Who’ll one day speak for tomorrow’s fast-changing East? Two Canadian reporters talked with its best hope — the children



Who’ll one day speak for tomorrow’s fast-changing East? Two Canadian reporters talked with its best hope — the children



Who’ll one day speak for tomorrow’s fast-changing East? Two Canadian reporters talked with its best hope — the children


Doug MacDonald

As A PARENT, it would probably jolt you a little if your child came home from school and announced that his class had spent part of the morning out on a hilltop, under orders to yell at the tops of their lungs nonstop for half an hour. And it would surely jolt you even more if he removed his cap to reveal that his teacher had shaved off all his hair.

No Canadian school is ever likely to adopt these odd methods of (a) musical training and (b) discipline, but in Southeast Asia they’re fact. Such classroom exotica emerged during sixtv-one days we spent talking to schoolchildren in ten Asian countries as we compiled a series of CBC radio travelogues.

At our first stop. Karachi. Pakistan, we selected as our guide Winifred Manezes, fourteen, a demure, darkskinned. bespectacled daughter of one of the local UNICEF office workers. At Korangi Township, a dusty refugee resettlement town sixteen miles from Karachi, Winifred immediately warmed to show business. "The refugees came over to Pakistan at the time of the partition of India in 1947,” she told our tape recorder sel I-assuredly. “They left most of their belongings in India, and they just came over here and settled wherever they could put down shacks.”

Treasure for a nickel

We then interviewed two Urduspeaking refugee children as Winifred interpreted. Ten-year-old Abida Bano and her bright-eyed little brother Shafi said they don’t live in a shack, hut in one of some twenty-five hundred squat refugee housing units at Korangi Township, and attend its coaching centre, a sort of school-cum-communitv centre. A hustling hive of rooms and courtyards, it hums all day with classes for children (no paper is available for writing, so children must use a primitive takhti, a small wooden plank rubbed with a mud cake and written on with a soft reed pencil), and at night becomes a town meeting hall for adults.

Ahida and Shafi surprised us with one of (heir local customs — never to accept a gift without giving something in return. We wanted them to have some memento of us, so when the interview was over we gave them each a shiny new Canadian nickel. They looked embarrassed at this, and we saw them a moment later whispering urgently to the welfare officer. He slipped them something. They returned. solemnly pretended to dig in the pockets of their ragged clothes, and handed us two liny Pakistani coins. Their monetary value is next to nothing, hut we treasure them.

Uke the Korangi Township coaching centre, another school with an eye to necessity was in Shewaki, a primitive village in Afghanistan. There, practical skills such as sewing, cooking and even washing clothes are taught to children from kindergaYten up — with an ulterior motive.

“The children learn new ways of doing things, besides the three Rs,” a Shewaki director explained. "Around the building arc gardens, used to help teach agriculture. When children come home talking about better ways of planting, the parents are sometimes willing to try them.” They also take home UNICEF-supplied seeds.

If you ask an Asian child what UNICEF is, you'll most likely get a blank stare for an answer, although chances are he’s probably getting some sort of aid at that moment from the United Nations Children's Fund, fn India’s Punjab State we noted that youngsters attending the Henderson School near Chandigarh may not know' that the aureomycin syringed into their eyes comes from UNICEF, hut they do know it’s used to treat trachoma. And that’s because of a teaching method as simple — and as sneaky — as those used at Shewaki.

To commit health rules to memory, they’re sung, and in some cases playacted. Besides the aureomycin song, others describe the proper use of everything from a toothbrush to DDT. One, set to the tune of My Darlinp Clementine, proselytizes for proper medical care with lyrics that will hardly make the top-ten hit parade (Got a had pain ■— ripht now!). It tells of someone w'ho falls sick and whose family is rushed to his side (Call the mommy — cal! the uncle —call the auntie). The pain is blamed on a pear nut the victim ate. until the song’s hero gets suspicious and instructs them to call the doctor — ripht now! He comes and promptly diagnoses appendicitis.

We noted another example of teaching by song, on a primary - school broadcast in the Philippines. Its words sounded faintly like a Madison Avenue jingle for soap:

Happy pir/s and happy hoys Wash their hands and faces.

'They make others happy, too, When they smell like roses.

Throughout Asia we saw wide contrasts of educational opportunity. In some areas children play on the streets all day long. They’re there because they can’t go to school. At the other end of the scale, a girl in Afghanistan listed some of her fourteen school subjects: "I take history, geography, how to wash clothes, theology, the Holy Koran, three languages — F.ng-

"The best hour to veil is daybreak"

lish. Persian and Pushtu ...” She was in grade five.

We encountered several odd forms of Asian discipline in the course of our travels. One teacher we met near Manila scorns as too prosaic the Canadian custom of keeping miscreants in after school. She punishes them by making them stand before the class and recite a poem or sing a song. Schools in Taipeh have forever solved the problem of students with shaggy Beatle-like hair. Ignoring outcries, they simply shave offenders bald.

In Taiwan, pupils of the Peitou Abacus School put on a display of skill for us. A group of them, aged six to ten. sat at their desks toying with their abacus beads as their teacher filled the front blackboard with twenty multiplication problems— tough ones: 665 hy 437, and 6304 by "6. The teacher signaled go and the children began to click their beads with unswerving concentration. Suddenly, the beads stopped and the teacher checked the answers and timing. The three winners had answered the twenty questions correctly, and they had done it in just over two and a half minutes.

Twenty new problems then went on the board. The teacher instructed the children to put away their abacuses and signaled them to start. This time instead of clicks, there was only electric silence. When the children were through, the results were tallied, and this time the top three had got twenty correct answers — without abacuses — in almost one minute less than before. The winning time was one minute, twenty-six seconds.

Incredulous, we asked a ten-year-old how he could possibly do mental arithmetic so rapidly. "It's easy,” he said. “I pretend I have an abacus in my head.” And as we left the school a teacher remarked that on some questions one of his pupils could beat a computer.

The final school we toured was also the strangest. The Foo-Hsing School

of Dramatic Arts in Taiwan boards a hundred and twenty students from ages nine to sixteen, many of them orphans and refugees from the Chinese mainland, and teaches them traditional Chinese opera.

During our tour through the school, we saw an ancient instructor putting his class of girls through what looked like early ballet exercises, young musicians in another room beating and plucking unusual-sounding atonal instruments. and a group of boys in a courtyard sword-fighting with wooden staves.

A private venture with little government support, the Foo-Hsing school begs aid by distributing a brochure of self-praise, printed in Chinese and somewhat garbled English ("Buildings as splendid as its campus are specious!”) One article in it. titled How To Train A Chinese Operatic Performer could almost have been fitted from a commando-training manual. To develop body control, for example, it says students must stand motionless with one leg propped up almost to head height for fifteen minutes, then do the same with the other leg. “This," says the article ominously, "is an appetizer. preparing for more strenuous drills that will follow.”

Voice training begins at dawn each morning. “The children rise with the lark.” the brochure explains, “and on an empty stomach they clamber up a nearby hill. There, wrapped in morning dew, these little children clear their throats and begin to yell and sing at the top of their voices for half an hour. The best hour to yell is at daybreak, particularly on a shivering wintry morning. Only under such trying conditions can a first rate, resonant voice take shape.”

Our tour completed, we returned to Canada with varying degrees of sunburn, a suspected touch of malaria, pounds lighter — and firmly committed to the proposition that our dawns should remain unconstructive, passing in silence and unnoticed in sleep. ★