Taiwan: Touch Your Heart

Last week, Aaron and I took a trip into the mountains. There are plenty of great hiking trails and hot springs about a thirty minute scooter drive from Taichung, in a small mountain town called DaKeng. We scooted out there with a couple of other friends and were looking forward to going to a new hot spring, which featured fish that eat the dead skin off your feet. About halfway into the drive, we passed a dragon dance on the side of the road that looked as if it were coming to an end. The dancers were performing in front of a small temple, dressed in traditional outfits, and were bobbing and weaving to a thunderous beat from the sweaty men pounding on giant cymbals and drums. There were other men carrying shrines, which were bouncing up and down on their litters. The thirteen-foot-tall costumed gods were also in attendance, marching jauntily on the path in front of the temple. Behind the line of various musicians was the tell-tale stream of discarded firecracker papers and smoke. We drove slowly past the parade and pulled over to the side of the road. No one really wanted to stop for pictures and we were all eager to get to the hot spring, so we decided to keep driving. As we pulled away, I had a realization—the random series of post-graduate decisions I had made in life had eventually led me to the point where I would drive past a traditional Chinese DRAGON DANCE in front of a Buddhist temple and rather than pulling over and gazing at it goggle-eyed, I would instead think, ‘ho, hum, nothing I haven’t seen before ’ and drive away. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

I’ve been in Taiwan for…nine months now. Like most foreigners here, I felt like I “needed some time between undergrad and graduate school”, that “I wasn’t sure yet what career path I wanted to take yet” and “I just wanted to see some of the world before I made any big decisions.” These are the same reasons we hear from each other over and over. I’m here because “I’m trying to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life” and “I need to bank some cash in order to pay off those student loan debts first” or maybe because “I killed a man and there’s no extradition policy between Taiwan and the U.S.” I “teach English”, “am trying to learn Chinese”, “work at a bushiban/kindergarten/ESL program/tutoring company,” and “am waiting out the economic crisis back home.” This thin veil of uncertainty about the future seemingly hangs over all the foreigners here. I’m undecided on whether that is comforting, knowing that I have plenty of company in my pervading uncertainty (NEWS FLASH: IT DOESN’T END WHEN YOU GRADUATE), or if I feel like the special unique-y goodness of my personal journey is being robbed a little.

The crazed realizations of how unrecognizable my life has become still hit me. The island’s tourist motto, plastered all over t-shirts and buildings, is “Taiwan: Touch Your Heart.” Mostly I think of this slogan when I see things like the billboard down the street from my house which features a man with a chopstick stuck WAAYY up his nose. No words, just the chopstick, six feet tall, jammed up his left nostril and the senior-picture smile on his face. The slight aura of confusion that seems to accompany so many of my daily tasks is something I’m still getting used to. Existing in a culture where you are essentially deaf and mute is challenging. The sheer amount of concentration required to simply DRIVE to work is staggering (I earned my “Taiwan tattoos” in my scooter accident a couple of months ago). Switching from being a bartender to a kindergarten teacher has been…interesting. The culture shock and homesickness, all of which occurred at their regularly scheduled psychological-theorized times (three months, six months, etc…), are beginning to fade. I think. What will be left in their place?

Back in October, I went on a camping trip to the beautiful SunMoon Lake. The trip itself was of little event—it rained the entire weekend. On the last day, our small group was walking along the side of the highway which bordered the lake. We were all packed up and ready to take the bus back to Taichung and escape the constant drizzle. In front of us, a car came around the corner, weaving slightly. As it passed, three grown men leaned out the back windows. They were older and two of them had red, betel-nut stained teeth. As they pulled up level with us, the men shouted in heavy accents, “HELLO AMERICANS!!! WELCOME TO TAIWAN!!” before peeling out and continuing down the road. Touch your heart, indeed.


The First Drop in the Bucket

Exploration, expanding your horizons, experiencing all there is to learn from the world; this is what a good college education is all about. My name is Aaron Young and by the time I graduated from Drury University in May of 2008 I was ready to get that exploring thing underway. I had spent the last four years doing research and writing papers, it was finally time to get out in the world and see what there was to see. Now what was I going to do? This is, of course, the eternally illusive question which all college graduates face. With my crisp new English and History degrees under my arm and a fervent wish not to write any papers for at least a year, leaving the country seemed like the perfect option. I had been toying with the idea of teaching English in Asia for awhile and with the support and advice of a couple of my professors those vague hopes came that much closer to reality and I began to seriously consider Taiwan as a possible destination.

It was one summer and seven thousand miles after graduation that I finally arrived in Taipei, Taiwan. This blog will be a compilation of insights and observations about teaching English and living in Taiwan as experienced by both myself and my fellow English teacher and Drury graduated Kayla Phillips. Taiwan is a unique country with a wonderfully complex cultural background. There are countless sights to see and one will never regret making the effort to see them. It is, however, the people that really make a teacher’s story come to life. As teachers we have the opportunity to meet so many diverse and interesting people that it’s impossible to mention all of them.

As native speakers we use words already knowing what the desired outcome is and can form our sentences as we go. To a non-native speaker the meaning of every single word is important to consider in order to create a grammatically correct sentence while at the same time understanding exactly what they are going to say on a conversational level. This is a process which takes time to perfect and it is where a foreign language teacher’s job really begins. I teach mostly in the 8 to 13 year old age group so body language and, let’s face it, clowning around help me not only keep my student’s attention but also convey more complex grammatical concepts. The idea of prepositions can be a daunting one when seen from a strictly grammatical standpoint, especially with younger students. It is however one of the most amusing lessons to teach. The fact that the teacher can be ‘on’ or ‘under’ the chair provides almost unlimited laughs for my lower level classes.

One of the most interesting and frustrating problems I faced when I began teaching was just how much, as a native speaker, I didn’t think about how little I had to really think about using the English language. This may sound funny at first but we can all recognize it at a very basic level if we look at something we use in everyday speech, often without thinking. The use of idioms is an obvious case in which there is an understood base level of knowledge required to use them. Many idioms, on closer examination, are quite ridiculous; however, we accept them as givens in conversation. One of the hardest lessons I have taught involved explaining ‘It’s raining cats and dogs,’ to a group of eight and nine year olds. There is always something new to learn even as you teach.

I hope that the stories and insights that you find here are enjoyable and helpful, maybe they’ll even get you interested visiting Taiwan. What ever the case may be, keep an eye on us and see what happened as we try to explore and understand a small part of this much bigger story of postgraduate life in Taiwan.