Wednesday, 26 June 2019

The Story of a Year of Teaching

Tomorrow is my last day of teaching at Zhong Hua Elementary School. It’s been an amazing, challenging, transformative year. The impact of this year has become more and more apparent in these last weeks of teaching. Way back in September, us Hualien ETAS attended a workshop where one of our TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) advisors invited us to share our challenges and frustrations about teaching so far. A lot of us shared our doubts that we were actually having a positive impact on our students and our schools. Our advisor, herself a former Taiwan ETA, told us that self-doubt is an inseparable part of teaching. She said teaching is often a thankless job, and we probably wouldn’t know our impact until the last day of school, when students, some you would never expect, will come to use and say thank you for being their teacher.

It sounded like corny, wishful thinking, until this month. My sixth graders graduated last week, so I wrote each of them a card. The day after I handed the cards out, one of my sixth-grade girls gave me this:

Sitting at my desk, reading this, I began to tear up. Her words validated all my efforts this year. I can try my best to show my students that I care about them and that they matter, but it’s hard to tell if those messages are getting through. Unless a student says it as clearly as this student did. Other students gave me hand-written cards too. It may seem small, but I know I did something right if I’ve inspired these kids to go out of their way to write in English and express themselves with new language.

In this last week of teaching, I’ve also learned that kids express their appreciation in less obvious ways. I’ve gotten a lot of whiny, “你為什麼回美國?” (Why do you have to go back to America?) which I understand as a child’s form of a compliment. Fourth graders have stopped their regular shenanigans to gather around me and ask me questions about my life in America. One of the girls in my afterschool tutoring class wrote on the black board before class, “Teacher Emma, where do you want to visit?” ‘Visit’ isn’t one of their vocab words, which means she had to do some extra research to ask me that question. This past year of teaching has taught me that time, attention, and effort are the most meaningful gifts a student can give you.

Teaching was a completely new, challenging experience for me. I desperately wanted to know that my presence in the school was actually beneficial to the students’ lives, that this year wasn’t just about me and my ego. I was constantly struggling to balance the school system’s expectations of test scores and grades with my goal for my students to have fun in English class. I had to balance my roles as a teacher and a friend to my students. The majority of the time, I didn’t know if I was doing anything right. Maybe my students would just remember me as that weird foreigner who years ago tried and failed to get them to use English. But the actions of my silly, smart, amazing students these final weeks have shown me that for at least some of them, I helped them love and use English. I showed them that foreigners aren’t so scary, after all, and they can talk to them in both English and Chinese. This knowledge brings meaningful conclusion to my year, and I can leave Taiwan knowing my time was well spent here.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

The Story of Running, Climbing, Tracing

Photo from the beautiful Walami trail in southern Hualien County

                Hello again! I wish I could have updated this blog more often throughout my second semester in Taiwan, but I’ve honestly been too busy. This busy time has been my deliberate choice to fill as much of my time when not teaching as possible. The truth is, three months ago, I wasn’t feeling so great. I try to keep an upbeat tone on this blog, because I know I’m lucky to be here, but living abroad is a series of both ups and downs. At nine months away from home, I was starting to feel the fatigue of homesickness, even as I wanted to love my time in Taiwan. Around that time, I was in a scooter accident (long story short, I hit a truck) which while it could have been a lot worse, took me some time and effort to physically and emotionally recover from. Beyond that, at certain point in one’s year abroad, the newness and excitement of everything wares off and one falls into a rut where boredom and sadness take over.

                But I didn’t want to spend my last few months in Taiwan miserable, just counting down the days until I returned to Minnesota, so I decided I had to try something new. Actually, I had to try several new somethings. So, while I previously believed I would only ever run if something was chasing me, I joined a gym and began running almost every day. Running helped me blow off steam. It got me out of the house and out of my head. Last week, I completed my first 5k ever in Taipei. I finished at 29:10 minutes, which for someone who ran fourteen-minute miles in high school, was pretty impressive.

