Sunday, December 13, 2015

let's talk food

Recently, I've touched base with three people, one via Skype and two via email, who are thinking about moving to Hsinchu. During our discussions, all three eventually asked about the same topic: food. I so get that. I would definitely be curious about my culinary options too.

I always lead with we have an Outback Steakhouse here.
I kind of think it says a lot.

While it is undeniable that Hsinchu does not have all of the same options for western dining as Taipei, we can usually find what we want here whether it be a steak, cheeseburger, pizza, or really good Italian food.
We have found a nice groove for cooking & eating; we typically eat in half of the week and eat out the other half. Usually, when we cook at home, we make western dishes. When we eat out, it's to eat local at family owned restaurants or food stalls.

For the nights when I cook, the first thing I have to think about is: what am I going to make? Usually, it's a homemade soup in the crock pot, tacos or burritos or enchiladas, pasta, or some kind of meat & potatoes. There are quite a few grocery stores near our apartment, but my favorite is Wellcome Mart. It has lots of fruits & veggies, meats (like pre-diced chicken breast and ground beef), real imported cheeses (like cheddar, Parmesan, Colby, etc), beans, rice, pasta, cereals, etc. The only items I now buy at the more expensive specialty import stores are tortillas, tortilla chips, and sour cream. I used to visit these import stores every weekend, but they are further away and more expensive, so now I rarely go at all.

As far as eating out, we are so spoiled!
Now that it has cooled off quite a bit, our new & favorite week night tradition is to walk to our favorite restaurants. The ones we visit most often are a Vietnamese restaurant, a duck restaurant, a beef noodle soup restaurant, a dumpling stand, a teppanyaki restaurant, and a ramen joint. Usually, our meals average out to less than 300 NTD, which is less than 10 USD. That's for the both of us too!

If we are really craving it, we might go to a really nice Italian place run by an Italian man. We typically go all out here, and our meals can cost $60 USD. As it's the best Italian food I've had outside of Italy, I don't mind paying the hefty price. Sometimes, we also go to The Outback Steakhouse where a burger costs around $10 USD. Sometimes, although we always regret it, we frequent a hole in the wall called The Taco House, which sells tacos & nachos along with mashed potatoes and mozzarella sticks.

I guess what I am trying to say is everything is here if you are patient enough to find it.

Monday, December 7, 2015

experiencing grief as an expat

My dad died very suddenly and unexpectedly less than four months after I moved to Taiwan. That was in 2012. Since then, we have all been grieving. Grieving is not something you do for X amount of time. It is something that comes and goes. Sometimes, it comes in a giant tidal wave, and sometimes, it's a gentle lapping. I am 29 years old. I lost my dad when I was 26 years old. I will still grieve his death when I am 86 and 89. The loss of a loved one as pivotal as a father is something that cannot be "got over" or fixed.

My dad is the first person I have ever grieved, and while I have nothing to compare it to, I can say that grieving has felt really difficult because I am an expat living in Taiwan. 

First, there is the literal distance that separates me from those I want to be with. I miss my family every day, but I miss them so much more in December and April. Anniversaries, birthdays, holidays. Skype is no substitute for a long hug or a hand to hold. I hope to be able to return home some Decembers in the future to lessen this hardship, both for me and for my family. 

Then, there is the complete and total disconnect that comes from being abroad. I used to take off December 10th, my dad's death day, because it felt wrong to treat it like just any other day, but then I found myself asking: where can I go here in Taiwan to feel closer to my dad? To remember him? To honor his memory? And the truth is: no where. There is not one place in Taiwan that evokes anything of my dad. Back home, my family hikes trails in the forests that he loved. They eat at his favorite restaurants. The scatter his ashes. I don't get any of that. Here, my dad is a complete stranger. 

All of this is greatly compounded by the fact that not one single person I have befriended here in Taiwan knew my dad. And even worse, when he died, our friendships were still in their infancies. We had only known each other for three months, and then the worst thing that has ever happened to me happened. Most people would not want to touch that with a 10 foot pole, and I can understand that. When I returned to Taiwan after his passing, it was as if nothing happened. No one asked me about my dad, and besides Sean, there was no one to talk to. It was just business as usual. 

A few days ago, I changed my Facebook profile to a photo of my dad. Within minutes, friends from my childhood were leaving comments about his terrible fashion sense and silly laugh and sharing memories. I never get that here in Taiwan. Here, it's as if my dad never existed, and that is beyond strange.

I know that moving home wouldn't "fix" his death, but I also know that it would mend a few hurts. Moving home is just not something that we are going to do, at least anytime soon, so in the meantime, I am just kinda making this up as I go.

There are many strange aspects of expat life, but for me, this is by far one of the most difficult to adapt to and figure out.

Friday, December 4, 2015

dear december

Dear December,

I used to love you. 

You meant a two week break. You meant family. You meant Christmas trees and hot chocolate and twinkling lights. You meant snow on occasion and hats, mittens, scarves and sweaters. You meant feasts and gatherings and friends.

You were joyful.

Now you are something else altogether.
You usher in a season of grief.
You make that ocean between us feel even bigger. 

Three years, almost to the day.

His death day.

1,095 days.

Maybe one day, you will stop haunting me December.
For weeks before you arrive, I feel you creeping in.
Along with you, you bring sleepless nights, dreadful memories and so much anger.

I loved him enough that I will probably always be angry.
Because it wasn't supposed to happen this way.

This is not what December is for.

He was cheated.
I was cheated.
We were all cheated.

