American Culture

Brexit’s Warning to America

Originally posted to Fay’s Medium.

Brexit’s Warning to America: Don’t Validate Your Racists

In the wee hours of Thursday night, just before falling asleep, I checked the news one last time before bed to see if there were any interesting headlines from around the world. As Washington, D.C. snoozed, those of us tuned into the waking world felt sleep suddenly leave us as we found out the United Kingdom had voted, by a slim margin, to leave the European Union. The Brexit was now a reality, and its implications were sending the media and markets into a tailspin.

Though I read world news for at least an hour every morning for work, I tended to skimp on reading about the Leave campaign or UKIP (U.K. Independence Party) simply because the notion of a Brexit sounded farfetched. The idea of the U.K. shooting itself in the foot both economically and politically by leaving the E.U. sounded even more outrageous and unimaginable than last year’s infamous referendum vote in Greece that inspired a similarly punny term: “Grexit”. In July 2015, the Greek people, beaten down by years 0f austerity and pushed by populism voted overwhelmingly to renege on their debt and leave the E.U. as well. In the end, however, their leadership ignored its people and listened to E.U. leaders. The Greek government opted to avert an even worse financial crisis at the expense of its democratic integrity. Needless to say, as bad as Greece is today, it would have been worse had it left the E.U. and attempted to resuscitate the long-dead drachma.

But I digress. The Grexit and the Brexit are only similar in the fact that from the outset they sounded so unbelievable to the average person. Indeed, a viable Donald Trump candidacy for President of the United States began equally as unbelievable — laughable, even. How could the average, decent human being be caught so off-guard by the burgeoning hate within their own country? Many European countries as well as the United States have supremely underestimated the power of this extremist, xenophobic contagion that has spread across the Western world since the 2008 recession, amplified by the refugee crisis, and stoked by demagogues looking for an easy path to power. This contagion goes by many names and slogans — “Make America Great Again,” “Freedom for Britain,” National Front, Golden Dawn, etc.— , but they all share the same features: the scapegoating of immigrants and ethnic minorities, a propensity toward violence, and a touch of religious extremism.

All this to say, that on June 23rd, 2016, the United Kingdom did not just vote to leave the European Union, they decided to leave the modern world and decent society and legitimize their bigots instead. On Saturday, a compilation of more than 100 tweets from the U.K. went viral on Facebook (they have since been removed for unknown reasons). The tweets came from British citizens who woke up to a “new Britain” they no longer recognized or felt safe in anymore. Decent British citizens suddenly found themselves in a country where people publicly harassed and berated men, women, and children because they had an accent, spoke another language, wore traditional clothing, or had darker skin.

 

Trending on Twitter: #PostBritishRacism #PostRefRacism

What UKIP and the Leave campaign has done to British society, a Donald Trump White House will do for the United States.

A Plea to the America’s Maybe Trump Voters

It’s not impossible for this kind of blatant hate speech to become more normalized in the United States and manifest in actual violence. Indeed, we have already seen several examples of how Trump’s rabble-rousing is doing just that. But we have a chance to stop it. Let us take the Brexit as a warning and recognize that the United States does not accept blind prejudice, racism, and an unjustifiable fear of immigrants.

There is an unsettling number of maybe-Trump supporters in my life. Many of these folks are not hateful people. They are people who want some kind of genuine change to take place in the American government, and they want to feel like they have a voice in the behemoth of the American political machine. Many are not people who you would call racist/sexist/homophobic/etc., but are people who believe that someone new in the Oval Office who will either frighten or inspire our stagnant Congress into action. Given the option of Clinton or Trump, these people think “at least Trump will shake up the system because he’s an outsider and brash.” Many Americans can sympathize with this sentiment, but the belief that Trump is the outsider we need to shake up the American political system is specious and naive. It is also a bit lazy to believe that all the work you need to do to change your country for the better can be done in a single, specific election.

The true impact of a Trump presidency will not be a 50-foot border wall along the Mexican border nor will it be a Nazi-esque database of Muslims that will track every American Muslim’s information. President Trump’s true impact would be in the public acknowledgement that the majority of Americans are justified in their fear of one another, and that the only way to deal with that fear is to sequester ourselves away from diversity, human decency, and the modern world. To vote for Donald Trump would be to disavow the values and achievements of the United States.

Britain did not just shoot itself in the foot this week economically, but it has further emboldened racism in its country and the ramifications are striking. We have come too far, America, to regress socially as Britain has sadly decided to do. Make no mistake, the general election in November is not about “PC culture” and it’s not about “making America great again.” This election is about preserving the achievements we have made as a nation over the last 240 years in order to make our citizens and soon-to-be citizens safer, more prosperous, and a part of the American community. Because, personally, I don’t remember the past as that great and worth “going back” to, do you?

What utopia from the past would we try to return to? The past where an African American person would essential risk their life simply to exercise their right to vote? The past where women weren’t considered capable or intelligent enough to vote, file for divorce, or acquire contraception? The past where child labor was considered normal? The past where social security didn’t exist and we were perfectly okay to let our seniors die impoverished and alone? The past where people could openly and without retribution deny opportunities in education, housing, and financing just because of someone’s race, sexuality, or gender? I cannot imagine anyone wants this country to go back to any of those versions of America. No matter how bad we think things are today, “going back” is not an option.

The “real America” is not supposed to be a society with a tribal mentality where our freedoms and rights are viewed as a limited resource of privileges that only certain groups can hold at one time. No, the “real America” believes we can move beyond that petty tribal squabbling of “whites v. everyone else,” “immigrants v. native born” “Muslims v. Christians,” etc. and that we are able to engender trust in the presence of diversity and change. There are still severe injustices in our country for people of all groups and classes, but we cannot fix these problems by being suspicious and hateful of one another. Believe it or not, America can become better and better if we work together.

Though the United Kingdom is an ocean away, I urge all Americans, to take the social implications of the Brexit very seriously. The United States must not vote for or encourage the bigotry upon which Donald Trump has built his entire campaign. Hillary can be a great president even if you distrust her last name as a legacy of “the establishment.” At least, she has avoided the use of platitudes, hate speech, and fear mongering to get this far. The same cannot be said for Donald Trump. You, our families, our friends and I will be safer living in a Hillary America than a Trump America.

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Farewell Pt. 2: Sort-Of “Passing” AKA Blending in Taiwan

**NOTE**Before I tumble down the rabbit hole of racism and sexism in Taiwan v. Greater Asia or the United States, I want to pause and remind anyone reading this, that I’m focusing on specifically my OWN experience. I am just recording and reflecting on what I’ve noticed happen to me and around me during my year here.***

Elephant in the Blog

One thing I’ve consciously tried not to do on this blog is to make my race a point of discussion as I experience life in Taiwan. I wanted to see my grant through the eyes of a teacher first, rather than as a “raced-person” first. Also, I think that the story of Western-Foreigner-in-Asia is overtold. Likewise, the tale of the Asian American in East Asia, though less known to the average non-travelling American, is definitely often talked about among travelers and in expat communities.