Running a 5K on a very rainy day in Taipei. Rewarding myself with bubble milk tea afterward.

                I also learned how to rock climb. Several of the people in my program regularly go to the bouldering gym here in Hualien, and though they often invited me to join them, I always said no. I associated rock climbing with the middle school horrors of being halfway up a wall, paralyzed by fear, with all my peers judging me from down below. But when I finally decided to give rock climbing a chance here in Taiwan, I discovered that adult climbing gyms are actually really supportive environments focused on reaching personal goals. Rock climbing isn’t about being afraid of falling but learning how to fall so that you don’t injure yourself. I now try to go to the bouldering gym at least once a week. My hands are calloused. My arms and legs are speckled with bruises and scrapes. But I never feel stronger than when I’ve just finished a successful climb or a long run.

                I was able to put all of my new physical abilities to the test when a few weeks ago, some other ETAs and I went river tracing. River tracing involves a guide leading you up through a river to special spots like pools and waterfalls. It’s like hiking, except all uphill, against the current, often submerged up to your waist in cold water. Throughout the whole journey, we were lifting ourselves up over rocks, planting our feet on the riverbed while the current fought against us like a firehose. When we got past the part of the river where all the other tourists stop, the water was so clean and we were alone in this beautiful river that snaked through the forest up into the mountains. We stood underneath three-story waterfalls and jumped off (small) cliffs. The whole process was intense and exhausting but also one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in Taiwan.

                My time in Taiwan has taught me that one has to look at the whole picture when it comes to their own health. Before coming here, I was pretty good at paying attention to my mental and emotional health, but I thought little of my physical health. Now I realize that my physical health directly impacts my mental health, and vise versa. I’m stronger, both physically and emotionally, than I previously realized. I have more power than I thought to overcome the obstacles of a year abroad and fully enjoy my time in Taiwan. So in the future, I’m going to keep running and climbing and pushing myself to be better than my expectations.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

The Story of Second Semester

Hello again! Here I am, finally updating my blog, after a very busy first couple of months in the second semester. This semester, I’m leading more lessons and taking on more projects at my school, in addition to my after school Chinese classes and volunteer activities, so I’m busier than ever. So now I’m going to take some much-needed time to reflect on what teaching is like in the second half of a Fulbright ETA grant.

                Now that I’ve been there for a few months, I have two new responsibilities at my school this semester. I’m helping coach my school’s team for the county-wide annual Reader’s Theater Competition, where eight of my students will perform a play. I wrote a script adapting the story of Aladdin and it’s been incredible to see the way my students’ individual personalities peek out through their performances. It can be really hard to express oneself in a foreign language, so I love to see students playing their funniest Genie or wittiest Aladdin.

                 In addition to Reader’s Theater, I’m now leading my school’s English Club. It’s been one of the most fun teaching experiences I’ve had because I have so much freedom. Unlike with my other classes, I don’t have to follow any textbook or schedule, so my only goal is to ensure that my students have fun while learning English. We read picture books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, sing songs like Itsy Bitsy Spider, and play games like Red Light, Green Light. I’m teaching them about American holidays like Valentine’s Day. Last week, I hid Easter eggs around my classroom and had the students hunt for them. The eggs had slips of paper that corresponded with English questions they got candy for answering.

                In my regular English classroom, teaching feels much different this semester than it did the first. I’m much more comfortable leading lessons now and have a much better sense of what does and doesn’t work for English language learners. More importantly, my students and I are more comfortable with each other. It took my students a while to warm up to me, which is understandable given that I was a new, very different person in their lives. We had a lot of cultural and language barriers to overcome but now we’re able to connect with each other both inside and outside of class.

