Thursday, November 26, 2015

gratitude for friends & fun

HAPPY THANKSGIVING
(at least to those of you living in Asia land like me)

So it's Thanksgiving and I worked all day.
You might think that sounds awful, but I have to admit that after four years, I am totally used to it. We very seriously considered skipping out on my school's potluck and getting pork buns instead-- because pork buns are what I am craving today, not turkey and mashed potatoes. But, in the end, we have decided not to be antisocial. I mean, we kinda like our friends so hanging out with them for a few hours doesn't sound all that bad, even if it does mean we have to miss out on seriously delicious pork buns.

Anyway, I am rambling. 

What I really want to say is this-- yes, I worked today. But I am so thankful for this situation, even if it means I work on Thanksgiving (and Christmas). 

To me, it's still totally worth it.

And today, I am grateful for:

The fact that my loans will be 100% paid off next month. Take that student loans. The fact that I have the best husband in the entire world (not that I am biased or anything). The fact that I really didn't mind spending today at work because I really, really like my students. The fact that it has finally cooled down so I can wear scarves and gloves!  The fact that I will get almost four full weeks off in about 7 weeks!

And the fact that days like the one shown in these pictures here are a regular part of my life.

Last weekend, four of us ladies putted off into the mountains on our scooters. It was an absurdly beautiful late November day. I am talking azure sky and warm sunshine. The route was long and beautiful. In fact, it reminded me of Hawaii. We ended up at a lavender farm. It was adorable and smelled great. Plus, I ate an ice cream cone that looked like a panda bear. 

What more could I possibly ask for? 

Here, part of my life may include working on American holidays, but it also includes amazing friends, wickedly fun adventures, a cute little scooter and so much happiness that I could just burst. 
And the mother :)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

beef noodle soup

Beef noodle soup is the thing to eat in Taiwan.

When I first arrived here 3 years ago, I choked down a few bites of my first bowl.
Literally.
Then, my taste buds were still cultivating their tolerance of anything with spice.
And my first bowl overwhelmed me.
When I say choked, I mean exactly that.
There were tears and everything.

Now?
I am a beef noodle soup pro.
And I eat it at least once a week!
I wax and wane between fat noodles or skinny noodles.
I even wax and wane between the clear broth and the dark broth.

But I definitely know my favorite place to get it.
It's the soup shop that has a line wrapped around the block to get in.

The other night, we both had a long day.
I had planned on making pesto for dinner, but we looked at each other and said:
Shall we?

Without even having to ask, we walked to the door, grabbed our helmets and headed out to get a bowl full of soupy bliss.

That is exactly how good Taiwanese beef noodle soup is.

Monday, November 23, 2015

things I learned in my 20s

The other night, at a gathering, someone new to our school probed about our ages. It is true that one aspect of expat life, especially as an international school teacher, is having to make new friends constantly. Many teachers come and go often.

And part of making friends is learning things about each other.
Things like age.

Most people giggled.
Some lied playfully.
And no one wanted to fess up to being 30+.

I am not even 30 yet, but I don't think I will have any problems kissing my 20s goodbye come next May.

My 20s were hard. I think everyone's 20s are hard. But I am very thankful for the past decade of my life, and all of the hard won lessons I learned. Like:

-----

ladies, be your own keeper
Yes, I am married.
Yes, I trust my husband through and through.
Yes, he could provide us a nice life with his income.
Yes, he even has that desire.

But you had better believe that I will be taking care of myself regardless.

I will earn my own money.
I will have my own bank account.
I will maintain myself, period.

It has a little to do with precaution--because, let's face it, life is unpredictable. Divorce and death are the two ways all marriages end. But mostly is has to do with pride, freedom and team work.

Some days, I do fantasize about taking advantage of the fact I married a more traditional man. One who is okay with supporting his little family of two.
But I earned an education for a reason, and it wasn't so a man, even one as wonderful as my man, could become my financial plan or keeper.

I feel empowered knowing that everything I have is because of my hard work. All the trips, all the hobbies, all the cute clothes, all the fun days. I like knowing I gave myself those things.

