The Writing Disorder




New Nonfiction


by Yu-Han Chao

      The first time a teacher beat me was in kindergarten—pre-kindergarten, in fact. In Taiwan, you can send your child to kindergarten three years before they hit elementary school age. There's the "little class," the "middle class," and "big class" in kindergarten. After graduating from big class you go to first grade. Clad in pink and beige uniform and wearing a little hat, I went to middle class the year before my graduate student parents came to America and brought me with them.
      School at Li Zen Private Kindergarten began in the morning with calisthenics. 7:30 AM. In what other country are so many post-toddlers so disciplined, obedient, clean-looking in their khaki-colored kindergarten uniforms at this hour, the little class with their pink or blue aprons tied neatly behind at the neck and waist, and folded hankies sticking out of their front pockets like men in business suits? Three or four teachers, most of them female, stood on stage demonstrating the standard swinging, squatting, and stretching movements before a sea of squirming kindergarteners gathered on the lawn. Earnest children mimicked the adults. A military-looking lady behind the demonstrators yelled into a handheld loudspeaker shaped like a horn over and over again one two three four, "yi, er, san, se."
       After calisthenics, each teacher led away her class of thirty students. Once in the classroom, it was time to inspect each student's cup, handkerchief, and Kleenex. The bathrooms in Taiwan do not provide toilet paper so every Taiwanese person must be trained to carry tissue on their person as soon as they're old enough to go to public toilets. That, or use your hands. Or if you have a handkerchief, use that. Just remember not to wipe your nose with it later. With regards to the cup requirement, I do not know why we had to have a cup handy in kindergarten; that one is still a mystery to me.
       The point is that my mother seldom remembered to prepare the required cup, handkerchief and Kleenex for me. Or maybe I never asked her for them, I don't remember. I was four. My class teacher, a young woman, probably not old enough to qualify as a spinster, would hit me with a plastic hand for showing up for school missing a cup, hanky, tissue, or all three. The hand was probably Made in Taiwan as most plastic products were at the time, and on it were inscribed the words "No Hit No Obedience." Perhaps this was a cheap joke on the part of the manufacturer, but my teacher took it seriously, as did us kindergarteners. There was a snack I loved called "Guai Guai," obedience obedience, and my dad would say, "no Guai Guai for you if you're not obedient," and I would shut up and behave, and he would buy me a package of Guai Guai. So when a product says something, it's probably true—No Hit No Obedience, says the plastic torture device. The teacher made me stretch out my hands and landed the big, cheaply made stick attached to a flat human hand on my reluctantly outstretched palms. I turned my head away, trying to keep my face as far from the stick as possible when it hit me. The plastic was hard and I could feel every ridge along the edges of the fake hand. This was a private kindergarten and my parents paid exorbitant tuition; the school shouldn't have beaten a four year old, especially not when they were making a lot of money off the child's parents. But I didn't tell my mom that the teacher had beat me. I figured that she beat me because I was disobedient, and since I hadn't been guai, I better not tell Mom about it lest I get into more trouble. Thus began the first of my archetypal Taiwanese experiences of being beaten in the classroom by a teacher.
       After a year of “middle class” in kindergarten, I spent "big class" in California, where my graduate student parents went to study. The first day of school my mom taught me to say one word, repeating it over and over again so I wouldn't forget: “pee-pee.” If I could learn that word, I'd be fine. It's the single most important word a foreign grad student mother can teach her non-English-speaking child before sending her off to ESL (English as a Second Language) kindergarten. There's even toilet paper in the stalls, what could go wrong?
      Nobody beat me in America. Teachers gave us candy, gifts, hugs, kisses, and even individual closet space. Mrs. Johnson, my first grade teacher, dressed up as a witch for Halloween and I was the only person in class who cried, not believing that the witch was really Mrs. Johnson. I was so upset that my mom had to come to school and bring me home. At any rate, I decided that American teachers were fine even if they turn into witches, for one day, every year.
      When I was in fourth grade, my parents got their degrees and we all returned to Taipei. I went to music school briefly, an institution where there was a "no beatings, fines instead" policy. If I was late for orchestra, forgot my music stand, music score, instrument, or something else, I was given a fine of 300, 500, or 600 NT dollars, depending on the offense. That's between 9 and 17 US dollars. My parents paid of course, so I didn't feel a thing.
      Then, in junior high school, I discovered that practically every high school teacher had his or her own stick. Most of them owned custom made, beautifully polished wood ones, with smooth bamboo skin twined around the handle for a firmer grip. The sticks were usually about the entire length of an adult arm, with the circular diameter of two inches, tapering towards the end to a round bullet-like head. They resembled over-long uncircumcised penises, in fact, though this is an analogy I am capable of making only in retrospect. A teacher beating a particularly bad student until his or her stick broke was not unheard of. Some of the cheap male teachers used broken-off table legs as their beating sticks. Maybe it made them feel more macho. I've never felt one of those furniture legs on me but worried for their students. Getting a splinter out of your own carelessness is one thing; a splinter forced into the palms of your hands at twenty miles an hour is another. The teacher wild-eyed, face flushed with excitement, breathing heavily. Pervert.
