*This post was originally published on Culture Counter, which is now shut down*
Coming back home to California from Taiwan, I worried about adapting to the fattening food, constant driving, and uninformed people questioning me about where Taiwan is, but I didn’t realize that teaching American students in my native country would be somewhat of an adjustment. I have been substitute teaching 6th grade science, math, and engineering classes for the last week and the students are well behaved, inquisitive, and helpful. But instead of uniforms, they wear tie-dye shirts and flip flops for spirit day and instead of chatting away secretly in Chinese, I overhear them discussing why sitting on acorns feels good and that one of them heard about some coffee with six different shots of flavor. It seems students in every country are a little weird.
I am now a part of the rat race. I commute thirty minutes to school, while sipping my coffee and blasting Top 40 music, like Drake. I eat my packed lunch with middle-aged ladies who discuss home improvement projects, sassy students, and how they wish they could drink wine at work, like in Italy. I am the youngest employee at the school and it’s probably obvious because I play talk show clips on YouTube when there are no students in the classroom. Strangest of all, this school is where I attended 6th grade. It’s as if I am trying out an alternate life. This is where I could have been all along. This is where I may be if I move back home for good. My former PE teacher comes in the classroom where I am teaching how to build a tower out of CD’s, floppy discs (I had to explain to the students that they are prehistoric USBs), and paper. She remembers me and how quiet I was. Now, I yell at students for forgetting a red pen.
I didn’t realize how Asian in my teaching I had become until I told my dad (whose classroom I am subbing while he heals up from hip surgery) that I was going to give the whole class extra math problems because a couple students had not cleaned up their desks.
“Why punish the whole class for something two students did? I never punish the whole class for anything” said my usually strict father.
I had forgotten the American independence; how we are all unique snowflakes and our choices only reflect on ourselves. Teaching in South Korea and Taiwan, it had been the opposite. We are one. What we do reflects on all of us. My Asian students knew that bad behavior made the whole class look bad and were constantly policing each other. If two students hadn’t cleaned up their desks, it would be on the whole class because it was their job to make sure everyone was on task. American students are taught if they themselves are on task, then there is nothing else to worry about. I passed out a test to the 6th graders here in California, and many of them groaned, saying they had forgotten about it, but most didn’t seem worried. In Taiwan, test days were a time to prove how good your class was. It was when we tried our best to do better than the other classes and if a student got a low grade, there were tears and disappointed looks from other students. American students give each other sympathy when a bad grade is spotted on top of a test. “You’ll do better next time.”
I am confused by the lack of zealousness from American students when it comes to their classes, but it probably comes from the fact that they don’t need to spend their every waking hour at school. It is important, but it’s not their life. In Taiwan, my students spent ten hours or more at school a day. Here, school lasts five hours every Wednesday and a regular day is only six. My god, I love it. The absolute freedom of taking off at 1pm on a weekday to go get lunch with friends is decadent compared with leaving work at 5pm or 6pm in Taiwan to go zone out in front of the TV because I felt so overworked. The students are obviously less stressed here and it’s wonderful to see them walking home with friends, playing, and reading books out in the sunshine. I realize how intelligent and hard working my former Taiwanese students were, but at what cost?
Overall, I’ve immensely enjoyed teaching Californian students, joking around with them, and not being worried that they don’t understand the words I am saying. It’s a relief to see that I can handle an American classroom after five years away. But, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to students coming in from lunch with sideways baseball hats and blue Slurpee all over their face. I guess that’s the American way.