A couple of months ago my daughter’s fourth grade class selected the model students, as they do every year. The last two years the model student had been my daughter, and, being the nicest human being I know, she was the shoo-in for this years election as well. When the teacher, M., wrote her name and several others on the board as candidates, there was an objection: Sheridan had already been picked twice. It just wasn’t fair.

The local culture’s attitude toward competition is completely schizo. On the one hand, we hear all the time about how competitive the school system is, and that’s true in many respects. But on the other, losing is not merely a failure to obtain something, but is regarded as a seriously negative loss of face. How does the system handle that?

In the US we solve the problem of competitive failure being too painful to bear by several strategies — providing multiple competitions so everyone can win, handing out prizes even for the low finishers, or doing away with competitive frameworks and substituting cooperative games. In every case, regardless of the solution chosen, the principle of victory by merit is assured. Even when the 8th place finisher gets a prize, she is still the eighth place finisher.

Since competitive failure involves a loss of face, it is a problem in Taiwan society, where people go to elaborate lengths to preserve face. In Taiwan it is resolved by keeping the framework of competition — there is a prize, competing, and a winner — but eliminating its inner meaning. The “winner” becomes a selected position rather than one given out for merit. For example, at a university I taught at, the Teacher of the Year award was given on a rotating basis so that it was distributed fairly among departments and teachers. The award had no meaning, but the framework was preserved. At the end of the year the teacher received an award and made a speech. Everyone clapped. Hooray!

So my daughter’s fourth grade teacher, faced with this objection, swung into action. Immediately he deleted my daughter’s name and replaced it with that of the person objecting, HT, the nasty social climber that I have written on before, and another student, L. When the smoke cleared, HT and L had been selected model students.

Life, however, loves irony. A week or two later, after the names of HT and L had been placed on the wall for all to see, and trophies made, HT and L were busted by several students for cheating on the Chinese test.

This caused a mini-crisis. Our school is small and has been part of the community for five decades. Many of the parents went there as well, and they all know each other. Fourth Grade politics are thus adult politics, masked, recapitulating struggles between the parents that date back to their elementary school days. The teacher, M., is lazy and doesn’t want to get involved. I think anyone who knows Taiwan can imagine what will happen: nothing.

The situation also brings up another problem, which is the lack of enforcement here. It occurs at every level of society and begins at school. Last year one of my advisees was busted for cheating — obnoxiously, he had someone sit in on the test for him — and the school did nothing to him. All he had to do was express remorse and he got off scot-free, although I pushed for him to be expelled (two of the boys were caught that same day being in the girls dorm room after ten — permanent demerits, again over my protests). Wonder why the cops let the traffic law violators go? Partly because they learned to in fourth grade.

The problems of Taiwan society begin during the socialization process in school. One excellent way to understand how the Beautiful Isle really works is to send your kid to the local elementary school.