Tag Archives: teach English abroad

A Crab-Dancing Couple and 2 Suitcases from Hell

Land of the friendly, home of the saved

It’s been said that travel is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” (that’s Mark Twain, friends!).

I have found this to be true time and time again in my travels.

It only takes a step or two off the plane to see that many of our deeply entrenched cultural stereotypes are completely false, to the point where I don’t even know where they came from in the first place.

Stereotypes like…

  • “French people are rude” (I’ve yet to meet one who wasn’t classy, gracious, and suspiciously good-looking)
  • “The English are stuffy” (um, go to a bar in London. Any bar.)
  • “New Yorkers are mean” (like the cab driver who stopped in the middle of a traffic-choked intersection because I had dropped my glove?! And didn’t drive off until I had picked it up? Mean like that?)

It goes both ways, too. I take care to be less fat, dumb, monolingual and ignorant whenever I tell someone I’m American, but our reputation tends to precede us, making it difficult to pierce through people’s preconceived notions.

Rachel Maddow!” I sputter in protest whenever someone accuses us of being dumb. “Any celebrity!” I sputter when someone points out our rampant obesity.

But I digress. The point is that most cultures in the world don’t live up to their reputations – for better or worse.

Except the Taiwanese.

August, 2012

The steamy embrace of the sultry Taipei night envelops me as I emerge from the icy airport. It’s been an intense couple of days, with first-timer-in-Asia shock slapping me upside the head the second I land in Shanghai.

I’m standing near a friendly young couple who chats with me a bit in English and asks me where I’m headed.

I show them a piece of paper with my hostel’s name, and they smile and nod. Maybe they’re just being polite, but I assume the nodding means that my hostel does indeed exist, and that it is hand’s down the best hostel in all of Taipei. I feel relieved.

A bus pulls up. I automatically assume it must be mine, what with me standing right there and everything, and begin to lug my cumbersome suitcases towards the luggage compartment.

The couple moves like a crab, their bodies a single unit scuttling toward me. They shake their heads vigorously and block my way. This is not my bus.

They repeat this crab-dance for the next 4 buses that pull up, and I’m beginning to worry that maybe they didn’t understand where I’m going after all.

Just when I’m starting to feel hopelessly lost again, a fifth bus pulls up, and they gesture to me to get on.

I would’ve absolutely gotten on the wrong bus and been shuttled into the belly of a massive, sprawling foreign city had it not been for this couple.

As if that isn’t enough, they continue an abbreviated version of the crab dance on the bus itself, not letting me get off until they get off (thank God we happened to have the same stop!)

They then proceed to escort me 3 very counterintuitive blocks to my hostel, which is tucked away in some random alley south of the train station (how would I have found it without them? I am completely unprepared!).

The guy actually carries one of my suitcases while his tiny girlfriend offers moral support – she doesn’t seem in the slightest bit miffed that I have completely disrupted their evening with my foreignness.

When it is discovered that my hostel is on the third story of this back alley building, the gentleman crab carries my suitcases up the stairs for me.

It’s all I can do not to embrace him in gratitude, and since it’s late and I’ve traveled so far and I realize I would be (literally) lost without him, I’m unable to fight the urge and wrap him in a giant bear hug.

He blushes fiercely, terribly embarrassed, and I know in that moment not to do something like that again to someone I’ve just met (and certainly not in public!).

Swimming in Gratitude

The entirety of my brief time in Taipei was filled with occurrences equal to “the crab couple incident” in terms of generosity and kindness.

I’ll never forget…

  • the girl who approached me in the train station because I looked hopelessly lost, and made sure I got on the right train
  • the man who helped me lift my enormous suitcases onto said train and then proceeded to hold them up so they wouldn’t fall during the entire ride to Chang hua
  • the grandmother who sat down next to me in a busy mall food court and promptly divided her entire lunch in half to share with me (and then, when I tried to reciprocate, refused the offer with a kind smile)

I was swimming in gratitude for 72 hours straight as I slowly realized people weren’t putting on airs, or trying to get something from me, or playing out some sort of citywide “be nice to the tourists” campaign.

