Sitting next to the running track after teaching Taiwanese high school kids for two periods I look at the girls talking to the teacher in the shade, at the boys playing volleyball, at the boy sitting alone, starting out at what. I overhear a cluster of boys next to me yelling at their classmates, “Look at those misfits!” or “You’re done for!” or “Cut class!”; I overhear them mimicking an American speaking Chinese in undertones when I draw near, hear them wondering if I know Chinese. I see the boy alone get up and walk out of sight behind a building; the three alleged misfits follow him, and I feel an ache, an impulse to get up, walk over, take a look at what is happening, what is being done to him and by whom. I don’t get up. Up in the forested mountains I see the white tonghua have blossomed, big popcorn balls exploding across the slopes. They were just like that, bursting out white from the green, when I left four years ago to return to the United States.
I teach forty something kids. They know I am no threat. A couple of weeks ago at the start of class two cute dogs appeared in the back of the room when the bell rang. “Out! Out! Out!” I shouted, waving my arms after them. They squirreled this way and scuttled that way, this row to that, under legs and desks and chairs. I was steamed. “Get these dogs out,” I ordered the boys who were enjoying the scene most. One took a little plastic spoon of his ice cream and held it out, luring one dog out. Just like that it was back in the other door. My teacher persona was stern as could be, but inside it was funny as hell; inside I was laughing as hard as those cut ups at the back of the class. And they would never know it.
I am learning how to make them fear me. They are like the kids I substitute taught in New Haven in the nineties. They know I am a free agent. They know I am a mercenary, unconnected to their structures of discipline and punishment. There is a heavy stick on the teacher’s podium, with tape wrapped around it. I have not used it. The first couple of weeks they were mildly entertained at my antics. I was outlandish. But being outlandish is no substitute for being menacing.
There is a Buddhist Goddess of Mercy in the courtyard of the big school, in white granite, gazing toward the track, the mountains, the tonghua rippling white across them. But she has nothing to do with the classroom. When I come rolling in at 12:45 before my class students stand in silent ranks in the entranceway facing out, backs to the goddess. They say nothing. They don’t look at each other. Any joke about me or joking greeting is furtive. Even the punished find time to comment on the presence of a foreigner, at least in this town. A military officer walks past occasionally, his place in the school a relic of more martial times. He teaches military discipline and love for country.
Last week the class was bouncing from the start. My best laid plans to teach them how to ask for toothpaste in convenience stores fell like lead. They squirmed, talked, enjoyed themselves too much. You, I said finally, to the girl turned around, laughing, too involved in her world to notice mine. You, I said walking over toward her. I stood there waiting; the class grew quiet; she noticed me. They only seem to grow quiet when one of them is made an example of. Collective admonitions have not done much to quiet them down. She looked down. I did not curse her, but I had plenty of cursing to spare. Sit over here, I said, gesturing at a spot in the next aisle. One third of them sit on little canvas camp stools in the aisles. I don’t want to, she said. Move your seat, I said. The silence told me my restrained anger was working. Their eyes were trained on a drama far more interesting then convenience stores. I steadied myself. I knew I was winning. Soon she was not speaking, just shaking her head. I insisted, in control of this anger and performing it well. I was encouraged by their silence. After she finally moved I saw she was crying. That was when I knew how vulnerable they really can be, how delicate. Collectively, they are a rowdy, tough, crude crowd. But separated from the crowd they are people again.
Even Ned is the same. He is the ringleader, he has the gift of gab. When he is in back he is the motor of something bigger: sarcastic, unafraid, charming, hair spiked up. When I ask him a question he purses his lips and equivocates, head turning slightly this way and that, a boxer bouncing or a politician finding an angle. Today I put him in front after I took away his ice cream. When his classmate took the card reading “diapers,” and chose Ned to be the clerk, Ned told him perfectly where the diapers were. I complimented him with the microphone I am provided. The ones I embarrass I also praise, or tease, trying to send some covert sign that the stern face I showed is not all there is, and that the bad kid I demanded they stop being is also not all they are.
Any assignment I give finds two responses: quiet effort or disregard. The ones who disregard are not dumber, they are just doing all they can to convince themselves that they fit into that adjective. The ones who write down the questions are not smarter; they are just more obedient to power, hoping themselves to attain power. They believe. But the myth of smart and dumb is already on its way to being made gospel truth.
As I walk to the track after class I imagine pulling Ned aside and saying Ned, I believe you are as smart as anyone in here. Then I think that this is not the first time foreigners have walked into Taiwanese schools, a nobility representing all that is masculine and true. Back in Japanese times a Japanese teacher faced classrooms as I do now. In his mind too, the bad and the good were clearly marked; even self-marked, self-identified -- self-mutilated. Before history changed course and American bombers appeared in the skies, the obedient were the smart; the smart were the good. They were good in the eyes of the empire, an empire that proclaimed advancement for all under its sway. Rebels were only hurting their own people, it was said. That Japanese alter ego ached inside like me for the bad ones. They too, way back when, could have had a place of honor in the system, if only. . . That Japanese alter ego looked as I do up at these same mountains with the same white flowers, aching the same ache I do, the ache inflicted on himself – the ache of violence done to others in the name of Right.
Then came the teachers of Nationalist China, semi-foreigners. And now come me and my like. Facing Communist China, the government here has put Taiwan firmly under the wing of the new empire. Even the opposition agrees wholeheartedly. And people white like me, total strangers to this place, walk the hallways with a mantle of righteous authority. To the good students, we offer the promise of a better shot within the imperial system – of which the national government is a provincial authority. There are rebellions elsewhere, but not here. There are only misfits, sneaking ice cream into class, passively resisting, parodying. But if history were to change course again, what would those good students say about their loyalty to the defunct empire? And would the bad ones become heroes?
The good will find new ways to be obedient, new ways to adapt to power. The same girl I asked after class, “So, do you get when to use ‘the’ now?” will find new imperial representatives and new standards to serve. And Ned will probably be making his way as before, convinced he is no good, but just as crafty, just as gifted, wrapped in tight with the vibe underneath, playing his own game. The change of empires will change nothing.