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.

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

Skills of 2018 – Inspired by Matt Deutsch

For the past couple weeks I have been having a lot of trouble deciding on a new year’s resolution and no, the irony is not lost on me. In one of my research sessions (YouTube binges) I stumbled across this video about a guy named Matt Deutsch who challenged himself to master a new skill every month for a year.

Feeling inspired by this concept, I decided to do something very similar. Rather than simply having a one-month time limit on challenges, I decided on a ‘by the end of each month’ challenge. This way I can incorporate skills that take a longer time to build and not feel like I’m “cheating” if I give myself a head start.

So, without further ado, here is my “new year’s resolution”/Skills of 2018 Challenge:

By the end of…

January: Learn how to whistle.
Current Skill Level: Can breathe.

February: Solve a Rubik’s Cube in under 30 seconds.
Current Skill Level: Never solved a Rubik’s Cube without a computer or removing stickers.

March: Hold a 10-minute conversation in Mandarin.
Current Skill Level: Can speak <20 words in Mandarin.

April: Complete every “very difficult” Sudoku puzzle from 7Sudoku.
Current Skill Level: No idea how Sudoku works.

May: Draw & write an acceptable 10-page manga with varying characters and detailed settings.
Current Skill Level: Can draw stick figures with smiley faces.

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June: Go on a weekend cycling trip, including at least 10 hours of cycling.
Current Skill Level: Exhaustion and sore muscles after less than an hour.

July: Get 6-pack abs.
Current Skill Level: Never go to the gym.

August: Crochet a hat, gloves, and scarf.
Current Skill Level: Had to Google “difference between crocheting and knitting” just now.

September: Fold 30 different origami designs from memory in one sitting.
Current Skill Level: Can make a boat.

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October: Homebrew a drinkable beer.
Current Skill Level: Have a general idea of how beer is made in factories.

November: Become proficient with Excel and create new VBA automations with ease.
Current Skill Level: Know very basic Excel functions. Understand the concept of macros.

December: Film, edit, and produce a 20-minute documentary.
Current Skill Level: Can take nice pictures with my phone.

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I’ll be writing occasional updates when I complete a monthly challenge or when I’ve made good progress. Watch out for new posts!

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

#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.