Asia

Reaching New Heights Hiking Bukhansan

Last Tuesday, I wanted to give hiking another go because Achasan was such an easy hike. This time, with my Airbnb host, I hiked Bukhansan, Seoul’s tallest peak. Standing at just above 800 meters, it makes an impression on the surrounding landscape. I’m not an avid hiker, but I do like new challenges. This was probably the tallest mountain I’ve hiked before, and it was a brutal two and a half hours to get to the top. My first hint that this would be a rough hike should’ve been that I couldn’t get a single friend to join me in the hike. On my first day in Seoul, my friends asked me, “so how do you want ot spend your time in Korea?” I answered with, “I don’t know, I’m up for anything, but what about hiking?” The response was met with a wary, “okay, where were you thinking?”

“Well, I heard Bukhansan is the tallest mountain in Seoul. It’s supposed to offer amazing views.”
“Uh…okay, wow. Bukhansan? Hm. Let’s think about it.”

Anyone that’s spent time in East Asia or South Korea, knows that such a vague answer usually means, “No.” Undeterred, I mentioned my plan to hike Bukhansan with or without company to as many people as I could. Finally, I mentioned the idea to my Airbnb host, Noah, and to my surprise he said he wanted to join. The morning of the hike, I dressed in yoga pants, a tank top, and my old running shoes. My purse carried two water bottles, my wallet, sunglasses, some peanut snacks, a roll of kimbap, and my phone. In my world, that means I’m ready to hike. In his world, and every Ajima (elderly woman in Korean) I met on the subway ride to the Bukhansan bus stop, I was setting myself up to sincerecly regret my day and possibly slide down a mountain face to my death. No matter. Even though I stood out like a sore thumb among the fully equipped, backpack-ed hikers, I was determined Bukhansan was going down.

I saw this Ajima, barely five feet tall, hop on her Harley just before our bus arrived. She rode up to the intersection and I snapped a picture without thinking. Why stay home and knit when you could ride your motorcycle into the sunset like a total badass?

I saw this Ajima, barely five feet tall, hop on her Harley just before our bus arrived. She rode up to the intersection and I snapped a picture without thinking. Why stay home and knit when you could ride your motorcycle into the sunset like a total badass?

Hiking Bukhansan easily takes a full day. First, it takes at least an hour and a half to arrive at the base of the mountain, by subway then by bus. Then it’s an increasingly steep and rocky climb to the top for two hours. If your legs aren’t ready for an endless stairmaster workout, then it’s better to save Bukhansan for another day. Also, be ready to sweat. No matter how much or how little clothing you’re wearing, hiking in July entails that you will be streaming with sweat. But it’s all worth it when you reach the peak. Maybe it was the altitude, maybe it was the endorphinsf from pushing my body to climb as fast as I could, but standing on top of Bukhansan’s windy peak and staring down at the green and hazy world below lifts your spirits like nothing else. You will also have a newfound appreciation for all the seniors climbing up along side of you. I only wish I could be a fraction as healthy and fit at their age as they are now. In another bad ass Ajima/Ajashi moment at the peak, many of them were drinking Makgeolli at the top of the mountain. Makgeolli is a milky alcohol and an acquired taste that resembles an alcoholic, watery yogurt in texture and taste. It reminded me of something that maybe our grandparents’ generations would drink during wartimes when options for something better were scarce.

I won’t post too much about the actual hike, so I can talk about Daegu in my next post. But leave me questions in the comments if you have any, and I will be happy to answer them!

Thumbs up, half way point!

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Old fortress wall near the peak. Noah takes another break (right) as he admits defeat to mighty Bukhansan.

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Munching on some kimbap near the peak. The altitude is supposed to make food taste better, but I think sheer exhaustion was a good enough flavor enhancer.

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The Stone Phoenix of Bukhansan. Probably not it's real name, but it works.

The Stone Phoenix of Bukhansan. Probably not it’s real name, but it works.

Of course they sell ice cream on the mountain and of course we got some.

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From the Heart of Asia to Its Seoul

I arrived in Seoul from Taiwan (the “Heart of Asia“) a few days ago and have been spending my time mostly with one of my best friends from college and her sister as well as being lost in the endless Seoul subway system.

Just from the first few days I have to say it’s been great getting away from Taiwan’s heat and humidity. The first night I was here was windy and I actually felt a chill that made me put on my jacket. I checked later and saw it was a frigid 75 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also nice to be in a place that has the same living standards as the U.S. and that has elaborate and mostly convenient subway system. I say mostly because I’m writing this while waiting for my train and it’s already been 30 minutes. I guess Hoegi (pronounced “higgy”) Station must be like Greenpoint and this train is like the G train running weekend schedule every day.

The past couple of days I’ve mostly spent in the Gangnam area with my Ye-lin and Ye-Jin. Gangnam is about 35 minutes away from Hoegi and its also the place named in Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” They have this massive mall that’s like the Macy’s NYC mall but if the entire building were made of marble and glass, half of it were entirely underground, and the foodcourt was an endless array bakeries and restaurants. The mall is Shinsaegae, and anyone who has been to Seoul has been there or at least bumped into one of them. They are owned by Samsung, so they have the wealth and power to erect huge buildings all over the place.

Ye-Lin (left) and me. Friends since 2010, Orange pride for life.

Ye-Lin (left) and me. Friends since 2010, Orange pride for life.

Me, Ye-Lin, and Ye-Jin (left to right) after our spa day on Sunday.

Me, Ye-Lin, and Ye-Jin (left to right) after our spa day on Sunday.

I also went to the French Quarter where, get this, there is actually a significant population of French people living and working in Seoul. So there are some amazing patisseries and boulangeries as well as almost every single luxury French brand store you can imagine. It was so bizarre to see so many French people in the middle of Seoul, but I guess the feeling is akin to a Midwesterner visiting Chinatown in NYC for the first time. You might be thinking I had French food for lunch there, but you’d be wrong. Ye-Jin suggested this incredible burger place called Brooklyn. Seriously, it was probably the best burger I’ve eaten since going out to Harlem Public last year. If for some reason you ever find yourself in Brooklyn, in the French Quarter of South Korea’s capital, eat there! Don’t even bother to look at the menu. Order the Burgherita and a Nutella and marshmallow milkshake and enjoy the rave your taste buds throw for you in your honor. Seriously, it’s that good.

