Saturday, May 25, 2013

Farewell, Taipei

Thanks, Taipei.   Thanks for being the nest that has nourished and protected our new family during this important year. We’ll always have a soft spot for this country and we hope to keep Taiwanese people and culture in our lives after we move back into our own culture.

What have I learned from this city?  For starters, I’ve learned how to be kind and hospitable to foreigners, how to cook tofu a thousand different delicious ways, how to live in a 200 square foot apartment comfortably, and how to blend urban convenience with a small-town feel.  Most importantly, the incredible affordability of the city has given me the economic freedom to do a job that really matters – being a full-time caregiver, teacher, and partner to my son.

Taiwan will be missed, but I am very eager to anchor myself and the family closer to our beloved family.  Taiwan has been a terrific home, but there is no substitute for family.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Happy Birthday to Abel

Abel has some pretty simple material needs at this point in his life - clean clothes, nutritious food, and some blocks, boxes and sticks for playing.  His material needs are simple, but his need for emotional connection and belonging are profound.  For his 1st birthday I decided to write him a letter in lieu of buying lots of toys. We'll make sure he has fun stuff to play with, but I hope he will appreciate this gift more when he is an adult, or a parent himself. Although I wrote this as a personal letter to Abel, I decided that I would like to share it because it fits in a theme of my writing this year - growing into parenthood.  I've done a lot of growing thanks to Abel and I look forward to many more years of growing with my little man.


Dear Abel,

You’ve taught me so much in one year.  I always imagined that as a father I would do the teaching and you would do the learning, but that is far from the truth. I have learned more about humanity, love, language, and myself from you this year than I have in all of my previous years as an adult. Actually, I don’t believe I became an adult until a year ago when I saw you emerge as a perfectly formed human, completely capable, yet totally dependent on me for protection and love.  Until that moment, I was still clinging to my own childhood.  Thank you for helping me to become a man.

Although I have been doing most of the learning in our relationship, I do hope to guide your learning as you grow.  I have no doubt that you will learn language, math, social skills, reading, and athletics with ease – you have already proved to be an incredibly adept learner.  What I hope to instill in you is not a set of specific skills, but a way of being in the world.  Your mother and I had a beloved professor who said it best, “open your heart and open your mind”.  These were her parting words to her children when she dropped them off at school, and I think they are simple words which contain profound wisdom.

Open Heart

Being a child is hard and growing up is a painful process.  You will be hurt more times than you can count.  People will do terrible things to you. You will be involved in unfortunate events that will cause you emotional pain.  These things will happen to you and there is nothing I can do to stop them. 

You cannot stop many of life’s painful experiences, but you can control your reaction to these events.  Your heart and soul may feel so wounded and hurt that you want nothing more than to hide your emotions close yourself off to anything that may be able to hurt you in that way again.  You must fight this defensive urge and continue to open your hear to the people and experiences that make life worth living.  Experience the pain, but don’t retreat from it.  Learn from your experiences and let yourself be open to embrace beauty wherever you find it. 

Being a child is hard, but it is full of wonder.  You may be hurt, but you will also be loved.  Some people may do terrible things, but look for the kindness in all humanity.  Unfortunate events will happen, but always focus on the beauty and good-fortune that surrounds you.  All aspects of your life will contain a positive and negative element and I hope to teach you that looking past the negative and opening your heart to the beauty of life is an infinitely better way to live.

Open Mind

Your mind is yours. I love you unconditionally, irrespective of your opinions, beliefs, view, and attitudes.  I have no intentions of teaching you what you should believe, but I do hope to teach you a deep respect the diversity of views in our world.  You are entitled to your own opinion, but your opinion is the product of your unique set of experiences and circumstances.  An open mind allows us to learn from others and to understand our own position in the world more clearly. Without an open mind learning is distorted and shallow.

Clutching on to a belief or view can be extremely comforting in a tumultuous world.  Everything seems to be moving and changing at an inconceivable pace, so it is reassuring to anchor yourself to a fixed position in the sea of information.  This can be comforting and safe, but it can also be dangerous.  The world is transforming rapidly, but I don’t believe that struggling against the change is the best way to live.  All life evolves.  All living creatures alive today have one thing in common – they adapt to a changing world.  Adaptation is the key to survival for all life, and our world requires adapting at a pace not seen by our ancestors.   Change should not be feared, it should be anticipate and embraced.

