Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Das Kapital ...the MUSICAL!!

Well as soon as I posted my previous post about the rising financial power of China I saw this article in the Gaurdian.
It seems China is planning to create a stage and musical version of Marx's Das Kapital. When I had to read that book for Polisci, the first thing I thought was's ok, but it really needs a chorus line.
It reminds me of the Simpson's episode where they go see the Itchy and Scratchy Musical.

Any government who approves funds to make a Das Kapital Musical can in no way be fiscally responsible. So please ignore my previous post; clearly funding a Marx musical is not a wise investment and China's monetary policy should seriously be questioned.

I can't wait to see who gets the lead as Marx...I think Kelsey Grammar would make a great Marx, but I'm not sure if he has the vocal range to carry the production.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Why I need to learn Chinese

I've been in Taiwan a long time now, and I've gotten comfortable here...adjusted as it were. But I do think back to when I first got here. People back in the states would ask me two questions:
1. Why are you going to Taiwan?
and 2. Do you speak any Chinese?

Although I couldn't answer the first one in any definitive way, my answer the the latter was always a serious None.
In the back of my mind however I always knew in some way why I decided to come here and how important learning Chinese would be. Although most of my friends and family thought I was nuts to come here, I think it was the best decision I've ever made. Realistically besides the life experience and adventure part of it, the only thing I will really gain for future career opportunities is the language experience. No one will look at my resume and say "wow you taught English" but knowing Chinese even a little bit will improve my chances in whatever capacity or field I end up in (Ideally the Human Rights field).
This has only been reaffirmed recently with the severe economic shortage. China's economy is stable, and not only that but they are owning more and more of our assets, this Times article goes into more detail.
Taiwan is technically in a recession, but recent talks with China have left the door wide open for more and more corroboration (economically as well as politically). Taiwan is still in a frenzy over the pandas they got from China, and the political party in power here now favors a more balanced partnership with China. Cross-strait flights are common. With Taiwan's number one trading partner (the US) weakened, and closer ties happening with China, perhaps stronger economic ties will take place between China and Taiwan.

The problem as I see it, and one that has been explained in the first article, is that as China begins to invest more and more in our economy and more importantly in Taiwan's (as is inevitably going to happen) that they are going to want to have more and more input into both country's economic affairs. And with so much capital flowing into either country....the posturing China can do will have significant affects. With all this capital investment from China (which will undoubtedly be the next great power, and no doubt aspire to imperial aspirations just as the UK and US have done before); we can be held hostage.

As a hypothetical....let's say that a resolution regarding the political status of Taiwan comes up for a vote in the Security Council. Now as a staunch supporter of Taiwan, the US would be expected to support Taiwan. But the threat of China pulling its ownership out of several companies if the US fails to vote a certain way; is bound to influence how the US will vote. Especially since we'll be licking our wounds from this economic crisis for a long time to come.

Granted this is all a hypothetically improbable situation, but dozens of similar situations are bound to happen. The weaker our economy, the weaker Taiwan's will be; the weaker Taiwan's the more they will seek cooperation with China; and the more interaction between China and Taiwan , the more decades old political hostilities will be renewed (especially if there ever comes a time when the US's support of Taiwan waivers).
Let's hope the China/Taiwan issue doesn't become the new flashpoint for the establishing of a new world power.

Happy St. Patrick's Day !

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bearcats Baby!

On Saturday the Binghamton University Bearcats Men's Basketball team clinched the America East title, for the first time in its history. For those of you who don't know about Binghamton University, it is an upstanding institution located in the heart of New York's failed manufacturing belt, a city long forgotten and ignored by globalization, whose major manufacturing industries have left years ago to find cheaper places to produce goods. The University itself has a proud tradition and includes such notable alumni as Paul Reiser, Tony Kornheiser and one of the Baldwin brothers (no not Alec, ummmm OR Steven, but the most underrated actor of our time Billy Baldwin). Our alum also include someone named:
Sean Kenniff. Who, according to wikipedia is a doctor, medical journalist and appeared on Survivor: Borneo
That's impressive....I guess.

The Bearcats were a lowly division III program until 1999 when they moved up to division I and maintained a level of mediocrity until this year when they finally (as the number one seed with home court advantage) defeated the defending America East Conference Champions the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) Retrievers. I think as a rule of thumb, the longer your university's name, the worse your basketball team is. Duke, UNC, UCLA are all pretty short and really good. Anyway I'm really excited for this amazing victory, but I'm less excited that as a reward for our hard work, we now have to play Duke in Greeensboro North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA tournament. I'm a pretty optimistic guy, but I wouldn't put a lot of money on an upset here.