They really are that nice.

Kindness and generosity have been woven into the fabric of who they are as a people, making Taiwan hands-down one of the friendliest countries in the world.

I’ll never forget the crab couple, those slickly-dressed angels who seem to have been sent down from heaven just so I’d be a little less afraid. They ushered me into a sweltering city of warmth and made sure I wasn’t swallowed whole in the heat of newness.

Thank you, Taiwan, for your authenticity, your refreshing kindness, your unparalleled understanding of what it means to be human.

And to the crab couple, wherever you are, may your lives be filled with exponential kindnesses that dwarf those you showed me on that sultry August night.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. The French are not rude.

2. Brits are not stuffy.

3. Americans are not (that) dumb.

4. New Yorkers are not mean.

5. Yes - Taiwan really and truly is one of the friendliest countries in the world.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Teaching English in Taiwan

Tell me that doesn't look like what it obviously looks like.

I’m awoken from a deep sleep – the kind that only severe, flight-around-the-world jetlag can create.

A curious sound begins pulsating slowly, steadily. It is a dull thud wrapped inside a dream, a deep, melodic moaning that begins in my belly and rises steadily, gently into my waking consciousness.

One hundred monks have gathered in the temple next door, their sole task to rouse me from my sleep as if today, of all days, will be the most special of my life.

It is 5:13am, and the air in Taipei is no cooler at this hour than it’s been at the sweltering peak of high noon.

I lie on the hard hostel bed listening to the harmonic chanting, deep and rich and straining to reach God. To feel God. To become God.

I’m absolutely certain at the time that this will remain one of the most beautiful, sacred moments of my life.

The room where the monk magic happened.

The room where the monk magic happened.

So how, after being awoken to the glorious, mysterious, unexpected chanting of Buddhist monks outside my window, could the rest of my time in Taiwan be so friggin’ awful?

I had signed a year-long contract to teach English at a private primary school in Chang hua, a sleepy suburb in the central coast on the western side of the island, about 100 miles southwest of Taipei.

I have yet to meet anyone else – not a single living soul – who disliked visiting and/or teaching English in Taiwan.

My experience was a massive travel fail, and after having some time to consider why I hated it there so much, I’ve come up with these 5 questions I wish I would’ve asked myself before signing that contract.

1. Do I LOVE teaching English?

I boarded the plane to Taiwan with a TEFL certificate I’d earned online. I found the course really challenging, even frustrating, and I had to force myself to muscle through each module.

I had enjoyed my previous experience as a theatre teacher in Miami and working one-on-one with ESL students in Miami and Los Angeles. I adored working on pronunciation and intonation – a throw back to my years as a theatre baby.

But pronunciation is one very small part of teaching English, and I had failed to account for all the friggin’ grammar I’d be responsible for imparting to beginning Taiwanese students.

What’s more, I never would’ve taught English at home.

When the glitz and glamor of teaching English in Taiwan wore off, and it was really just teaching English, I realized what a big mistake I had made. A classroom is a classroom, and you’ll be in it, many hours per day, doing the job you’ve been hired to do.

Sweltering August sky in Taipei

Sweltering August sky in Taipei

For some reason, I hadn’t thought about that. I’d been swept up in the idea of teaching overseas – hell, in the idea of just going overseas.

I thought about the money I’d make, the people I’d meet, and all the wonderful places I’d get to go. Maybe I’d weekend in the Philippines! Spend spring break in the mountainous regions of Eastern Taiwan! Fly to Vietnam on a whim!

The first day I arrived at my school, all of the teachers and staff were gathered for a weekly meeting where they discussed problems with students, upcoming events, and so on.

The head of the school turned to me in the middle of the conversation and said “Rebekah, what ideas do you have about new curriculum for our 1st grade students?”

Luckily one of my co-teachers jumped in and defended me, saying “She just got here, give her a break!”