Income equals power, opportunity, and most important, income offers personal freedom to be in control of your life.

just because everyone else is doing something doesn't mean you should too
Credit card? No thanks.
Smartphone? I'll pass.
Kids? Not yet.
House? No way!
Car payment? I'd rather not.
Big screen TV? I think I can live without one.
Cable? Nah.
Partying? Not for me.
Quitting your job to "find yourself"? Um, no.
Money rich and time poor? YOLO.
Dye my gray hairs? Not gonna happen.

Life is one big example of opportunity cost. That means: what do I have to give up in order to get/achieve/do X. Blindly consuming greatly limits your future opportunities. I'm not saying you can't do or have all of these things, but I am strongly urging you to ask: what is the cost?

If you buy that shiny new car, what does that mean you cannot do next week, next month, next year? If you absolutely have to get the coolest new gadget each time something is released, what are you not allowing yourself to do or get in its place?

Just because everyone else is doing something doesn't mean you have to as well.

You can be your own person, and live a life that is true to your values.
But in order to do that, you have to stop and actually think about what you truly want rather than what you have been taught to want.

being rich in time far outweighs being rich in money
It is true that not having enough money leads to misery, but I also know quite a few people who have more than enough money and are still miserable. That's because it is true: money cannot buy happiness. Different things make people happy, but one commonality all of those things have is that they require time for engagement.

Lately, I have been grappling with the idea of moving onto a school where my husband and I could easily make $50,000 more yearly. But then we keep returning to the question: at what cost?

We have more than enough money. It's easy to get dollar sign eyes. But why pursue more? Here, we have ample money and time.

Time to make yummy dinners at home.
Time to run, rock climb and play tennis.
Time to take long walks before bed.
Time to go to bed early and sleep well.
Time to date each other, and not just on the weekends.
Time to watch movies and eat popcorn.
Time to read for fun.
Time to play music.
Time to sit up on the roof and talk.
Time to dream and scheme.

Time not to get lost in everything else.
Isn't that time kinda priceless?
And isn't $50,000 nothing in comparison? 

most people don't love their jobs, but that doesn't mean they lead unfulfilled lives 
A job is a job.
Work is work.

Happiness is an inside job, not something you earn or find at the office.
I am not saying people should do something they loathe for 30 years, but I do call b.s. on those people who are "living the dream".

Whoever said the point of life is to be happy and carefree everyday and all the time?

Whoever said that just because life is hard -or work is hard- you must be doing it wrong?

I think work is something normal people have to do because they are not independently wealthy. I think work is something normal people have to do so they can support their own existence. I think work is something normal people have to do because no one will do it for them. And I don't think we all have to love our work.

That doesn't mean we are robots.
That doesn't mean we live unfulfilled lives.

I think work is just part of the human experience.

marriage is not about you, so get over yourself
My husband is the greatest gift ever given to me.
As his wife, I have learned to make our marriage about him.
Likewise, he makes our marriage about me.

We've always got ourselves covered.
That's basic human nature.

What makes marriage special is deciding to well and truly have another person covered as well. Experiencing the complete love that comes from a dedicated and true marriage, well, in my opinion, there is just nothing sweeter or better on this great, big earth.

So this year, to cover him, I have been doing all of the grocery shopping and cooking and dish washing. He gets a pass while he struggles to find his feet at work. That is one way I can love him, and it is truly not that big of a sacrifice.

Yes, grocery shopping, cooking, and the dishes.
These things can be love.

your life can be turned upside down, or right side up, in the blink of an eye

I moved to Taiwan July 2012. I hugged my father at the airport, and squeezed him tight. I was sure the next time I would see him was the spring 2013, when he planned to visit. But, seemingly overnight, I was on an airplane heading home with only one thought racing through my mind: please let me get there in time.

In time to say goodbye.

And I did.
We had a few terrible and agonizing days together before he was gone.

That was December 2012.
It happened in the blink of an eye.

Even today, nearly three years later, my brain still wonders: how can it be real?
Sometimes I see my father.
On the street.
In a passing car.
At the track.

Life can change in an instant.
And that is scary.

My life still has yet to be turned right side up.
I'm not sure it ever will be.
Once you learn this lesson, I don't think you can ever move forward like you've unlearned it.
It hovers.