This week, I wanted to tell him I paid off my student loans.
This fall, I wanted to ask for his advice on our finances. 
Last summer, I wanted to tell him Sean got a job.
Last spring, I wanted to tell him Sean graduated.
Last winter, I wanted to show him all of my pictures of New Zealand.
Last last year, I wanted to tell him about my running.
Last last last year, I wanted to tell him that moving to Taiwan is the awesome adventure that he thought it would be.

Every day, every single day, I wish for the chance to tell him that I love him. And that just doesn't even begin to scratch the surface.

Loss has changed me.
It has rewritten my priorities.
Many people my age lust after money and prestige.
Not me though. All I want is time to live my life.
It has stolen future promises.
We want to have a kid in the next few years, a kid he will never meet.

This is the third December without him.
I can't imagine it will ever feel the way it did-- before.
I can't imagine ever ushering in the season with the same eagerness and anticipation as those around me.

Sure, I put up our little Christmas tree.
I bought some presents.
I even wrapped them.

And day to day, I feel much better than I did three Decembers ago.

But I think this time of year has been forever marred for me.
And, inexplicably, that feels like a kind of secondary loss I still need to grieve.

(You can read more about my dad here)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

expat gratitude: becoming a debt free gal

It's time for another installment of Expat Gratitude. Expat Gratitude is all about highlighting ways in which moving abroad has changed our lives for the better. It's not about the travels or the adventures. Instead, it's about personal growth and fulfillment. In the past, I've written about running and sparks and finding my own voice.

Today, I am going to write about money.

Money matters. Let's not pretend it doesn't. I have been so poor I hoarded change. In four plastic baggies, I collected coins: one for quarter, one for dimes, one for nickles and one for pennies. I kept a post-it updated with the total amount all four baggies added up to. These baggies gave me some source of comfort, like if I really needed to, I could do one grocery run and buy Top Ramen and Kraft macaroni & cheese.

So that time period kinda sucked.

But I am lucky because I wasn't poor for very long, and I always knew I had two great families at my back: Sean's and mine.

One reason why money was always a little headache was because of the student loan debt I carried with me for the past seven years. Even though I had two free years of college, even though my parents generously paid for half of the remaining two years, I still graduated at 21 with $50,000+ dollars of student loan debt.

And for the last seven years of my life, even while unemployed, I managed to make my $500 monthly loan payment on time. For reference, over the last seven years of my life, making this payment has required me to relinquish anywhere from 50% to 25% to 20% to 15% of my monthly income, depending on which job I had at any given time. And let's please remember that for the last three years, I was also the sole breadwinner of my family-- a family that was putting the husband through school too.

And this is where my gratitude comes from today, because  I never could have paid off my debt three years early, traveled the world and put Sean through school if we had stayed home in Washington State. Not unless we won the lottery, at least. Or caved and got a credit card.

Today, I am 100% debt free.
 I hope to stay that way for the rest of my life.
Thank you Taiwan!!!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

gratitude for friends & fun

(at least to those of you living in Asia land like me)

So it's Thanksgiving and I worked all day.
You might think that sounds awful, but I have to admit that after four years, I am totally used to it. We very seriously considered skipping out on my school's potluck and getting pork buns instead-- because pork buns are what I am craving today, not turkey and mashed potatoes. But, in the end, we have decided not to be antisocial. I mean, we kinda like our friends so hanging out with them for a few hours doesn't sound all that bad, even if it does mean we have to miss out on seriously delicious pork buns.

Anyway, I am rambling. 

What I really want to say is this-- yes, I worked today. But I am so thankful for this situation, even if it means I work on Thanksgiving (and Christmas). 

To me, it's still totally worth it.

And today, I am grateful for:

The fact that my loans will be 100% paid off next month. Take that student loans. The fact that I have the best husband in the entire world (not that I am biased or anything). The fact that I really didn't mind spending today at work because I really, really like my students. The fact that it has finally cooled down so I can wear scarves and gloves!  The fact that I will get almost four full weeks off in about 7 weeks!

And the fact that days like the one shown in these pictures here are a regular part of my life.

Last weekend, four of us ladies putted off into the mountains on our scooters. It was an absurdly beautiful late November day. I am talking azure sky and warm sunshine. The route was long and beautiful. In fact, it reminded me of Hawaii. We ended up at a lavender farm. It was adorable and smelled great. Plus, I ate an ice cream cone that looked like a panda bear. 

What more could I possibly ask for? 

Here, part of my life may include working on American holidays, but it also includes amazing friends, wickedly fun adventures, a cute little scooter and so much happiness that I could just burst. 
And the mother :)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

beef noodle soup

Beef noodle soup is the thing to eat in Taiwan.

When I first arrived here 3 years ago, I choked down a few bites of my first bowl.
Then, my taste buds were still cultivating their tolerance of anything with spice.
And my first bowl overwhelmed me.
When I say choked, I mean exactly that.
There were tears and everything.

I am a beef noodle soup pro.
And I eat it at least once a week!
I wax and wane between fat noodles or skinny noodles.
I even wax and wane between the clear broth and the dark broth.

But I definitely know my favorite place to get it.
It's the soup shop that has a line wrapped around the block to get in.

The other night, we both had a long day.
I had planned on making pesto for dinner, but we looked at each other and said:
Shall we?

Without even having to ask, we walked to the door, grabbed our helmets and headed out to get a bowl full of soupy bliss.

That is exactly how good Taiwanese beef noodle soup is.

