The Taiwanese love formality. This culture is big into structure, rules, accountability, and all of the pomp and circumstance that comes with. It starts when they are in school. Kids are constantly participating in academic, speaking, and music competitions. “Big tests” are frequent, and results and class ranks are published publicly. I have seen this emphasis on accountability have many positive implications — most notably, ubiquitous compliance with government mandates of mask-wearing, hotel quarantine, contact tracing, and countless other Covid regulations. (More on this in a coming post.) I think it also comes with its costs, e.g. extrinsically-motivated students with a penchant for memorization over understanding and book smarts over critical thinking. And before you think this is just one outsider’s uninformed opinion, I’ve heard many Taiwanese people share the same concerns.
Recently, I have been working on a project with two of my colleagues. The owner of my current school has aspirations of opening a new, “experimental,” international school and she asked me and two other teachers to help. Over the past few months we have developed curriculum and a year plan for all subjects including math, language arts, STEAM, social-emotional learning, and physical education. We have created rubrics for teacher evaluation and we have provided counsel on various aspects of the process. It ended up being a bigger project than I thought when I first signed on but, eventually, we finished, everything was translated into Chinese, and the people in charge submitted the proposal to the government.
Here’s where the formality comes in. One of the unique pillars of this new school will be its relationship with National Chung Hsing University (NCHU). For one, the elementary school building will be on the NCHU campus. Second, the owner signed an agreement with the teacher’s college stating that they will help train new teachers coming to Taiwan and in return, their students will be given a place to practice teaching and working with kids. (I think?? We don’t really know what this was all about. It’s amazing how much I don’t know what’s happening around here. Now, where was I? Ah yes, signing ceremony.) So in honor of this partnership, my colleagues and I were invited to attend a “signing ceremony” at the University.
We were driven over to one of the buildings on campus at 11:00 on a Monday where we were greeted by the dean of… something. He welcomed us warmly and led us to a classroom where we found our name cards and stood politely but awkwardly behind our chairs until we saw other people sitting down. The tables were arranged in a horseshoe with six of us from Cornel on one side, four professors from the university on the other, and the owner of the new school and the Dean of Something in the middle. (author’s note: I will continue to refer to this new/experimental school by anything other than its real name because I don’t actually know it. We designed the whole curriculum but were not consulted or informed when it came to naming. I think it has a Chinese name and a clumsy English translation but I can’t remember. Again, you’d be surprised by how little we actually know about seemingly important things.) We looked like this:
After a few minutes, the emcee read from her script that the ceremony would now begin. We would later find out that the emcee was a student in the teacher training program and was also the University (or possibly national?) champion of cup stacking! To being, the leaders each introduced their teams like an NBA starting lineup and we clapped for each individual. As an example, mine went something like this. “This is Evan Wettengal. He has a lot of experience with… teaching and I’m pretty sure he has been very knowledgeable in developing the different parts of this thing that he helped develop.”* Clap clap clap.
After introductions, the emcee informed us that it was time to sign certificates with fancy fonts in leather folders. So they did and, from where I was sitting, it looked like this:
Next, the emcee informed us that now we would all stand together and take a picture. So we did:
After that, each of the leaders gave a short speech saying how proud they were of their teams and how excited they were for this opportunity. Following speeches was a discussion portion. Each of us teachers were expected to ask a question of the committee of professors. We tried to ask thoughtful questions. We received, I felt, rather vague, fluffy responses. It is still mostly unclear to me what this partnership actually is or what this ceremony actually represented.
I should take a moment to point out that while we did our best on this project, none of us will be involved in this school moving forward, so our investment is rather limited. A while back, the owner asked me to lead the new school, which I took as a nice compliment. I did give it brief consideration. Ultimately, the intrigue and potential of this opportunity had more risks than benefits for me at this time. More than that, I feel that it’s time for me to head home, at least for a while. Even still, I am very curious to see what comes of this project!**
Anyway, after the discussion portion, the emcee, ever-professional, and with a careful eye on the clock at all times, informed us that the ceremony was now over. We were each given a box full of various breads and pastries. We shook a few hands, gave a few smiles and bows, and headed back to our real jobs.
Overall, I loved this as a cultural experience. I am proud of our work on this project and honored that I was able to be a part of it. While my American colleagues and I found the ceremony a bit, perhaps, over-the-top, I do appreciate the cultural desire to make a big deal out of inconsequential events. I am in awe of the Taiwanese people’s courtesy, politeness, and adherence to rules and formalities. It’s very different from the way I operate: gregarious, sarcastic, and iconoclastic. I think it has probably been good for me to experience the other end of the spectrum and get some lessons in smiling and nodding shutting the f*ck up sometimes. There are pros and cons to both, of course, as I mentioned at the top of this post. As with anything and everything in life, the best results come from finding the balance in the middle. Be polite, respect authority, honor traditions… AND… question institutions, break rules in the name of justice, and don’t be boring. Is it possible to do both? Should we try?
**DM me for actual opinions