Sunday, October 26, 2014

to stay or go

Lately, we have been having some tough conversations.
They revolve around one major question.

Is it time to go?

We are on year three in Taiwan.
Originally, we had planned for two.
But sometimes, life has its way with you.

We love Taiwan. We love our friends in Taiwan. We love our life in Taiwan.
We love our scooters and we love the soup + dumpling stall we frequent regularly and we love the lake we walk around nightly and we love the track we run around daily and we love.... nearly all of it.

But this was never meant to be long term or permanent.
This was always supposed to be our first step, a literal foot-in-the-door of international teaching.
There is a great, big world out there and the plan was that by now we would be on country number two, school number two.

From the moment I stepped off the plane at Taoyuan Airport in Taipei, I was immensely grateful for the opportunity to live in Taiwan.
You could even say I was and still am completely smitten.
Even so, I was shocked when after having some of these tough conversations, profound heartache washed over me at the very thought of leaving this place.

During our years here, Taiwan has managed to become so much more to me than just a host country.
And I know that when we leave here, whether it be next year or in two, I will leave a significant piece of myself behind.

And when I try to think of what I would miss the most whenever we do decide to leave, a billion things came to mind.

Taiwan is probably the sweetest place we will ever live, ever.
I mean, just the other day, stopped at a red light on our scooters in the middle of a deluge, two elderly men rolled up next to us and were so happy to hear all about our experience in Taiwan. They spoke nearly perfect English and were so happy to hear we adored their country. They checked in with us to make sure we had done the essentials-- Din Tai Fung dumplings, Taipei, and Taroko Gorge. This has been our experience time and time again.

We will be hard pressed to find another country as welcoming as Taiwan to call home.

But that doesn't mean it isn't time to wonder: where to next?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

stitch fix: a lifesaver, maybe

Like any woman, I have struggled with periods of insecurity regarding my body. But I have come to a point in my life where I can accept myself and not think of my body as something to fix or hide or shame. 
Gasp, I even think I am beautiful.
But that doesn't mean that dressing my uber petite, size 12 body doesn't frustrate me. 
It really, really does.
Especially in Taiwan, where nearly every single woman is a size 0 and clothing simply does not exist for women who look like me, except for at Big Girl stores, which I refuse to frequent as I find them ostracizing and demeaning. 
So for the last three years, I have had to buy every single stitch of clothing online and have it shipped to Taiwan.
We can all understand the perils of that: how am I supposed to know what will fit + look good?
Some stuff works great, but a lot (too much, actually) of the stuff I buy sits in my closet because it's too tight, too loose, too short, too long, etc.

Then, a friend mentioned Stitch Fix and I had an ah-ha moment.
Stitch Fix is an online shopping service for women. 
Customers fill out a detailed style survey and order a fix, or shipment. Within that shipment are five items personally chosen for you by a stylist according to your fashion survey, body type, and any other additional information you provide your stylist with such as a Pinterest fashion board
What I love about this is that the responsibility to get things right is on someone else.
I gave my stylist my size in measurements, so chances are my skirts + dresses + shirts will fit a lot better than when I order a size 12 and hope all size 12s are magically the same. 
I told my stylist that I hate baggy, shapeless tops, so chances are I won't get one by accident because I had no idea the top was pinned on the model in the picture. 
I told my stylist that I have a short torso and really rounded hips, so chances are she'll think twice about what does and does not make it into my box. 
Truth: I want clothes that look awesome on my body.
Who doesn't?

And since I cannot go to a mall in order to make that happen, I am excited that I now have a possible option for getting the most possible out of my extreme online shopping (the last thing I want to do is ship something from Taiwan back to the US). 
I cannot wait to tell you if Stitch Fix is a hit or not, but I am crossing my fingers that is it! My first fix should arrive sometime in December and I will definitely keep you posted! 

If interested, check out Stitch Fix for yourself! 

This post is part of the Sunday Traveler link up!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

the reality of being a working expat

Today, during some down time at school, a friend and I were talking about life as a working expat.
And we both kinda felt like some things needed to be said.
A lot of people imagine that we are off on this grand adventure and every day is exciting and like a vacation because we're in Taiwan rather than America.
And there is no doubt that we certainly are on an epic adventure, some days.

But honestly, Monday through Friday, my life could take place in any country or in any city around the world.
It matters not one lick that it happens in Taiwan.
My life as a working expat is remarkably like my life was as a worker in America.
I wake up at 6am, eat breakfast + get dressed, go to work from 7:20 until 4:10, go home + sit on the couch for a bit to recover (teaching can be very exhausting), then make dinner, do the dishes, go for a jog and then maybe grade or watch a movie, and then collapse into bed and do it all again the next day.

