THE NEXT STEP (22)

It was only later on during a visit to a local school where Ted was to do some English training when he was told more about the cramming culture of the schools in Taiwan.

‘You see, there is much emphasis on doing extremely well in exams and ranking high’, one of the teachers explained to him. ‘When a child does well, it brings fame, so to say, to the family. We have a very collectivist culture. No one is on their own. Everyone is connected to their families. Parents put a lot of pressure on their children to do well and take pride in it when they do so.’

‘I see’, Ted nodded. ‘It is a very different culture to the West where everyone is so individualistic and sometimes even isolated. Parents don’t care as much about what their children do or how they perform.’

The teacher nodded. ‘Yes, it is a very different culture. Here, family is everything. And making a good name for one’s family is essential for everyone.’

Ted shook his head a little. ‘But that means that even relatively young children are put a lot of pressure on by their families, doesn’t it?’

‘Yes, it does’, the teacher smiled. ‘Even kindergarten kids take exams. And for primary, secondary and high school students there is something called cramming schools that they go to after regular school hours. Children in primary school can be expected to stay at school for more than 12 hours. In the cram schools, they just cram in information and try to memorize subject knowledge for their exams. Then they go home and sleep and do it all again. In some schools, the children go to school even on Saturdays.’

‘But they don’t have any time to be children!’ Ted exclaimed.

‘No, they don’t’, the teacher gritted her teeth. ‘This is the criticism that we often hear from the West. That we are shaping the children so that they are very narrow individuals with just specific skills, such as very hard-working and with a scientific way of thinking, but other sides are cut of, like creativity and using one’s imagination.’

Ted nodded. ‘This is all new to me… Hmm… Can the children take it physically? Don’t they get tired?’

The teacher laughed. ‘These kids are used to it. They learn to be very hard-working and efficient from a young age. And they always get a nap time after lunch. They can sleep for 30 minutes before the afternoon sessions. And also we do some physical exercise with them every day and also we have taught them how to do eye massage. There is a big problems with short-sightedness at our schools, because the children spend so many hours sitting on the computer and reading, and not looking far ahead, so many needed glasses. Now we are trying to counter-act the problem by introducing eye massage to them every day.’

‘Wow’, Ted shook his head. ‘Does that help? I mean, wouldn’t it be just more helpful to let them run around and play for sometime rather than sit studying all the time?’

Now it was the teacher’s turn to shake her head. ‘Yes, it would, I am sure. But with this competitive culture, it is not possible. The children need to be studying.’

‘I can see now why Oriental people are so hard working and why so many technological innovations come from here’, Ted hummed. ‘But surely there must be a way of finding a balance between not doing much studying and studying for twelve hours day….’

The teacher smiled her gentle smile. ‘ We are hoping to find that balance on day, but for now, we prefer hard-working to lazy!’

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THE NEXT STEP (21)

‘What is this colour in English?’ Ted asked the group of kids sitting on the grass outside the monastery. The sun in Taiwan was so hot that they had to sit under a huge umbrella to protect themselves from getting burned.

‘Gree-een’, the children responded in unison. They were a friendly bunch. Eight girls and two boys. All aged seven. Ted had been teaching them for a couple of weeks now, every day. Their level of English had been improving by the day, and they could perform calculations much better now.

All of the kids lived at the monastery with the monks and the nuns. They had all been abandoned as babies. In the Chinese culture, it was still favourable to have male children, which is why many girls got abandoned. In particular in mainland China, due to the one-child policy, many girls were left on their own as the family wanted to get another chance to produce a boy for the family without having to pay huge fines for having more than one child. The two boys in the group were the brothers of one of the girls. For unknown reasons, they had all been abandoned by their families.

Ted enjoyed teaching and could clearly see how much the children valued his efforts and the time he was putting into teaching them. At the beginning of every lesson, they came to sit under the umbrella bright-eyed, eager to learn. They always said good morning and smiled wide smiles. They were so focussed throughout the lessons that Ted was amazed every single day at how children of this age could remain so concentrated and take in so much information throughout the whole day. And the day was long. It was always eight hours, after which the children were still expected to do some homework. But the children really didn’t mind. They just seemed to love being at school.

THE NEXT STEP (20)

Unexpectedly, or perhaps not, Darky laughed at that. ‘It isn’t just the mountain air. I got some special herbs that I put in some of the snacks. They help me to chill out, not to stress out about stuff.’

‘Are you trying to drug me?’ Laura sat up straight. She was awake like a lightning bolt.

‘Not drug. Calm down’, Darky said in his soothing voice. ‘Just some natural herbs that can only be good for you. I have been taking them every night since I have been here.’

‘What herbs are they?’ Laura demanded to know. ‘And what do you have to stress out about? You seem so relaxed all the time.’

Darky snorted at that. ‘That’s because I ‘m taking these herbs. It is only lavender and some other plants that they sell down the market. Oh what do you know, I have all kinds of secrets that you would probably rather not know about.’

Now Laura was intrigued. ‘We all have something in our past that we would rather not talk about. Right?’

Darky shrugged. ‘Well, mine is pretty hard to beat. When I was growing up, I had very absent parents. My farther suffered from depression and was emotionally unavailable, and my mother was too busy with work and with dealing with her own issues. I guess people are never fully ready for parenthood but my parents certainly were not even half way there. I found my own way through life. That involved criminal activity, but what else was I to do? Then a modelling agency spotted me and you can imagine how such a life change is for a teenager.  A lot money, drugs and partying followed. I thought that getting into the music industry would have helped me to get back on track, but once the media paints you as the bad boy, you will always be the bad boy.’

