#15: Days that Try a Man’s Soul

Since I last wrote in my blog I had a lot of deep thought about what brought me to Taiwan. Yes, I’m here for the experience in and of itself and to work as an English teacher, but why am I really here? Simple, I’m here to travel and gain firsthand experience of a culture much different from my own. Such a simple missive can and was initially forgotten.

When I first arrived I spent a lot of time touring the city and then travelling throughout Japan. Then I got burnt out from constantly pushing myself to explore for 12-16 hours a day and lost sight of things. I settled into a seemingly cozy and secure job and got used to everyday life.

Days became weeks and weeks became months, and soon I found myself questioning why I came here and wondering whether I had made a terrible mistake. Thoughts of returning to Canada to continue my education or to work (under the jurisdiction of Canadian labour laws) flooded my mind and I spent several nights unable to sleep.

Without getting into too much detail (out of respect for some of the people it involves): I was in a bad situation, through little fault of my own, and needed to get out.

Every nerve in my body pushed me toward the exit sign.

In the daze of everything I reached out to some close friends and family and was given guidance. The biggest question of all became “Is it sustainable?”. A few questionable encounters followed by one final “boulder that broke the camel’s back” later, I had my answer.

Now days are much less stressful. Though I currently lack a certain measure of security, the feeling of liberation from a horrible situation is immense. I find renewed purpose in my presence here and have my eye keenly focused on why I’m really here.

Tomorrow I’m off to Hong Kong for five days for a visa run and to get some much needed R&R. The trip is mostly free thanks to AsiaMiles and credit, so I’ll be able to enjoy myself despite the city’s high costs.

Bon Voyage!

Be sure to check out my Instagram for more frequent posts and pictures.

#14: Teaching Abroad?

It should come as little surprise that foreign teacher’s rights are often abused and their responsibilities exploited. People go on midnight runs from horrible situations, never to return to the country in fear of prosecution. This is not a tale of such terrible circumstances, but rather how to avoid them. If you’re thinking of teaching abroad, these are some things you should consider.

Work Permit

The first words anyone hoping to teach abroad will read. Everyone starts off by reading into the legal processes – that’s good, at least then you know how it’s supposed to be, what your responsibilities are.

Soon after you start looking for a job or start working you will hear horror stories about teachers hiding in closets as government inspectors come through, abusive teachers, and more.

Do your research into the schools to which you’re applying to find out if they’re on anyone’s blacklist and, if so, why. If you’re coming to Taiwan, Forumosa is your new best friend. Otherwise there are plenty of Facebook groups out there should you need advice (just search “foreigners in [country]” and you should be good to go).

No Rest for the Travelled

Time off is scarce. It is typical to have no more than a week or so of national holidays and only five days personal leave. This isn’t worst case scenario, it’s just how it often is here. Combine that with working the occasional weekend and it’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed and overworked.

Make sure you use your time off wisely. I’ve spent too many evenings and weekends just relaxing at home, rather than adding diversity to my life. But whenever I’ve pushed myself to go out and explore – no matter how much a solid recharge seemed to be in order – it has always been worth it.

Hourly or Salary?

This is a question that constantly comes up among foreign workers. While certainly not unique to Taiwan, these problems are often able to grow larger due to government oversights and loosely enforced policies.

Work hourly and you’ll find yourself able to have more time to yourself, but you’ll also find yourself doing the occasional unpaid overtime and lots of paperwork that cuts into your free time.

Work salary and you’ll find yourself with lower pay and more hours, but with a more easily accessible support system in place should you need any help with classes (which can be absolutely critical when you’re starting out).

Endgame

Chances are you’re not going to find the perfect job for you on your first try. Whether you’ve got the job before arriving or plan to find one once you get here, you’re bound to run into things that you love and things that you hate.

The best advice I can give here is to stay strong and keep talking to other teachers, both at your workplace and elsewhere. It helps form a frame of reference for what is normal and is the best source of information for making hard decisions.

Feature image by pexels

Travel Blog #13: Updates

Rather than my usual blog entry, here are some updates about my life in Taiwan. Someone told me to share everything, even the parts that hurt or might make people uncomfortable. So here it is, the ugly, the bad, and the good.

The Ugly

In the first two months my trip went WAY over budget. Long story short I had two really bad experiences with AirBnB involving unreasonable and lazy hosts, had to pay three months rent right off the bat, and realized I need to start spending a lot smarter. Things seem to be on the upswing now (minus a couple surprise credit card charges), so I’m very much looking forward to that stress disappearing.

The Bad

I have also experienced a fair bit of culture shock. This was something I wasn’t ready for, despite having plenty of travel experiences in the past. Attitudes toward mental health here are typically dismissive, which is really unfortunate given the otherwise strong public health care. Through personal experiences and stories I have discovered that locals tend to be overly blunt to the point of coming across as very rude or angry to a foreigner.