But that doesn't mean good things don't happen too.
Because they do.
Good things that can put your world back to sorts.

I guess what I learned is to expect them both, and to understand that I control neither.

adult friends will never be the same as childhood friends, but that doesn't make them any less special or rewarding
No one really seems to talk about how difficult it can be to make friends as an adult.
Or, maybe I'm just really awkward?
Either way, I know I discovered that friendships change a lot after college.

I've had friends dump me.
For real.
I got married young and started my career when I was 21; I think some friends just could not understand where I was at in life at the time.
I think now that we're almost 30, they get it.

I've also found myself befriending coworkers who were two decades older than me. But they always felt more like mentors than friends.

Now, I live in Taiwan.

I guess there is always some kind of barrier.

But there are all different kinds of friendships, and I have learned to find the magic in each person I have befriended here in Taiwan.
I am not perfect.
My friends are not perfect.
My life is not perfect.
Their lives are not perfect.
But I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet each one of them, and to better learn the magic of friendship. Because inviting another person into your life and allowing them to settle in does require a little bit of magic from time to time.

Through my adult friendships, I've learned I don't always have to be like my friends or agree with their choices in order to love them, enjoy their company or respect them as individuals.

take care of yourself
Cook your own food.
Plan your meals.
Buy real food -- buy ingredients.
Make food that takes time, tastes great and nourishes your body.
(And save the left overs for lunch.)

Get enough sleep.
Do what you need to do so you can truly rest.
I take scented bubble baths and read before bed.
I am happy to report that I go to bed by 10 every night.
I wake up at 6 feeling great.

Move your body.
Don't do it for any other reason that to take care of it.
Walk.
Run.
Swim.
Bike.
Do whatever feels good.

Be kind to yourself.
You do a lot.
You're kind of amazing.
Treat yourself like it!

life is not one big chore, so don't treat it like one
It's so easy to grumble about this or that, but perspective can change everything. Tonight, at 9pm, I spent 30 minutes preparing my homemade chicken & rice soup for tomorrow night. It needs to sit in the crock pot all day, so I had to have it ready to take out of the fridge tomorrow morning before I leave for work.

I have learned to love acts like this.
I love them because I am seeing to the details of my life.
I don't want to eat crap for dinner, and I don't want to feed my little family crap for dinner.
I want to look forward to eating something that I made that will be healthy and delicious.

While making dinner was a chore, I didn't look at it like one so it didn't feel like one.
This can extend to so many other things too.
Like doing the laundry.
Or going grocery shopping.
Or cleaning the bathtub.

Looking at every day as a never ending to-do list seems like a pretty poor way to live this one and only life of yours. As I mentioned earlier, happiness is an inside job.

The attitude you take towards even things as mundane as making dinner can go a long way. 

-----

So while I am not quite kissing my 20s goodbye yet, I certainly had the opportunity to think back over the past decade of my life and feel relieved to have made it through those years and still be someone I can like and respect. I still have a lot of growing to do, but life has a way of taking care of that for all of us.



Wednesday, November 11, 2015

isolation, part of the expat experience

Sometimes it's easy to forget that I live in Taiwan; life is life, after all. Even though I am an ocean away from home, my life still has all the same ingredients: alarm clock, breakfast, work, lunch, so many students, home, run, husband, dinner, sleep. 

Lather, rinse, repeat.

There are only a handful of times that I really feel that ocean and its effects, like when I desperately want someone I can relate to and who can relate to me.

Sometimes, life as an expat is pretty isolating.

Yes-- I have my wonderful husband who is also my best friend. Yes-- we have been glued at the hips since I was 18 years old. No-- I wouldn't have it any other way.

But he's a dude.
And what I long for are girl friends.

That's not to say that I don't have girl friends here in Taiwan, because I do.
Ones that I love and cherish a lot.

But none of them are in my shoes.
And that's what I want.
I want someone I can level with.
Someone who will get it.
Someone who I can learn from.

And again-- I don't mean to say that I can't do those things with my ladies, because I can.

But not with everything.
And not with the things that matter most to me here and now in this moment I am living in.

