingual gaps during my 2-hour lessons. Eighty percent of the reason I’m able to teach anything is because of her. Among the twelve or so students that I see daily she is both a source for love and trepidation. They turn to her when they’re hurt and cower in front of her when they’ve done something wrong.  Her pet peeves are like draconian laws for preschoolers. Run a foul with her and you run the risk of being taken into the bathroom for “readjustment.” Every kid that enters returns teary eyed.

While my co-teacher is in the room the kids are as responsive and well behaved as you’d hope any preschool class of ESl learners would be. There’s always a few laggards, but my instructions are more or less followed and when I need to bring the class back to attention I can usually do so without strain. That’s when she’s in the room.

Believe me when I tell you that if my co-teacher is absent I’m vulnerable to student rebellion.

Eyes watching.
Ears listening.
Mouth quiet.
Hands nicely.

These are the classroom commands that are most effective on a good day. Beyond that, I got nothing. I know it. The students know it. After five minutes solo they begin testing the limits of my patience: the defiant nose picking, sprawling out on the floor, eating pocket lint. At twenty minutes I’m left shouting the same commands that ceased being useful ten minutes ago.  Eyes watching, ears listening…

Not all is lost, however. They comprehend and execute “put your book away” with lightning efficiency.

Some teachers employ “the look,” that stern face of dissatisfaction meant to scare students into compliance. With the Tangerines, there’s not a shred of logic behind this tactic. They only understand maybe thirty percent of what I say anyways. Instead of the “look” being synonymous with “Teacher Jeremy is serious,” they interpret it as “please keep screaming at the top of your lungs and continue playing with your saliva.” Maybe it’s a cultural thing.

As young as they are, the students are keen enough to understand that the control I wield over them is easily circumvented due to my lack of Chinese and their lack of English.  They agree that as a teacher I have at least a morsel of authoritative power, but beyond that I’m just the facilitator of  English games who is to be repeatedly contested or ignored in the absence of their more fearful lao sieuh.  The Tomatoes’ perception of me is similar to my perception of any substitute teacher I encountered in the seventh grade: You’re not my REAL teacher hence any interest I show in what you’re doing or saying is provided as a courtesy at best. Unless, of course, I start shilling out candy and Sponge Bob stickers.

Before leaning to ask permission to use the bathroom some of my students would get up in the middle of class and stare me down as they trudged slowly to the toilet, ignoring my every protest which helplessly morph from demands (“Kate,  you need to sit down.”), to denial (“Kate, you can’t just get up in the middle of class…”), before finally, acceptance (“Yes, Kate. You may go to the bathroom.”).

With each act of defiance the class grows bolder; my grip on the throne–looser.

This is often accelerated by attention spans that pitter out after about seven seconds. A microscopic dust mite crawling across the floor has the ability to derail a lesson at not even a moment’s notice. Again when my co-teacher is around I have no struggles in getting them refocused. If she’s gone however, and a few students decide to take a mental break (perhaps to admire the wrinkles on their knuckles), it might take ten minutes to get them back on course.

By then it’s snack time and they’ll have successfully orchestrated a thirty minute break from the strange looking teacher whom they can barely understand.

Alas, the struggle continues tomorrow and I’m nearly out of candy and stickers.

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Riding Escalators in Hong Kong

DSC_1583Hong Kong is awesome for people watching. You get a little of everything. Merchants and businessmen, international students, fashion models, expat teachers, wealthy retirees from all over the world, travelers and locals all moving about in a hurried, jumbled frenzy, in a mega city of just over 7 million.

Being the nosey person that I am, I hold a special affinity for good people watching. You’ll see someone and think “what the hell are they doing?” or “I wonder where they’re from” or “Damn, that lady has some fucked up teeth.” It’s wholesome fun for the curious soul.

If Hong Kong is the best place for people watching in the world, then the Central-Mid-Level escalators are its raison d’être. This series of covered escalators and moving walkways spans over 2600 ft. and climbs a height of nearly 450 ft. up Victoria’s peak–connecting the Central  business district to Mid-Levels, a tiered maze of high rise apartment buildings resembling Manhattan or Tokyo. The system carries an estimated 60,000 passengers per day.

I’d first read about the elevators while planning our previous trip to Hong Kong. They brought up images of 10-year-old me racing my brother up an escalator in the wrong direction or dance-walking at the entrance, before the conveyor belt turns into a step (yes, I was THAT kid.). Not that I planned on doing the same in Hong Kong, but I could. The escalators are included on many Hong Kong to-do lists, but few go beyond mentioning them as a “free” and “if-you-have-time” activity.

