My daughter started school again today. We send her to a very small school nearby, with only two classes per grade, each with around 18 students. Each semester the administration begs students transferring out to other schools to register at my daughter’s school first. That way, when the school forwards the list of registered students to the ministry, there will be enough students in each grade to form two classes. If that is not the case, then the two classes of around 17 must be consolidated into one of 35, which means that the school loses one teacher, one administrator, and some of its funding.

My life in Taiwan consists of crossing a series of rings, each one permitting deeper understanding of what goes on around you (I can hear all you cynics making comments about circles of Hell). Teaching in Taiwan, marrying here, raising kids here, sending them to school — each experience enables me to understand the Beautiful Isle in a new way. Especially school, for school is where the nation is formed……

Over the years we’ve had some interesting cross-cultural moments. Last year the school wanted all the students in third grade to memorize a Tang poem and recite it in front of the entire school assembly, held once a week. My daughter could barely sleep with the fear of doing that. We were also against it — memorizing things you don’t understand to give performances that you don’t want to do, and that no one wants to hear, is a marvelous way to learn to hate poetry. We put our foot down about that. The principal was very sympathetic, but he had his side too. My daughter is a westerner and her learning motivations are entirely different than the locals. The principal explained that it was OK for her to forego the recital, but if he didn’t push the local kids, they wouldn’t do anything, and worse, he’d have nothing concrete to show the parents. This bothered him greatly — he’d like to see the kind of change that would create more children like my daughter, who consistently wins top student and behavior awards — but he’s locked into a system that is tremendously difficult to change. Indeed, there is a steady leakage of students away from my daughter’s school to the huge elementary in town, with over 2,000 students, where the kids are treated more strictly — they are hit, I’ve heard. For many parents in the local culture, school is supposed to prepare children for life, which is brutal.

Therefore school must be as well.

I’ve also noted how the system is slowly shaping my daughter in ways that I am very uncomfortable with. We only send her for half a day although she is now in fourth grade — we bring her home and she does homework and English stuff at home (to accomplish that, you need only inform the school in writing that you plan to pick her up early every day). Like many expats with kids in the local system, we plan to take her out after sixth grade, when the system gets brutally test-focused.