The Process of Remembering

Sunday, 18 August 2018

Hazy start followed by a bright, sunny day

I woke up to the first hazy morning since last Wednesday. Back in the UK, I moan about sunless days, but the coolness in LA this morning was a much welcomed relief, particularly after a persistent headache that I had yesterday, perhaps from the heat, or it could be the stress from living with my own family again, albeit temporarily.

After breakfast, I drove mum to visit dad’s grave with a bunch of flowers. Eight-year absence meant it took me a few minutes to locate his gravestone in the striped lawn which was always kept respectfully manicured. Mum pointed out that there’s a pot for flowers and I had to rum my fingers through the thick grass blades to search for me. The grass had taken root in the sunken flower pot. I dug out the damp turf with fresh roots like tiny white veins, still warm between my fingers under a cool, grey sky. The soil clung on in my fingernails.

I held the bouquet close to my chest and offered my wordless bye-bye, bowed my head three times. Then it’s mum’s turn. The process lasted longer; she paused for a second or two between each bow. I didn’t know what her silence incantation said. We arranged the flowers to a more cheerful display: purple and white chrysanthemums, accentuated by a yellow rose and a yellow daisy surrounded by green button poms. The bouquet was finally propped upright and cushioned by the spongy root ball that I pulled up earlier.

The black granite gravestone had gone cloudy. I dapped Kleenex with some ice-cold water from my water bottle filled with half ice and half water. Each horizontal wipe revealed a shiny band reflecting the sunshine that was burning through the haze. I breathed into more stubborn marks and rubbed the dirt out of the white carvings. “Beloved Husband, Father and Grandfather” gleamed in the Californian sun. A coyote strolled past us, paused a good ten yards from us and looked in our direction. I looked in marvel; I had never seen a coyote in my life before. Then it strolled off and disappeared behind the hill.

I told mum how I saw dad’s grave from several thousand feet up when I flew over the Memorial Park during my second attend to return to the UK after a two-week delay following the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull Volcano after dad’s funeral. I sat back down, brushing the grass clippings off my knees. We looked into the distance without saying much. I could feel the damp rising through the fabric of my shorts.

Eight years on, I was pleasantly reassured about the spot that we’d chosen for dad. I don’t know how a fengshui expert would have made of the topography, but I loved the fact it was near the top of a small hill behind another hill on which the Chapel sat. Between these two hills sat a water park with a fountain issuing jets like a silvery jacaranda and a rocky waterfall glistening in the sun like cascading beads. Beyond that, it was St Bernardino Valley in a perpetual haze. Here I found tranquility and seclusion protected also by another hill on the left. It still felt as peaceful as it did then this morning.

“Let’s go,” mum said. We rose. Mum put her hands together and bowed. I followed, then we returned to my brother’s 20-year-old Infiniti Q45. The heat was rising rapidly as the haze cleared to reveal the blue sky. In the opposite direction, car after car snaked their way up the winding road. St Bernardino Valley woke in a hazy light. I dreamed about dad before leaving the UK. He was a frail old man but with a soft face and kind eyes. In my dream, I enveloped dad in my arms and asked him if he knew who I was like a small boy clinging to a dad coming home from work. He uttered my name softly in my ear.

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Teach like a bowling champion

Teach like a bowling champion

From the past four seasons, I have learned a few valuable lessons from hundreds of thousands of paces up and down the rinks of bowling greens in North Yorkshire from Harrogate to Richmond. I have been competing in fixtures and competitions as a regular skipper and the occasional club captain as the Vice Captain of my club. I believe that the way I lead my team and club reflects many of my values and beliefs. I believe that if I take a thoughtful approach to create an equitable system, the scores will look after themselves. 

These are my principles: 

  1. I don’t buy into the cliche argument, “They are just not good enough”, as a reason not to enlist female players to lead our teams. No one can be a better player when opportunities to develop skills are denied and support to grow is not given. Investment is key. 
  2. Being a skip is not just about playing the winning shots. As a skip, you need to know 1) your teammates’ strengths and weaknesses, 2) the woods that your teammates use so as to direct their defensive, offensive and scoring shots, 3) how to read each new rink and adapt to its idiosyncrasies so as to advise your teammates, 4) how to read the games as they unfold and develop your responses and strategies, 5) how to stay calm and focused at all times (it’s a long game), 6) how to be encouraging and helpful to your teammates rather than being negative and critical even when they are not performing as you expect them to (mustn’t mistake sarcastic remarks as motivational comments), and finally, 7) how to celebrate even the smallest success of your teammates.
  3. As a captain, you are also viewed as the symbolic figure of your club, not just another competitor. Your conduct can determine how your club culture is perceived by other clubs. Graciousness, integrity and generosity make each game an enjoyable experience for all participants. 
  4. When you lose as a club, you offer hope rather than deepen the sense of frustration and start pointing fingers of blame. 
  5. When you win, you celebrate the success of your players by highlighting exactly what they have done that have contributed to the club’s success. 
  6. Putting your teams together from the team sheets can reflect a captain’s values and beliefs. There are many considerations: 1) who are they, 2) who can work with whom, based on personalities, past game history and current relationship, 3) how do each individual’s skills compliment one another, 4) the order of players – who lead, who follow and who skip, 5) plan B, what do you do should situation demand before you swap match cards with the captain of the other club, and 6) crucially, apart from hoping to win, what do you also want to achieve from picking your teams in the way you do?
  7. As a Captain who puts the teams together, do you organise your teams because 1) the individual players have always played in those positions, 2) women are better as leads and men skippers, or 3) you want to provide opportunities for your players to discover and develop new skills?
  8. For me, my objective in this season is to raise the profile and develop the talents of the female players. I have started using them as skippers in matches. The results have been transformative in terms of boosting their confidence and improving their skills from casual participants to competitive players (next step, strategic). Winning gives us all a wonderfully warm and fuzzy feeling; however, there’s more than bragging rights during the post-match supper and raffle draw.

