Semester End’s Reflections

In a week and two days, my husband and son will have completed their first semester of school here. The school year is well underway and everyone at school has settled into a routine. We’ve had opportunities to check out the city and what it has to offer. Conclusion: we’re underwhelmed, to say the least.

We’ve tried giving both the school and city a chance, keeping an open mind knowing that we were quite unfamiliar with both and that we needed to get through the throes of culture shock first. I’ve tried being objective and refrained from forming an opinion. But both my husband and I can’t help but acknowledge the lack of connection we feel with this place.

First, the school. Thinking back on all the schools my son has attended in his life thus far, I feel very fortunate that they’ve all been great schools and he’s had some really good teachers. Back in the U.S., he attended two different public schools for two years, kindergarten and fourth grade. He was accepted into special programs at both schools, which gave him a better and an entirely different public-school experience than the rest of the students. In kindergarten, he was lucky enough to be in a Chinese Immersion Program housed in the only public PYP school in our county. For fourth grade, he was accepted into one of the centers for the gifted in our county, also housed in a regular public school.

In Thailand, the international school he attended had creative and passionate teachers, a wonderful music and arts program, and taught the kids values such as compassion and kindness through its curriculum and fund-raising events held throughout the school year. Even though the student population consisted of mostly local kids, the school worked to cultivate a global mindset by holding annual events such as an international cultural and food fair (it was always a big hit in the community) and spirit week. Although the academics were nothing spectacular, my son was moved to create, and he blossomed in his artistic and writing abilities. He also was stimulated by his surroundings, by the beautiful and exotic architecture, clothing, cultural traditions, food, and language.

At his current school, things are pretty different. As I’ve alluded to in a previous post, the school spent too much money building its facilities. Now they’re on a tighter budget and there are fewer resources for the students and teachers. Class sizes are fairly large for a private school (there are 25 students in each of the fifth-grade classes). The curriculum and the teachers also have been less than dynamic and innovative. At the high school level, the number of courses offered is limited compared to other international schools of its size.

My son’s current teacher also is new to Taiwan, but is an experienced teacher. She promised to provide my son and a couple of other advanced kids challenging and stimulating material; however, that hasn’t come to fruition. While they’re reading more difficult books, the activities they are completing for the books are no more challenging than what my son did in the second and third grades–dioramas, summaries of the stories. Last year, he was writing analytical pieces on essays, novels, and other types of writings. He also no longer has an entire class of peers who share similar interests and function at the same academic level, so he and the other two advanced kids aren’t exactly being encouraged to aim high academically these days. The specials offered by the school are unimaginative, and there are few after-school activities to choose from. The few special events and students performances the school has put together so far are both uninspired and uninspiring. It feels like everyone working with the kids at the school is merely phoning it in.

The one academic challenge that my son has had so far is learning Mandarin. It’s a very difficult language to learn, and he had a hard time at the beginning. But once he got over the hump of learning the writing, he has picked it up fairly quickly and is enjoying it. I try to speak Mandarin with him at home (I frequently forget because English comes to me much more naturally), and he enjoys putting words together to make jokes and puns. He also recognizes characters on street and store-front signs and food packages, and is able to order some drinks and dishes in Mandarin by himself.

Unfortunately, all that is about to be taken away from him and his classmates. The school offers Mandarin classes to all students from grades 1 to 5. Starting in middle school and through high school, however, Mandarin is offered only to native speakers. Non-native speakers are then required to choose either Japanese or Spanish starting in the sixth grade! This policy makes no sense because there are non-native students who have invested many years in learning Mandarin at the school and achieved a near-native level in Mandarin, but will need to start over with a new foreign language once they reach middle school. We didn’t know about this policy when my husband decided to accept this position. In fact, it didn’t even occur to us to ask about this policy because all international schools require its foreign students to learn the local language! As we speak, a group of expat parents are working to reverse this policy, and we had our first meeting with the superintendent yesterday. But I’m not getting my hopes up for a change in policy anytime soon.

The quality of the students and the teachers at the school also are fairly lackluster. The students lack personality, intellect, curiosity, and a sense of humor. Many of them are spoiled and arrogant, like their parents, simply because of their social status and family wealth. The mindset of the students, as well as the parents and the locals, is rigid and narrow. The only focus of these students and parents is academics. They are not well-rounded or interested in learning about anything that doesn’t further their academic careers.

The school also lacks heart and spirit. Everything that it does seems to fall short. It is also very insular. While it promotes itself as a place that encourages and teaches global citizenship, that is far from the case. Most of the students are local with foreign passports (a requirement to attend the school), and many of them speak Mandarin among themselves during class and outside of the classroom, which leaves many foreign students feeling socially isolated. The school does nothing to help expat students to assimilate and fit in socially. My son, fortunately, is fairly adaptable and makes friends easily. He has a few good friends–not as many as he had last year, but he is someone who is happy as long as he has at least one good friend to connect with.

I also find the students and their parents self-absorbed and selfish. The students don’t bother to form relationships with their teachers and other adults in their lives unless they need or want something from them, such as college recommendations. They very rarely think of others and how they can contribute to the world and society.

Last week, the school held its annual winter holiday concert. The auditorium started out as standing-room only, but by the end of the concert, less than half of it was filled. The reason? The parents and family members would leave in droves after seeing their own children perform! Even after the superintendent emphasized the need to stay for the entire performance to show support for the school, the parents continued to act selfishly. One of the teachers sent out a scolding email to her parents afterwards, and got some parents to apologize. They admitted they had never thought about how their actions might make the others kids feel to know they were performing to a half-empty auditorium! Really?!

The expat teachers, for the most part, are dull and uninterested in what one would expect expats to be interested in–exploring their new country, its culture, and local cuisine; and learning the language. Most of them enjoy the lavish lifestyle that teaching overseas affords them, but that’s about it. We have found only one family, also new this year and from our area back home, that shares our values and interest in exploring and learning about other cultures.

Academically and socially, it hasn’t been a good fit for us. Even more disappointing is that it’s been the same outside of school. We have not enjoyed living in this city of generic-looking high-rises. While the city has several parks, they take time to get to, and the weather and air quality don’t always allow for time outdoors. Everything is very spread out here, and without a car, it’s inconvenient and difficult to get places. Grocery shopping always takes up most of a day, leaving little time for leisure.

There also is very little culture in this city and very few places of interest to visit. We’ve been able to explore other parts of Taiwan, such as Ciaotou, Taipei, and Wulai, and have enjoyed visiting and exploring those places immensely, so it’s this particular city that we don’t like. The bad air quality also has put a damper on things. The temperature these days is very pleasant, but the horrible air quality makes it hard to spend time outside. This means we’re usually stuck inside, and we aren’t able to be as active as we used to be.

So this move and living here hasn’t been as smooth and wonderful as what we had hoped. Maybe next year will be different or maybe it won’t. But at this point, we’re quite certain that we won’t be staying in Taiwan long-term. The question that remains is whether to look for another international placement or to move back home to the U.S.



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