Brooklyn in the French Quarter of Seoul.

Brooklyn in the French Quarter of Seoul.

Burgers, shakes, and fries.

Burgers, shakes, and fries.

On Saturday, I had the whole morning and afternoon to myself so I decided to go for a hike. It’s been a long time since Kaohsiung wasn’t a fiery hellscape, so I’ve been itching to climb a mountain without suffering from heat stroke. Looks like I picked the wrong day.

I went to Achasan or Mt. Acha (San means mountain), a begginer’s level hiking peak. I took the train to Wangshimni, which brought me to another subterranean world (half of Seoul’s population could probably live in the tunnels that crisscross all over the city, there are just so many!). I grabbed some mini pies and an egg sandwich from a bakery and continued onto line 5 which would take me to the Achasan stop.

Though I’d heard Achasan was the smallest of the local peaks in Seoul and one of the easiest to climb, I was dripping with sweat just from the walk from the metro station to the perimeter of the park. Clad in athletic shorts, a T-shirt, running shoes, and a baseball cap, I easily zipped by the swaths of seniors who sported full hiking gear (long pants and jacket), backpacks, large hats, gloves, and ski poles/hiking sticks. At the gate of the park was a water refill station that provided free, ice cold water from the tap. Dozens of seniors were crowded around the watering hole, and I could barely find a free spot to squeeze through before I felt an elbow or a hand push me out of the way. I looked around and noticed everyone was equally soaked in sweat and had a look of utter fatigue on their faces. Maybe today was hotter than I thought?

When I finally refilled my 2 water bottles, I headed up the mountain. After a year in a subtropical climate where shady large-leafed trees, bamboo, monkeys, and flying cockroaches are the norm, hiking on Achasan felt plsin. Besides the pine trees, which were a sight for sore eyes, that took root in the shallow soil above the granite there was little natural life beyond the occasional mosquito. I nostalgically yearned to hear the sound of monkeys fighting and bamboo creaking in the wind. Speaking of wind, there was barely even a breeze the entire walk up until I reached the very peak of Achasan. There, I could feel the air subtly moving like a whisper, just enough to actually offer a cool sensation.

View of the Han River from Achasan.

View of the Han River from Achasan.

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Stone Pavilion reconstructed on the site where the original once stood some 600 years ago.

The first reason I chose to hike Achasan was because of it’s reputation of being an easy peak (meaning I’d just spend a couple hours and go home), the second was because of its historic value. There are still some ruins of fortresses and look-out stations from Ancient Korea’s “Three Kingdoms” period (not to be confused with China’s Three Kingdoms), when the control and use of the Han River (Seoul’s lifeline) was still contested. When you reach the top of the mountain and stare out at the cityscape, you can see exactly why Achasan was so important. Achasan has a perfectly clear view of the eastern portion of the Han River and its banks. A lookout could easily spot any dangerous movement of people or ships in and around the river from miles away. They would also have ample time to warn people living at the base of the mountain and surrounding areas. Nowadays the peak of the mountain serves as a beautiful scenic spot; a moment of gratification once you reach the top.

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What’s left of the ancient fortress built nearly 700 years ago. You can still see the shape of the wall just behind the trees.

One of the very many elderly hikers also visiting Achasan on Seoul's hottest day.

One of the very many elderly hikers also visiting Achasan on Seoul’s hottest day.

As I made my way back down the mountain I became increasingly self-conscious as to how much I had actually sweated. It was probably the most in my life. My entire shirt was a shade darker and I could feel the grit of salt and sand sliding on my forearms and shins. I would find out from Ye-Lin later that apparently it was Seoul’s hottest day of the year, so hot that city hall announced a warning against people exercising during the day.

“Dear God,” I thought as I approached the subway entrance. I was thinking of all the beautifully dressed, meticulously make-upped women on the subway, “I’m a mess and I really hope I don’t smell.” Luckily I’m 85% sure I didn’t have super bad B.O. on the commute home.  No one covered their noses or stepped back when they stood next to me, so I took that as positive feedback and tried to avoid contact the entire ride home. Random sidenote, for a developed country capital, Seoul adheres to some really intense gender norms for appearance. I’ve noticed make-up, especially lipstick, is pretty much a requirement for going outside if you’re an adult female. Heels aren’t a must, but encouraged. Everyone looks like a freaking model, and if they don’t have the size 0 body, they definitely have the wardrobe. It’s enough to make a girl think twice about stepping onto the shiny, AC’d subway in sweaty workout clothes. In my, what most people would assume is, disgusting condition on Satuday I’m sure I stood against everything that is expected of a lady commuter that afternoon. Oh well.

I made it to dinner on the other side of town an hour late. I was supposed to be there for 5:00 but arrived at 6:00. Ye-Lin and Ye-Jin planned a fried chicken and beer picnic near the Han River. Thanks to not having any cell phone or data plan in Seoul, I was unable to tell them that apparently on Saturday evenings commuters are just as packed into the trains as they are during weekday rush hour. I waited 35 minutes for one train and then another 15 minutes to transfer. We were packed into the cars to the point where I couldn’t move my arms and legs until the next stop, and then it would only be to readjust before the onslaught of bodies unforgivably mashed themselves into the train car again. Awesome that some folks DID sport the enchanting parfum of outdoor hard labor on the hottest day of the year.

Just a bit of the crowd on the subway on Saturday.

Just a bit of the crowd on the subway on Saturday.

When I finally did make it to meet up spot, I had all but irrevocably damaged dinner plans. The chicken was cold, the girls were weary from worry, and my legs were tired, limp meat bags on my body. Luckily, there was some daylight left and we headed straight away to the park and commenced picnicking. Night fell two hours later and by that time the good conversation and food made my commute of nightmares seem like a distant past. I was sufficiently content with the way the day went. The mosquitoes started biting, cuing our exit, and as we carried the trash away, fat and scattered raindrops began to fall. The typhoon expected to pass on Sunday was signalling that it would be on time.

