Teach Taiwan Experience
“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” - Paulo Coelho
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that one day I would teach English in Taiwan. But lo and behold, here I am, munching a crunchy stinky tofu while sipping a boba. Taiwan, unlike other Asian giants, has managed to stay low key despite the huge economic success it had accumulated over the years. It is indeed a hidden jewel, a delicate paradise that is often overlooked by foreign professional workers. As I looked back during my years in university, I and my peers would often discuss where to work abroad after graduation. Japan, Korea, Thailand, China were often on the list, clearly oblivious to the existence of the EFL industry in Taiwan. In 2018, after years of working and studying at the same time, I finally graduated. Unlike my classmates, I already have working experiences and wasn't naive to the world of job seeking. I was on the prowl for a job abroad but unsurprisingly, often got obstructed by three words: Native-English speaker. I won't explain anymore the negative connotations that come along with these words. Unbothered and still empowered by sheer will and perseverance, I saw an ad on Dave’s ESL Cafe. It still contained those words but hey, I got nothing to lose, so I sent an email. Surprisingly, I received a reply. What a breath of fresh air! So Teach Taiwan informed me of their requirements, the words were carefully chosen and sounded professional so I was willing to give it a try. I was told to prepare the necessary documents such as my diploma, transcript of records, teaching license and police certificate. Well, I got all of them, however, I need to have these documents authenticated before I can proceed to the next step. This time, I was hesitant as the cost of having these documents authenticated was a bit substantial.
As I reside on a remote island, going to these offices to have my documents authenticated proved to be a challenge. I was able to go through the first step of authenticating my papers in the Department of Foreign Affairs, however, as the process took a lot of time, I grabbed an opportunity to teach in a private senior high school. For a year, I taught professional English subjects to students who want to work in the hospitality industry. During that time, Teach Taiwan was always on my mind. I was wondering if they are still hiring or if they have closed their doors already. I would send inquiries and they were patient enough to answer my questions. By 2020, I was able to authenticate my documents in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Manila. Finally! I can be scheduled for an interview! The day had come for my interview and they were helpful enough in providing possible questions for the interview. The interviewer was professional, punctual, courteous, and accommodating. It was a pleasant experience and I was hopeful for a positive response. A week or two passed and I received an email informing me of a school that accepted my application. I was beyond exhilarated! I’m finally going to work in Taiwan! I was so excited but apprehensive at the same time. By March 2020, we had our first lockdown due to COVID-19. I was devastated to say the least.
So, COVID-19 happened. I had no choice but to stall my application. Everyone was fretting about the virus, its effects were debilitating to the overall health of a person and a nation. I was in limbo for months. I quit my job so I had nothing to do. I was deeply concerned about the status of my employment in Taiwan. I already got my working permit but couldn't process my visa. All those months, my agent in Tainan was able to keep in touch with me. She assured me that the school was willing to wait and I could process my papers anytime. I was torn between staying and going. By this time, a friend of mine was also processing her papers. She was gutsier than me and wasn’t afraid to step out of her comfort zone. She pushed me to continue my application, so I did. And I’m really glad I listened to her. With a few months left in my contract, I flew to Taiwan in November 2020.
So, after some agonizing months waiting for COVID-19 to pass(which never came), I was able to land in Taiwan. I got over one big obstacle in this Taiwan journey, however, my story isn’t finished yet. By January 2021, I was jobless since my contract ended in December. Cold and alone, I shivered in a tiny apartment room. This is one of my dark moments, however, I accepted the fact that not every road will be paved with roses. I gotta deal with the thorns too. My agent in Teach Taiwan assisted me in looking for a new job. And by the end of January, I signed for a new school in Taichung. Finally, a light after the long, dark tunnel.
My short journey in Tainan was like a roller coaster ride. Things might have been difficult at first, but when you persevere and wait patiently, the universe would surely conspire for your success.
(Photos taken from Chimei Museum and Hutou Pi Water Reservoir, Tainan)
From Taichung with love (2021-present)
“Love is lovelier the second time around.” - Sammy Cahn
My adventure in Tainan ended after a few months so I’ve traversed to the north hoping it would be lovelier than the first. By the end of February 2021, I arrived at a dainty, rural district in Taichung. I was surrounded by fields of taro, rice and some wild flowers. It was a new environment, quiet, far from the urban noise and pollution. A perfect place for the elderly and for those who loved to have a peace of mind. I didn’t mind it at first, but as time went on, I felt totally alone and isolated. With no one to talk to, I was left scrolling endlessly on social media, gazing outside the fields of trees and bamboo from time to time. It was definitely quiet, too quiet. I was patiently and anxiously waiting for the start of my class. And thankfully, it came.
I met new people in the school. I greeted the principal, school admin, my co-teacher and the lovely students. It was a great first day as everyone was warm and very hospitable. My co-teacher is open-minded, mature and experienced. She helped me adjust to the new surroundings and oriented me to the things I’m supposed to do. Everyone was very welcoming and accommodating. Even with the language barrier, everyone in the school community tried to communicate with me so as to build a better relationship. With a ready and open smile (behind the mask), I was able to befriend and approach the students and almost everyone. Most of the students were shy but polite. Our communication is limited but slowly and surely, we are getting to know more of each other.