Why write about this topic? Because my racial background did impact my quality of life in Taiwan. I’ve heard too many of my expat and Fulbright friends say, “I wish people didn’t just point me out on the street all the time.” Or, “I wish people didn’t just assume I don’t know Chinese.” Or, “I wish people would stop taking pictures of me.” And I have not shared that same experience on my own.

When I compare my experiences to that of Asian American friends, White American, or Black American friends here, I would argue that being half-Asian only made my daily life easier. In fact, I would say being a half-Chinese-half-European-American woman in Taiwan is probably the most privileged, respected life I have ever lived. It’s really weird to type, think, and acknowledge, but I would be lying if I said that life in Taiwan has really shocked me culturally (though there are several cultural discrepncies). I am half-Chinese afterall, so some cultural things were already familiar. Granted, there are institutional things in the education system, immigration system, the driving culture, or the police culture that surprised me, but I never experienced a level of culture shock in Taiwan where I envied my previous life in the States. Well, except maybe when it comes to food…

Come here, you beautiful bastard.

Essentially, I noticed something happening to me in Taiwan that has only occaisionally happened in the U.S. I was simulatenously passing as a member of the majority population and living a Western expat life.

Racial passing occurs when a person classified as a member of one racial group is also accepted as a member of a different racial group. The term was used especially in the U.S. to describe a person of mixed-race heritage assimilating into the white majority during times when legal and social conventions of hypodescent classified the person as a minority, subject to racial segregation and discrimination.

–Wikipedia

In more detail that means…

1) I can “pass” for Taiwanese better than other foreigners.

Put me in a Taiwanese-style outfit and you wouldn’t take a second look at me as we passed on the street (this has happened often with White people in Taiwan). Dark hair, angled eyes and a similar complexion help, but upon closer inspection my prominent Greek nose still sets me apart from time to time. Luckily, Taiwan offers a bit of racial wiggle room. For instance, I’ve been told by some of the Taiwanese Aboriginal (yuán zhùmín) shop owners in Cishan that my nose is fēicháng hǎo (great) as they also touched or gestured to their equally well-bridged noses. I even had a parent at my school speak to me in Hakka and when I couldn’t respond she asked, Nǐ shì bùshì kèjiā rén? (“Aren’t you Hakka?”). Blending in means I can go pretty much anywhere unnoticed in Taiwan where there’s a moderately sized crowd and no one will be the wiser. Until I open my mouth, that is, and nothing but “American” comes out.

No one screams Wàiguó rén! (foreigner) or Hēirén (black person) at me on the street and there’s less of a chance for people stopping me at random to play 20 Questions with them, though it does occasionally happen. Blending in also means that occasionally my students will ask (as one did in June), “Justin laoshi, Fay laoshi is American, right? I can’t remember.”

Peace signs for days. Yeah I look different, but I don't look

My co-teachers and I had an awesome surf lesson in Kenting in May. Here, we pose with our coaches (the three guys in the book). I look different, but not “American.” As some locals might say.

2) I always have a Get Out of Jail card AKA the Wàiguó Rén Card. Blending in often means that Taiwanese will treat me like another Taiwanese. I’ll get solicited by Greenpeace on the street just like I used to in NYC, store clerks will try to get me to join rewards programs, Taiwanese will ask me to give directions, and I’m overall be expected to know Chinese fluently. Yet, the moment I get into a Taiwanese situation that I don’t want to be in or can’t handle because the language is way over my head, I just throw out the Tīngbùdǒng Card. Tīng bù dǒng (聽不懂) literally means “hear but don’t understand,” and it’s a phrase that is kryptonite to any Chinese language conversation.

Commit a cultural faux pas? Tīng bù dǒng. Don’t want to eat some strange food being offered to me? Tīng bù dǒng. Trying to get into a friend’s building without a key or any identification without being stopped? Tīng bù dǒng. Don’t want to accept an invitation for an event from an acquaintance or stranger? Tīng bù dǒng. Being asked my number? Tīng bù dǒng. Running a red light? Tīng bù dǒng.

Being a foreigner who doesn’t understand Chinese is an amazing escape hatch. Locals are never angry or disappointed when they hear tīng bù dǒng because suddenly standing before them is this new opportunity or experience they haven’t had before. A foreigner! And this is where the privilege comes in. I get to benefit from blending in at first, but I don’t have to keep up with any social responsibility that a Taiwanese person is expected to follow. Instead, I somtimes have the choice to self-isolate.

3) No Catcalling. Living in New York. No, living in the whole wide world has made me very self-conscious about how, where, when, and what I wear when I walk outside alone. I have been street harassed in at least 90% of the places I’ve ever lived in or visited. Despite what the “mens-rights activists” may say, catcalling is seriously wrong, and it’s a psychological burden for the person who is being targeted over and over again. It’s a constant reminder that you are seen and treated as a subordinate in a social hierarchy. It wasn’t until I moved to Kaohsiung did I notice that the defensive behavior I picked up from back home to combat street harassers was unnecessary in Taiwan. Within the first couple of months, I noticed that I typically walked with my eyes staring only at the sidewalk directly in front of me, I consciously wore a frown, that I subconsciously avoided making eye contact with people, and that my ears were always piqued to listen for a muttered comment or rude shout from whomever I’d just passed. However, eye contact, smiles, and nods are just acknowledgements of another person’s existence in Taiwan. There is often no ulterior motive (though I won’t deny that creeps exist in every country). Without catcalling, I feel so much more liberated to just wander anywhere in the city on foot in any style of clothing I feel comfortable in. It’s like I have permission to be myself in public.

**Sidenote** I have been catcalled once in Kaohsiung while walking with a friend to a club late at night. The two men were from North America, not Taiwan.

4) I feel comfortable. Sure, I get pointed out for being American or foreign sometimes, but it’s not as intense for me. I’m foreign, but I’m only so much foreign. People kind of expect me to speak Chinese and won’t patronizingly applaud my “great Chinese” after simply saying the words 謝謝 xièxiè (thank you). No one wants to play with my hair or touch my skin because thei texture and color is too similar to the Taiwanese. Often my students even forget I’m American. At one point near the end of the first semester, one of my students, Mars, asked my coteacher, Sam, “Teacher Fay bùshì Táiwān rén ma?” (Teacher Fay, isn’t Taiwanese?) No, Mars. Do you really think I choose to speak Chinese this badly?

It Can’t All Be Rainbows and Sunshine

Taiwan is not perfect. It’s certainly grappling with its own race and gender issues today and equal respect is not bestowed upon White, Black, or East and Southeast Asian foreigners . Don’t believe me? Look at this toothpaste.

Darlie Toothpaste AKA 黑人牙膏 literal translation: Black Person Toothpaste. The original concept came from the early 20th century when the toothpaste was originally called “Darkie.” The brand concept came from the British and its implicit message was that your teeth would shine white like a black person’s. This toothpaste is widely sold all over Southeast Asia, and is the go-to brand in Taiwan.

Or you can check out Taiwanese rap group 911’s new video “Foreigner” or mockingly “歪國人.” It can pretty much sum up all the most common negative stereotypes Taiwan has for it’s foreigners. The ending is the worst because it shows how little interaction or empathy many Taiwanese have with the rest of the world.