I have never been a collector of friends.
It takes a lot for me to invest in a person.
I think this is for a few reasons; I have been burned in the past, and I am naturally a little bit of a loner.

Or maybe being a loner is how middle school teachers survive?
I don't know.

I don't want to give the impression that I don't have friends here in Taiwan or in America, because I do. But what I am saying is that I don't make friends very easily. I want quality over quantity. I want something lasting. I want real.

And here, my options are very, very, very limited.
I realized this over summer.
I am not a whiner or a victim; anyone who knows me at all knows that if I have my heart set on something, then watch out!

And I wanted a girl friend to talk to.
In real time.
In real life.
Face to face.
Here in Taiwan.

So I asked my friend: how do you make friends in Taiwan?
And she said: meet people.
And I asked: well, how?
And she said: approach them.
And then I said: and impress them with my six Chinese words, which are hello, one hundred, foreigner, how much, thank you and excuse me?

And then she laughed and said it probably helped that she could speak Chinese since her parents were born in Taiwan.

And I agreed.
I'm sure it's a lot easier for her to make friends here.

But then that got me thinking.
People are people, no matter where you go.
But the Taiwanese do life very differently than Americans.
And I am still the American me I was before coming here.

I want western friends.
I want no language barrier.
I want no cultural barriers.

But you can't order up friends like you would a coffee.
I would like a tall non-fat double shot mocha.
I would like a working married laid back adventurous expat girl friend please. 
Yeah, it doesn't work like that.

And I know it does't work like that in America either.
But there are so many opportunities to meet and make friends at home.
Or at least strike up a conversation that can endure more than six words.

Here?
Not so much.
It is a really big deal to see a westerner we don't know around town.

Guys, that can be lonely.

The other day, I was talking to my dear friend about work-life balance. On the inside, a little voice said: What are you doing? This friend has not had a job in more than 3 years! She doesn't want to hear it, but also, you don't want to give this to her. What you want is someone who gets this. Here. Now. You want a career woman to help you sort out what exactly it means to work to live and not live to work, but still take pride in your job and do a good job. Where is that woman? 

Another time, I was stressing to another dear friend about trying to smooth out this transition to a double income household in regards to my marriage, and once again, that voice sounded: She isn't married. She doesn't have a husband. She listens and loves me, but I want someone who understands these feelings I am feeling. I want someone who cherishes their marriage more than anything, and someone who can help me move through this time when we are too tired and busy to make our relationship the No. 1 priority. Where is that woman?

I'm not saying that the perfect friend exists for every scenario. But as I contemplate this long term expat life, I wonder: who will be my mommy friend when we have a kid? Who will be my working mom friend when that stage of life comes?

These things matter to me.
And I think they probably matter to a lot of expats.

Abroad, especially as a westerner in Asia, isolation is a very real part of life. Most of the time I am okay with that. But sometimes you want to be heard and understood.

Sometimes you want someone who gets you and gets it-- whatever it may be for you.

I think those someones are a lot harder to find abroad. And, sometimes, maybe even impossible.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

teaching internationally: what we make and what we spend

NOTE: I updated this post in 2017 to reflect our annual raises and changes in currency exchange rates; also, our cost of living and savings potential have changed due to baby's arrival in May 2017.

-----

I know a lot of people think it is unseemly to talk about money and income-- especially using concrete numbers-- but I wish other international teachers would. When we were job hunting, we had no idea how to interpret the data schools were giving us. We also had no idea what was "normal" or the kinds of questions we should ask.

Since my blog is starting to become more and more popular with people looking to teach abroad, I am going to ignore the hush hush policy so many of us employ in regards to pay talk, and I will let it all hang out in order to highlight important information.

ANNUAL PAY: 
3,000,000 New Taiwanese Dollars


Let's talk about this. This is what we make annually as a married teaching couple, and yes, we are paid in the local currency, and you know what-- so are the teachers who work at the richest and "top" international school in the country. Obviously, this can have its flaws. For example, when I first moved here and today, the exchange rate was 30 NTD to 1 USD. In 2015, it was 33. In 2013, it was 29. Why does this matter? Here's why:

Today's exchange rate means we make roughly: $100,000 USD yearly 
2012's exchange rate would mean we make: $104,000 USD yearly
2015's exchange rate would mean we make: $91,000 USD yearly

Ouch. Quite a difference exists between those three numbers. You need to know if you will be paid in local currency, which is actually really common, and you need to keep your eye on how it fluctuates. At the end of the day, though, this is 100% out of your control and a risk you will have to accept.