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.

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.

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. =]

Beautiful Xiaoliuqiu

Having a March 23rd birthday is a curse in the American northeast. By the end of March, everyone is feeling grumpy and fed-up with cold weather, and everyone is so busy no one feels like celebrating. Growing up, March 23rd usually meant midterms, major spring semester events, and occasionally coinciding with Jesus’ annual return from the dead. But not this year! Unlike the northeast, Kaohsiung in March means the beginning of summer and daily above-75-degree weather. There was absolutely no way that I wouldn’t spend my birthday on a beautiful beach, basked in sun and surrounded by seawater.

小琉球 (Xiǎo liúqiú, literally “small, drifting ball”) is Taiwan’s only coral reef island and located about 20 minutes by ferry to the southwest from Kaohsiung and Pingtung counties. The island is so small that you can drive along the coast and circle the island in about 15 minutes. And yet people actually live on Xiaoliuqiu permanently. There are schools, a police station, a post office and two 7-11s. The basics of civilization are always available.

As you would expect, the island’s natural beauty and the richness of its coral reefs attract tourists year round, so bed & breakfast prices were at least 100 USD a night. The prices are especially high since the original industry of fishing is not as profitable in Taiwan as it once was. Naturally, Jevon and I opted to camp. There are two campsites and they run about 20 USD a night, but there’s really no issue with free camping on one of the many beaches. Later we would find out that there are so few police that once the sun sets, tourists are mostly left alone.

The weekend before my birthday we drove to the ferry on a sad, hazy day in Kaohsiung, but arrived at the ferry port in Pingtung with the sun shining and bit of blue sky. Foreign tourists to local destinations like Xiaoliuqiu are surprisingly not as common as one would expect. Taiwan has a thriving domestic tourism industry, but when it comes to foreigners they are rare. So when foreigners arrive to economy-starved places like Xiaoliuqiu they are instantly preyed upon. That’s what happened to us at the ferry port. The moment we idled our scooter near the ticket booth, a pushy and garrulous old woman dressed in pink from head to toe approached us, grabbing my wrist, “Tickets! Tickets to Xiaoliuqiu! How many do you want? Roundtrip? Just two?” and she began peeling thumb-sized ticket stubs from a homemade ticket book. “Wait, wait, hang on, how much is round trip?” I responded, pulling my hand away from her just as rudely as she had grabbed it.

“400 each round trip, much better than the ticket booth.”

“Okay, but how much for the scooter?” I said looking sideways at her as I craned my neck to see the ticket prices above the ticket window.

“You just take the scooter on the line. They will tell you.” She said as she stapled two tickets together.

“Wait, wait, wait. How much is it?” I could see beneath the wide brim of her straw hat that she was getting frustrated by my hesitation. “Look it’s much cheaper,” she said pulling my arm and my gaze to the ticket booth again, “so two tickets?” I could spot the ticket price, and what she was offering was only 10 NTD cheaper (about .33 USD), and I had no idea who she was or if she was running a scam. When I wouldn’t respond she began explaining the ticket deal in unnecessary detail and in long strings of Chinese that I couldn’t understand. Finally, tired of her trying to pressure us into buying her tickets, I said. “Look, we’re going to eat first anyway, so méiyǒu bànfǎ.” Meaning there was nothing she could do to persuade me. With an exasperated groan, she rolled her eyes exaggeratedly at me. I watched her storm away back to the road we had arrived on, and the moment her pink figure was out of sight, I bought two round trip tickets at 410 NTD from the ticket booth. The scooter price for the ferry is 100 NTD in case you were wondering.

The first thing I noticed about Xiaoliuqiu was that it was one of the few places I had been to in Taiwan with absolutely no English translations on the public street signs. Thank god the island was a tiny circle because we could have easily gotten lost since, aside from the main caves (Black Devil Cave, Black Dwarf Cave, and Beauty Hole/Cave–depends on who you ask) there were few major landmarks. By the end of the weekend, I had still not seen any of the caves because they seemed like tourist gimmicks, and I heard from another foreigner that they weren’t even caves, more like stone holes or short passageways. One thing you have to remember when you go to such a small tourist destination is that the beauty and value of everything is greatly exaggerated to encourage tourists to come and spend money to see them. But I wasn’t there to shell out big bucks for gimmicks. I went to Xiaoliuqiu for the beach and the coral reefs.

If you have never seen live coral before, the first time you see it is absolutely mesmerizing. Gazing through the clear, cool water down at a rainbow of life filled with aquatic plants, starfish, hermit crabs and tiny fish I couldn’t help but think how gorgeous the world could be sometimes. There were so many colors: yellow, bright pink, soft and dark greens, grey-blues, magenta, blood red, apple red, and royal purples all cast against a background of aquamarine and beige from seawater over the skeletons of ancient coral. It literally felt like I was in my childhood Little Mermaid poster. I must have spent over two hours just staring into the shallows of the reef, hopping from stone to stone along the shore to avoid crushing any of the fragile life beneath me.

Corals from above

Corals nestled in sand bask in the sun of the shallows,

Coral from above

The photo does not do the coral justice.

Starfish

One of the thousands of starfish.

More than anything, I wanted to dive into one of the deep underwater ravines. The clear and blue, cool water was so tempting as I trekked beneath the tropical sun. I just wanted to be surrounded by the color and coolness of the water. But swimming among the reefs shouldn’t be taken lightly. Snorkeling or swimming in only a bathing suit makes you prone to injury. Centuries before Xiaoliuqiu was brought up to the surface by shifting tectonic plates and gushing lava, the entire island was submerged and part of a vast coral reef. As you walk around the coastline, you see hallow, towering stones much harder and sharper than they look. These are the skeletons of massive, dead coral. The dead coral lines the shores all the way into the shallows, so live coral grows and thrives on the sturdy structures. Swimming among them and the waves, you can easily bump into a sharp spine of dead coral and leave your vacation with a deep, oozing wound. While you can snorkel anywhere to your heart’s content, you need to wear a body suit and water shoes just to be safe.

me looking like a doof

Me near the surf. The “rocks” sticking out above water are coral skeletons.