Embracing change is not the same as drifting aimlessly with the current.  While opinions and views should be constantly reexamined in a changing world, values can remain constant.  This is the essence of what I hope to teach you in this letter – valuing an open mind and an open heart will help guide your through experiences and changes that I cannot anticipate.  I believe Valuing beauty, love, kindness, and embracing the complexity and transformative nature of the world will help you to live gracefully and happily in the future regardless of what it has in store for you.


My only wish for you is that you are happy.  These humble words are my best effort to guide you to that end.  I’m sure that in ten or twenty years, you will have taught me a great deal more about how to live and I may have very different words of guidance for you.  We are growing together and learning together.  I could not be more happy to have you and your mother as partners in this journey.

Monday, May 6, 2013

You Can Never Go Home Again

That is the adage that you hear over and over, “you can never go home again”.  I never understood that cliché, even after I became older and left home.  Sure, home always changes, but so did I.  As I matured and my visits home became more sporadic, it seemed that the ability to go home again was one of the few certainties in life.  I changed a lot in my twenties, and my family underwent a major transformation, but I could always go home to Silex, Missouri and the community was blissfully unchanged.

The static nature of Silex was something I always took for granted.  My family history dates back to the founding of the town in the mid-1800’s.  Both sides of my family have been in the same rural area for over 150 years, and in that span of time little has changed.  The town has stagnated for the last half a century due to the constant threat of flooding from the nearby Cuivre River.  The ambitious plans for the town laid out by my great-great-grandfather were never realized due the unpredictable flow of this small tributary of the Mississippi.  Silex has remained roughly the same size for most of its history.  It once functioned as a regional hub and its main street was filled with diverse and vibrant businesses, but these family owned shops closed down one-by-one as locals traveled farther to larger stores in nearby towns.  Main streets across the country shared this slow death caused by Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

The Silex of my childhood may not have been as vibrant as it was during my grandparents’ youth, but it was a fully functioning community.  The town boasted a general store, a gas station, funeral home, hardware store, automotive shop, independent bank, beauty salon, and most importantly, a school.   The old brick buildings on Main Street and  the lone flashing yellow light above the main intersection gave the town at least a hint of legitimacy, but only if you failed to notice the sign at the city limits that advertised the population of 206.

In recent years I relished my time at home.  Two years ago I managed to spend an entire summer living in town while staying with my Mom.  It was both frustrating and idyllic.  It was blissful to spend slow-paced evenings riding my bike around the quiet streets and walking to friends’ houses to drink a beer and shoot the breeze.  It was irritating to have to drive twenty minutes each way to buy groceries and to see nothing but conservative white people day in and day out.  Irritating, but enjoyable – that is how I’ve always felt about my hometown.

Everything changed two years ago.  The Cuivre River flooded again, perhaps the worst flood in the town’s history.  The people in town were caught off-guard and a majority of houses were flooded.  This has happened before, but this time the response would be very different.

As a result of Hurricane Katrina, the federal government had made a decided turn away from relying on levees to protect populations from flooding.  Instead, they would rather pay to permanently relocate people out of flood zones.  The government was tired of paying disaster relief for people living in these flood prone areas, and Silex is undoubtedly a flood prone area.  There would be no more disaster relief and no levees would be built.  Instead, they would just move the town.

Yes, a town can be moved.  The process in Silex is being completed as I write.  The government buys everyone’s home, provides them with a small lot on a nearby hill, and helps them with relocation expenses.  There are too many complications and exceptions to discuss here, but that is the basic idea.  All of the existing homes in the previous town would be owned by the city and then demolished.  The town that has been home to my family for several generations would be leveled, and the people relocated to a subdivision build over an old pig lot perched on a nearby hill.

If I hadn’t been there for the process, I wouldn’t have believed it possible.  I was present for the “lot lottery” during which the entire town gathered in a tent on the proposed new city and chose numbers out of a hat.  These numbers gave them the order that they could go to a huge printed map and choose their new lot.  It was like a surreal gameshow that I can imagine occurring in a strange dream, but not in reality.  People’s location in the old town was based on decades of individual decisions about who they would like to have for neighbors and what part of town was the best fit for their family, but in this lot lottery, it came down to sheer luck.

