One Year in and 12 Takeaways
Time flies. It figuratively hit me in the face during an uncommon rainy week. There was a sudden and heavy rain in Taichung and my ceiling started to leak slightly, but not to worry! My landlords are the most considerate people ever and immediately came to fix it. After dealing with the roof issue, my landlord asked me if I want to keep renting since my year lease is up in a month and this prompted me to realize just how much time has passed already. A full year, as in, twelve months, or… three hundred and sixty-five days, how is that possible?
Perhaps it is possible because of just how much I have fallen in love with this place and the people. If you asked me before I came if I would stay more than a year here, I would resolutely say no. I had plans to keep working in other countries and attend graduate school abroad as well - and a certain urgency about them. I didn’t want to “waste time.” However, now I know there is no such thing as wasting time, especially when you’re in Taiwan. What happened? This place and the people here touched my soul in a way that moved me (and persuaded me) to let go of my urgent feeling about graduate school and focus on cultivating my teaching career just a little longer.
As you are considering coming to Taiwan to work for a public school, you might be wondering… what should I expect? I’m sure there are many what-ifs swirling around in your mind. What if I don’t get along with my co-teachers? What does a day in the life of a Foreign English Teacher (FET) even look like? What if the culture-shock is too much…? And so on.
After pondering what these last twelve months have meant to me, I realized what a wonderful life I have been able to build here and just how much I have grown as a teacher. In this article, I will discuss twelve different ways that have helped me adapt.
Be willing to make this place a home and not just a temporary place of work. What makes a place a home? It is in the small moments. For example, moments where when I am biking home from school and all in the space of a few minutes, I see a co-teacher I adore, a few wonderful students I teach, and my first local teacher friend I made, then just a few blocks over I stop by the bun vendor I go to and buy my usual cabbage filled bun warm and healthy goodness for a price of just 15 NTD. It is in these moments I am the most content and the most grateful that I get to live and teach here. There is a beauty to daily life teaching here. I am blessed with amazing coworkers and students who make this place I live more than just simply a place of work, but rather a community to contribute to and be a part of.
Accept help and gifts, but when you do be incredibly grateful. Taiwanese people are incredibly helpful and hospitable, especially to newly arrived foreigners. More than likely your neighbor will offer to go grocery shopping together since they have a car and you don’t, take up the offer! It is in these moments you can build connections and maybe even become friends. You will find that you often don’t need to buy fruit because of how much people love giving it as a gift. Showing gratitude through your attitude is important, however, it is key to remember that culturally giving little gifts back can go a long way. I have learned that it doesn’t hurt to keep some small trinkets or snacks you can give as a thank-you. I even brought a bag of trinkets from the USA when I first came, I highly recommend doing this!
As a side note to accepting help and gifts, I can say the most celebrated I have ever been on my birthday was the one I celebrated this past year in Taiwan. I have never been so genuinely surprised so many times within a week. So many students, co-workers, and friends went above and beyond to be thoughtful.
Put yourself out there and learn to explore on your own too. People here constantly ask me how I had the courage to move to Taiwan, a place I had never been to before. However, I never seem to think of myself as courageous. Perhaps it is because Taiwan is the kind of place that makes it easy to be brave. The people are incredibly welcoming, the land small and accessible (so therefore not so intimidating), and the food diverse and indescribably delicious.
Be flexible. Understand that there are cultural differences of communication and if you’re ever confused about something - from a scheduling conflict to what day that month you’ll get paid, just ask! For example, flexibility was key from the beginning because through Teach Taiwan, you sign the contract before talking directly to the schools where you will teach. If you come with a flexible mindset, any school will be lucky to have you.
Understand that each public-school deals with their foreign teacher differently. This means that communicating directly with your school is one of the most effective ways of staying on top of any current or changing policies. So, if a different FET you know tells you there is a rule you need to follow, first check with your own school to understand their policies.
Find the balance between learning from co-teachers and setting up your own unique style of teaching. The first thing I asked my main school when I came was what they wanted my purpose at the school to be. They said from the beginning that they hoped I could reach every student and help make English more fun, giving the students more motivation to study in their regular English classes. Now, to this day this goal is what guides my lesson planning.
Explore all the wonders Taiwan has to offer. The beautiful thing about working such a consistent Monday through Friday schedule, is you can look forward to your weekends and holidays. Take the opportunity when you can to travel use the convenient cross-island transportation. In addition, you’re not teaching every single period while at work so if you take advantage of planning time at school you can lessen or even wipe out your weekend work load.
Learn Mandarin. Please just try your best! Even if you make a clear effort, Taiwanese people can see that and will see how much you care. Pay for classes or find a tutor. It is worth it. There are so many benefits! Daily life interactions with the cashier at your local 7-11 will become smoother. Not to mention, having some basic knowledge mandarin will help you in teaching English to your students, as you will understand the fundamental differences between the languages.
Don’t expect everything to be handed to you. Remember, even though most Taiwanese people will bend over backwards to help you, your personal and work relationships here only grow if you take the initiative on things. This ties back into communication at work, it is your responsibility to take initiative on knowing what is going on as much as it is your directors to inform you.
Remember to take time to rest. With so much this small island(s) (did you know Taiwan has outlying islands to travel to?) has to offer, from professional development taking part in English winter or summer camps, to your own personal life remember to set time aside to rest. As someone who loves to explore, it can be easy for me to forgot that as humans we also need rest time. If you are coming without any family or friends like I did, this will improve your mental health and help you be an even better teacher.
Unless its allergies, be open to trying new food! Trying something once never hurt, in fact it will help you know if you like it or not and subsequently know not to try it again! So, when someone inevitably offers you stinky tofu, try your best to close your nostrils and eat it. I was surprised at how much I liked it! Also, local teachers and coworkers at your school love to share food, so it will make getting to know them and starting up a conversation easier.
Get familiar with time zones. Chances are you will have family or loved ones living in other parts of the world. Learning the time difference and sharing this knowledge with friends and family will make communication so much easier and therefore keep you grounded when you need to talk to someone who just gets you.
I hope these twelve takeaways give you a glimpse into what your life would be like teaching in Taiwan. Remember that everyone’s experience is different. Through the process you might learn a slightly different variation of twelve things that makes your life and teaching here successful. Make your “success” your own. If you have any interest at all in coming to Taiwan, it is my hope that you do come and learn through experience what makes both your work life and personal life fulfilled. Not only will you contribute to so many different student’s learning English journey, but you will grow in your own life too.
In fact, in Chinese there is a word for learning through experience “體驗” (tǐyàn) and it truly encapsulates the attitude you should come with. As much as you can read about or research about your school and future place of residence, (which I do still recommend!) you won’t fully be able to understand the culture of your school until you get there. This takes taking a risk, but trust in the wonderful and kind people of Taiwan. If you are grateful, take initiative, and are open to trying new things, you will find yourself a home away from home where you learn more about yourself than you thought was possible.
Learn through experience. My last surprise bonus takeaway.