Friday, July 1, 2016

It is July once again.

Transitions have always been hard for me. As I sit here in the airport, suspended between two worlds, I am trying to come up with the words to express my thoughts in a meaningful way that isn't cliche! It's hard. And so, to follow in the pattern of my blog this year, I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

Saying goodbye to Claire and Sandy (and their family), sisters who have been amazing friends this year

Final get-together of the "Taichung International Singing Group," where we spent hours singing together one last time


Last few times with my Taiwanese family - giving the grandkids their gift and soaking up every last second with this amazing family I have seen every week for Chinese lessons and whole-family-plus-Teacher Sara excursions

 Last dinner with Fulbright Taichung ETAs - the best group I have ever been privileged to be a part of

School goodbyes - on the last day yesterday, I went around to every class in the whole school to say goodbye, to give each student and teacher a note and candy, and of course, to take pictures!

My English club - they chose to come to the English Library twice a week, always eager to come again as soon as they could. Together we read books, wrote stories, laughed, ate candy, and spoke in English (I quickly lost count of how many times I pushed them, saying with "NO CHINESE!!!"). Their English is amazing, their dedication and hard-working nature admirable, their humor adorable, and they are 8 Grade 4 students I will very actively miss as I leave.

At the final whole-school morning assembly, the principal and dean presented me with gifts, and several classes came up and gave me cards and hugs.

In each classroom with each teacher!

The teachers told their classes to all hug Teacher Sara 

My goodbye love notes

Blessings and goodbyes - I include these to share a snapshot of Taiwanese phrases, the amount of "stickers" used (even in the workplace), and to show the love we have all received from the Taiwanese people all year long.

From my Taiwanese family

From Patty, one of my co-teachers and an amazing friend

From a lovely woman I just met last week
From my 10-year old friend I recently reconnected with after meeting her and her family at a jazz festival back in October 

From Claire

And so it is with such love, appreciation, and blessings that I leave Taiwan. It is with very mixed emotions, as I cannot help but constantly play back every detail of what is now my life but will soon become memories. 

But armed with this love, new insights, an even deeper passion for teaching, countless stories, and appreciation for and knowledge about yet another amazing place in this world, I look toward the next step with excitement and eagerness. I am forever grateful for the amazing opportunity that was this past year, and I look forward to taking it with me as soon as my plane lands tomorrow night.

Thank you to everyone who has followed my blog and shared their thoughts in response to my posts this year. I would love to hear from you and I look forward to reconnecting with everyone!

Love and blessings to everyone, always.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Below are some thoughts to share before this update!

This is a fascinating little report about trash collection in this country. So interesting ... and gives us something to think about in terms of the sheer volume of trash we generate in our own country (especially in comparison to Taiwan). Please listen:

This is the newly updated Fulbright ETA website:
Here is the "Teaching in Taichung" page:

Every week at school I have two storytelling periods, where I read English books to Grade 1 and Grade 2 students. Twice each month I also read to Kindergarten and Pre-K students at our school, and this past cycle was one of the best yet. They have clearly become familiar with the basic expectations I set each time I am with them: raise your hand, listen quietly when Teacher Sara reads, and otherwise shout out as many English words as you can when you see one you know in our story! They are so energetic and engaged, and perhaps the best part is seeing them in the hallway and on the playground - they get so excited and scream "Teacher Sara!!!!" in their little 5-year-old voices. Then they speak to me in a mix of Chinese (that I can usually understand!) and blurt out all of the English words they remember from our most recent storytelling. 

One major project recently was the Reader's Theatre event last month, which is hosted annually by our school. 118 schools in Taichung City and Taichung County prepare a group of students to present short plays. While students can dress up and use props, the focus is on their English pronunciation and intonation, not the drama. One of my co-teachers and I MC'd the entire event: 20 schools in the morning, 20 in the afternoon, for 3 full days!! It was exhausting but so amazing. Not only did the students do wonderfully, but they were also super engaged when we asked them brief comprehension questions during transitions between each 5-minute performance. It was great to see them excited about presenting an English project they had been working on for so long. P.S. Taiwanese people LOVE taking pictures so that is why, for the pictures where I am standing with the principal and deans and judges, we are striking many different poses ... 

