The teacher who believed in me

The teacher who believed in me

Pride and a profound sense of trepidatious pride was how I felt. When the rest of the class had to complete their writing in our double Composition class, I was allowed to continue to work on mine at home. Not exactly the most eloquent in persuasion or elegant in style, I was repeatedly given the highest marks for my written work at school – discursive genre was my forte.

I had no idea how my classmates felt about my special treatment; the teacher’s favouritism was for all to see. Nevertheless, my Chinese teacher continued to exercise his discretion throughout my second year at high school. It was a crucial year in my education. I felt I had something special to offer; I felt my teacher was interested in what I wrote; and that made me feel three feet taller than anybody else.

Admittedly, throughout our own education, we can always name those teachers who made us feel good about ourselves, those who spurred us on to pursue our interests, academic or otherwise. Me too. But my Chinese teacher in my second year at high school made me feel more than good about myself. He made me realise that education was not just about regurgitating anti-communist slogans to gain high marks in examinations. It could be a genuine intellectual endeavour.

Born in Taiwan but I was educated to identify myself as Chinese – the dependent of the Dragon. Instead of eschewing Taiwanese identity, my Chinese teacher encouraged us to learn about Taiwan’s history, literary as well as political through his recommended reading list outside the national curriculum. It was a courageous and a risky act on his part. A couple of decades after the White Terror of the 50s when political decedents were arrested and persecuted, he could have been incarcerated by his pro-Taiwan teaching. He was solicitous about Taiwan’s colonial history and talked about Taiwanese literature with pride and scholarship. In his depictions, Taiwan was a familiar and yet strange place, like an exotic paradise island that feels like home at the same time in a vivid dream.

Little surprise that he remained a school teacher for a long time until the change of political landscape of Taiwan following the lift of the Martial Law in 1989. I learned about his move to university as a Professor of Taiwanese literature after I had come to the UK for my postgraduate studies. Our last meeting was in 2005 when I was invited by Literary Taiwan to attend World Poetry Festival in Kaohsiung whose illustrious guests included the 1992 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Derek Walcott. It was a joyful reunion.

Thanks to the indefatigable energy and commitment of my Chinese teacher and many of his colleagues over the years, Taiwan native literature has finally gained wide recognition and can now be studied at universities in The Department of Taiwanese Literature. The National Museum of Taiwan Literature, dedicated to the celebration and scholarship of Taiwan history and literature, has also been created in the historic city of Tainan in 2003.

In January 2018, Teacher Peng (to show respect, I am bound by my cultural decorum to only refer to my teacher by his title followed by his last name, to everyone else he is Professor Peng Jui-chin) is retiring from teaching. I wish him long-lasting good health and many more prosperous years to come as an esteemed scholar, a literary critic and above all the teacher who showed faith in me.

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New Challenges – I

New Challenges – My Study Weekend

Coming to terms with a real possibility of defeat is a challenge to everyone. My study weekend during school half term is a case in point. It has also been a sharp reminder of just how pursuing my PhD whilst holding down a full-time teaching job is and will be full of predictable challenges and unforeseen hurdles. It will be a constant test of physical as well as mental stamina, even more so than my first PhD when I was a full-time student.


On arrival at Clare in the afternoon, I found two messages on my mobile phone. One of which was from my loan lender. I phoned them back straightaway before even picking up my room key. My worst fear was delivered – despite constant reassurance, I was told that the loan was not available. Four weeks after my course had started, this was a devastating blow. Not only had I reintegrated back into the complex labyrinth of the university system, the preparation of my research was also underway. Suddenly, everything could all grind to an abrupt halt. Apart from registering my displeasure with the lending bank, there was nothing I could do to change their decision.

Instead of a visit to the University Library, I spent the afternoon informing my supervisor, close friends, research colleagues and my tutors at Clare of the bad news. It was comforting in an emergency circumstance like this that I could go to see and talk to people for help and advice. Admittedly, it was also hard to suppress the emotions and to concentrate on moving forward. However optimistic I tried to remain, a dark cloud was gathering overhead and overshadowed everything. The worst feeling was the sense of hollowness of every endeavour that I made towards my work. It seemed that my actions had lost all purpose. Ironically, returning after my MEd, I felt that I was making a much better job second time around. Still, I had a full plan for the next three days.

The MCR was the perfect place to meet fellow graduates and make new friends. I needed a friendly face and there were always some most fantastically warm and effervescent individuals willing to chat to. And there were several of them this afternoon who were interested in getting involved in the annual telephone campaign to alumni to fund-raise. With free Prosecco on offer, the spirit would definitely be buoyant. Very quickly, I struck up a friendship with a second-year PhD student in engineering. We were interested in the two talks this evening and decided to have dinner at the Buttery first where we were joined by a couple of other friends.

The two talks were entitled ‘Hindu-Christian theology in the context of East-West encounters’, and ‘Abrupt climate change in the Quaternary record of northwest Greece’. The MCR was filled with other graduates. Free pizzas were passed round and we helped ourselves with free drinks and bread sticks at the bar. Even without the trapped haze and thick tobacco aroma, the studious atmosphere was unmistakable. The styles of the two speakers could not be more contrasting. The theologian was thoughtful whereas the geographer was a self-confessed flippant. But don’t be fooled by quiet demeanour or humorous flippancy. Both talks were fine examples of solid scholarship and the questions from the audience were equally searching. In a room full of fake cobwebs, plastic spiders and carved pumpkins for Halloween, we discussed, drank wine and made new friends – I was more determined to turn my crisis into fresh impetus to carry on with my research.