      My class teacher did not hit hard. The math teacher did. They were both married women with children, and I wondered if they ever beat their children. Maybe they sneaked back to the podium after school to get their sticks in order to take them home to beat their husbands and children. We all studied math because the math teacher was a vigorous and energetic hitter, but we did not behave quite as well for the class teacher since she was gentler when taking the rod to us, probably because she was middle-aged. And there were so many of us for her to hit every time that she must have had to pace herself, to save her strength so it would last until the last misbehaving or homework-forgetting student's outstretched palm.
      The standard beating position is for the teacher to stand at a ninety degrees angle from you, using her left hand to hold both of your forearms still to make sure you didn't withdraw your palms at the last second and make her waste her strength. Then she would land on you, with great force and precision, the stick grasped tightly in her right hand. A crisp snap, pah. Boy did those teachers get a workout hitting us. If they were to roll up their sleeves, I bet each one of them had tremendously well developed, hard biceps—even the flabbiest or scrawniest of them would have a tight, muscular right upper arm. Left if they're left-handed. Sometimes, our class teacher would say, "those of you who didn't hand in your correspondence books this morning come to the front (for a beating)". I wouldn't even bother to look for my correspondence book, a little notebook in which you write down homework for the day for every subject and which your mom or dad or guardian must sign. I would simply join the growing line. It was much easier than having to write up the homework and forge my dad's signature in a hurry—pah, thank you ma'am, and it's over. Yes, we say "thank you" to the teacher after they beat us. We're supposed to. Tomorrow will be a fresh day again because I have already paid for my misdemeanors today. The stick landing on my palm only hurts for a few minutes, a sharp shock at first, then burning, afterwards a strange tingle, then I forget all about it like the rest of the class who had lined up for their dose of Missus' stick and returned to their seats satisfied. It would be better if we weren't beaten, of course, but we didn't mind terribly. After all, that's school, isn't it?
      In senior high, I once again attended a music school, only to transfer to a private school because I didn't like my psychologically unbalanced violin teacher or the idea of becoming a music major in college and eventually turning into the kind of bitter, discontent person my violin teacher was. Upon transferring, I had to catch up on all the subjects private schools had finished teaching a whole year in advance; I attended innumerable exams on subjects for which I did not even own the textbooks. Never mind math, the math teacher hated me anyway, and he looked like a tortoise, but Chinese—Chinese. I was Chinese, so why was this subject so hard? Why did the teacher set a standard of 85 out of 100 points and for every point less of 85 we would be beaten one hard blow? After some calculation, it dawned on me that I owed the squat middle aged woman with the stick permanently attached to her hand thirty-something blows. Nobody had thought the teacher would hit the new transfer student, but she did. Even this jaded, constantly beaten private senior high class was stunned into silence as the teacher called me to the front of the classroom to pay in the currency of pain for every point I was short of 85.
      The first blow was like a thunderstorm that erupted between my hands. The wooden stick landed so hard on my palms they sagged with the blow and the teacher had to force them back up for the next one. The pain was like solid, hard fire hitting me, whipping, the slamming down of a hotplate. I spent the rest of the beating, which lasted forever, suspended in time, trying to keep my arms from lowering, my hands from collapsing with each rise and fall of the Chinese teacher's giant rod. The burning persisted and became a wild tingling, then my hands became one with the stick, the pain, the air in the classroom, and spread, melted, disappeared. Soon I couldn't feel my fingertips, fingers, hands, I had only wrists left. Hold them up, never mind your hands—what hands?—just keep holding those wrists up. When she was finally done I walked back to my seat, escorted by a classroom of awed or sympathetic eyes, like a heroine. I had broken the class record for a girl being beaten the most times. I'm a star, the biggest beating-taker of all the uniform-skirt-wearing people on this campus!
      I noticed how red my palms were and how they looked a little like raw fish, sashimi tuna in transparent boxes, my favorite. I had to be careful not to touch any part of my palms to anything because any contact sent a shock of pain up my arm and down my spine. My hands lay half curled like a baby's in its mother's womb, they were trembling, and I couldn't wrap my fingers around a pen for the next few hours. I sat with my palms facing up, spread in my lap, fingers slightly bent, and I imagined smoke rising upwards in swirls from them. My mother would go ballistic if she knew my violin-and-piano-playing hands had been beaten to a swollen pulp, but I couldn't tell her because it was my own choice to leave music school and go to a regular senior high. She would be angry at the teacher but it would still be my own fault. I noticed blue marks in my right palm, where the stick had landed the hardest. A long, rod-shaped bruise. Some indigo, lavender, dark eerie blue. Some on the left hand, too. I didn't know you could get a bruise in the palm of your hand! That's so neat. Hey look, I have bruises on my hand, one here, one here. Yeah, isn't that cool?