Last weekend, I traveled to two cities in the south of Taiwan. Talia, an ETA working in Yilan County, was my travel companion, and we co-wrote the following about our trip.


After finding a small Taiwanese restaurant and enjoying traditional noodles (vegetarian of course!), our first expedition in Kaohsiung was to Cijin Island. Cijin is a small but bustling island, 10 minutes away by ferry. There we quickly found the beach, wooden walkways above the sand, tree-lined pathways, and tunnels through mountains. The scenery was gorgeous and it was so refreshing to be by the water. At the top of one hill is a lighthouse that was built by British engineers and a fort with Chinese-style cannons that was eventually destroyed by the Japanese. It was neat to see the mix of architectural styles from different time periods, situated at the top of a hill with a beautiful view of the island and the ocean. The day was SO HOT but surprisingly not at all humid, and it was a beautiful way to spend a few hours.

Later in the day we walked along the water by Pier 2, and found a nearby craft market. We noticed that people there used English much more readily than where we are each living this year, and that their English level was high. As English teachers for the year, we were glad to see that the country’s push for English education has some pay-off!
Of course we went to the night market that night, as no trip to any Taiwanese city would be complete without that experience! It was quite large and it was fun to walk around and see everyone else who was out enjoying the night as well.
On our second day in Kaohsiung, we walked from our hostel to Love River. We passed a young music group performing at a restaurant on the water, and found a little boat that went out on the river. From the boat we were able to see the city from a different perspective and enjoy the combination of high-rise buildings and natural beauty along the water.

That afternoon we visited Lotus Pond, a beautiful pond with many lotus flowers and with so many different types of temples! We were struck by the detailed work in each temple’s design. We also noticed that there seemed to be a lot more tourists visiting these temples than people who were actually praying there. One highlight of our visit was walking up to the 6th floor of a temple to get a view of the whole lake. Another favorite temple was shaped like a dragon. From the inside, its snaking walls were filled with beautiful murals. It was amazing to see the sheer beauty of the local architecture combined with the water and surrounding city and hills.


Just north of Kaohsiung is Tainan City. You might recognize the name from its mention in international news back in February when it was rattled by a magnitude 6.4 earthquake. Though the earthquake was devastating, it seems like life in Tainan is back to normal.
Our first stop here was to a restaurant owned by an Israeli man! This restaurant was a recommendation from another Fulbright teacher, and by the end of the night it was high on the list of highlights from the whole weekend. When we walked in and greeted the owner of Imma (Hebrew for “mother”) in Hebrew, he was delighted and spoke to us for the rest of the night in a combination of Hebrew, English, and Chinese. In addition to satisfying our craving for Israeli food (we had amazing soup, salad, falafel, hummus, babaganoush, limonana, and rugelach), eating at Imma also provided much-appreciated interaction with Israeli folk. Whereas Taiwanese people are known for being indirect, Israelis are stereotypically direct and straightforward. Interacting with someone from a culture so familiar to us was AMAZING, and we had a lot of fun observing the clash of cultures between this restaurant owner and the Taiwanese patrons at the next table. He approached them loudly and spoke the same mix of Chinese, English, and Hebrew, and many of them giggled behind their hands and didn’t quite know how to respond to him.
But beyond the entertainment, it was fascinating to hear this man’s perspective as a Jew living in southern Taiwan, where there aren’t too many others. We found it interesting that he described his experience as a Jew, rather than as an Israeli, grouping us in the same category as him despite our different nationalities. He spoke to us about how even though Taiwanese people and Jews share three core values - family, education, and money (haha!) - the way these values play out is different. However, he felt that the different views both hold validity because both the Chinese and the Jewish people have been around for a long time. He said that if he were American or European, he’d recognize that the Chinese have been around for longer and must therefore know what’s real more so than him. However, because he is Jewish and because our people have also been around for thousands and thousands of years, he knows what’s real too, and feels justified expressing his opinion when it clashes with Taiwanese culture. It was fascinating to hear him speak of his travel experiences with his Taiwanese wife (whom we met!) and the cultural challenges he faces because his three children attend Taiwanese schools. It was overall an incredible experience, and when we thanked him at the end end he hugged and kissed us both, reminding us that our meeting was not only a meaningful experience for the two of us but for him as well.

