Teaching in Taiwan is something I often get asked about by people who are thinking about making the move and starting a new career on the island. What I always emphasise is that everyone’s experience of teaching in Taiwan is different – variables such as school and branch, workload, location, personality and whether you’re going solo or as a couple can be make or break. I’m interviewing different teachers in Taiwan to find out their thoughts on island life, ESL teaching and travelling. This interview is part of the Teaching in Taiwan series.
Luke and I had already been teaching at the language school in LuoDong for three months when Liezl turned up. The Taiwanese staff were incredulous to hear that there was now going to be a third vegetarian teaching at our branch. I just remember being so excited to meet Liezl. We quickly became good friends, ate out at veggie places together, bought each other green juices from the local health store and went river tracing and hiking on the weekends. I loved her hippie pants, her determination and passion, and how she was always learning.
Hey Liezl, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m from sunny South Africa, Cape Town to be exact. I am a wanderer of this beautiful planet, and have been travelling for 3 years. I spent 18 months of that time living and teaching in Taiwan. I love nature and am keen to live as pure as possible. I’m a vegetarian and practise yoga. It’s important to me to have adventure and put myself in situations that test me.
Where in Taiwan did you live?
I lived in Luodong, the same town as Charlie and Luke. It’s pretty remote and there’s nothing much happening in terms of nightlife but the nature around there is amazing and close by.
Why did you decide to teach English in Taiwan?
I wanted to travel and earn money that I could save. I knew a friend that went to Taiwan and he spoke very highly of it, so I thought why not!
Was it easy to find a teaching job? What was the application process like?
Yes, it was super easy! If you go through a big company like HESS, they pretty much do it all for you, and being the biggest English school chain in Taiwan, they are constantly recruiting. The process was tedious at times because of getting all the paperwork done, but the initial application was simple, and they replied super fast. All in all the whole process, from applying to actually getting to Taiwan, did not take more than two months. I originally signed a 1 year teaching contract but decided to extend it for another six months.
What were your expectations about teaching in Taiwan? What was teaching in Taiwan really like?
Well honestly, I had no expectations about what it was going to be like. When people think about teaching English in Asia, they usually assume that it’s going to be light hearted, just playing with kids kind of gig. Chinese culture is all about the academic, about getting results, and this meant that teaching was tough.
I guess you could put in the bare minimum and get by, but if you take pride in your work and care about the children’s well being, it meant lots of class preparation, research and physical presence in the class. Thus takes up far more energy and emotion than you would expect.
I went with no expectations but soon found out it’s a pretty serious thing for the Taiwanese kids to learn English well. It was hard work for sure, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. When people say that the children make teaching worthwhile, it’s absolutely true. To this day, seven months after leaving Taiwan, I still think about my students and hope that they are well.
What were your students like?
This varied. I had students who were super driven, so driven that they frequently corrected me in class (oh Jimmy!) and then I had students who have no desire to be there and know almost nothing. This can present itself as an opportunity to really test yourself as a teacher, to push beyond easily teaching the willing, but captivate the minds of those who aren’t interested, to help them believe in themselves and push a little harder. It’s not just about teaching, but learning what you can achieve too!
The age range of my students was quite vast. The youngest was around 1 ½ years, and the oldest students in my classes were 13 years old. Each age group has it’s positives and negatives. The younger ones are so darn cute it’s indescribable, but they demand a patience you never knew you needed. The older ones are great to have full on conversations with and friendly jokes. I was super fortunate to have a great class and we bonded well. They pulled some pranks on me and me on them, but the student/teacher line was still there. The only drawback of the older classes is that they start to challenge authority. It’s not as bad as in the west, it’s always controllable, but it still rears it’s head once in a while.
What challenges have you faced, as a foreigner or otherwise, inside and outside of the workplace?
In the workplace: COMMUNICATION. I’m not just talking about the Chinese language here but the non-verbal communication that comes from cultural differences too. The Taiwanese culture doesn’t seem to have a ‘give it to me straight’ kind of attitude, so they would beat around the bush and in the end everyone is confused about what’s going on. The Taiwanese culture is also heavily work-orientated. It seemed that the harder you work at your job the more they give you, and if you slack you get less.
Outside of the workplace, being alone was a real challenge for me. Meeting people was hard, especially in the small town where I lived. I am not a conventional kind of person so that also limits my social groups somewhat. I struggled for some time but eventually found my place and made friends that I will have for life, with both local Taiwanese people and other foreign teachers in LuoDong, Language is always a challenge, so putting in time to learn even a bit of Chinese is invaluable, and also super rewarding. The thrill I got when I was able to order my meals in Chinese, you don’t even know!
What did you love about living in Taiwan?
Convenience for sure. Public transport is phenomenal. Internet is available anywhere and you can also find all kinds of foods to suit your taste buds. I really enjoyed taking trips around Taiwan by train; beautiful scenery and a very relaxing journey. Just be sure you book ahead of time otherwise you will be standing around for six hours in a completely packed train cart like I did on my first trip!
I also loved the fact that there is quite a big health movement in Taiwan. There are plenty health stores that sell organic and natural products. What saved me when I was stressed out and made me decide to extend my contract and stay longer in Taiwan was the nature. There were awesome hiking trails, parks, beaches, lakes, springs – I could go on.
What drove you crazy about living in Taiwan?
Well… the lack of communication definitely made a vein in my head bulge. Sometimes something as simple as recharging my cell phone became a huge ordeal. There was also a tendency of the staff who couldn’t speak English to giggle and whisper amongst themselves. That was their instinctual action when they were awkward or unsure, but to a foreign teacher that’s really off-putting and actually pretty rude.
What was your experience with culture shock?
Culture shock is real, so acknowledge when you experiencing it and know that it shall pass. It’s not just sunshine and roses when you get there. The culture shock will crush you if you just sit at home! Your salary will be good enough for you to do cool things, so make plans and meet people. There is a thriving expat community in Taiwan with people from all walks of life and getting to know others opens doors and makes adjusting so much easier.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about teaching English in Taiwan?
Be open minded. Their culture is so different from our’s and you can’t hold onto what home is like. Life will become very difficult for you if you do that. If you do go to Taiwan, embrace the people, the culture, the food and the way of life. Embrace your job too – and take it seriously. These are real little lives you are dealing with and you are what this country knows of your country, so put your best and kindest foot forward. When you meet the Taiwanese with enthusiasm and kindness, it’s well paid back.
It took me nine months to finally settle in, and I am so happy I didn’t give in and go home. There was many a night when I was questioning what I was doing. Taiwan was the most challenging personal experience I’ve had, but I would do it ten times over. If you have the right attitude and the willpower to see things through, you’ll enjoy it.
Did you enjoy this interview? Look out for more interviews with ESL teachers in Taiwan as part of the Teaching in Taiwan series.