Darky sighed and looked thoughtfully at the passing clouds. ‘This retreat was going to be a starting point for my new life. No more rock and roll and parties. No more drugs and criminal activity. No more dodgy crowds. I am trying to recharge and then make a comeback as a solo singer who has a clean image.’

‘That sounds wonderful to me’, Laura said genuinely. Perhaps she had misjudged Darky after all. She realised that she was doing exactly what she hated other people doing to her. She was forming an opinion on Darky with limited knowledge of him and based on fleeting encounters, on scattered knowledge. ‘I think that a lot of us are here for that purpose. We all want to better our lives and move onto the next phase. I need a break from my draining career and to rethink priorities in life.’

‘Let us hope that this retreat will give us a chance to that’, Darky looked wistful.‘The rain is subsiding now. Shall we slide down the slope and catch the bus to the retreat centre? I know how to get there.’

Laura started following him down the mountain. This wasn’t just a charm act to win her over, was it? There must be at least some truth behind Darky’s words.

THE NEXT STEP (19)

‘Ah, this hut must belong to the ingenious people who live up on the mountain’, Darky explained. ‘There is still a population up here who live in these huts and survive on hunting. She must have come back to take shelter from the rain. Too bad she ran away. She could have sat here with us.’

‘Oh I didn’t realise that there is some mountain people living up here still’, Laura said in a surprised tone. Was she slurring slightly? Why was she all of a sudden feeling so tired. ‘Feeling tired after all your exercise?‘

Darky smiled. He had picked up on her slurring too then. ‘Why don’t you lie down on the bench for a while and take a proper nap while we wait for the rain to clear? I’ll watch out for us in case any other people or animals try to come for us.’ He laughed at his own poor joke.

‘I am fine sitting here’, Laura said. She didn’t want to fall asleep when she was alone with Darky. He was too unnerving for that. ‘I might just close my eyes for a few minutes.’

It felt like Laura’s head was swimming in a dark sea. She could see different colour shapes forming in the darkness when her eyes were closed. Could this all really be just because of tiredness? Was she coming down with fever? That was the only reason why sometimes she could see colourful shapes like that.

‘What is it in this mountain air that is making me so drowsy?’ Laura voiced her concerns to Darky.

THE NEXT STEP (18)

‘Do you think that we are utterly lost?’ She asked Darky. ‘I can’t see a single soul and wouldn’t this be the sort of place where others would wait for someone who has been left behind?

’ Darky nodded. ‘You may well be right. The others probably took the other path.’ He sighed and then looked up at her with a smile spreading across his face. ‘At least we can rest in the hut for a while. I have some snacks in my backpack. And look at those clouds. I think it might rain soon. It is better to let the rain pass and then we can head back down the mountain.’

Laura shrugged. What else was there to do? ‘Sounds good to me.’ They walked over to the hut and peaked inside. There was nothing else in there except a bench. When you sat on it, you had a beautiful view of Taipei through the hut door.

‘Look at that’, Darky exclaimed. ‘At least we get the best view of Taipei from here.’ True enough, Laura thought as she sat on the bench. They were able to see the whole of Taipei and the surrounding mountains. Only now Laura realised how high up they had in fact hiked.

Darky took out a plastic bag from his rucksack and opened in. He fished out small packets of oriental snack. ‘There is some sesame bars and seaweed rolls. I also have some peanuts and rice crackers. Take whatever you like.’

Laura took a seaweed roll. She had become fond of the soft rice and the crunchy seaweed. ‘There is only a couple of clouds, so I would think that in about fifteen minutes we can head back down the slope’, Darky said.

As soon as he tucked into a sesame bar, the rain drops started falling. The rain grew heavy, but Laura also knew that it would end within minutes. They sat listening to the sound of the rain drops on the roof of the hut and munching on their snacks.

Laura was starting to feel drowsy. ‘I guess the exercise and the fresh air are taking their toll’, she thought as her eyes starting drooping. But suddenly she was wide awake.

‘Did you see that, Darky?’ she whispered and pointed towards the back of the hut. The branches of the bushes behind the hut were moving. ‘Did you see someone looking at us from behind the bushes?’ Darky looked at the direction that she was pointing at.

The branches moved again. There was definitely someone hiding behind the bush. Just as Darky was getting up from the bench and heading towards the bush, a tiny woman stepped to the side of the bush. Her face was painted with different colours and she was wearing a colourful dress. She bowed towards Laura and Darky, and then ran off before either of them could react.

THE NEXT STEP (17)

After a few minutes of climbing up the mountain, Laura shouted after Darky. ‘Wouldn’t it be wiser to turn around and follow the path back down to where we started?’

‘Nah, let’s have a bit of an adventure’, Darky turned around and winked at her.

With an uneasy feeling, they continued climbing further up the mountain. Laura couldn’t shake the unsettled feeling away from her stomach. What was it about Darky that made her feel this way? She had no idea.

‘I can’t really see any fresh foot prints on this soil’, Laura said after a while. To her, the path looked like no one had walked on it for a very long time.

‘With this tropical soil, who knows’, Darky quipped back.

They continued on their track in silence. The slope got steeper as they went along and the soil was somewhat slippery, which made Laura need to concentrate hard on her steps and to keep her eyes on the ground. They must have walked this way for another five minutes, but to Laura it felt like an hour. The height of these mountains was no joke.

After another while, Darky stopped in front of Laura. She looked up and noticed that they had reached a landing of sorts. There were no other people there though; all she could see was a hut made of wooden branches.