Sun, Nov 25, 2007 - Page 18 News List

Professor with a fighting chance

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

"I mean, this guy had his knife between my ribs and I thought, 'Go on then. Are you going to push it in or aren't you?'"

David Barton, a professor in the English Department of the National Central University in Jhongli City (中壢), Taoyuan County is no ivory-tower academic. His life in Taiwan, he told me with a frankness that proved typical of him, has been characterized instead by encounters with brutality, alcohol and violence.

"I've sent one friend home in a box and seen another in a coma he still hasn't recovered from. Another's still in the hospital, and another broke both legs. I've had both arms broken myself. All of us were foreigners, and all these things were alcohol-related," Barton said.

Barton's Rabelaisian novel Teaching Inghelish in Taiwan [reviewed the Taipei Times on Oct. 28, 2007] contains many wild fantasies, but his own experiences here seem to have been, if anything, even wilder.

"Taoyuan and Chungli used to be the center for all this foreigner craziness," he said. "There were three bars, Foxy 1, 2 and 3. They're closed now, but the area remains the armpit of Taiwan.

"We felt we were in some sort of industrial hell. We'd sit on the roof at dawn and watch the factories letting off effluent or long plumes of smoke over Taoyuan. It was as if we were in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Even if you went to what we called 'dead dog beach' at Yongan (永安) you couldn't escape the strong sense of Apocalypse Now.

"Even so, we always looked down on the Taipei foreigners. They all thought they were so special, ugly guys with the most beautiful girls, kings in their own little kingdom. We felt we were the punk rockers on an island of Jimmy Buffett fans."

Barton has been living in Taiwan since 1994. He was brought up in Saskatoon in central Canada. He still has a cabin in the wilds of North Saskatchewan, he says, but he doesn't use it much nowadays.

Were the fights and the drinking a comment on Taiwan, I asked, or on the kind of foreigners it attracts?

"They're a comment on how some foreigners react to Taiwan," he said. "They get knocked off their center by the place - by the constant availability of alcohol, for instance. And then the binglang [betel nut] girls - your construction-site worker or your English teacher drives home and sees them inside glass boxes in a filthy street. There'd be car crashes in Canada!

"I've seen bodies on the highway that have been simply left there, apparently as a safety message to other drivers. But at the same time they say you shouldn't look, because the ghost is lost and might leap into you through your eyeball.

"The bottle fights in this country are extraordinary. One Australian friend got 24 stitches across his face. An American I know started a fight because he told a Taiwanese who'd spat on the floor to clean it up. The guy had lost face so I knew a fight would erupt, and it did."

I found this strange as, in nine years here, I've never witnessed a single serious fight. But maybe it depends on where you lived, and who you drink with on a Saturday night.

I asked him how much of what he'd described was reflected in his students.

"Taiwan's university students don't seem to distinguish between cartoon and reality," he said. "This is the extended adolescence the poet Ottavio Paz thought afflicted Mexico. In North America the threshold between adolescence and adulthood has always been high school experiments with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Then after high school you leave home. Somehow the parents in Taiwan won't let their children take on that responsibility, and it shows in the university. In 13 years teaching I can count the number of spontaneous questions I've been asked on one hand."

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