Monday, June 29, 2015

One Rice Season in Taiwan as an Exchange Professor

By Dan Lehman, Professor of English

When I arrived in Taiwan, accompanied by my wife Barbara, to teach American Literature and composition at Providence University in Taichung, the rice paddies were bare, dark, and flooded. We have seen one crop grow a brilliant green, age to yellow, be shorn, and the stubble burned for a new crop in the flooded fields. Overall, it has been a wonderful experience that we will always treasure, and it's now time to go home. 

Dan and Barbara Lehman in a Taipei, Taiwan, city park not long after arriving in February.
Reflections on teaching: Taiwanese students are almost unfailingly sweet and polite. Any grouchy old-timers who bemoan the lack of respect for professors among modern-day students should definitely go to Taiwan. In fact, I found my students too polite and respectful for the most part and worked hard for a semester to encourage them to think and write critically and to speak up in class. Initially, they simply craved my telling them exactly what they needed to know so they could be sure to give me exactly what I wanted. As one said: “In the China way, we are not requested to explore or to create—just to receive.” By the end, at least some had discovered that their own ideas and research were worth sharing and could write a five-page essay instead of four-paragraph essays by rote on trivial topics.

About 10 percent of the students in my classes were on exchange from the People’s Republic of China, which added depth and diversity. On the whole, the PRC students tended to have better English and a bit more confidence in class, perhaps because they were the sorts of students willing to risk a foreign exchange. One student, who shall remain nameless (hey, the Chinese hackers get into more systems than you think), turned in an honest and somewhat devastating critique of her government’s policies on childbirth (generally one child per family, which in extreme cases can prompt families to discard infant females) that, though I did not prompt the topic, exemplified the sort of critical inquiry that I was encouraging. I couldn’t help noticing that she wrote it by hand rather than using a computer to generate it. Another female student from the PRC told me that her parents gave her the English name “Talent” in direct defiance of the Chinese proverb: “A woman without talent is therefore virtuous.” She proved to be my best student in either class. Her parents not only celebrated their female child, but provided a way for her to study in a democracy—certainly a memory for me to cherish.

Dan and his composition students at Providence University. Also pictured are Barbara Lehman and Dan's daughter and granddaughter.
My American Literature class had 64 students and thus much less opportunity for this sort of exchange, in that it had to be mostly lecture during the three-hour weekly class on topics from Huck Finn to American postmodernism. The saving grace was that the students remained fascinated by American literature and culture, particularly by frank discussions of the blemishes in our past: slavery, the racism of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and the like. I scrupulously avoided Chinese or Taiwanese politics in both classes, but was willing to answer questions about the U.S., so long as they knew that mine was only one opinion. Their interest in all things American seemed unquenchable. In fact a professor at a major university in Taipei reported last week in a Taipei Times op-ed piece that he polled his students on whether they would rather re-unify with China, form an independent Taiwan, or become the 51st American state. By a landslide they chose the latter option, he said. Intriguing! Barbara and I will always remember the island’s young students who find themselves in a land of uncertain future: in many ways cut off from the world by power and circumstance, but so hopeful for what their island might be and become.