Tuesday, September 29, 2015

so you want to move to Taiwan?

For the last few years, in September and October, random strangers start to email me questions about being an international teacher in Taiwan. The timing makes sense; recruiting season is in winter, and it takes a while to get everything set up to attend job fairs. People considering moving abroad start to do research, and then they start to contact people. When I started looking in fall 2011, I emailed a bunch of schools. I guess it never occurred to me to search for blogs of expats living somewhere I potentially wanted to move to, but it sure does occur to other people.
Sometimes, the messages are vague: I am thinking about moving to Taiwan or what's it like to teach in Taiwan? Other times, they are more pointed: I read your blog and deduced you work at X school, now give me the inside scoop. Usually, I only respond to the more general emails. I have never named my school on this blog, nor will I ever. There are a handful of international schools in Taiwan and in Hsinchu, and I don't want my blog to become the reason someone does or does not take a job offer. While I am satisfied at my current school, many people I know have not been. I don't want to tell someone it is a good place to work only to have them become one of the haters.

After a few years of this, I have gotten pretty good at pounding out a quick email, and I don't hold back. I tell them that moving to Taiwan has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I also tell them some days, I hate Taiwan and hide in my apartment.

After receiving five of these emails so far since school started, I have decided to just make this blog post that I can link back to. After some thought, here is what I would tell someone who is truly considering moving to Taiwan.


Proceed with caution, because you might be here a lot longer than you think
When we signed our contract, our plan was to stay for two years and then move on to another country and school. Well, four years later, we're still here and we have no immediate plans to leave. The same is true for many of my colleagues. Taiwan is charming. It steals your heart and you don't even notice until you start to contemplate leaving. Then, you wonder if there is a place like Taiwan, and fear all other places will fall short in comparison. Beyond that, the compensation we receive is huge when factoring in the cost of living and benefits like free housing, airfare, healthcare, etc. We have the potential to save nearly 90% of our income, which is no small amount. We could never do that back home, and we could never do that in other countries where the cost of living is higher or where these perks are not provided.

Come with an open mind and no expectations 
The one thing that makes most expats here the most miserable is that they expect Taiwan to be like America, and then get mad/frustrated/impatient when it's not. Quite frankly, this mentality makes no sense to me. Taiwan is not America. Don't expect it to be. The food is different. The language is different. The housing is different. The clothing is different. The bureaucracy is different. Everything is different. But, that really shouldn't be that surprising, right?
The language will be a lot harder to learn than you think it will be, but the language barrier will be a lot less significant than you worry it will be
I thought I was going to learn Chinese easy peasy, and I even took a class when I got here. I am actually a really fast learner, and I picked up Spanish really quickly when I studied it in high school and college. Well, I hate to break it to you, but Chinese is not Spanish. There is nothing to hold on to when getting your toes wet, not even letters. And don't even get me started on the five tones! After living here for 3+ years, I can go to the gas station or grocery store and get by. Otherwise, forget it! The really great news is that it's really not that big of a deal. Where I live, I am hard pressed to find myself in a situation where someone doesn't understand me. Sometimes, when I try to speak Chinese, it is really clear that the person I am conversing with would really just like us to stick to English. In the end, the language is really not something to sweat about.
You will end up buying a scooter, so just embrace the chaos of Taiwanese rush hour
One of the first things that will shock you about Taiwan is the traffic. You will notice it right away. There is a lot of it, and a lot of that lot is made up of scooters. At first, scooterists appear to be really bad at driving; they weave in and out of cars and buses and drive on side walks. Sometimes, they even drive along the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic. But then, you'll realize that somehow, magically, it works. You will be stunned to see how few accidents actually happen, and it will all start to look like a finely choreographed dance. There are actually other options for getting around, but personally I hate the other options. Driving a car here is insane because of the heavy traffic and dancing scooters, and the public transit is one of those things that the language barrier will affect. Let's face it; the driver probably won't speak English and the signs for stops will be in Chinese.  To me, it's not worth the hassle. I love my little scooter and the convenience and adventure it brings to my life (plus, filling up the tank costs less than $2 and lasts for 1-2 weeks. So.)
You will be stared at and talked about and yes, sometime it will really, really bother you
Okay, this is the one time I am going to truly complain. Taiwan is a homogeneous country. If you are not Taiwanese, you will be noticed, especially if you are not Asian. People will stare, openly. Some will point. They will talk about you in front of you. They will even take your picture. Just the other night, we were eating out when a girl leaned over to take my husband's picture. He gave her a nasty glare, and she had the decency to look embarrassed. Stuff like this happens all the time, and I still hate it and get mad about it. Globalization is a real thing, and people should know better. End of story. What baffles me the most is when parents allow their children to display such rude behavior, or even encourage it. This is one thing that makes me long for a place with more diversity. I am not Taiwanese, and I am not Asian, and I never will be. Therefore, no matter how long I am here, I will always be a foreigner, someone on the outside looking in. Because of that, it is sometimes hard to imagine a future here. 

