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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#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 #4

​August 21: …

August 22: After doing pretty much nothing the day before, I spent most of the day shopping. 

I started off by attempting to go to Fu Hang Soy Milk for breakfast, but gave up after discovering its hour long line (for the second day in a row). I ended up skipping breakfast and going to Sushi Express for lunch (yes, despite my imminent trip to Japan).

From there I traversed to Guang Digital Plaza – a six floor shopping mall for computers and computer parts. Here I learned how little I know about computer parts. I also saw the graphics card I bought a year ago for about $600 being sold for $300. So that was… Something. Apparently I was so entranced by the mall that I forgot to take any pictures…

After getting overwhelmed several times I left to go to another big mall called Pacific Sogo. It was A LOT larger than I was expecting.

Including the basement, it was 17 floors total.

All the restaurants were about triple my budget so I ended up going to the food court downstairs for dinner. I got pork and egg on rice for dinner for 170NTD. 

I also got FANTASTIC french garlic bread from a bakery (no, I didn’t take a picture).

August 23: For breakfast I had
Through the magic of modern technology and the Internet, I met up with a Taiwanese local who showed me around. 

To start, we went to Daan Forest Park. A short amount of walking brought us to a stream (river?) where a bunch of different birds and several (non-Canadian) geese were hanging out. There was also a turtle sunbathing with its child on a log. 

I also learned about this extremely painful exercise where you walk on sharp stones for what seems like a short distance. While I don’t really remember what it’s purpose was, I do appreciate normal walking that much more now. Here’s a short video of me walking it then complaining.

Using her local knowledge, my new friend showed me the hourly(?) water show ay Daan Park Station that I otherwise would have easily missed.

I also learned about the 2017 Summer Universiade (a large sports event) taking place from August 19 to 30. Apparently I was completely oblivious to this happening. Though, in hingsight, I saw a lot of signs for it everywhere (it’s times like this that I wonder how I’m a journalist). Anywho, after proving that I did in fact know what the Taiwan flag looks like I won a deck of cards with the Universiade logo on it.

Next stop was the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Here I experienced myriad of great photo ops (and I’m actually IN some of the pictures for once) and was educated in fun facts and some local history by my Taiwanese friend. 

 

I also witnessed the changing of the guards (or more like the “ending of the guards” since it was the last shift).

 
A quick bubble tea detour later we headed to Raohe Night Market, which is famous for its excellent food selection. Being at this market alone would have been amazing in and of itself; having a local friend to show me around made it ten times better.

Photos and videos of me by Jennifer Wang

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…

Travel Blog Entry 2

August 17: My flight – consisting of watching three movies and reading none of the four books I brought on board – landed at about 9:30 p.m. local time. Having managed to stay up most of the flight I was absolutely exhausted by the time I went through customs, grabbed my baggage, bought a SIM card, took the MRT to Taipei Main Station, and finally lugged my suitcase up 5 flights of stairs to arrive at my AirBnB.

August 18: I woke up at 8 a.m. convinced I had already overcome the jetlag (hahaha, no). After a quick trip to 7-11, I took a much needed shower, drank enough water to hydrate a horse, and headed out to Taipei 101. 

Once I got to the Taipei 101 mall I immediately went down the first escalator I saw (my belly rumbling like crazy as I did so) and made a beeline for Din Tai Fung. Needless to say, I wasnt the only one with this place on my mind. Luckily being a party of one helped me grab a table with relative ease. 

For those of you unfamiliar with Din Tai Fung, it is a world-renowned chain of dim sum restaurants that originated in Taiwan. They are most famous for their xialongbao (soup dumplings). For lunch, I ate xialongbao, steamed pork buns, and spicy vegetable dumplings.

For 600 NTD I bought an adult pass for the Taipei 101 observatory – a massive building that ranks amount the tallest on Earth. Even the elevator boasts a former world record for its incredible speed (~600M/min). The 360° view of the city was incredible (and incredibly intimidating too if I’m being perfectly honest).

Had my stomach not been upset from travel, I would have been able to enjoy bubble tea, mango frozen desserts, and pineapple cakes.

Hanging in the centre of the obsevatory floor there was a huge wind damper that prevents the tower from swaying during typhoons and other inclement weather.