The new town is completed – a cheap subdivision a half a mile down the road.  I don’t want to be too negative because for many people the town relocation has been extremely helpful.  Giving people the opportunity to own a new home that is not in danger of flooding is certainly an improvement.  My resentment of the process is purely selfish - I want to be able to go home again.  The character of a 150 year old town was not taken into consideration when the relocation was planned.  If I had the opportunity to get a new home out of the floodplain, then I would likely feel differently about the process, but I want my son to be able to bike down the same streets that his great-great-great grandfather planned out.  I can get over not being able to go home again, but it is hard to accept that my son will never know my home.  I have memories, but I can’t give those to the next generation.

It is as if some cosmic power did everything imaginable to get me to understand the cliché to which I thought I was immune.  Ok, I get it, you really can never go home again.  

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Smell Like None Other

For the last week or so there has been a distinctive new fragrance in the air around markets and grocery stores in Taipei.  Actually, it is more of a stench.  The culprit – Durian fruit.  This big prickly fruit has an unforgettable, unavoidable, and unpleasant odor that can spread across a city block.  The fruit just came in season and has been popping up all over the city recently.  I’ve been totally intrigued– why on earth do people eat something that smells so foul?  Not only that, but it is expensive – one fruit is $300NT or $10 USD. Since I have been fascinated by trying new foods, especially new fruits, here in Taiwan, I had to find out what the stink was about. Today we hesitantly bought some dissected pieces of the fruit at the local grocery store.

The packaging says it all – each chunk of fruit is individually double wrapped in cellophane before wrapping all of the chunks together in more cellophane to minimize the smell.  There is no way to completely mask the odor – it somehow manages to leak through any container.  In order to not infect the entire apartment with the signature smell, we had a little durian picnic on the roof.  When we cut through the several layers of packaging, we realized that we made a very wise decision.  Durian is banned in hotels and on buses for this exact reason.

At this point I should probably make some attempt to describe the Durian’s omnipresent odor.  No, I’ll let some more colorful writers do it for me:

“Its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away” Richard Sterling
"completely rotten, mushy onions." Andrew Zimmerman
"like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory" Anthony Burgess
“indescribable, something you will either love or despise. ...Your breath will smell as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother" Anthony Bourdain

Yeah, those give a pretty good idea of how intense and riveting the smell of this fruit can be.  You will love it or hate it, but not fall anywhere in between.  Interestingly, one of the first English writers to describe the fruit was Alfred Wallace in 1856.  Most people from the West find the fruit repulsive, but Wallace loved Durian. Here his description of the fruit:

“The five cells are silky-white within, and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-coloured pulp, containing about three seeds each. This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience. ... as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed.

Now that I have tried this powerful fruit, I can make my own pronouncement regarding its flavor.


I am an extremely adventurous eater, as many people can attest, but I did not like Durian.  I got over the smell easily, but the taste was exactly like sour, or rotten, onions.  That is what immediately came to mind even before I read other people’s similar descriptions.  I didn’t stop at one bite – I ate probably a half a pound of the mushy yellow flesh before I called it quits.  Abel was also adventurous enough to take three bites, but then flat-out refused to let me put the fruit anywhere near him after that.

As I sit here and hold back stinky oniony belches, I can say with some confidence that today was my first and last encounter with the durian.  An experience worth having, but not worth repeating. 


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Top 10 Things I’ll Miss about Living in Taipei

Our time here is winding down.  I’m quickly checking out of Taipei and migrating my thoughts to relocating in the US.  I’m narrowing in on a job and we are searching for apartments in Columbia, Missouri.  Being near to friends and family is an extremely exciting prospect, but I know that leaving Taipei won’t be so easy.  This is a great city that has been incredibly kind to our little family.  We have thrived here and I know we will miss it.  What will I miss the most?

10. Fruit and Vegetables
Fresh greens and ripe fruit all year round – what’s not to like?  My favorite veg is Chinese Broccoli and my favorite fruit is papaya, which I used to despise. 

