Goodbye, Taiwan

Leaving Taiwan is bittersweet. This time tomorrow, I will be on my flight from Taipei to LAX, and the year will simply be a memory. It’s very difficult for me to articulate my feelings about the year coming to an end and about leaving Taiwan, so instead, I’m choosing to share some photos from these last two weeks of school. The last days at each school were sad, and I received a lot of sweaty hugs and was asked by my students to take a lot of selfies.

Thank you to everyone who’s made this year so special. I’m so grateful to have been placed in such incredible schools that welcomed me with open arms. I’ll miss everyone I’ve met here immensely. I’ll miss my students, who I’ve grown to love so much over the past year. And I’ll miss this beautiful island full of friendly people.

For now, it’s time to say goodbye. I can’t wait to be back home this weekend! Thank you everyone for following my blog this year. 台灣,我會想你。再見!

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A Few of My Favorite Things

Over a year ago, when I received the email that I would be placed in Taitung County, I was disappointed. I love urban environments, and wanted to spend my year exploring a big city in Taiwan. I wanted public transportation. I wanted a place bustling with people, activity, and urban culture. And instead, I was placed in Taitung County, arguably the most remote, rural county in Taiwan, known for its miles of rice fields, beautiful mountains, and extensive coastline. Fully unprepared for small town life, I accepted the position and hoped for the best.

I’ve always believed that everything happens for a reason, and that belief was confirmed as I began to settle into my new life in Taitung. I’ve come to love this town, the surrounding county, the beautiful landscapes, and the friendly people. Here are a few of my favorite parts about living in Taitung (pronounced Taidong):

– The aboriginal influence: the majority of Taiwan’s aboriginal population resides in Taitung county, and their individual cultures create a unique identity in Taitung. As some of the few Taiwanese not of Han Chinese descent, these tribes showcase their heritage through dance, music, language, crafts, and more. I’ve been lucky enough to work at a school where all the students are members of Taiwan’s Rukai tribe. Seeing their tribe’s heritage carry into the school and every day life has been an amazing experience that I likely would not have had in another city, and has definitely been one of the biggest highlights of my year.

– The coastline: the coastline here is incredible, as showcased by the pictures below. My favorite spot to visit on the coast is Sanxiantai, a footbridge with spectacular views.

– The mountains: Taitung’s mountains are beautiful, and I drive through them every day on my way to work.

– Tie Hua Village: My favorite, and in my opinion, one of the more unique locations in Taitung City. The lanterns hanging are all decorated by people living in and visiting Taitung. On weekends, there are frequently aboriginal craft stands and performers.

– The outdoor opportunities: From biking, to river tracing, to rafting, to scuba diving, I’ve gotten to participate in so many fun outdoor opportunities this year in Taitung County that may not have been accessible in a big, urban city.

– Working in rural towns: Unlike the elementary students in the cities, most of my students do not attend cram school after school. This makes my role as a teacher in these schools feel much more meaningful, since my students have few opportunities outside of class to learn English. It also means my schools are very small, so I’ve gotten to know all my students very well.

I really am grateful that I did not receive my top requests, and that I ended up here in Taitung. I think I was placed exactly where I needed to be placed, and Taitung will always hold a special place in my heart. I’m sure a year of small town life has done me some good, although I don’t think the city girl in me will ever go away. For anyone reading this who plans to visit Taiwan, be sure to visit Taitung County, you won’t be sorry! Thank you, Taitung, for giving me a home 9,000 miles away from Florida.

Getting Used to Taiwan

A question I’ve been asked again and again since arriving in Taiwan over ten months ago is, “Are you used to Taiwan now? Have you gotten used to living here?” I’ve always found it to be a slightly odd question because I’m never quite sure how to answer it, so it’s been a thought on my mind throughout the year.

With less than a month remaining until I return to the states, I’ve started thinking about how life is going to be different four weeks from now. What about Taiwan will I miss? What about Taiwan will I be glad to leave behind? How will my everyday routine and lifestyle change? What changes will be easy, and which changes will be more difficult? Will acclimating back to life in the US be easy? Will it be what I expect?

