Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

2003 in a Nutshell
(My Time in Taiwan Up Until 2003)

My first year in Taiwan 2001-2002 was a year of exploration. I lived in Taipei for a fun first two months and life was full of constant socializing and activity- the clubs, bars, happy hours, and the less than six degrees that separated me and the fast friends that I made. It was intoxicating, spellbinding and strangely familiar at times. I cherish all of the days I lived in Taipei, in a three bedroom apartment which I shared with two other bright Asian American women. Our apartment was the setting for many a heartfelt discussion about life, love and anything else that happened to occupy our thoughts. The city girl in me was easily captivated by Taipei. The pace suited this ex-Manhattanite, but it was perhaps a little too fitting. After all, I had left New York because I knew I needed a change of pace; there was a restlessness, a searching for a sense of direction inside of myself and a need to be challenged.

So I moved down to Kaohsiung to take a part-time teaching job at a college for students planning to work in the hospitality industry i.e. travel & tourism, hotel management and airline service. I began teaching students in the airline department. There was a tremendous learning curve for me; I suddenly faced the task of teaching English conversation to a class of fifty students without a viable textbook. The Airline Management Department, as it was called, was quite young, and there weren't any standard textbooks recommended or written for my classes! A visit to the bookstore revealed that there was one English Conversation book written flight attendants. But the book was an uninteresting book that consisted largely of a collection of English airline terms with Chinese translations, and simple conversation examples. So, I began to create my own teaching materials based on the teaching materials used by the previous instructor and that one English Conversation book for flight attendants.

My second year in Taiwan was one of growth. The year began with tremendous momentum and hope energized by my frequent visits to New York. I think I made three or more trips to New York during 2001-2002! Those closest to me noticed the change- that my life in Taiwan seemed to suit me. I had found teaching to be a challenge because of the responsibility I had for the education of the fifty bright, young faces I faced everyday at the Hospitality College. There was pressure to both educate and perform. The challenge was how to teach and present class material in an engaging way to promote the students' enthusiasm and involvement. In the beginning I prepared my lesson plans relentlessly, organizing and spending hours over every detail, but later found that when I simply used my intuition and "listened" to my students' needs and paced myself according to their needs and interests, I didn't have to work so hard at all to be a good teacher. It was then that I really began to enjoy myself and the rewards I reaped from teaching were not simply from my students' various expressions of appreciation, but from what I learned from them or in the process of teaching.

Aside from my actual in-class teaching hours, I had a great deal of flexibility with my time. It was up to me how I organized my time to prepare lesson plans, correct homework assignments, quizzes and exams. I was freed from the daily nine to five obligation that I detested from day one when I entered the real working world. When I began working at my first job out of college, I thought, 'How could it be that I was promising the best hours of the day to someone else for the rest of my life?' I couldn't find meaning in my work, which is what I've been searching for, for most of my working years after graduating from college.

All of this flexibility and time allowed me to focus on myself and to exercise more control over my work and time, something that I rarely felt at my past jobs. The Hospitality College where I had started teaching at was extremely supportive of my teaching methods and ideas, much of which I had personally created due to the lack of appropriate teaching materials. I was my own boss and quickly developed a reputation for being diligent, responsible teacher.

At this time, I started thinking that all of the time and effort that I'd spent in creating teaching materials could be translated into an English teaching book for students in the Airline Management Department. I began to seriously collect and organize my ideas and another teacher at the Hospitality College even agreed to co-author it with me.

By early 2003, I was approaching my second year of living in Taiwan and beginning to revisit why I was here, what was I meant to do or accomplish here, what had I accomplished so far? How much longer did I want to stay in Taiwan? When I left for Taiwan, two years was the magic number. I thought I'd spend about two years here experiencing a different way of life and learning about my roots. There was a restlessness and uncertainty. I became almost obsessed with the idea of having a concrete accomplishment to show for my two years in Taiwan. As I evaluated my experiences and accomplishments over the nearly two years, I came up dry, so I tried to find reasons to stay. I felt that I had to have something to show for my time in Taiwan.