For solace, I’ve provided some reaction videos made by international students in Taiwan (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xx2e2Xc49Pc & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50LnRgUuQco). Their channels are pretty great, by the way.

What I want to explain here is that despite all these awful stereotypes bestowed upon those who carry the “foreigner” label, in my first year, many foreigner stereotypes were not applied to me directly. As you notice in the video, the majority of the negative stereotypes are applied to male foreigners because of the incorrect belief that Western and African men want to “take” Taiwanese women. This creates a familiar dichotomy that we see playing out all over the world right now where male foreigners are “invaders” and female foreigners are “prizes” to be “taken” from the “invaders.” Acknowledging this dichotomy and implicit sexism SUCKS because it is so disheartening for me to imagine that this is the reality I live in. But when it comes to exoticizing foreign women, in Taiwan I rarely get any heat, and I think it’s because I look too similar to the regular population. This is a huge departure from my experience in the U.S. As a Woman of Color in the United States, exoticization of my ethnic background happens too frequently

From my own experience, I think Taiwan as a whole has not consciously acknowledged that many of these racist and sexist beliefs are wrong. I think in many cases, this way of thinking is very similar to the White middle class thinking of the U.S. in the 1950s, where the stereotypes are taken as facts of nature and little is done to change them by people with power because they don’t see how these views could ever impact their daily lives.

Reflection

The sad thing I realized while living in Taiwan, is that in the U.S. I have never really been able to “just live” with my existence in a space going unquestioned. In Taiwan, I’m allowed to live my life without oppressive social and cultural interference because I am can be part of the power class. In America, microaggressions consistently remind me I am powerless (I.e. not White or a man). Sometimes I’ll go for days without a microaggression, and then it suddenly comes out in little quips in the office or in the form of street harassment. “Oh, guys, we got our resident Asian in the office today!” or “Yes, Chinese princess, I knew I woke up for a reason!” (yes, these are real things I’ve heard before). As if my part in society is to act as some kind of raced and sexualized ornament for the mainstream population. From elementary school until after college graduation, I was often a, “first Asian friend,” “the only Asian around,” “the only Asian girl in soccer,” “the only girl on the team,” “the only loud Asian” someone had met, the “first Asian” someone had met, the “first cool Asian” someone had met, the “first half-Asian friend,” the “first dumb Asian” someone had met, the “first Asian girl with an ass” that someone met, the only “cool, chill girl” someone met (as if all other women are frantic and emotionally unstable). These are all real encounters I’ve had with acquaintances, strangers, and friends. And they really are oppressive because of how relentlessly they other the person being discussed.

In Taiwan, I don’t experience tolerance like I do in America. Instead, I feel like my differences in identity are accepted and validated better–at least on the surface. People see that I’m foreign or sort of Asian/Taiwanese and move on. Maybe I’m naive, but it really feels like my personal racial identity is unimportant in finding happiness in my daily life and that’s a wonderful privilege.

Thoughts on Returning to the States

“I’ve been here three weeks and I haven’t even said it. I haven’t even thought it. And it made me say, ‘Oh my God, I been wrong.'”

The first thing I thought when I had the idea for this blog was, “Oh my god, is this how a White man in the U.S. feels?”

The second thing that came to mind, though, was an old Richard Pryor stand-up special where he talks about his experience touring Africa. Though it doesn’t seem directly related at first, the same sentiment is there. To offer context to Pryor’s comments, it was the first time he had ever visited Africa, meaning it was the first time he’d been a part of the racial majority. This is my second time in a Chinese-dominant country (first time was China in 2011), and both times I shared Pryor’s realization and amazement of how it felt to be a part of a majority for once in my life. A majority that has people that look similar to me that aren’t cast as stereotyped clichés. In the U.S. I’m regarded as “an Asian” or “an Asian girl” and all the cultural baggage that comes with it. In China and Taiwan I’ve caught myself thinking, “There are no ‘Asian people’ here, there are just Chinese or Taiwanese. They are just people and they are all so different from each other in their own way and we are ALLOWED to be different beyond the boundaries I knew in the U.S.” The caveat here with “allowed” is if you look Chinese or Taiwanese.

I know this probably doesn’t read well for my White or Black friends here because in Taiwan they are relegated to minority status. In Taiwan, all White people and all Black people are difficult to tell apart and it’s hard for the average Taiwanese person to think of an individual White or Black person as being different from the entire group they represent. Just like how in the U.S. and European countries “all Asians look the same.”

Before coming to Taiwan, I used to think that I will never find a society I could even truly call “home” because no society exists that would accept me into the majority. I’m too much of a demographic drifter and a permanent outsider, and I had made peace with that belief. I did have this kind of fantasy, though, about moving to Hawaii (60% Asian descent), but there’s nothing to bring me there. This is not to say that I think of Taiwanese society as “home,” but living here has been personally pretty easy (minus the severe lack of good Western food and a proper kitchen in the average apartment). But I can’t call Taiwan “home” because it simply doesn’t feel that way.

Still, I feel strangely empowered living in Taiwan. As if I’ve had a chance to sample what it would be like to be American first and an other second, rather than the other way around. I miss the U.S. for a lot of different things: my family, my friends, its seasons, New York City, the food, the music, driving, the overall energy of the country. Still, nothing makes me think that when I get back to the U.S. that I will enjoy my transition back into minority status. I’m not living in Taiwan forever, but there are parts of it I wish I could take back with me.

Farewell Pt. 1 – Year One Teaching Thoughts

Well, it’s June.

This means my 2014-2015 ETA grant period in Taiwan is officially in its death throes. Yes, I’m being dramatic. But with our final all-island Fulbright gathering in Taipei three weeks ago, the announcement of the 2015-2016 Lead English Teachers (LETs) and schools (my schools didn’t make it unfortunately), the Kaohsiung Education Bureau’s Farewell Ceremony last week, and all the “last month” Facebook photo albums by my fellow English Teaching Assistants (ETAs), it does kind of feel that with June comes a dramatic end to something that meant a lot to meAnd just as beginnings are a time to imagine and project the possibilities for your future self, endings are moments to reflect on what happened, planned or unplanned, and its impact.

KHEB Farewell

After the Kaohsiung Education farewell ceremony posing with my Fulbright family! From left to right: Justin (Ximen Coteacher), Jevon, Me, Jenny (my host mom), Hanna (host sister and diva), and Sam (Shanlin Coteacher).

In a multi-part reflection (I promise not more than four), I would like to share what I “got” out of my Fulbright English Teaching Award Scholarship.


Takeaways

Everyone has an opinion on what education is supposed to mean and what teachers, administrators, and parents should be doing so they don’t fail their students. This is the case both in the U.S. and Taiwan. The number one criticism of education systems and teachers, especially, is that they are not doing enough for the students. I think of myself as pretty well-informed and educated, and have often been one of the guilty parties pitching my two-cents about education without ever having tried to be a full-time teacher. Teaching in a public school has both altered and added depth to my preconceptions about what teaching is really like.

