Sunday, 01 July 2007

Treeless City, Starless night...

It seems as if the standard of journalism in South Africa has plummeted to the same poor depths as the ability of it's politicians to see reason and think logically. One article that is of interest to Taiwanese and South Africans alike is a feature in "Die Beeld" written by one, Cobus Olivier. He spins a yarn that makes it hard to believe that he has ever been to Taiwan, let alone actually lives here. Seeing as he does live here, I expect he is merely pandering to the low expectations of his semi-literate readership. One quote that come to mind is the following:

Hier word koffie en tee koud bedien. As jy dit warm verkies, moet jy daarvoor vra.
Translation: Here, coffee and tea are served cold. If you want it hot, you need to ask for it.

Blogger doesn't have emoticons, but I am rolling my eyes. The entire article is written giving us an "insiders" view of Mr. Olivier's day. He goes on to state:

Die straat om die sirkel is besig. Aan die oorkant van die sirkel langs ’n klein boekwinkel is die bushalte waar ek die bus kleuterskool (werk) toe neem. Busse het geen nommers op nie, net ’n naam in Chinees geskribbel.
Translation: The street around the circle is busy. On the other side of the circle, next to a small bookstore, is the bus stop where I take the bus to Kindergarten (work). Buses have no numbers on them, only names scribbled in Chinese.

There is so much wrong with this single quote. The illustrious Cobus has just admitted to working in an industry that is illegal for foreigners to work in. Yes, foreigners do work in Kindergartens and they get away with it as it isn't really a law that is fiercely enforced or policed much. But this is now the second non-English first language speaking Saffa that has proclaimed to work at a Kindergarten. At least Cobus did so in Afrikaans and in a SA newspaper. The other fellow wrote it in his book (published in English and Chinese) on his Taiwan experience and is still currently working here.
As for the Chinese "scribbled" on the buses. He lives in Zhongli, which is a relatively small town. All major towns and cities have bilingual (albeit with questionable quality) public services and it doesn't take a genius to figure out which bus or MRT to take. Apart from that, like so many of this ilk that I've come across in Taiwan, he seems to live an existence apart from mainstream Taiwanese society. Living in a foreign (non-Taiwanese) bubble without engaging the society he's in the least nor attempting to acquire even the most rudimentary Mandarin skills. The type that stays, two, maybe three years on the island without ever really experiencing anything it has to offer, yet still being dumbfounded to find Chinese characters "scribbled" everywhere. This obtuse kind of existence never ceases to amaze me.

By die kleuterskool waar ek Engels gee, die Melton Kindergarten, storm ’n swerm skreeuende kleuters op my af. “Mr. Coby! Mr. Coby!”. Hulle noem my so, want Coby is die naaste Engelse naam aan Cobus waaraan ek kon dink.
Translation: At the kindergarten where I teach English, the Melton Kindergarten, a swarm of toddlers storm towards me. "Mr. Coby! Mr. Coby!". They call me this, because Coby is the closest English name to Cobus that I could think of.

Oi vey! So, apart from admitting to working in an industry illegal for foreigners to work in, he goes and writes the name of the school. Furthermore, and correct me if I'm wrong, Cobus is the shortened form of Jacobus, which is German, Dutch and Afrikaans for Jacob. Coby isn't even a name, let alone an English name (not to be confused with Kobe, as in Kobe Bryant the NBA star). In the tradition of English names, wouldn't it be better if his students call him Jacob or Jake?

Hier werk ek van 7:30 tot 15:30, met ’n uur en ’n half se middagete. Die Engels wat ons hulle leer is maar baie elementêr en as die Engelse woord nie vinnig genoeg opduik nie, gebruik jy sommer die Afrikaanse woord.

Op ’n dag vra een van die nuwe Chinese onderwyseresse by die skool vir my: “What does ‘mamparra’ mean?” Sy het gehoor dat die een meisie ’n seuntjie “mamparra” noem. Wonder by wie het sy daai woord gehoor?

