The meanderings of a recovering ex-expat with the occasional identity crisis
In the ’90s, teaching English in Taiwan was as easy as getting piss-ass drunk on cheap beer and mistaking every stranger in the bar for someone you know. The Taiwanese didn’t travel abroad as frequently as they do now, and fewer native English speakers were teaching in Taiwan. But parents still sent their kids to English school, because it was trendy.
As a recent University graduate without any experience, I could make US$15 to US$30 an hour teaching English in Taiwan. To an English Lit major who frequently bought her clothes second-hand at Value Village, this meant I could finally buy things that didn’t smell like cat piss or old ladies with emphysema.
At one point, I was privately tutoring two Junior High girls, while teaching Intermediate and Advanced English classes at the downtown YMCA. None of us teachers had any formal training. We were given uninspired textbooks and simply told that our students had to pass a test at the end of the course.
And just as the first and last rule of The Fight Club was to never talk about The Fight Club, I was told that the cardinal rule of teaching English was to never translate a new English word into Chinese. I had to describe new words using a combination of English and Marcel-Marceau-esque miming.
My two classes couldn’t have been any more different from each other: the Intermediate Conversation class was filled with rowdy high school seniors, who had the attention span of gnats with ADD. The female students wanted to know enough English to land and keep Caucasian boyfriends and the male students wanted to know enough English to impress the female students. Kind of self-defeating, but it kept the enrollment up.
Teaching the Advanced class was something I fell into. The previous instructor – a Brit and self-described thespian – left his job in a big huff, after the Program Director had shot down his idea of teaching Shakespearean plays that started with the letter M: Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and so on.
We missed the Brit, who was a laugh factory: he would often come up with limericks on the spot and recite them in the voice of Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth, or someone from Monty Python (usually John Cleese):
There was an old man from Peru,
Who dreamt he was eating his shoe.
He woke up one night
in a terrible fright
and found it was perfectly true.
I was knock-kneed scared of following in the Brit’s footsteps and teaching working professionals who were much older than I. But the Advanced class students were more engaged and interesting than the high-schoolers. After a while I looked forward to my classes and learned a lot from my students.
As was often the case with these classes, there was a huge female to male student ratio. And inevitably an Alpha Male – informally elected by adoring female students – would emerge.
In the Intermediate class, the Alpha Male was Andy Chung – a metrosexual-looking man in his late teens. Andy resembled Aaron Kwok, the hottest male singing and acting sensation out of Hong Kong at the time, and knew it.
Andy, the Keh-mo sah-bee, usually lounged at the back of the class with his Tonto, sidekick Toby Wu, surrounded by a harem of swooning females, who’d find some excuse to bring Andy little gifts on the pretense that the English class – or life in general – was simply too overwhelming for him.
Andy… my mom just made these meat dumplings. They’re the best. There are red plums inside. They’re good for your chi!
Andy, did you try the muscle salve I gave you last time? Are your legs feeling better?
Ohhh, Andy! I have notes from the last class, Andy, if you want them. I can make you a copy.
Because of his immense popularity with the ladies, I was completely blindsided when Andy asked me to help him write a letter to attract the attention of a girl.
“You want me to help YOU write a letter? To attract the attention of a girl?!”
Andy kind of laughed, shrugged, and looked guiltily at his scuffed up Doc Martens.
“I don’t understand why – is this a girl in OUR class?”
“Heh…heh…ummm…yeah….uh, you know, Olivia. Olivia Wang.”
“Olivia Wang?! Are you SURE? Don’t you mean Olivia Chao?”
Olivia Wang was one of the few female students who had zilch interest in Andy. He could’ve been toe jam for all she cared. They’d never even spoken. Olivia always sat at the front of the room, directly in my line of sight, prepared for class, had her hand up to answer every question, and was my best student.