However, you absolutely control one element of this: deciding when to transfer money. Now that we have paid off our debt, we never have to transfer money unless we want to, or unless we are going to be buying airfare for a trip or booking hotel accommodations. We check the exchange rate daily and wait until it is in our favor to transfer money. The only catch? We can only transfer $10,000 USD a day. 

We consider ourselves exceptionally lucky because we can save a gigantic portion of our salaries.


COST OF LIVING BREAKDOWN:
$400 USD per Month


Our necessities cost us about $400 each month. Here is a breakdown of our monthly averages for the essentials, the things that we have to pay for:

RENT: $0 monthly
GROCERIES: $200 monthly
ELECTRICITY: $150 monthly
WATER: $5 monthly
GAS (for apartment): $25 monthly
GAS (for two scooters): $25 monthly
Internet: $10 monthly

Please note the following:
  • We get free housing, and we are very pleased with it. It's a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in a nice neighborhood by a lake. The school pays for our rent so we never see a bill or have to think about rent. Our rent would likely cost us $500 a month, so that is another $6,000 USD to add to our school's benefits package.
  • Utilities in Taiwan are exceptionally cheap; our water bill is often $9 USD.
  • Garbage services are free island wide.
  • Our scooter insurance is a minimal fee paid once a year. 
  • Taiwan has socialized healthcare, and we each pay about $50 USD per month out of our paychecks to receive good healthcare. Our total out of pocket expense when visiting the doctor or dentist is usually about $5 USD. 
  • We do pay taxes, but Taiwanese taxes. Annually, we lose $2,500 USD between the two of us. We do file U.S. taxes, but we file an exemption. As long as we individually earn less than $90,000 USD annually, we do not have to pay U.S. taxes. 
  • We get free airfare every summer to visit home. Our school pays for a direct flight from Taipei to Seattle on the airline of our choosing, EVA Air. That is another $2,500 USD we can add to our school's benefit package.
  • We get nearly $2,000 USD per person per year for professional development; we can use this money to pay for credits towards Sean's master degree or my clock hours. 
  • We get a $500 shipping allowance at the beginning and end of our contract. This allowance is used for extra luggage at the airport or boxes sent through the post. 
  • We get paid 12 times a year, even during the 3 months we have off.
  • All said, in addition to our salaries, our school provides us with an additional $13,000 USD in benefits between rent, airfare, shipping, and professional development funds. 
You may be looking at this list thinking: what about other bills? We don't have them. We don't have cell phones, so we don't have to pay for a plan. We don't have TV, so we don't have to pay for that either. We don't have credit cards, so there is no monthly payoff we need to make. We own literally everything we have, scooters included. Literally, if we wanted, we could get by spending only $400 USD a month, which is how we paid off over $50,000 of student loans in the span on one year.

What does all of this information mean, month-to-month and long term?

It means we essentially have $85,000 - $90,000 USD left over as true disposable income (depending, of course, on the exchange rate at the time we transfer money). 

And therein lies the rub for international teachers: you cannot just look at the salary a school offers and then say yes or no to a job offer. You have to factor in other things, like perks and cost of living. It takes a lot of research on your end, but that research is pivotal. Looking at the salary offered in Zurich, Switzerland would make you think you were going to be rolling around in a pile of money. However, after factoring in the lack of perks like free airfare or housing coupled with a high cost of living, you may be lucky to break even. I know a person who worked at one of the top international schools in Paris, and then broke contract and left because she went into debt living there.

My salary is roughly $55,000. It's less than what I was making in America. It's less than plenty of other international schools or even other professions. While it's easy to say nah, I can do better than that and then accept a position in Japan or Holland that pays $60,000 USD, you would actually be in a far better situation in Taiwan with my salary, so tread carefully and crunch your numbers.