I viewed the Central-Mid-Level escalators in the fuck-yeah-I-wanna-do-it activity and let it be known that I wasn’t leaving Hong Kong until I saw them firsthand. This is even before I knew they had Guinness World Record status as the longest series of escalators in the world.

We’d reach a point in the day when a decision on what to do next had to be made and I’d float the idea of swinging by the escalators. My suggestions weren’t exactly met with enthusiasm, and I realize that a grown man excited about riding escalators is probably repulsive, but you needn’t be seeking cheap thrills to enjoy the Central-Mid-Levels. For one, the route (from Queens Road in Central to Conduit Road in Mid Levels) is lined with chill  bars and restaurants carved into buildings just out of arms reach from the escalators. Seating is outward facing so you can sip a cocktail or glass of wine while watching a never ending conveyor belt of people glide by–a sophisticated real life version of The Jetsons. Some establishments even place thigh high wooden tables in the walkway parallel to the elevators. The message: no need to sit;  just stop and have a drink. Brilliant.

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Hop off the escalators on Hollywood Road and peruse the nearby antique shops and art galleries. If you visit within the next couple of months, you can swing about the Graham Street wet market (Gage St. exit) for good photos and traditional seafood. Sadly market vendors may be closing down for the last time in March as the 170 year-old market will be demolished to make way for more high-rises. If you miss out on the Graham Street Market  you can still find a few vendors in the alleys and lanes around Wellington Street.

We make it to the escalators after a morning spent recovering from a night out in Lwan Kwai Fong and an afternoon at Chunking Mansion with its mob of Indian restaurant owners. We have time to kill before we need to meet up with friends in Mong Kok. I figure we’ll ride the escalators to the top and make our way back down on foot stopping for a drink or two and maybe checking out some antique shops, then catch the famous Star Ferry Back to Kowloon.  It’s 3:30 and theres a steady stream of people headed up, but it’s no too crowded; mostly tourists ascending through the narrow column of shop windows and loudly colored signs.

And the people watching is stellar.

On Shelly street two guys are exiting the elevator barefoot, wearing nothing but board shorts and carrying surfboards (still tethered to their ankles). My guess is that their were coming from nearby Big Wave Bay, but they could have at least put a damn shirt on.

There’s a guy jogging down the stairs in workout clothes near Cain Road. Helluva place to go for a run, buddy.

We decide to grab window seats at a small bar just as happy hour starts. People begin to pour off the escalators and onto bar stools and curbside chairs near tables that are just big enough to fit two drinks. It gets darker and Hong Kong’s iconic skyline begins to glow. A group of twenty-somethings is talking loudly behind us, two business men have beers at standing-only tables on the sidewalk and my Stoli martini is arctic cold. I take out my phone to snap an Instagram, then abort plan.

Another bar just down the hill has modestly priced mojitos and front row seats to the escalator. We give up on the idea of visiting antique shops. Cold drinks in the in the shade of skyscrapers is a powerful weapons against Hong Kong’s summer time heat.  I’m pissed we that we have to meet up with friends in an hour.

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There’s a family held up on the steps across from us. Mom has a glass of white wine, dad looks to be two or three beers in and their baby is happily kicking away time in it’s stroller.I contemplate riding out the rest of happy hour bar-hopping our way back down to Central. If only the drinks were a little cheaper.

The area isn’t as rambunctious as Wan Chai or Lwan Kwai Fong, but I was happy to take it easy and after a day of poking around the city.

My suggestion for the Mid-Levels: Do all your sightseeing and market scavenging early in the day then hit up the escalators in the evening (your feet will thank you).

Have a drink, people-watch the weirdos, grab dinner in SoHo (the area south of Hollywood road) and plan the rest of your night.

*Budget Tip: Drinks and food can get expensive. Swing by a 7-11 to grab snacks and libations, then park it on the large steps by Shelly street, just opposite Yorkshire Pudding. All the fun for half the price. For cheap(er) food options check the small alleys around the escalator exits and entrances or hit up the smaller concentration of bars and restaurants between Elign Street and Cain Road.

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How to get there:
Central MRT stop exit E2.

Keep in mind that the escalators only run uphill from 10:15 to 12:00 AM. If you’re too tipsy to make it back down via the stairs, Take the Green Minibus back to Central from Conduit road near the escalator exit or grab a taxi.