Travel Blog #16: Trial and Error

My dream of spending a year living in Asia so far hasn’t gone quite as planned. But that doesn’t mean it’s been a complete mess or waste of time. These are some of the biggest trials I’ve gone through in a while, and I’ve learned a lot from them.

Trial #1: The Job

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This digital plaza shopping spree made me realize I need a job ASAP

Since I came here knowing I wanted to teach English I did what any logical person would do – found a teaching job at a school. After a few weeks of travel and another week of depressed burnout I decided to actually be productive. (That is, after staying out until 2 a.m. eating and drinking with a then-stranger, now best friend.) In a strong burst of motivation, I applied for about 30 jobs in one sitting. That sitting lasted me from about 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. the next day.

I slept for a few hours (I think) and woke up to the nonstop buzzing of my cellphone. Now, the smart thing to do in this situation would have been to respond to the offers, go to interviews, weigh the options, ask around to get a sense of things… You’ve probably already guessed that I did none of that. Within three days I signed a contract to a school that was seemingly a perfect match. This was Ellis-Koifman-meets-first-real-job syndrome.

Trial #2: The Classroom

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Having settled into a rather luxurious place with two super friendly roommates and an adorable shiba inu I was pretty happy…. with the apartment. With the job, not so much.

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely enjoyed the teaching; it was a really rewarding experience where I got to feel like I was making a real difference in kids’ lives. But therein also lied a problem: kids…. as in… more than one kid… as in spend half (read: 80%) of the class managing behaviour. In and of itself, this wasn’t a game-breaker, but the particular school I was at had a borderline “zero consequences” policy. Kid hits another kid? No real consequences. Kid repeatedly violent in class? No worries. Kid hits teacher? Not allowed to send them out of class. You get the idea.

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None of these rules has enforceable consequences.

This was already exhausting on its own, but then you add into the mix that the school demanded quite a hefty amount of paperwork. I can type pretty quickly (around professional speed), but even then I was struggling to finish everything. Between the paperwork exhaustion and the behaviour management problems I quickly found myself counting the days until each weekend and treasuring each of the (extremely limited) days off. Then I’d get sick once in a while and feel even more exhaustion as I struggled to keep up with everything.

On December 1st, 2017, I departed from my first teaching gig of 40 hours per week and retired to the comfy day-to-day of quickly dwindling funds and figuring out what the hell to do with my life as an expat in Taiwan.

Trial #3: The Apartment

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Living room and New Year’s feast (no, I don’t eat like this everyday).

I’ll be honest, up until recently (and even now to a lesser extent) I did a piss poor job of managing my personal finances and budgeting for the long term. As part of this youth-related stupidity, I signed a one-year contract for an expensive apartment, including a rather large deposit, about a week after getting the new job.

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The kitchen and its master.

Without a job, it became (admittedly slowly) apparent that it was a terrible budgeting decision. At the start of April, I’ll be moving across the city to a cheaper neighbourhood and an apartment that costs less than half of my current one. For now, it’s just a matter of hard lessons about budgeting hitting me like bricks.

Trial #4: The Future

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My online teaching backdrop.

After about a month of nothing I started doing one-on-one tutoring with an online company (which is why I was able to stay in Taiwan at all instead of just going home). This was a really nice change of pace from teaching in the classroom. It has given me a lot of autonomy and lets me cater each lesson to the individual student. Teaching online also gives time to develop my own teaching style and “classroom” decorations.

It’s taken me a long time to realize it, but this whole slow transition has been an opportunity for me to figure out where my strengths lie and what I value in life.

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Ditch Your Picky Eating Habits

I had a picky eater friend in university who stands out from all the rest. Whereas most picky eaters would perhaps have a list of ten or twenty acceptable foods, he had maybe five. These were limited to: steak/beef, chicken fingers, pasta, tomato sauce, and pizza. (Okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by much). As a foodie this habit drove me insane and naturally led to many discussions about the merits of trying new food.

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The most adventurous dish my friend tried in university.

If you’re a picky eater, I strongly urge you to ditch your habits. First and foremost, it helps fill my ego when someone ends up loving a food I recommended to them. But as much as filling my ego is awesome, it also gives you the ability to open your mind.

Now, you’re probably wondering, how the hell eating some sushi might open your mind. I’m not talking about an unprecedented blast of flavour changing your world. I’m also not talking about telling a potential employer how worldly you are because you went to a poke place once. Eating new foods helps you open your mind by exposing you to new cultures and unique values. 

