1996 / 10月
Jackie Chen /tr. by Brent Heinrich
Theirs is a line of work whose income is no lower than that of a doctor or a lawyer, but whose social standing is "perhaps only higher than a prostitute," as one veteran puts it. They jokingly describe themselves as "endangering lives for the sake of money." The money they scheme after belongs to others, but the lives they endanger are their own.
They are always dressed up bright and fresh, jade and diamond rings on their fingers. They come and go in expensive automobiles, and are able to buy luxury villas worth tens of millions of NT dollars. Tall and handsome, young and enchanting, they nevertheless frequently go through an entire year without seeing the light of day. They sleep during the day and go out at night. They live only indoors, underneath light-bulbs, and for this reason, when one pays close attention to them, their faces always seem a little pale, their voices are scratchy, and faint bags can be seen under their eyes....
They need the effect of an audience and a stage, but they are not actors. The eyes in the crowd are full of admiration, but they do not belong to religious disciples. Like silver- tongued television talk-show hosts, they can strut their stuff for three hours without ever getting red in the face. Their spirits are sparkly, and they never make the slightest uncomfortable pause. Their "work" is actually education, but many people believe that their image is quite different from "pure" teachers. They are welcome everywhere; the prosperity or demise of private schools depends entirely on the adeptness of their lips. They are in class as much as 40 hours a week. Some even fly between the north and south in airplanes, moving back and forth between schools.
They are "star teachers" in Taiwan's buxibans.
Star teachers? Or prostitutes?
Compared to most people, star teachers certainly earn a tremendous amount of money. At a large-scale buxiban near the Taipei train station, one mathematics instructor who has only been in the business for two years earns nearly NT$3 million a year. Another star math teacher at a jiajiaoban (single-teacher buxiban) has an annual income of one million dollars... American.
Most star teachers are extremely confident. When speaking about the academic subject that is their specialty, they positively glow. And you can believe that after hearing their instructions, even dullards will become enlightened. "I'm not sure about studying math with other people, but if you study with me, testing into school won't be a problem," says one star teacher. One English teacher contends that if you study with her, you don't need to worry about not being interested in English, and your abilities will increase by the day. Star teachers are sure that students have a great need for them. Without them, many things (for instance, success on entrance exams) would change, many people's destinies would be altered. And the rates of successful school admissions that many buxibans can boast are nearly irrefutable proof.
Children and parents cannot do without buxiban instuctors, but on the other hand, the view that society holds of these teachers leaves them with conflicting emotions. One well established teacher spotted an office building in busy downtown Taipei where one floor was going for nearly NT$70 million. He wanted to buy space for classes, but the complex's management committee completely rejected him, fearing that "the people coming in and out of buxibans are a mixed bag, and it would hurt the building's image." The "star teacher" went out looking for the management committee chairman to talk about the matter, and when he proffered his business card, the chairman threw it on the ground, exclaiming, "Don't even think about it!"
Unlike public school teachers, buxiban instructors are seen as gaining their fame and money by "selling their knowledge" at the narrow gate of the entrance exam, and that is why most people find it hard to respect them. "In society, people in our line of work often can't even pull out our business cards," one senior buxiban teacher remarks. "Our social standing is perhaps only higher than prostitutes'. We both share the same special characteristic-you only think of them when you need them," he says with a hint of self mockery.
Whatever the reasons why these teachers exist or why they have gained their fame, it seems that "star teachers" will teach whenever there is a class, no matter how many students are in a class or how many classes their physical stamina can support. This is how they have been labled with the stereotypes of being workaholics and money gluttons. "If you look at the experiences of instructors in the past, there are only two circumstances: one is starving to death, and the other is being dead tired," comments one buxiban math teacher. Their work is anything but stable. Survival completely depends on the "box office." If they teach well and students attend, then the buxiban director will arrange more classes. They may also open their own jiajiaoban; otherwise, they can just get run down, let the classes end, and lose their job.
"This is an industry full of cruel competition," says buxiban director David Lin. A teacher's personal background, academic history or teaching experience cannot ensure that students will like them. The situation is somewhat similar to that of entertainment stars-even if two teachers' professional levels are equal, it is hard to say why one hits the big time, while the other has no business at all. "Timing and luck play a big part," says Lin.