Do you go, “Oh, that sounds just like teaching”? 

Yes. And no.

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Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan – a Review

Green Island

As a child born and brought up in a Veteran’s Village in Taiwan in the 60s and 70s, my early childhood was overshadowed by the constant warning – from my ex-Nationalist army officer father – of the Communist bandits who lurked in dark alleyways who kidnapped and murdered children. Communist bandits were not the real danger of the night. The real menace came knocking on your door without warning.

The White Terror cast a very long shadow in the history of Taiwan after the arrival of the Nationalist Government following their defeat by the Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army in 1949. Martial Law was declared on 19 May of the same year, the Island was subjected to the draconian administration of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT). The brutality of Taiwan’s new ruler made the locals nostalgic for their Japanese colonial master who only returned the island to the Chinese in 1945. The authoritarianism of Chiang Kai-Shek’s dictatorship created a climate of suspicion and surveillance. Dissidents who criticised the KMT and supported a Taiwan self-rule were not only suppressed, they were liable to be arrested and persecuted. Many of these arrests were carried out in secret. It was estimated that before the lift of the Martial Law on 15 July 1987, some 140,000 people were imprisoned and 3,000 to 4,000 were executed, most of them intellectuals and social elite.

Preluded by Green Island Serenade, a well-known folk song to the Taiwanese, Shawna Yang Ryan’s historical novel, Green Island, chronicles the enduring saga of the three generations of the Tsai family, spanning from the aftermath of the 2-28 Massacre in 1947 to 2003 when the Island was threatened by another deadly threat of SARS. Through her meticulous research, Ryan interweaves her tales with historical events that shape not only Taiwan’s political destiny but also those of her characters. Growing up through some of the decades covered in the novels, Ryan’s story will resonate with much of the lived experience of many of my generation in Taiwan: when aspirations are tested in every turn by oppression, racism and personal demons. It is fiction made powerfully authentic by its social realism.

Indeed, social reality is documented with a narrative detachment free of sentimentality but oppressive in its evocative images. Ryan’s narrator takes us back to her mother’s attempt to track down her missing father, presumed dead, at the Keelung Harbour that has acquired a dubious reputation of “a watery graveyard”:

Enterprising fishermen offer their dinghies for a small fee. My mother beckoned one over and the boatman held her hand as she stepped in. He wore a peaked straw hat, like a farmer, which cast his face in shadow, and a bandanna masked everything below his eyes. She huddled in the boat, holding me to her chest and a handkerchief pressed to her nose and mouth. Her blouse was damp with milk.

With a long pole, the fisherman carefully negotiated their way around the bodies . . . My mother scanned the water as if one swollen corpse could be distinguished from another. She swallowed the nausea that rose up her throat. She ignored the faces, which waterlogged, had become alike, and looked for a telling glow, a chain of gold revealed through the translucent wet seam of a shirt. She cried out a few times, and each time the fisherman stopped and nudged the body, but something would be wrong: the hair was too long, the watch had a square face not round, the pants were brown not black.

They searched all afternoon, until the fisherman finally said, “He’s not here.”

Distant this particular scene of macabre must seem to many readers unfamiliar with the socio-political upheaval of Taiwan but accustomed to its stereotypical images as a factory of cheap imitations, or perhaps one of the “four little dragons of Asia”, or even for its “economical miracle”, and in the educational context, its top spots in the international tests (PISA).

Ryan’s Green Island succeeds in not only telling an important story of survival that would have been silenced only a few decades ago. It is a must-read for those thirsty for the knowledge of the cultural imperatives that help explain and dispel some of the stereotypes, misconceptions and misunderstandings of contemporary Taiwan – not Thailand, and definitely not China.

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When my father passed away, I inherited his memoirs. They were drafts of varying stages of readiness. Some were neater copies of earlier attempts; some rewrites of disjointed threads; all enthralling, an alien world in his familiar hand.

My father was educated by my great-grandfather (that’s another story). But the Chinese Civil War broke out and interrupted his learning of the Four Books and Five Classics. Besides, a life fighting the “Communist bandits” at least meant a life of guaranteed food and lodging. My father was an orphan and raised by tolerating relatives. The Army became a quasi-family and helped numb the pain of being parentless.

