Sunday, March 30, 2014

taipei in the springtime


Life has been busy lately. Sean's quarter is ending and so is mine and we have both been cramming to get things done. But today we decided to put work and schedules and impending deadlines on the back burner and instead enjoy ourselves so we headed to Taipei with some friends to relish in the beautiful spring day. 

In order to make the most of any Taipei outing, the first thing we do is find a mouthwatering restaurant. Usually when we visit Taipei, we search for non-local food. We get enough beef noodle soup and dumplings in Hsinchu. What we cannot get are rarities. Some of our favorites are Mexican, Italian or Middle Eastern joints. We chose to eat at Sababa. My taste buds are still not over the experience! Our four person table was overflowing with hummus, falafel, pita bread and delicious beef and chicken. 

After stuffing ourselves, we always enjoy strolling around the city and exploring new neighborhoods and reveling in the vibe of Taipei, which is always friendly, fun, innocent and laid back.   

We strolled past small shops selling orchids and soup and furniture. We strolled past temples and schools and even a Catholic church. We strolled to a beautiful park with lanterns and trees and streams and bridges and flowers and statues. 

People gathered to read under trees in the sun and sniff the flowers and picnic and paint. It was the perfect spring Sunday and the perfect way to unwind after a busy few weeks! 



Saturday, March 29, 2014

professional culture shock

I don't often write about teaching and work on my blog because I am very intentional about separating my work life from my life life. It would be so easy for me to write about really, really good days with my 8th graders, and it would be way too easy for me to write about bad days, and that is so not the point of this blog.

However, the fact of the matter is that I moved to Taiwan to teach, and work is a huge part of my life because I spend 40 hours there each week. As with any job, there are things that I love, like, tolerate, and loathe about it.

Ce la vie.

The other day, I was walking around campus with a photographer's eye thinking: wow, this place is so incredibly different from any American school I have ever taught at, learned at, or simply been to. Then, I began to notice and think about all of the little things that might surprise you about a Taiwanese public school.

Then, I thought it wouldn't be so bad to share a little bit of my work life with you.

Here are the things that most boggled my American mind about the Taiwanese public school system:

It is not free
Each semester, students have to pay tuition. I think it is roughly $1,000 USD. Further, they have to buy textbooks and workbooks for each class. They also have to purchase a set of summer and winter uniforms. The students are also responsible for paying for the AC we use when it gets warm. Each class has an AC card & card reader. When it's out, the students have to add more money to the card otherwise the AC won't work.

Obviously, accommodations are made for students who cannot afford the fees, but it does not seem like many, if any, of my students have that problem.

Classes stay together like in elementary schools in the US but all the way through 12th grade
I teach two sets of 8th graders: 8A and 8B. They each have their own class rooms, and teachers come to them for each subject. The students do not get shuffled for different classes nor do they change seats. Essentially, the groups become these little families that spend all day and all year together [sometimes from first grade through 12th grade].

I think that there are both benefits and drawbacks to this. The positive is obvious: these kids become close, and I imagine their bonds transcend their public school years. Many of them seem more like siblings. The drawback is also obvious: lack of learning to socialize in diverse groups of people and with new people. I imagine transitioning to college in the states [which is where 99 percent of our students go] is extremely difficult after being so sheltered.  
There is no cafeteria or "school lunch"
Students eat in their classrooms unsupervised. The only "school lunch" provided is a vat of rice, veggies, and meat. It's the same every day. Only a handful of students actually get the "school lunch." Many just bring their own and use the microwaves in the classrooms.

