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.

How to Make a New Year’s Resolution

Whenever New Year’s is around the corner you start to see posts about resolutions left, right, and centre. They are unavoidable and often the same thing every year.  For those that participate, here is a way to rethink your resolution and make it into something you won’t forget after a week. For those who don’t, here is my personal version of New Year’s resolutions that won’t make you block me on Facebook.

Tangible/Measurable: It needs to have a clear meaning. You can’t simply say “work harder” because you can constantly change the meaning of that resolution as the year goes by and it is highly subjective. Additionally, you shouldn’t try to pile on a ton of things, like “work harder, lose weight, eat healthy everyday, and run a marathon a month” – you’ll end up feeling overwhelmed and giving up on one or all of these. On the other hand something like, “Always get my work done before watching Netflix” can be understood by and applied to anyone.

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Achievable: While something like “Go to the gym every day” might sound nice, it is more than likely very unrealistic. Chances are you’ll have a day here and there where you simply cannot bring yourself to go or feel sick. After a day like that, your resolution will be “broken” and your resolve with it. Gyms’ populations spike in January then quickly drop as people come to this realization. Instead, you might make a resolution like, “Go to the gym at least 4 days a week”.

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Fun and Personal: Too often you hear the same boring new year’s resolutions that make you want to roll your eyes and even avoid the person for a bit. With the social pressures and general lack of creativity surrounding resolutions, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “I’ll go to the gym everyday” or “I’ll become a better student”. But if you take the time to come up with something that’s more creative and a lot more personal, then not only will you enjoy sharing it more with other people, you’re also more likely to follow it. As a writer and inconsistent blogger, I might make mine, “Write biweekly blog posts, even if they are 200 words or less”.

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Sample Resolutions: If you’re still having trouble coming up with ideas, here are some of mine from previous years and others I have come up with for your benefit:

  • Stop having snacks between meals/only eat 3 times a day
  • Lose 20 pounds by the end of the year
  • Drink no more than twice a week/Only drink when with friends
  • Whenever physically able, take a daily walk (any length)
  • Stop buying snacks from vending machines/only eat snacks from home
  • Only have dessert once/twice per week
  • Call/visit parents at least once a week
  • Read two books a month
  • Meditate before bed for at least a minute
  • Go on a weekly adventure (of any kind or length)
  • Attend one more/less social event than usual every month
  • Do something fun every week

#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.

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.

Eating for the Community

Community

The Inuits living in arctic Alaska believe in a subsistence lifestyle, where hunting isn’t just about putting food on the table for yourself or for your family, it’s about sharing with the whole community.

Excess consumption is a critical problem in today’s society. Red meat – something not necessary at all for the human diet – is eaten several times per week by many if not most people. Think of food chains that offer a quick burger to go so you can eat a hunk of meat for your meal without a second thought.

We’re completely disconnected from our food.

By no means do I consider myself a vegetarian or vegan. I eat fish and meat far more than I should. I indulge in chicken fingers from The Spoke at Western University and treat myself to the occasional steak cooked on my cast iron pan. I love going out for duck when I can and never say no to a delicious platter of assorted local meats.

Recently though, I’ve started to question my own indulgences and those of our society.

When we go to the supermarket to buy our weekly groceries, the chicken we purchase comes in a nice clean package – blood, skin and bones removed – with two or more lovely pieces ready to be cooked. We don’t think about it. We just add it to our cart and go on our merry way.

Across the world chickens are cooped up in masses and slaughtered in inhumane conditions. Being raised “organically” doesn’t make much of a difference to the consumer. You let yourself stop feeling guilty because it ate nicer food and lived a nicer life and maybe it’s healthier for you, but all the difference you really see is a slightly different label on the package of chicken from the supermarket. Your eating habits don’t actually change much.

The inuits living in arctic Alaska hunt for the needs of the whole community. They don’t have access to supermarkets that disconnect them from the rest of the world, meaning they aren’t disconnected from the process of hunting for food and preparing it. They understand everything as being connected (nature, animals, humans, climate).

On the flip side, urbanized societies around the world are completely disconnected. When you go to your favourite burger joint you aren’t thinking about how your hunger and your indulgences affect the needs of the community or its ability to access food. Sure, you’ll think of your family when shopping for the week’s groceries, but the buck stops there.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

A couple months back I proposed a scenario to as many friends as possible. Inspired by a Buzzfeed video, I asked people if they would be willing to go to a chicken farm and kill and cook their own chicken, following the common guidelines and with the direct instructions of a farmer (assuming of course the chicken was going to be killed and eaten anyway). Only one friend said yes out of over 30.

That friend grew up in a place where it was common to witness chickens being butchered – their blood running down the street into the drain – as he walked home from school or to see people buying live chickens to butcher and prepare at home. He, unlike most of us, wasn’t born into a society completely detached from the process.

The rest of the people I asked were taken aback, disgusted by the very notion of being so close to a process. Those who briefly considered it said if they did it, they wouldn’t be able to eat chicken ever again. One friend even called me insane for showing interest in doing such a thing.

We’re used to others doing our dirty work. Out of sight, out of mind. Movies that expose the industry for what it is are hard for us to watch. They make us face realities that we have an inkling about, but are too afraid to embrace. Why? It would ruin our enjoyment of our favourite meals.

Sustainability

Does all this matter really matter? Sure, it would be nice if people appreciated where their food came from, but would it really change anything other than adding a little educational note to our meals?

Definitely.

It’s about eating with the whole community in mind.

Cowspiracy, a movie exposing the impact of the meat industry, illustrates how just one burger takes about 660 gallons of water to produce.

One. Burger.

The average American uses about 80 gallons of water per day, meaning over eight days of water goes into that one burger.

According to Cowspiracy individuals eat about 9oz of meat and dairy per day; to be sustainable, that number would have to be about 2oz… Per week.

Who knows, maybe red meat will become the next tobacco and become shunned by the world at large, changing our environment and communities.

But I don’t think that’s going to happen (at least not anytime soon). Nor do I think the solution is to expect everyone to go vegan or vegetarian – an unrealistic expectation given the habits and stubbornness of our generation.

The key here is moderation.

This means instead of having a burger every time we feel like it to having one maybe once a week (or less if possible). It means considering where the meat is coming from (really coming from) and appreciating it as more than just a piece of raw food in a plastic and styrofoam package.

With education and moderation I think we can get a little bit closer to the subsistence lifestyle exemplified by the Inuits living in arctic Alaska.

If each person were to start eating for their community instead of just themselves, it could be another giant leap for mankind.

Images: Cowspiracy (1)