Recently, I have been working on not taking things personally. This has more or less always been one of my problems. I have a tendency to get defensive and being here with the local bluntness hasn’t helped that feeling much. Depression and anxiety are much less of a problem now, so it’s a good time to work on the next step of my journey of personal care and self improvement. As with all things that involve changing the way you think, it is a long uphill battle; the sooner I start, the better.

The Good

Socially things have been picking up. I am slowly but surely making new friends over here, aided by having very friendly coworkers. There are also a lot of language exchanges and various meetups with tons of people all in the same situation.

The food scene is all I was hoping for and more. There is a small shop right next door that sells dumplings, soup, and noodles. I’ve been going there every day for the past couple weeks for dinner and haven’t exchanged more than a couple words with the owner who only speaks Chinese.

Everywhere in the city has shops where you can get bubble tea for around $2 whose quality is much better than back home in Toronto. There’s plenty of healthy and unhealthy food to go around and many bars that welcome all with open arms. So when all else fails, good food is always there.

Travel Blog #12: Lifting the Veil

I haven’t been able to bring myself to write in this blog for over a month. I keep wanting to, but ever present is the desire to keep my travel blog a tale of great adventures – one that reflects everything I had hoped this trip would be. When things no longer fit that fairy tale illusion it became difficult to bring myself to write.

People back home like to remind me that I can always return. This is a reality that I am very grateful for. I know how fortunate I am for having a home to go back to filled with loving family and friends.

That reminder stays in the back of my mind always, but the reality is I need to face these issues here, head on, before they follow me back home. There are lessons in these tough experiences that I need to learn; hard lessons I’ve avoided for years, always being far too used to having a safety net to rely on.

So, without further ado, here is what has been going on since I returned from Japan. No filtering the gory details or embellishing for matters of a fairy tale illusion.

Week 1 ~Sept. 9-16

I slept.

Japan took a lot out of me – financially, emotionally and physically.

For the most part, the trip was amazing. I truly did love seeing the sights and exploring nature.

What I didn’t love was the occasional foreigner price discrimination and complete lack of English/Chinese/Korean-friendliness. Hardly anything was in any language but Japanese. Even people working at the airport didn’t speak more than a few words of English. For parts of my trip I didn’t feel welcomed by the locals, which didn’t help the loneliness and depression that was creeping up on me at that point in time.

Japan was also more expensive than I had anticipated. A word of warning to those planning to travel there, consider bringing twice your budget. Thankfully by staying at cheap accommodation I ended up not too far in the red.

Week 2 ~Sept 17-24

After my week of sleep I met up with someone who would go on to become one of few friends I currently have in Asia. It was a great change of pace and really helped me break through my cyclical depression and emotional drainage.

Soon thereafter I decided it was time to actually get a job teaching English at a bushiban (Taiwanese cram school); you know, the thing I came overseas to do. One late night of many applications later I woke up to the sound of my phone ringing. Then ringing again and again. Followed by buzzing with emails throughout the day. Immediately I had interviews lined up and people asking me to demo. A few days later I signed the contract for my first teaching job and had some very fast paced training.

Week 3 ~Sept 25-Oct 2

The school I’m working at has a few weeks all year with work on Saturday. Naturally, my first week had one of them. So my life went from 0 to 100 real fast. If you noticed me completely drop off the social media planet, this is when it started. And I’ve basically been off-planet since.

I don’t exactly remember when it was, but I went to a language exchange that my Texan friend told me about.  Despite being privy to the terrible watered down frat house beer served at the foreigner hub of a bar, I did enjoy the night quite a lot. I basically sat down with a beer and was bombarded with conversations. There were other foreigners who’ve come here for the same reason as me and a plethora of local Taiwanese girls and guys who wanted to practice their English and make friends. Though I haven’t yet returned, I have made some friends from the experience.

October

One thing I never appreciated as a student: Teaching is hard.

It takes planning, organization, planning, scheduling, and more planning. And once you have your plan all hammered out, you have to deal with problems on the fly. Every day as I teach I am learning more and more. I am growing as an instructor and being tested against expectations from all sides. Some days go great and other days make me want to give up. But it’s a test of perseverance and the show must go on.

So here I am, writing these words, with several big successes and failures under my belt and a path in front of me with many hurdles. Each day gets easier but the road is a long one and I’ve only just begun.

Travel Blog #11: Hiking in Hakone/Making Memories

September 2: I arrived in Yugawara at about 1 p.m. The AirBnB’s host, Masato, picked me up from the train station and drove me up to the guest house. It was on this drive that I realize just how much hiking I would be doing in the coming days. A hint of dread washed over me; the route was along a very steep hill.

