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.
Amelia and I met through blogging, if you can believe that. She’s the awesome blogger behind Plant Powered Nomad (she’s a cracking writer, definitely go read!) She left a comment on my blog, because it turns out that we have quite a lot in common – we’re both from the UK, studied literature at uni, moved straight to Taiwan to take an ESL teaching job shortly after graduation, worked for the same company in Taiwan, are both non-meat eaters (I’m veggie and Amelia is vegan), and both left teaching wanting to write and travel more. I’m now an avid follower of Amelia’s as well of course!
Hey Amelia! Can you introduce yourself?
Hey! I’m from the UK and Ireland. I studied Comparative Literature at Glasgow University and moved out to Taiwan right after finishing my degree. Now I’m nomadic, I write a travel blog about vegan food and travelling solo, and I’m about to do my 200 hour yoga teacher training.
Where in Taiwan did you live, and how did you like it?
I initially wanted to go to a smaller city in Taiwan like Tainan, but I ended up in Taipei and I think it was the right choice for me. Even though it’s the capital city, the expat scene is still quite small and everyone knows everyone. A smaller city would have got claustrophobic and/or lonely very fast for me!
Why did you decide to teach English in Taiwan?
I’ve never been one to hang about and spend a long time thinking things over, so I did my CELTA at the same time as my final year at university, which half killed me. I didn’t want to have a post-degree limbo stage. Taiwan seemed like a place that would be pretty easy to transition to, somewhere easy to live as a vegan, and somewhere with lots of nature to explore. At the time I wanted to get away from the UK asap, and Taiwan was the first place that accepted me. It took 4 weeks from applying to getting a job, and 5 days after I graduated I was in Taipei starting work.
Wow, that was a crazy fast transition! I take it that you found it easy to secure a teaching job?
It wasn’t hard at all, I went through the recruiter Reach to Teach and got accepted right away for the first position I applied for. Although it wasn’t the worst job, it wasn’t the best either. I thought about changing teaching jobs quite a lot. I had a lot of hours though and was saving money, so I ended up sticking it out.
You said that teaching in Taiwan knocked your self-esteem quite a lot. What were your experiences with that at work?
Hmm, while I said that in a blog post mainly as a joke because Taiwanese like to point out every little detail about your appearance, I definitely did get a little knocked living in Taiwan.
It’s strange to be working in an industry where there’s a very high turnover and that’s normal. Schools are so used to English teachers coming and going that I was never without the sense that I was totally expendable. It’s simultaneously a skilled trade and an unskilled trade, because there are some truly awful English teachers who are barely literate.
I was asked to stay a second year, but when I didn’t and left instead there was barely a goodbye. It was very odd. It also meant there wasn’t really an expectation to improve. You can be amazing or average; unless you’re completely awful you’re not going to get feedback, even if you ask for it. This meant it was very hard for me to gauge what I was doing well, and what I wasn’t.
What made you decide to leave your job teaching in Taiwan?
A mixture of wanderlust and having no free time to do my own thing. I thought I was coming to Taiwan for a 9-4 job, when I got there I found out it was 10-7, so I was leaving my apartment at 9.15 and getting home 7.30, or sometimes tutoring until 9.30pm after work and every Saturday morning. It meant that yoga, friends, writing and travelling all ended up on the back burner. I asked for a day off once and was told no: no holiday time except national holidays! By the end my mood and energy were really suffering from such a repetitive lifestyle. I was ill constantly, had no energy, and was definitely ready to leave.
Sounds like you ended up pretty burnt out! It happens to a lot of ESL teachers I think, myself and Luke included. Did that way of working affect your students too?
I cannot stress how much I dislike the school system in Asia. I saw children as young as six break down in tears because they got a grammar question or a spelling wrong, and I had an eight year old tell me he thinks he is very boring because all he does is work and work and he’ll keep working until he’s 90. I spent my mornings trying to teach one and a half year olds who were screaming for their mothers. And I talked to teenagers who were grimly accepting that it was just their lot in life to be in school until 10pm on a Friday night, because they’re students in Asia. I come from a very creative and liberal upbringing, and seeing how little creativity and individuality is valued in the East Asian school system was just heartbreaking for me.
But living in Taiwan isn’t all bad, right? What did you love about living in Taiwan?
Taiwan has a pretty good yoga scene, and there are acroyoga classes. Acroyoga is social, so it was a great way to meet people. We’d regularly meet up and jam together in the park, which is one of my best memories. In Taipei you can meet in the park almost all year round. Going on trips out of Taipei and to the beaches or mountains was definitely a favourite thing, too, although it’s something I did nowhere near enough thanks to my work schedule.
You discovered a lot of vegan gems while you were living in Taiwan, right? Can you tell us a bit about what being vegan in Taiwan was like.
Being vegan in Taiwan was incredibly easy! The locals know and understand what a vegan (pure vegetarian) is and it’s very rare that there are misunderstandings, unlike other parts of Asia. There are veggie places on every corner, and there’s a huge group of other vegans that grew into a group of close friends of mine. It was through meeting them that I made my best memories and best friends from Taiwan.
Your experience of living and teaching in Taiwan seems to have been a really challenging one. What do you wish you’d known before you started teaching in Taiwan, and what would you say to anyone who’s thinking about moving to Taiwan?
If I went back again, I’d do it differently. There are quite a few things I wish I’d known before, but I think the main thing is that I’d find a job when I got there. It’s easy to say that with retrospect though, but at the time I didn’t have the confidence or knowledge to take that leap into the unknown.
If you do move to Taiwan, I think the main thing to decide is what your saving goals are. If you really want to save money and still want some sort of quality of life, then you’re probably better off not in Taipei. However, I know a lot of people who were very bored after coming to Taiwan alone and ending up located outside of the capital. If you’re coming with someone else, a friend or a partner, the likelihood is you’re going to have a different experience.
While I did save a lot of money, it was definitely at the expense of my sanity, as the people around me will testify. I think I comfort ate my way through most of the year, and definitely developed too much of a taste for Starbucks and vegan cake. A month after leaving my job, all my clothes feel much looser on me again.
Now that you’ve left Taiwan, what’s next for you?
Next, I hope, will be more blogging, more travel writing, more countries, and yoga teaching. My main goal is to be able to support my travelling through a digital nomad lifestyle, and to keep moving around and seeing the world, and of course eating vegan food.
If you’re a curious vegan travelling in Taiwan, want to find out more about expat life in Taipei, or thinking twice about what teaching abroad really means, leave Amelia a comment below.
Did you enjoy this interview? Look out for more interviews with ESL teachers in Taiwan as part of the Teaching in Taiwan series.