Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Shake, rattle, and roll

Part of living in Taiwan is experiencing frequent earthquakes.

Often, they are so subtle you find yourself wondering is this an earthquake?

But sometimes, like today, they roar.

I first noticed something strange when I was walking past the second floor display board at school.

Student work is displayed behind glass cases, and they were all rattling.

Then, before I could truly comprehend what was happening, a roar filled the hallways.

It's hard to explain what a cement building sounds like when it's being rocked by a 6.1, shallow earthquake.

I heard more than felt this earthquake, oddly enough.

As soon as the rocking began, hundreds of students' footsteps thundered above in the third and fourth floor hallways.

We recently had an earthquake while school was in session and no one batted an eye or evacuated the building.

The suddenness of the students' evacuation, before an announcement to do so even sounded on the intercom, told me everything I needed to know: this was a big one.

Leave.

Now.

When we first started school in the fall, we all joked about how many earthquake drills we were forced to practice.

But then, upon learning about September 21, it made sense.

You see, 15 years ago a large and shallow earthquake struck the middle of the island. Thousands of people died when cement schools, temples, and apartments collapsed. Hundreds of thousands of people were very seriously injured.

Any time there is an earthquake, my first instinct is: leave.

Now.

Everything in Taiwan is made out of cement and the cracks running up and down the walls do little to comfort me regarding structural stability.

All it takes is one look at the pictures from all over Taiwan after the 1999 quake to understand:

Sunday, March 24, 2013

a weekend adventure to hong kong

Frenetic.

Hong Kong is frenetic.

Always.

Flashing neon lights.

Honking horns and stop-and-go traffic.

People bustling, talking, laughing, shouting.

Trains coming and going.

I had to make toilet paper ear plugs before I could get even a wink of sleep in this megacity.
Our hotel was in Kowloon and our room was on the second floor right in front of Nathan Street.

It took forever to doze off and then squeaking breaks & honking horns would startle me awake all.night.long.

So in the end we gave up on sleep and did our best to keep up with this never tiring city.

It was a bit hard for our more chilled-out, going Taiwanese selves.

But in the Hong Kong spirit, we sought out this city's iconic nigh time views instead of sleep:
We took the tram up to The Peak late one evening.

The train goes vertical up the mountain side and we had to hold on for dear life as it climbed and twisted its way up to this precarious view point.

The whole weekend was a foggy and soggy mess but I think the city looks just as it should with its bizarre skyscrapers poking up over the haze of clouds and mainland China's pollution.

We also wandered outside downtown to explore the islands we flew over on our way into Hong Kong.
We hopped a gondola to Lantu Island to see the mountains and one really big Buddha.

Hong Kong is not pretty, really.

And neither are its surrounding islands.

That's the price it pays for its relentless development and economic drive.

Or, maybe I've just seen so much of Asia that now I'm hard to impress.
But I guess one does not go to Hong Kong for beautiful nature.

One does go to Hong Kong for the glitz and dazzle and sparkle.

So we hoofed it to the Avenue of the Stars to be blown away by the city's skyline only to find the lights had been shut off for Earth Day.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of the earth, but when you're in Hong Kong and it's your last night there and you discover there will be no flashing & strobing lights, it's hard not to feel mad at the earth for being such a drama queen and inspiring cities all around the world to turn off their lights to make a point or something about how we all need to treat it a wee bit better.

All in all, what was great about Hong Kong had absolutely nothing to do with the city itself and more to do with the weekend away with friends and doing something a little bit different.

Hong Kong: check.


Friday, March 22, 2013

More


Newsflash: I hate flying.

In fact, I'm absolutely petrified of flying.

And before you start throwing all these statistics at me, trust me: I know them.

No one has researched airlines, aircraft safety, and plane crashes more than moi.

I understand that flying is the safest way to get from point A to point B.

It doesn't matter though.

Does.Not.Matter.

The mere prospect of having to step foot onto an aircraft is enough to get my heart fluttering.

In the days and weeks leading up to a trip involving an airplane (which let's be serious here, that's 95% of them), I seriously reconsider whether I'll go or not.

I tell myself that it's not worth the panic and terror and absolute horror I experience for the one hour or 13 hours that I'm in mid air.

To give you an idea of how severe the issue is for me, one time I turned to Sean and told him "we need to get off this plane right the #*$@ now" as it was taxiing down the runway for take off.

So how do I always end up on planes every few months, you may be wondering?

