Ricky Doesn’t Comb His Hair

I’ve written about some of the issues Taiwan has related to race and ESL eduction and I try to carry the flag in bringing awareness to this problem here in Kaohsiung, but alas there is still work to be done.

I recently came across this in one of the textbooks I teach out of:

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In this particular book the characters are visiting New York and apparently saw fit to visit the Bronx where you can see black kids with afros and cornrows break dancing in the street, every afternoon.

What was probably a guileless attempt by the school (one of the larger chain schools in Taiwan that publishes it’s own curriculum) at introducing students to different English speaking cultures (in this case, black American culture?), comes off as uneducated and offensive. I’m surprised that a company so obsessed with providing a well rounded learning experience could be so off base. This is a wholesale buy-in of the shitty American stereotypes that have made their way across the ocean and found new homes within the Taiwanese global psyche.

I stare at the pages in disbelief before thinking about how I can skip over this part of the dialogue, but the dialogue is an extension of the grammar pattern to be taught in the next section and will need to be memorized and recited. The kids will learn it whether I teach it or not.

I decide to have a quick conversation about what’s on the page. This is a class of eight to ten year-olds so I try to make it as simple as possible. I explain to them that despite what their book says, “Ricky” needs to comb his hair every morning just like they do. This is difficult for them to understand because they know Teacher Jay doesn’t comb his hair and as far as they’re concerned Teacher Jay is the same as Ricky: black and with hair different from their own. For my students there’s nothing separating blacks from other blacks (regardless of where their respective countries); just blacks from Taiwanese. So not combing ones hair becomes a defining feature of all black foreigners. This mistruth is then used to stress the grammar pattern being taught in the textbook:

Does Ricky comb his hair every morning?
No, he doesn’t
Does he dance every afternoon?
Yes, he does.

I see this and immediately think of the experiences I had on arrival while searching for a teaching job. Wrestling with the widely accepted view that blackness is this weird otherness that cannot survive outside of only being “the other.” There’s little difference between this and my difficulties finding teaching work the first few months on the island. In both situations, blanket stereotypes left unchecked have become the common truths from which to hang opinions. The end result is that people are only able to relate with those perceived as “other” through differences instead of through similarities, and in Taiwan, difference is sometimes met with adversity. Inserting these stereotypes into an ESL textbook is dangerous in that they become perpetual, further strengthening faux  truths for Taiwanese students about people who are different from them.

In arguments  conversations with other expats on forums and in person, I’ve fielded the opinion (multiple times) that nothing can be done about this; that there’s no use in trying to change local opinion; that foreigners have it good in Taiwan and I shouldn’t complain. That because most schools are only concerned with maintaining a revolving crop of eager English learners (i.e. maintaing a steady cash flow) they’re reluctant to change anything and reasonable complaints unnecessarily stir the pot.

Fuck that. When I open up a textbook and see something like this,

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I’m more inclined to curse someone out than reluctantly dismiss it as acceptable. I find it hard to believe I’m the only foreign teacher who’s seen this and thought it inappropriate, but it’d be easy to assume that few (if any) teachers actually voiced opinions about it.

That being said, I still believe the best attempt at  combatting these hiccups in intercultural understanding is through added exposure to the cultural facets of foreigners in Taiwan–instead of only the language (that the two are often separated is odd to me). Most of this shit comes from western cultural texts so I feel we shoulder some of the responsibility to help sift through the bullshit. Talk with students and coworkers about why it’s not acceptable to snicker or make snide comments about different types of foreigners, but also take the time to highlight cultural similarities when opportunities present themselves. If there’s an opinion or idea expressed that is based on a cultural untruth, set it straight instead of waiting until later to bring it up when you’re safely entrenched among other expats.

A little cultural respect goes a long way. We can start by speaking out and having more of it for ourselves.

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Southern Rap Marathon

lil_jon

The English cram school I work at likes to be thorough in their education methods. Everyday before classes start, while the students are arriving and milling about the front lobby and hallways, they pipe in all English radio via Sky FM. Doing so helps maintain the facade of an all English atmosphere.

It’s a sincere effort that comes up short. The students and the Taiwanese staff dismiss it as background noise. The songs being played overhead won’t be on this week’s homework and it doesn’t appear on a test therefore it’s largely ignored. It’s a shame because there’s regularly times when the music selection is quite good. I suspect that one of the assistants clicks a different station at random when the school opens.

What this means is that I’m able to jam out to the likes of Boys II Men and Mariah Carey on Monday, followed by Cee-Lo Green  and The Roots on Wednesday. It’s long since become a normal occurrence to catch Teacher Jeremy in full sing-a-long mode while lesson planning in the teachers’ office. The playlists are that damn good.

Even with the varied and noteworthy music selection, I’m shocked when I hear Lil Jon and the Eastside Boys’ “Bia Bia” blasting through the speakers as I’m prepping my lessons the other day. The song is halfway finished before I realize  it’s the uncensored version. Naturally I figure someone downstairs will eventually hear the “fucks” and “shits” coming from overhead and change the station, but two songs later when Crime Mob’s “Knuck if You Buck” came on, I decide it wise to mention something to the Taiwanese staff.

“Are you listening to the music?” I asked one of my co-teachers. She seemed confused by the question.

“No. Why?”

I let her know that the music being played contained a heavy dose of naughty words, to which she tells me that it’s fine because the students just tune it out. In other words: disregard the extremely profane language on the loudspeakers even though you’re at an English cram school full of children.

I return to my desk to finish prepping lessons but I can’t help thinking about the possible unseen consequences of an afternoon-long southern rap-a-thon. The students may not be affected, but what about me? I listen to rap music regularly and just about every song being played is also in my iTunes library. Who’s to say I don’t accidentally let one of those explicit lyrics loose in the classroom? I’d hate to be known as the foreign teacher who told a kid to “fuck dat shit!” because he fudged a verb conjugation.

Alternatively, Who’s to say one of the older students (who relish opportunities to learn and incorporate slang and swear words) isn’t able to pick out a few choice words that he’s heard before on TV or the internet? Now I’m forced to explain to my advanced class what  “let the sweat drop down my balls” is referring to.

Normally I might embrace such an opportunity in the classroom to discuss counter-cultural aspects of the English language, but in this case it’s probably more trouble than its worth. Some of my mid-level students sill have problems recognizing present progressive. I’d be skeptical about them being able to wrap their heads around “twerking” or say, “pussy poppin.”

“…but teacher why she standing on her head?”

I also wouldn’t want to deal with the fallout that could come from students incorporating heard rap lyrics into their writing exercises, particularly because I wouldn’t want to sift through the barrage of grammatical errors they’d undoubtedly contain. “Ima throw dis money while you do it wit no hands”  Isn’t exactly proper usage of future tense. It’d take me hours to correct the assignments and I’d be left with the feeling that I’m ultimately tutoring a group of rambunctious Hip Hop artist instead of my normal crop of Taiwanese high schoolers. I didn’t sign up for that.

By eight o’clock someone has switched the station to Top 40 and no one but me notices. No one but me cares. My last class of the night is about to start and no one but me realizes the ESL clusterfuck that was just avoided.

Since that day I’ve become more emboldened by the music at my school. The rap music has toned down a lot, but when its playing I sing along and try to keep a clear conscience.