Upon arrival at the AirBnB Masato let me drop my things in my (then empty) room then showed me around. He showed me all the anemities including the rooftop terrace which boasted an incredible view. I soon found myself unable to keep my eyes open, so Masato brought in a small lounge chair of sorts that I could sleep on until the staff member returned to prepard my room.


I awoke fully rested, albeit slightly disoriented from the journey. A knock at the door soon after indicated the return of the aforementioned staff member, with whom I would become good friends during my stay.

For dinner I had my first home cooked meal in weeks. The three of us ate and spoke for about an hour before supper came to an end and I was informed that it was time for karaoke. Having never participated in karaoke (save for one near delirious rendition whilst in Beijing a number of years ago), I was terrified. An hour later I was loving it (a sentence I never thought I would say in reference to karaoke). This routine would continue for the following two nights.


September 3: I woke up bright and early and set out for the hot spring town of Hakone. Following the advice of my host and his staff, I purchased the two-day Hakone free pass for ¥4,000 (it may sound expensive, but trust me, it will save you a ton of money). The trip was longer than expected, mostly due to the slowest tram ever, so I arrived at around noon. 


A short bus ride from the station later I was walking along Old Tokaido Cedar Avenue (or at least something that looked just like it) – a forested area with a beautiful path through the trees. The path ended up leading me to the shore near Motohakone port, where many tourists were soaking up the sun.



Rather than join the multitude of tourists at a restaurant by the shore I chose to walk to Amazake Chaya tea house. After about 20 minutes of “hiking” along the road, I noticed on my map that I was adjacent to the route, not on it; I figured this explained the lack of other travellers despite the busy train ride over. I reoriented myself and soon joined up with the intended hiking path.

While much more sceneic, this route was almost entirely composed of large slippery cobblestones, occasionally covered in moss, that wound up and down hills.


Still, there was no one else so I wondered if I was indeed in the correct place… That is until I saw a sign pointing toward my destination and was passed by two old Japanese ladies who put my usually quick-paced walking to shame. Nearly an hour of hiking later I arrived at Amazake Chaya tea house. 

It was packed.


Turns out quite a few Japanese people (and a few foreigners) do know about this famous tea house and the route to it. However, due to the difficult path and the fact that it is hidden by woods, most choose to take the bus or drive right over.

Feeling rather accomplished, i strutted to the front of the line and claimed (bought) my reward. I ordered a perfectly reasonable and not unhealthy at all amount of freshly baked(?) mochi and amasake.

Oh, and of course I enjoyed some free tea… It was a tea house after all.


No longer famished nor willing to repeat the same journey as the way over, I took the bus to Motohakone port. Upon arrival I quickly boarded the pirate ship (yes you read that right). I initially tried to enter the first class lounge, not realizing you needed to pay extra, and was laughed at for my mistake by a wealthy family. Sulking, I walked up to the highest deck to begin my sightseeing tour of Lake Ashi.


The pirate ship let off at Togendai station, where I lined up for the ropeway. I’m told the ropeway was actually closed for a couple years due to the amount of volcanic ash. Had I known this beforehand, I probably would have been a bit nervous. Instead, the only negative thought on my mind was annoyance at the dirty windows, which made picture-taking and scenery-enjoying difficult.


Upon reaching the next pit stop, I pried myself away from the café boasting a scenic view (reminding myself of the perfectly healthy and not unreasonable at all amount of mochi I had eaten for lunch earlier). The cable car leaving from this area travelled the rest of the way up the mountain, passing the hot springs (not to be confused with their associated baths), and then finally descended to the tram station.

And of course, this was all followed by a home cooked meal and karaoke.

September 4: I woke up at 12 p.m. to an overcast sky and quickly ditched my plans for the day. Having already seen most of the major tourist spots in Hakone the previous day, I took the day to relax. I had some lunch with the AirBnB staff and then the three of us (myself and two staff) headed to the beach. When we arrived the tide had gone pretty high, so the “beach” was non-existent.
Instead, we walked around the area hoping to find another beach-y area, but to no avail. Before giving up, we watched a young Japanese guy fish for about 15 minutes (I imagine it was pretty creepy from his perspective). Then we headed to a field to show off our utter lack of volleyball skills to each other.


When the rain grew too heavy we began our long walk back to the AirBnB, stopping for ice cream along the way. We didn’t know this at the time, but apparently aside from having lots of cow decorations, this ice cream shop also has udders out front that you can milk for water. Anyway, the ice cream was fantastic; I had soda flavour because it was blue (I’m dead serious). Luckily, the steep hill back to the AirBnB wasn’t slippery when wet, so we got back with relatively little difficulty.


Another home cooked dinner and two hours of karaoke marked my final night at Masato’s spectacular AirBnB in Yugawara.