Something that surprised me when I hopped down the shoreline of reefs was how differently local Taiwanese and foreign tourists view and value the reef. As you learn in your middle school biology class (or the Discovery Channel), coral is incredibly fragile and takes decades to grow. A disturbance in average water temperature, breaking coral, or polluting the water could kill a coral reef in a fraction of the time that it takes to grow. And yet, this beautiful natural resource was treated carelessly in so many ways. If you look deep enough you can see trash and fragments of ropes and fishing nets tangled around the coral. Local fishermen and the like show no restraint in stomping over the shallows of the reef in heavy water shoes to cast a line or pick snails. The locals’ behavior went against everything I had learned in school about protecting coral reefs–the rainforest equivalent of the ocean. It just goes to show you that when you see something every day and it becomes normal, your value for its existence decreases. It’s the same thing with New Yorkers and the Empire State Building, or Athenians and the Acropolis. It’s there, it’s always been there and it’s not going away anytime soon. Or so you think.

*~*~*~*

Our only night on Xiaoliuqiu, Jevon and I bought a pack of beers and two bubble teas and headed for the beach to have a bonfire and watch the waves crash. It was completely empty of people when we arrived, except for the one, unmanned scooter we saw at the end of the road before a small temple on the beach. We gathered an endless supply of driftwood and dead leaves for the fire as well as huge chunks of loose, dead coral from the shore to line the fire pit against the wind.

After about 35 minutes of setting up the fire and getting a good flame going, we were joined by two fellow American backpackers from Tainan, Indigo and Dane, and clearly the owners of the solitary scooter we saw earlier. It was nice to meet up randomly with a couple of Americans. We talked about life BT (Before Taiwan) and our experiences as teachers since arriving. After eight months in Taiwan, the halo of being a newly arrived expat has worn off. You start to notice things about your adjustment to a new country that you aren’t really proud of, but can’t help. You know you should be open and accepting of the difference in culture because you chose to live in a new country, but there’s something about the food, the language, or the behaviors of everyday people in a non-native country that you cannot get over. It’s totally natural, and being able to banter and bond over those kind of issues with strangers was validating as well as relieving.

Fisherman XLQ

Early morning on a cool and cloudy Sunday. A fisherman stands over the cliffs of Xiaoliuqiu.

By midnight, we decided to split ways, but keep in touch. Indigo and Dane would camp on the beach, which was a much better idea than heading to the campsite because they got to see sea turtles breakfasting near their tent the next morning. And Jevon and I scootered back to our camp in the north of the island for the night. The next day, Sunday, we would roam the island into the afternoon and head back to the mainland around 1 P.M. Though the trip was short and sweet, I knew it wouldn’t be my last time there. Despite the rather plain above-ground scenery, the majesty of the reef, the tide pools and the water drew me in and I was already planning my next trip back.

*~*~*~*

To anyone staying in southern Taiwan with a little extra time on their hands, I highly recommend a visit to Xiaoliuqiu. It’s an island almost untouched by development, drifting in the sun and carrying centuries of natural beauty. It’s the perfect place to relax and have some “you” time. For me, it was inspirational. Hence, the resurrection of this blog. ;]

Returning with Winter

One week after my scooter accident and surgery, I returned back to Shanlin Elementary School to co-teach. Many friends and colleagues remarked at how quick I returned to work. “I can’t believe you’re already back? Shouldn’t you rest more?”

Maybe I should, but to be honest I didn’t want to. On the one hand, I feel fine. My bones and muscles are still strong and I even do some upper body exercise in my spare time to keep myself from becoming a couch potato. On the other hand, it’s crazy boring to be injured. My first two days home from the hospital were the worst because they coincided with a dramatic change in weather. Until now, Kaohsiung has maintained sunny 80-something sunny days dipping to low-70 nights–partly thanks to the worst drought in nearly a decade. But on that Thursday the weather dropped more than 20 degrees and it rained on-and-off all day. So there I was at home alone and cold, nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no way to get to nowhere anyway (my scooter was totaled in the crash). The consequences of all my time spent at home were over 100 pages read in River Town by Peter Hessler and the creation of three apple pies.

Though walking was (is) still a struggle because I can’t bend my knee, the first Saturday out of the hospital I spent most of my day out of the house. I spent pretty much the whole day at Cishan and on Sunday, a fellow ETA and my roommate in Kaohsiung City came to visit and we spent the day walking, scootering and picking tomatoes. It’s harvest season for turnips and tomatoes in Meinong, and the weather is like September in New Jersey, so I just couldn’t resist going out. By last Monday, I was ready for a return to normalcy.

Needless to say that in a school of only 53 students, important information gets around and news of my crash and surgery were well-known by everyone. The first students that spotted me in school were my first graders. From across the school’s front yard they spied me as I limped across the parking lot from the car that I had been driven in. I made my way down the hallway toward where they were gathered, playing games and laughing, but when I approached them, they all fell silent and, with chins tucked in, resting on their chests. Their big, curious eyes followed me as I walked until I stood before them. They were waiting until one of them was brave enough to speak. Rachel, one of the first graders that often runs with me after school, spoke first, “Teacher, were you in a car accident?”

“Yes, I was,” I told her.

“Were you on your scooter.”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Where did you get hurt?”

“On my knee,” and I pointed at the injury that was under my exercise pants (the only pants I own that fit loosely around my bandaged leg). I saw some second graders gather behind the first graders and step on tip-toes as they tried to see over their friends’ heads.

Laoshi,” Jason, a bubbly second grader, interjected, “does it hurt?”

“A little, but it’s okay now. I’m better.” The students’ eyes were flitting back and forth between me and my leg. It was like they didn’t believe me, like they thought their yingwen laoshi actually died and came back to life as a zombie. At least that would reinforce the legend I have built up around myself earlier. Eventually, their grave silence and childish curiosity were too serious for such an early, beautiful morning. I decided to limp away to my classroom instead. “See you later,” I told them in English, and they returned to their games and playtime, but some still eyed me from around the corner, as if to make sure I wouldn’t turn back around and bite them.