If she hadn’t, I might have actually uttered the words “I don’t have any ideas, and I hope nobody ever asks me that question again as long as I live.”

I was a square peg in a round hole. God bless all teachers everywhere, and God bless that moment for revealing to me that I did not, could not, under any circumstances, remain where I was.

2. Will I be happy working a full time job that just happens to be in another country?

I really, really thought that I’d work 40 hours a week and spend my weekends traveling. Unfortunately, the school had other ideas.

When I got there, and only after I got my teaching schedule, I realized that my 40+ hours were spread out between 8am and 9pm, 6-7 days per week.

Meaning I’d work Saturdays. And sometimes Sundays. And be accountable to someone 12-13 hours per day, nearly every day.

There were breaks in between classes, yes, but for me finishing a class at 4pm and having to return to teach again at 6pm felt like I was working the entire day, almost like an on-call nurse.

Why does everyone else seem to be enjoying their food?

Why does everyone else seem to be enjoying their food?

There wouldn’t be time to go anywhere on the weekends when weekends only lasted one day.

I was saturated with the school – the school was Taiwan, it was my entire experience of Taiwan besides a few brief but fascinating days in Taipei.

There wasn’t time to do anything else but work. When there was time, I was too exhausted to do anything about it.

I found myself thinking “What’s the point of being here when I’m stuck in a classroom all the time? I could be doing this at home and getting paid a lot more.”

Ok, the getting-paid-more part may or may not have been true, but it sure felt true at the time.

3. Have I ever been to the country I’ll be working in?

Not only had I never been to Taiwan before; I’d never been to Asia before. Nothing could have prepared me for the intense culture shock I experienced the second I landed in Shanghai.

My own ignorance astounded me during those first few days. Somehow, I really imagined that most everyone I encountered would speak at least some English (why did I think that?!).

I also had no idea that people were still doing things like working in rice fields and living off the land. I had expected some kind of modernized, Westernized society to have sprung up across Asia, making the entire continent feel like a Chinese restaurant in the middle of Chicago.

Here’s the most embarrassing part – I had no idea that menus and signs would be written entirely in Chinese characters. I had expected everything to be accompanied by pinyin, the romanized version of simplified Chinese. In my ignorance, I also thought most places would have things written in English.

Shandao Temple in Taipei

Shandao Temple in Taipei

I’ll never forget the first time I walked into a Shanghai restaurant and was met with a giant menu board written entirely in Chinese. In that moment, all of my months listening to Pimsleur Chinese CDs became obsolete.

I could say “Hello,” “thank you,” and “I speak Chinese very badly” about 7 different ways, but I couldn’t decipher a single character. I was regressed back to childhood – illiterate, confused, alone. It was an awful, terrifying feeling I’ll never forget.

4. Am I in a good place in my life, like, mentally?

I really, really wish I would’ve asked myself this question before teaching English in Taiwan!

I wasn’t going to Taiwan because I was passionate about teaching English, or because I was particularly interested in Taiwanese culture. I was going because I didn’t know what else to do with my life.

An unexpected career change had left me in limbo. I dreamed of studying French in Paris, or backpacking Europe, but I was under the impression that it’d be way too expensive.

So I decided to teach English in Taiwan in order to save money to go to Paris later. In this way, I totally set myself up for failure. I was in it for the money, and after taxes the money was pretty much crap anyway.

Not only was I confused and directionless (a common hazard of being 29 going on 30), I had the brilliant idea to get involved with someone back home right before I left.

This genius decision resulted in hour after hour of tearful phone calls as he begged me to come home and marry him and have babies and forget Taiwan once and for all.

Culture shock + lack of passion + cute guy proposing marriage = get me out of Taiwan, stat.

5. Do the positives of teaching English abroad outweigh the negatives?

Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t all bad.

The other teachers I worked with were absolutely wonderful human beings; well traveled, open minded, and incredibly patient with me as I wallowed in misery on their forest green couch for weeks on end.

