K-Town Paparazzi

Photo by Funkypancake CCL 2.0

Photo by Funkypancake CCL 2.0

One of the schools that I work at is next door to a hair salon.  A long while back a co-worker tells me that a stylist at the hair salon saw me in a different part of the city. I tell my co-worker I’m not exactly hard to miss in Kaohsiung and stand there for a moment thinking there’s more to the story. There isn’t; someone saw me somewhere, that person thought my co-worker should know and my co-worker thought I should know.

The whole exchange didn’t make much sense until last week when, after finishing my classes, one of the T.A.s asks me if I have time to stop by the hair salon before I go home for the night.

“They want take picture of your hair.”

I head over and a stylist sits me down in her chair and confusingly eyeballs the small black ropes hanging from my scalp.

She speaks very little English but starts asking me how it’s done.

I grab a tuft of my hair and think of how I might explain dreadlocks in Chinese, but with my limited vocabulary the best I would be able to convey is “head chopsticks,” and I’d probably still screw up the requisite tones. Instead I scribble “dreadlocks” on a piece of paper and tell her to Google it.

Using her cellphone, she begins taking pictures of my hair from every angle imaginable and asks (through the use of Chinese, broken English and hand gestures) what products I use. Not knowing how to convey “organic lock and twist gel” I again consider using my Chinese skills to say something that might vaguely translate to “head glue” before sheepishly pointing to a bottle of shampoo on a nearby shelf.

I get that she probably wants to offer dreadlocks to her clients some day, but I’ve just finished teaching. I’m not really in the mood to explain how it’s done nor why it will take a helluva lot more effort to create the same hairstyle for someone with thinner hair than mine.

I’m just about to leave when she tells me that it was actually her friend who saw me before. The hair stylist knew it was me because of the Facebook message her friend sent with my photo attached. She swipes around on her phone and shows me a grainy zoomed-in photo (a la TMZ) from nearly a year ago of myself and several friends sitting outside a 7-11 drinking beers. I’m not even remotely aware that I’m being photographed.

“Is it strange?” As she asks the question I realize I’m not doing a good job of hiding the stupefied look on my face.

A complete stranger shows you a photo of yourself that looks like it was taken by a stalker? Fuck yes, it’s strange.

I think about it on the way home and it starts to bother me. Isn’t it rude that someone would take an unsuspecting photo of me then share it with someone else as if to say “look what I found?” Wouldn’t it be better to have at least asked my permission first (something that happens frequently) instead of acting like a creepy paparazzo lurking in the shadows of 7-11? Am I being too sensitive?

I’ve since thought that maybe I’m not being fair. The incident was weird and mildly intrusive, but had I not been shown the photo, I would’ve gone about my business ignorant to the fact and thus un-nuanced by it. Effectively, there would be no reason for this blog post.

Thinking about it within the context of unabashed Taiwanese photo glut, one could assume this is business as usual, as many Taiwanese rarely miss an opportunity to whip out their cellphones and click away, regardless of how mundane the subject.

A latte during breakfast–click.
A dog wearing a miniature jacket–click.
Each and every meal consumed at a restaurant–click, click, click.

While I personally question the need to photograph any of the above examples, it doesn’t surprise me when I see others do it. Tis the norm in the R.O.C.

Why then, is it bothersome that someone covertly took a photo of me because of my (scarcely found in Taiwan) appearance? Couldn’t there be a western equivalence of this given the proliferation of a click-share-discuss culture ushered in by Facebook, Instagram, Hipstamatic, Picstich and the like?

A quick scroll through my Instagram posts reveals that I have indeed taken photos of at least five people without their knowledge or consent, but the purpose of these photos is hardly based on a person’s appearance so much as a humorous situation (a toddler riding in a remote controlled miniature sized Audi and a man sleeping next to his scooter) or a t-shirt with a cheeky message printed on it (“COMME des FUCKDOWN”).  Would these be considered on par with my 7-11 portrait?

I’m having a hard time figuring out if this is simply a cultural difference in photo etiquette or if I truly have reason to find fault in what was likely meant as a harmless gesture of curiosity.

Drop a comment below and let me know what you think.

 

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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.

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.

What the Duck?

photo

Kaohsiung’s massive rubber ducky at night.

Last weekend I wanted to check out a Cafe near Kaohsiung’s Sihziwan bay, but plans had to be aborted.

The streets near our apartment were impassably clogged with vehicles containing people hell bent on seeing the 60 ft. yellow duck floating in Kaohsiung Harbor.

The duck is the work of Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, who has exhibited different versions of the childhood favorite in several countries around the world. In 2009 it was on display in Osaka Japan and it caught the attention of Kaohsiung city government officials including Mayor Chen Chu who–after hearing the duck would make a showing in Hong Kong–sent Hoffman a letter to persuade him to bring his duck to Kaohsiung.