The 8:00 A.M. melody played over the intercom to signal the start of morning announcements. Everyone gathered in the courtyard. I showed up as most of the students were assembled, to the surprise of my co-teacher, Sam. “I’m sure it will be okay if you just sit down during the session. No one will say anything.”

“No, really,” I responded, “it’s fine. I feel okay. I’ll sit after we’ve done the weekly English phrase.” Sam was hesitant to accept my decision, but she agreed in the end. To lighten the mood I added, “besides, it looks like the kids need to make sure I’m alive. They are all looking at me very seriously.” It was true, as I made my way to the front of the courtyard with the rest of the teachers to greet the kids, I was seeing more eyes than usual intent on my presence.

Returning to Ximen Elementary School wasn’t nearly as dramatic, and I was feeling exponentially better every day. As plopped into my desk chair in the school’s office I stared at my computer monitor struggling to think of what to prepare for class. The entire week I had been waking up at 6:30 A.M. in order to carpool with colleagues to work 7:00. I asked Justin to debrief me on what he covered in last week’s lesson plans. When he finished speaking, he turned to swivel his chair and face his computer, but stopped and turned back toward me.

“By the way,” he said, “we have to watch out for Daryl,” (Name changed because the issue is sensitive). “What? Why?” I responded.

“Well,” he said slowly, “he’s been getting bullied a lot last week and this week. He might have tried to…” and he trailed off as he mentioned that Daryl was seen precariously close to the edge of a balcony on the second floor. “Don’t worry,”Justin rushed to say seeing my jaw drop, “All the teachers are handling it and keeping an eye on him.” I was in shock and from that point decided, English was second to keeping my students happy. I had a moment’s epiphany as I decided to search online for different summer camp and team-building games.

Incorporating these activities into classes that already don’t get along with each other was a struggle. Kids bullied each other, refusing to listen when another was talking, laughing at the teacher’s instructions and trying as hard as they can to rebel any sense of getting along. In my sixth grade class, one of the more divisive classes, I decided to try “Two Truths and a Lie” in Chinese. I thought if I got kids to talk about themselves, they wouldn’t have to worry about being partnered with someone they didn’t like. Also, it would be a chance for others to get to know him/her better in a formal, safe setting. The first two rounds were reassuringly successful, but the game unraveled from there.

One kid wrote a single word down: “爸” or “dad.” After I confusedly asked him to explain what he meant by “爸” he just stuttered, giggled awkwardly, and looked down. I looked at Justin who looked just as confused as I did, and pressed the student further. It slowly became apparent that this sixth grader has the Chinese reading and writing level of a third grader. He was felt that he couldn’t participate at all since he was not able to write down his two truths and a lie. Another student laughed at him as he tried to duck away behind his sheet of paper, feigning cool apathy. The next student, Yale, struggled to read aloud his two truths and a lie, choking on giggles. Apparently, he wrote two obvious truths (“I have a grandpa” and “I have hair”) and one obvious lie (“I am dead”), and was so impressed by his own comedic genius that tears were running down the sides of his face. Emboldened by Yale’s silliness, his twin brother, Harrison, proceeded to read out FIVE obvious lies including “I don’t have a brain” and “I’m 30 years-old.” Then the class devolved into an anarchy as kids got so excited with laughing, they got out of their seats and began running around the room and sliding across the floor. After Justin and I wrangled them back to their seats, we quickly proceeded to the original lesson plan: “How Can We Get There?” And reviewed the vocabulary words about transportation.

In another class where I knew gossip and cliques thrived, I thought I would play “Telephone” the whisper game that shows how gossip may start with a true fact,  but could turn into a lie after many people have retold the story. I completely missed the mark on that one as well. Where English spoken language leaves room for misinterpretation when volume is obscured, tonal languages like Chinese mean that the information will likely be received more accurately as long as the tones are communicated accurately enough. In other words, when I played this game in middle school, by the time a sentence reached the end of a chain of people, it was totally transformed. But for my fifth grade students, the sentence went from the first to the last person in class totally intact. I tried to rebound from the failed diversion to explain that “gossiping is bad,” but instead I think I just sucked the fun out of the class. We went back to learning about days of the week, and forgot about the earlier part of the class.

One of the toughest personal challenges I have confronted as a new teacher is finding a balance between, “involved and concerned teacher” and “ineffective and over-involved teacher.” Whenever an issue arises in class or among my students, should that issue be a problem, I have this reflex to want to find a way and solve it. Thus, when I witnessed poor discipline and bullying in my classrooms, I wanted to apply all the leadership workshops, guidance counselor workshops, summer camp activities, and college icebreaker games that I could to remedy the situation. I would say that about 10% I made some headway, but most of the time I find that my strategies and plans come up short. I’ve only been a teacher for five months now, but there are already many mistakes I have made (and learned from) that I wish I could go back and fix.

Am I doing a disservice to students by taking so much time away from subject matter to focus on behavior and cooperation? Especially, if these tangents may fail to miss the point? Would I be better off sticking with what I know (English) and ignoring the fundamental flaws and in students’ actions for the sake of learning more subject material? Is my job to teach the material or the student? Even after I’ve posted this and thought about it a while longer, I still don’t think I will be able to answer my own questions.

Part 2 – Emergency Surgery, Operation Simplification

It took five people to lift the stretcher into the ambulance. The EMT that had been attending me, a middle aged man with a plain face and graying roots, walked over to the driver’s seat and got in. As I was being lifted, Jevon said he would follow the ambulance with his scooter and meet me at the hospital. I shouted at him to take one last look to see if I’d left anything at the crash site and then the doors closed.

In the ambulance, a young EMT–a rookie no doubt–started running through the usual questions with me. The only problem was that it was all Chinese medical terms I didn’t understand I was able to figure out some of the things he was asking, but I wasn’t certain about what exactly I was answering. The older EMT shouted at him, ta tingbudong! (She doesn’t understand!), and the rookie sheepishly hung his head over his clipboard. He focused, instead, on tasks that required little-to-no speaking. Asking me to lift my right hand, he tried to put a pulse oximeter on my index finger, or at least he tried. I looked at my hand to see why this small task required so much effort, and saw my hand shaking uncontrollably. Eventually I had to steady myself with my left hand in order to put on the oximeter.