Monday, November 23, 2015

things I learned in my 20s

The other night, at a gathering, someone new to our school probed about our ages. It is true that one aspect of expat life, especially as an international school teacher, is having to make new friends constantly. Many teachers come and go often.

And part of making friends is learning things about each other.
Things like age.

Most people giggled.
Some lied playfully.
And no one wanted to fess up to being 30+.

I am not even 30 yet, but I don't think I will have any problems kissing my 20s goodbye come next May.

My 20s were hard. I think everyone's 20s are hard. But I am very thankful for the past decade of my life, and all of the hard won lessons I learned. Like:


ladies, be your own keeper
Yes, I am married.
Yes, I trust my husband through and through.
Yes, he could provide us a nice life with his income.
Yes, he even has that desire.

But you had better believe that I will be taking care of myself regardless.

I will earn my own money.
I will have my own bank account.
I will maintain myself, period.

It has a little to do with precaution--because, let's face it, life is unpredictable. Divorce and death are the two ways all marriages end. But mostly is has to do with pride, freedom and team work.

Some days, I do fantasize about taking advantage of the fact I married a more traditional man. One who is okay with supporting his little family of two.
But I earned an education for a reason, and it wasn't so a man, even one as wonderful as my man, could become my financial plan or keeper.

I feel empowered knowing that everything I have is because of my hard work. All the trips, all the hobbies, all the cute clothes, all the fun days. I like knowing I gave myself those things.

Income equals power, opportunity, and most important, income offers personal freedom to be in control of your life.

just because everyone else is doing something doesn't mean you should too
Credit card? No thanks.
Smartphone? I'll pass.
Kids? Not yet.
House? No way!
Car payment? I'd rather not.
Big screen TV? I think I can live without one.
Cable? Nah.
Partying? Not for me.
Quitting your job to "find yourself"? Um, no.
Money rich and time poor? YOLO.
Dye my gray hairs? Not gonna happen.

Life is one big example of opportunity cost. That means: what do I have to give up in order to get/achieve/do X. Blindly consuming greatly limits your future opportunities. I'm not saying you can't do or have all of these things, but I am strongly urging you to ask: what is the cost?

If you buy that shiny new car, what does that mean you cannot do next week, next month, next year? If you absolutely have to get the coolest new gadget each time something is released, what are you not allowing yourself to do or get in its place?

Just because everyone else is doing something doesn't mean you have to as well.

You can be your own person, and live a life that is true to your values.
But in order to do that, you have to stop and actually think about what you truly want rather than what you have been taught to want.

being rich in time far outweighs being rich in money
It is true that not having enough money leads to misery, but I also know quite a few people who have more than enough money and are still miserable. That's because it is true: money cannot buy happiness. Different things make people happy, but one commonality all of those things have is that they require time for engagement.

Lately, I have been grappling with the idea of moving onto a school where my husband and I could easily make $50,000 more yearly. But then we keep returning to the question: at what cost?

We have more than enough money. It's easy to get dollar sign eyes. But why pursue more? Here, we have ample money and time.

Time to make yummy dinners at home.
Time to run, rock climb and play tennis.
Time to take long walks before bed.
Time to go to bed early and sleep well.
Time to date each other, and not just on the weekends.
Time to watch movies and eat popcorn.
Time to read for fun.
Time to play music.
Time to sit up on the roof and talk.
Time to dream and scheme.

Time not to get lost in everything else.
Isn't that time kinda priceless?
And isn't $50,000 nothing in comparison? 

most people don't love their jobs, but that doesn't mean they lead unfulfilled lives 
A job is a job.
Work is work.

Happiness is an inside job, not something you earn or find at the office.
I am not saying people should do something they loathe for 30 years, but I do call b.s. on those people who are "living the dream".

Whoever said the point of life is to be happy and carefree everyday and all the time?

Whoever said that just because life is hard -or work is hard- you must be doing it wrong?

I think work is something normal people have to do because they are not independently wealthy. I think work is something normal people have to do so they can support their own existence. I think work is something normal people have to do because no one will do it for them. And I don't think we all have to love our work.

That doesn't mean we are robots.
That doesn't mean we live unfulfilled lives.

I think work is just part of the human experience.

marriage is not about you, so get over yourself
My husband is the greatest gift ever given to me.
As his wife, I have learned to make our marriage about him.
Likewise, he makes our marriage about me.

We've always got ourselves covered.
That's basic human nature.

What makes marriage special is deciding to well and truly have another person covered as well. Experiencing the complete love that comes from a dedicated and true marriage, well, in my opinion, there is just nothing sweeter or better on this great, big earth.

So this year, to cover him, I have been doing all of the grocery shopping and cooking and dish washing. He gets a pass while he struggles to find his feet at work. That is one way I can love him, and it is truly not that big of a sacrifice.

Yes, grocery shopping, cooking, and the dishes.
These things can be love.

your life can be turned upside down, or right side up, in the blink of an eye

I moved to Taiwan July 2012. I hugged my father at the airport, and squeezed him tight. I was sure the next time I would see him was the spring 2013, when he planned to visit. But, seemingly overnight, I was on an airplane heading home with only one thought racing through my mind: please let me get there in time.

In time to say goodbye.

And I did.
We had a few terrible and agonizing days together before he was gone.

That was December 2012.
It happened in the blink of an eye.

Even today, nearly three years later, my brain still wonders: how can it be real?
Sometimes I see my father.
On the street.
In a passing car.
At the track.