On the way down from the observatory I passed through a (mandatory) exhibit for the Taiwanese coral gemstones. Here are some of the neater sculptures:

The price of the smallest one I could find was 480,000 NTD (~$20,000 Canadian).

Desperately needing a break from the heat and humidity I went back to my AirBnB for some R&R plus air conditioning.

For Shabbat dinner (Jewish sabbath) I visited Chabad, where I conversed with the Rabbi who has been living here for the past six years. A few brief conversations later I excused myself so I could go back to the AirBnB and pass out for the night.

Travel Blog Entry 1

August 15: I woke up at 5 a.m., quickly got ready, and along with my brother Jules took a prescheduled Uber to Pearson International Airport. With my Nexus card in hand and my brother’s plethora of experience flying to the United States I found myself checked in and past security in less than an hour. 

Jules used his guest lounge pass to show me the Air Canada exclusive experience and therein I saved some money through a free breakfast of yogurt, water, and a hard-boiled egg – while I don’t get much anxiety on the flight itself, I’ve always felt sick from eating a proper breakfast before boarding a plane. An hour later my brother and I went our separate ways; he to Pennsilyania for business and I to the first leg of my big adventure: Los Angeles.

The flight was relatively uneventful. I finished my book “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” and slept for a couple hours. Upon landing I navigated my way to baggage claim and waited for what felt like an hour before my bag finally showed up (and the anxiety of a possibly missing bag lifted). I took my bag to a storage facility called LAX 24/7 Locker Storage which required entry by credit card and acted as a nice clean and secure space for me to put my massive suitcase while exploring the city. 

Heeding the advice of Mike Fish, co-owner of Glassroots (my favourite restaurant in London, Ontario and a place I went to weekly while at Western University), I went to Crossroads Kitchen in Bevereley Grove for what I was told would be “the best vegan food” of my life. Their vanilla milkshake certainly fit that profile with no doubt and their chicken and waffles didn’t disappoint either. I’ll certainly be coming back for more the next time I am in L.A. 

Desperately needing some exercise after sitting for the better half of the day I walked over to the National Holocaust Museum of Los Angeles, which happened to take me through the Jewish area of the city. I saw Chabad, stores selling Jewish/Israeli paraphernalia, a synagogue, and many Kosher eateries. 

The museum itself was completely free and offered an excellent audio guide. I ended up spending the entire afternoon there learning about the Holocaust, viewing pieces of its history – old newspapers, a signed copy of Mein Kampf, Nazi propoganda, passports, and more. There was even a model of a concentration camp made by a Holocaust survivor whose audio-guide segment was a lengthly description of its layout and operation as well as the uprising he played a part in prior to liberation. At 5 p.m. I had to leave because the museum was closing. 


For dinner I met up with my friend Jon and his girlfriend Alexa and they took me to Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. I took the chance to compare vegan chicken and waffles to real ones. The meal was delightful and my friends moreso. They offered to take me to an improv show but the wear and tear of the day was getting to me so we decided for a more relaxed evening. Bon Bon (bubble tea) was our next destination; this gave me one final chance to have bubble tea in North America before heading to the country where it originated. Alexa headed behind the counter and made us our boba. The sizes were… American… So I just barely managed to almost finish it over the course of the next hour. On the way home we stopped by In-and-Out (which I am told is a Calafornia specialty) and I had my final snack of the day. We went back to my friends’ place in San Fernando Valley and after hanging out for a while went to sleep.

August 16: The next morning Jon drove me to his workplace, gave me a quick tour, and made sure I was well caffeinated before we took a selfie and parted ways. I grabbed my suitcase from the storage locker and headed to the airport five hours early. After grabbing my final cheeseburger of 2017 and indulging one last time in American food I headed to the check-in counter. The woman at the counter was lovely and changed me from a crappy middle seat near the back of the plane to the emergency exit seat which boasts the most leg room in economy class (all free of charge); arriving super early really paid off! 

Right now I am sitting on the plane as it ascends to its cruising altitude of many thousand feet above the ground. My phone is about to die and I can’t grab the charger right now so I think this will do for the first travel blog entry.