Now that so many minutes had passed, I was on the way to the hospital, and I was almost alone, I felt inclined to burst into tears. It wasn’t that I was in incredible pain, but so much stress had built up since the moment I spotted the van accelerating into the intersection. My body needed an outlet. Still, I didn’t allow myself to give in to the mental fatigue for fear of anyone interpreting my crying as emotional or mental instability of some sort. I am, afterall, a young woman in a culturally different country where few people spoke English. I heard once, in the U.S., that young female patients were most likely not to be taken seriously by doctors. In Taiwan, I already had language and culture as two strikes against me, I was not about to take a chance and give anyone another opportunity to not take me seriously.

The ambulance took me to Cishan Hospital one town over from where I live. We pulled up to the Emergency Room entrance. The older EMT opened the back doors of the ambulance to pull the stretcher out and the rookie EMT descended as the older EMT locked the legs of the stretcher at my feet. The rookie grabbed the head of the stretcher, lowered the legs, and pulled the entire gurney onto the pavement. But at the last minute I felt my head dip a bit too low for comfort and I heard the older EMT at my feet shout, annoyed, at the rookie. Luckily, the rookie hadn’t let go of the bottom of the stretcher and now was able to correct his mistake and readjust the legs so they were locked into place—for real this time. The older EMT muttered something to himself and took over pushing the gurney into the ER, leaving the rookie with his clipboard behind.

I laughed a little to myself because for a moment I felt like I was on a TV show and this was junior’s first day on the job. Laying back and looking up, The cement ceiling changed to interior ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights, and for all the noise that I had just been immersed in, the hospital was eerily quiet. As the EMTs pushed my gurney into place beside a hospital bed, I craned my neck to take in the emergency room. It was a small-ish room (compared to the U.S.) and though all the nurses and some of the residents and doctors wore face masks, I could tell the age gap between me and most of the staff was very small.

About four hospital staff crowded over me including one man that I assumed was a doctor because he appeared to be the only one in his 30s, the EMTs were still right in front of me, a new police officer arrived, and at the foot was Jevon looking a bit helpless. Ni hui jiang guoyu ma? They asked him. “Uh, no…” and then the staff turned to me, Ni hui jiang guo yu ma? And I responded Hui, yi diandian. (I can, a little). For the next 30-40 minutes, my brain was back in overdrive as I bounced back and forth between Chinese, English and charades. They asked me to slide over to another bed and I could really feel the pain in my leg settling in. Then the background evaluation began again starting with age, blood type, allergies, and a bunch of other things.

Finally, the doctor in his 30s spoke up in English, it was limited but it was good enough. He told me they would examine the wound now and my lungs tightened. I nodded and looked away again. The reaction was more subtle this time, but still I heard the, “ahh…ssss….,” from some of the staff. The doctor looked at me, “it’s quite deep. We will have to do surgery, most likely.” I was concerned, surgery? What about just a couple of stitches? The doctor told me he would call the surgeon to come in and examine it. He covered the wound with gauze and a bandage and then he left taking all the staff with him save the older EMT and the police officer, both filling out reports off to the side.

I was relieved to see that Frank, the Taiwanese co-teacher to my roommate, and my roommate, Tiixa, had arrived. I felt a bit more grounded now that there was at least one bilingual person around. I went over again how the accident took place. Then I was wheeled to a different part of the emergency room where all the staff and authorities descended upon me at once. Fonda arrived in the middle of the frenzy.

On my left arm was a newbie resident struggling (and failing at least five times) to locate a vein in my arm to get a blood sample and insert an IV drip. At the foot of the bed a man, who appeared in his mid-to-late 30s, wearing a worn Boston Red Sox t-shirt and jeans introduced himself in fluent English as the surgeon. He explained that the wound was to be cleaned now, and two male nurses or residents snipped off more of my pants leg and cleaned my wound with saline solution and their fingers as I twitched in pain (I had rocks in the laceration). Then, on my right hand there was a new police officer, portly with glasses who was keen on smiling through all his questions that were asked only in Chinese. He spoke directly, rapidly and determinedly, insisting I answer all his questions and ignoring Frank’s attempts to translate. I pushed the limits of my comprehension and eventually realized he wanted me to make the police report NOW at that exact moment while there were two fingers inside of my knee and a newbie stabbing my arm with a needle over and over again. I said no, and then Frank shouted from the foot of the bed, “He needs you to do a breathalyzer test, it’s just a routine thing.”

*pokepoke*

*pokepoke*

You’ve gotta be kidding me, I thought, can’t it wait a minute? Before I could accept or refuse, the police officer put a black, rectangular machine in my face and told me to blow into a hard, plastic straw. The officer read the reading on the rectangle gave me a smile and a thumbs-up, wrote the result on a clipboard and headed toward the reception desk. Just then, the driver of the van that I crashed into showed up at the side of my bed. Ayy, Teng bu teng? (Does it hurt?) And I just burst out laughing. Dangran hen teng! Zhende! (Of course it hurts, really!) And he nodded and backed off a little with his hands behind his back, observing the fiasco before finally losing interest. The newb on my left was getting anxious now as he stabbed my arm for a fourth time and the hose he used to tighten around my arm fell to the floor. Zhen de ma? (Really?) I hissed at him.

Jevon and Tiixa were standing at the foot of the bed to the left watching the fail take place. “There is really too much going on,” I said aloud to no one in particular. The resident ran to the other side of the bed to try my right arm, but when he failed again, I jokingly asked, Ni zhao bu dao ma? (You can’t find it?). I felt a bit bad after I said it, after all, he was trying to help me, but he took the remark as a sign and left. A nurse in a bright pink uniform arrived and I thought, “Oh thank goodness,” but that was before she struggled to find a vein in my hand, and upon discovering a suitable candidate began to manually pump the blood out of my hand, which required stabbing my hand with the needle at least ten times. Tiixa looked on in horror.

“That was disgusting and weird,” she told me later. “I feel like it’s everyone’s first day in ER,” I said to her and Jevon, “what the HELL.”