My father believed that he was born in the twelfth year of the Republic, in December 20. An insertion in the narrow margin reads “lunar calendar”. Converted into the Gregorian calendar, my father was born on Thursday, 17th January, 1924. His passport recorded a later date. The Lien family lived in a rural part of Henan Province in central China, known to be the birth place of the Chinese Civilisation. Life was simple and dominated by agricultural activities. Born in a small hamlet named Ma Po (Horse Hill), my father was nicknamed Xiao Po (Little Hill). His infant life turned out to be exactly an uphill struggle against illness, poverty and loss of both parents.

As soon as he was old enough, my father was told about his traumatic introduction into this world by my grandfather. Barely one-year-old, a lump appeared on the left hand side of his neck, my father was told. The lump grew, pus formed, doctors sought and herbal remedy applied. The swelling eventually went down. Another one developed on the right hand side. It was worse. When fed with goat milk, it would leak out through a hole in his mouth. Fluid filled his body, now fighting whatever virus that was ravaging inside him. My father was as good as dead. On one occasion, he stopped breathing. The worst was not death itself; it’s when? My father was told that countless silver coins were spent on the succession of doctors. He was but tiny bones in a water balloon. Harvesting took away all the men and he was looked after by my grandmother, other older female relatives and the family dog.

Xiao Bai (Little White) understood. My grandfather instructed Xiao Bai to lie next to my father who was placed on a straw mat on the floor. The faithful dog watched over the lifeless infant day and night. One day when all the adults were busy in the field or cooking lunch for the men and other farmhands, Xiao Bai ran barking towards the kitchen. Alarm was raised and before long my grandparents were bawling with grief. “Xiao Po is dead.” A village elder was summoned. My grandparents must have had foreseen the unavoidable when they placed my father on a straw mat. Elder Lee rolled my father up in the straw mat like an small dead animal and carried my father out to the graveyard for those who met their deaths in the most wretched and unfortunate circumstances where I have always imaged a lone ancient tree stood. Xiao Bai followed the human train, crying as he went.

My grandparents must have felt that fate had dealt a cruel hand on them. Within the first couple of years since my father’s birth, they had sold almost all the land and possessions that they had to pay for the medical bills. They still couldn’t save their child. The lines in my father’s writing are filled with the word Ku (cry). Everybody was grief-stricken. Misery persisted.

Suddenly, Elder Lee’s heavy steps stopped just before he reached the hill of the ill-fated. Something moved. He unwrapped his parcel on the ground and saw a pair of weary eyes opening. A hand moved, then a toe twitched. “Xiao Po yo huo le,” (Xiao Po came back to life again) he cry-shouted, and ordered Xiao Bai to fetch my grandfather. The faithful dog rushed home and barked and pulled at my grandfather’s clothes to follow him. The funeral procession now turned into a revelry of rebirth. My father was carried back home and the house was raucous with stories of my father’s miracle recovery. My father remained frail, but at least he was alive – for now.

My grandfather continued his story about my father. A day after my father’s miracle waking, an old beggar woman turned up on the door step. Beggars were not unusual in rural China in the early 1920s. They travelled from village to village, seeking out prosperous families for hand-outs. The old woman noticed the sick child and took an immediate interest. Without saying much else, she announced she would return with some remedies and left promptly without further exchange of pleasantries or indeed receiving any gift. Her sudden appearance and even more abrupt departure caused much intrigue and discussion, not much was thought of her wish to help.

Then, she returned. As promised, the old beggar woman produced some herbal paste and syrup for my father. Dubious they might be, my grandparents did not have the luxury of caution; they had pawned most of their possessions and sold most of their farmland. The old beggar woman wanted nothing from them. She persisted with her diligence and she administered the medication, returning every so often to check on my father’s progress. Within months, the beggar woman nursed my father back to reasonable health. Grateful for her intervention, my grandparents and all the relatives treated the old beggar woman as the benefactor of the Lien family and honoured her kindness by inviting her to be my father’s “gan niang” (“dry” mother/Godmother). My father was told never to forget to repay her kindness when he was old enough. In her usual enigmatic fashion, the old beggar woman departed without a trace. My grandfather set about tracking her down but no one could offer any intelligence or report any sighting of such an old beggar woman in her description.

Then, the boy turned six. On 12 of December of the lunar calendar in 1929, the family were discussing marking such an occasion – that only a few years ago would have seemed such a preposterous idea – by celebrating my father’s birthday. Their planning was silenced by the unannounced arrival of the old beggar woman. The joy spread like the barley waves in the prairies. Everyone stood up to offer their seats. My father was pushed forward and instructed to kneel in front of the old woman to kowtow to his saviour, now regarded as almost like a living deity. The family’s wish was conveyed to the unexpected guest. However, their enthusiasm was only greeted with an emphatic sigh of disapproval. “It’s best not to have a birthday celebration,” she pronounced. A quieter discussion ensued. My great-grandfather – one of Qing dynasty’s last Jinshi on the Emperor’s Golden List – respected the old beggar woman’s authority and recognised her wisdom in saving my father’s young life. He concurred and called off the celebration. The old beggar woman was never seen again.

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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 touching 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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