Monday, April 04, 2005

The Taiwan Center for Mentally Unsafe Foreigners

I accepted an invite to tour Taiwan's most respected centre for the study and treatment of culture shock, The Taiwan Center for Mentally Unsafe Foreigners. Dr. Han greeted me and began explaining why he created the facility. "We do seem to have this problem in Taiwan of foreigners being quite unable to adjust to our cultural norms even after many years. I have come to think that Taiwan represents a uniquely difficult place to live, to eat, and, especially, to work." We began our tour.

Dr. Han led me into a small room. A white-coated scientist controlled two computers and four CCTV monitors, and looked through a large one-way mirror into an adjoining room. Dr. Han jabbed his finger at the other room. "We call this Restaurant Therapy. A lot of foreigners are deeply unsettled by their experiences in Taiwanese restaurants, coffee shops, cinemas, and other places of relaxation. The simplest purchases can quickly degenerate into complicated, surreal, or even life-altering ordeals."
We looked through the mirror into a comfortable, well-lit room in which two foreigners were interacting with doctors dressed as civilians. "We call this the Choice Deprivation Survival Skill Room. This is a safe environment where we can allow foreigners to come to terms with situations that have affected them in the real world. Subject A is from the States, so, obviously, he is used to getting any kind of coffee he likes. Last month he went to a coffee shop in Tainan and asked for a very simple coffee with a splash of vanilla. The vanilla was there on display, right in his line of view, but the staff refused to give him any. The vanilla was reserved for certain types of coffee. They wouldnt give him a splash of vanilla even when he offered to pay extra. Subject A didn't handle the situation well, I'm afraid... so he comes here once a week to practice." I watched as the doctor led Subject A through a role play the doctor refused to add vanilla to a coffee and Subject A smiled politely and took the coffee back to his seat.

I turned to look at Subject B. His doctor offered him a choice of apples, red or green. Subject B nodded like a homeless woodpecker.

"Subject B's case was more complicated. He went to a local theme park on a hot day and was attracted to an ice-cream stall. The ice-cream came with real fruit toppings. It was possible to have two toppings for a small extra charge. He asked for a kiwi/strawberry mix and the staff of the ice-cream stall told him it wouldn't taste good. At first he was very polite and assured them that, strange as it seemed to them, he did indeed enjoy that mix of flavours. However, and this is I'm afraid somewhat typical, the workers insisted that kiwi and strawberry should not be mixed and absolutely refused to make it." Subject B stopped nodding. His eyes wandered vaguely around the room." So what happened to him? Why is he here?" I asked. "As I said, it's complicated. We think his brain went into some kind of meltdown. His psyche equates civilised life with boundless choice, almost complete freedom of movement and action. He thought Taiwan was a normal country, so his experience with the ice cream was dangerously unexpected. If he had been expecting something of the sort, things would have been better. Now, if you ask him a question he just nods his head. His therapy is currently ineffective."

We walked to the top floor. "I'm afraid you can't go inside any of the rooms, but you can take a quick look through the windows. Just don't make any grammar mistakes while you're up here." "What do you mean? This is the place we put our demented English teachers. We've got some very sorry cases here. Chaps whose students just never improve, guys who really want to do some good and are frustrated at every turn. Some people can't handle it. It affects men more than women, and Canadians more than other nationalities." I peeked inside one of the rooms. I saw something appalling. "Is he... is he Canadian?" I asked. "Yes, I'm afraid so." "What's he doing? He's flashbacking. In his head, he's teaching his advanced class. The one that made him freak out." I leaned in a little closer to the glass. His eyes were red and puffed; his tie had been tugged askew. He wagged his fingers at his imaginary students and, his body tense and hard, raised his shaking hands to his shaking head, and screamed, "The past tense of 'go' is 'went'! The past tense of 'go' is 'went'!" I gagged on some stomach acid that had risen into my mouth. "I'd like to go home now", I said.


  1. "Can you BE any more sarcastic?" said Chandler Bing (to his identical twin brother, Andrew Bing?)

  2. Sorry, but I have no sympathy for the Canadian teacher. In general, when students fail to learn certain language elements, the teacher should take half of the responsibility. Also, the Canadian teacher doesn't seem to be patient with his students.

    One of the important characteristics I think a good teacher must possess is patience because teaching involves constant repetitions and regular reviews. According to a finding in an experiment, language learners need to encounter a new word 16 times to recognize its meaning when they do not consciously learn the new word, say, for a test. Research has also shown that learners need to use a new word at least 10 times before it enters their active vocabulary, i.e. words which they can produce correctly and use constructively in speaking and writing. "How many times have I told you the past tense of 'go' is 'went'?" Andrew Snapped. "Only 15 times, Mr. Girardin?" said his students.

    Is Andrew a good teacher? He is very creative in coming up with teaching ideas and designing teaching activities; however, he has little patience with his students. I can vouch for that because I WAS his private student.

    Tiffany Yen, who definitely has much more patience than Andrew

  3. Angela3:53 PM

    Tiffany, you sound like such a sweet girl, so I'll tell you that Andrew has never had much patience. I am his mother so I should know! I remember one time he scored 100% on a test and couldn't wait for the next test to come. "You have to wait! The next test is in a week," I told him. "But Mum! I want to display my superior intellect NOW!" He was ever so precocious. I gave him a book to read to take his mind off school. It was called The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and it was over 700 pages long. I thought that would keep him out of my hair for a few weeks but a few days later he was bothering me for more books about Nazi Germany. 'Mum', he said, 'I enjoyed this book but I can't help but feel the author may not be truly impartial. Please teach me German so that I can read books written from the German perspective.' He was only 6 years old."


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