Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Face and the Problems it Poses

In my last post I went on a rant about discipline in schools. I mentioned that often the problem, rather than being alleviated by participation on the part of the parents, is actually exacerbated by their involvement. I think there are a couple of different reasons why this is.

I’m going to get to those reasons, but by taking a somewhat circuitous path.

The first stop along my path has to do with the Chinese concept of face. "Face" in the Chinese meaning is kind of hard to define. There are two types, mianzi (面子), and lian (脸). Basically, they have to do with how an individual appears to society. Lian has to do with how society perceives the individual's moral character, and mianzi has to do with how society perceives the individual's prestige or rank in society (this is according to Wikipedia, and it pretty much jibes with my own understanding of the concept). Since it is more important to maintain face--both one's own and that of others--than it is to actually have a good moral character or deserve one's rank (i.e., to be competent enough to hold it), it is quite common for people to lie rather than to take any action that might cause a loss of face. These kinds of lies are considered to be socially acceptable, polite, and almost required of anyone who is possessed of any social grace.

I've heard people translate these kinds of lies into English as "little white lies." As long as the lies are insignificant and are only told to be polite and won't end up causing some other kind of trouble--for example, saying to a hideous old woman, "You look nice today!" instead of saying, "Oh my god! You are grotesque!"--, there should be no problem. Unfortunately, there is no distinct line as to when a "little white lie" turns into a straight forward deception with the possibility of harmful ramifications.

I witnessed an example of when such lies actually did have what I considered somewhat serious negative consequences. I use to work at a buxiban (cram school) called Joy. It is a chain of schools all over Taiwan, and I'm sure some of them are quite good; however, the one I worked at was a horrible school, both in terms of being a place to work and in terms of the quality of education they provided. The work environment problems stemmed from the heavy class load, the large classes, the small and dirty rooms, and the utter lack of discipline. The quality of education problem stemmed from what the head teacher once told me was, "a little white lie."

This little white lie was their grading system. Basically, no student was ever allowed to fail, no matter how little English he or she learned. At the end of each term, every student was allowed to advance to the next level. I found out about this because the first time I tested a class of students, I failed all of them. The test should have been very easy. I showed each student ten flash cards and said, "What is it?" All the cards were pictures of simple vocabulary items from their text book--items that we'd been practicing in class for several weeks. Most of the students could identify only a couple cards, some none. According to the school's own grading system, I had to fail them. When the head teacher saw my grades, she was aghast.

"You can't give them these grades. The parents will be very angry," she told me.

"But none of them could answer the questions," I replied.

"It's okay. We give them a good grade anyway. Otherwise they will feel bad," she said.

"But they won't learn anything that way. How can they improve if we don't give them honest feedback about their progress?" I wanted to know.

"It's just a little white lie," was her answer.

Now, this might seem insignificant at first, but you have consider that, as the kids progress up through the levels without actually learning anything, the material gets increasingly difficult. Soon it becomes impossible for them to catch up. Since they can never correctly answer questions in class, and they fail all of their tests and have to copy their homework from some other student, they appear to be stupid. Their classmates consider them to be stupid, and their teachers often do, too. Soon they adopt the role of being the stupid kid in class, the one who can't learn English (this probably happens with other subjects, as well). The kid "knows" he is stupid, so he starts to act the fool in class, and, what is worse, stops trying. From his perspective there is no point in trying. It has already been proven that he is too stupid to learn English, so he might as well act out and disrupt the learning process for the whole class.

So, where do the parents fit into all of this? Don’t they notice that their child can’t speak any English, even though he is moving to the next level at the end of each term? Don’t they feel like they are being ripped off by a school that promises to teach their child English but doesn’t deliver? Oddly enough, and despite the expense of sending one’s child to a cram school, the parents are complicit in the deception.

As a disclaimer, I have to admit that is only partially true. It is also the fact that many of the parents can’t tell English from Swahili, so the only evidence they have to go on is the contact book that goes home with the student each week. As long as the contact book says things are fine, the parent accepts it and keeps forking over the dough.

Another disclaimer, and a kind of corollary to the last one, is that many parents don’t know anything about English except that it has been drilled into the Taiwanese psyche that unless one knows English, one will be a failure in life. It’s not so much that they are worried about their kids for the kids’ sake, but because the kids have to support the parents when the parents retire (as well as after they die—which is another topic for another day), the parents are frantic to do something, anything to get their kids some English learning.