There are no free school buses
Most students get to school one of three ways: walking, public transit, or a ride from mom and dad. Some parents opt to hire charter buses, and a few students take those.
The school day is 2 hours longer and the school year 20 days longer
In my opinion, my students are way overworked. They are at school from 7:40 in the morning to 4:10 in the afternoon. They have seven classes each day and even more classes in all because the schedule is different every day. They quite often have anywhere from three to four hours of homework each night. Most of them are involved in extracurricular activities, and even more of them go to cram schools after school. It is common for me to get emails from my 8th graders [13 & 14 year old students] at midnight on a school night.
Nap time is built into the schedule [twice a day]
For 40 minutes each day, there is a period of time called Quiet Time. My international school is one department of a larger public school. The local side takes naps during these quiet times, from grade 1 through 12. My department knows that kids coming from America are not going to do that, so we just have free time. Mostly, my kids make me listen to really bad music and beg me to get a rodent as a class pet. I say no.
There is no janitor, the kids clean the school
Clean up time is every day from 3:00 to 3:20. Each homeroom has a public area cleaning duty as well as the duty to clean its own classroom. Typical jobs that students have are garbage/ recycle/food waste [the most dreaded job that requires a visit to the blue compost bin swimming with maggots], chalkboard, desks and chairs, sweeping, mopping, etc. The only job the students are not responsible for is the bathrooms.
Midterms and finals are a mandated 30% of students' grades, even in elementary school
At the end of each quarter, my students enter this stressed out frenzy of studying for their 10 classes and each of their midterms or finals. According to school policy, those scores account for 30 percent of their grades, which is something I definitely do not agree with, but what are you going to do?

We use chalkboards and technology is non existent
Basically, nothing works. The printers don't work. The copiers don't work. The computers don't work. The internet doesn't work. The projectors don't work. Essentially, I am teaching in the stone age and go home every day with chalk smeared over my clothes. Amazingly, my students still thrive because we are flexible and creative in how we get things done.
Between each class, students have 10 minute breaks & a convenience store to visit
The American in me could not believe this: in between each class, there is a 10 minute unsupervised break. There is also a mini mart on campus that students can visit to get ice cream cones and Cheetos and soup and school supplies. The most remarkable thing? They are never late to [my] class!
Saturday School
Sometimes, we have to go to school on Saturday. It only happens about once a quarter, but it really sucks! We go for things like field day or parent teacher day. Usually, from my experience in the states, those events always happen in the work week and not on the weekends.


When I first stepped foot on campus, I was shell shocked and floored. Things I had a hard time coming to terms with: a pack of stray dogs lives on the school campus and is well taken care of. It's totally normal to see a cockroach or two foot long lizard or five inch snail or six foot long cobra mosey on by. It's normal for the water to shut off for two days [and no, school does not close on those occasions], and the other day, the power was mysteriously out in the middle of the day.

I have had to adjust my expectations and set aside my American perspective in order to function in my place of work. I am not going to lie; some days are Bad Taiwan Days, and I become very ethnocentric and nit pick, but most days, especially after nearly two years, this setting and set of circumstances feels so normal that nothing seems out of place anymore.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

a tour of the neighborhood

My new camera has given me the inspiration and the motivation to get out and explore more. Sometimes my explorations require high speed trains and taxis, sometimes they require a scooter, and sometimes, like today, they just require my own two feet.

I am usually pretty busy during the weekdays, so the weekends are my time to hobby. I find myself wondering: where can I go to take pictures? Where is an interesting and photogenic place I can venture to so I can practice using my awesome new camera?

Today, though, this thought would not stop nagging at me: I live in Taiwan. I blog about my life in Taiwan so five years, ten years, twenty years down the road I can look back and feel connected to this monumentally life altering experience, and the truth is that regardless of where you live, not every location is cool or photogenic or beautiful, but that doesn't mean those places aren't picture worthy. They are because despite the fact they may be humdrum, they are real and interesting, and bursting with life, and they deserve to be remembered all the same.

So in that spirit, I spent a good portion of my Saturday afternoon wandering through my neighborhood and fiddling with my camera and receiving a fair share of inquisitive looks from locals wondering what on earth I found so noteworthy about the buildings and doors and scooters.

Here it is-- my little corner of Taiwan-- in all of its ordinary glory:

So this is it. It's kind of worn down. It's not much to look at, but these are the streets where my life happens, and these are the non distinct places I will want to remember just as much as the famous temples and markets and attractions.

These are the streets I walk down nightly holding hands with Sean. These are the streets I scoot down when I have run out of bread, and I need some from the mart down the street for the dinner that is cooking in the toaster oven. These are the streets where I have conversations in broken English with locals who want to know what I think of their country [or if I am lost].

These places have come to mean something to me.