The light in the College Library shone like a beacon of a lighthouse and I had a busy day ahead….


The last time I was in a boat was possibly when I was rowing a leisure boat with a group of school friends back in Taiwan. I had always wanted to try rowing and I signed up as a novice to join the College boat club. I had my first outing this morning at 7:00. I remembered those clips from the Boat Race and the Olympics how gruelling the training was and how it started before sunrise even in the depth of winter. I was out of bed at 5:30 and by 6:30 I was pedalling towards the boat house through the deserted streets of Cambridge in the dark. It was cold.

After some warm up on the ergs, it’s time to get the boat out. Every stage of the preparation required our full attention not just to lift the boat off the rack safely and move it out of the boat house and unto the river undamaged, discipline also kept all of us safe as a team. It felt like being back in the army, minus the drill sergeant. As a complete novice, I had to pick up not just the techniques but also the rowing terminology. On the river with seven other teammates and a cox, no one wanted to look like a fool. Very quickly, we were tested both physically and mentally to row as a team, learning how to respond promptly and correctly to each command from the cox and the instructions by the coaches on their bikes on the river bank. On a couple of occasions, I actually thought that our boat was about to tip over and we were going to end up in the freezing river Cam. The guy in the bow had a tough time as we kept rowing towards the bow side of the river bank, nearly hitting the moored narrow boats several times and having to disentangle us from the weeping willows. In bow 2, I rowed on the stroke side and was focusing on keeping my back straight and trying to keep up with the guy in bow four who was a more experienced rower. Meanwhile, bow 3 was shivering violently in his thin, green football top. At around 8, the river was teeming with boats from other Colleges. Not exactly mayhem, but we did have several near misses when the blades narrowly missed other rowers’ heads or the long necks of the swans! Surprisingly, despite the congestion, the atmosphere on the river was eerily serene, perhaps it was because most of us were all new rowers and too focused on getting our techniques right.

When we did get our rhythm right, the exhilaration was immense. The wind rushed past and the boat cut through the water like a quick blade through jelly with each grunt of the stroke. The sun rose above the tree tops through the low mist on golden shimmering grass. The river bank came alive with morning joggers, cyclists and dog walkers. Some early-rising tourists stopped and took photographs of the spectacle. By the time we turned the boat round, the river was all clear. Most boats had finished training and those guys with 9 o’clock lectures were getting anxious that they might be late or miss them. The boat felt distinctly heavier over our heads when we lifted it out of the river and manoeuvred it back into the boat house.

Proud? Definitely. I completed my challenge and was reasonably pleased with my maiden voyage as a complete novice. I wanted to get back on the river again. I learned that rowing was a team sport. There was no room for heroics or ego. All must row as one, breath as one and get to the finishing line as one.

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Becoming Alien

Inevitably, the only way out of this Taiwanese v Chinese binary was by adopting a new identity of a faraway culture. Whilst most of my contemporaries were drawn to the new democracy of the United States Of America, I found inspiration from the sepia landscape of the mirror-like lakes and chameleonesque hills of Wordsworth and the genteel societies of Forster.

Emerging from the “cultural desert” of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan to arrive in the capital city of Taipei, my studies gave me the legitimacy to acquire an air of superiority as a member of the intellectual elite reserved for those who read English at universities. Like many before me, English Literature graduates were expected to earn tenures in the English departments of the Taiwanese academia or to enter the diplomatic offices via the Ivy League campuses in the United States. Such aspiration quickly gave way to my sensibility for everything “English” – or British – so much so my closest friends at university joked that not only I was born in the wrong era, I was born in the wrong country. I belonged to the world of Howards End.

Desiring to refashion myself as culturally English and intellectually Western, I retreated to my social cocoon with a hardback Oxford English-Chinese/Chinese-English Dictionary for Advanced Learners and a radio capable of receiving BBC World Service as my sole linguistic diet. I adopted selective deafness and blindness to all music and films American. Only the cut-glass British of Kristine Scott Thomas and the BBC English of Martin Lewis could pass my auditory filter. Refusing to speak in an American accent in all my English Conversation classes given by American teachers, I hesitate to guess what they must have thought of me, or indeed, what my classmates must have thought of my extraordinary behaviour.

Still, my mind was set for Britain. England was Castle Howard and Cambridge. After one year as a Teaching Assistant at my old university, teaching English Speaking and Listening in the only British English on campus, I was ready for my transformation. Two sleeping tablets later, I found the plane touched down at London Heathrow. Normally a fan of the culinary treats of the Cathy Pacific, on my flight to the UK, I only woke up once to find a shimmering disc of golden lights of Moscow beneath my feet. With many empty seats, the 747 jumbo jet glided through the night sky like a black cat stalking a star, purring softly.

The air was not the only thing that was cold on that September morning. Instead of heading for my luggage, I was escorted by the airport security to have a medical check-up, including an X-ray. Alone and struggling with the accent that was alarmingly unfamiliar to my ear, I wondered whether the whole study-abroad dream was but a self-indulgent fantasy that turned out to be a never-ending nightmare. Unprepared for the chilling reception on a morning that seemed more like the depth of a darkest night, I sat waiting for my fate – a sense of helplessness and abandonment that was more akin to the solitary struggle of Pi.