9. Public Transportation
Cheap, clean, affordable, and far-reaching public transportation that everyone uses.  In my hundreds of trips on the subway (MRT), not once has a train been delayed or late.  Never.  I’ve never had to wait more than five minutes for the next train to come.  The buses and train cars may get a bit crowded on certain routes during peak hours, but people take it in stride.

8. Punctuality
People and activities are on time here.  If someone says “I’ll be there at 1:30”, you better believe them.  I think that punctuality is a sign of respect – showing someone that you value their time and presence, so I always appreciate it when people try hard not to be late.

7. Affordability
Taipei is a world-class city, but even the ritzy parts of town are affordable for part-time teachers.  Eating out, getting around, and renting an apartment are all very affordable.  Compared to major cities in the US and Europe, Taipei is an incredible bargain.

6. Amazing Food
There is a reason why Chinese food is popular around the world – they have spent thousands of years combining flavors to make a universally appreciated menu.  Not only is the Chinese food great here, but there are hundreds of Vietnamese, Japanese, and Thai restaurants all around the city.

5. Parks
We are spoiled.  We live between the two largest parks in the city – Da’an Forest Park and Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Park.  Even without these two large green spaces, every neighborhood has its own block-sized park with trees, a playground, and benches.

4. Efficiency
I’m still surprised almost every day by how efficient everything is here.  Hospitals, government offices, transportation, even restaurants – they all operate quickly and at a high standard of quality.  The people here have an incredible work-ethic, and it shows. 

3. Safety
I cannot exaggerate how safe we feel here.  Walking alone at night in a dark park in the city is safe. Random violent crime is unheard of in the city.  I completely take this for granted on a day-to-day basis, so I know that I’ll experience some culture shock when I return to the US and have to worry about theft and other random crime. 

2. Walking Everywhere
We walk to the grocery store, our favorite restaurants, the doctor, the pharmacy, the home-goods store, the post-office, and pretty much every other business of interest.  Most neighborhoods are self-contained units that have everything you need.  Public transportation is great for getting to and from work, but the rest of the day I prefer to hoof it.  This is definitely something that is not possible in most places at home, so I’ll have to get used to strapping Abel in a carseat rather than the baby-carriers every time we need to run to the store.

1. Nice People
I’ve been to a lot of different places in my travels, but I can say with confidence that the Taiwanese are the nicest people I have ever encountered.  Genuinely kind and even-tempered.  There are exceptions to this, of course, but amazingly few.  I could count the unpleasant encounters I’ve had in Taiwan on one hand, which is especially surprising because I moved to their country without speaking a word of their language!  Imagine a Taiwanese person moving to the US without speaking a word of English – I wish I could say that they would experience as much hospitality as I have, but I know that they would not.  The world can learn a lot about manners, kindness, and hospitality from this little island.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Feminist John

Women are undoubtedly objectified and marginalized in mainstream US society, but imagine a place where it is taken to the extreme.  Women outnumber men 3:1, the only job they can get is in service, they are expected to dress in a sexually provocative manner at work, and prostitution is so widespread and commonplace that it is institutionalized.    I wish this scenario was just a feminist dytopian nightmare, but I can tell you first hand that there is such a place.  Welcome to Barrio Barreto, Philippines.

I can’t exaggerate the level of exploitation that takes place here.  Thousands of women are employed as a “bar girl” which is a euphemism for prostitute.  These women, some of them as young as 16, come from poor provinces where the employment prospects are bleak.  They can make more in the bar than they ever could at home, and many of them are supporting their extended family in the home province.  This is what makes the “bar girl” situation so disgusting – it’s economic as well as gender exploitation.

Let me paint the scene.  Overweight and alcoholic men in their sixties stumbling from bar to bar with sunburns and ill intentions.  The bars all employ upwards of twenty young and scantily clad girls, who have to compete with each other to get “lady’s drinks” bought for them by the patrons.  These drinks cost twice as much as a regular drink and are a payment to the girl for her attention.  The goal of being a bar girls is to get “bar fined”, which means bought for the night.   The prostitution is so overt here that the prices are totally standard and you can even charge it to your room or a credit card.  1500 pesos is all it costs, which is less than $40.  That means that my dive course cost as much as 14 “bar fines”.  Sickening.  I suppose the price shouldn’t matter, it is the exchange itself that is the problem, but if women are forced to sell themselves to disgusting old white guys then they sure as hell deserve a lot more than $40. 