For example, let’s say you’re like my friend and only eat typical broke university student foods for 98% of your meals. After 300 invites to go to Korean BBQ you finally break and accept, promising yourself and others that you’ll eat more than just the beef.

You arrive a tad late after battling food anxiety (I’m told this is a thing) and discover your friends have already ordered. For those of you familiar with Korean BBQ, this means they’ve brought the unlimited sides (kimchi, sweet potato, salads, cold soup, lettuce, onions, sauces, lotus root, glass noodles, and more).

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Just look at all those sides!

Kimchi is thrust upon you and you take your first bite. Then another side and another. Eventually, you find one that you love or at the very least tolerate. As the meal goes on your friends tell you about the different types of foods in painstaking detail as that’s the only way you’re willing to try them. By the end of the meal you’ve learned a bunch about typical Korean foods that everyone loves and your culinary palate is slightly larger.

As you begin to explore more cuisines your curiosity grows and you question why Asian food has so much rice (history lesson about Asia), why vegans are obsessed with eating local (farm to fork movement), why Indian food is so spicy (valued cooling effects of hot food), and more. Even if you don’t turn into a full blown foodie like what happened to me, you’ll more than likely end up learning a lot of new things. As an added bonus, you’re likely to get invited to more hangouts and making friends with people from other cultures will become easier. And perhaps greatest of all, travel will become less scary and more enticing.

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Lessons in history (Tokyo).

In case education, new friendship opportunities, and travel aren’t enough to convince you, take this word of advice from the once super-picky-eater friend of mine:

For me it was like, well, I know I’m not allergic to anything (or there’s a 0.0001% chance I am but who knows), so why shouldn’t I just go for it?

Worse that happens is I don’t like it.

As a foodie, blogger, and fellow human being, I sincerely hope you’ll think twice before your next meal of chicken fingers and push yourself to try something new. And remember, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.

#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 Entry 3

August 19: Having thoroughly not beaten the jetlag I decided to have a slow morning, skip breakfast, and sleep in. I made some calls to family and friends and then decided to explore a much more exciting part of town: Ximen. 

So far I had only been to Da’an, which is a residential district (located near the previous day’s Taipei 101); Ximen was a HUGE change of pace. 

Having landed in a busy square I struggled to find the restaurant I was seeking out for lunch. Getting lost several times along the way was part of the adventure, but my rumbling stomach wasn’t very amused. Finally, I made it to my destination; I arrived at Modern Toilet.

As they say, when in Rome… Uhh.. I mean Taiwan.

Looking past the absurdity of it all, the décor and atmosphere was great. As with everywhere else in Taipei, the staff were extremely friendly. I ordered my food (bread, and beef curry) and waited patiently.

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, but I will say one thing: depsite looking like crap, that food tasted amazing!

With newfound energy I sprung forth from the building to begin my adventure anew!… Okay, okay, I awkwardly walked out of the restaurant and tried to find my way back to the main area. 

Over the next few scorching hot hours I found various strange shops:

A candy shop that sold everything from sushi shaped sweets to chocolate condoms (not sure if flavoured or just chocolates, but they were all over the shop), to first aid kits; also normal chewy gummies, for the less adventurous lot.

Several shops selling all the random Japanese/Chinese gadgets you see back home in Canada and the States (except here they cost a fraction of the price). Beyblades, Pokémon merch, multi-coloured cat lamps, piggy banks with cats that collect the coins, and more.

And a two-floor One Piece shop (it’s a very well known anime, for those unaware). 

I eventually got overheated and tired and started making my way back to the AirBnB for some rest. On the way, I stopped to try a Taiwanese delicacy: Mango shaved ice.

It was amazing!

When I got home I had spoke to Ren for a bit (the owner of the AirBnB) and then watched some movies before passing out for the night. (By the way, Taiwanese Netflix is MUCH better than Canada’s)

August 20: Again I had a slow start to the day so at around 2 p.m. I arrived in the northern area of the city. 

After struggling to figure out the buses for about half an hour I made it to the Northern Palace Museum.

By the time I left, several hours later, I hadn’t even seen half of the museum (perhaps I will visit again another time). Here’s a fraction of the exhibits I saw:

I found myself desperately craving Japanese food. Luckily, I stumbled upon Sushi Express, which is one of those sushi-go-round places with the little plates. Each plate here costing about $1 US.

I really did mean to take more pictures of the food…