I have never watched The Titanic to its bitter, Hollywood-romantic end.
I have seen culturally obligatory clips: “Jack, Jack…” as the ocean robs Rose of her hero. And my dad uses the film’s steamy-car scene to feign risqué in a most Josti way, dragging his palm across windows’ condensation during family road trips.
I would likely never have learned the lyrics to the film’s theme song, had my English students at Hsinchu Detention Center not requested that we sing them. My Heart Will Go On.
Thursday-morning English lessons have become one of my favorite activities at work. I spend four-and-a-half days of every week in the office, which is often also fascinating, but it is nice to travel 40 minutes away by train, to Hsinchu, to teach English to women who have been detained at the Hsinchu Detention Center.
My students typically hail from Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam, and they have each been detained because they were apprehended without proof of legal residency in Taiwan—some simply overstayed work visas or hadn’t carried proper documentation when they’d been checked, many are victims of human trafficking or workplace abuse. They are held in the detention center until immigration courts decide whether or not to fine and deport them.
I began co-teaching an English class to women in the detention center this march and I struggled to imagine how best to engage my students and provide solidarity to them in a traumatic time of their lives. Will I be able to identify with women in a space I’ve never been? I’m supposed to teach English, but will they have any block from which to start?
For my first lesson, I used the lyrics for “Friday, I’m in Love,” a poppy number by The Cure, to teach the days of the week.
But no one knew the song and its lesson lost effect. “Friday, I’m in Love” was no more relatable than if we’d memorized, “Friday, Saturday, Sunday….” I could tell the women we’re restless, so I asked them what English music they liked.
With the heavy realities in mind of my students in the detention center, I have significantly altered my approach to teaching English since that first lesson in March.
I teach Thai students at the church on Sundays and Indonesians in our shelter on Fridays. My curricula for their instruction is focused on conjugation, vocabulary, and rules of language (I promise it’s not as dry as that sounds). Most of my students in those classes are workers in Taiwanese factories, so it is my goal that they learn to understand basic English instructions and answer simple questions from American of Filipino bosses. My students in the detention center could certainly thrive in these lessons; many speak excellent English already. But where I worry that my students outside of the detention center suffer from a lack of vocabulary and pronounciation of the “th” sound, I worry most that my detained students feel alone and unloved.
During their detainment, women at the detention center spend about 23 hours a day in their large group cell. I visited a men’s cell at the center one morning, to see 80 men per cell, wearing scrubs either neon yellow or light purple, no socks, sitting and lounging on bunk beds. The bunks are large, built without dividers, as a continuous flat space that stretches from wall to wall. On one end of the cell is a shower and toilets—from across the bedroom, I can see men peeing in open urinals and I can smell the musty need for a deep cleaning. Guards maintain detainees’ circadian rhythms by keeping them from sleeping during daylight hours. The men spend their days watching Taiwanese soap operas and playing cards.
I have not visited the women’s cells, though I presume their conditions are similar to those I saw in the men’s cell, and I have adapted a teaching style to meet their accordant needs. The pedagogy for these women is simple: we sing.
“Neeearrrrr, farrrrrrrr, whereeeeeeverr you arrrre, I belieeeve that the heart doooooes go ooooo-oooon.” I wish you could hear the way these women sing during English lessons. After some brief conversational practice and maybe a grammar lesson, we sing together every lesson, and it’s as if the classrooms’ windows lose their bars. Between 10 and 20 women join my co-teacher and me for English class each week in a dingy extra building attached to the detention-center complex. There, for four minutes and thirty-six seconds every Thursday, Céline Dione is accompanied by joy; my students demonstrate that they have clearly seen The Titanic many times more than I have, belting its theme song with a resonance that swells energetically and alive. “You’rrrrrre heeeere, therrre’s noooothiiiing I fearrrrrr!”
The pedagogy I’ve realized during detention-center English classes on Thursday mornings is that English is among the least important outcomes of each day’s lesson. My students are often incredibly fragile when they come to class—some have been trafficked, abused by employers or brokers, all miss their families at home. I usually don’t even ask their stories. So when we meet for class, I have realized that the best sentiment I can facilitate is community, a distraction from the nasty realities that they face elsewhere. The detention centers are visited by caseworkers, many of whom are my coworkers, and these people are very important to ascertaining the proper legal recourse for these women, but I’m just the singing English teacher.
During the time that we sing, I could probably explain how to conjugate the English verb, “to live”—my students might even use that verb one day, “I lived in Hsinchu Detention Center.” Or, we could sing together about love lost and a horrible sinking ship. My heart will go on!