I’ve lived abroad once before, when I spent six weeks in Wales during the summer following my sophomore year of college. At first thought, it’s easy to think, “okay, these experiences aren’t even remotely comparable.” Six weeks vs. a year, Wales vs. Taiwan, a program with a busy, well planned schedule vs. a job with a lot of free time, English speaking vs. Mandarin speaking, the list goes on and on. However, both required an adjustment to a new lifestyle in a new country, and both required me to re-acclimate to American culture afterwards. In both cases, I left/will leave a piece of my heart behind in another country. In both cases, I was/will be very excited to return to my family. And in both cases, my life in the US was drastically different from my life abroad.

There are certain things I’m ecstatic to leave behind in Taiwan. My molding, rat infested apartment, the streets full of crazy drivers who never follow the rules of the road, the constant smell of stinky tofu in the streets, and the stray dogs that seem to be everywhere I go here in Taidong. And then, there are the things I’m going to miss without question – the beautiful scenery, the presence of 7-11 on every street corner, the incredibly friendly people, my job, and of course, my students. These two categories are the first things that come to mind when I think about leaving in a few short weeks. But what about everything else? What about the routine I’ve established? What about the new culture I’ve become immersed in? What about the bilingual lifestyle I’ve been forced to adapt?

Many people discuss the idea of “reverse culture shock” – the struggle of readapting to one’s home after an extended period away. In fact, I’ve seen the exact same State Department created culture shock presentation on both my Fulbrights. However, this doesn’t mean I’m equipped to deal with what’s coming, it simply means I’m aware of it. To me, this reverse culture shock will manifest itself not by the lists above, but by the things that fall in between these categories, by the changes I’ve undergone this year that I’m less aware of.

A year is a long time. I’ll say it again, a year is a long time. A long time to not see my family, a long time to not step foot in my house, a long time not to see my friends. Sure, I’ve experienced a lot of change this year, but so have the people I’ve been away from for so long. So has the US. So has my hometown. Nothing has stayed static in my absence, yet my prior life’s static existence is all I know.

To answer the first question in this post, yes, I have gotten used to Taiwan. I’ve gotten used to the parts I like, and I’ve learned to tolerate what I don’t like. I’ve become a local at nearby breakfast stores, coffee shops, and restaurants. I’ve somehow managed to acclimate to driving a scooter everywhere I go. I’ve learned to navigate the local grocery stores. I’ve established a routine. When all this goes away, will it manifest itself in the form of reverse culture shock? Or will I be able to easily pick back up on my same routines back in the US, the routines I was accustomed to before coming to Taiwan?

I think experiences such as the one I’ve had this past year are important life experiences. The ability to adapt, and then readapt, is important. Experiencing being part of a minority in a new country has certainly been transformational. And forcing myself to be more independent than ever before has been a tremendous growing experience. Taiwan, you’ve become a home away from home, a place where I can feel comfortable, and a place I’ve learned to love. And ultimately, a place I’ve very much gotten used to over the past year.

Sports Week AKA Spring Break

It’s officially May, which means my Fulbright year really is winding down. I have less than two months to go in Taiwan, which means less than two months left of teaching at my beautiful schools. This past week, we had what was basically a spring break due to a national high school sports competition taking place in Taitung county. Although I sort of already felt as if I had a spring break (I took three days off the week my friend visited for her spring break), it was definitely a nice reprieve from work.

Another Taitung ETA, Jenny, and I decided to travel to Hualien, the county just north of us, for a few days. We stayed in a wonderful hostel in Hualien city, which is basically just a slightly bigger version of Taitung city. We enjoyed exploring the city, however, Hualien county is famous for Taroko National Park, about 25 miles outside the city. We did a lot of hiking and biking in the park, which was absolutely beautiful! It was supposed to rain all week, but we lucked out and it barely rained at all. It was a really great, relaxing trip, and just what I needed after a rather tough month!