Sorry this post was a bit of a detour from my usual in depth commentary on Taiwanese culture; the next post will be about something Asian...I promise.

*In case you're wondering what a bearcat actually is a funny looking animal found in the jungles of China, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.
It is a species of the family Viverridae, which includes the civets and genets. It is neither a bear nor a cat, and the real meaning of the original name is lost, as the local language that gave it is extinct. When cornered, the Binturong can be vicious. The Binturong can make chuckling sounds when it seems to be happy and utter a high-pitched wail if annoyed. The Binturong can live over 20 years in captivity; one has been recorded to have lived almost 26 years.

Also The scent of Binturong musk is often compared to that of warm popcorn [3] and cornbread.
My musk actually smells like cotton candy.

Watch out Duke, playing you in NC, seems like a good way to corner the bearcats. Expect some viciousness.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Grass Mud Horse

saw this article in the NY Times and thought it was really interesting. Basically some people in China created a weird video and cartoon about a "grass mud horse". It looks just like an alpaca and sings a stupid song about fighting evil crabs....Nothing really noteworthy about that except that the word for grass (csao) mud (ni) and Horse (ma)....mean something very obscene when said in a different tone...let's just say it means something ______ your mother.

Again not really noteworthy except that this is a subversive form of protest against the Chinese censors, who have recently clamped down on most forms of criticism against the government...

The Times article is really fascinating and the video is also but only when you consider what the words really mean...



I got an email from my boss today, saying (only a day after I dropped my classes) that the financial department has decided to not fine me for missing my class because I "am a responsible and effective teacher"
She went on to say that she will still like to discuss me dropping my classes later on.
That's very sweet of her and I'm relieved they decided not to fine me...but it's time for a change.

I'm still going to drop the classes, gonna try and find some private tutoring and see what happens. Clearly they want me to keep teaching but I think I need an upgrade and need more time to study and what not. I've switched my Chinese classes to 8 AM....8 to 10 AM everyday. This way I have all day to study more and really learn the language. But the teacher I have this semester is not as fun or encouraging as my first teacher. She teaches in a very Taiwanese style which basically is just repeating words over and over and over and over again. I really don't think this is an effective way to teach as after a while all the sounds just seem too similar. My old teacher by contrast would encourage us to talk to our classmates and practice the words that way. She taught using a more visual approach which is how I think I personally learn best. Also the teacher is from Mainland China, and it's a little tough because her accent is a lot different. In China they use a lot of ER sounds at the end of the words.
For instance to paint is HUA HUA....but she makes us say HUA HUA-R its an ugly sound and tough to deal with...

more updates to come, if only to keep Danny occupied and out of trouble.
In re: to Daniel's comments, yes I will write more...and yes they will all be exciting entries.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

droppin classes

I think my previous post needs a nice little wrap-up. My school decided that despite my doctor's note and my almost perfect attendance record AND the fact that all the students at my adult school love me....they still wanted to fine me.

So I did what any self respecting, prideful NYer would do....I wrote them an email the next day saying I would be dropping half of my current class load. Maybe it was a bit of a rash decision, but you can't treat employees like that. My decision was only made easier when my director told me that the sub they found for my TOEFL class on Saturday wasn't as good and that right after the class all of the students complained to the director that I was a better teacher. Xie Xie.
But the point remains, if I am such a good teacher, why treat me in such a demeaning way? Why fine me even though I have a doctor's note and have never been absent before? Not a smart way to run a business.
In one month I'll drop half my classes. I still have my kid's school (which gives me my ARC, health insurance and actually treats me really well) I'll be ok money wise. This will give me more time to study Chinese (the only thing that will benefit me when I get back to the States) and try to find some private tutoring. After discussing it with my roommate, I realized that I could easily make up the lost wages from the adult school by doing private TOEFL toturing. There are cram schools everywhere....and I think if I just stand outside one of them handing out fliers...I should be able to get some private students. I could probably spend one night handing flyers outside of any number of cram schools and hopefully get a few an added incentive I'll offer the first hour half price. And since I've got my ARC with my kids school, I still have a garunteed income if I can't find students. I know what I'm doing now and can pretty much teach any I figure I'll charge the same rate I was getting paid at the adult school (which is about half as much as students have to pay to take classes in a cram school) and then I can get some students.

