Monday was my third night market in Madou. It was hard to believe that just as the night market came to life in the muggy afternoon two weeks ago, I had come to this street having just met a multitude of friendly strangers and wondering what life would be like in this rural village on an island. Now, my experience is halfway over and, writing on Friday, I have met and taught all of the 64 students in grades one through six, and even outstayed the five new alumni at their school. But leaving aside these reflections, let’s talk about food.
I bought 肉圓, or pork dumplings with thin, glutinous-rice wrappers, for dinner, then went out again after dark with Bambi and Kanchih laoshi’s family to enjoy wonderfully Q 地瓜球 and wonderfully cheap 紅茶清冰. Q is a Taiwanese way to describe that delicious chewy texture that I’ve always loved in glutinous rice desserts like mochi and fruit jellies without knowing how to name it, and 地瓜球 are small fried donuts made of the island-shaped sweet potatoes common in Taiwan. 紅茶清冰 was iced black tea with a type of ice sweetened with banana flavor or something similar, like ice cream but lighter and probably healthier. It was NTD$20, or fewer than CAD$1, but Kanchih laoshi said that when he was a child, he could buy the drink for NTD$5.
Tuesday night, some of Luna’s friends invited us to a hotpot restaurant. I had a tonkotsu broth with deep sea fish as my main protein, as well as the complementary shellfish, fish balls, vermicelli, and vegetables. We had tea jelly for dessert, and I liked it so much that Luna gave me hers, too.
Wednesday, I was thinking about how I could make a difference because my feeling of futility has been nagging at me for the past week. With only a few days left before summer camp, I couldn’t do much in terms of actively teaching them vocabulary through games and snatches of conversation, and there was no way I could build up a foundation of English from scratch. Yet, without a solid foundation and desire to learn, anything I or their teachers or future volunteers like me can do will only be drops in a leaky bucket. It was then that I realized that there is no visible push for the kids to read at this school. And as I thought about the tireless effort put in by West Bench Elementary to foster a love of reading, and how it was perhaps thanks to it that I am such a bookworm, I realized that the best thing I could do for the kids is to convince the school to start pushing for English reading.
Accordingly, I asked Bambi what she thought and she agreed, so I broached the subject with director Lily while trying not to appear condescending or overstep any invisible lines–after all, perhaps she would think it was not my place as a temporary volunteer to suggest long-term changes to how they run the school? But she seemed to support my idea, and I laid out a tentative plan for how to incentivize the students and achieve optimal learning outcomes while not turning them off with too much work. She seemed happy with it and I know that encouraging the children to read more will make a huge difference long after I am gone, but my only regret is that I will not be able to implement and enforce it myself and can only hope that the administration and teachers will see the benefits of English reading and persevere despite the inevitable difficulties that will arise in such an initiative.
Thursday, Bambi and I went to nearby Jia Zhong Elementary School, the principal of which had previously brought the 3D printers to Beishi. We were to give our cultural lessons to the 53 students there. The directors who picked us up said their school was small and the families’ were not as well-off as those at Beishi, but, as I have learned to expect in Taiwan, the elementary school was still huge and nice by Penticton standards.
The kids were shy, but ended up asking a lot of questions. Some highlights were: “Why are there so many rivers in Canada?” “How many pianos are there in Canada?” and the ever-popular “What’s your favorite color?” But at least they didn’t ask Beishi’s favorite, “Do you have a boyfriend?”
Meeting these kids really made me realize how much has changed in these three weeks. When I first came to Beishi, the kids were just as strange and shy to me as the Jia Zhong students were, yet now, I know almost all of them at least somewhat and I like to think I have some pretty solid friendships with several. I don’t think I played with most of my elementary school classmates as much I do with the kids at Beishi.
The principal gave Bambi and I each two 3D-printed keychains, which I especially liked: one was the character 安 inscribed within an apple, a visual pun for the word peace, and another was of 平安, also peace. I wonder if someone had told him about my love for apples, and my name, 安. Moreover, he gave us each a huge bottle of mulberry vinegar, a specialty of Xiaying, their district in Tainan. He had also given a bottle to Beishi, so Director Lily let us try some when we got back. They drink the vinegar directly after diluting it with water, so the vinegar taste was quite strong and it was a bit odd, though not entirely unpleasant, to be drinking vinegar. However, after a few sips, the vinegar taste sort of disappeared and there was only the fresh, sweet taste left, and it was quite nice. Nonetheless, I will probably give mine to Luna because I have to save space in my suitcase for pineapple cakes!
At lunch, the Grade One teacher tried to hit a fly on a window pane and with a great clang, it shattered…So the resident all-purpose savior Bo Han (actually I think his name is Bai Han according to Facebook…) had to take the remains out.
In the afternoon, Miss Yan, the English teacher, let Bambi and I teach two periods to the fourth grade as their final English exam was over. I was ecstatic at the chance to teach instead of just sitting at the back like usual, and of course I tried to pitch the idea of English reading by telling them stories. Bambi and I read them The Giving Tree, Green Eggs and Ham, and If You Give a Moose a Muffin. We would each read one page, and then I would translate, and I read most of the rhymes in the Dr. Seuss while getting the kids to read along as the rhymes went on. By the end, I was quite tired, especially as my throat was still not in top condition, but they were two of the most fulfilling classes I’ve had here–perhaps because I still can’t resist a good story, or because the kids loved the stories and participated quite willingly, or perhaps because I was able to put my plan into motion though I will not delude myself into thinking that they will all suddenly take to independent reading.
After returning to the Grade One class, their teacher, too, told me I could do what I would with them that period, so I read Green Eggs and Ham again and then played charades. It was interesting, and maybe sobering, to see that the first-graders seemed to understand and enjoy the story to pretty much the same degree as the fourth-graders, who have supposedly had three more years of English education. Or perhaps it’s just a timeless story!
When we got back to my temporary home, Luna mentioned that I could go to the nearby Carrefour if I was bored or wanted snacks. I was eager to see a Taiwanese grocery store because, as my Grade 12 history teacher said, grocery stores can often reflect a society better than the superficial streets and attractions can. It was a small Carrefour, of which there are many in Taiwan, and the inside was impeccably clean and tidy–which I know cannot be met with in the large and powerful People’s Republic of China. I was, however, a bit disappointed at the smaller-than-expected snack selection and the higher-than-expected prices. I bought some pineapple cakes, though I could not find the sublime ones that the shushu had given me in week one, as well as some mango puddings and bananas.
Today, I walked into the office and found a drawing on my desk. I don’t know who put it there, but it seems like a sweet gesture!
We are going to Sun Moon Lake and Taichung on the weekend, and I can’t wait to see this famed attraction!