Completely blinkered by the golden glow of Merchant Ivory, I was utterly bewildered by the Britain absent from the film trailers. Nobody had warned me about the side streets off the Forsterian atlas of the English Home Counties and Mrs Dalloway’s route through Westminster Borough. Nor did anybody tip me off about the soul-destroying sense of hopelessness.

Eschewing my Taiwanese/Chinese identity in pursuit for a British one, I was stuck in an identity limbo. I became an alien to my own people and to those who were strangers to me.

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In Search of an Authentic Identity

In Search of an Authentic Identity

Mandarin Chinese is my first language, Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese are my “mother tongues” as my mother was native Taiwanese born and my father Chinese. Even though my maternal grandparents could speak some Japanese as a result of the Japanese colonial rule over Taiwan between 1895 and 1945, I didn’t pick up much Japanese from them as we lived some 200 kilometres apart. My first experience with English was when I was no more than six when my “little” (youngest) uncle was preparing for his high school entrance examination. For some reason unknown to me, he came to live with us so my mother, his big sister, could look after him. He taught me the English alphabets and I quickly learned how to say them, write them, in both capital letters and lower cases. I could even sing the Alphabet Song. My parents liked to show me off to friends and relatives by telling me to recite the 26 English alphabets in front of such bemused audience. Being “able to speak” English was an act of vanity rather than real evidence of intellectual accomplishment at the age of six.

Before English became a subject to be studied and examined on at school when I started junior high school, I was already surrounded by different languages, dialects and accents; it was more of a circumstantial and environmental inevitability.

Taiwanese aborigines deer hunting

Internet image

I grew up on an army estate where many Chinese Nationalist soldiers married the local Taiwanese women. This broad distinction by birth place is deceptive. Many of the Nationalists soldiers came from all corners of China with geographic distances as wide as their dialectal disparities. For example, my father was from Henan province with a singsong quality of the Yellow River Plains accent. He pronounced the /yu/ sound as /oo/. The colour “green” would sound like “road” to listeners unfamiliar to his accent. My friends would struggle to understand my father just as I found their fathers’ Shanghai or Shandong accents and idioms equally confusing. The local women were not all ethnic Han Chinese either. Some of them were Plains aborigines as opposed to Highland aborigines. Even so, the aboriginal women did not belong to one ethnic group. Instead, they came from the eight distinct peoples with their own languages, cultures and customs with visible traces of influence from their ancestors’ contact with the Europeans and Han immigrants from China through intermarriage.

1635 Dutch map of Formosa

Image source:荷蘭人所繪福爾摩沙臺灣.jpeg

The ethnic mix of the native Taiwanese people is such that since the mid-1980s, anthropologists and historians began to trace their genetic lineage to ascertain the lasting impact of the external forces on the shaping of the islanders’ ethnic identity. The picture is a complex one. Taiwan appeared in the European consciousness in the 16th century during the European Age of Exploration and colonisation of the “new worlds”. Having successfully circumnavigated round the Cape of the Good Hope to the East and set up a permanent base in Macau, the Portuguese continued to extend their trade route to Japan in 1544 and “discovered” the forest-cloaked island in the Pacific Ocean that was not marked on their map. They named it “Ilha Formosa” (Beautiful Island). Significant impact of immigration started when the Dutch East India Company set up a stronghold in Fort Zeelandia in Tainan in southern Taiwan in 1624 and opened the immigration of labour from Fujian province of China across the narrow Taiwan Strait of 220 kilometres at its widest point and 130 the narrowest. In 1626, the Spanish arrived at what they called Cape Santiago in the north east of Taiwan but found it unsuitable for defence purposes. They continued their journey along the coast westward and found a deep and secure harbour in Keeling where they set up a settlement named Santissima Trinidad and established Fort Salvador. A second base, San Domingo, was created in Tamsui in 1626. During the conflicts between the Spanish and the Dutch, the indigenous aborigines were used by both sides to defend their colonial interests.

The ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity of the small community into which I was born was such that between being carried by my mother in her womb and the age of ten, I grew up in this cacophony of linguistic symphony. Imagine living on a small army estate but densely populated with 100 families in terraced, single-story houses. Living cheek by jowl, the locals expressed affection, resentment, form friendships, break relationships, negotiate business, share secrets, argue and console in languages, dialects, accents that shared little superficial similarities. Above the human noises, another auditory battle took place as the residents shared their musical tastes through shrieking Peking Operas, sentimental Taiwanese pop, and spirited Aboriginal choruses.

How come I don’t feel that I had actually benefitted from such a linguistically and culturally rich environment? Political necessity instrumented through ideological control ensured that a “Taiwanese” self-consciousness was thawed if not eradicated completely. The racial and cultural homogenisation made sure of that. Speaking Taiwanese was forbidden at school and in government department. “Please speak National Language (Mandarin Chinese)” was displayed as an ubiquitous reminder. This was the visible damage. The real linguistic casualties as a result of the reinforcement of Mandarin Chinese as the National Language are the aboriginal languages. Of the 26 Formosan languages, 10 are now extinct, 4 or 5 are now moribund and several others endangered. Identified by Robert Blust (2009) as the origin of the nine out of ten major branches of the Austronesian languages, Taiwan’s loss of such linguistic heritage has a devastating impact on the disappearance of indigenous cultures and the means through which greater understanding of different traditions can be achieved.