The feeling of being needed
One buxiban English instructor teaches from six o'clock to nine every evening; all of her Saturday and Sunday afternoons and evenings are booked up too. Adjusting around the children's school schedule, she works six to nine hours a day during winter and summer vacations. Even such major personal affairs as marriage and pregnancy have had to take a back seat to her class work. She taught class up until the day before she gave birth. At the time, her tummy was so swollen that her students were worried: "Teacher, I sure hope your baby doesn't fall out on the podium." The star teacher talked and smiled, conducting class as usual. After giving birth, she did not even take her traditional month of rest; two weeks later she was back in class. "The students couldn't get along without me," she explains. And compared to this English teacher, others have had even more intense experiences.
One young math teacher had finished his military service and had only been among the ranks of "star teachers" for two years when he was completely overcome with inflammation of the throat, urethra and bladder. "It was because I stood too much," he says. His whole system was rife with illness, yet because the buxiban could only generate classes based on his reputation, "I couldn't get a substitute teacher and ruin my prestige." He had no time to rest up, let alone get proper medical treatment. One time in Kaohsiung, after he had finished class, he simply couldn't stand the pain any longer and had no choice but to go to the hospital. The doctor was shocked and wanted him to check in to the hospital immediately. But he walked out without looking back. "Stay in the hospital? That's impossible. I have to teach tomorrow."
When buxiban teachers work with all their might like this, it is often not merely for the sake of fortune and fame. "I have a passion for teaching," one young instructor states. When he was a university student, he had already begun teaching buxiban classes. Inducted into military service, he had no place to teach. Knowing that his company commander wanted to test into college, he went brimming with ambition to him and said, "Sir, if you let me teach, it will mean you'll have a class to attend." And just like a singing star, "the most unforgettable thing is the gleam in all those eyes staring up from in front of the lectern," one teacher relates, as well as that "feeling of being needed."
During the 1980s when one senior instructor was making the decision to close down an established buxiban with considerable word-of-mouth prestige, he sat in a garden agonizing all night. "Laying aside that business involved not only monetary concerns but human concerns as well, of course the hardest thing of all was my reputation." Then he came to a realization. "I constantly asked myself, what am I? What am I doing? Every day I would wake up dizzy and fatigued, not knowing the meaning of a holiday or a sunset. I had no home life. I only saw fluorescent lights; I never looked at the sun." He determined not to continue that kind of life.
Nevertheless, the look of admiration in the eyes of students and parents was something hard to break away from. In the end this math teacher who is already in his fifties found himself an excuse to go back to teaching: "In order to teach my own child, who's now in high school. At home there isn't a blackboard or the right energy!" Some of his former students, who had become parents themselves, saw his advertisement on the inside of a bus and called him on the phone, saying, "Teacher, you're not still teaching, are you?!" Hearing what they said, he could only sigh-this industry, sad to say, is really a world for young people.
This prestigious teacher in his fifties occasionally protests to the buxiban director about the fact that the school's advertisements only feature handsome and beautiful celebrity types and not "this poor old guy." Yet he knows in the depths of his heart that no one who re-enters the trade can rule the roost like they once did. "Lots of people have made money and emigrated, but they can't bear to live without this kind of work. They want to come back, but time has already flown, and the universe is no longer theirs!... [The veteran singers] Tsuei Tai-ching and Feng Fei-fei could go back on the stage, but no matter how much they made up their faces or tried to impress people, could they ever be as popular as they once were?" he remarks.
The senior buxiban mathematics teacher says that he has definitely stopped caring. Now his upper limit is six classes per week. Enticements to add more classes cannot budge him. The buxiban director still comes to him, entreating again and again, "My kids are about to test into high school. How about it? Do you want to start a high school prep class? I'll turn my kids over to you, and then I can rest assured!" Unmoved, he replies, "Don't try to enlist me again!"
When fame flies away
For a buxiban's star teacher, not being seduced by these worldly temptations is difficult indeed! One math teacher started teaching in the 1970s and remained at the top of the buxiban world for twenty years. He taught incessantly and earned a startling income. Did he do it for fame and fortune? During middle age he converted to Buddhism and became a vegetarian. He donated all his earnings to charitable religious activities, and wore a single sweatshirt for many years. In order to make it to all his classes, he ate one steamed bun for both lunch and dinner. He had given up his concern for wealth, but last year he fell ill and collapsed on the podium. Finally, he coughed up blood and died at the age of 60.
What kind of impact does this tale from the older generation of devotion to duty unto death have on the present generation of young star teachers? When the bell rings to start class, one English teacher, sharply dressed and full of poise, proclaims, "I won't regret it, and I won't quit. Human life is one incessant competition. I like to have this sense of accomplishment every morning when I wake up. I'm going to keep going...."