Life can change in an instant.
And that is scary.

My life still has yet to be turned right side up.
I'm not sure it ever will be.
Once you learn this lesson, I don't think you can ever move forward like you've unlearned it.
It hovers.

But that doesn't mean good things don't happen too.
Because they do.
Good things that can put your world back to sorts.

I guess what I learned is to expect them both, and to understand that I control neither.

adult friends will never be the same as childhood friends, but that doesn't make them any less special or rewarding
No one really seems to talk about how difficult it can be to make friends as an adult.
Or, maybe I'm just really awkward?
Either way, I know I discovered that friendships change a lot after college.

I've had friends dump me.
For real.
I got married young and started my career when I was 21; I think some friends just could not understand where I was at in life at the time.
I think now that we're almost 30, they get it.

I've also found myself befriending coworkers who were two decades older than me. But they always felt more like mentors than friends.

Now, I live in Taiwan.

I guess there is always some kind of barrier.

But there are all different kinds of friendships, and I have learned to find the magic in each person I have befriended here in Taiwan.
I am not perfect.
My friends are not perfect.
My life is not perfect.
Their lives are not perfect.
But I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet each one of them, and to better learn the magic of friendship. Because inviting another person into your life and allowing them to settle in does require a little bit of magic from time to time.

Through my adult friendships, I've learned I don't always have to be like my friends or agree with their choices in order to love them, enjoy their company or respect them as individuals.

take care of yourself
Cook your own food.
Plan your meals.
Buy real food -- buy ingredients.
Make food that takes time, tastes great and nourishes your body.
(And save the left overs for lunch.)

Get enough sleep.
Do what you need to do so you can truly rest.
I take scented bubble baths and read before bed.
I am happy to report that I go to bed by 10 every night.
I wake up at 6 feeling great.

Move your body.
Don't do it for any other reason that to take care of it.
Do whatever feels good.

Be kind to yourself.
You do a lot.
You're kind of amazing.
Treat yourself like it!

life is not one big chore, so don't treat it like one
It's so easy to grumble about this or that, but perspective can change everything. Tonight, at 9pm, I spent 30 minutes preparing my homemade chicken & rice soup for tomorrow night. It needs to sit in the crock pot all day, so I had to have it ready to take out of the fridge tomorrow morning before I leave for work.

I have learned to love acts like this.
I love them because I am seeing to the details of my life.
I don't want to eat crap for dinner, and I don't want to feed my little family crap for dinner.
I want to look forward to eating something that I made that will be healthy and delicious.

While making dinner was a chore, I didn't look at it like one so it didn't feel like one.
This can extend to so many other things too.
Like doing the laundry.
Or going grocery shopping.
Or cleaning the bathtub.

Looking at every day as a never ending to-do list seems like a pretty poor way to live this one and only life of yours. As I mentioned earlier, happiness is an inside job.

The attitude you take towards even things as mundane as making dinner can go a long way. 


So while I am not quite kissing my 20s goodbye yet, I certainly had the opportunity to think back over the past decade of my life and feel relieved to have made it through those years and still be someone I can like and respect. I still have a lot of growing to do, but life has a way of taking care of that for all of us.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

isolation, part of the expat experience

Sometimes it's easy to forget that I live in Taiwan; life is life, after all. Even though I am an ocean away from home, my life still has all the same ingredients: alarm clock, breakfast, work, lunch, so many students, home, run, husband, dinner, sleep. 

Lather, rinse, repeat.

There are only a handful of times that I really feel that ocean and its effects, like when I desperately want someone I can relate to and who can relate to me.

Sometimes, life as an expat is pretty isolating.

Yes-- I have my wonderful husband who is also my best friend. Yes-- we have been glued at the hips since I was 18 years old. No-- I wouldn't have it any other way.

But he's a dude.
And what I long for are girl friends.

That's not to say that I don't have girl friends here in Taiwan, because I do.
Ones that I love and cherish a lot.

But none of them are in my shoes.
And that's what I want.
I want someone I can level with.
Someone who will get it.
Someone who I can learn from.

And again-- I don't mean to say that I can't do those things with my ladies, because I can.

But not with everything.
And not with the things that matter most to me here and now in this moment I am living in.

I have never been a collector of friends.
It takes a lot for me to invest in a person.
I think this is for a few reasons; I have been burned in the past, and I am naturally a little bit of a loner.

Or maybe being a loner is how middle school teachers survive?
I don't know.

I don't want to give the impression that I don't have friends here in Taiwan or in America, because I do. But what I am saying is that I don't make friends very easily. I want quality over quantity. I want something lasting. I want real.

And here, my options are very, very, very limited.
I realized this over summer.
I am not a whiner or a victim; anyone who knows me at all knows that if I have my heart set on something, then watch out!

And I wanted a girl friend to talk to.
In real time.
In real life.
Face to face.
Here in Taiwan.

So I asked my friend: how do you make friends in Taiwan?
And she said: meet people.
And I asked: well, how?
And she said: approach them.
And then I said: and impress them with my six Chinese words, which are hello, one hundred, foreigner, how much, thank you and excuse me?

And then she laughed and said it probably helped that she could speak Chinese since her parents were born in Taiwan.

And I agreed.
I'm sure it's a lot easier for her to make friends here.

But then that got me thinking.
People are people, no matter where you go.
But the Taiwanese do life very differently than Americans.
And I am still the American me I was before coming here.

I want western friends.
I want no language barrier.
I want no cultural barriers.