The tumultuous colonial past under the Dutch, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese rules was subjected to further violent incidents following the defeat of Chang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Army and the re-establishment of the Republic of China on this small island. The 228 Massacre in 1947 that witnessed an estimated 10,000 deaths of civilians during the uprising of the Nationalist government (Kuomintang) carved a deep divide between the indigenous peoples, the native Taiwanese and the incoming Mainlanders. The memory of this most recent past remained a noticeable social divide in my childhood Taiwan of the 1960s and 70s under the reign of the White Terror. Political dissidents were secretly arrested, imprisoned and even murdered. Completely unaware of such a blatant violation through racial, political, cultural and linguistic hegemony, I grew up a Chinese, not Taiwanese – also a common fate of many ethnic minorities in Taiwan.

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Teachers as resisting intellectuals

The outrage this week that has been expressed by some educators on Twitter against David Didau’s What causes behaviour? has prompted many to inspect their own thinking on race and intelligence. I am not a geneticist so I am not in the position to offer an expert view on the research in this field. More learned scholars such as Steve Watson and Benjamin Doxtdator have offered their views in their respective blog posts. Nick Dennis’s critique further points out the “lazy” research that forms the shaky ground of David’s position which has been construed as advocacy for “racial differences in IQ”, a remark he made in response to a comment to his piece through Feedback. His obstinacy to recognise pitfalls in his work when challenged adds more frustration to his critics.

The event took a more disturbing turn when Tomas White pointed out that the research that David cites to substantiate his assertion that “there are fairly clear racial differences in IQ” was actually funded by “Pioneer Fund”, a registered hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. This revelation galvanised the resistance amongst the already alarmed readers to voice their disbelief and condemnation, particularly when David did not appear to respond to the growing concerns and outcry. Instead, a few of his supporters took to Twitter to defend David, curiously not the importance for educators to look beyond science to ensure that humanity underscores all our educational endeavours to promote and ensure equity and equality despite all the “differences” that can potentially engender our effort. Attention should be paid to unmask all the disguises of racism in any ostensibly plausible discourse of science or alt-right euphemisms of hate lexicon such as “human biodiversity”. To me, this kind of uncritical, blinkered and besieged mentality is disappointing.

Before Tomas drew our attention to the piece of research funded by a “neo-Nazi” hate group, I had also checked the original research that is referenced by David to make the assertion about the “genetic forces”. A crack in his argument begins to appear. The Swedish study of adultescent violent criminality and substance misuse focuses on the environmental impact and makes no direct reference to genetics or race – neighbourhoods were its focus. The study is nuanced and considers its limitations with thoughtfulness. How does David arrive at such a conclusion is never explained and it mystifies me. It inevitably gives one the impression that research is used to accessorise his own personal opinions. This unscrupulous approach leads me to consider other serious, in my view, unethical aspects of his writing. The problem is three-fold:

1. Misrepresenting research: It’s a writer’s ethical duty to make sure that she/he is not misrepresenting the research as evidence in her/his writing. Wittingly or not we can only speculate, nevertheless the lack of direct relevance between his claim of the “genetic forces” and the quoted Swedish study shows serious lack of care to his research. In a case as potentially damaging as this, the authors of the referenced study have every right to be upset about the misrepresentation of their intellectual endeavour. Disturbingly, Didau habitually relies on “research” to gain authority in his assertions, errors such as this and the utilisation of study by a group set up by “eugenicist Nazi sympathisers” (quoted from Tomas’s comment to Didau, tweeted in response to Benjamin) makes one wonder the accuracy in his other sources. Pseudoscience gives research a bad name.

2. Commercial impetus: With over 40,000 followers on Twitter alone, it is conceivable that Didau presents huge commercial values in book writing (endorsed by popular names in educational research), offering training to schools and giving talks in ResearchEd (now a global brand hosting events in the USA, Australia and Canada) and other platforms, it is deeply unsettling that he is reticent to acknowledge and rectify the flaws when identified by his critics. Wittingly or not, to advocate dangerous views based on dubious and questionable sources, never mind the lack of robustness in his own research work, damages his reputation as an educator. In this respect, it is particularly ironic from someone who is universally celebrated by his admirers who hold an uncompromising view on the importance of discipline, knowledge and accuracy.

3. Lastly, moral responsibility: One can argue that an educator is not a saint. Her/his job is to teach. Yes and no. It depends on how one identifies oneself as a teacher. To me, beyond imparting subject knowledge, there is a moral imperative for a teacher to aspire to be ethical in that she/he tries not to do harm at least and models a strong moral character at best. It is not easy. We all struggle to act ethically in every decision we make in relation to the young people in our care. We need to have the humility to reflect on our actions and are prepared to modify to ensure that we are not causing harm wittingly. Views such as “racial differences in IQ” and “behaviour gene” are dangerous and can potentially cause serious harm to education through the individual’s influence, particularly when maximised through organisational backup and promotion to push up the advocate’s commercial values.

A more pressing issue coming out from this controversy is an urgent need for teachers to be more vigilant and critical against scientism in education. It is therefore imperative that teachers have access to research to scrutinise claims that have direct or indirect impact on their daily practice. Without such agency, teachers will remain powerless in an asymmetrical structure that is vulnerable to ideological forces rather than being equitable to ensure equality in knowledge production and dissemination. An essential change that must take place is also the embedment of professional learning to equip teachers with skills necessary to critique the research evidence presented to them. Those in power remain powerful principally through the control of knowledge. A genuine grassroots movement has to be one that is free from arbitrary “gatekeeping” exercises in the name of quality control. Genuine collaboration welcomes diversity and such collaborative endeavour ensures a more democratic scrutiny.

