January 23, 2007

One Guy's Opinion...Oh! Did You See The Colts?

I had a demonstration class at a bicycle components manufacturer this evening. I was told to prepare two classes for 5-6 people, one intermediate, one "High-Intermediate." I got one high-intermediate student, and three intermediate students. No sweat, they were a great bunch to teach for a half an hour. It was one of those situations where there is no syllabus, no placement test, no text book, please make it interactive. That sort of thing. With Free Coffee...and ducats.

The first session went off without a hitch. They both did, actually. Thanks. In the second session, we did a quick little activity on Starting a Conversation. We talked about when, why, and how, and then why not. Not to stereotype engineers (there's a but coming), because we all know where the world would be without them, but the average engineer in my experience in Taiwan is not the most gregarious individual. Or robust. That said, at least two of my in-laws are engineers and wonderfully amusing people to be around (love you guys, mean it).

What I was trying to get at was "What are some situations in which you would be likely to start a conversation with a foreigner-stranger?" Immediately you have alarm bells. They don't want to talk to strange foreigners. Having done my share of human resources work in Taiwan, I know exactly where they're coming from. But once we got Stranger (ie someone you don't know very well) and Strange Foreigner (ie Canadian) straightened out, it was rough for them to figure out just when they would want to initiate a conversation with a foreigner.

Years ago, I mentioned over a beer that I had recommended that my students talk to honkies that they see on the street, y'know, just to ask them where they are from, stuff like that. The North Americans I was sitting with were aghast. "Oh for Fuck's Sake, Man! Don't do THAT!" I won't mention what country they were from, I'll just say that they often have a tendency to place overmuch emphasis on the minutiae of money. (I must be very careful with my stereotypes here. I may have already alienated the engineers in the world, and next thing you know the Canadians will be after me. Oh, now I've gone and done it.) What this gentleman was objecting to was the fact that he wasn't paid to speak to the locals outside of the class, & if they wanted to practice their English with him, they were going to have to pony up.

Now I can't imagine why anyone would want to pay money to have a conversation with that guy, but this is Taiwan. Personally, it depends on what kind of mood I'm in. There are a few kids that I meet on my daily travels that like to come out and say hello and see what's up. It takes a lot of guts to go up to someone and speak to them in their native language. Especially if you don't know if that person is going to bite your head off. I am as polite as I can be to anyone who politely approaches me and wants to practice their English for a minute or two. The hosptial and the bathroom are off-limits, I told the students tonight.

Like most everyone else, I'm turned off by parents who twist their kid's arms behind their back to get them to say "Hi Uncle." And the folks zipping by moo-ing at me, I can do without. I never would have learned Chinese if people weren't willing to speak to me on the street. Some folks over the years have been rude bastards, but I kept plugging away.

So, where does an engineer go for hot one-on-one English conversation? There's a public computer station, but that's not a very good place to talk as folks are busy. There's no elevator in the building, so there's not that uncomfortable silence between floors to break. There seems to be some segregation at meal time and after work. One student volunteered that they don't like to talk to anyone they don't know. This rule of thumb only goes for foreigners, though.

Why would that be, do you think? Stress, mostly. With Americans, one guy said, the conversation goes from topic to topic faster than you can say "Attention Defecit" and the locals have a hard time keeping up. This isn't the first I've heard this from a Taiwanese student, but it's the first time I've heard it as a reason why they'd rather just not attempt to talk to foreigners. The reason they gave for not wanting to talk to the Germans is that the Germans will just stare at them after giving them a one or two word answer so the Taiwanese person slinks away back to his workstation.

I'm going to try both of these things this week. First I'll try to stay on one topic for eight hours. The next day I will answer every question with one or two word answers, die my hair blonde, and stare like a hun when Caty at the Early Bird asks me if I would like some more coffee. And if she tries to take my order in English, I may tell her--in Mandarin-- that she's not paying me to practice English. It'll be a multi-cultural irritant experiment.

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