But you can't order up friends like you would a coffee.
I would like a tall non-fat double shot mocha.
I would like a working married laid back adventurous expat girl friend please. 
Yeah, it doesn't work like that.

And I know it does't work like that in America either.
But there are so many opportunities to meet and make friends at home.
Or at least strike up a conversation that can endure more than six words.

Not so much.
It is a really big deal to see a westerner we don't know around town.

Guys, that can be lonely.

The other day, I was talking to my dear friend about work-life balance. On the inside, a little voice said: What are you doing? This friend has not had a job in more than 3 years! She doesn't want to hear it, but also, you don't want to give this to her. What you want is someone who gets this. Here. Now. You want a career woman to help you sort out what exactly it means to work to live and not live to work, but still take pride in your job and do a good job. Where is that woman? 

Another time, I was stressing to another dear friend about trying to smooth out this transition to a double income household in regards to my marriage, and once again, that voice sounded: She isn't married. She doesn't have a husband. She listens and loves me, but I want someone who understands these feelings I am feeling. I want someone who cherishes their marriage more than anything, and someone who can help me move through this time when we are too tired and busy to make our relationship the No. 1 priority. Where is that woman?

I'm not saying that the perfect friend exists for every scenario. But as I contemplate this long term expat life, I wonder: who will be my mommy friend when we have a kid? Who will be my working mom friend when that stage of life comes?

These things matter to me.
And I think they probably matter to a lot of expats.

Abroad, especially as a westerner in Asia, isolation is a very real part of life. Most of the time I am okay with that. But sometimes you want to be heard and understood.

Sometimes you want someone who gets you and gets it-- whatever it may be for you.

I think those someones are a lot harder to find abroad. And, sometimes, maybe even impossible.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

teaching internationally: what we make and what we spend

I know a lot of people think it is unseemly to talk about money and income-- especially using concrete numbers-- but I wish other international teachers would. When we were job hunting, we had no idea how to interpret the data schools were giving us. We also had no idea what was "normal" or the kinds of questions we should ask.

Since my blog is starting to become more and more popular with people looking to teach abroad, I am going to ignore the hush hush policy so many of us employ in regards to pay talk, and I will let it all hang out in order to highlight important information.

3,000,000 New Taiwanese Dollars

This is what we make annually as a married teaching couple, and yes, we are paid in the local currency, and you know what-- so are the teachers who work at the richest and "top" international school in the country. Obviously, this can have its flaws. For example, when I first moved here and today, the exchange rate was 30 NTD to 1 USD. In 2015, it was 33. In 2013, it was 29.

Why does this matter?
Here's why:

Today's exchange rate means we make roughly $100,000 USD yearly 
2012's exchange rate would mean we make $104,000 USD yearly
2015's exchange rate would mean we make $91,000 USD yearly

Ouch. Quite a difference exists between those three numbers. You need to know if you will be paid in local currency, which is actually really common, and you need to keep your eye on how it fluctuates. At the end of the day, though, this is 100% out of your control and a risk you will have to accept.

However, you absolutely control one element of this, which is deciding when to transfer money. Now that we have paid off our student loans, we never have to transfer money unless we want to. We check the exchange rate daily and wait until it is in our favor to transfer money. The only catch? We can only transfer $10,000 USD a day, so it's not like you can transfer a year's worth of money at once.  

We consider ourselves exceptionally lucky because we can save a gigantic portion of our salaries.

$400 USD per Month

Our necessities cost us about $400 each month. Here is a breakdown of our monthly averages for the things we have to pay for.

RENT: $0 monthly
GROCERIES: $200 monthly
ELECTRICITY: $150 monthly
WATER: $5 monthly
GAS (for apartment): $25 monthly
GAS (for two scooters): $25 monthly
Internet: $10 monthly

Please note the following:
  • We get free housing, and we are very pleased with it. It's a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in a nice neighborhood by a lake. The school pays for our rent so we never see a bill or have to think about rent. Our rent would likely cost us $500 a month, so that is another $6,000 USD to add to our school's benefits package.
  • Utilities in Taiwan are exceptionally cheap; our water bill is often $9 USD.
  • Garbage services are free island wide.
  • Our scooter insurance is a minimal fee paid once a year. 
  • Taiwan has socialized healthcare, and we each pay about $50 USD per month out of our paychecks to receive good healthcare. Our total out of pocket expense when visiting the doctor or dentist is usually about $5 USD. 
  • We do pay taxes, but Taiwanese taxes. Annually, we lose $2,500 USD between the two of us. We do file U.S. taxes, but we file an exemption. As long as we individually earn less than $90,000 USD annually, we do not have to pay U.S. taxes. 
  • We get free airfare every summer to visit home. Our school pays for a direct flight from Taipei to Seattle on the airline of our choosing, EVA Air. That is another $2,500 USD we can add to our school's benefit package.
  • We get nearly $2,000 USD per person per year for professional development; we can use this money to pay for credits towards Sean's master degree or my clock hours. 
  • We get a $500 shipping allowance at the beginning and end of our contract. This allowance is used for extra luggage at the airport or boxes sent through the post. 
  • We get paid 12 times a year, even during the 3 months we have off.
  • All said, in addition to our salaries, our school provides us with an additional $13,000 USD in benefits between rent, airfare, shipping, and professional development funds. 
You may be looking at this list thinking what about other bills? We don't have them. We don't have cell phones, so we don't have to pay for a plan. We don't have TV, so we don't have to pay for that either. We don't have credit cards, so there is no monthly payoff we need to make. We own literally everything we have. If we wanted to, we could get by spending only $400 USD a month, which is how we paid off over $50,000 of student loans in the span on one year.