Resistance starts with building critical skills crucial in challenging prevailing ideas and discourse dominated and promulgated by celebrity educators, self-proclaimed gurus and self-fashioned experts. Ultimately, being an ethical teacher means we fulfil our moral obligations by calling out “fake knowledge” and resisting hegemony in education system. Henry Giroux’s sociopolitical categories of three types of teacher intellectuals – resisting, critical and accommodating – sketch out their essential qualities. As educators, we need to reflect on our own identity as intellectuals – who are we and who do we want to be?

Who do you want to be?

Suggested reading: Giroux, H. (1985), “Critical pedagogy and the resisting intellectual, part 2”, Phenomenology + pedagogy (3)2: 84-97

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Gap Years

Gap Years

Another 3 and it will have been 50 years apart between the times when these two pictures were taken – me at the age of five in a formal family portrait with mum and dad, my older sister and two older brothers in a local photographer's studio in Fengshan, Taiwan, and me alone on the day when I collected my MEd at Clare College, Cambridge. The distance between the two photos is more than geographic; it widens with each passing year, with each passing month, week, day and hour….

The Taiwanese talk about filial piety and the Taiwanese believe in this concept. To the Taiwanese, social fabric is cemented and toughened by this unquestionably simple belief: children respect their patents, obey their wishes, please them and look after them when they reach old age. At school, we studied "Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars" to reenforce such expectations: the seventy-year-old Laizi dresses in colourful rags and acts as a playful and sometimes clumsy child to amuse his elderly parents; Magistrate Yu follows the doctor's instruction to taste the faeces of his ailing father to ascertain the nature of his ailment; and many other stories depicting acts of filial devotion. As children, we were expected to accept these tales as historical facts, to model our behaviour on these examples if not to emulate them, and be cautioned for deviation from such behavioural template. There was no room for critical scrutiny in moral inculcation.

I wish I could say that books, books and more books that's what keeps us apart. The truth of the matter is that the books are only a convenient excuse, just like many others that I used to use as excuses to get out of the house: "Could I go and ask so and so what the homework was?" In one respect, the distance between the two photographs has never been any greater or any less regardless of the number of books or academic qualifications that I've collected over the years. The emotional disconnectedness has always been there – in that somewhat puzzled gaze into the camera lens as if I were transfixed by a fain glow in the distance behind the cameraman's hunched back…. I was the last arrival of the family, yet it became also apparent that I had the least affinity with not only the extended family of my maternal side (I knew next to nothing about my paternal relatives as my father was orphaned young and followed Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist army to Taiwan) but also my own siblings. As the youngest, I was excluded from all major family decisions. My prime duty was to do well at school. I learned to be self-sufficient. Maybe I also learned to be self-centred.

Naturally, with each passing year, family circumstances changed, too. We found ourselves pulled to different directions, sometimes by the acts of others but mostly by actions of our own. Filial piety strained to hold the family unit together. Not being the oldest – or even one of the older children – meant I was relatively exempt from certain responsibilities: I had no younger siblings to look after; I was not expected to be the first to get a job or get married; I was expected only to follow examples and to accept the consequences of whatever decisions that were made by my parents, then later with discussions with my older siblings. I did none of those. My parents were happy to support me as long as I remain focused on my studies. None of my siblings had gone beyond high school, and I had the good fortune to find emotional refuge and intellectual fulfilment in scholarly pursuits. I stumbled my way to university. Friends meant more to me than family, I learned. Friends were made based on connections, intellectual or emotional. Being on the opposite end of the island meant I was physically and emotionally detached from home. Like a kite that rides on the rising warm air, I was lifted higher and higher, drifted further and further by a warming sense of freedom. The only attachment was the thin string of which I was not able to cut off until much, much later.

Looking back to these two images prompts me to reexamine circumstances that have filled the void between them. Maybe I am as what is described as being the most selfish person in the family. I accept that charge to certain degrees. However, if being selfish is the necessary evil in the pursuit of self-fulfilment, then it is a brand I must also learn to endure and carry, maybe with a tinge of reluctant sadness, like the aching tooth that you cannot help but keep probing at night.

In reflection, the gaping chasm was an inevitable consequence of my discovery of a new world through English. Instead of a means to an end, I fell in love with the world that lay within this new language. I stopped learning it to pass exams; I started to live it: its vocabulary, the way that many words can derive from their base or root words by adding prefixes, suffixes or both; the sound of the language, the phonetics of consonants and vowels and how they combine to form syllables to create rhythmic patterns, even the more challenging aspects of grammar: tense, case, number and gender that were absent in Chinese. Ultimately, however, it was the new way of perceiving the world around me through my new language that delighted me the most. I caught a glimpse of such a new world with a cultural terrain so alien from the moral habitat that I had inherited from an upbringing and schooling almost exclusively dominated by Confucius thinking. Always convinced that I grew up in a cultural desert, I was starved of nourishment and longing for cultural stimulations – the Mormons, the Eagles, ABBA, Human League, then Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Herman Hesse, James Ivory's England when I went away to university.

Instead of angst, obligation, guilt and regret, I learned that genuine selfhood is the basis from which a world can be truly lived with emotional connectedness. English opens a new world and many other worlds into which I must traverse and explore on my own. Turning my back on my own cultural heritage was not a difficult one. By embracing an alien culture, I found myself.

