This was written by a Taiwanese English teacher in Hsinchu City (my hometown in Taiwan actually).
I thought the article describes so many things about Taiwan to the truest sense, and it also mentioned some of the reasons of why I started this blog, so I translated the Chinese version into English. View original Chinese text.
What, did we learn English for? Every time statistics about how Taiwanese did on tests such as the IELTS, TOEFL, or GRE are generated, voices of criticism and reflection swarm through the entire island. As an English teacher, I always feel guilty as if the statistics aren’t pretty enough is my fault.
We all know English is important. Taiwan is an island nation that relies on fluent networking to obtain trade opportunities with other countries. Taiwan is also a country with relatively small voice in the international community. We have to rely on powers other than China to provide us some form of diplomacy and arm protection. To us people of Taiwan, English is not just a sign of national competitiveness, but also one of the only few ways we can speak to the international community.
Yet, for what, did we learn English? I started to think about this question often. Mostly because of the 8 o’clock garbage truck incident. The neighborhood I live in is one of those near Hsinchu City’s most prestigious school district. National Tsing Hua University, National Chiao Tung University, National Hsinchu Senior High School, National Hsinchu Girls’ Senior High School, and quite a few junior high schools that produce competitive graduates are all close to the neighborhood. People living here are all pretty well-off in terms of social and economic class. They are also all very polite and friendly. Every day at 8, we would take out our trash to wait for the garbage truck at the alley while making small talks about our daily lives. The neighborhood magistrate would also take the chance to ask if anything needs to be fix, if a certain streetlight should be brighter, or if any cross section needs more traffic signs. All was well, and there really hasn’t been any significant problems. Until one year after the Lunar New Year, a family that emigrated abroad moved back to the neighborhood.
Every day at 8, same alley, still waiting for the garbage truck, the same people waiting for the tune “Modlitwa Dziewicy” to come close by. (*Note 1) But, after 2 minutes, someone started to curse. “What a horrible country this is, even taking out the trash can take so long!” Then, standing under her own air-conditioner, which happened to drip a few drops of water on her, she gave yet another tirade. “Taiwan is such a horrible place, even AC is bad!” At last, as the garbage truck approached the alley, she angrily turned on the spot, with a bag of trash still in her hands, and swung her front door shut with a loud “Bang” while yelling “I had enough! This would not happen abroad!” Then, in the next couple days, bags of trash started to appear at the alley in the morning. At night, the trash is usually rotten and smelled, or being ripped open by stray dogs and cats, causing trash to fly everywhere in the neighborhood. The neighborhood magistrate, with good intentions, tried to remind them that a dripping air conditioner could get her fined by the Bureau of Environment Protection, and was shouted out of the house: “Don’t you dare picking on me just because I lived abroad!” I later heard from the neighbors that that entire family was very well-educated, has high income, and applied for green-card to emigrate to the US a long time ago. “Their kids all speak really good English, taught by foreigners since they were in elementary school,” said a lady with the tone of admiration.
I started to think back: ever since I started learning English, the kind of people around me who can speak fluent English. At the Hsinchu Train Station, a crowd of students of NEHS (**Note 2) purposely talk to each other in English even though they know they are in Taiwan. A professor said that he can tell a person’s English ability by the way he/she says the word “frustration”. I was studying at the Department of English in Fu Jen Catholic University, and there was this “Taipei gang” with members who speak English like any other foreigners and who dress like foreigners too. A woman who ended up publishing a book on learning English, whose mother proudly praised her on TV, “my daughter’s English is so good, she even has a English accent when speaking Chinese.”
Did we learn English so that other Taiwanese people can praise us like foreigners? Did we learn English so that with perfect pronunciation, we would sound more accountable? Did we learn English because whatever is represented by the language is something high above? Or, did we learn English so we can turn ourselves into foreigners? Or, did we learn English so that, like my neighbor, we can live abroad and come back to sneer at people who follow the rules, to accuse them of being narrow-minded because they haven’t seen the world?
I have seen those NEHS students so many times, talking loudly on trains and being ignorant of other people who want to rest. That professor, always correcting other people’s pronunciation, made sexist or racist comments such as “ugly girls should shut their mouths” and “black people’s mouths are disgusting, but what can you do about them? They are from Africa”. My classmates in the “Taipei gang” made working and making money their priority. If you are ever doing any kind of group project with them, you are bound to do a whole lot by yourself, as they don’t have time to go into the library or provide any kind of constructive opinion. So they would always do the oral presentation part. But on the day of presentation, they are most likely absent because they stayed up playing mahjong for two nights in a row.
I also remembered that, back when my father was in the hospital, my mom would always call me to tell me that she couldn’t understand what the doctor is saying. I thought it was my mother that was hard to communicate, so I went home and found out the problem. The doctor that talked to my mother, who could hardly read, would mix in English phrases every two sentences, including medical vocabulary. So I stood there listening to his long explanation about what’s wrong with my father in Chinese mixed with English, and I replied, in English, to every single one of his sentence, one by one, all longer than his. He froze and was pretty much in shock. But, other than the sense of victory I felt after replying, I did not feel proud nor happy. Because I realized how all the other patients in the hospital were treated by this “big doctor from Taipei”.
English is important. But, have all of us been using this distorted mindset to flatter the language? I know a foreign professor. One day he said to me, Taiwanese ask foreigners a question a lot: “Can you speak Chinese” He was very confused when he first got here, because in English-speaking countries, the question would be: “Do you speak English?” To them, language is a habit for daily use, not some kind of special ability. So instead of asking “Can you?”, they ask ” Do you?” There was also another professor who often attend international conferences. His question was, how come scholars from Asia, when presenting their papers, would start the presentation with, “I’m sorry, my English is very poor”? To him, German and French scholars, with their German- and French-accented English, are by far a lot harder to understand.
Another professor from my graduate school one day started talking about some of his friends who moved abroad and who are also professors. He said that these friends of his have only one entertainment after moving abroad when they get together: to scold Taiwan for all of its horrible, underdeveloped things. Similarly, a senior colleague of mine who obtain a Ph.D in the UK mentioned to me that once someone asked him: “Why do Taiwanese people not complement Taiwan very much?”
What, did we learn English for? We emphasize the importance of start learning English early at every possible moments. We would love to have the next generation, who are hardly familiar with their mother tongues, all learn English. Under this education policy, it shows the disdain we have on our own culture, and perhaps we adults’ inferiority that comes from nowhere? We all say that speaking English means having an international perspective. But whoever said that really doesn’t know that much about other cultures or international politics, other than those they watch on CNN or BBC.
Really, what, did we learn English for? I keep wanting to answer this question ever since the garbage truck incident. So, one day, I spent an entire lecture talking, drawing, singing to discuss why we are learning English. We reached one conclusion: Taiwan is wonderful, so we are going to use English to help Taiwan to be more visible than ever. We agreed that, every time we meet a foreigner in Taiwan, we will tell him/her three wonderful things about Taiwan. Taiwan can still be better, so we are going to bring the problems with us to find answers around the world. Every time we are abroad, we have to find at least three solutions to solve Taiwan’s problems.
I wonder what solutions my students will bring back after this summer break?
*Note 1: garbage trucks in Taiwan play Modlitwa Dziewicy to remind people to take their trash out and signal their approaches.
**Note 2: National Experimental High School, a prestigious K-12 school in Hsinchu that also provides bilingual education for students in the English-speaking community in Hsinchu-area who either seek an American college-preparatory education or plan to transfer into the local school system.