                I remember coming back the first day of second semester. My fourth graders ran to my class, screaming, “Eeeeeeemmmmmmmmmaaaaa!!” One came up to me and rambled at me in rapid-fire Chinese. I nodded along like I usually do when I don’t understand my students, but then my coteacher told me, “She just said that she missed you.” Another time, two fourth graders came into my room before class and picked up the picture book on my desk (Elbow Grease by John Cena). They began read it aloud together, sounding out the words they didn’t already know. I was nearly overcome with joy and pride, because they were working so hard to understand English without any prompting from me. The moment reinforced how important storybooks are and I was happy I could bring that story into my students’ lives.

                I know I’ve made incredible progress with my sixth graders just by the fact that they will now talk to me. Sixth grade is that difficult age where you don’t want to be caught dead actually getting along with your teachers, so trying to get my sixth graders to speak to me, let alone use any English, has been a struggle. But now that I’ve spent a lot more time with them and have shown them I’m willing to learn some Chinese in order to talk to them, they’ve warmed up to me. Now a group of girls approaches me in a giggling cluster before class every day. I ask them questions in English and then in Chinese. Another student said he wants to get better at English, so he’s begun to ask me his own questions in English, like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

                It’s strange to think that I only have three months left in Taiwan. Most of the time, I feel like I just got here, but then I’ll have an entire conversation in Chinese with a stranger or effortlessly navigate around the city on my scooter, and realize I’ve learned a lot from the time that I’ve been here. I’m excited to spend this semester building on all the knowledge and relationships I formed last year and embarking on new adventures with my students.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

The Story of the Cameron Highlands, Part 2

                For our next adventure in the Cameron Highlands, we wanted to do something a little more organized than our haphazard journey through the jungle. We booked a half-day tour of the Highlands with a local company. At 8:00 am in the morning, our guide pulled up to our hotel in a dark green jeep. We picked up seven more people from various hostels in Tanah Rata before heading up the winding roads in the Boh Tea Plantation.

                This tea plantation wasn’t as open and expansive as the one we saw before, but we did get to see many more workers out among the rows clipping the leaves with sheers and loading them into gigantic white canvas bags. Our guide was also able to tell us about the history of the Highlands and its tea plantations. Before British colonialism, the land was all jungle. The local people wouldn’t occupy the higher elevations due to temperature, disease, and hostile wildlife. So when British surveyors decided to use the land for plantations, they had to employ the local’s traditional slash-and-burn tactics to clear the jungle and then go to India for both the tea plants and the workers. The colonists promised many South Indian workers a fortune if they sold everything they had and moved to Malaysia. When the workers arrived, they found harsh conditions the locals had known about all along. They worked in constant fear of tiger attacks, though many more died of malaria. Meanwhile, the tea plantation owners became rich and the colonial officers used the Highlands as a vacation retreat from the coast’s heat.

                Today, the 90-year-old tea plants still grow on the hills, but the Indian Malaysian citizens have moved on to better paying jobs, often in the service and tourism industry, like our guide. Now Bangladeshi and Indonesian workers come to Malaysia to pick tea on three to five-year contracts. They get paid 1 ringgit (about 25 cents) per kilogram of leaves, or about 40 ringgit (less than 10 USD) a day. The same Scottish family since the beginning still owns the plantation, and the granddaughter of the founder is the CEO.

                Like with my trip to Green Island, I struggle to reconcile the beauty of the Highlands and the enjoyments I experience there as a tourist with the trauma of its history and the reality of its present. I don’t have a sensical solution for this disparity. The economy of the Cameron Highlands relies on both domestic and international tourism, and it’s not as if the tea industry has more problems than coffee or really any global business. But maybe the solution begins somewhere with being conscious of and discussing these issues while one visits a new place.

                After the tea plantation, we drove to the Mossy Forest. As the name suggests, all the trees in the forest are covered with a thick layer of moss. We walked along the paved road for a few meters while our guide pointed out various plants. He highlighted one often called the “Monkey’s Cup” which can trap and digest insects in its cupped leaves. These specimens are few and far between, he said, because poachers collect them to sell on the black market. He mentioned that he used to be one of those poachers, then moved on without offering any more explanation.