First, teaching is contextual. I’m not going to say it’s simply “difficult,” though it is, but the level of difficulty is highly dependent on context, (i.e. the teachers’ personality, kids’ personalities, school culture, community culture, etc.). The three things a teacher needs to be in any context are flexible, patient, and confident. These are not mutually exclusive. You need all three to survive and actually get work done. Also, teaching in Taiwan is, in some ways, a lot harder than in the United States. Public school in the U.S. is a mere 180 days a year whereas Taiwan has their kids enrolled for 220 days. Teachers get one month off in the winter and 14 days off in the summer and are under a lot of pressure, especially subject teachers (i.e. English, PE, art, etc.) who are relegated a lot of administrative tasks in addition to their classes. Also, discipline is handled solely by the teachers in the room. Rarely are there guidance counselors and you never send a disruptive kid to the principal’s office. Taking a kid out of class is technically illegal in Taiwan. I will say that in both the American and Taiwanese education systems, you have to really love and want to be a teacher in order to succeed. Most importantly, if you ever feel exasperated or frustrated by your teaching context, never blame it on your students.

Second, co-teaching is even harder, but a blessing in disguise that doesn’t show it’s worth until you have worked a few months. When I was first confronted with the idea of co-teaching with a local teacher, I was very intimidated. My only experience as an elementary school teacher before Fulbright was as a volunteer teaching assistant for a Kindergarten class in upstate New York. I had a sense of how I could teach a class on my own, but no real experience. Also, I had no idea how to share equal responsibility with another, more experienced teacher in a class where I only felt like a visitor. The language barrier was another major issue and presented several communication issues.

By the time I had reached month four, I was convinced that if I had independent control over my own class, I could do a better job teaching English to my students.The main reason for this is that co-teaching across cultural and linguistic lines means that there are no rules, structure, or format for how you’re supposed to teach or interact together. While I was getting used to my students and getting used to the idea of being in the front of a classroom, my co-teachers and I were simultaneously trying to learn about each others’ strengths, weaknesses, and communications styles. Lesson planning often took two hours to prepare per 40-minute class (we had 12 classes total), and we would often notice failings in our hard work. The first time you co-teach with someone, it seems like you will only learn about each other’s shortcomings first.

There is some real co-teaching magic happening right here. Sam is on the left. Photo credit to Fonda.

There is some real co-teaching magic happening right here. Sam is on the left. Photo credit to Fonda.

But my early assessment of co-teaching was totally wrong. After a full academic year of co-teaching, I am so happy to have worked alongside two great, patient LETs. Several student meltdowns and failed lesson plans later, I realized I really did need the support and experience (not to mention language skills) of my co-teachers because two minds are always better than one. As the year wears on ETAs and LETs start to depend on each other more as responsibilities accumulate and setbacks are likely to happen and delay class progress. For example, my students lost a critical week of classes before their final exams when their singing competition was rained out and pushed back by two weeks. As we say in Taiwan, Zěnme bàn?! That’s where your co-teacher comes in. You are each others’ sources of inspiration for creative ideas, an honest feedback wall for new ideas and concerns, and moral support.

Me (skeleton) and my Co-Teacher Justin (Scream) pose with our sixth grade class in our Haunted House/English Class

Me (skeleton) and my Co-Teacher Justin (Scream mask) pose with our sixth grade class in our Haunted House/English Class.

Finally, the most important thing that co-teaching helps with is with unifying the class. No matter how small or large a class is, you will have students seriously behind and far ahead and it really helps to have two teachers in the room to make sure all the students remain engaged and up to speed with the lessons.

Third, teaching your native language can be a lot of fun. Sharing your language with a group of students is rewarding because you learn so much about your own language that you never thought about before. For instance, how do you explain the sentence, “What did you do?” Or the sentence, “Do you (like/want/have/insert verb here)….?” Why is the English language so fixated on asking questions with “do” in it? It’s a totally mind-boggling concept in to explain to students who have no native language equivalent. But getting language learners to finally understand how to use that phrase and its negation, or other equally difficult phrases in English, is a rewarding achievement. You’re able to take something that appears so confusing and get kids to understand it. I can’t explain the feeling in words, you just have to try it yourself.

Also, unlike my LETs, teaching English was my comfort zone (i.e. not a second language), so I could devote a lot of time to being creative or trying to simplify the often agonizingly complicated Hello, Darbie! textbooks. In terms of teaching, I already knew English so well that the majority of my brain power went to devising simple and/or fun ways to teach my students.

Plans versus Reality

I remember in my initial Fulbright application, I had this dream of teaching my students how to navigate simple websites in English. As I look back on that naïve young woman from a year and a half ago, I think, “jeez, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.” Elementary school students are so different from high school or adult students in that they aren’t just learning English for the first time, they’re learning everything for the first time. Many of my students weren’t very familiar with computers because they didn’t have them at home. This meant that didn’t know where the keys for English letters are on the keyboard because obviously Taiwan has its own typing system set-up on their keyboards. So before they even learn how to search for things online, they have to be able to type in the commands. Once that’s settled, they have to understand how to use search on a webpage for key words (ctrl + F anyone?), and they need to have the patience to sit still and overcome the overwhelming feeling of seeing so much English all at once. Can you imagine how overwhelmed you would be if you were a 5th grader and a teacher was trying to teach you how to do Google searches in Chinese? Just seeing all those Chinese characters would make you feel like you’re doing an impossible task.

Shanlin Elementary School's 3rd grade class rests after a drumming show.

Shanlin Elementary School’s 3rd grade class rests after a drumming show.

This experience taught me two valuable lessons. The most important thing I learned about children while trying to teach them English was that I had to be careful not to make assumptions about what else they knew. In other words, just because I find something to be common sense or logical, doesn’t mean that the kids sitting before me have learned this particular information yet. For example, before I explained something geographically contextual like, “cold, cool, warm, hot,” I had to make sure they actually knew the difference. For Kaohsiungers, cold often means below 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15 Celsius), so how do you explain the true meaning of “cold” when what they consider a day to put on a heavy coat is a day many New Yorkers would gladly be outside in T-shirts? For this lesson with my third and fifth grade classes, we talked about the freezing point of water and how ice cubes feel when you hold them in your hands. For most of my younger students, it totally blew their minds that there are places that get as cold and colder than 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 Celsius). One of my students didn’t even believe me when I told him the U.S. was having a cold snap and there were places 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-17 Celsius).

The second most important thing to keep in mind while teaching children is to use examples from their everyday life to help them learn. Pull as many local comparisons as you can and your class will be that much easier. Whether it’s parallels between the students’ own vocabulary or grammar, or it’s a cultural comparison between holidays or food. Try to get on their level when you can, and when possible make it fun. Kids have such short attention spans and crave fun and approval, and making them feel smart or giving them some kind of language lifesaver before they learn something difficult can boost motivation.

Typical interaction with 1st graders. I don't usually look so mopey.

Typical interaction with my Ximen 1st graders. I don’t usually look so mopey. Photo credit to Justin.