In other news Taiwan (or Chinese Taipei as they must be called when playing in international sporting events....thank China for that one) lost in the World Baseball classic in humilating fashion. First losing to Korea 9-0 and then losing to (of all countries) China 4-1. Also the 7-11 on my corner just closed down....not sure which is worse, but regardless it is a sad time in Taiwan ...


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Small price to pay for a sick day

Here in Taiwan things aren't always as clear cut as they are back state side. I found this out on Saturday when I pulled, what I thought was, a pretty routine ploy, something that has become a staple in our American culture....from way back in the days of elementary school, to whatever shitty job we may be working now. The plot line for countless teen dramas, movies and probably a dozen Saved By the Bell episodes;........Calling in sick.

As American as steroids in baseball, or purposely mismanaging hedge funds,...calling in sick is part of our dishonest history. A widely accepted lie that is told by the lowliest worker to the manager and other higher-ups. Calling in Sick is the most basic yet widely accepted form of out right dishonesty, with fewer side effects than taking 'Roids. The boss knows whats going on, and when you return to work they'll always ask how you're feeling, but we both know the deal.

I ask you who has not pulled off that magical early morning call into work, "I'm sorry but I won't be able to make it in today"; perhaps accentuated with a perfectly timed fake cough or sniffle.
I personally have called in sick when I was 1. hungover 2. wanted a four day (instead of 3 ) weekend, 3. to go to a casino and finally because it was a nice day and I wanted to sit in the park and read....all legitimate fake sick days...

...but Taiwan apparently hasn't gotten the memo. Unlike the US, vacation and sick days are UNPAID (Shocking I know). Not only that but apparently we English teachers are such commodities that if (in my contract anyway) we call in sick less than four hours before our class starts, we get fined double our hourly rate. Basically if you have an unexcused absence, for say the four hours I was supposed to teach, I don't get paid and OWE the school 8 hours of my pay.
You think the UFT would put up with those rules? Not bloody likely....

It is in this context that I decided to call in sick Saturday. I was up late Friday night, and it was pouring when I woke up to go to work. Now bear in mind I haven't called in sick at all since I started working in July. In fact I only have taken 3 total days off...(even working Christmas and New Years Eve). So one would assume my loyalty would have some influence. Not so here in Taiwan...
I called my boss when the school opened at 10AM. I told her I was throwing up all night and just threw up and couldn't make it in to work ( a pretty standard excuse). Instead of concern for my safety, she asked if I could come in and teach my 3 hour TOEFL class. Well no, I just threw up (rule #1 of calling in sick is don't get caught alla Zach Morris at the LA Dodgers baseball game)...and there'd be no way I would be well enough to make it in. I'm sure the students would understand.
Her response:
"well you know we'll have to fine you, I mean rules are rules. And since you didn't give us enough notice that'll be 9 hours of pay."
Me: "well technically I gave you more than 4 hours notice for my class that starts at 3 o'clock, so it will only be 6 hours of pay, and I'm planning on going to the doctor later on too"
Her: "Well you'd better have a note, or you'll be fined. Good bye."

Well thanks for the sympathy.

SO I headed over to the traditional Chinese medicine office on my corner. Filled out forms, described my symptoms to the sympathetic doctor. He took my pulse, told me to drink the Taiwanese equivalent of Gatorade, take some medicine and take it easy. Thanks Doc, but one more thing before I go, (and here I was scared I'd be found out) "I need a note for my job, can I get one here?" "Of Course I'll tell the nurse".

Note in hand, some funky powdered Chinese medicine, and a smile on my face, I headed back home to make the most of my sick day.

When I got the note translated from Chinese to English.... it read as follows:
"He should rest for three days. He is very seriously ill and should not under any circumstances work for the next three days"
Sweet. Thanks Doc. Like Screech to Zach Morris, or that goofy looking guy who followed Ferris Beuller around, every fool proof sick day needs an accomplice. Someone who is willing to keep the lie up. This person is usually a little nerdier (as to lend some credibility to the claims) than the protagonist, but the best case scenario is to get someone to help you out who has an air of authority (as with my wonderful Doctor). The nerdier, more prestigious the accomplice, the better. Doctors are pretty good, government officials slightly better.

....and thanks to my health insurance it only cost me the US equivalent of 6 dollars. (3 for the visit and 3 to buy the powdered medicine)

It's good to know Traditional Chinese doctors still adhere to the fake calling in sick policy. Perhaps this idea is much more pervasive and ancient than I had thought. Perhaps the tradition of calling in sick originates from Confucius himself.