At this point I should probably interject with why I spent five days in this place and how I came to know so many details.  I ended up here for a cheap and quality SCUBA diving course, which worked out incredibly well - great instructor, good equipment, and gorgeous surroundings.   I knew before I arrived that prostitution was common in this area, but I was completely unprepared for how visible and unavoidable it is. After the days dives were done, my instructor and I would go to the resort bar to have a beer, and I was immediately swarmed by the bar girls.  I can’t convey how guilty and dirty I felt just because I was there.  As a single, white, male traveler, I couldn’t separate myself from the institutionalized exploitation.  Buying beer at the bar undoubtedly supported the establishment, making me a supporter of a horrible system that goes against everything that I value.   The only way I convinced myself to stay for a few beers was because I really wanted to know how the system works.  I wanted to learn about where these girls come from, how the money changes hands, and how they feel about it.   I was probably just fooling myself, but I thought of it as ethnographic fieldwork. 

To counteract the support of my patronage, I tried to do what I could to express my disgust for the situation and to help a few of the girls who are exploited daily.  Instead of buying the “lady’s drink” my instructor said that if you give an under-the-table tip, then the girl gets to keep all the cash, rather than just a fraction she would get from a lady’s drink.  When one of the girls insisted on giving me a back massage while I sat at the bar, she said she was paying her way through massage therapy school.  I gave her a generous tip that covered her next tuition installment.  After my second beer, my disgust for the scene grew.  I asked two of the girls about their plans after they stop being bar girls.  They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer.  After I asked, I felt terrible because I was making them feel even worse about their situation.  I was making it sound like it is there fault for not having made other plans beyond being a bar-girl.  If you are forty years old and have been a prostitute for 20 years, what kind of job could you possible get in a developing country?   I asked a completely stupid question, but I still wanted to know if there was any hope for these girls after they are considered too old for the very old clientele of the bars. 

As I was at the bar, I couldn’t think of anything else except the future of these girls.  They are forced to sit next to you and chat, so I was going to make sure that I told them exactly what I thought of the bar scene.  For my own benefit, and for decent white guys everywhere, I wanted to be sure that they knew that not all white men are pigs.  They spend almost every day with white guys, and probably 95% are sexist assholes who have no respect for human dignity.  I was as careful as I could be not to insult them for their position, letting them know that I understood why they were working as bar girls, but that I sincerely wish that they could be paid the same amount of money for a different job. I wanted to yell to all of the girls “we’re not all like these scumbags in here!” 

During my stay I developed a particularly strong contempt for the manager – a morbidly obese Australian who is insults his staff in front of customers and sleeps with a different bar girl every night.  Something about the way he strutted around the resort barking orders to local staff who are working in 100 degree heat for a few dollars a day made my blood boil.  On my second to last night my instructor and I had a few beers to celebrate my course completion and it wasn’t long before I was giving my guilt-ridden spiel to the bar girl who came to sit next to me.   I was delighted when she seemed genuinely touched by my attempts to explain that I think she deserves better and by my apologies for the way my countrymen act in here.  She opened up and told me about her plan to get a degree in IT at a call center.  She is saving money to pay for tuition and has a plan. As she talked, she was always glancing over her shoulder because if the other girls or a manager heard, she would probably get fired.  She had only been there for one month and she was the first girl would tell me that she hated the situation as well.  She had finished high school, but this was still the fastest way for her to make money. 

One of the most common defenses for prostitution, especially in the context of a poor country, is that if the bar girls weren’t working a prostitutes, then they would be starving in their home province.  This is the same way many guys justify giving money at strip clubs – “at least it provides an income to these under-privileged women”. “It is money that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”  Bullshit.  You can still give money to a girl without her taking her clothes off, and you can give money to a bargirl without having sex with her.  Give the money, but pass on the exploitation.  So that is what I did.