                The real fun began when the guide led us off road into the forest. The ground was wet and slippery with a thick layer of peat (not dirt, peat consists of decaying plant matter). We stepped on tree roots whenever possible, or else our shoes would sink into the peat and threaten not to come back up. Between the mist, the mossy trees, and the sinking floor, we felt like we had wandered into the setting of some otherworldly sci-fi movie. Our guide told us that this was one of the oldest rainforests in the world, having formed over 10 million years ago.

                We returned to the tea plantation to tour the processing plant and drink some tea to end our day. As much as I enjoyed Carl and I’s previous thrilling jungle trek and tea plantation wandering, it was nice to have the direction and information of a guided tour. Knowing more about the history of the place made our visit even more meaningful. This was the last day of our vacation, and I’m really glad we made the point to visit the Cameron Highlands while we were in Malaysia.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

The Story of the Cameron Highlands, Part 1

After Penang, we decided to go someplace in Malaysia we hadn’t been before. So we took the bus to Tanah Rata. Tanah Rata is a small town in the Cameron Highlands, a mountainous region inland on the Malaysian peninsula. The cool, elevated climate of the Highlands was a welcome change from the hot humidity of Penang, especially as we set out on a jungle hike our first morning in Tanah Rata.

                The beginning of the trail was difficult to find because the printout map our hotel gave us only showed that Trail No. 10 began somewhere behind a specific apartment building and there was a lot of construction around where we were supposed to be looking. But thanks to a helpful construction worker and some tin signs of red arrows nailed to trees, we found the entrance to the jungle.

                The trail ran up through the jungle to the peak of one of the mountains for which the Cameron Highlands are famous. The green foliage of the jungle was dense, but not so thick as to block out the morning sun. The orangish-brown dirt floor was flat for a while, before beginning to climb steeply upward with intersecting tree roots as footholds. After about an hour of climbing through slippery dirt, fallen branches, and snaking roots, we exited the jungle to the mountain’s peak.

                From up there, we could see miles and miles of jungle stretching over the Highlands. Down in the valley, we could see the hotel where we were staying, along with the many other red and white colonial-style resorts in Tanah Rata. To the south, we spotted the Cameron Valley Tea Plantation’s rows and rows of tea plants. This was our next destination and, according to our map, we could take another trail down from the peak to the plantation.

                Except we couldn’t find the beginning of the trail. We had to wait for some other hikers to come along and point the way, before it became apparent why we couldn’t find it in the first place. Ferns, bushes, and shrubs covered the dirt path, so that one had to wade waist-deep into the leaves and the branches in order to descend the mountain. Aside from a few twigs that scratched at my legs and some burs that clung to my arms, our careful, slow walk down went smoothly. That excludes the time that I couldn’t see the edge of the path and took a step forward into thin air. My left foot went down, and my right calf and knee slammed into the dirt. I screamed and scared the living daylights out of Carl, but ultimately I was fine except for a scrape on my knee.

                Eventually, the brush cleared way to a two-track road that wound through a guava farm. This led into an actual road, which we began to walk along, assuming it would lead us to the plantation. But before we knew it, we ended up in an Orang Asli (the indigenous peoples of Malaysia) village. I felt bad to disturb the village’s residents while they were going about their work, especially since some backpackers treat these villages as tourist attractions rather than people’s communities. But we were truly lost and our map was once again no help. We passed a man walking on the road who asked if he could help us. When we said we were trying to get to the tea plantation, he pointed up the road we were already walking on.

                “Keep going this way but watch out for the mean dog. He’ll come out and bite you.”

                “But can we go that way? Is it safe?”

                “Yes, but watch out for the dog.”

                Thankfully, we never ran into any dog, but we did lose the road as we walked farther into the village. Eventually, an elderly lady came up to us and led us wordlessly to the path into the tea fields.