That sounds pretty exotic, right?
But that's the truth.

I know some non-working expats both in real life and from the blogging world who have a lot more freedom to fill their day however they please and maybe they do feel like they are on a grand adventure most of the time.

But that is not my reality.
Part of our decision to move to Taiwan was the belief that it would be a wise economic investment. And it has been. But that implies that I kinda, sorta have to go to this thing called work, which kinda, sorta eats up most of my time and therefore a lot of my life as well.
Some days, I am fine with that.
Other days, I struggle with the feeling that I am missing out on something because I have to carefully plan and schedule my adventures in Taiwan in order to make them happen at all.
Otherwise, I could easily live and work here and miss out on most of it.

I would love it if every day I could wake up whenever I wanted and do whatever I wanted.
Then, I imagine I would have done a lot more on my Taiwan To Do List.
But for me, as I think is the case for many working expats, I have to consider it good enough to get through the workweek and then, maybe, have some adventures over the weekend, you know, in between the grocery shopping and Skype chats with family and loads of laundry and spending time with friends, to go experience Taiwan.
Some days and weekends, the best that I can do to appreciate + experience my host country is admire the little ornate temple crammed in between two ugly apartment buildings near where I live.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

sharing the world

For me, my job is more than just a job.
Teaching 8th grade humanities is more than just instruction and grading and lesson planning.
It's about my kids and their futures.
And I am not talking about their careers.
They can figure that out themselves.
I am talking about the kind of people they choose to become.
I am talking about instilling in them the value of a dream and hard work and resilience and compassion and tolerance and fearlessness.
I am talking about helping them realize the world is a great, big place and they have the power to choose their place and role in it.

Travel, real exposure to the world, has changed me in ways I cannot begin to articulate.
I know it has made me a better human being.
I know it has enriched my life in numerous ways.
I know that is has made me the author of my own life, allowing me to choose where and how I spend my life, rather than simply accepting that because I was born an American my life was meant to be lived in America.

I have always dreamed of sharing my passion for travel with my students.
And now it's really happening.
It's no longer a dream, no longer a maybe.
Permission slips have been signed, passport photo pages have been photocopied and collected, and a travel agent will be contacted soon to purchase our airfare.
I, along with my husband and two great friends, will be taking nine of my students from last year, you know those kids I took to a Taiwanese amusement park (and those worries seem minor now), to Eastern Europe for two weeks this coming up summer.

What will we get up to in Eastern Europe?

We will fly from Taipei to Budapest and explore this breathtaking city. We could wander around ancient streets, poke into a castle and even soak in a thermal bath.
We will hop on an overnight train to Sighisoara, Romania and get off the beaten path with a local guide to explore villages in the Romanian countryside and get a glimpse into the daily life of the villagers. 
We will ride the rails to medieval Brasov and tour the Black Church. In town, the cafes are supposed to be legendary {woohoo!!}, the streets picturesque and the town vibrant and friendly.
We will hop another train to Bucharest with a stop at Dracula's Castle along the way! While on the road, we will all read Dracula together and get to see with our own eyes the setting of the novel. As a language arts teacher, no classroom-based lesson plan can compare to that!
Then, we will cross into Bulgaria and explore one of the oldest cities in the world, Veliko Tarnovo. We will poke around museums and hike into the hillside to get a panorama of the beautiful city. 
Then we will head south to Sofia and visit some street markets and sample the city's cuisine!
Next, we will head to Plovdiv to explore ancient Roman ruins.
And last, what I am most excited for, we will hop an overnight train and wake up in Istanbul, Turkey where we will spend a few days exploring! I plan to stuff myself with delicious food each and every day!
Doesn't this trip sound like such a dream?
I know, that's the whole point.
On the student application for the trip, they had to express why they want to spend two weeks with their teachers and fellow classmates and what they hope to get from their experience.
All of them mentioned a craving for independence, which I get.
All of them mentioned a craving for understanding their world and fellow human beings better.
Some of them even mentioned that they just really wanted to do something they had never done before and see something they had never seen before and experience the challenge of such an undertaking.
And I so get that too.

{Some of them even said they just kinda want to spend some time with their crazy teacher.}

I cannot wait to board a plane with these kids and let Eastern Europe completely rock their worlds!
I hope this experience creates in them an insatiable curiosity about the world.
I hope it creates the desire to experience and see even more of it!