Before coming to Taiwan to teach English I had another fear: children. I had no idea how I was supposed to talk to them, play with them, or make them find English as interesting. Sure, I had three younger sisters growing up, but being a kid while playing with other kids is totally different than being an adult around kids. How do you praise them or discipline them? How do you fake enthusiasm, interest, and energy on days when you have none? How do you make them listen? What I found out is that the younger they are, the easier they are to talk to. Sure they’re usually shy, but, again, they crave fun and approval. You just have to make yourself available for them to approach you, and be ready to act really silly. My first through third graders were the easiest in this sense. A lot of games with rewards and a lot of out-of-class tag quickly remedied any shyness, on both parts. I went from a person who usually went out of her way to avoid coming into contact with kids so I wouldn’t have to deal with them to letting my first and second graders use my arms and legs as a jungle gym/tree they can climb.

As for the older students, fourth through sixth grade, things were trickier. From fourth grade, kids are entering that age where being chill with the teacher is “lame” and making fun of the teacher is “cool.” From the get-go I told myself not to take students’ attitude issues personally, but to intervene with my co-teacher when they got distracting or threw the class off track…I mean I was no angel in elementary or middle school either, and I knew from my younger self that I never really wanted to make my teachers angry. I just wanted to be liked for being “funny” or “cool.”  Like I said, these kids are going through life for the first time. They don’t know the real consequences of their actions. Eventually, all my students came around. I could say that I had taught and spoken positively with even the mopiest, angriest, ‘tudiest, and deliberately self-inhibiting students by the end of the year.

As I wrote this last section, I suddenly noticed how close I am to many of my students. It’s going to be really hard to say good-bye to them at the end of the month.

The Long Good-Byes

Wrapping up a Fulbright grant in Taiwan (wrapping up anything in Taiwan) means a lot of celebratory dinners, parties, and ceremonies with all the important people who made our Fulbright Grant possible. We have already met in Taipei with Fulbright Foundation for Scholarly Exchange for our Farewell Dinner with all the Taiwan ETAs and Scholars, had a “tea time” celebration with the Kaohsiung Education Bureau and Kaohsiung host families and LETs, enjoyed a wonderful dinner with the Meinong-based ETAs and LETs (six of us), had a hotpot dinner with Fonda (our fantastic Kaohsiung director), and we are still due for at least two more dinners and a big farewell party for the first Kaohsiung ETA departing Taiwan.

It’s been a bit overwhelming. Not to mention all the graduation ceremonies and good-bye parties and activities we have to attend at our elementary schools this week. Then next week is finals week, so I’m saying my real goodbyes to all my students this week.

It’s really nice to have so much fanfare and appreciation. The Fulbright ETA Grant was not easy by any means even though it came with a lot of benefits. Still, I feel like simply having one, maybe two, major events to end the year would be enough. It has been a bit tiring to keep up with the grand-finale-ing. But at least it’s made for some great photos.

The Kaohsiung crew's photo with FSE. Photo credit to Fonda.

The Kaohsiung crew’s photo with FSE. Photo credit to Fonda.

The women of Kaohsiung. ETAs and Fonda at far right. Photo credit to Fonda.

The women of Kaohsiung. ETAs and Fonda at far right. Photo credit to Fonda.

Kaohsiung Education Bureau Farewell Ceremony earlier this month

Kaohsiung Education Bureau Farewell Ceremony earlier this month. Photo credit to LET Frank.

Jevon, me, and Justin (co-teacher) at the Kaohsiung Farewell Ceremony. Photo credit to Frank.

Jevon, me, and Justin (co-teacher) at the Kaohsiung Farewell Ceremony. Photo credit to Frank.

Teacher, What Does @#$% Mean?

Some teachers dread the first moment they have to confront a kid using a “bad word” in English class. The main issue is how a teacher should go about confronting the student. First of all, it’s a “bad word” meaning it’s not appropriate for children to say, but to the kid it’s just meaningless mouth noises. Also, how do you answer the questions, “What does that mean?” or “Why can’t I say it?” Answering “just because,” never stems kids’ curiosities. You have to simultaneously explain the gravity of the explicative and its meaning without giving too much away.

Personally, I don’t think bringing up these words in class is all that bad. Words like “fuck” or “bitch” really don’t have the same gravity in Taiwan as they would in an English-speaking country. Besides, it’s not like my students don’t watch American movies or TV shows. Just today a 3rd grader interrupted class by shouting, “TEACHER! S-H-I-T!” When I asked where he had heard this word and informed him it was a “bad,” he said, “They say it in Furious 7 when they jump out of the plane!” American media has really normalized cursing in daily speech, so how can I blame my students for asking about it in class?

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t go out of my way to explain the f-word (I will only discuss that it’s a bad word if students bring it up), and I know some students really want to push teachers’ limits by saying “bad” things in class. But it’s a really innocent question when it’s coming from little kids, they just don’t know what they’re saying or why adults don’t want kids to say it. So I won’t shy away or squander any teachable moment. When my student further asked, “Teacher, zěnme jiǎng S-H-I-T!?” I answered calmly with, “Jack, kids don’t say that in English. Only adults…when they’re really really angry or scared. It’s better if you say ‘poop.” P-O-O-P. which means dàbiàn.” Everyone loved the sound of the word “poop” more than “shit” and they also thought “poop” was easier to spell. So today, my third graders added another word to their everyday vocabulary: “poop.” And I didn’t have to discipline anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings to explain that “shit” is a bad word.

However, there are moments when kids may get moody and their inquisitive questions aren’t innocent more. It’s genuinely disrespectful. My sixth graders fit this profile (oh, puberty), particularly one student: Jimmy. Jimmy is an underachiever in all classes, and I think it’s something that has compounded over the years by a sense of pride. When he was younger, his parents weren’t there for him so his grandfather takes care of him 99% of the time. His grandfather is very old, though, and is busy so there isn’t anyone to check his homework or to ask him how he’s doing in school. As things got more difficult, he had less motivation to try at school. Because classes are more challenging and he doesn’t do his homework, teachers think he’s not smart, so he tries less in class. And when he tries less and does worse, it reinforces the stereotype for teachers that he’s dumb.

So to show that he’s not “dumb” and doesn’t need school, Jimmy has taken to becoming a class clown among his friends. Teasing and insulting teachers is his specialty. He’ll insult you just enough so that you can’t really punish him, but you still look like a fool in class. With Jimmy though, I don’t like punishing him because all it does is take him out of class and he misses even more material. Sometimes, though, you have no choice. For example, a couple weeks ago my students filed into the classroom, my co-teacher, Justin, had not yet arrived, and Jimmy showed up just as the bell rang. With a big smile on his face, looking right at me, and for reasons I still don’t understand Jimmy said “fuck fuck fuck fuck” and laughed. He thought he said it just out of earshot, but being the native speaker I am, I could hear and see exactly what he was saying.

