Saturday, September 08, 2007

So ... you have a baby, right?

The students are shyly glancing at each other out of the corners of their eyes; not yet comfortable enough to utter a greeting, but certainly curious. Nagging doubts are arising in their minds, seeding and multiplying to create a labyrinth of worries and fears. Anxiety is exhaled with every shallow breath, making the air rich with a mixture of nervousness and anticipation. This is the atmosphere in the classroom on the first day of class. The teacher enters the room. She's young, but confident. She has to be, or else the students will believe that her age is an indicator of incompetence. Now their curiosity has shifted from the other students to this young female standing before them. Has she even graduated from college yet? But then again, she does wear a wedding ring. In that case, she must be at least thirty. Everyone relaxes a little, happy to have solved the mystery. Class begins, and everyone is gradually drawn in to the game of getting to know one another while speaking a language they aren't familiar with. They begin to get to know the teacher, too. Then some brave soul finally asks the inevitable question. "Teacher, how old are you?" the student asks. "I'm twenty-three," replies the teacher. The room falls silent. "And you're married?" asks another student. "Yes," the teacher says. More silence. Then someone says, "So ... you have a baby, right?"

I don't know how many times I've answered that question on the first day of one of my English classes in Taiwan. It is unfathomable to them that someone would want to be married at the tender age of twenty-three. Granted, I know that my life is unfathomable to most Americans as well. I graduated from college in 2006 at the age of twenty-two. Then, one month later, I married my college sweetheart. A month after that, we moved to Taiwan to teach English and make a life for ourselves. However, my choices seem especially bizarre to my Taiwanese students. Many of them are college graduates who have never dated before, and the ones who are married did so at the age of thirty after ten years of dating the same person. They assume that the only reason someone would get married at my young age is because of an unexpected pregnancy (which, for the record, is a situation that I've never found myself in).

This got me pondering the cultural differences concerning the idea of romantic love. Do Taiwanese people enter the world of romance later because they're afraid of it, or is it just not that high of a priority? How do people in Taiwan see love -- as necessary as the air we breathe, as a luxury for people with too much time on their hands, or as something in between? I am by no means an expert, but I'd like to share with you what I've learned so far.

Many Taiwanese people value practicality. This does not mean that they are unfeeling or unromantic, it just means that they seek security in their lives. For example, a typical ESL conversation starter is, "Which is more important to you, love or money?" In every class I've ever taught in the past year, the overwhelming majority of the class will always say money is more important. The answer used to shock me. When I probed the students as to the reason for their "cold" response, they usually said something along the lines of, "What good is love when you don't have food in your stomach?" Can you get any more practical than that? They always think I'm equally weird for choosing love.

Another "practical" answer that I'm often given is in response to my question of, "Why do you wait so long before you get married?" It's usually because they want to get ahead in their careers first, or sometimes because of some family obligation. And often my students that are married speak rather dispassionately (in my opinion) about their spouses. I rarely hear, "Wow, I am so in love with my husband." Instead, I often hear, "My husband isn't bad." This used to leave me wondering where the passionate, earth-shattering romance was in this country.

But even as I write that last line, I see how it's colored by my western arrogance. No one will ever convince me that money is more important than love, but I am now at least able to understand why many people in the world, outside of movies, would choose food and shelter over romance. And I've grown enough to realize that a tendency to "worship" romance is not necessarily something to be praised. There are other kinds of love, and romance is only a part of the greatest Love of all. Additionally, there are many admirable things about Taiwanese culture that are lacking in my culture -- diligence, patience, respect for ones parents, and more. Who am I to say that romance trumps them all?

When one grows up as close to Hollywood as I have, it's easy to believe that American culture is the sole definer of romantic love. Then again, look what usually happens to those Hollywood romances. Maybe the reason why those relationships didn't work out is because they always expected it to be "earth-shattering," when in reality, they should have carefully laid the foundation first. Many of my students would have told them that there's something to be said for patience. Others would have said, "They probably only got married because there was a baby."

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