I hope this is one of many things that help them become the person they would like to be.
I know that is what travel has done for me.

This post is part of the Sunday Traveler link up. Check out the link up for more great travel writing + photography. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

how to be an awkward but not rude travel photographer

I live in a truly spectacular place.
So I like to get out and experience it and explore it.
I am also really into photography and have a crush on my Canon.
So I want to capture these experiences and explorations in photographs too.
But sometimes it's hard to tell where the line is between what is just awkward and what is rude in regards to taking pictures while traveling.
Because locals stare at me all the time, regardless of whether I am scooting to work in the morning or jogging down the street or grocery shopping or ordering a Starbucks coffee or eating out at a restaurant or crouched down taking a picture of something.
My goal as a photographer is to make sure the stares are simple hey-there-is-a-foreigner stares and not what-a-jerk stares.
For example, my friend and I went on a little temple-hopping, photo taking adventure last week.
We drove our scooters around downtown Hsinchu and poked around three different temples, one small, one big yet abandoned and one huge + highly populated. 
And we both wondered: how do we do this the right way?
This being taking pictures of the temples we explored. 
Taiwan is unlike Thailand or Indonesia concerning temple etiquette or even tourism.
No signs outside of the entrances state the rules for how to properly behave in a temple.
Further, I am pretty sure we are some of the only westerners in Hsinchu so locals are not accustomed to foreigners coming around to snap photos. 
I've searched the web for Taiwan temple etiquette but nothing really useful or definitive pops up.
So rather than feel like I cannot proceed with my photographic explorations of something as iconic as Taiwan's temples, I simply proceed with my common sense.
This is how I stay in the realm of awkward-foreign-girl-taking-pictures rather than rude-American-girl-taking-pictures.

ask for permission
I don't speak Mandarin beyond a few survival phrases, none of which have to do with taking pictures. But I don't actually need any words to ask locals for permission. Before I take photos of certain things, for example a night market stall or people, I make eye contact and motion to my camera. Every single time so far, I get an overwhelming positive response. Most people seem ecstatic that I would find their fruit stall or even themselves photo worthy. This simple gesture lets people know I actually care about their feelings and allows me to snap as many pictures as I want without feeling awkward or guilty. Last week, if someone was at the temple we wanted to enter, we simply asked for permission before just walking inside and taking pictures. 
notice what locals are doing and respect it
This is pretty much how I get by day to day for far more than just figuring out how to be respectful while taking pictures. This is how I learned the rules of the road while driving my scooter and this is how I learned how to get business done in the post office. This is very useful when trying to navigate what is appropriate and inappropriate in regards to taking photos. After living in Taiwan for more than two years, I know that a proper dress code for anything does not exist so I don't cover up to visit a temple like I would in Thailand or Indonesia. Women here visit temples wearing shorts that are reflective of my underwear, just to give you an idea. Further, I pay attention to rooms that people don't go in at a temple so I don't either. If I notice they don't touch something, then I don't either. If something is obviously revered, I may just leave it alone. The simple action of paying attention to local behavior allows me to feel confident that I am not doing anything offensive while snapping photos.
put yourself in their shoes
I don't feel bad going into a temple and taking photos despite the fact they are well used by locals. Do I feel a little awkward? Sure. But that's not enough to keep me away. Taiwanese temples are breathtakingly beautiful and an iconic symbol of this country I call home. That said, I do not take pictures of people actively practicing their religion. In my opinion, certain things are meant to feel private. If I was a National Geographic photographer writing an article on Buddhism, that would be different. But I'm not. I am just me: a curious person. So when deciding whether its appropriate to snap a picture, I always ask myself if I would want someone taking a picture of me if the situation was reversed. If I don't think I would want that, then I don't take the picture. It's as simple as that. 
remember that not every picture has to be an overt act
I have taken plenty of daily life photos in which the subjects have no idea I am taking their photo. Sometimes this is easier said than done but it is one way to remove worry from your end of the situation. It also means you don't have to ask for permission or jump through any hoops before taking out your camera. I usually do this by shooting from my hip. I don't bring my camera to eye level. I do this a lot at markets and I usually love the quality image I get because it's a little crazy just like the scene I am capturing. 
Small, simple steps can ensure that locals feel respected and valued while at the same time allowing you the opportunity to snap away. 

What about you? Do you have any good tips for being a respectful (and maybe a little awkward) travel photographer??

This post is part of the Sunday Traveler and Travel Tuesday link up. Check out both for more fabulous travel writing + photography! 

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