——

As quickly as they emerged, the staff disappeared and a different nurse appeared to take me to the X-ray room. Frank and Jevon went with me and we tried to make light of the situation. I was still so worried about having fractured something. I was placed in a giant room with a blanket on top of me to keep warm. The entire hospital felt like it was at a constant temperature of 60 degrees and lying still made it feel colder. The radiologist inside was another young’un, but was very polite and attentive. At one point, the board he placed between my legs (to shield the rest of my body from the radiation) tipped and leaned heavily on my knee. I hissed and winced and he rushed over “sorry, sorry, sorry.” Meiguanxi, I responded, and he let out a surprised “oh! Ni shou Guoyu ma?” and I responded with “Dangren, wo zhuzai Taiwan, dui bu dui?” (Of course, I live in Taiwan, right?) I assumed he smiled, but because of the face mask it was only a guess based on his eyes. Buhaoyisi, buhaoyisi  (sorry, sorry) he said and we both laughed it off; him from some kind of required embarrassment and me because I just needed to laugh. As he shot cancer rays into my body, I whispered to myself over and over again, “please no broken bones.”

The English-speaking surgeon returned, still clad in his T-shirt and jeans. The attire really made it hard for me to take him seriously at first, but I figured it was just a cultural difference that I had to get over. My dad, a former mainland Chinese citizen, sports a similar style back in the States. In his opinion, anyone could wear fancy clothes but it didn’t prove their skill or intelligence. To this day I have only seen my dad wear a tie twice in his life: once, in a photo from when he and my mother were married (it was a clip-on) and once, when I was in college and he had to go to a court hearing.

I was placed back in the emergency room and the surgeon made it clear that no bones or ligaments were damaged. “Oh thank god,” I exhaled, “so nothing important was hurt?”

“No, nothing important. Just fat and skin.”

The surgeon explained to me that they couldn’t do surgery until tomorrow afternoon because the operating room was closed and the anesthesiologist was not around. After the surgery, I would have to spend another day at the hospital under observation to make sure there were no adverse reactions to the procedure. If I wanted, I could be transferred into the city at a small cost and maybe I could find a hospital that was available to do surgery right away, but it was unlikely. I opted for staying in the hospital for two nights and all the Taiwanese around my bed nodded in agreement.

Getting comfortable in my new home for the next day and a half.

Getting comfortable in my new home for the next day and a half.

I was wheeled into an overnight room where I would stay with three other female patients; all of them were more than double my age. In fact, the entire time I stayed in the hospital, I don’t think I saw a single patient in the OR ward that was under 50 years-old. I was placed in the right back corner of the room, and when I got a look at the patient in the bed across from me I realized that despite the extent of the crash, I was very lucky. She was an elderly woman and her gaze indicated that she must have been either in an immense amount of pain, drugged out of her mind, or both. An hour later, the nurses would come and take her away for surgery and I would see one of her arms splinted and both of her eyes black and blue. Her lip busted and swollen and her leg wrapped in a bandage as well. Either this woman lost a tough match in the ring or she fell off her scooter as well. Once returning from surgery she would spend the rest of the night yelling in pain for the nurses and her relatives, vomiting, and moaning. Though it was immensely disruptive and aggravating that she complained through both nights, I did pity her somewhat.

The nurses told me that after midnight I could not drink or eat until four o’clock in the afternoon the next day, so I got to work. I ate a big dinner, almost a whole sleeve of Oreo cookies, some of the sweet bread I bought earlier and the taro milk drink (both weathered the crash intact), and at least 24 ounces of water. The water was necessary, but at the time I didn’t think ahead. Since the IV drip was already hydrating me, the water I drank only served to make me need to use the toilet. It was the most painful, slow, walker-assisted trek to the bathroom. The pain from my leg was immense now and as I gripped the walker, the IV needle in my hand piercing me, I started trembling all over. Jevon came with me to the bathroom to make sure I didn’t fall and there was a point where the aching was so intense I nearly cried and gave up on the bathroom at all. I wanted to just wait until after surgery the next day, but that was impossible. Despite the pain, I managed, and I managed again three more times during the night and the next morning because I had no choice.

I passed out around midnight, just after the nurses came to check my blood pressure and IV. I was hoping to sleep well into the morning, but at five o’clock in the morning the nurses were back to check pressure and IV and turned all the blinding fluorescent lights on. Everyone was awake, cranky and in pain. When the nurses left they forgot to turn out the lights and it prompted the old women to start complaining and shouting. Finally, some courageous hero turned the lights out again and all was quiet.

My co-teachers, Sam and Justin, wanted to visit me in the hospital once they heard about the accident, so both of them would come by at one o’clock during their lunch breaks. I figured that was a good time for them to stop by since the surgery was scheduled for either one or two o’clock. That morning, I changed out of my citizen clothes and into a hospital cap and gown, which is not a flattering garment because it opens up in the back and you’re expected to be naked underneath. When the nurses arrived at 12:50 P.M. to tell me it was time to go to surgery, I decided it would be smart to go to the bathroom before they put me under.

When I opened the bathroom door to limp my way on the walker to the gurney in the hallway, I was horrified to see my colleague, Allen, peaking in through the door and several voices I recognized coming echoing from the hallway. I made an attempt at some panicked greeting and begged Jevon, who was standing behind me in the bathroom to close my gown in the back. A nurse was rushing me out of the bathroom now and I refused to move. Hell no. I was not going to greet a bunch of people from work with my ass hanging out. Finally, the nurse realized my embarrassment, giggled and said she would hold my gown closed as I walked. I thanked her profusely and hobbled forward.

My heart melted when I saw the half dozen people that showed up just to make sure I was okay. The previous night in the overnight room, I was treating the whole accident like a light-hearted event. Cracking jokes, feigning health and smiling as much as I could to make the most of a bad situation. By morning I treated everything like it wasn’t a big deal and I would be well enough for my surfing trip at the end of the month. Still, seeing how much concern a little car accident raised made me feel really thankful for having these good people in my life. Sam and Justin were both holding two big boxes of apples and an additional bag of apples as get well soon gifts. I eat apples almost every day at my schools as a way to get something healthy in my diet, and that small feature of my life didn’t go unnoticed. Justin was also holding “Get Well Soon” cards from the students and Allen had brought me Kinder chocolates, another one of my lunchtime features.

apple boxes

Two boxes with six giant apples each.