One last disclaimer: some parents don’t care about English or anything else. They both work and they can’t leave the kids alone at home, so they put them in the nearest, cheapest cram school they can find.

All the disclaimers aside, it is often the case that many Taiwanese parents are very protective of their children, just as is the case anywhere else, I suppose. This protective attitude extends beyond physical safety (in fact, an interesting side note is that, while some parents will fly into an apoplectic fit if they hear that another student pushed their child, they think nothing of tossing the kid onto the back of a motor scooter without a helmet and then driving like a maniac through heavy traffic). The parents also are very protective of both the face of the child, and the family’s face.

I first ran into this “face” issue when, in one of my first weeks working in a public elementary school, I was asking each of the students in a second grade class to tell me their names. One kids refused, I thought, to answer. I asked and asked, to no avail. I started getting mad, thinking he was just being coy. Then I noticed the homeroom teacher signaling me. I went over to her and she said, “He is slow.”

It was then that I started to notice that in almost all of my classes there was at least one kid who was clearly learning disabled (or whatever they call it these days). In a few cases I’d have to say that the kids were downright retarded. Instead of being put in a special education class, however, parents apparently insist that their kids be enrolled in regular classes, whether it is good for them or not. It is a blemish on the family’s face to admit that one of its children has a learning problem.

The same kind of thing holds true in cram schools, though on the average the kids are slightly brighter than the average public school kids (the cram school kids are the ones that go to public school, and then after regular school they go to cram school. It stands to reason that, no matter how bad they are at either kind of school, the additional hours of exposure to the academic subjects would have the effect of raising their level over the kids who don’t go to cram school). If a kid brings home a bad mark, the parents blame the school and the teacher. Since many cram schools have been lying to the parents about their child’s progress for a long time, when someone like me comes around and starts telling the truth, the parents get riled up and the school administration starts freaking out. The end result is usually that the teacher is blamed and as a punishment is forced to make a humiliating apology and acceptance of responsibility. There seems to be no face for teachers.

The same kind of thing goes for bad behavior. I had one student, an evil little girl, who actively sought out ways to defy me and to antagonize the other students. She even spit on another student once. Once we were making grilled cheese sandwiches as part of a class cooking project, and I suddenly realized that all the cheese was gone. I figured the students had just eaten all of it. During clean up, however, I found that this little girl had swiped all of the cheese and hid it in her desk! I complained almost every day to the school administration about this girl, but her mom was adamant that it was either the other children’s fault, or that I just didn’t like her daughter and was trying to get her into trouble. It turns out that this little girl had the same kind of problems in other cram schools, as well as in her public school, but the mother refused to accept that it was anything but a grand conspiracy to take away her daughter’s, and, by extension, her family’s face.

The problem with the whole "face" system is that it is really difficult to know what is going on and where one stands in any given social situation (by social I mean anything involving other people, so it could be at work, school, or at the shopping mall). For example, it is hard for foreign teachers like me to know whether we are doing a good job or not because when we ask a direct question of the Taiwanese teachers about our performance , they invariably say we are doing a great job. Or if there is some obvious problem, it is difficult to resolve it because accepting responsibility for a problem involves a loss of face.

Rather than identifying problems and who is causing them, people tend to look the other way or blame the whole situation on bad luck of some kind. This might make things comfortable for all involved (especially the person responsible for the problem), but it does nothing to rectify the situation.

In my humble opinion, the element of face preservation at the expense of dealing with real problems is at the very least counterproductive, if not actually destructive. On the other hand, the Taiwanese people must have a completely different take on the situation, because they consider Western directness as being more or less plum loco. Apparently the fact that we say what we mean and we mean what we say is close to impossible for them to understand.

Well, it is their country, and I’m just a guest, so I guess I’ll let them do it their way. In the meantime, I hope they don’t get too offended if I occasionally forget about saving face and mention some uncomfortable truth.

That’s all I’m going to say today about it today. Once again I started out with the intention of discussing the problems with discipline in schools, and, in this instance, the role parents have to play in it, and then went off on a tangent. Maybe it is just difficult to talk about one aspect of a culture without bringing in other elements. It all seems related. Well, tomorrow I’m going to go on with another thing that I think has to do with why parents are such a pain in the ass to teachers in Taiwan. Who knows? If I keep going off on tangents, maybe I’ll never have to write about anything else.

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