As I was ranting to this girl about how disgusting I found the other patrons, I specifically mentioned the manager.  She told me that he tried to “bar fine” her last night, but she refused.  I was surprised that there is any element of consent, but she said that she continued to refuse she may lose her job.  This was too much for me to take.  First I was furious, then I was sad.  Really, deeply sad because this sweet girl who traveled hundreds of miles to provide for her family is forced to sleep with a fat sadistic jerk.  She had the courage to say no once, but she is virtually powerless in the situation.  I teared up right there in the bar.  I told her that I wish there was something I could do to help her and the other girls, but that all I was doing was sitting there drinking beer acting like I’m above the situation, which doesn’t help anyone.  I knew there was no way to destroy the system, so I thought of the only way I could help this girl that I could.  I paid her “bar fine”.  In the sick rules of this place, that means she is mine for the night. I’m sure when I told her that I was going to pay her bar fine that she thought that everything I had said up to that point was a lie.  I explained that I want her to have the money that she would get from such a transaction, but she shouldn’t have to be exploited to get it.  I also made sure she knew that all I wanted was for her to have the night off to do whatever she wanted.  I tried not to let myself feel like a hero for such a small gesture – I could and should do ten times more to help these victims.  I realize that I probably benefited from the transaction more than she did – I get to feel holier than thou and sleep well knowing that at least one girl is not having to sleep with a stranger for money. 

After I paid the bill –  unbelievably, you really can do this with a credit card  - she escorted me to my room.  As we passed people on the way to the room, I couldn’t bear the fact that they thought I was doing exactly what I was trying to prevent.  I told her that she really didn’t need to walk me to my room, but she explained that if the others see her leaving on her own after I paid, she would get in trouble and they would assume she ripped me off.   The last thing I wanted was for her to get fired, so she came in to my room and we sat at the foot of the bed for about five minutes watching videos of Abel on my computer.  I’m sure it was the strangest bar fine experience she has ever had, but I hope it was one of the more pleasant and memorable.  Even after all of that, she didn’t seem to believe that I was just going to let her go.  When I told her again that I didn’t even want a massage, I just wanted her to go home, I could tell that her smile was genuine.  Until that moment, I doubt she believed anything I said about my distaste for prostitution.  Why would she?  She has been exposed to some of humanity’s most revolting and sordid specimens for a month.  If my gesture gave her just a hint that there are more decent men from the West, then it was worth it.   It kills me to think about her back in that bar, competing with other girls for attention from perverts who think that having money gives them the right to use other human beings any way they see fit.

I used to think that prostitution should be legalized because making it legal will make a common activity safer for the woman involved.  Now that I have seen institutionalized prostitution, I could never support legalization.  It may seem consensual on the surface, but more often than not a woman turns to prostitution only because it is the best opportunity available.  Until every single girl has a guaranteed education and opportunities for employment in any field she desires for good pay, prostitution should not be allowed because it isn’t truly consensual.  No one should have to sell their body because it is the best economic opportunity available to them.  That is often the case in the US, and it is definitely the case in the Philippines.  There will always be men devoid of dignity who will pay for sex, but I will never support a system or law that caters to them.

After reading this it may sound like I had a terrible experience in the Philippines, but that isn’t the case.  The diving was fantastic, I had an awesome day on a secluded beach BBQing and hiking with a fun family, and had lots of time to relax on my own.  The food was great, the locals were lovely, and the weather was perfect.  The only negative experience was being exposed to the human toll of sex tourism.  Despite the distress it caused, I’m glad I know more about the situation.  It opened my eyes, tested my patience, and helped me to solidify my values.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Confessions of a Monoglot

I have earned two degrees studying other cultures, traveled to many different countries all over the world, worked in a culturally diverse school, and studied three languages in my life.  Despite these experiences, I am helplessly monolingual.  I deeply value linguistic diversity and the importance of bilingualism and multiculturalism, but I have been unable, or unwilling, to achieve proficiency in any second language myself.  This is no one’s fault but my own, but I do think it is worthwhile to look at the cause of my monolingual dilemma, especially since I know I am not along in this predicament.  Americans are notorious around the world for being incredibly linguistically inept, despite high levels of education.  Why? The following list is not meant to be an excuse for my language deficit, but a look at possible causes for the glut of monoglots in the United States.