Obviously, my numbers are only valid for me. I work at a mid-level school in Taiwan. Some schools pay less, some pay more. Some won't provide free housing. Some won't provide free airfare. What is true for one school in Taiwan is not true for all schools in Taiwan. However, I think if you recruit through International School Services or Search Associates, you could easily find a situation that is very similar to ours, or you could move to Saudi Arabia and literally make $90,000 USD tax free with every perk imaginable (so that's $180,000 per couple), but then you'd have to live in Saudi Arabia, but I guess we are all in it for different reasons. 

A FINAL NOTE
I am not a hermit. I like to eat out, go to the movies, and travel. I am not suggesting to anyone that we will definitely save between $85,000 - $90,000 USD each year, but I am saying that we could. It is a choice that we will have, and we just work at a mid-level school. Imagine those married teaching couples working at top schools.

Is that a worthwhile trade-- leaving home to become more financially secure than you could have ever imagined?

Maybe. Maybe not.

That is something you have to decide for yourself.

However, for someone like me who enjoys the adventure of expatriate life, the financial freedom I have found since moving to Taiwan is certainly a boon I am grateful for everyday, especially now that we are a double income household, which is exactly why many people use the phrase "golden handcuffs" when talking about international teaching. In some ways, you do feel chained abroad. Why on earth would you go back to America with its overcrowded classrooms and negative culture surrounding education, only to make the same salary but have so much less to show for your hard work??

SUGGESTED QUESTIONS TO ASK POTENTIAL EMPLOYERS
As recruiting season is upon us, here are some questions I think you should ask before signing a contract with any international school:
1. In which currency will I be paid? 
2. Is housing provided? 
3. If not, is a stipend provided and will that stipend cover all of my rent? 
4. Will I pay taxes, and if so, at what percent?
5. What other deductions will come out of my paycheck?
6. Will I pay my own utilities? 
7. Will healthcare be provided? 
8. What kind of retirement, if any, is provided?
9. What banking options are available?
10. Do you provide airfare/shipping allowances?
11. Are there bonuses?
12. Can I see a pay scale and a pay stub for someone with my education and experience?

And the most important question to ask:
Can I speak with someone currently at your school to better understand the cost of living? 

This thread might also be a good resource, but I have learned to take everything with a grain of salt. People are looking for different things in schools and experiences, and it can be hard to read in between the lines. I know a couple moving onto their 5th international school in the span of one decade. To me, that sounds exhausting.

But it is absolutely true that you never really know what you are getting yourself into until you arrive. 

That too is a risk international teachers have to accept.



Sunday, November 1, 2015

the joy of being lost

One of my favorite things to do is get lost.

Sometimes, I have this urge to go outside and walk.

And walk.
And walk.
And walk.
And walk.
And walk.
Just to see what's out there; just to know something I didn't know before.
Not to run from something or to something else.
For me, wandering is when I feel most alive.
It's when I feel most connected to this great, big world full of so many places and people and things.

But I find that it is hard to find people who also enjoy this sensation. The majority of people I know, as a matter of fact, dread being lost. In fact, they actively avoid it at all costs. And sometimes, I have a hard time understanding their need to always be in control or in the know or on track and according to plan.

I think this, at the end of the day, is why I never got a plan for that smartphone I bought.
Lostness is just too vital to the health of my soul.
I loathe the idea of having a map at my fingertips.
The very thought repulses my gypsy spirit.

I think this is one reason why I cherish my husband so much. That man will go anywhere with me. He doesn't need a phone. He doesn't need a map. He doesn't need a reason or a plan. His soul understands my soul, and together our souls wanderlust.
I think this is why the world calls out to me. It's not for the photos I can take or the collection of stamps in my passport or for the stories I can write on this blog. It's not about a vacation or a beach or the mountains or souvenirs or escapism.

It's because I feel most alive when I am lost and getting loster.

I have not found any better way to experience this world than to run head on into it with no expectations or plans.

And this is the kind of place I discover on my quest to get lost and have an adventure.

At the top of a mountain in Taiwan, there is this place hidden in the fog & rain. It is full of temples and dragons. It's bizarre and real and wonderful, and even if it makes no sense to anyone else, I feel more alive for having been there.



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