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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Skills of 2018: January Report

Today marks the beginning of a new month, and with it comes a new “Skill of 2018”. But before I delve into the complexities of solving a Rubik’s cube in under 30 seconds, or finally bunker down and get started on my Mandarin, it’s time to tell you of my ability to whistle. Rather than write a blurb about my successes and failures, here’s a video to show my current ability. (For those wondering, the backdrop is for the students I tutor online).

While I technically did “learn” how to whistle, I definitely have a ways to go before I can do it consistently or with more variety. I’ll mark January’s challenge as a partial success, which I think is fair considering I only had half the month to work on it.

Now it’s onward to solving this Rubik’s “Speed” Cube without deconstructing it.

Feature image by Pexels

#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 #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 #7: Hopping Around

August 26: Osaka Castle was my first and only stop for the day. I wasted no time getting there since the journey by foot was about two hours.

The majority of the area that houses the castle is a huge park, filled with plum trees, peach trees, and gardens.

However, the castle itself is rather small and is on its third iteration after burning down twice over the years. The most recent construction happened in 1583, so things are looking up. Speaking of looking up…

Inside the castle was a very cramped eight floor museum wherein you aren’t allowed to eat or drink (even water as far as I’m aware). It didn’t take long until I was bored so I quickly climbed to the top floor to snag some photos before descending.

On the way home I stopped at Shinseki – an area renowned for its food – and got an okonomiyaki (japanese style pancake) for dinner. In addition, I discovered a 24-hour grocery store called Super Tamade where the selection is fantastic and you can buy delicious ready-made food for ¥100.

I chose to end the day early and spent the evening watching Netflix and writing.
August 27: Five hours is how long it took me to finally arrive at my destination; on paper, it was two and a half. I’ll spare the details, but let’s just say everything is slow and infrequent in rural Japan.

Where was I headed that made this journey worth it? Rabbit Island.

Rabbit Island (AKA Okunomashima) is located about an hour outside of Hiroshima and, much like the name suggests, is an island filled with thousands of bunnies.

That’s a big pile of rabbit food

While no one knows for sure how the bunnies got there, two prevailing theories do exist:
1) During WWII the Japanese were using the island to develop poisonous gas. They used bunnies as test subjects. After the war, locals set the survivors free. Today’s population is the result of the remaining rabbits’ breeding over the years.

2) In 1971 a group of school children were taken on a trip to the island. With them, they brought a bunch of rabbits which were left there to be free in a safe haven. Again, today’s population came from years of breeding.

No matter which theory is the correct one, something is for certain: the rabbits LOVE the island. It has been set up as a sanctuary for them, with plenty of tourists and locals feeding them every day (with fresh veggies and rabbit food) and water set out every ten metres or so.