Book review: Something super: One American Lives, Learns and Teaches in Taiwan

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Tue, Apr 02, 2013 - Page 12

This book is two things — a song of praise for Taiwan, and a song of praise for the author himself.

I don’t mean this unkindly. I enjoyed reading this account of over a decade of teaching in Taipei, getting married to a Taiwanese bride and learning Chinese. But the title is unambiguous — David Pendery has found “something super” in Taiwan, and his own obvious success as a teacher is without any doubt a part of it.

Pendery is someone whom sadness or disappointment appears not to have touched. An unbounded optimism suffuses his pages, combined with a happiness derived at least in part from success. That he is an outstanding teacher seems obvious, but in the nature of a narrative such as this it’s information inevitably learnt from his own words. He steers the difficult line between offering an honest account and blowing his own trumpet. He has, in other words, the kind of sunny, right-handed personality that both entrances students and more or less ensures success in the public sphere. There is little or nothing of the introverted, left-handed, secretive personality about him.

This, combined with the obvious success of his career to date, leads one to predict that he will one day be some sort of grand old man of Taiwanese expatriate professional life. Even engaging on a project like this book signals his supreme confidence. You may very well sit down and write a story of your life and the happiness it’s brought you, but you don’t sit down and pen an account that includes all your successes unless you’re a very particular kind of person. And this is the kind of person usually marked out for success.

Sometimes these two themes threaten to collide. An example of this is his account of the different teaching practices that characterize Asia and the West. Pots to be filled, not flames to be lit, as Mao Zedong (毛澤東) is said to have described students as viewed in the Asian tradition. Pendery contrasts this with W.B. Yeats’s view, nowadays common in the US and Europe, that students are best taught by igniting their enthusiasm — the method Pendery unambiguously champions. But even here he is quick to quote a Taiwanese friend who insists that things are changing, albeit slowly. Taiwan will take to something like the Western teaching ideals, and so all will be well, and Taiwan’s reputation doesn’t have to be besmirched. Pendery, in other words, leans over backwards to be generous to Taiwan — and he does genuinely love the place, seeing it as the source of happiness and success he probably couldn’t have dreamt of back home in the US.

Pendery may, for some readers, praise himself inordinately, but he nonetheless does it in the nicest possible way. We may learn of classes pleading with him not to leave them and offering him unstinted praise (“the truth is that a great many of my students have very nearly venerated me”), of his taking up the guitar again after several years’ neglect and achieving signal success with it in a variety of styles, read of his difficulties struggling with Chinese (“the most foreign language of all”) and his eventual success, albeit not total, in the gargantuan task. But he’s eager not to make enemies or to offend. He does refer to “a number of [academic] institutions that treated me with shocking rudeness and antipathy,” and to behavior he’s seen in university life that’s been “unforgivably capricious, indiscreet, and even unethical.” But he nonetheless refrains from naming names.

As for Taiwan in general, he thinks it’s a marvelous place. He praises its scenery, its national parks, its urban environments, its railways and medical services, and, with qualifications largely stemming from his vegetarianism, its night markets. Admittedly, he does criticize “virtually all Taiwanese drivers” as “selfish, dangerous, rude and reckless,” but this is a one-off observation that feels like the top being blown off a bottle that for the most part he keeps tightly screwed down.

There’s a chapter on Taiwanese politics in which Pendery resolutely takes a middle line. He refuses to choose between the two main parties, and steers a complex course on the issue of Taiwan’s international standing — perhaps it could settle for some sort of non-nation membership of the UN such as was recently given to the Palestinians, though with China’s support (hardly a likely scenario). On the question of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), he adopts what he calls the “liberal” view that he might be paroled on medical grounds, or even granted a pardon by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).

Something Super: One American Lives, Learns and Teaches in Taiwan is, in other words, a book that, while it may not contain any unusual insights, marshals many of Taiwan’s widely-recognized qualities and adds to them an account of the happiness that a healthy young man can achieve here through hard work and dutiful application. If some books are best described by their opposites, then it would be appropriate to cite the creations of David Barton, particularly Teaching Inghelish in Taiwan [reviewed October 28, 2007]. This brawling, pornographic fantasy marking the arrival here of the “addicts, drunks, mind-numbed e-ravers — the Inghelish teachers of Taiwan” could hardly be further removed from Pendery’s well-mannered, sober (“no … boozing in pubs for me”) account.

But there’s no accounting for the range of human types. This little book isn’t bad, and unless you’re hankering for something gross or licentious — things that appear to be remote indeed from Pendery’s world — you might even learn something from it, as you would from any good teacher.