Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

A Mini Society

on June 27, 2014

Other than learning the Chinese language, the biggest shock was definitely the 180-degree difference between Chinese schools and French schools. We had moved from adult-controlled institutions to a student-centered mini-society.

Morning calisthenics at an elementary school

Morning calisthenics at an elementary school

In France, everything was pre-ordained and regulated to the smallest detail. We lined up at specific places in the morning. In class we could only sit in specific positions. When writing classwork, we skipped three boxes on the top line, wrote the date in cursive, “Monday, the 4th of September 1969”, for example; then skipped one line, counted 8 boxes from the margin, wrote in capitals the word “DICTATION”, underlined it in red ink with a ruler on the lighter line, the skipped another line, counted one box, then started writing the dictation. Lower case “b” had to reach the third line up while the lower case “t” reached only the second line up. Using a planner to note down assignments was only one aspect of the detailed methodology we had to follow.

In Taiwan, the structure was pre-planned but everything else was carried out by the students. Class started at 8:00 am, but we had to arrive by 7:00 am. We just walked into the classroom without having to line up or being led. No teacher checked whether we were there by 7:00am, but we all arrived on time or before to attend the morning Study Hall in our classroom. This was the time when we exchanged conversations and homework. Indeed, it was understood that everyone could help one another solve whatever problems we could not manage at home by ourselves. The class president would write on the top right-hand corner of the blackboard the names of the two students on duty. These would go to the school kitchen and bring to the front of the classroom a rectangular stainless steel box-like container that had holes in its bottom and two handle-holes on the sides. We would all take out our lunch boxes and place them in the container. Our lunch boxes, or bian dang boxes, were small rectangular boxes with lids, made of aluminum or stainless steel, where Mama would place our lunch of the day, usually plain rice or noodles with some other dish or two, with maybe a boiled egg in soya sauce and spices, very much in the way of today’s Panda Express or Tokyo Bowl fast meals. This take-out lunch was called bian dang. Before 7:30am, the students on duty would carry away the bian dang container to the school kitchen where they would slide it into its numbered slot in the huge kitchen steamer.

Typical stainless steel Bian Dang lunch box from the1970s

Typical stainless steel Bian Dang lunch box from the1970s

By 7:30 am, we would all go to the school yard/athletic field and line up in the space assigned to our class, Number 1 student in front and me, Number 57, always the last in line.  This is when attendance was taken by the “Jiao guan” or discipline officer, a staff member dressed in khaki uniform, who always inspired awe and fear in me for they looked more like police officers or army officers than school counselors. The flag song would be broadcast and we would all salute, scout style, with three fingers of the right hand on our right temple, ramrod straight, until the flag students on duty raised the Azure Sky, White Sun, and Red Over Earth (the flag of the Republic of China) up the flagpole on the top balcony of the school. Then we would keep our arms straight by our sides and the whole school would sing the national anthem, “The Three Principles of the People“. A tiny figure in sports sweats would then appear on the top balcony to demonstrate the movements, and the speakers would broadcast the morning calisthenics, “One, two, three, four; five, six, seven, eight. Two, two, three, four; five, six, seven, eight. Three, two, three, four, etc…” It took me some time, but I did catch on eventually on the stretches, hops, bends, and so on; and memorized them to this day.

The flag of the Republic of China on Taiwan: Azure Sky, White Sun, and Red Over the Earth

The flag of the Republic of China on Taiwan: Azure Sky, White Sun, and Red Over the Earth

We would all then find our own way back to class, and get ready for the first period. All teachers were subject teachers, and one of them — the English teacher in our case — would be homeroom teacher. Teachers moved from room to room and had their desks in one of the teachers’ offices. During lunch break, the students on duty would go to the kitchen and bring the bian dang container from the steamer and place it again, steaming hot, in front of the class. We would then each pick up our lunch box and eat lunch on our desk, then put the empty box and chopsticks back in our school bag. Then, every one would brace their arms  on the desk, snuggle their head on their arms and take a nap. Yes, take a nap. This was Grade 9, but taking a nap was very normal. The two students on duty would then return the bian dang container to the kitchen.

After lunch, it is customary for Taiwan students to take a nap on their desks.

After lunch, it is customary for Taiwan students to take a nap on their desks.

During PE, which usually took place on the athletic field, the students on duty would remain in the classroom to guard everyone’s belongings.

All of these routines astounded the two of us. Oh, we were not SERVED lunch? Oh, we had to CLEAN our own classroom? Indeed, there was a system of class and school student government in place. Each class elected its own president, vice president, and a few other ministers, oh sorry, chiefs, each with their own portfolio.  There was a chief of service, a chief of recreation, and a chief of hygiene. The latter, who was in charge of the classroom’s cleanliness assigned the cleaning duties, which were usually performed before school, after school or during lunch hours. Each class chief of hygiene would then have her meetings with all other chiefs of hygiene, and get their instructions at general meetings. She would notify us of which Saturday the whole class had to come and clean the toilets on our floor.

Some other classes were assigned traffic duty, flag duty, and so on. Students on traffic duties would have to arrive earlier and leave later than everyone else, so they could man the long bamboo poles strung with little yellow triangular flags at pedestrian crossings near the school.

Then there were the academic “little teachers”. These were usually the top student/s in each subject, picked by the subject teacher. Thus, we had a Math Little Teacher, Chinese Little Teacher, and so on. Although Saadia and I were the top English students, we had joined the class two weeks late, so all selections had been made already. These “little teachers” had to distribute and assign paperwork, collect homework, help the teacher correct assignments, and so on.

Every now and then, we would get inspection rounds. There were hygienic inspections, when a small group of chiefs of hygiene would walk around, sweeping their fingers over random desks and window sills for dust, checking floors and trash cans. Sometime after the beginning of the school year, one male officer “Jiao guan” came to inspect the class. He barked to us, “Hair length is one centimeter above the edge of the ear lobe. I do my rounds with a pencil, a ruler, and a pair of scissors. Do not try to fool me by tucking your hair behind your ear. I stick my pencil above your ear thus (demonstrates), and pop out any hair hiding there. I measure the correct length with my ruler. If it’s too long, well, I am not a hairdresser, so I don’t know how to give a haircut. I will grab your hair and snip off what I grab. (And he demonstrated by grabbing a handful of hair, and placing his scissors five inches above the tips.) You will then find your own hairdresser and fix the rest.” That was enough to instill so much fear in me that I religiously visited the hairdresser every weekend for a trim. One centimeter above the edge of the ear lobe.



One Response to “A Mini Society”

  1. Saadia Mai says:

    ha ha, yes, I remember what a regulated system this was, yet so empowering! Everyone had a place to contribute responsibly in a time-acknowledged fashion. I love how our old-fashioned Chinese society has created this well-oiled system, like an ant hive. I can’t believe your remember the morning calisthenics, I have long forgotten every part of it.

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