Fifty years' gap. It's impossible to assemble all the family members together again for another portrait. There's that and the gaps will always be keenly felt like the missing teeth in your mouth. Maybe that somewhat vacant gaze has always had its secret focus in a land far far away that calls across the many seas, over many mountain peaks and under some of the most brilliant stars….

One thing is for sure, I would never have been able to embark on that solitary flight across the Silver River without the unquestionably simple belief of parental devotion, even if deep down my parents always knew that their beloved child would never return to the nest. They, like me, were looking at that same unnamed place beyond the cameraman's hunched back under that blackening cover without me realising.

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What’s in a Name

My name hasn’t always been Vincent. 

Although this name is now formalised in all my legal and official document, including my passport, it is an invented one, not the one that I was given when I was born, 文山. The first character denotes “literature”, “arts”, “culture”, “learned” or even “gentle”; the second, simply “mountain”. It was a simple name that carried enormous parental expectations. “Wenshan”, it’s pronounced in Mandarin, “bunsan” in Taiwanese. The way the bilabial “w” and “b” force you to purse your lips into a small “o” made you look like you were blowing a kiss to the addressed. 

“Wenshan” was the name given by my parents who told me that they chose these two character was because they were easy to write. My parents were not educated beyond the age of twelve. They later told me that it would be easy for me to learn to write my name when I started school. Indeed, both character have a symmetric quality to them. Beginning with the dot at the top, followed by a left-to-right stroke with a gentle rising slant underneath, then you make a cross, starting with the top-right-to-bottom-left to complete 文. To write 山, you draw the line in the middle first, then you write an upper case, “L”, to make it look like a 4 without the middle line coming through the bottom line. To complete, you simple draw another shorter, vertical line to meet with the end of the “L”. With four and three strokes respectively, self esteem was easily built from being able to write my name clearly from an early age. 

Or maybe, my self-respect was not their real consideration. Instead, they were just trying to save face, hiding their embarrassment for not knowing more complex characters that connote more profound meanings like some of those of my classmates whose came from families of scholars. Mine was a anything but. 

My mother, despite being academically bright, was the oldest of her 7 siblings of a farming family whose studies where terminated as soon as she completed elementary school. The family needed her to help bring in cash and bringing up her younger brothers and sisters. My father, on the other hand, was a boy soldier of the Kuomintang. Orphaned before he could receive any formal learning of acquire any practical skills, opportunity presented itself in the form of an awfully exciting adventure – a prospect of fighting enemies with handguns and machetes, in forests and mountains, like heroes in some legends and folklore told with fantastical flourishes but very little reality. 文山, therefore, was a perfect choice on their part. It conveys self-respect with an unmistakably scholarly air, an understated elegance. Together with the simple characters, both its Taiwanese and Mandarin pronunciations that require the speaker to shape their mouths as if blowing a kiss belie the name’s weighty symbolism.

But, you can still call me Vincent.

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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng – Part of a Book Chat

Everything I Never Told You

This is part of my conversation with by dear friend, Di Leedham, who recommended this book to me some time ago, one of the books that I must read this summer. I started reading Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You during this half term.

Serendipitously, it was only yesterday that I was alerted to series of tweets surrounding a “joke”: “And then turns out you’re Wong.”

I have responded to that particular tweet to point out that it is not funny at all if you, like me, have endured years of mock Chinese “ching, chong, chang” uttered as children walk past you, sniggering. 

But, relevant it may be in terms of racial stereotyping, this blog is not about my grievance. It’s about the delight of reading Ng’s debut novel. 

So far, after reading the first four chapters, the depiction of James’s identity erasure of his racial and cultural heritage, and his unstoppable desire to reinvent himself as an embodiment of a racial and cultural desert island is very close, too close, to my own experience. I applaud her keen observation there. 

The shifting perspectives of the relationship between James and Marilyn give the reader a clear glimpse into the emotional corners that they keep well hidden from each other. However, their relationship does strike me as being somewhat unconvincing in the sense that it develops too fast – that kiss, though explained away as part of Marilyn’s impulsive behaviour, happens too quickly. On the other hand, James’s Ready acceptance of his “luck” underpins the desperation of his quest to be just like them. Perhaps, the desire to be different and the desire to be the same explains the shaky ground on which their union is built.

The taunting episode at the swimming pool completely exposes the inadequacy of James as a father to protect his son from ridicule. It stems from his own warped sense of self, I think. After the swimming pool incident. Marilyn queries about Nath’s being “sullen and silent” at the breakfast table. James replies, “Some kids teased him at the pool yesterday. He needs to learn to take a joke.” There. Betrayed by his own father.

I want to know Hannah better. So far, she’s the “obedient” one. I want her to grow into a convincing character with substance. Nath is beginning to show more of his emotions and that’s important to hold the family together where Lydia has left vacuum.

I am also impressed by her character study. I appreciate that the plot doesn’t really lend itself to lengthy tête-à-tête between James and Marilyn, and the narrator describes what’s going on or amiss between them, nevertheless, it’d be interesting to see and hear some more interactions. It may still happen later. After all, I am only a third way through.