Despite this I avoided Olivia, as she had a tendency to accost me after class with obscure questions about ergative verbs and other grammatical things I’d never even heard of. Olivia, a Taiwanese, was writing the Great American Novel about her incontinent Chihuahua, Pipi, who may or may not have been real and may or may not have had a a testicular problem.
Olivia tried to show off her knowledge of English by writing long, rambling sentences joined by countless misused conjunctions, dependent / independent clauses, semi-colons, colons and commas. It was like walking through a house of mirrors with rooms of varying ceiling heights. All the rooms were asymmetrically decorated in a mishmash of different styles and colors. And every room would have a number of doors that led nowhere. Once you were in that goddamn house, good luck on finding your way out.
Olivia Chao, on the other hand, was already an Andy groupie, but tried not to show it openly. Olivia Chao was the Alpha Female to Andy’s Alpha Male. Nobody could dress, look, nor smell better than Olivia Chao. All Andy needed to do was exhale in Olivia’s direction and she’d be his girl for life.
But who the hell was I to tell Andy about love and romance? At the time, I was dating a Korean, who could barely speak Chinese. The only English words he knew were Susan, beer and hot. Maybe not enough for a long term relationship, but at the age of 21 drinking lots of beer and telling your girlfriend, Susan, repeatedly that she’s hot could keep even the most doomed relationships going for months.
I had even less knowledge about love letters. The closest was in the third grade, when Teddy Prost, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed kid, gave me a note which read, You walk like a duck! With a hand-drawn picture of a mangled, cross-eyed duck.
Later, Teddy started a tradition by trying to kiss me behind the dumpster at school, while I was playing Black Beauty Hide ‘n Seek with friends. I was furious, because that was one of the rare times I was Black Beauty instead of deadbeat Ginger, and Teddy was giving my good hiding spot away with his loud lip-smacking and whining. Plus, I was convinced Teddy wanted to make fun of my duck walk by mock-kissing me. We both ended up in the Principal’s office.
My obliviousness to most guys’ advances started with Teddy. Guys – fearing rejection and ridicule – may approach me in a Teddy-Prost manner: giving back-handed compliments, feigning disinterest, casually flirting, or giving mixed signals – but suddenly profess an infatuation so strong that I’d feel like I was hit upside the head by a two-by-four. So, even though I found Andy’s love letter idea fishy, I supported his wanting to express his feelings clearly in writing.
I told Andy that I wouldn’t write the letter for him, or even translate his Chinese into English. He had to write in English, and I would correct the spelling and grammar, or suggest alternative phrases and words.
After a few revisions, this was the final letter:
We have been in the same class for some time, but I’m always afraid to talk to you. You seem very smart. I hope you won’t laugh at my English letter. My English isn’t as good as yours.
Sometimes I try to catch you after class, but you are busy talking to Teacher Susan (Note: This is the respectful form in addressing a teacher in the Chinese culture). When I see you in class, it makes me happy. If we have a class together that day, I wake up thinking about what you will say in class. At night before bed, I think about what you said and how you said it. It is childish to have a silly crush on you. But I guess I just think about you often.
Your smile is very pretty. Although you are serious in class, I saw you laughing once when you talked to your friend. I wish I could hear you laugh more. It sounds very nice.
I don’t know what you think about my letter. But I hope you will give me a chance and talk to me sometime. Maybe we can see a movie together?
Thanks for reading my letter.
After I gave Andy the final draft of the letter, I noticed the women were not fawning over him the way they used to. It was as if a spell had lifted, and the women suddenly noticed there were other guys in the class besides Andy. Olivia Chao started making puppy eyes at Toby. Margaret, another student, kept passing notes to Steven, a quiet, studious student, who usually kept to himself. And all the while, it seemed Oliva Wang was unfazed, carrying on as before.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer and one day asked Olivia Wang, whether anything out of the ordinary had happened to her in class the last few days
“Nooo…but do you mean the assignment from last time? I’m sorry I didn’t write as much as I should. I promise to do better next time.”
“No, no, no that’s not what I mean. Did you, uh, receive any letters, or anything like that?”