 

School resumed this past Friday. Luckily, I got to attend a school wide field trip to Guanshan, a small mountain town in northern Taitung county, with my students at my aboriginal school. This was nice because it allowed me to ease back into school and teaching, and provided me a chance to hang out with my students outside the English classroom. Guanshan is known for its beautiful bike trail, and part of the field trip was having the third through sixth graders bike the trail, which takes around an hour to complete. I feel like this kind of field trip would never go over well in the US because a lot of students are lazy and dislike physical activity, however, my students seemed to love it! I had biked the trail once before, and it as just as beautiful as I remembered. I somehow ended up anchoring the group of about sixty students, riding behind the straggling third graders, so while it was a very slow ride, it was still a lot of fun!

As of today, I’m officially back in the full swing of things with teaching. Happy May!

An Update, and Commentary on Living Abroad

Apologies for the two month hiatus – my computer crashed at the beginning of March and since then, all of my technology needs have been dependent on my snail speed iPad mini. However, I’m currently on a weeklong “spring break” due to a national sports week occurring here in Taidong, so I figured that would be a good time to update this blog!

Second semester has been going pretty well so far; I’ve gotten into a routine again with teaching, and my students are still as great as ever. It’s amazing to watch how much their English levels have improved over the past eight months. This semester, I’ve celebrated Mardi Gras and Easter with my students, both of which were fun ways to incorporate American culture into the classroom (see pictures below!).

 

About a month and a half ago, one of my friends visited me for her spring break! That was definitely one of the highlights of my semester. We saw a lot of Taiwan in just a week (we visited sights in Taidong, Hualien, and Taipei) and ate more soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung than I thought possible in a two day period. Below are some pictures from her trip. Thank you so much again for visiting, Alix!

My posts here tend to focus on the best, most exciting parts of my year here in Taiwan (of which there are many). However, just like any job and new experience, it’s had its ups and downs, so I thought I would take this blog post to discuss some of the more difficult aspects of living in a foreign country:

-The ever present language barrier. Sure, I know some Mandarin and my language skills have improved as the year has gone on. But there’s something inherently frustrating about not having the option to revert to English at times. For example, a couple of days ago I went to get a pedicure. I was simply trying to explain that I did not want gel nail polish, however, this turned into a complete debacle as I found myself unable to communicate this simple need to the worker, and I could not find a translation for the word in my Chinese language app on my phone. Sometimes, when I find myself unable to communicate simple requests, it’s difficult not to feel like a complete idiot (that being said, when I do successfully communicate in Mandarin, it’s a very exciting feeling of accomplishment).

-The time difference. Sometimes, there are times when I have a bad day, need help with something, or just feel homesick and want to talk to friends or family back home. I go to pick up the phone, and then realize it’s the middle of the night in Florida. This makes me acutely aware of just how far away from home I am.

-The food. Don’t get me wrong, many Taiwanese foods are delicious, and Taiwan is famous for its food scene. But a lot of my go to foods are absent from Taiwanese cuisine.

Every job, and every experience has its challenges, right? Overall, these barriers have been quite manageable over the past nine months, and the experience I’ve had as a whole make it well worth it!

I have this week off of work and will be traveling to Taroko Park with a friend for some hiking and outdoor fun! Stay tuned for pictures.
Oh, and a little PSA for anyone reading this – I decided last month that I will be attending the University of Virginia School of Law next year, and I could not be more excited for this next journey in my life!

 

Winter Vacation

Winter break came and went and rather than give a long (probably yawn-inducing) account of the last three weeks, I figured I’d sum up a few of the highlights here:

  1. Midyear conference: At the end of the first semester, all of the Fulbright ETAs, scholars, and fellows gathered at a resort in the mountains in New Taipei City for midyear conference. The first two days of the conference were a teaching forum. Each ETA site presented about living and teaching in their county for about thirty minutes. We also had two keynote speakers, a couple of breakout sessions, and some teaching demos from ETAs and LETs (I presented one on station teaching). Then, awards for Outstanding ETAs were given, and I was honored to receive one of the two Outstanding ETA awards for Taitung County. Overall, the conference served as a nice way to wrap up the first semester.

Oh, and did I mentioned it SNOWED?! In Taiwan. Needless to say, this created a lot of chaos and confusion, and made the whole “no heat” situation in Taiwan a little difficult. But it was exciting to see snowfall!

