Wednesday, July 11, 2007

the english geisha

Since coming to David’s English Center in Hsinchu, Taiwan to teach, I find I have come into my own as a man with a geisha’s heart. I have been assigned – so far, as of May 21st, 2004, three “private” students, or students whom I meet one on one. The first one is named Jansen, a garrulous and upright corporate number cruncher; the second is waiting for me to give him an English name, and the third, Linda, could not be more different from the two men. It is my sessions with her – her muffled speech and sudden, braying laughter – that convince me of my geisha heart.

The three could not be happier with my teaching. But in truth, what occurs is closer to the geisha’s service of providing conversation in polite, witty speech. The polite speech in question, of course, is English, which in its status as the global language enjoys greater popularity than its twin, the global government in Washington. This polite speech is quite different, of course, from the archaic, exquisitely feminine forms of Kyoto Japanese spoken by the original geisha. But just as it was the training of the practitioner which differentiated crude speech from refined in those pleasure chambers, so it is with me here in Taiwan.

I share a common language with Rich, for example. Rich is a happy-go-lucky Canadian who tends to jump high in the air when live music is being performed. At the Spring Fling (or is it Summer Slam?) held in Kending every April, Rich once stripped off his clothes and in the spirit of encouraging a festive atmosphere, made a running start and belly-surfed across a lawn of rain-wet grass. He wears knit caps, thermal underwear shirts, and rides a skateboard to class. While Rich appeals to a certain younger segment of students for whom English is, among other things, the language of rough-hewn, wild and crazy youth who bungee jump from 9 to 5, rave on weekends, and pray to icons of Kurt Cobain, their solid middle class parents seeking an international form of gentility will not find it in Rich. They will find it in me, so it happens.

Willy-nilly I find myself in the position of witty raconteur with an educated tongue, a friend for pay with better than average credentials. The high price tag that has fastened to me through no conscious effort of my own has made me a popular commodity, and what’s more, a respected one. English teachers in Taiwan are a dime a dozen, and to a person they are 40ish recent divorcees from South Africa, or recent college grads sporting thuggish goatees and tattoos. They find themselves incongruously standing in front of six year olds every morning singing, “If you’re happy and you know it.”

With my degrees from Stanford and Columbia, I am like a geisha in a provincial town rumored to have once entertained the Shogun. A mystique precedes me. The two degrees are social facts over which I exercise no control, and which I consider utterly external to my personality. In any case, it was far easier for me to get those degrees than a Taiwanese person purely by reason of the chance of my native language and education. But the mystique remains.

But the fact of greater relevance to my training is my upbringing in a family of nine kids, child number five and boy number one. I can maintain lively conversation with a toad, if need be, like my small-town beauty of a Mother. Time has mellowed me, however. I notice my mother fidgets and searches about for topics when caught unprepared by a visitor or a lull in conversation. I am calm.

With Linda I am most geisha, ears on razor edge and eyes trained on her face. I do not push her. But as soon as I comprehend her question, I gently and swiftly respond, voice soft, pen moving on paper. I am repeating my sentences, almost rhythmically drumming them into her without force. On one side of the paper I note her mistakes of speech: “They looking for workers can help do accounting,” she says, and I glance down, writing “They—looking for . . . workers can help.” But I do not stop nodding, uh-huhing. On the other side, where I write new vocabulary for her, I write “ongoing training.” At the end of the class I go over each mistake and new word, and photocopy it for her. Next time she will have typed it all up, with pencil noting points to clarify.

I cannot help respecting her. Her study is eminently practical, shorn of egotistical dreams of international travel, hobnobbing with Frenchmen in Greece or the like. She is focused like a laser on finding a job. Besides studying with me once a week, she is sitting through a weekend class on electronics for non-specialists, just so she, an accountant, can claim an edge of knowledge when applying to high-tech firms. Her clothes are utterly plain, her hair falling in two long pouffs on either side of her lifeless face. When she cannot answer something she begins tugging at her collar, scratching her neck, and grinning a big horsey grin that is quite disarming. I steady her.

I tell her she can remedy a lack of vocabulary retention by writing words on slips of paper, two a day, and taping them on the wall. She says haltingly she will just see them as part of the wall. I say she can tape them on the wall facing the toilet, where she will certainly see them every day. She laughs and I laugh with her. “As I know,” she says, “Americans often study Spanish.” I respond that this sentence is correct, but “as I know is a Chinese construction.

“Better to say, ‘as far as I know,’” I say, pen moving on the paper.

“As far as I know,” she repeats, nodding. I am all around her, a cloud of hummingbirds, minute, quick, precise, training her as much socially as linguistically. My personal feelings about her are not existent within the classroom – indeed, there are no such feelings. Her money has bought my devotion in one and a half hour segments; I provide it so the heart appears more important than the money, an illusion of closeness based on attentiveness. I am submerged in our interaction. I am a modern day geisha of the empire.


hktai69 said...

I just know you from:

I like your article. I'll come back often.

Anonymous said...

Simultaneously styling yourself as a 'geisha english tutor' while heaping scorn on the profession and your colleagues, you need to control your ego, you're living in a very small pond and its gone to your head. There are millions of us with multiple degree's and what university should have taught you is that your intellect is by no means unique. As for your pedagogy, it is woefully anachronistic {if your own description is to be believed} go out and retrain yourself in education if you want plaudits, perhaps you will realise that the bubble you are living in can be replaced with honest teaching ability.

ratbert said...

My point is not that my intellect is unique but that degrees -- not ability -- are commodities. Why are they commodities? Because Taiwan falls within the larger American empire. Far from pumping myself up, I am showing how I am merely a little cog in that political-economic machine. Why do I have these degrees? Because of the accident of my birth, in a privileged place -- no other reason than this. Maybe you did not discern this point in the essay.
I am not in any bubble other than the bubble of empire.
In any case -- I am not in a bubble of anonymity. Nor am I in need of attacking other teachers for my own self-worth. This essay was purely about my own feeling in teaching those three students. No doubt there are plenty of teachers better than me!
And my ego. . .does it need to be controlled?