They even let me live on that same couch after I’d decided to leave the school, and never once complained (at least not to my face) that I was being the biggest Debby Downer ever (which I absolutely was).

Offerings to Buddha in Taipei

Offerings to Buddha in Taipei

The kids were great as well. There was Hank, who at 4 years old had the scratchy, sultry voice of a has-been Las Vegas lounge singer. And little Cindy Lou, who fell into fits of delicious giggles every time I practiced my numbers in Chinese.

And there were great morning workouts with Zoe, a fellow teacher who’d just graduated military school and volunteered to be my personal trainer at 6am each day. Doing planks and pushups next to elderly Taiwanese practicing Tai Chi was always invigorating, even in the oppressive heat.

But I had zero desire to teach. I missed my boy back home. I couldn’t find anything I liked to eat after being served soup with what I swear-to-God was some animal’s penis floating in it. And I was completely closed off when it came to accepting cultural differences.

It was perfectly ok for the Chinese teachers to hit the kids, and to shame them in front of the others students if they misbehaved. (note – people in Taiwan often, if not always, referred to themselves as “Chinese,” which is why I just did too.)

One boy was made to wear lipstick in front of the class, while another was threatened with a diaper if he didn’t shape up (as in, he’d have to wear a diaper all day to show what a ‘baby’ he was being.)

Finally, a tale circulated about the worst punishment of all – being placed inside a large metal can or box that was 2-3 feet above the student’s head, making it impossible for them to climb out but easy for other students and teachers to peer in and taunt them.

Depending on the transgression, a kid could be imprisoned in the box-of-shame for hours on end.

Now it’s not my place to say whether all of this behavior is right or wrong. I’m not interested in making judgments, and I really think it’s impossible for a Western mind to understand the nuances of morality as experienced in another culture.

At the time, however, it was too much for me to bear. I couldn’t be a part of it.

The other teachers were fine with it because they knew something I didn’t – that there is relativism to right and wrong, and that the kids undergoing these punishments were no more traumatized than you were when you had your name written on the board in 4th grade. It’s simply how things are done in Taiwan, and everyone – teachers, students, parents – is perfectly fine with it.

My limited mind didn’t see it that way, though. I thought the Western teachers had turned into desensitized monsters. Pretty soon they’d be hitting the kids and putting them in diapers as well. I refused to put diapers on anyone over the age of 3, godammit!

So I left, like a chicken, my feathers between my legs.

Learning from my mistakes

For some reason, my second journey to Asia has been the incredible eye-opening experience I’d hoped the first time would be. Who knows why the second time’s the charm, but it is, and I’m grateful.

I’ve even eaten bone-in fish, fresh crab eggs, and shrimp with the eyeballs in-tact and enjoyed every bite of it!

If you’re thinking of teaching English in Taiwan, learn from my mistakes!

Before you sign your contract…..

  • Make sure you really, really like teaching English
  • Be prepared to work a full time job, and realize that working is going to be your main (perhaps your only) activity for the duration of your contract
  • Visit the country you’ll be teaching in before committing to a lengthy contract. Regardless of what recruiters will tell you, I think it’s almost always easier to find a job once you’re in-country anyway – you just have to time it right.
  • Bring a mind so open its prepared for anything.
  • Don’t expect it to be just like home, because it won’t be – that’s the greatest part about teaching English abroad, and it’s the part I completely missed. Of course the food is different, and the language is different, and the values are different, and the people are different. That’s why you’re teaching in another country in the first place, right?

Have you ever taught English abroad?

Did you experience major culture shock like me?

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

Before signing your contract to teach English abroad, ask yourself:

1. Do I LOVE teaching English? Like, reeeeeally love it?

2. Will I be happy working a full time job that just happens to be in another country?

3. Have I ever been to the country I’ll be working in and am I suuuure I want to live there for an entire year?

4. Am I mentally prepared for all of the stresses that come with moving to another country? Is this a good time in my life to make such a big change?

5. Do the positives of teaching English abroad outweigh the negatives?

If you answered YES to most of the above, then have at it!!!

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!