(Photo taken before local transmission of COVID-19)
Forming Friendship Bonds
As months moved on, I’ve grown increasingly bored so I tried reaching out to one of the teachers in my school. Forming new friendships in a foreign country is challenging so I tried my luck and she turned up to be a blessing in disguise. She kindly introduced me to her family and the local Taiwanese lifestyle. Because of her, I was able to eat the local food, enjoy the local holidays and traditions and I was immersed into a genuine Taiwanese experience. She brought me to places I would have never gone to if I was on my own.
Local Taiwanese dishes
So, I managed to make friends despite my “turtle-like” shyness. I was exposed early to the iconic smell of the stinky tofu. It is indeed an acquired taste owing to the fact that tofu is not a food we often eat in my country, let alone a stinky one. Down the road, I’ve eaten my first ever hotpot, a delicious hot soup mixture of meat, vegetables, yam, blood rice cake, mushrooms and other ingredients that I don’t know the name of. It's a comfort food for many Taiwanese people and I can see how it brings warmth and vigor to anyone eating it. There were other foods that I often see served on the sidewalk that I’ve only eaten when I’m with my teacher friend (since I don’t know how to order in Chinese). I was able to eat the iconic oyster omelet, beef noodles, braised pork rice, fried chicken filet, green onion cakes (a personal favorite), taro balls, Taiwanese sausage, grilled barbecued meat and so many other local dishes to mention. Food is definitely a universal language that we all speak; they come in different aromas, textures, appearances, and tastes but it all boils down into filling our hunger pangs, albeit, they require a more open-minded and flexible palate that is up for a unique culinary experience . Ultimately, food brings an educational and cultural experience as we get to literally taste what makes Taiwan, Taiwan.
Local Taiwanese Holiday Traditions
I came from a country that has “fiestas” or festivals every month, often in celebration of the local patron saint. Here in Taiwan, where Taoism is a major religion, I get to see a parallel of my own culture, just with different characters, costumes and ways of celebration. Here, Mazu is the reigning god/goddess. With her popularity comes many different variations of her power. She is celebrated as the goddess who protects seafarers, brings wealth, health and protection to the local people. And in my first year of immersion into the local culture, I saw how people from various walks of life, parade and walk for long distances to show their devotion to this god. Furthermore, as these people walk along these roads, they are greeted by people who were kind enough to give food and water. I got to see this first hand as I went along with my local co-teachers and walked with them for a short while. I was offered free food too and received it gleefully. It was indeed an exhilarating and unique experience.
The season of dragon boat festival came in so I was excited to see a dragon boat race. I wasn't lucky enough to witness it live but I’m hoping to see it in the future. Nevertheless, I was still able to enjoy some of the at-home/indoor celebrations. It was my first time trying to balance an egg on the floor which I was lucky enough to balance two! (so proud of myself, haha). I also got to enjoy the local rice dumpling dish that everyone loves. It was indeed one of the many “firsts” that I’ve experienced.
On some holidays such as the Mid-Autumn festival, I get to see how people enjoy their barbecues and moon cakes. Some people went camping but I went to Nantou with another friend to see the sun-moon lake. It was also a memorable experience as I got to see the famous lake and enjoy the scenery from the cable car. Time went on and I was excited for Christmas and New Year. However, Christmas is not as big here as what I've been accustomed way back home. I still managed to enjoy it with activities that I organized in school. Chinese New Year came and it was definitely more celebrated. I was invited by my teacher friend to her house to celebrate the holiday. I was able to see how they respect and pray to their ancestors, eat abundant, symbolic foods and the giving of the red envelope which I was lucky enough to receive from my teacher friend’s mom. I was so happy and grateful to her and her family for letting me on in this intimate celebration. I was invited as well to visit her family in Yilan and went around the beautiful tourist spots over there. I would be forever thankful and appreciative to her and her family.
Local Taiwanese School Environment
One thing that I appreciate about the school system of Taiwan is that the government spared no expense in investing in the country’s future. As a small island of 24 million people (and counting), education is readily and freely accessible to everyone. I work in relatively remote and small schools but it always amazes me that both schools are complete with facilities designed for conducive learning. Fully-air conditioned rooms equipped with internet-connected computers and interactive, touch screen TVs. Additionally, these rooms are not crowded, books and other equipment are readily available and everyone enjoys all of these modern conveniences. Teachers are provided with e-books and software that easily streamlines the lessons. Students enjoy different kinds of sports and hobbies and are encouraged to participate in these activities.
As a foreigner, I can see the stark differences of the educational system in Taiwan and in my country. The way they treat teachers by paying them a decent, livable wage goes to show that they are sincere in creating a sustainable learning and living environment that benefits all stakeholders. Work-life balance is still a work in progress as I can’t speak for everyone else. Be that as it may, I can still enjoy my personal time without being thoroughly burdened and stressed by work. Balancing personal life and work can be tricky but effective time management definitely helps.
More so, Taiwanese students are shy but confident, respectful and courteous. These values are often instilled in the local culture and are reinforced in school. However, as a foreign English teacher, I still see some areas that can be improved. English is still a foreign language, which means, you can only hear and speak it in the English classroom (most of the time). The habit of putting more importance on test results also creates a negative backwash effect that definitely doesn't help improve communicative competence. Nevertheless, the country is moving in the right direction. Citizens are open and willing to improve and the kids are enthusiastic in learning English. The goal of bilingualism still has a long way to go and would take a lot of time and effort to be fully realized.
by Relyn Jay Parba, Filipino FET in Taichung, Taiwan