      Now, back in America first for graduate school, then to stay indeterminately (waiting for a permanent green card), I'm a teacher, too. I’ve been a teaching assistant, adjunction instructor (polite term for part-time teachers who get paid shit by the hour), and finally, a full-time lecturer. I certainly don't beat my students; I don't even raise my voice unless the classroom or lab is noisy. I bake them cookies, cupcakes, bring them pretzels and other junk food on special occasions. Perhaps this is because I am still young enough and not quite so jaded yet as to be unapproachable and to hate students, like some of the older colleagues I know. Maybe when I turn 40 or have my first child, o when 50% of my hair is white, I will turn into a Tiger Mother disciplinarian like Amy Chua, just like that.
      But as Chua also says, Chinese and Western parenting styles are simply different, and so are the styles of education. In Asia, the teacher is king. Confucius taught us that we should always respect our teachers, no questions asked. In America, education is now pretty much a service industry. Some deans actually believe in applying customer service principles (the customer is always right) to academic disputes. It’s a different approach, and practically speaking, I see it as a matter of whatever-gets-the-job-done. If students learn better being threatened by sticks in Taiwan, so be it. If American students do the best in school and show up to class when they are being treated like customers, then that’s what happens. At the current tuition rates that they pay here, I am especially inclined to give them (and their parents) their money’s worth.
      I've come to the conclusion that maybe beating your students isn't that different from baking cupcakes for them. And depending on the student-teacher combo, the end-result is ultimately arbitrary. Despite the awful beatings, I think fondly of my class teacher and math teacher in junior high, as well as the Chinese teacher in senior high, whom I later met with in private and who encouraged me to work hard and eventually meet her standards. All I remember about Mrs. Johnson is that she was a witch, and I hate, hate, hate that stupid abusive kindergarten spinster-teacher who beat me with a plastic hand. May she rot in kindergarten teacher hell.

Yu-Han (Eugenia) Chao was born and grew up in Taipei, Taiwan. She received her BA from National Taiwan University and MFA from Penn State. The Backwaters Press published her poetry book, We Grow Old, in 2008.

To see more of her writing and artwork, please visit

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