2. Solo traveling around Taiwan: I decided to spend the first week of winter vacation solo traveling around Taiwan. Although this was not my original plan (I was supposed to travel to Indonesia with two other ETAs, but we canceled after the explosions occurred a week prior), it was a lot of fun. I traveled to Tainan and Taichung. In Tainan, I saw historical sites including Chihkan Tower, Anping Fort, Anping Treehouse, and several temples. Tainan is known for being the historical capital of Taiwan, and actually has a European influence in several areas due to Dutch influence. In Taichung, I visited the National Fine Arts Museum, had boba tea at the place where it originated, and explored several parks. Below are some photos:

  1. Seoul, Republic of Korea: I traveled to Seoul, RoK for five days, which was absolutely incredible! I spent the first full day touring the DMZ and JSA, which was at the top of my list for my trip. It was an eye opening experience, and as a total history/international relations buff, I enjoyed getting to nerd out for the entire day. I have very conflicted feelings about the DMZ being a tourist destination, but I am still glad I did the tour. Other highlights in Seoul were the Korean War Memorial, Korean barbeque, and chicken and beer. I spent time with several other ETAs as well as a friend from the US while in Seoul, and rang in the first day of Chinese New Year at Gyeongbokgong Palace. Here are some photos from Seoul:
  1. My parents came to Taiwan!: My parents came to Taiwan for five days; we spent three days in Seoul and two days in Taitung. It was fantastic to see them for the first time in over six months, and I really enjoyed showing them around Taiwan and introducing them to Taiwanese culture. Their visit definitely felt too short, but I am so grateful they were able to visit!

That’s all for now! Second semester started yesterday, so I’m back into the swing of things. Winter break was amazing, but I’m excited to be back at my schools!

Life Update: People Still Like You When You’re 23

As one of my favorite bands of all time has stated, common knowledge is that “nobody likes you when you’re 23.” Because of this and the quarter life crisis I’ve been anticipating for the past several years, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to my 23rd birthday yesterday. Being so far from my family and friends, I figured it would just be a normal work day. Last weekend, we had a dinner for the three of us Taidong ETAs with January birthdays, so I had gotten the chance to celebrate then.

On Thursdays, I’m at Dong Cheng, the smaller of my two schools. My first class is fifth grade, a class I’ve grown to love. The class consists of eleven boys and one girl, so I sometimes refer to it as the “Dong Cheng boys’ club.” I frequently play basketball with the boys during recess, which has proven a great way to get to know them. Additionally, four of these boys were in the readers theatre competition back in December, which increased their enthusiasm toward English class. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when I walked into class and they all started singing “Happy birthday” to me. Later that day, the third grade class (possibly my favorite class) gave me a poster that they had all signed and sang to me. All day, my students kept wishing me a happy birthday (both in English and Chinese).

That night, I had a dinner with all of the Dong Cheng staff to celebrate the end of the semester. The dinner was family style with karaoke (when in Taiwan…), so it was quite an event. At the end of the dinner, a birthday song started playing. Everyone started to sing and brought out a cake! My LET then presented me with a giant card that all the staff and students at Dong Cheng had signed! It was such a great surprise (Okay, so the card wasn’t actually a surprise. Two of the first graders ran up to me that day and said, in Chinese, “Teacher Marie, happy birthday! We just signed a card for you!” But it was still amazing).

Today, at my other school, the students also knew it was my birthday this week, and sang to me and said happy birthday in the halls. Then, at the end of the day announcements, when all the students gather together outside, the entire school sang happy birthday to me and presented me with cards that all the staff and students signed. It was truly special, and made me once again grateful for being placed at such amazing schools.

Overall, it was definitely a birthday to remember! Thank you so much to all my friends and family who wished me a happy birthday. It meant so much to hear from you all, despite being thousands of miles away.

As of today, the first semester is officially over! I will be traveling for winter break over the next couple of weeks before the start of the second semester, so I will update my blog again after what is sure to be an exciting winter break.

For now, I will end this post with one question: What’s my age again?