I like the structure so far, too. Lydia’s death has been interrupted for a few chapters until her funeral just like how she’s never noticed when alive. Even Nath misses her coffin being lowered into the ground. “It’s gone,” he realises because he’s so preoccupied with monitoring Jack’s every move during the ceremony. Poignantly, the most detailed account of Lydia comes from the coroner’s autopsy, painstakingly, as required by law, describes the process of asphyxiation by drowning, which juxtaposes with the empty pages of her journals that Marilyn has bought her each year for the 10 whole years. 

I am really looking forward to reading how Ng delves deeper and deeper under the surface of this “model” family.

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The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost

When the hundreds of thousands of 16-year olds sit their first GCSE English examination next Monday, many will be putting their ink on paper and producing sentences that read like the following:

1. Stevenson uses an adverb “trampled calmly” to show how Mr Hyde trampled calmly over a girl’s body.

2. The phrase “He broke out in a great flame of anger” shows how angry Mr Hyde is. “Broke” is a verb that shows an violent action and “great” is an adjective that shows a large amount. “Anger” is a noun and it shows Mr Hyde is angry.

3. Mr Hyde is described as “pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any namable malformation”. Stevenson uses adjectives and nouns in that quote to show that Mr Hyde looks like a half-developed human.

I feel your pain. 

The first time in my teaching career when this style of writing is becoming a norm. Identification of grammatical terms, such as word classes, has become the students’ preoccupation when attempting to express their views on the writers’ use of “language, form and structure”. Grammar has now obscured clarity of expression. On the one hand, what the above three examples demonstrate is some knowledge and straightforward understanding of characterisation. Admittedly, there is plenty of improvement to be made in those areas. The real concern, however, is a slavish attitude to grammar spotting. The mechanic way of naming the part – instead of strengthening the critical quality of the response – makes the written expression awkward and unclear. As a result, grammar spotting renders a test for true appreciation of writers’ craft into a grammar-spotting exercise.

The chickens have come home to roost. 

Ahead of the new GCSE English examinations (Literature, and then Language) from next week, it has become obvious that this new way of writing has become commonplace. Anecdotal evidence sampled from students’ work shared by their teachers on social media, notably Twitter, serves as a tangible trend in the English classrooms up and down the country. 

I am talking about the identification of grammatical features in students’ attempt to “[a]nalyse the language, form and structure used by a writer to create meanings and effects, using relevant subject terminology where appropriate” as one of the key Assessment Objectives (AOs). The weighting of this particular AO is high. Take AQA’s English Literature Paper 1 for example, AO2 is worth 12 marks, equalling AO1 (“Read, understand and respond to the texts”), out of a total of 30 marks in both Section A (Shakespeare plays) and Section B (The 19th-century novel). Understandably, English teachers place greater emphasis on this particular Assessment Objective. Crucially, it can be suggested that many students as well as teachers have assigned grammatical knowledge its unintended supremacy in the context of assessment and mistaken it for evidence of quality.

But why is there such an almost obsessive focus on grammatical features? Casting our minds back to the publication of The importance of teaching: the school’s white paper 2010 might shed some light on the question. Undeniably, the current phenomenon is readily explainable by the policy that was billed to “promote high standards of language and literacy by equipping pupils with a strong command of the spoken and written word, and to develop their love of literature through widespread reading for enjoyment” (English programmes of study: key stage 4: National curriculum in England, 2014). The Spag Test for Year 6 pupils at primary schools has come to epitomise the reform introduced by then Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. The purpose of this piece is not to renew the debate over the merit of his reform. It focuses instead a tangible outcome of his ideology from the classroom – the reality.

For secondary students, such clumsy written style that places Grammar as its central consideration is the direct result of Michael Gove’s legacy, seven years on. The first generation of Gove’s children is coming through the system of his education reform, and the examination results for English will be watched with close scrutiny and hopefully in-depth research to assess its impact. The preliminary evidence flags up areas for concern. 

Before the results of the marking are published, the impact of grammar teaching is evident in the above three examples. It is clear that the knowledge of grammar, apart from demonstrating that the students can name the parts, paradoxically, it impedes on the quality of writing, precisely what Robert Hudson – the man recognised to be responsible for the primary grammar test – is concerned about. 

Firstly, Hudson admits that the grammar test “was not based on good research evidence” (Mansell, 2017). His admission raises doubt over the legitimacy of grammar test for the 11-year-olds straightaway. More concerning is the long-term detriment that such drive to improve grammatical knowledge in the cognitive development of the young children. David Chrystal has also remarked that there is “too much emphasis on linguistic labelling as an end in itself” (Mansell, 2017). Sentences included in those examples illustrate a clear propensity to do just that. A voluble critic of Gove’s “back-to-basics” approach to the English curriculum, Michael Rosen, has also warned against the damage that the over emphasis on grammar teaching can do to students’ writing. Many teachers will be able to list examples similar to those we have considered. Can we draw a tentative conclusion that it is indeed the case – at least for now. 

Ironically, Robert Hudson expresses circumspection about the continuity of grammar teaching from primary schools into secondary school. Evidence from current GCSE candidates and even KS3 students at secondary schools demonstrate that “all the work children do in primary is [in fact not] wasted” (Mansell, 2017). Indeed, it has been followed with much zeal and fervour, if not more, believing that grammar guarantees gravitas. Sidelined are other literary and poetic devices – a holistic evaluation of a combination of techniques deployed by authors. 