Obviously, this list is not exhaustive. These are simply the things that I have found to be important. People move abroad for all kinds of reasons. I moved abroad for better work conditions, for more control over my finances, and most importantly, I moved abroad for adventure. I find that people who move abroad only for the first two reasons have a harder time adjusting than those who also move abroad to experience another culture and have many new adventures (and plenty of misadventures too).

At the end of the day, I am very glad I live and teach in Taiwan, but that is no guarantee that you will be. I think the best question to answer is this: what are you looking for?? If it is a country that values education and will keep you on your toes, then Taiwan might be just the place for you. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

sunburned on the back of a scooter

Phew! We made it through the first month of school! It was a long month that included a lot of late nights grading papers & lesson planning (and meals to go).  But things are finally starting to slow down a bit-- I have a handle on my new 9th grade language arts class and Sean has a handle on teaching 4th grade for the first time ever.

So instead of the usual weekend spent doing household chores that were neglected all week or catching up on work, we scooted off into the hills with some good friends.

These are the friends we have traveled the world with who recently moved from Hsinchu to Taipei. We miss them a lot, so it was so great to get to hang out with them and go on a mini adventure. I mean, it was no New Zealand or Thailand and Bali or Hong Kong, but it was still pretty awesome. And much more convenient.

We took them to a few places we just recently discovered-- Beipu and Emei. Since I had been to both of these places before, I was more interested in the mountainous scenery that never gets old and the feel of the wind all around me. It was so refreshing to leave the city and forget about work for a while. 
We wandered through temples and nights markets. We bought honey lollipops, green tea, and sausages on a stick. We laughed and splashed around in a cold spring. We pulled over on to the side of the road to take a lot of pictures & polaroids. 

We got sunburned and sweaty. 
And we wondered if my white little scooter would make it up a few mountain hills. 

It was such a beautiful day, and now I feel refreshed and ready to take on that pile of papers waiting to be graded. Unless, that is, my dream comes true and we will finally have a Taiwanese "snow day", which here means a typhoon day. Typhoon Dujuan is bearing down on us, and Hsinchu is expecting a direct hit. 

Is it wrong that I am hoping for many downed trees so school might be cancelled?? 

Monday, September 21, 2015

a very pacific northwest afternoon

We have been back in Taiwan for about two months now, and lately I have been suffering from homesickness. I think it's because a lot of stuff is happening back home in Washington State. 

Like the fact that my mom just moved into a brand new home and I won't see it until next July. Or the fact that she also got the most adorable dog in the world named Gypsy, who is a German Shepherd mix-- and I won't get to meet her until next July either. There is also the not-so-small fact that I am about to be a first time auntie come this December, and I won't meet my niece Lillian until July too. 

July is asking for a lot of patience, in my opinion. 

I think the homesickness came from Skyping this weekend; everyone (meaning three dogs and a mom, brother, and sister-in-law) was at my mom's new house, and I just got to participate through my computer screen. Four years into this whole expat business, I am pretty used to bouts of homesickness, but they usually occur during the holiday season or spring time, right before we actually get to go home.

September seems a little premature for missing the Pacific Northwest and all of my people. 