                But the walk through the plantation was worth the trouble. Compared to the shaded, deep green of the jungle, the tea plants were a green as bright as the blue sky above them. The leaves form oval-shaped bushes that cluster together in wavy rows that blanket the hills. White letters spell out “Cameron Valley Tea” like the Hollywood sign. At a little orange tea house sitting on a hill, we sipped tea and ate scones while overlooking the valley. Exhausted from the hike, we were grateful to take a brake with the cool weather and incredible view. It was bizarre to think that we had started the morning off in the jungle and were now enjoying tea plucked from the plantation we had just walked through. It was not an easy journey, as the scrapes on my legs proved. But looking back on the entire day, one can see why the Cameron Highlands are such a beloved destination in Malaysia.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

The Story of Penang

Chinese New Year is this Tuesday, February 5, so happy Year of the Pig, everybody! 新年快樂! This also means that I have three weeks off of school for our end of semester break. After a brief stop in Taipei for Fulbright Taiwan’s Midyear Conference, my boyfriend, Carl, joined me in Taiwan for the first time. We spent a day in Hualien so that he could see my school, visit Taroko National Park (Hualien’s most famous natural wonder), and eat hot pot with me and my coteacher. I was so happy to be able to show him all the places I’ve been talking about for the past six months.

                But our vacation really began when we flew to Penang, Malaysia. Penang is an island off the west coast of the Malaysian peninsula. Its largest city, George Town, is known for its remnants of British colonialism as well as its diverse population of Indian, Chinese, and Malay cultural groups. Carl and I both studied abroad in Penang in Spring 2016, so this trip was a kind of nostalgia tour of all the places we frequented the last time we were on the island.

                For example, our hostel was less than a five-minute walk from the bar where we used to hangout on Saturday nights. Use the term ‘bar’ loosely, because it’s really an open storefront where one buys the only cheap, tax-free drinks in the city and then enjoys them with other patrons while sitting on plastic stools in the alley. One of our fondest memories from that place was the owner’s old blind shih tzu that would often wonder in front of the cars and motorbikes that whipped through alley, only to be saved at the last minute by being grabbed by some tipsy patron. Three years later, that dog had been replaced by another, equally old shih tzu that hobbled in and out of the storefront. The bar had increased in popularity, with more plastic stools in the alley, but was still its cheap grimy self.

                Much of Penang was as we remembered it, and whereas before, we were often bogged down with classes and homework, we were able to see a lot of the city in just three days. On the first day, we visited the Clan Jetties and Kek Lok Si. The Clan Jetties are docks with houses on either side propped up on stilts, built into the harbor by extended families of Chinese immigrants decades ago. Kek Lok Si is a massive Buddhist temple known for its stunning white pagoda and giant Goddess of Mercy statue. We walked through the prayer halls, cloudy with burning incense. Red and yellow lanterns hung overhead in preparation for Chinese New Year. At the base of the temple, we paused for a moment to watch the colony of turtles float through the ponds there.

                The next day, we took a tram up to the top of Penang Hill, a hill which overlooks the island. The air was hazy and full of bleached light, but I could still make out the many red-roofed, white-washed buildings common to George Town. Jungle-covered hills rose out of the sprawling urban development. The ocean boarded the city, with Penang Bridge stretching across the water to the mainland. The base of the hill began in the Penang Botanical Gardens, where we went on our last full day in Penang. There, we enjoyed the native plants of Penang, while avoiding the native macaque monkeys that bully tourists for food.

                But, of course, what I really came back to Penang for was the food. Penang calls itself the cuisine capitol of Asia, which is a bold claim, but it might just be true. We made a point of going twice to our favorite vegetarian Indian restaurant, Woodlands, for veggie biryani, paneer butter masala, and naan. At the hawker stands, we ordered Hokkien char, a mixture of different noodles with a gravy-like sauce and chicken and shrimp. We ate cendol, an iced desert with coconut milk and green rice flour jellies, to stave off the midday heat. On our last night in Penang, we stopped at China House café for the best tiramisu I’ve ever had.