Me: Jimmy, why did you say that? You know what it means.
Jimmy: *stare*
Me: Jimmy, why did you say that in class?
Jimmy: *stare* Because class is boring.
Me: You just got here, why is it boring?
Jimmy: *staring and smiling then muttering something*
Me: Jimmy? If you don’t want to be here, go.
Jimmy: *stare* shénme? *shakes head and smiles* No.
Me: Jimmy, you have to leave. Go see Alan or Justin, but you can’t stay here.
Jimmy: No.
–15 long seconds of silence–
Me: Nǐ kàn, wǒ bù xiào! Zǒu kāi. (Look, I’m not smiling. Go away aka “leave the class”).
Jimmy: *slowly leaves the room, slamming his books on the floor*

game

I felt really guilty afterwards about my tone and how I kicked him out of class, but sometimes when a student is being brazenly rude you have to nip it in the bud. Jimmy later came back after visiting Alan and apologized to me in the front of the class, and afterwards I helped him catch up with the work he missed. I tried to make the best out of a bad situation. If this kid ever needs my help, I’m here for him, but if he wants to actually insult me then I will get mad, but I’m still here for him–ever so grudgingly. Still, Jimmy is only 11. He’s not that young, but he’s by no means old enough to understand real consequences yet. I hope other teachers could understand that, too. Teaching wrenches every last ounce of your patience out of you because you’re meant to serve small, clueless versions of adult people who still have no idea how the world works yet and you are not allowed to give up. As adults, we have all these social rules and norms that we’ve built and accepted, and here come these tiny lightning bolts of emotion and energy to throw our entire system out of whack.

So next time a student asks you “teacher what does #%@! mean?” Stay calm and tell them a truth, or as much as you can. “It’s a mean word for ‘butt’,” or “It’s not something nice people say.” If possible, even give them an alternative. In Taiwan, talking about “poop” is not taboo, so teaching kids the word “poop” gives them away to talk about a normal subject in a different language. Sure it sounds weird to us English speakers, but whatever! Learning!

The Interim

I wanted to write a real post this week, but four days of food poisoning or some kind of infection kept me home and feeling miserable. I’ll just let you know a bit about my current situation before I post fully at a later time. While I was at home, I was mostly keeping up with the news (i.e. Chile volcano, Nepal earthquake, Baltimore) and, whilst trying to stay somewhat positive in a really sad time for humanity, doing some serious research on graduate school programs.

After missing my first half of the week at Shanlin Elementary, I started the second half of the week today at Ximen Elementary. I’m still not feeling physically at 100%, but I’ll get there soon enough. Classes went well, I’ve got some new ideas for activities that I want to try out this Thursday and Friday. The school year is winding down, so I really want to end English class on a high note rather than maintain the doldrums of a reading and writing-focused class.

Today at school, though, I got some news. I can’t talk about it, but it was heavy. It just made me feel so small and pointless. I felt culturally and professionally unprepared to handle this information and I really don’t know what I can do to make things better. The only thing real I know or understand right now is how I felt after hearing this information. It was the first time in Taiwan where I really felt like hitting someone out of anger. What I would give for a gym with a heavy bag right now. Since my body isn’t up for a run or a hike of any kind, in order to blow off steam I decided to just mindlessly scooter for an hour.

Once I got back to town, I just drove straight toward the mountain range at the edge of Meinong until the road began to wind and narrow into the foothills and eventually became a dirt path. Out in the woods near a dried up riverbed (Kaohsiung is still experiencing drought), I sat on my scooter drinking iced tea and watching the coconut trees shaking in the wind. Unlike in the valley of Meinong, the mountains are shrouded by heavy, grey rain-shadow clouds. When you drive from the hot, sunny valley into the cool, dark-green mountains in the afternoon, it really feels like you crossed between seasons. I sat there and let the butterflies drunkenly flutter in my face and the mosquitoes greedily bite my calves as I sipped, stared, and pondered “what’s next?”

I thought about how Taiwan and the U.S. share a a culture of “projecting success.” We all try so damn hard to look as impressive as possible to our friends, family, colleagues, and potential connections. But as we’re building ourselves up, it’s not so often that we can watch directly in front of us someone else who is being torn down or prevented from participating in this culture we’ve created. In fact, those that obviously fail to impress or conform to social standards become the rest of our motivations to try harder to appear successful. We use society’s rejects as motivational posters for our subconscious minds and we allow these “rejects” to become dehumanized in our quest to “be better.” But because of where I work and live, I can watch society’s future rejects and idols being made before my eyes. I’m watching children being forced into the roles adults expect them to play for the rest of their lives, and I find myself hoping that the kids won’t obey. After thinking these many thoughts through, I was eventually tired enough to want to go home.

It’s been eight months of co-teaching and I thought by now I would be settled into my schools and there wouldn’t be any setbacks I couldn’t handle. With just two months left in the school year I hoped for a smooth ride into June. Nope. That’s the thing about being out in a forgotten part of Kaohsiung County where farm animals out-number humans: nothing goes as expected because if it did, would it make a difference?

I hope I can stop being so vague with ya’ll soon, but it all depends on how school goes tomorrow. As soon as I get an update on what has happened since this afternoon, I’ll be able to update back here.

Tans and Scars

Personally, I love summer weather and summer outfits. I like the feeling of sun on my skin and I like getting a tan. Which is great because Taiwan is very sunny and hot most of the year. When I first started teaching in September, we were still getting 100 degree days (and it’s already started up again), and despite the fact that I knew I should wear no less than a t-shirt and jeans. I caved. I couldn’t not wear shorts and a tanktop to school, especially when there was no air conditioning. Though I knew it was out of the ordinary, I didn’t think that I would get so much attention for my attire and skin tone.

First things first, my calves are muscular, and I like them that way. They’re healthy and strong and one of the few reminders that I lived and breathed soccer for ten years of my life. But my legs are also scarred and uneven, partly due to some kind of genetic or birth-related deformity. The appearance of my legs doesn’t bother me. I have been given one body to live my life on earth, and I have learned to live life to the fullest with it.

Yet, I don’t think a single teacher or student failed to notice how unseemly my legs were. In spite of the essentially negative attention I was getting I knew that it wouldn’t be possible for me to teach if I were dying from heat exhaustion all day, so I wore shorts for a few more days. Finally, I realized that my body was too much of a distraction. Kids were way too fascinated by the abnormality of my legs, gossiping in Chinese to each other when they should be listening to me introduce sentence patterns. Staff would raise their eyebrows in surprise as they looked downwards at me without speaking. Locals in my teaching districts would actually turn their heads in astonishment when they saw me scootering passed while wearing shorts. I stood out so much that I eventually felt like I was doing something wrong by just being myself.

Peace signs were not my idea.

Peace signs were not my idea.

Also, after a Taiwanese summer sun beating on my skin for a month I had a tan. Though my students didn’t pay much attention to the difference, adults did. “你晒黑了!” which in context means “You tanned!” but literally means “You sun-blackened!” Mind you, negatively calling me black is a really loaded comment in the first place since I’m light-skinned. Foreigners in Taiwan of African and South Asian descent have a really different experience when they live in Taiwan or Asia in general. Comments that usually follow the “oh you’re tan!” remark are usually well-intentioned advice on how to protect myself from the sun. “You should wear a hat,” and “You need to carry a sweater with you.” To which all I could think to say was, “but why? It’s hot, yo.”