Travel Blog #10: Travelling Alone

The last few days have by far been the best of my trip.

A lot of people ask me how it is travelling alone. Is it fun? Lonely? Scary?

Yes to all.

It’s unlikely you’ll be able to find friends who will 1) want to travel to all the destinations on your list and 2) have all the same interests as you when it comes to those destinations. Travelling with people can be fun, but there’s often lots of compromise. This might be fine when you’re spending $200 on a trip to Montreal, but when it’s $2,000+ on a trip to the other side of the world, the compromises will add up fast.

With independence comes making your own decisions and having control over everything you do. That said, you also get lonely – even if, like me, you’re used to keeping in touch with friends every day through various social networking sites.

Guesthouses are a MUST. You need to make sure you’re staying in one that has common areas and is known for having lots of friendly people visit. English-friendliness always help too; sure, you’re visitng another country and want to immerse yourself, but when you just want to relax, it’s great to have that familiarity.

The guesthouse I stayed at in Osaka was secluded, dirty, and without a common room. It made me feel secluded and doubt my conviction, even causing me to be homesick(?) for Taipei.

On the other hand, the place I stayed in near Hakone (in a town called Yugawara) was spectacular. It had a very friendly host who treated me like family and made home cooked dinners (which I joined every night for ¥500), English-speaking staff (with whom I quickly became friends), the nearby availability of snacks and booze, and a gorgeous view. Here, I wished the trip would never end.

And finally yes, travelling alone can be absolutely terrifying at times. You can get lost and have to ask several locals for directions, you can get delayed for hours due to poor signage, you can be overcharged, scammed, and more. Even if you’re in a safe country like Japan, you need to be careful (i.e. no getting blackout drunk alone at a bar). In time you learn not to panic and how to work yourself out of different situations. Oh, and always buy a local SIM card with Internet (it can be a literal life saver).

Travel Blog #9: Storming the Castle

Following my day trip to Hiroshima I decided to take some time off for R&R. Contrary to what I had thought, Osaka wasn’t the best hub city. Since the AirBnB I picked for $21 a night didn’t have a great location, I was facing 40 minute trips to Osaka station every time I did a day trip. On evenings when I returned from a day trip, most of the city (save for arcades, bars, and hostess clubs) were closed by 8 p.m. In short, I was pretty ready to move on.

August 31: Once I regained my mental and emotional strength, I set out for Himeji to see the castle. Known for being one of the “finest surving example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture” (Wikipedia), Himeji stands tall upon a hill.

I passed through a market street… 


…and arrived at Kokkoen garden. Here I purchased a combined garden and castle pass for ¥1,040. Since I have no idea what most (any) of the plants were, I’ll just leave the pictures below.




About midway through my journey in the garden I came upon a tea house. Here I took part in my own personal traditional Japanese tea ceremony. For ¥500 I got excellent tea and some type of sweet (tasted like marzapan with red bean).




From the garden you can either walk about 10 minutes one way and get right to the castle gate, or walk in a big spiral for about an hour to get to there. I decided on the latter. Seeing the castle after that walk was well worth it.



For dinner I went to a local all you can eat Japanese barbeque place. While the agreed upon price was ¥3,500 (and I asked multiple times to make sure I was ordering off the correct menu), the manager attempted to charge me for everyting – which amounted to about ¥8,600. After about ten minutes of him giving me a ton of attitude and us arguing back and forth (with help from Google Translate), he threw his arms up in the air in frustration and gave me the correct price. Did I mention this happened while the last train back to Osaka was leaving in less than 20 minutes? (Don’t worry, I just barely made it).


September 1: After the frustration of the previous evening I had another stressful day of travel to Kyoto. Due to a combination of terrible directions, an utter lack of English signs anywhere, and generally rude customer service, it took me an extra four hours to arrive. Fun fact: while the ATMs at convenience stores offer 20 different languages, those at BANKS (or at least the one I went to) only offer Japanese (and are only for Japanese people).

My luck seemed to turn up when I arrived at my AirBnB. It was absolutely gorgeous! A semi-modernized traditional Japanese home turned into a guest house. After a week of not-so-great conditions in Osaka I was so thankful. I took off my huge backpack, settled in, and then immediately set out for Nijo Castle.


While Nijo Castle is regarded as the most popular tourist destination in Kyoto, it closes its gates to new visitors at 4 p.m. – even in peak tourist season. Myself and a crowd of about 50 tourists from all over the world discovered this at about 4:05 p.m. They made no exceptions. (I also spent about 10 minutes considering scaling the wall of the castle)

Finally burnt out, I decided to take the rest of the day to relax. A quick Google search helped me find a great café for reading, where I spent the next five hours drinking tea and, well, reading.