Translation: I work here from 7:30 to 15:30, with an hour and a half lunch break. The English we teach here is very elementary and if I can't think of the English word quick enough, I just use the Afrikaans word.
One day one of the Chinese teachers at the school asked me: "What does 'mamparra' mean?" She had heard one girl calling a boy a mamparra. I wonder where she learnt that?

What can you say about that? Now I can already see some of the folks back home thinking, "Ag, te oulik! Klein japsnesies wat Afrikaanse woorde se." (Ah, how cute. Little Taiwanese saying Afrikaans words.) Well, bollocks to that. As if we Saffas don't have a hard enough time explaining to all and sundry that SA is in fact an English speaking country and that we (those of us who are first language speakers - not merely nominally bilingual) really are English, you have this gormless article openly admitting to having such poor English that he occasionally can't think of the English word, so he just teaches them the Afrikaans.
Now let's be clear here, the parents pay a goodly sum of money every month to have their kiddies learn the international Lingua Franca, not some bastardised version of it. It's no bloody wonder most of the schools prefer Canadians and Americans, whilst becoming very suspicious at the mere mention of South African nationality.

Our dear writer goes on to claim that they only teach very elementary level English. In my experience (and please note, I'm not claiming nor denying ever having worked at a kindergarten in Taiwan) this means one of two things. One, the school is crap and merely a money spinner. Two, our dear writer is crap and his English ability isn't up to the task. Perhaps it's more a combination of the two. I have known immersion style kindergartens (those where they have a foreign teacher from 7:30 to 15:30) to graduate 7 year olds that have reading abilities (if not speaking skills) at the same or higher level than kids of the same age in South Africa. In fact, where you have kids attending an immersion style kindergarten from age 4 to 7, you may have several students graduating with near first language ability. Granted, these kinds of schools are private and expensive, therefore this is rare but not unheard of.
But if the teacher's ability is so poor that he or she often can't think of the correct English vocabulary and needs to resort to his or her own first (no English) language, then I guess the level of English would be elementary and the children wouldn't benefit as much as parents paying a kings ransom in school fees would expect.

Wanneer die kleuterskool uitkom is die werksdag nog lank nie om nie. Nou is dit tyd vir klas by ’n “bushiban” – ’n naskoolsentrum waar die kinders ekstra klasse loop.

Dit is standaard vir ’n negejarige Taiwanees om 08:00 met skool te begin en dan tot 21:00 of selfs 22:00 besig te wees met skoolwerk. Dan sit hulle 21:00 die aand in my Engelse klas en ek moet hulle opgewonde maak oor ‘n vreemde taal!

Translation: After kindergarten the work day is far from finished. Then it's time for classes at a Buxiban - an after school centre where kids take extra lessons.
It's standard practice for a 9 year old Taiwanese to start school at 8am and to still be busy at 9pm or even 10pm. Then they sit in my English class at 9pm and I have to get them all excited about a strange (foreign) language.

And so the monster raises its ugly head to be identified. Please realise that this bloke is claiming to be working from 7:30am to 10pm Monday to Friday. That's assuming he isn't taking extra work on the weekends. Subtract 1 and a half hours for lunch and a further hour and a half for dinner. That's 11 hours a day. Let's just make it 10. That would give him 50 hours a week! For those who don't know, this is an enormous amount of teaching hours a week. Double the norm. Most of us work 25 hours a week, not including the odd private student on a Saturday. Apart from the fact that the kids (especially the little one) really sap your energy, there is at least some preparation to be done. Especially if you wish to do a good job, making it interesting and educational, not just acting like a circus clown for their amusement.
It then strikes me that this fellow is one of the (too) many who come here just to earn a quick buck and bugger off without really getting to know the island, it's people, it's culture nor it's language. Well, it takes all sorts, doesn't it? It's also this willingness to work absolutely crazy hours that actually has some schools preferring Saffa teachers. Furthermore, I realise that not everyone is interested in Chinese language, history and culture. But, what strikes me about all this (and which is underlined in his article in that worthless rag, Die Beeld) is that this fellow is obviously working such a rate of hours as to compromise his level of teaching. He even admits to this by clarifying his inability to think of certain English words and thus reverting to Afrikaans, further detracting from the actual goal of teaching English to non native speakers.