My teaching positions at Hospitality College and elsewhere were part-time and though I made enough to get by, there was still a sense of instability. When I applied for a full-time position at the Hospitality College where I had taught for two academic years, I began to feel hopeless and frustrated. Even with my strong reputation, I was told by my supervisor not to get my hopes up for a full-time position because of their preference to hire people with PhDs. I was stunned by my supervisor's words. He had been extremely supportive of my teaching ideas and methods; in fact, it was he who had even suggested that I consider compiling all of my materials into a textbook. If there was anyone at all who could plead my case it would have been him. Now I knew the situation was really hopeless. His hands were tied because the Ministry of Education had a requirement stating that a university's teaching staff must have be a certain percentage of PhDs. Therein was the clincher, the college that I was teaching at was trying to become a university and had to meet this requirement. It was a case of bad timing because none of the full-time teachers in the English department at that time had PhDs; they all had master degrees.

All I could see were the half empty glasses. In the end, all the time and effort that I had expended at the Hospitality College won me respect, but not enough to get me a full-time teaching position- I felt that it was a slap in the face and I abandoned the idea of writing an English Conversation textbook for Airline Management students. There was no point in pursuing such a specialized project if I had no future at the Hospitality College. The incompleteness of my life began surfacing in various shapes and forms. I still couldn't speak Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese as fluently as I would have liked, I felt socially isolated in Kaohsiung and other projects ideas that had germinated in my mind didn't seem to have much realistic hope of reaching fruition.

Then, in April of 2003, SARS was in full blown attack and it came to my doorstep (see June 16 blog entry). This brush with SARS forced me to examine my commitment to stay in Taiwan and to evaluate my needs, to make a decision to return to North America.

I compared my reactions to the heightened terrorism alerts in New York in late 2002 to the handling of the SARS crisis in 2003. During a month long visit to New York in late 2002, there were daily announcements of code red and orange levels of high terrorism alert. The threat of terrorism was reported on the television hourly; the hourly news seemed to be all about emergency contingency plans- having bottled water, food provisions, electric generators... experts gave advice on how family members should communicate and reunite (if parents were at work, children in schools) in the event of an emergency. I hadn't seen such paranoia over impending disaster since the Y2K hype. The state of emergency was on everyone's minds and people couldn't avoid mention of it in their everyday conversations. But I had faith in the American people and in how the government was handling things. In the latter case, the bombardment of media coverage over SARS simply fueled disappointment over the Taipei city government's initial cover-up of SARS cases and reports of quarantine violators exasperated my feelings of frustration and hopelessness.

I began to feel like I had been on rollercoaster ride dealing with the extremes of my life in US and Taiwan. My visits back to the U.S. since moving to Taiwan have usually had a twofold purpose- to take care of business with my apartment which is being rented and to catch up with friends and relatives. So of course my calendar jam packed during those visits and suddenly my social life was so rich- catching up with friends, constantly meeting new people, running around, taking care of business and various errands. I was reminded of the dizzying pace that life often operates at in New York. There are so many options- things to do and see, people to meet, etc., etc., etc. but I wasn't sure if I wanted to enter the daily grind again or what exactly I wanted do in the U.S. once I left Taiwan.

In contrast, my social life in Kaohsiung is rather nonexistent. I do have some close friends here in Kaohsiung, but there just aren't as many opportunities to meet new people here. I don't have as extensive a social network in Kaohsiung. It pales in comparison even to the network I had in Taipei. Of course I always welcome opportunities to meet new people, but life here is just a different pace and it's something I've come to accept. My life here is simple, I'm focused on teaching, pursuing my personal projects, enjoying the flexibility of my work schedule by taking occasional weekend trips, traveling during winter and summer breaks, spending time with my family and a few close friends.

During the SARS crisis (April 2003), I thought about what I needed to have balance in my life- psychologically, physically (health wise), spiritually, socially, professionally, personally, where I would be able to accomplish my goals and maximize my skills...

The frustration, anxiety and uncertainty I felt about SARS made me realize that I wasn't committed to staying in Taiwan. I had very little faith in the general public, who didn’t seem to have a sense social responsibility; many people failed to comply with quarantine regulations. Nor was I assured by the government's handling of the situation. I was ready to leave.

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