The Asian Predicament

Activity Being Procrastinated: PowerPoint slides
Music In My Head: a rude song my mother and her cousin used to sing
Tea: mint
Books Being Read: The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

Two weeks ago was Meet the Creature Night at the local schools; this is the first time most parents have any contact with their children’s teachers, so I tend to get a lot of phone calls the next day.  Official grades haven’t been given, but the tell-tale signs of impending failure are already rearing their ugly little heads.

Of course, “failure” is subjective.  Most North American’s don’t get concerned until a 60% shows up on a returned essay.  Asians – that vague continental ethnicity which comprises a huge chunk of my city’s population – get worried at 80%.  Sometimes 90%.

“My son, she need grammar,” the parents tell me on the telephone.  “Her writing not wery good.”  Most of the parents have only been in Canada for a few years and, in their English-learning experience, English is all about grammar.  I try to be very subtle in explaining that I’ll judge what their child needs after I do an assessment and see some comments from their teacher.  But they usually arrive at the first session with an EnglishSmart workbook in their hands, anyway.

And then, after having their kid read Harlan Ellison’s L is for Loup-Garou (a 200-word, expertly-written short story that has lycanthropy, premeditated murder, dead bodies and “a little knowledge” all packed in tightly) and write for half-an-hour, I announce that the problem is formulaic writing and a lack of creativity.  And weak critical thinking.

The parents blink.  The student blushes.  The student has been told this before.  Frequently.

More often than not, the parents hand over a whack of money and leave me to it.  “No grammar?” they mutter as they walk out of the library, clutching the EnglishSmart workbook tightly to their chests.

That’s when I start grilling the student with deadly ferocity: what do you do in your spare time?  What are you passionate about?  What do you really want to do when you grow up?  What would you read if I gave you free rein in the library.

“In my free time,” they parrot, “I do my homework and take violin classes and math classes and Mandarin classes and karate classes and basic book-keeping classes.”

Free time, kid.  What do you do when you’re free to do whatever you like to do?”

They blink.  I re-phrase: “What are you passionate about?”

They blink.  I wait.

“I’m passionate about the environment.  I believe we should all work hard to keep it clean.”

I take a long, calming slurp of tea.  “What do you like to read?”

“I like to read Shakespeare.”

“Really?  What’s your favourite play?”

“I like Romeo and Juliet.”

“What are you reading right now for English class?”

Romeo and Juliet.”

What we discover, in each case, is that the student is given no free time.  They don’t read anything that isn’t assigned; they don’t have any particular passion for one subject or another; they’re expected to “study hard” and be good at everything.  This means that they have no background for analysing literature.  They may have read all the Harry Potter books, but they don’t know any of the history or mythology behind it.  They can’t make connections between themselves and Romeo because they’ve never done anything but study. They don’t know who Walt Whitman or Robin Williams is so they don’t understand the allusion or the irony. They’re not passionate about anything, so they can’t put passion into their writing.  They just want correct answers which can be spewed onto a test paper.

A lot of the Ontario English curriculum frustrates the hell out of me, but at least it does demand some thought from the students.

So I assign reading.  Just reading.  This confuses the parents of older students, and it frustrates the parents of younger students because I expect the parents to read with the kids.

“An homework not done.  We busy this week.”

“Fine.  Sit down at the table and read it with your kid now.  Yes, now.”

“But he wery tire.  He just finish gymnastics class.”

“That’s not something we can change right now, is it?  He needs to read fables so he can write his fable for school next week.”

To them, it is unfathomable that English class would involve writing a story about animals.  English is about grammar.

The older students try to get out of it the same way: “I was too busy doing homework.”  They don’t want to put in the effort of building up that solid base of knowledge which every high-school English teacher assumes they have: mythology, history, religion, social experience.  One kid, when I asked him why we tell stories, put it very succinctly: “*sigh* To make more work for me.”

I can’t say how the Asian culture affects other subjects – because in The Bubble there is only English – but I do wonder why you’d move to another country and then refuse to acknowledge the new culture.  Why would you deliberately force your child into a lifestyle that is counter-productive to their education?  Surely, whether you agree with it or not, you’d just suck it up and give in.  Wouldn’t your kid’s education be more important than (sing it with me) Tradition?

Don’t bother.  I know the answer to that.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Ontario Curriculum (you know, that one that’s appropriate for the students in Deer Lake and downtown Toronto?) has to change to accommodate Asian educational culture.  We now have Writer’s Craft and a business communication course added to the Grade 12 English curriculum, so hopefully these will soon be an option to the regular Grade 12 literary analysis course that’s mandatory.  Until then….

Children are made readers on the laps of their parents. – Emilie Buchwald

Damn, those 16-year-olds are heavy.


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