Taiwan, part 6: The Tao of Boredom

A boring class is a boring class. It doesn’t matter where you are, and it doesn’t matter who. It doesn’t even matter if you speak the language or not. It could be in French, Spanish, ancient Farsi, or Martian (even ancient Martian), within five minutes of the start of a boring class you know you’re in trouble. Today’s class was, in the parlance of the great state of Texas, snake-bit from the start. Xuebin had only slept for three hours the previous night because one of his roommates had stayed up all night playing online games. (Very few Chinese people would feel free to tell someone to shut up, regardless of what they were doing. That kind of thing would get you killed in some American universities.) He Yanjing still had a cold. Duan Ying was suffering from an allergy. The others were just dead-tired, for one reason or another. With that much collective fatigue, the professor could have been the greatest public speaker since the golden days of ancient Rome and still put the class to sleep. Sadly, he wasn’t the greatest public speaker since the golden days of ancient Rome. He wasn’t even the greatest public speaker in our wing of the athletic complex. A second-grader presenting a macaroni diorama would have been scintillating in comparison. The lecture might have been better with a macaroni diorama.

He started without even giving an introduction. He’s a very old man who has probably lived through most of the things he’s teaching about, but his presentation style isn’t that of a man relating incidents both experienced and studied; it was more like that of a very tired man trying to relate a dream he had. I doubt very seriously whether he even cared that we were there. We could have been department store mannequins and he’d have been just as happy. Two hours into the class (!) I looked around and fully half the students were asleep, heads on their arms. They weren’t even attempting to look absorbed. Others were on the threshold, some trying desperately to stay awake but nodding off anyway, and others trying to stave off the descent into slumber by reading something or playing solitaire or Angry Birds. It was brutal. During the ten-minute break, Liu Danting suggested that maybe we should all skip the one-hour afternoon continuation. We didn’t skip, but it was tempting. I mean, the professor wasn’t even lecturing from his outline. He had given us six typed pages at the beginning of class which I would refer to once in a while in a vain attempt to understand what was happening.

During the break Xuebin leaned over and asked, “What is he talking about?”

Ha! As if I could possibly know. I gestured at the outline and said, “Well it has something to do with American commercial interests in Taiwan after World War II.”

Xuebin shook his head. “No, it doesn’t,” he said wearily. “He’s not talking about anything on the outline. It’s just a bunch of stuff about Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek. I’m not even sure what.”

I shrugged. “We should probably just read his book,” I said.

Xuebin nodded, sighed, and went back to his reading.

Then there was his accent. I’m always secretly pleased when my Chinese friends don’t understand something. When you spend 90% of your time feeling like the kid they mainstreamed in from the special-ed class down the hall, it’s always comforting to watch everyone else scramble for once. The professor’s Taiwanese accent was as thick as waffle batter, so thick that even students used to sorting out the Tianjin local argot (which to my ears sounds like someone trying to recite Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” with a mouthful of Lifesavers) were squinting in concentration, trying to piece together a few phrases in a row. In Taiwan, locals tend to switch up the “s” and the “sh” sound, not uncommon for some places in the mainland as well, and then also do something weird with the “er” sound, so that it comes across more like “aw”. That’s rough. I live in a part of China where, far from falling away from the “er” sound, people dwell on it, caressing every possible vocalization hidden within it as though that one tiny phoneme contained the crux of all expressed meaning. It’s the most intense “r” you’ve ever heard. Here it’s more like they thought about saying “er,” then as soon as they opened their mouths they decided the sound wasn’t worth it, so just stopped in mid-speech.

We were glad when the post-lunch session finally ended. I say “finally” because the professor finished speaking, asked for questions. . .then just sort of stood around reading, looking up occasionally to make random comments, reading some more, commenting even more randomly, then reading yet again. It was bizarre. I hissed at Liu Danting, “Why doesn’t he just end?!” She shook her head and said, in an awed sort of way, “I don’t think he can bear to finish.” That was well-put, I thought. I had a momentary vision of him vanishing in a puff of smoke as soon as he left the classroom, as though the continuation of his corporeal being depended on his presence in the room. This in my mind makes him a lot like Professor Binns in the Harry Potter novels. If you’re not sure who Professor Binns is, go buy the books and find out.

The whole thing was particularly sad, quite apart from its being one of the most punishingly boring things ever perpetrated in this hemisphere, because yesterday’s class was something else entirely. I’ll write more about how powerfully it affected us at a later date. For now I want to go get something to eat and maybe get some studying done before our late-evening ritual of grabbing some beers and drinking them at a campus overlook from which you can see the lights of Taipei hundreds of meters below. Fantastic.

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