It’s interesting to be in new cultural contexts where taboos and customs don’t align with my home country. Even the smallest differences in details stand out to me as exciting and unique because they make me think about how abstract and malleable society can be. Behaviors and a sense of belonging that one has in their own country suddenly dramatically stand apart from the norm in another. But sometimes a heightened sense of self-awareness may not make for a fully pleasant experience. As a woman, I choose to travel in a world where not a single country can claim full gender equality. I know that where ever I travel, I must be aware of the new ways I will be scrutinized as a woman lest I bring negative attention to myself or, in extreme cases, put myself in danger. Still, even though I know this, I get surprised at times when faced with new social standards.

The rest of this post is about appearance and beauty in Taiwan, and how it stands to effect the female traveler. Women, this is what you should know about beauty in Taiwan and Asia in general, just so you’re not caught completely off-guard.


When Beauty is Skin Deep

Two major characteristic differences between American beauty and Taiwanese beauty are skin tone and body modification/scarring. In the U.S., a nice tan on a normally light-skinned person indicates beauty and wealth (i.e.  free time and travel). We often say the phrase “healthy tan” (as if cooking ourselves with UV light is healthy), and often see fit, toned bodies with tans as attractive. In Taiwan, women and men alike prize lighter skin. Lightening creams can be found in any store (even 7-11), and even on the hottest of days you will see women sporting long pants or dresses, cardigans, hats, and face masks to prevent tanning. As for body modification, its nowadays more generally accepted for women in the West to have piercings and tattoos. Scars are still considered ugly for the most part, but sometimes shit happens (you fall off your bike as a kid, trip while hiking, fall up the stairs…) and we can get over that as a society. Many Taiwanese girls and women don’t pierce their ears or get tattoos. If they do get piercings, it’s usually when they are in their late teens or 20s. Whereas in my second grade class, I was one of four girls who didn’t have my ears pierced already. As for scars, the more unmarked your skin, the more beautiful you are.

Typical Taiwanese sunny, summer weather gear.

Or maybe they’re all in witness protection programs…

aaaaaaaand 70 degrees in NYC

aaaaaaaand 70 degrees in NYC. It’s a well-known fact that Americans hate pants.

For Taiwanese women, unscarred, dainty white skin combined with a thin, unmuscular and delicate figure is a prized possession. On sunny days, women will be wrapped up like burritos, but at night the short-shorts and pale, “calfless” legs are out.  I originally thought that covering up in the summer had more to do with modesty, but head to any Taiwanese night market during the summer and almost all the young women and girls are wearing booty shorts and skirts, flaunting the success of their diurnal ninja lifestyles. I always knew beauty standards differed between Asia and America, but I never realized how far they stood apart.

Elegance and Poise

 

Megan Fox, right, has a tan, piercings and is known for several tattoos. Notice how her shoulders are also exposed. The Taiwanese model, left, is much paler, has no visible piercings, and covers her shoulders.

Megan Fox, right, has a tan, piercings and is known for several tattoos. Notice how her shoulders are also exposed. The Taiwanese model, left, is much paler, has no visible body alterations.

It seems that in almost every respect, Taiwanese women and American women see beauty differently albeit equally impossible to attain. American women are told that they to have not-fat, curvy, toned bodies, big-ish breasts, lightly bronzed skin, voluminous hair, full lips, and carry ourselves with confidence (but don’t look “too black or hispanic” or insert-minority-here. Anyway, that’s another conversation.). Thanks to this ridiculous set of criteria, many American women have found their own ways to cope with society’s “never enough” attitude by promoting acceptance online via hashtag campaigns.  In Taiwan, it seems like women are expected to make their bodies seem as if they are as delicate and fragile as glass, and that idea is generally accepted.

You earned it, kid.

I woke up like dis.

What’s a woman to do? I am comfortable with who I am and how I live. I’ve spent years getting over the social values imposed upon me as a teen that say I should care about what others think. On the other hand, this isn’t my country or customs and maybe I should do my best to respect the local culture. But on the OTHER hand, there’s no such thing as blending in when I look physically different and can’t speak the language as a native speaker.


So now what? Remember BUD. I just made this up now, it’s a bit weird but stick with me.

Be Yourself
Understand
Dialogue

Be Yourself

There is no right answer as to how to deal with this type of cultural clash. There’s only a better answer, and in my opinion it’s doing what is most comfortable for you. Wear shorts in the sunshine or wear a large sun hat on a summer’s day. If it makes you comfortable and happy, then it’s something you can’t change and it doesn’t matter what others think.

Understand

What does matter is how you behave. You don’t want to demean another culture through your behavior by saying your behavior or attitude is better than another’s. I tried to respect this criteria in this post today. Steel yourself against comments that feel negative because of your own cultural foundation. Remember the earlier comment, “you sun-blackened?!” In the U.S. we would find this comment extremely weird and insulting, as if being “black” is a bad thing in the first place. But in the Chinese language, “tan” does not exist as a word. Darkening, tanning, blackening, and similar words all have the word “黑” hēi or “black” involved. Also, the cultural context for tanning, just like during the Victorian era, is wealth-related. By being tan you show you have to labor outdoors and are therefore poorer, even uneducated.

Even if the context’s explanation still feels wrong, at least you know where it’s coming from first.

Dialogue

Depending on your situation at the moment, you can start a dialogue about your cultural differences, and build understanding with the other person or people. It’s rare to be in a context where you can do this, especially when there’s a language barrier, but there is more than one way to affect change. In a foreign country, your behavior is a way to dialogue. For instance, in Taiwan little kids will see me in the store or on the street and gawk at me because of how different I look. I could ignore them and walk away, or I could smile and try to talk or joke around with them. It’s a way to have someone look at the person inside of you rather than what’s on the surface.

If the interaction is negative, say a man won’t leave you alone or you feel like you’re being exoticized during a conversation, make it very clear you are not happy with the way you’re being treated. For example, you have a Taiwanese colleague that has already pointed out a physical difference more than once, and it’s now starting to bother you. Just tell them to please stop. Being straightforward in an Asian context carries more weight than in the U.S. Asian culture favors more indirect expressions of negative feelings, so any passive action you take can be ignored in this context.


Follow the BUD method, I’ve made peace between my host country’s values and my own lifestyle choices. Like I said before, it’s my body and I want to live life to the fullest. Dressing the way I choose to doesn’t affect my teaching ability and it doesn’t change who I am, and I reflect that in my behavior. Sure, if the school were to institute a dress code tomorrow I would follow it no matter what. But since the regulations and expectations about appearance a unofficial (one staff member wears basketball shorts and T-shirt to school every day), I’m going to wear what I think is comfortable.

People can comment on my tanned skin, stare at my legs, and wonder why that foreigner girl is wearing a tanktop in the sun all they want.

The Decision to Stay

A few months ago, I decided that I wouldn’t return to the United States after my Fulbright grant ended. Instead, after a summer of visiting friends in South Korea and visiting family and travelling in Greece, I will return to Taiwan. Exit date: TBD. My reluctance to return home are as follows:

  1. Language acquisition
  2. Writing
  3. Uncertainty about graduate school, law school, or any other advanced schooling right now
  4. Unappealing American lifestyle
  5. Taiwan is beautiful

Language Acquisition

This is a pretty straight-forward reason to stay in Taiwan. It’s a lot easier to learn a language when you’re living in a country that speaks that language rather than learning it remotely. My Chinese has already improved a great deal since moving here eight months ago, but it could still go so much further. Currently, I’m looking at Kaohsiung Normal University’s Chinese language program which is more intensive, and hopefully will help me build up my oral vocabulary and reading abilities.