Right after dinner, we went to the Tainan Flower Night Market. It was different from the one in Kaohsiung because it was set up on one huge parking-lot-like, square-shaped paved area rather than running along city streets. Food truck after food truck after food truck, game after game after game .... It was such a Taiwanese experience - that we are now very familiar with - to be amid the swarms of families, couples, and friends out enjoying a fun time together.
The next morning we stopped at a large and beautiful Confucius temple. It was right off of a major road, but as soon as we passed through the gates we felt as though we were in a different place altogether, as it was quiet and the trees and pointed rooftops created an air of peacefulness.

Afterwards we went to Anping district, where we explored Fort Zeelandia. When the Dutch colonized Taiwan in the 1620s, they settled in Tainan, and building this fort was one of their first priorities. Today, the only part of the original structure that remains is the outermost wall, but the inside has been restored. We enjoyed walking the grounds and taking in the view of Tainan from the top of the watchtower. We also had a chance to see some Dutch art on site. Seeing Western art for the first time in a while felt out of place at a historic site in Taiwan, where we’d usually expect to see more Eastern style art. However, we realized that this colonial history and culture is nonetheless a contributing factor to what Taiwan is today. 

Just down the street from the fort, there is a “Tree House,” but it’s not like any tree house we had ever seen before. In fact, neither of us had ever seen anything quite like this anywhere else in the world- check out the pictures below to see why! We’ll let the pictures speak for themselves because we weren’t able to take away much history at the Tree House, as the types of information that the signs offered are quite different than what we’re used to reading at historic sites and museums back at home. This is pretty common throughout Taiwan, so we wanted to share a couple of signs that we noticed at the fort because they’re such perfect examples of the information boards we tend to read at museums and historic sites here. You’ll see in the photos below that English translations are sometimes riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, while in other cases, there are simply funny-sounding phrases that native speakers wouldn’t use, such as “portraying the beauty and sadness of olden days.” It’s a good reminder to us that cross-cultural education isn’t just about learning information about or the language of another culture; it also involves being open to having that information presented in a foreign way.

Closing thoughts

One idea that we’ve both noted in our blogs before is the importance of expanding our worldview. Our worldview certainly expanded ten months ago when we made the switch from simply learning about Taiwan from afar to experiencing it firsthand. But our understanding of Taiwan also grows each time we travel to another part of the country. Earlier in the year, we might have assumed that most of Taiwan is like our home county, but now we are getting a better feel for the diversity that Taiwan encompasses.
This weekend, we saw a wide variety of environments. We walked along narrow winding back roads to get to our hostel, yet also passed countless open fields during our train rides. We spent time in nature as well as in bustling downtown districts. Throughout our trip, we were trying to figure out how to describe Kaohsiung and Tainan in a nutshell, especially as compared to our home counties in northern Taiwan. Again and again, we circled back to the idea that it is hard to generalize because there is always so much individual difference within one whole. 
A fascinating article we both recently read about cultural difference in the workplace supports this by noting that “ makes much more sense to talk about cultures of professions, rich versus poor, free versus oppressed, than about cultures of countries.” It is not always accurate or appropriate to group things together based on what might be their most obvious differences. We are grateful for trips like this one which enable us to move beyond simply contrasting the broad differences between the US and Taiwan and push us to instead reevaluate our understanding of Taiwan to account for its diversity.