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.
When I first met Tu I was in the middle of teaching my morning Kindergarten class. Our assistant manager was taking Tu around the school and introducing him to the other teachers. She opened my classroom and I immediately sensed that something was wrong. Tu gave a friendly but nervous smile and “hello” from the door. My teaching assistant looked completely bewildered. When the door closed, she said to me: “He’s a Taiwanese.” I shook my head and said that Tu was from America. The other Taiwanese staff couldn’t comprehend how Tu could look Vietnamese but also be an American. Life at school didn’t get any easier for Tu, but he became a great friend of mine and Luke’s, and also of our flatmates. We played Settlers of Catan together in the evenings after work, and I remember being so excited when Tu finally beat us all!
Hey Tu, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Tu Dinh. I was born in Seattle, WA. My parents were born in Vietnam. I have loved two things my entire life: basketball and video games. Recently however, I have become very interested in board games. I wish to travel the world and see everything that it has to offer.
Where in Taiwan do you live?
I currently live in Yilan city which is a part of Yilan county. I’ve lived here for almost a year now. Before moving to Yilan city, I lived in nearby Luodong. Yilan county is a great place to live. It’s clean and beautiful and the people are incredibly friendly. It’s not for everyone though. It’s a very quiet town, and doesn’t have the hustle and bustle of big cities. Taipei is only an hour away though.
Why did you decide to teach English in Taiwan?
After graduating from college, the only thing I really knew that I wanted to do was travel. After speaking with my friends and family, I decided that teaching in Taiwan would be the best option for me. It would give me the opportunity to travel as well as gain some work experience. I also wanted to finally become independent. Growing up, I always had the luxury of being dependent on my friends and family. I wanted to prove to myself and others that I can survive on my own, and Taiwan has given me every opportunity to do so.
Was it easy to find a teaching job? Did your Vietnamese heritage affect this?
I remember when I got interviewed for my first job at Hess, my interviewer told me that being Asian might be a problem and he asked me how I could prepare for that. I told him my real life story, which was that I grew up in a traditionally Vietnamese household. I didn’t speak much English before I started school, so I believed that I could really relate to my students who would be in a very similar position. My interviewer told me that was a great answer and I felt really confident that this would not even be an issue.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. In my first job, I felt unwelcome the moment I stepped through the door. In my second job, everything went fine. I felt like I found a home with them and they even said they wanted me to stay until literally the last minute when they said that they were moving in a different direction. Even now at my third job I realize that there is no certainty in my future here. It’s a little ironic however that finding a job has not been very difficult. I’ve made some great friends here who have helped me out a lot. Without them I wouldn’t be in Taiwan today. Even though it has been difficult, I really don’t feel negative about my experiences. It is what it is. I might never find a place I can call home here, but the faster I move on, the better off I’ll be.
You ended up changing schools, even though you stayed in the same town. How come?
Yilan is really all I know. I’ve built a great relationship with the city and have come to adore everybody living in it. I really can’t imagine living anywhere else in Taiwan.
What were your expectations about teaching in Taiwan? What’s teaching in Taiwan really like?
I really didn’t know what to expect. I had heard that Taiwanese people were very friendly and respectful and so I assumed the students would be friendly and respectful as well. For the most part that is true, but I found out pretty quickly that their behavior was maybe not as good I was expecting – or hoping. Overall though, teaching has been a great experience, good and bad. I’ve learned a lot about myself through teaching and I wouldn’t want to change anything that happened while I’ve been here.
Class behaviour is always a challenge! Can you tell us a bit more about your students?
I’ve taught every age group throughout my time here, from kindergarten all the way up to high-school. The younger students are great. I highly enjoy teaching them. They’re incredibly motivated. It is simply a great feeling knowing how much of an impact I have in their learning. As they hit their teens however, I noticed that yeah, I didn’t like them as much anymore. They get lazy and sometimes develop an attitude. They’re in school all the time and they’re going through some changes as they grow older. I don’t enjoy teaching them if they become lazy or act out, but I can understand that it isn’t easy for them. Now I teach high-school students that are fairly proficient at English. It’s nice knowing that I can talk to them and have fun conversations. I also am amused by how some of them remind me of me while I was in high-school, if only because some of them look exactly like me.
What challenges have you faced, as a foreigner or otherwise, inside and outside of the workplace?
I had a pretty hard time when I first got to Taiwan. There were many weeks where I kept asking myself: “What is the point of this? Why am I even here?” It’s not easy leaving the comforts of home and moving halfway across the world. It did not help that I was having a difficult time at my job either. Eventually though, things got better. I got used to my surroundings and working in the classroom got better pretty much every day. It wasn’t easy, and there were many times where I felt like just giving up. With the help of my new friends in Taiwan and the support of my family back home, I was able to move past these challenges and now I live a comfortable life here.
What do you love about living in Taiwan?
I love being independent. Living on my own means that I’m in control of myself and I can do anything I want. If there’s a place in the world that will let you do anything you want, it’s Taiwan. Living here has also forced me to go outside. Living here is an adventure every day. Simply going for a walk or driving around town exposes me to all sorts of sights and stories. They might not always be pretty but I simply love to take it all in.
What drives you crazy about living in Taiwan?
The biggest problem with Yilan county is the rain. I moved away from Seattle only to come to a place that has just as much, if not more, rain. At least in Seattle, I had a car and can still do the things that I want. Here, all I have is my scooter, and driving a scooter in the rain in Yilan county is never a good idea. The already horrible traffic gets even worse and no matter how good your raincoat is, you’re going to get soaking wet. When it rains I just feel trapped. There’s nothing to do and I can’t just drive off to do something fun.
What are your favourite things to do in Taiwan?
Summer is a great time in Taiwan. The weather is great every day. I love to go biking, especially to the Luodong sports park or at any of the beautiful lakes in my area. Some friends and I recently started playing ultimate frisbee in the park at night which has been a lot of fun. In the winter, the options are more limited. It rains a lot and can be quite cold. When it’s cold, the best way to warm up is to go the hot springs. Also if it’s raining outside, then there’s no better time to bring out some board games and hang out with friends. The one thing I love to do all year round is eat. Taiwan has some great food and I relish every opportunity to try anything new. There is no shortage of things to do in Taiwan and I do my best to make the most of my time here.
Have you had the opportunity to travel much in Asia during your holidays?
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to travel too much. I’ve only been on one big trip to Vietnam in my time here. I was either working too many hours, or working six days a week. Hopefully this will all change pretty soon though. My current job gives me ample time to travel, and it’s possible that I’m going to have to force myself to travel. I would love to explore more of Asia. Everything I’ve experienced so far has been great. I hope to see more of it soon.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about teaching English in Taiwan?
The biggest piece of advice I can give is that you have to come to Taiwan with the right attitude. You have to be positive and brace yourself for every challenge that will inevitably come your way. If you get through your initial hurdles, then living and teaching in Taiwan can become your dream. I know there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing now.
In Taiwan there are a lot of preconceived expectations about how ESL teachers should look and sound. The image of a happy, young Caucasian is often seen on posters and brochures in ESL schools and there’s a definite preference for teachers with American accents. Of course, expectations and reality don’t always stack up and this can make settling in Taiwan even harder for some new teachers. If you have any questions about Tu’s experiences, please leave a comment.
Did you enjoy this interview? Look out for more interviews with ESL teachers in Taiwan as part of the Teaching in Taiwan series.