English as dominant global language

Why learn a foreign language when most of the world is rushing to learn English?  I have been to some pretty remote places in the world, but there is almost always someone who can speak enough English to communicate.  There are more people learning English as a second language than speak it as a native language.  English language schools are booming around the world, fueled by the need for a common tongue in our rapidly globalizing world. English is the language of commerce, education, medicine, and technology, not to mention the lingua-franca of the internet. 

As an effort conservationist (someone too lazy to expend unnecessary effort), I have always found it difficult to find motivation to learn a foreign language when I know that many people who speak that language can also communicate in English.  For example, when I did a summer-long Spanish immersion trip to Costa Rica, nearly everyone I encountered spoke better English than I did Spanish.  Also, they were eager to practice their English with an American and preferred to speak in that language.  This made it difficult to experience true “immersion” which requires that one be forced to use the language being studied.  Had I been in a less-developed country than Costa Rica, I probably would have had a different experience, but any large city in Latin America has plenty of English speakers.

Ineffective language education

US schools get language education all wrong.  It may make sense from a management perspective to wait until high school to introduce a foreign language so that students are able to make an informed decision regarding which language to study, but it flies in the face of biology.  Language acquisition is a neurological process that is governed by our brain chemistry.  Essentially, we are hard-wired to learn language when we are young, and the portion of our brain responsible for acquiring languages solidifies as we age.  The “critical period” for language acquisition is from birth to age five, with some flexibility until puberty.  Unfortunately, we usually don’t start learning a second language until after puberty, which makes for an inefficient and laborious process of memorization and hours of practice.  For most people it is nearly impossible to become a native speaker, which means speaking without a noticeable accent, if you don’t begin studying a language until adulthood.   Attaining fluency as an adult is possible, but it takes years of study and practice. This contrasts with how children can acquire multiple languages simultaneously without any formal instruction. Which way would you rather learn – flashcards and grammar drills, or playing with friends?

Language skills not valued

One of the reasons why foreign language instruction is not a focus of primary education in the US is that it is not valued by society.  Speaking a second language is “neat”, but most parents would prefer their student spend extra time on reading, writing, math, and science rather than learning a foreign language.  I think this is part of the larger attitude of isolationism that has been present in the US for centuries, which largely due to our geography and cultural homogeny.   In most places in the world, there are neighboring areas or countries that speak a foreign language.  In order to travel, trade, and interact, it was necessary to speak the language of your neighbors.   Think of Europe or India – a landmass the size of the US that contains dozens of diverse languages, often intermixed in the same towns.   In contrast, the US has wide oceans on each side and only one (or two if you count Quebec) neighbors who speak a foreign language.  Since we are the regional, not to mention global, superpower, it is expected that our neighbors function in the dominant language of the continent – English.  Thankfully, the US is slowly become more bilingual due to the influx of immigrants from Latin America, but this is being meant with strong reaction from more conservative populations.

Preventing Monoglot-ism

The US is one of the most monolingual societies in the world. Despite the increasing prevalence of Spanish, I doubt that will change.  I hope to be part of the solution, but it may be too late for me.  I do hope to someday get to a conversational level in Spanish, but that is not on the horizon in the near future.  Instead, I am going to focus on giving Abel the gift of a foreign language.  I don’t want to pressure him to study a language simply because it is something I wish I had done when I was younger.  I know to be careful in trying to “over-correct” the perceived deficits in my childhood with my own children, but I want to attempt to expose Abel to language in a more natural and effective way.  Since Jess is fluent in Mandarin, we hope to continually expose him to and encourage his use of Mandarin.  No worksheets or study sessions yet – just lots of listening and play with the language. 

Eventually, we hope to find a nanny or playmate who is native speakers. If we continually expose him to the language and give him ample opportunity to use it, in theory he can become a native speaker.  At least continued exposure will make studying the language much easier as he grows up.  Of course he could decide at any age that he doesn’t want to learn Chinese, and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t push a little.  I can’t imagine him as an adult cursing us for not having helped him learn the most widely spoken language in the world when he was a young child.  If he does, at least he can curse me in multiple languages.