Becaue it is absolutely worth it-- worth the massive amounts of courage I have to muster up each and every time I get on a plane.

For two reasons really:

One, I dearly love to travel.

And two, what a sad way to live a life: always letting fear dictate what I can and cannot do.

So every single time, I put on my big girls pants and strap on that seat belt and endure one hour or 13 hours of pure terror so I can live the life I want for myself.

Because I want more than what my own limitations would settle for.

Monday, March 11, 2013

An honest (and biased) perspective

Disclaimer #1: This is more work related than travel related. Sorry to disappoint. However, I have many teacher friends who are considering teaching internationally and I want to address their questions and concerns.

Disclaimer #2: This post is totally biased. I taught for four years in the U.S. public school system and became more and more disillusioned as the days and months wore on. I will never work in the U.S. school system again (and yes, you can quote me on that) and I in no way, shape, or form have the desire to move back to the states. Read my words below with that rather large grain of salt.

Maybe you're tired of teaching classes of 40.

Maybe you're tired of unmotivated students.

Maybe you're tired of working for ineffectual (and  sometimes completely evil) principals.

Or maybe you just want an adventure.

Before you toss in your hat on the field of education altogether, try teaching abroad.

That's my advice to you.

There are two routes: one, teach EASL (English as a second language) or two, teach at an international school.

It is my (rather limited) opinion that EASL is geared more towards 22-year-olds fresh out of college trying to figure out what they hell to do with their lives while biding time taking up residences in Japan or South Korea. The pay is poor and housing even worse.

This post is geared more towards my past colleagues from Port Townsend or Seattle: certified teachers with many years of experience under their belts.

You, then, want to head for American, Australian, or British international schools.

And there are thousands.

First, you need to do your homework: you need to check out recruitment companies such as International School Services, Search Associates, or Bluewave. You need to compose a top notch professional portfolio and attend a job fair. Then you need to sell yourself hard. It's tough to land any job. What I did was perhaps the toughest: teacher with a non-teacher spouse.

But still try.

Some schools are for profit, others non-profit, and a handful like mine are actual local public schools.

It all matters.

For-profit schools often pay well but are image based. Did you attend an ivy league school? If so, these schools will love you. Non-profit and public schools pay less but are more interested in who you are and what you can bring to the table rather than what they can boast on paper about regarding your title (PhD anyone?) or your schooling (Columbia University anyone?).

I'd recommend non-profit or public schools.

But I've also only ever taught at one international school.

Maybe I got lucky. I really don't know.

Here is what I do know: teaching overseas is infinitely better than teaching in the states.

Here's why:

The kids. I have 60 of them. They turn in their work every time. Like, always. And it's high quality. Also, they understand respect and integrity. No, they're no robots. They just really are the nicest, most hard-working kids in the world. My class of 30 feels like five. I don't have a classroom management policy. I don't need one. I've been in Taiwan for eight months and so far have yet to encounter a true behavior problem in class. Seriously. On the first day of school, I knew I would never teach in the U.S. again. Why would I want to fight a class of nearly 40 everyday with kids who are, simply put, jerks? Albeit the majority are not but the minority who are often shade the entire teaching and learning experience.

The schedule. I teach 17 hours a week. Yep. That's 17 50-minute classes per week. I have two preps: 8th grade English and 8th grade world history. I only teach three classes on Monday, two on Tuesday and Friday, five on Wednesday, and four on Thursday. I often go out to lunch with Sean, hang out in the hot tub at the spa, or just relax at home during the day. I still get paid full time.

The commute.  It's 30 seconds.

The housing. It's free.

The pay. Okay, this is where many of you will look at the nifty school guide handed out on the first day of a job fair and begin crossing off schools because the pay is "too low." Hold up one second. I took a $15,000 pay cut when I moved to Taiwan, yet I've managed to save more than ever before. I mean, literally, three months ago my Taiwanese bank account was at $2000 USD after I transferred $7000 USD to my stateside account. Today my Taiwanese account is hovering near $10,000 USD and that's after a one-month luxurious vacation in Thailand and purchasing six airplane tickets for our spring and summer travels (and one rather expensive splurge on Anthropologie.com, for which I blame Jamie). Keep in mind I am the only worker in this household. That's saving without Sean working or contributing to the pot. I'm really not trying to boast here. I'm simply trying to prove my point. Factor in cost of living expenses and exchange rates. It's almost always a much, much better deal than what you're earning (and spending) in the states. Come on, do you want to know how much I pay in gas a month? No you don't, but I'm going to tell you anyways: $12USD. That's right.