What does all of this information mean month-to-month and long term?

It means we essentially have $85,000 - $90,000 USD left over as true disposable income (depending, of course, on the exchange rate at the time we transfer money). 

Therein lies the rub for international teachers; you cannot just look at the salary a school offers and then say yes or no to a job offer. You have to factor in other things like perks and cost of living. It takes a lot of research on your end, but that research is pivotal. Looking at the salary offered in Zurich, Switzerland would make you think you were going to be rolling around in a pile of money. However, after factoring in the lack of perks like free airfare or housing coupled with a high cost of living, you may be lucky to break even. I know a person who worked at the American School of Paris, and then broke contract and left because she went into debt living there.

My salary is roughly $55,000. It's less than what I was making in America. It's less than plenty of other international schools. While it's easy to say nah, I can do better than that and then accept a position in Japan or Holland that pays more, you would actually be in a far better situation in Taiwan with my salary, so tread carefully and crunch your numbers.

Obviously, my numbers are only valid for me. I work at a mid-level school in Taiwan. Some schools pay less, some pay more. Some won't provide free housing. Some won't provide free airfare. What is true for one school in Taiwan is not true for all schools in Taiwan. However, I think if you recruit through International School Services or Search Associates, you could easily find a situation that is similar to ours.

I am not a hermit, but we intentionally live a very frugal lifestyle. I like to eat out, go to the movies, and travel too. I am not suggesting to anyone that we will definitely save between $85,000 - $90,000 USD each year we are in Taiwan, but I am saying that we could. It is a choice that we will have, and we just work at a mid-level school. Imagine those married teaching couples working at top schools.

Is that a worthwhile trade-- leaving home to become more financially secure than you could have ever imagined?

Maybe. Maybe not.

That is something you have to decide for yourself.

However, for someone like me who enjoys the adventure of expatriate life, the financial freedom I have found since moving to Taiwan is certainly a boon I am grateful for everyday.

As recruiting season is upon us, here are some questions I think you should ask before signing a contract with any international school:
1. In which currency will I be paid? 
2. Is housing provided? 
3. If not, is a stipend provided and will that stipend cover all of my rent? 
4. Will I pay taxes, and if so, at what percent?
5. What other deductions will come out of my paycheck?
6. Will I pay my own utilities? 
7. Will healthcare be provided? 
8. What kind of retirement, if any, is provided?
9. What banking options are available?
10. Do you provide airfare/shipping allowances?
11. Are there bonuses?
12. Can I see a pay scale and a pay stub for someone with my education and experience?

And the most important question to ask:
Can I speak with someone currently at your school to better understand the cost of living? 

This thread might also be a good resource, but I have learned to take everything with a grain of salt. People are looking for different things in schools and experiences, and it can be hard to read in between the lines. I know a couple moving onto their 5th international school in the span of one decade. To me, that sounds exhausting.

However, it is absolutely true that you never really know what you are getting yourself into until you arrive. 

That too is a risk international teachers have to accept.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

the joy of being lost

One of my favorite things to do is get lost.

Sometimes, I have this urge to go outside and walk.

And walk.
And walk.
And walk.
And walk.
And walk.
Just to see what's out there; just to know something I didn't know before.
Not to run from something or to something else.
For me, wandering is when I feel most alive.
It's when I feel most connected to this great, big world full of so many places and people and things.

But I find that it is hard to find people who also enjoy this sensation. The majority of people I know, as a matter of fact, dread being lost. In fact, they actively avoid it at all costs. And sometimes, I have a hard time understanding their need to always be in control or in the know or on track and according to plan.

I think this, at the end of the day, is why I never got a plan for that smartphone I bought.
Lostness is just too vital to the health of my soul.
I loathe the idea of having a map at my fingertips.
The very thought repulses my gypsy spirit.

I think this is one reason why I cherish my husband so much. That man will go anywhere with me. He doesn't need a phone. He doesn't need a map. He doesn't need a reason or a plan. His soul understands my soul, and together our souls wanderlust.
I think this is why the world calls out to me. It's not for the photos I can take or the collection of stamps in my passport or for the stories I can write on this blog. It's not about a vacation or a beach or the mountains or souvenirs or escapism.

It's because I feel most alive when I am lost and getting loster.

I have not found any better way to experience this world than to run head on into it with no expectations or plans.

And this is the kind of place I discover on my quest to get lost and have an adventure.

At the top of a mountain in Taiwan, there is this place hidden in the fog & rain. It is full of temples and dragons. It's bizarre and real and wonderful, and even if it makes no sense to anyone else, I feel more alive for having been there.

Friday, October 30, 2015

so many rainbow villages!

Nearly two years ago, my husband and I decided to take our scooter far, far out of town. This was the very beginning of our scoot adventures. We were fed up with the city, so we turned down a road we had never driven before and kept driving until it ended in a three-way fork.

We took a right and ended up driving up into the mountains by accident.
We scooted and scooted until we found what I dubbed the rainbow village.

It was this bizarre, small town trapped in between the mountains and a valley. Strange and comedic murals adorned many of the brick homes, and we were enchanted. We even visited again. I knew rainbow villages were a thing in Taiwan because I had also heard of another more popular one in Taichung, a large city south of Hsinchu.

But, I still thought they were kinda rare.
Or special.

Imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago, I learned that they are not actually rare at all. They are all over Taiwan! I learned this on my way to Sheipa National Park. The route took us right past my rainbow village, and the road continued to climb high above the clouds and past many, many rainbow villages.

The entire route actually seemed to be dotted with an odd house here or there covered in bright, colorful, playful paintings, and sometimes rows and rows of rainbow houses too.

While I was able to dig up the story about my particular rainbow village, it doesn't really explain all of the others. From what I found online, my rainbow village was born from a deal made to solve a mosquito crisis. And I guess that kinda makes sense; right now, southern Taiwan is struggling with a Dengue Fever outbreak. It is a potentially lethal mosquito born illness. Years ago, my rainbow village was struggling with its own infestation.

The deal was simple: residents clean and maintain the surroundings, and those surroundings would be adorned with awesome murals. It really is such a fun place, but I still wonder about all those other rainbow houses and towns I passed on my way to the top of Sheipa.

On the way back home, we stopped at my village. After realizing that this village was more than just a random rainbow village, I had fun capturing scenes I opted to ignore the other times I visited.

The palms.
The canal.
The valley.

While this rainbow village is certainly a delightful rainbow village, there is a lot more to it that just those fun and strange paintings.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

moving abroad with a trailing spouse

I feel a little weird writing about this for a few reasons, but I am going to regardless because even though some thoughts and feelings may strike a nerve or two, that doesn't mean they are not worth talking about.

Plus, it's the season for international school recruiting, and maybe this could help someone.

Let me begin by saying that I had never encountered the term trailing spouse, which just means an unemployed spouse, before looking into moving overseas. I first encountered the term while searching through an online database of international schools while looking for job opportunities. The entries would simply read Trailing Spouse: Yes or Trailing Spouse: No-- meaning an international school would either accept teachers who have trailing spouses or it wouldn't.

A lot of schools wouldn't, and this was one of the first hurdles we had to overcome.

It makes sense for them not to hire a teacher with a trailing spouse. Most schools provide free airfare, free housing, free healthcare, and other free perks. It makes sense not to bleed money on a person who is not working for you or giving you a service in return. Sometimes, one income is also just not sufficient to live off of where the school is located.

Sometimes, too, a trailing spouse can leave the school hanging. What if he or, as is most common, she becomes unhappy and wants to move back home?

Well, there goes that hire.

Trailing spouses are common-ish in the international teaching community. However, from my (still limited but growing) experience, the majority of international teachers are either unmarried or married to another teacher.

I think many schools think these people are the safest choices, and frankly, that logic makes a lot of sense to me. Currently, I am teacher married to another teacher, but this circumstance is only three months old.

My husband was a very well paid roofer before we moved to Taiwan. He worked in the family business and really enjoyed it. Obviously, he had to quit when we moved to Taiwan, and he was unemployed for three whole years, our first three years here, while he completed his degree in education.

We both knew he would become a trailing spouse from the day I signed my contract, however, we really didn't understand what that would entail or how it would affect us as individuals or as a couple.

I think a lot of people with trailing spouses find themselves in that situation too. They feel relief to have found a job with a trailing spouse and then think their worries are over, but they are wrong.
A new set of worries and stresses are waiting around the corner.

At least, I have to think it was not just me. However, like I said at the beginning, talking about this kind of stuff strikes a nerve in some. Maybe that's why a lot of people don't talk about it.

Regardless, what I can tell you is this-- there are hundreds of websites and blogs for trailing spouses that offer support and understanding and tips. However, I have yet to find one for the husband or wife of a trailing spouse. In my opinion, that is ridiculous. It is like ignoring the elephant in the room.

Well, I'm not going to do that.

Instead, I will address some things you should think long and hard about before deciding to move abroad with a trailing spouse, especially if you both, like most people, worked before deciding to move overseas. 

What do I think budding expats with potential trailing spouses should consider?

First, are you truly okay with being responsible for earning all of your family's income for X amount of time? It is so easy to say "yes, of course!", but if this wasn't your reality before moving abroad, how do you know that you will feel that way six months in? Or two years in? Let me tell you that the pressure can be immense, and sometimes, the resentment can be too.

Some days, it will seem like you got the short end of the stick, and it's easy to feel stuck or trapped. After all, you moved abroad for your job, so there is this expectation that you will suck it up and deal with it, but that is just not fair. Really consider this-- what is your out? What can you do if the situation is no longer working for you? What do you expect your spouse to do in this circumstance?

Just saying we'll go back home is often impractical and, in many situations, the last resort, so what will be your Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D?

Researching potential job opportunities that your spouse can pursue before leaving might be a good idea, or looking into online work that is location independent. I think this matters a lot for couples who plan on remaining abroad indefinitely. We thought about these things and decided that the most logical thing for Sean to do was become a teacher. Not everyone chooses that path. Luckily, all of the non-working spouses I know who want to work were able to find work; one as a translator, many as tutors, and some continuing their work from the states via the Internet.

If you plan to stay abroad long term, you have two choices. One, accept that your spouse will never work again, which can be impractical for both people, or start figuring out what your trailing spouse will do so that does not become your reality.  

Second, how will you deal with money? Is it yours? Or is it both of yours? Does that mean the non-working spouse needs to talk to you before spending a larger than normal sum of money? Or does it mean he or she can buy things without thinking of speaking with you first? Will you give them an allowance? Will they get X dollars a month to spend on themselves and things they want/need? I know this sounds ludicrous, but for all intents and purposes, a non-working spouse is your dependent.