Olivia Wang looked at me quizzically. “Nooo. What letter? Did the school send me a letter?”
After the next class Olivia Chao approached me. She looked flustered and sheepish.
“Teacher Susan…I…would like to ask your opinion about something. It’s a little ah, embarrassing…um, I don’t know if it’s what I think it is. My English – isn’t so good.” She gave me a piece of paper.
It was Andy’s letter to Olivia Wang, but signed by Toby and addressed to Olivia Chao.
“TOBY gave you this?!”
“YES! I-I-I never expected this…I mean, I didn’t think his English is so good! I never thought much about him, frankly. But his letter is very sweet, right? He seems like a nice boy, doesn’t he? I mean…I mean…can you tell me if my understanding of this letter is correct?”
After Olivia Chao approached me with the letter, a few other female students, including Margaret, also asked me about their letters. The letters were the same, but the signature and the addressee were not. And none of the letters was signed by Andy, nor addressed to Olivia Wang. I was beyond furious.
I was beyond furious, but had no idea how to handle the situation properly. Andy was obviously peddling the letter to the other male students for a profit. He’d really put one over on me. More importantly, he’d made a mockery of the sweetness and sincerity that the letter conveyed to all women who received it.
Calling him on this in front of the class would destroy his reputation, but it would also devastate the real relationships that have resulted from the letter. Even though the letter was fake, the emotions it evoked were real. The guys who had paid money for the letter obviously liked these girls and wanted to impress them. I was too embarrassed to approach my colleagues; my helping Andy to write the letter was crossing the line between teacher and student. I also felt foolish for being part of such a juvenile thing.
As this was going on with my Intermediate class, I was prepping my Advanced class for their final test. Since I was much younger than my students, I felt I had to dress “older”, so that they would respect me. For someone in her early 20s, this meant donning an all-white woolen suit with detachable, genuine fur cuffs and collar. With the ensemble I’d wear white tights underneath my too-short a-line skirt and a pair of beige or off-white pumps. I looked like a cross between an over-the-hill Rockette and a Yeti with mange. Perhaps sensing the tackiness of the outfit to which it belonged, the fur was jettisoning itself, coming off in bunches, sometimes giving me sneezing fits during class.
There was only one man in the Advanced class – Benedict Chang – who was about thirty years old. Being the only male, Benedict had to perform all of the *guy* things, like moving a desk, or cleaning the blackboard every day before class – all of which he did readily and with a big smile. The female students, who were married, would give Benedict a hard time about being unmarried. If Benedict wore a new shirt, he’d be teased mercilessly about having a date after class. But Benedict took it all in good stride.
Before class Benedict and I would chat about how different our experiences were, growing up. I didn’t have many friends besides expats, so it was interesting to learn more about the Taiwanese culture through Benedict. We also discovered that we had quite a bit in common, despite our different upbringing. Benedict and I also had the same wicked sense of humor.
One day, when Benedict wasn’t in class yet, one of the female students suggested that I should date Benedict, whose family owned a tea plantation in the high-mountain region of Taiwan. Indeed, Benedict sometimes came to class with a few bags of high mountain Oolong tea for the whole class to sample.
Though the thought was flattering, dating Benedict wasn’t really on my radar. I was much more concerned about getting through each class without screwing up and making sure that my clothes weren’t shedding. Besides, a teacher dating one of her students was a phenomenally bad idea. I was also focused on making enough money, so that I could go to grad school in the States. Staying in Taiwan was never part of my plan. Taiwan was a different world that I just couldn’t get used to. I was also pretty sure that Benedict, with his intelligence and attractive personality, had no shortage of dates.
One day after the Advanced English class Benedict approached me with a package.
“Um…Teacher Susan…so sorry to bother you. I know you are busy. But I brought you some high mountain tea for you from our plantation. It has just been processed. Very fresh and from the finest stock. You…you seem very tense these days…This tea is soothing and will not keep you awake at night.” He handed me the package. “But probably you should read the letter inside when you get home.”