Tomorrow (Monday) is the day of reckoning though, note in hand, smile on my face, I'll march into the office and make my case. We'll see how it goes...


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Under pressure...

Since my 25th bday I've been feeling a bit homesick. Nothing too bad but the work load (Kid's classes, adults and Chinese classes) have been wearing me out. And Taipei itself has been too much lately. I'm used to the hustle and bustle, hectic pace of New York, in fact if I'm in a place where I can't hear cars honking or driving all through the night, I feel strange. Those are the soothing sound which help me fall blissfully asleep. BUT that being said there's something about Taipei that's just TOO hectic.
There is a constant rush; a kind of competitiveness, crowds infused with capitalism, shopping malls infused with fast food. People infused with this ingrained mentality of always be the best. Its like consumerism on Roids. Its too competitive, too consumerist, too cutthroat. TOO MUCH PRESSURE. Especially to learn English. No matter what age, 5, 11, 25, 45...if you don't know or speak English here you're viewed as someone less intelligent, or rather less respectable socially. And it's disgusting.
You see it with the kids the most and that's where it's really heartbreaking. No playing outside no reading for fun, just hours and hours and hours in English cram schools. Pressure constantly (if one of my students doesn't get a 95 on every test he has to only do hw, no computer games until he gets over 95).
And lately I've found myself getting sucked into it. I hate that I'm the bearer of these kids' misery and add more pressure to them. It's not fair.
It's just assumed that you should work and compete as hard as Taiwanese people. It's not healthy (especially for the kids). All the stress, pressure, competitiveness..... eventually it's going to have to be released somewhere. It's really palpable the pressure here, even for foreigners. I find myself getting angry more easily, and feel more stressed here than I did in the NYC subway.
Many of my students are constantly stressed and get frustrated so easily when they can't pronounce simple words.
According to this article, some of this pressure is finding a release through the rise in teen suicides:
Taiwan's suicide rate in 2007 was 19.0 deaths per 100,000 people. Which is very close to Japan, which ranks second behind Russia among industrialized nations' suicide rates. Korea, Japan and Hong Kong also rank in the top 15, but many of the countries above them are not industrialized nations.
This article from the BBC is a bit more disturbing:

It mentions a new form of suicide taking place within families in Taiwan where due to any number of factors, the parents will kill themselves and their children. And although still relatively low, these events have been increasing, especially amidst the economic crisis.

Taiwan has recently dropped into a recession after the major trading partners (basically the US) have decreased demand for Taiwanese products. Since Taiwan is a particularly export heavy economy, and since exports account for a really high percentage of overall GDP for Taiwan....the demand for exports has significantly dropped; the most in several years.
In January exports dropped 40% from 2008 and there's no telling how much further they'll drop..... The economic crisis, the intense pressure, can only compound the current suicide problem in Taiwan.

Clearly some combination of cultural norms, pressure to conform, high expectations from parents and bosses, hyper capitalism and the fact that 23 million people are crammed on a very tiny island.....with a population density of about 20,000 people per square mile (in Taipei) and the world's second highest population density with 623 people packed into each square mile(2nd only to Bangladesh):

something's got to give.

the result is a noticeably stressful, chaotic and hectic environment. Couple that with the high suicide rate, economic downturn, the cultural aversion to seeking help (as it is a sign of weakness) and the pressure on children to learn English at any cost; and you have a pretty difficult place to raise your children.

The result is....well I just feel terrible being a part of this pressurized system to learn English (more so for my kid students) and would rather enrich their knowledge about world events, funny stories or inspire them to learn in another way...however the system which I'm placed does not have a lot of wiggle room for individuality and emphasizes conformity. It's a tough place to be a middle class 11 year old, especially if you struggle with English. English .......and more accurately some combination of English and Capitalism, is seen as the Holy Grail, the key to a better economic life, the key to a higher social status, but as we've seen from the Wall Street collapse in NY and the financial crisis in London, speaking English is by no means a prerequisite for understanding markets, improving economically or even lifting yourself out of this vicious cycle of pressure and competitiveness. English isn't the golden ring or the be all and end all.....but somehow here it is the key to improving your social status, to move you from middle manager to manager....but the cost is clearly damaging. It's a shame.

Granted learning English can .....maybe help open doors to study at international universities, or pursue more advanced degrees, but at what cost is this achieved? Pressure on children from age 3 until 21 and onwards until adulthood, is consistently so intense that the suicide rate is one of the highest in the world..........this hardly seems to be worth the supposed advantages you would get.