But then my husband reminded me of one very true fact: oddly enough, despite the fact that we live in Taiwan, we still get to spend a lot of time at home and with our families, and probably a lot more than many people who don't have an ocean separating them from their people and place.

We spent one full month living with our families this summer, after all! And the summer before that? Two full months! And next summer? We will be back (hopefully with an Icelandic road trip somewhere in the middle)! 

So on days when I feel like I want to jump on a plane just to spend a few hours back at home, I like to sift through the thousands of photos I take every summer while visiting. They are kind of like a security blanket, and proof positive that home will come eventually.

These photos were taken on a classic Pacific Northwest day that included a stroll through a beautiful forest and a picnic sprawled out on green grass bathed in perfect golden sunlight. 

Looking at these photos makes me feel so happy I get these moments at home with my people, and also helps put things into perspective so I can continue to live in the moment and embrace Taiwan. Because Taiwan is great, and when I am at home in Washington, it is definitely a place I become homesick for. 

Weird, huh?

Packing my Suitcase

Thursday, September 17, 2015

I hear you Barbie, but still...

Is anyone else in love with Socality Barbie? As a travel & expat blogger (especially from the Pacific Northwest), I think I am supposed to find Barbie's satire offensive and untrue, but I don't. I really, really don't. While I know Barbie is first and foremost mocking Instagram posters, there is a fair bit of poking fun at people like me-- travel bloggers.

Phrases like "life of adventure" and "never stop exploring" and "lets go somewhere" and "get outside" and "explore everything" are certainly mocked because let's face it, despite what people advertise on any platform of social media, this just isn't real life-- and the thing Barbie mocks most? The idea that people are also using the word "authentic" in relation to such phrases or making viewers feel inadequate because their lives don't match the adventurous, picture perfect ones on Instagram or other social media platforms.

Fact: I love to write posts and share photos of our pretty awesome adventures in Taiwan and around the world.

Another fact: I also try to balance the illusion of our Perfect Expatriate Lifestyle with my reality of being a full time employed expat who sometimes likes to spend entire weekends in dirty pajamas hiding from the world, or who has to sometimes spend entire weeks doing nothing but work-work-work because the end of a quarter is around the corner.

For the sake of full disclosure, I am not a "popular" travel blogger or digital nomad who is glued to every kind of social media in an effort to self promote. In fact, that iPhone that I just bought? I cannot wait to get rid of it and am about to pass it off to a friend.  Frankly, in terms of blogging, I am a nobody. Still, I know that my little travel blog is sometimes one dimensional and sometimes reads like my life is all butterflies and rainbows, and sometimes I know it stirs in my readers the green eyed monster. I know this because they tell me so, and usually the people who tell me so are very real people in my life who matter a lot to me.

"You're so lucky!"
"I'm so jealous."
"I wish..."
It's a hard act to balance. Is my life filled with more exotic adventures and globetrots than my friends and family back home? Maybe? Probably, even. Does that mean that every day I am out there on an #adventure or seeking to #finditliveit while #exploring???


Ninety percent of the time, I am a sweaty mess running from one classroom to another teaching 8th and 9th grade. Or sitting on my couch in my PJs reading. Or tearing out my hair grading essay 50 with 10 more still to go, but I don't blog about those times, and I don't want to. If my readers are silly enough to believe that my life is that one dimensional and perfect, well, I think that's on them, not on me.

And that's true of all social media users, I think because all kinds of social media can cause envy.

Sometimes it's from Facebook. Those pictures you just posted of your perfect twin babies? Yeah, that made me feel jealous. That Instagram photo you just posted of your impromptu adventure while everyone else was at work? Yeah, that made me jealous too. That tweet that you just closed on that beautiful two-story home? Jealousy, table for one. That blog post about your perfect trip sailing the Greek islands? Watch out! The green eyed monster is here!

What I am saying is that the grass can always look greener on the other side, but at the end of the day, I am really thankful I am not a sleep deprived new mother, and I am proud that I have a job I care about and am fully supporting my own existence, and I am relieved and ecstatic that I am not hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and I am glad I am in Taiwan; I like it here, and I don't really wish to be somewhere else, so while Barbie totally has a point about social media posters, I think some eye rolling should also be directed at social media users who let themselves be fooled.