                Food is best shared with others, however, and we were lucky enough to meet up with our friends from when we studied abroad. Like us, they have all either graduated or are near graduation, and are moving on to exciting jobs and master’s programs, but they still made time to catch up with us over chicken tandoori. Every study abroad program talks about facilitating cultural exchange and building lasting relationships, and one wonders how genuine those claims are. But three years after studying in Penang, I loved being back on the island, enjoying all the same places I used to. I’m happy to see my friends again and share the food that I loved. Penang is a beautiful, diverse, historic city and I’m so lucky I got to return to it on my vacation.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

The Story of a New Year

This is the second part of the story of my trip to Kaohsiung over the new year break. On New Year's Eve, my friend Karina and I left in the morning for Kaohsiung's city center (this time not locking our keys in our scooter). Our first stop was Lotus Pond and Kaohsiung's famous Dragon and Tiger Pagodas.

The twin pagodas sit on Lotus Pond and are guarded by two gates, one carved in the shape of a dragon and the other in a tiger. Local tradition states that if you enter through the dragon's mouth and exit through the tiger's mouth, you will reverse your luck from bad to good. Whether or not one believes this, the pagodas themselves are architecturally beautiful and one can climb almost all the way up the spiraling staircases while viewing vibrant wall paintings of nature and folktales. The inside of the dragon contains walls of relief sculptures depicting demons and torture, whereas the tiger contains sculptures of historical scholars and legendary heroes, correlating with the supposed reversal of fate one has just undertaken.

Besides the beautiful art and gleeful fun of walking through the mouths of gigantic creatures, the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas offered some wishful thinking for the new year. 2018 was a difficult year for a lot of people personally and for the world in general. So let's hope for anyone who went into the belly of the dragon in 2018, that they may come out the mouth of the tiger in 2019.

We saw a couple of other sights in Kaohsiung (mainly the Dome of Light in the MRT station and the Pier-2 Art District on the harbor) before returning to Qishan for dinner. We were expecting a low-key New Year's Eve, given that the locals had told us Qishan was pretty quiet most nights and that the people who worked at our hostel had invited us on a 7 a.m. hike the next morning.

So we went out by ourselves on the balcony of our hostel to ring in the New Year with a little bit of banana-flavored wine. But of course, since this is Taiwan, we were surprised at the stroke of midnight by fireworks going off right down the street from us. The fireworks only lasted for about a minute, but it was cool to be able to see them so close and so unexpectedly. At the end, I shouted out "謝謝!" to our neighbors for helping up celebrate the new year.

Bright and early the next morning, we met up with the two brothers who worked at our hostel, their sister, two other guests from Taipei, the local junior high teacher, and one of the brother's two year old son. After a quick breakfast of danbing (sort of like a Taiwanese omelette) and milk tea, we began to climb the mountain that watches over Qishan.

We were less than 20 minutes into the hike before we spotted a group of four monkeys, macaques with grey-brown fur and pink faces, peeking out at us from the trees. Next thing we knew, we were completely surrounded by an entire troop of monkeys. They jumped from branch to branch and watched us as we passed by. Luckily, we didn't have any food with us because, one of the locals told us, the monkeys are known to steal.

The hike wasn't quite as intense as Qixing, the last mountain I hiked, but it was still 600 steps up a steep incline. We all made it to the top, even the two year old. From up there, we could see the wide expanse of countryside, with its farm fields and tiny clusters of homes. In another direction, we could see the town of Qishan and all its old buildings and streets. In yet another, we could see a line of sharp, green mountains, peaks moving away from us until they faded into the morning clouds settling on the land. It was the perfect first scenic view of 2019.

Happy New Year! In 2019, I look forward to exploring more of Taiwan and learning more about its language and culture. I hope to continue to create in a variety of ways, whether its my fiction writing, my lessons plans, or this blog. I hope to practice kindness and patience with everyone I encounter. And I hope to continue to have good luck, fortunate accidents, and great adventures here in Taiwan.