The breaks. Many of my colleagues complain that we don't get breaks. It's a blatant lie. We just had one whole month off for Chinese New Year. It's just that we don't get spread out breaks or American holidays (that's right, this lady worked on Thanksgiving and Christmas). But, I have a four-day weekend coming up in April and I plan on getting out of the country and traveling. From Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Macau, Vietnam, South Korea, etc are less than a two-hour flight away. Breaks here mean adventures abroad.

The perks. Sean, an non-working "alien" in this country, gets free health care. Um, as a working resident of the states he did not qualify for this. I get a Chinese New Year bonus worth 1.5 times my monthly salary and a good teacher bonus worth the same. That's free money. Just cause Taiwan is awesome. Also, I qualified for welfare money after my dad passed worth roughly $5000 USD. Once again, I'm a foreigner in Taiwan yet the Taiwanese government awarded me this moola because its humane and awesome.

Society. There are no guns. Guess what? Everyone is safe here because the bad guys don't have guns either. Sean and I go for walks at 2am and never worry. Everyone is so nice to us. I have yet to see a single homeless person. Not one single homeless person in eight months. Wowza.

Staff meetings. Are cheerful and upbeat. One time, everyone started singing in Chinese and then all the Taiwanese teachers pulled out their tambourines and it was the coolest thing ever.

Drawbacks:
1. My school has no subs. My poor husband and friend have to sub for me.
2. The printer and copier always break.
3. I actually have to work an almost full day one day of the week.
4. I have a chalk board and not a white board.
5. There is no electronic attendance system.
6. Um... the school lunch is gross?

You can see I'm grasping at straws here.

Once again, understand I had a god awful experience teaching in the U.S. public school system. Know I'm pretty laid back. Listen when I tell you teaching abroad is the way to go.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sunday at the sea


Seafood.

Stray dogs.

Colorful kites.

Friendly locals.

Strait of Taiwan:

Water.

These are the sights of Nanliao.


This little sea village is a 40-minute scoot from downtown Hsinchu.

The route weaves through clogged city scapes, winds down abandoned country roads, whizzes past military bases and the most gigantic temples I've seen in this country, and heads west toward the Strait of Taiwan.

However, any tourist who went out of his or her way to visit Nanliao would feel duped.

And rightfully so.

It really, truly isn't anything extraordinary.

But for us, its slow paced, rough around the edges vibe is kinda why we adore it.

In Hinschu, it can be hard to find fresh air. I mean, sea swept (albeit from China) fresh air.

So once we parked our scooter along the water front, we took big old gulps of air.

And then we ate brick oven pizza, drank milk shakes, and thawed in the sun.

We walked around and received so many genuine nee hows from locals who made us feel a bit like celebrities while strolling around their worn and torn village.

We climbed a rickety ladder twenty feet high and dangled our legs off the side of a cement sea wall to take in the sights and sounds of Taiwan's deserted beach.

We talked about how some moments, quite like this one, make it feel unreal that we get to call this little country home.

So however dilapidated and insignificant this little place is, we always finds ourselves longing to go back.


Friday, March 1, 2013

the dumpling house of the gods

Friday night.

There's only one place to go: Din Tai Fung.

This place is a world-famous dumpling house that opened its first ever restaurant in Taiwan.

This is the place you go after you've gathered your friends and loosened your pants.

This is the place you go to feast:

Dumplings, every kind imaginable, steamed buns, sweet and sour soup, peanut noodles, pork fried rice, steamed cabbage, pickeled cucumbers, shrimp rolls.

You cannot go wrong with their menu, which serves 50+ handcrafted, fresh, made-to-perfection dishes.

Tonight, the four of us ordered 15 plates and shared them all.

Chops sticks and soup spoons and small bowls and teaming dishes passed around the table; for a while all was quiet except for the clanking of cultery and sighs of appreciation.

Steaming mugs of tea were refilled and room had to be made on the table to accomodate the stream of arriving dishes overflowing with flavor and color and texture.

Some of our favorites are:



Steamed + garlic cabbage. Drool.
Spicy pork + spinach dumpling.
Pork soup dumpling. How do they do it??
Shrimp + pork dumpling
And for those of you state side, there are more and more of these restaurants opening each year. I know there are two in Seattle alone, which means this summer we can enjoy home and still have a taste of Taiwan at the same time! Check out their website and see if there is one near you!

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