You needn’t only search to hashtag, #rubberducky to see that the duck has been well received in the countries that it has visited, but Kaohsiung has gone absolutely crazy over this thing.

The duck was officially unveiled on September 19, as Typhoon Usagi was expected to hit southern Taiwan. The typhoon barely dusted Kaohsiung City and more than half a million people showed in the first week to get a glimpse of the floating giant.

500,000 people.

What exactly is the cultural relevance of a rubber duck? Remember Ernie from Sesame Street? He proclaimed his love for a rubber duck while taking a bath and the yellow fowl instantly became the symbol for bath time, but I doubt Hofman is taking his duck around the word in an effort to promote global hygiene. Do they even watch Sesame Street in the Netherlands?

Since the beginning of September everyone’s been looking to get their share of the $30 million in revenue the duck is estimated to bring in. Every 7-11 in Kaohsiung is selling small replica ducks and duck cups and duck hats and duck pens.  Bars and restaurants have put up duck decorations and have begun selling duck memorabilia, and some places have added duck inspired items to their menus.  The city has begun selling taxi tours that take in all of Kaohsiung’s sites before stopping to check out the yellow beast. Vendors near the pier sell  balloons, hats and other duck inspired souvenirs. Even the guy who usually sells peanuts in front of our apartment building has suspended his nut sales and is now offering 4-packs of miniature rubber ducks. It’s not the authorized merchandise you’ll find on the duck’s official website, but it doesn’t seem to have affected his sales.

Duck inspired birthday cake.

Duck inspired birthday cake.

Hoffman says his duck is meant to spread happiness around the world, but a comment he made for the Associated Press makes me question if he has other motives as well:

“This big rubber duck in your harbor, in Kaohsiung in this case, changes Kaohsiung. And it changes also your fantasy and your brain. And it’s a piece of art.”

My hope is that this is nothing more that artist jibberish, otherwise it sounds like Hofman is trying to induce all of Kaohsiung with a psychedelic animal fetish.

Whatever his intentions, some Taiwanese have wasted no time in comparing their duck with one currently on display in Beijing–also created by Hofman. Duck fetish or not, he may have just helped Taiwan stick it to China.

Taiwan’s duck is not only taller than the one in China (and second biggest in the world), but event workers in Kaohsiung have figured out a way to inflate their bird in a fraction of the time that it normally takes. In China visitors must pay to gaze at their duck whereas here in Kaohsiung it’s free of charge 24 hours a day. Both ducks had test runs before their official debuts, but the duck in China had a hard time staying inflated during it’s opening week.  Taiwan: 3. China: 0. Just saying.

It’s easy to poke fun at this for all of it’s whatthefuckery. Having a 60 ft. rubber duck parked in your harbor is certainly newsworthy, but is it really worth the hype? Is it worth battling the crowd and the heat to see a freakishly large piece of pop art? Can this even be considered art, given the amount of commercialism it’s drenched in? Are the aesthetics lost in a sea of cellphone photos and duck balloons?

Honestly I don’t know that any of these questions matter. The duck is a hit in Kaohsiung for the same reason that selfie foam art would’ve been a hit had it came to fruition: Taiwan is fascinated with displays of the quirky and strange, and if i there’s a line to view or partake in an weird spectacle, it only solidifies it’s legitimacy. That’s not a slam. If anything, Kaohsiung has turned it’s love for the odd into real dollars for the city. They can’t sell the official merchandise fast enough. On the duck’s website some items are completely sold out while others are waiting to be restocked. People have come from out of town to see the duck, so Kaohsiung hotels see a surge during it’s run.

Duck crazed tourist have an opportunity to take in other nearby sites as well. Glory Pier–where the duck is stationed–is a short walk or bike ride down one of the city’s bicycle/pedestrian-only paths to the Pier 2 art district. Go a bit further and you’ll reach Sihziwan bay and the beach. Go north along the Love river and there’s plenty of riverside parks and cafes to check out.

Clearly Kaohsiung has gone bonkers over this giant yellow duck, but at least the city has put itself in a position where it can benefit from the craze as much as possible. Really, Typhoon Usagi did nothing but help launch the duck to superstar status when it prompted event officials to suspend the exhibit for two days. A little drama just makes the fans love you even more.

The duck will remain in Kaohsiung until October 20, before heading to Taoyuan (10/26- 11/10) and Keelung (from 12/21). Should you want to see it in Kaohsiung head down to Glory Pier at night when there’s less of a crowd. There’s lights on the duck until midnight so photos are still possible.

Check out the Yellow Duck website for more info (Chinese and English) including a map with the location of Glory Pier.