Om nom nom nom nom....

Om nom nom nom nom….

gw card1gw card2

I had just enough time to say “hello” and “thank you to everyone,” before I gingerly moved my leg onto the bed and shimmied my body on the gurney. The nurse previously holding my gown now fixed my cap to make sure no stray hairs hung out. I waved good-bye to everyone and was wheeled to the OR with the small crowd trailing a bit behind. Once we reached the doors to the operation wing, only Jevon and Frank walked on with me and the surgery team gathered around. They were a young, light-hearted group and they were excited to have an American on their operating table. They asked me questions they assumed I didn’t understand and when I responded in Chinese they were giddy. The anesthesiologist, also the oldest doctor I had seen at the hospital, told everyone that this was a great opportunity for them to practice their English—in Taiwan, all professional doctors (including this anesthesiologist) learn English because most medical books are written in English—and everyone laughed that embarrassed, knowing Taiwanese laugh. Buyao haipa (don’t be scared), I said, Wo shi yingwen laoshi. Wo ban ni jiang yingyu, (I’m an English teacher. I will help you speak English), and this time the laugh was more genuine.  Jevon and Frank stopped at the final set of doors before the operating room.

When we arrived at our final destination, a room that felt like the 1980s with green walls that matched the outfits of the doctors, one of the male surgeons stretched his arm awkwardly as he prepared a sentence in his mind. “To welcome you to our OR!” and we all had another good laugh. Xiexie nimen de gongzuo, I said in equally awful Chinese. I wanted to thank them for their work, but essentially I said, “Thank you for your job.” The anesthesiologist was at my left hand and he prepared some white looking paste for injection into my hand. “This may sting a bit,” he said, “but don’t worry.” It felt like acid entering my veins, but I got over it. One of the female surgeons held a mask over my face and I thought, “any minute now they’re going to ask me to count backwards.” I looked back at the paste in the injection needle slowly diminishing as it entered my hand. I remember starting to say something again…

Surviving the Fourth Grade

I don’t know what it is, but maybe the fourth grade is the sweet spot of human development where kids are carefree, fun, and trusting of adults, but not rude and hormonal like teenagers. I’ve spoken about my fourth grade classes at both of my schools before, and I know it’s usually nothing but horror stories, but this time it’s different.

As November wears on, I’m noticing a change in both classes. My co-teachers and I tried a variety of classroom management tactics (assigning jobs and roles, diversified class assignments, etc.) to get our kids to behave well. Rather than turn our kids into silent, docile creatures (like we hoped), we have given our students so many things to focus on about class that their brains have fewer distractions. What is left behind after the distractions are gone are students’ natural willingness to learn.

And dang, these kids are smart! On Wednesday, we breezed through the 40 minute lesson and ended on time. Everyone knew all the answers, kids were answering quickly, they were excited to ask questions. Even the girl in the back of the room who never speaks was silently doing the specialized classwork I had assigned her, AND SHE WAS GETTING THE ANSWERS RIGHT. :O

I’ve spent the last four months ready to give up on these two fourth grade classes at the end of every week. I’m glad I didn’t because it is amazing how much they have learned/been learning this whole time. When class wrapped up on Wednesday, I was left with a strange feeling. Pride? Joy? Hope? Accomplishment? None of the above. For the first time in months I felt the absence of stress. I don’t even know what to think other than I’m going to run with this for as long as I can.

Some photos of my fourth graders at Ximen Elementary School being adorable:

Teamwork

Using the power of teamwork to help the shortest kid in class score a point.

Swoosh

Swoosh

.

Taking Time in Taiwan

Living in Taiwan as an American sometimes has its challenges, mostly culturally. I’ve had to learn what is “normal” for me usually doesn’t apply to my host country. Some examples: the concept of personal space, the driving culture, the idea of chasing after a garbage truck every day rather than leaving your garbage on the side of the street twice a week, nap time, and the complete absence of “Happy Hour.”

But one thing I cannot get used to is the Taiwanese concept of time. I don’t get it.

As some background, I have Chinese family members and I have lived in Mainland China, so from these direct experiences I can say that time and promptness is important in Chinese culture. In China, you invite someone to a party at 8:00 P.M. and they arrive no later than 8:01. In the U.S. you host a party for 9:00 P.M. and you know that the guests will start arriving at 9:30 or 10:00. While Taiwan holds the same standard of promptness for public transportation, the concept of time in the education system feels almost totally non-existent.

Most of the classrooms in my school either have no clock, or a clock that isn’t working and/or shows the wrong time. Students are almost never on time for class, and when they are late, there are no punishments or scolding, it’s just accepted. Sometimes the perpetrators of students’ tardiness are other teachers who forget to dismiss their students or choose not to. In one of my schools, my sixth grade students are regularly 20-30 minutes late from their previous class and it’s considered totally normal. In another instance, my third graders are late 10-15 minutes because they are “drinking milkshakes,” a nutritional protein shake donated to our school that all students must drink in the morning.

I’ve tried to drill into the heads of my students that being prompt is important, but it has had no effect. I’ve spoken with teachers about how lateness affects the quality of their English lessons, but no results. Yet, I know, that if I make an appointment with the same teachers to meet for dinner tomorrow at 6:00 P.M., not a single person will show up later than 6:05. I just can’t understand where the disconnect lies, but it’s extremely frustrating especially because in the United States our concept of time is totally different. If you have a class at 10:10 A.M. and the teacher/professor says, “show up on time or don’t show up at all,” you will show up on time or else serve whatever punishment they set out for you. In my experience, being attentive of time means that you’re more likely to value time and what you do with it. It makes a person more efficient and even logical, and the idea of not teaching promptness v. tardiness to children is just as bad as if we never taught them how to use a computer.

I have nothing else to say. This time there is no logical philosophical or cultural conclusion. I just like complaining.