If you were both working before, these things would be non-issues. Now, you will go to work, you will earn X number of dollars, and most likely only you will have a local bank account and card. You have to have these conversations, and I think it is better to think about these things before arriving in your host country.

Once again, it's so easy to say "of course it's ours/of course you can buy whatever you want/ of course you don't need to ask for permission" but until you live it-- especially long term -- how do you know you mean it? And how do you take back those statements once you've made those assurances?

This was hard for us. Before moving abroad, we had separate bank accounts and didn't really worry too much about money. Neither of us are big spenders, we have no credit cards, and we always had enough to make ends meet. Moving to Taiwan changed everything. We were suddenly all up in each other's business, and it felt uncomfortable at first.

In the end, we settled with an allowance; I got so much to spend on wants a month, and so did he. Definitely, more than once, we had some pretty petty and intense conversations about money. 

Third, schedule time to check in with each other and have tough conversations. Do this regularly. Your marriage matters, and resentment should not be ignored. I remember waking up in the morning and being so put out that I had to go toil all day at work while my husband would get to sleep in and then have infinite free time. This changed when he started school, but still, some days, shouldering so much of the burden made me angry. 

This was not healthy, and it was terribly difficult to talk about for all of the reasons I already mentioned, but these conversations matter. Your feelings and needs matter just as much as your spouse's. Check in with your spouse so they know where your head is at;  it is completely fair to ask them to find work or pick up the slack at home when you are bogged down at work.

Marriage is teamwork; don't let yourself get to a point where it no longer feels like that. 


Now, maybe I was the only expat with a trailing spouse who dealt with these issues and feelings, but I doubt it. While it may be more socially acceptable for a woman to depend long term on her husband, I still think men feel these things too.

I think, at the end of the day, the more planning and thinking and soul searching and talking you do before leaving your home country, the better prepared you will be to meet challenges head on and together as a couple on the same page working toward the same known goals.

That is really my point.
You need to be on the same page about these issues before you move, and you need to have a few Plan B's in your back pocket just in case things don't work out the way you think they will.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

5 Finger Mountain

So I guess it's fair to say that I am obsessed with my weekend scoot adventures. But if you read this blog, then I am sure you already figured that out. After last weekend's daunting ride to the Sheipa National Park, this weekend's ride to 5 Finger Mountain was a piece of cake. 

One thing that I am growing to love about these scoot adventures? Every time I go somewhere new, I discover that I already kinda know the way. For example, last weekend, on the way to Sheipa, we passed the Rainbow Village I discovered years ago! This weekend, I laughed so hard because on the way to 5 Finger Mountain, we went right by the cold springs I have visited on multiple occasions, and even once looked up the winding road and asked: I wonder what's up there? Well, now I know. 

Despite my desire to see more and more, I have to hand it to myself: I have already seen and experienced a lot. I am so thankful for my adventurous husband who discovered so many of these places with me in our early years here, and now my scoot buddy who is helping me discover more and more every weekend (the poor husband is busy working himself to the bone, but such is the life of a first year teacher). Both my friend and I love our scooters so much, and we both love adventure. Neither one of us felt brave enough to go get lost in the hills on our own-- which, frankly, is probably for the best-- so finding each other and hanging out these past few weekends has been just perfect!!

Our adventure this weekend was certainly a journey-- I have to say that getting lost on my scooter in Taiwan has led me to some pretty bizarre places. Perched at the top of a steep hill in the mountains, at the literal end of a road, was a huge, ornate gate. This was a serious gate you guys. I wanted so badly to know what lay behind it, up in the woods, hidden behind a bend in the road. My best guess? A castle. Or, maybe not. But I am so curious!! 

We did make it to Five Finger Mountain eventually. At the top are a cluster of temples and trails, and because it's Taiwan, tour buses and people with little flags and matching t-shirts and loudspeakers. One thing I notice is that my friend and I are quite a spectacle, anywhere and everywhere we go on our scooters. I see such curiosity and confusion in the faces of locals and tourists. I can practically hear their questions: Who are you girls? Why are you here, on your scooter nonetheless? Where are you going? Where is your tour group? Where is your leader? Where are your matching t-shirts?!

Oh Taiwan, we just don't see eye-to-eye on certain matters. 
Like how to adventure. 

To avoid the crowds, we took a random trail head that looked neglected. It was washed out in certain areas and overgrown. But it had beautiful views from in between tall trees and intriguing shrines all along the trail. I had not planned on doing any hiking, so once again I found myself in my Toms trying to navigate a Taiwanese trail. I climbed under and over fallen trees and clambered up steep embankments. Brilliant light filtered in through the trees. 

Basically, it was awesome. 

Scooting back down the mountain, I once again felt so amazed and boggled and thankful that days like this are a part of my life. How strange that this girl from Washington State would end up in Taiwan, scooting down beautiful and foreign mountains roads with a no-longer stranger from New York. How wonderful that those two girls would spend an hour soaking their toes in a river and just chatting while enjoying the sound of the rushing water. 

I mean, really, how bizarre is that?
It is such an unlikely thing to happen, but happen it did.
And happen it does. 
Life is full of bizarre plot twists, and over the last four years I have certainly relished riding along the road of those bends and curves. 

One thing that is truer than ever? I am addicted to scooting, and where ever life may take me, scoot adventures will be a part of it. Although, I am thinking that maybe it is time to get a more powerful scooter-- that is also hot pink with a zebra print seat.