I accepted the parcel with the dread of someone who has just discovered she’d eaten cottage cheese that was two months past its expiration date. I wasn’t sure whether to run to the bathroom and puke, or wait for the cheese to run its course.
Although I’d dismissed the idea in my head as being idiotic and irrational – we barely knew each other – a part of me hoped that Benedict would express his interest in me in that letter. It wasn’t just because it was nice to have an admirer and have my ego stroked, but it was better, because I also felt the same way about him.
Dear Teacher Susan:
I hope you don’t find this letter too surprising, but I have been thinking about writing to you for some time.
My English is not very good. At least, I hope you will not fail me from the class, because of my poor letter writing!
We do not know each other well; however, I can see from your teaching that you are an intelligent woman, who is also very patient. You always try to explain a new English word without telling us the Chinese translation, and this makes us learn more. I’m very grateful for your teaching and my English has improved because of you.
I know that we are different people. You grew up in Canada and are foreigner, while I am Taiwanese and have never been to Canada. I also think that you prefer to live in Canada and are not used to things in Taiwan.
In the Chinese culture, drinking tea is the chance for friends and families to get together, no matter how they are different. When we drink tea, we talk about things in common and have good times. We do not worry about those things which makes us different.
The Chinese tea ceremony is also very important for the children to respect their elders and for new married couples to respect their parents. So for the Chinese, tea creates harmony.
I hope to have the chance to have tea with you some time. I would find that very enjoyable and I hope you will also.
I feel like an idiot to write this letter to you. I scold myself for being so juvenile. You are a teacher and I’m just the student, and probably you don’t feel the same way. Don’t feel too pressure to answer me. If you don’t answer, I can understand.
Student Benedict Chang
For some reason, Benedict’s letter gave me the courage to finally confront Andy. I didn’t even wait till after the next class. During class, I practically dragged Andy out by his collar and told him that, if he didn’t return the money to all the guys who’d bought the letter, I’d not only call him on it in front of the class, but would also file a complaint with the YMCA, who would consider his expulsion and revoke all of the coursework he’s done so far. (This was all BS, of course; the YMCA doesn’t care). But Andy was scared out of his moronic, metrosexual mind and got the message.
As for Benedict, I spent hours writing a response to his letter, but couldn’t bring myself to give it to him. In class, I thanked him for the tea and the “nice letter”. I had my response in my Advanced class folder, but always found some last-minute lame excuse not to give it to him (ie. Running to catch the bus, talking to someone after class, teacher’s meeting). Benedict’s demeanor towards me didn’t change, but he stopped coming to class early, depriving me of our chats. I was a sad, as that was the part of the day I looked forward to the most. And I didn’t even realize it, till it was gone.
After the class ended, I took a job as an English Secretary and quit my job at the Y. But I still kept the letter that I wrote to Benedict. It just didn’t feel right to throw it away. On the other hand, it seems silly to have kept it. What’s the point? I don’t know. Maybe I’m still waiting to give it to someone someday.
Thank you for the tea and the letter. I was very stunned but flattered. I had a feeling you might send me such a letter, but I still don’t know how to respond.
I enjoy seeing and talking to you in class. Even though we are from different backgrounds, it is kind of strange how much we have in common. I always look forward to the next class, so I can see you and chat with you again. Even though I’m the teacher, I feel I have learned a lot from you. I especially enjoy hearing about how you grew up on the plantation and your years as a rebellious teenager.
It is true that we are far apart in many ways and the future is not clear. But I like your idea of just having tea first. Sometimes we think too far into the future and worry about the problems we might face, when we are not even there yet. We forget to enjoy the present and the moments we are having now. We are always too ready to see the differences and obstacles and not the possibilities.
If your invitation still stands, I would love to have tea and learn about the Chinese tea culture from you. It would be a nice change from coffee.
Dating Susan for Dummies