Writing

I have enjoyed writing ever since I was a kid, but never took it beyond a simple hobby. Unlike what you see in this blog, I write a lot in my free time. I have dozens of filled journals scattered throughout my home in NJ and Jevon’s home in NYC. I even filled three journals since I have been here with weekly reflections and the slow development of three different fiction pieces I am writing on the side. The problem is devoting enough time to a single topic in order to create a rich, final, long-form piece. I have already lived the early-20s, American, Bachelor’s degree-holder lifestyle and while it is satisfying for some people, there is no way that I could simultaneously devote myself 100% to work and to writing. It’s simply not doable. Remaining in Kaohsiung, in a low-stress, low-cost environment emerges as the logical choice.

An MA, an MPA, or a JD?

Yeah, I’m still not sure. I really thought the longer I waited to go to graduate school, the easier it would be to decide what I would study and where. Yet here I am, five years short of 30, and I still don’t think that this is the right time to take on another degree. I’ve heard that you should only go to graduate school when you know what exactly you want to do, or if you have a job waiting for you on the other side of your thesis. Graduate school in the United States is unforgivably expensive, and there is no way I’m taking on that level of risk if I’m not 105% sure of what degree I want. There is always the option of a school abroad, but few are free or low-cost for American students. While I do have my mind on some programs in the UK, China and Australia there is still a bit to think about and the application timelines to consider. I might still apply to one or two schools this year so I can have more options later, but as of right now I feel like focusing on Chinese is my priority.

An Unappealing American Life

My life in Kaohsiung is much more enjoyable than the U.S. east coast life. Unlike working in the tri-state area, you don’t feel like you’re in a rat race. People here don’t avoid eye contact on the streets, and they definitely don’t take pride in the level of jerkitude they can impress upon total strangers. Also, the polar vortex doesn’t steal locals’ souls for two months out of the year. Instead, life in Kaohsiung is more like a lazy river. Everyone’s kind of doing their own thing at their own pace, enjoying the sun and the breeze, but there’s no rush. When I’m in Kaohsiung I feel like, everything that needs to get done will get done in spite of any obstacles that seem to stand in my way.

My mind is at ease

My mind is at ease

A major reason that makes the mood and environment so much more appealing in Kaohsiung is that the lifestyle is cost efficient. As a part-time teacher here, I could fund my own language classes and still have money to afford rent, food, and pay back my student loans. The cost of Chinese language classes (or private tutors) in the U.S. is five times greater than what I can find in Taiwan while the cost of living in the U.S. is three to four times as much as what I paid living in the tri-state area. To give you an idea in the difference of cost, my rent alone in NYC was $850 a month with utilities to live in the smallest room of a three bedroom apartment. My rent in Kaohsiung for an entire house shared with one other person is $150 with utilities.

I know some people may be thinking, “Well, you don’t have to go home to the east coast. You can look for work in other parts of the U.S.” This is true. I could go to California or Tennessee or Florida and try to start over there, but then the question becomes where the heck would I start? If I went home now, the only place to go is New Jersey or NYC where I have family, friends and a sense of how the job hunt operates there. But as I said before, I’m not into that 9-5 lifestyle right now, and the U.S. isn’t known for its work-life balance. In fact, it’s famous for just the opposite, a work-life balance that commits people to high levels of stress and little free time. Now is not the time to go home. Not when I have the opportunity to do the things that I love for the a majority of my time, rather than have them as sort-of fulfilled hobbies on the side.

Taiwan is Beautiful

September sunset in Meinong

September sunset in Meinong

Holy crap this country is gorgeous. It’s a tiny, subtropical gem of life, nature, and culture floating in the aquatic space between East and Southeast Asia. It’s a place unique onto itself in its personality and its heterogeneous cultural make-up. No lie, it is probably the most culturally diverse place (considering its small size) in all of East Asia. Also, the weather here is wonderful and there is still so much more for me to see around the island that I haven’t had a chance to explore yet. I’m so happy to have had the opportunity as a Fulbright ETA in Taiwan. I have seen so many amazing places, traveled more than I expected, and got to know a lot of great people through my schools and the expat community here.

Summer weather year-round

Summer weather year-round

Mazu Temple at night in Cijin Island

Mazu Temple at night in Cijin Island

Things in America I Still Miss

  • Toasted poppy seed bagel with scallion cream cheese and a slice of tomato washed down with a cup of house brew coffee–no matter how cheap the coffee is
  • Just regular bread in general. Taiwanese bread is super sweet
  • American driving laws and logic
  • Amazon Prime
  • Thirsty Thursdays and Happy Hours
  • Pants that fit (above a size 6 is apparently obese)
  • Wearing high heels (There’s just no occasion for it here)
  • Wearing lipstick (Again, no reason to dress up here unless you want everyone to stare)
  • Going to the movies and having a choice about what to see (“Hm, we got Kings Men, Hunger Games, and Interstellar. Such options.”)
  • The unwritten sidewalk social contract that all New Yorkers abide by (Tourists and old people on the right, fast people passing left, and people eating food standing to the side and out of your way. Organized chaos, how I miss thee.)
  • Diet Coke

…and of course seeing my close friends and family. Don’t worry, America, I won’t stay away for too long. =]

Teaching Thanksgiving to the Taiwanese

How do you share a holiday that has a messed up origin story, but has many positive connotations today? That was the question I had to argue in my mind for the two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. On the one hand, there were fun activities we could do in class related to Thanksgiving. On the other hand, there were a lot of complicated issues with the holiday that I just couldn’t get into with an elementary school class.

In the end, I made my Thanksgiving lesson about three things only: Eating a huge dinner with your family, being grateful for the good things in life, and turkey. Overall, my lessons went over great. Kids were actively engaged and they found turkeys fascinating and hilarious. This one turkey video I played, posted here and a mere 19 seconds long, is totally worth checking out.

The lesson was also a way for students to get to know an American holiday that they know nothing about, but not totally unrelateable. The Lunar New Year has many of the superficial characteristics of Thanksgiving: family reunions, eating a lot of food, watching TV afterward. I was happy that my students had the opportunity to see that different cultures may have their own quirks, but aren’t totally incomprehensible. There are things Americans and Taiwanese can share in common.

Some activities we had: pin-the-gobbler-on-the-turkey, throw-the-sticky-ball-at-the-turkey’s-gobbler (while blindfolded), write and draw what you’re thankful for, hand-turkey drawings, and eating pumpkin pie (we managed to get 40 slices out of one pie!). By far the two big hits were the sticky ball game and pie eating. Unfortunately, as usual, I didn’t take many pictures, so for your enjoyment please see my adorable first graders below:

Thanksgiving Grade1 SL - 2

Getting started on making those hand turkeys.

Thanksgiving Grade1 SL - 3

Just being a six year-old.

Thanksgiving Grade1 SL - 4

Yes, I have favorites. Yes, she is my favorite.

Thanksgiving Grade1 SL - 5

Coloring while the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special plays in the background.