Based on early evidence from the classroom and more than likely the test centres in England, Tim Oates is right to call for a rethink of the grammar test. In addition to a “genuine problem about undue complexity of demand” of the “language about language” (Mansell, 2017), better education in grammar teaching needs to be built into Initial Teacher Training and CPD for serving teachers to ensure that grammatical knowledge, though it can be a scholarship in its own right, serves to illuminate the beauty of writers’ art. As Debra Myhill’s research finds that grammar teaching can be beneficial to students’ writing, adding:

“The key is using grammar to open children’s eyes to the infinite repertoire of choices which are available to them as writers. Used in this way, grammar helps children understand how language works and how to express themselves with great craft and creativity.” (2014)

However, this outcome can only be achieved if Grammar is taught “in such a way that links meaningfully to how they write” (Mansell, 2017) – and read.

When Michael Gove set out his vision for the English teaching in KS3 and KS4, his personal plea of “the love of literature” would have resonated with many. Unless, we teach grammar and embed grammar in reading and writing meaningfully and discriminately, we are in danger of creating generations of young children who not only resent reading and writing but also struggle to articulate their thoughts clearly, coherently and cogently, never mind creatively.

Here’s a challenge. Re-write one or more of those sentences to improve their analytical and critical quality. In whatever colour you like as long as it’s not green. You can even simply rehearse in your head, too. Or even verbalise your attempts.


DfE (2010), The importance of teaching: the school’s white paper 2010

DfE (2013), National curriculum in England: English programmes of study

Exeter, University of (2014), New approach to writing changes policy and practice

Mansell, W. (2017), “Battle on the adverbials front: grammar advisers raise worries about Sats tests and teaching”, the Guardian

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Should I make that worksheet?

Should I make, or use, that worksheet?

One of the many strengths of the teaching profession is sharing resources, generously. After the weekend, most of us will be back to the classroom with our attention turned to all our examination groups: GCSE AND A-Level. For a reform subject such as English, the stake is high; everyone is determined to do it right. Being the first year of the new close-text examinations, part of the pressure comes from the demand on memory, for many students and teachers alike, memory of quotations in particular. To help students to achieve that end, and indeed, to tackle new focus on “summary” and “structure” many teachers are constructing resources that hopefully will meet the Assessment Objectives set out in the Mark Schemes for the four papers of English Language and English Literature. 

Inevitably and understandably, there has been a plethora of resources shared on Twitter. These resources range from worksheets to feedback forms; knowledge organisers to revision booklets. All of them are carefully and thoughtfully constructed and professionally presented. One cannot praise the generosity of these teachers enough.

Then, there’s the publication of an eight-point Reducing Teacher Workload poster by the teaching unions on Twitter, retweeted frequently to remind us all to work more smartly: be sensible, be reasonable and be kind to ourselves. 

But our challenge is not just about striking a balance between work and our other commitments in life. As regard the creation of resources, before I decide to create any learning resources, I ask myself these questions. Maybe you should, too, particularly if you are a middle or a senior leader:


– How many lessons do I (or your colleagues) teach in total?

– How many exam groups do I (or your colleagues) teach?

– What are my (their) pastoral duties and how many meeting and parents’ evening are there?


– If there’s a need to mark a worksheet, then, I ask myself what is being marked? Formative? Or summative? Do I need to mark basic literacy and SPaG, too, not to mention (mis)understanding of the content? Marking can easily get out of control if we don’t take a disciplined approach.

– Do I (they) need to provide feedback on the work completed on worksheets? How? Will highlighters or pens of multiple colours be involved?

– To keep sheets safe, sticking them into exercise books is a popular solution. Then there are logistic considerations, too: are there enough glue sticks (do they work), can the students use them sensibly particularly when they have to share one between two or more (where are the lids?). Do I need scissors (some students prefer to trim the sheets to fit onto the pages in their exercise books), are there enough ones for the left-handed pupils? Do I give gold star stickers? Or smiley face ones? A well-meaning feedback lesson can easily descend into a bad-tempered shouting match or scrap.

– But I (they) don’t just teach the examination groups. Even so, in addition to worksheets, are there other types of work that need to be marked for these students, essays, practised ‘perfect’ paragraphs or homework? Indeed is there any KS3 marking, too? Are there other forms, such as feedback or tracking sheets to be completed?


– If one or two “conscientious” student respond favourably to any resources, find out ‘exactly’ in what way. More importantly, find out the reactions of the others (majority). Are they apathetical, seeing it as just another sheet? Without truly understand how the material is supposed to help, how can they benefit from it? The likelihood is the exercise will produce only superficial outcome: the boxes are filled, scores recorded, but has any of the learning been internalised and ready to be expressed in structured, continuous prose in response to a given question in the examination? 

– Does the outcome justify all this paper work and the marking? Do I really need to mark this particular piece of work? Creating resources is time- and energy-consuming, not to mention other associated costs such as photocopying, etc.

Then there are questions about the possible further bureaucratic procedures generated by the initial worksheet or even tests.

– Recording (on mark book or on departmental data)

– Analysing (do I/they need to report? How?)

– Monitoring and tracking progress (Do I have time to analyse the data?)

– Actions 

= Is further teaching needed, group or individual? How?

= Is clarification of misconceptions required, group or individual? How?

= Do I need to trigger any interventions, when? How is it going to take place? When? Break time? Lunch time? Or after school? Should I (they) contact parents?

When I return to my examination groups after half term, I will try to ask myself these question whenever there’s an urge to produce resources of any nature.

Look after ourselves and each other.

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