Who controls what you look at online? You. That's who. And I am not gonna lie; I actively avoid certain people online because I know the end result. Their seemingly carefree and unemployed existence or perfectly staged photos or insanely well funded lifestyle makes me question the wonderfulness of my own life, and it's my choice to play that game, so I just don't.  

It's as easy as that, and that is your choice too, so Barbie, I hear you, but still, let's get real: if you don't want it in your life, stop tuning into it!

Saturday, September 12, 2015


My husband is the most grounded person I know. I admire him because he doesn't get mired in the garbage a lot of people I know, including myself, do. He knows what matters to him, and he invests in it. 

And my husband doesn't need or want a whole lot. 

He wants honest work, he wants genuine relationships and he wants time. Time to share meals with friends, time to play tennis with the guys, time to laugh with his wife and time to be with his family. 

I knew my husband was as genuine as it gets when I first saw him with his little brother, who is 8 years younger than him. That was 12 years ago, when we were in high school and his brother was in elementary school. My husband adores his brother, and it is obvious. Even today, when they are both grown and married men. Their connection is still a living, breathing thing. When they get together, joy emanates from them and they enter this world that is just theirs. 

I love it.

But I also know how hard it is for them to be separated for nearly an entire year. That's part of what makes days like this one-- days spent playing at the ocean and being boys-- so important. 

Summer is never enough, not for either of us or our families. 
But it is what we get, and we make the most of it. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

you win some, you lose some

The second week of school felt looooooong. So long, I was ready for the weekend on Monday. Don't get me wrong-- my new kids are great, and I really don't mind my job. It's just that I have had a terrible chest infection all week. I'm talking sore throat and coughing fits and sneeze attacks. That combo always sucks, but it especially sucks when your job is to talk to and direct 30 middle school students at once.

Luckily, my kids are nice and did not take advantage of my weakened state. Instead, they gave me tissue and asked me if I was okay when my face turned bright red from coughing.

I think part of the problem was the fact that the "cold medicine" that had been living in my desk drawer since last year was actually heartburn medication. I only learned this yesterday, after a coworker saw the package on my desk and kindly explained to me that heartburn medication would not exactly provide relief from my current cold. What I thought was an image of a person with angry lungs who needed cough relief was instead an image of someone with a burning esophagus who actually needed heartburn relief.

I laughed pretty hard at the discovery, and cried a little on the inside.

It sure explains a lot, like why I never felt any better after taking it. What can I say? You win some, you lose some. This week, I think I lost, but just a little.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

a taiwanese ghost festival

Here in Taiwan, we are in the midst of ghost month. 

Ghost month is all about roaming hungry spirits. According to Chinese culture, for one whole month, ghosts are released from hell to roam the world, and their living relatives appease them by offering food and other goods like money and clothes. After one month, they go back to hell and things return to normal for the living. 

One of my favorite things about ghost month is Hsinchu City's parade. Last weekend, we headed downtown with a bunch of friends and joined the sea of people all wanting to catch a glimpse of this surreal and eerie procession. A coworker explained to me that these giant figures are generals, otherwise known as spiritual police, whose job it is to ward off and capture evil spirits. 

Besides depending on these generals to keep you safe, other traditions persist about how to live with ghosts during ghost month. At first, I thought some were really silly and strange, but then I remembered that my culture tells children to leave cookies for a fat man who breaks into their homes and leaves gifts. 


In order to stay safe during this spooky month, people are advised to follow these rules. There are more, but these were some of my favorites:

No swimming
No going out alone at night
No whistling, especially at nighttime
No picking up money off the street
No killing bugs in your house
No hanging up clothes outside to dry
No leaning against a wall
And my favorite: no peeing on trees
(If you want to know the logic behind these rules, 
check out this article!)

I don't know about you, but if I was a roaming spirit, these tall & ornate generals sure would scare me away! 
When we finally left the parade, we were hot & sweaty & reeked of firework smoke. And I am pretty sure our lungs and ears were permanently damaged, but I absolutely cannot wait to go back next year! 

A Hole In My Shoe
Packing my Suitcase