I guess this is why this article pisses me off so much. Not only is it pretentious and uniformed, but he makes all us Saffa teachers look like idiots and it's guys like this that trample on the very flimsy image we already have. The image of not really being native speakers, and therefore not really qualified to teach English within the ESL/EFL environment.
To Cobus Olivier, it's all a laugh. An article in Die Beeld and a jaunt overseas to hoard as much cash as quickly as possible at the expense of good teaching and the image of all Saffa teachers. However, not all of us are here in such a mercenary capacity. Some of us have vested interests in this country, and yes, even the ESL/EFL industry. Some of us have families here and need and wish to make this our home. A home for decades, not a few years.

Bier is wel duur, maar “pool” is verniet. Na ’n paar spelle stap ek laatnag huistoe. Die strate is nou uiteindelik stil. Bo my is die sterrelose hemel. As jy stip kyk kan jy drie sterre sien. Selfs ná middernag is dit veilg om in die hoofstrate af te stap.

Translation: Beer is expensive, but pool is free. After a few games I walk home late at night. The streets are eventually quiet. Above me lies the starless sky. If you look carefully you can see three stars. Even past midnight it's safe to walk in the streets.

How you can say beer is expensive in Taiwan with a straight face, I'll never know. In a bar a Budweiser or Heineken will cost you NT$100 (R20) for a 340ml bottle. However, the same will cost you a paltry NT$45 (R9) a any 7-11. A local micro brew or Taiwan Beer (draft) will go for NT$100 for a 500ml glass, also. Furthermore, this price has been constant for more than five years now. Working 50 hours a week earning anywhere between NT$550 (R120) to NT$700 (R160) an hour, NT$100 for a beer is a Santa Saver.
As to the stars, if I look out of my house on a clear night I can see the Milky way. I can easily see Orion's Belt and a myriad other stars. Two years ago I even saw Mars on its close approach to Earth. And I live smack in the middle of Tainan city. Were I to go out into the counties the view would be very much the same as you would see in SA.
And so, at least he ends his article on one point I'll agree with. It's safe on the streets, even past midnight. But it's far from quiet. Cars are still rushing around, scooters are humming off to their destinations, eateries are open and even whole families are seated at late night restaurants. If you go hungry in Taiwan, it's your own fault. You can find a place to eat any time of the day. This is the island that never sleeps.

For the entire article (in Afrikaans), go here.


jimmy said...

You think an industrial city like Chung Li will have the same amount of stars than a more remote area.Does New york show as many stars as the Nevada desert? Come on.Haven't you been to a pub in Taiwan adn paid exspensive for your drink.Maybe the author deosnt buy his beer in RT mart and drink it on the side walk.
Redo your comments guy. Blogs like yours can be interesting, but your critics should be fair.

Bismarck in Tainan said...

Tainan city is hardly remote, it's the fourth biggest city in Taiwan. And if the author of the original article wants to bitch about starless skies he should at least mention that it's similar to Johannesburg, Cape Town or (as you mentioned) New York if you live in a place like Chung Li. But his intent was to create an image in naive people's minds in SA that here it's somehow so strange that you can hardly see a star in the sky, unlike the "starry skies of Africa". Yeah, right! If you head out of the cities in Taiwan you can see starry skies, just like SA. So his "treeless city, starless night" header is misleading. I was pointing that out.

And no, I've never "paid expensive" for my beer in a pub in Taiwan. In the decade I've been here the price has remained constant. NT$100 for a bottled beer. Usually you can get a 500ml draft for NT$100, also. Some are more expensive, but that's true anywhere. Some brands are more expensive than others. But to dupe folks in SA into believing that beer here is somehow exorbitantly priced is ridiculous.

And who buys beers at RT Mart and drinks it on the sidewalk?