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.