“Get in over your head, as often, and as joyfully as possible”
I survived my first week teaching. And I learned, among other things, that there is a good reason that actual teachers go to school for a few years first. Although, to be fair, some English schools do have a training program of sorts for their foreign teachers. One of the better known schools has a two week training period and a very structured curriculum, making it, so I’m told, much easier to learn how to teach. My school, however, threw me right to the dogs. The learning curve is like a South American highway. Live or die; there is no middle ground.
All that said, it wasn’t that bad. I thought I would have a hard time with speaking in front of a group, but that is the least of my worries. When I think about it, I’m actually pretty impressed with my ability to wing it – and the fact that I’m doing this at all. I’m still operating in an otherwordly haze. What worries me more, however, is that I’m not doing it right, that they won’t learn anything. I want so badly to be an effective teacher, and while I’m getting the hang of filling the time, making games and going through the textbook, I don’t know whether or not they’re actually learning anything from me. I suppose I’ll find out at exam time!
The younger kids have been the biggest challenge. With them, it’s far less teaching, and more crowd control. I kept thinking last week that I needed to keep changing the activity lest they get bored, but it turns out they don’t have the longest attention spans and repetition – while boring to me, is exactly what they need. I’m still figuring out what levels each of my classes are at. I have eleven different classes to teach, and each one, even if technically they are the same grade, their ability levels are all over the map. So it will take some time and experimentation to figure it out. I always want to be good at things right away; I’m terrible at this patience thing.
I am enjoying the older classes. They are more responsive and I feel like they understand a lot more of what I’m saying (although, to a certain extent, I’m sure I sound like Charlie Brown’s mom to all of them). One of my older classes (around 11-12 years old) is hilarious. They remind me of family dinners back home. They get along really well as a group and they have enough of a grasp of English to insult each other. All through class. And quite creatively, too. One day, we were reviewing some vocabulary and I asked them to make a sentence with the word “healthy” in it. So one kid goes: “P. is not healthy because he is fat.” And later, we were making sentences with conjunctions in them and P. wrote on the whiteboard: “G. is cute, but everyone hates him.” And they all just laugh and laugh.
Friday night after school, Madalyn and I took the train into Taipei. We met up with a friend of Madalyn’s from high school who is also teaching, and with Janice and her friends. She’s going home to Vancouver this week so this weekend was a going away bash for her. On Saturday a group of us went to the beach. It was glorious. After all week teaching, laying in the sun like a lizard and playing in the ocean was the perfect de-stressor.
Taiwanese are funny about the ocean. There is a small cordoned off section of the water that you are allowed to swim in. And by swim, I mean wade. It’s essentially a kiddie pool in the ocean. Periodically they play an announcement over the loud speaker, in 4 different languages, warning people to stay inside the “swimming district” for your own safety. And should you venture beyond the ropes, the life guards race over in their quads, screech their whistles and yell at you to get you back into the swimming pen. Taiwanese people can’t swim. They’re afraid of the water – funnily enough, even though they live on an island. They believe that there are ghosts in the water and if you go too far out, they will grab you and pull you down. And September, being ghost month, is especially dangerous. Also, according to the Lonely Planet, you should not swim near the locals, because they could try to copy you, and drown.
And then we went out to experience a bit of Taipei’s night life. The mating rituals in the bar are just as gross here as they are in North America. It’s funny how things can be so different and yet so much the same.
Turns out the rumors of foreign guys coming to Asia to pick up Asian girls are all too true. Only, it goes both ways. Being with a white guy is a status thing for some Asian girls – not unlike the bridgaderas in South America. Taiwanese men, on the other hand, seem to be intimidated by North American women – we’re too loud and aggressive than what they’re used to. They sure stare alot – everyone does, especially in Taoyuan where there is only a small handful of foreigners – but when you catch them at it, and smile back, they turtle. They smile too, but in an embarrassed, “oops you caught me” kind of way. No wolf whistles to be heard around here!
I had a mini freak out on Sunday. I woke up after a night of dreaming about work. I always seem to dream about new jobs. I hope it’s advantageous to the job in the long run, because it sure is annoying now. Also, I haven’t been sleeping well all week. There’s too much going on in my head and I’m still feeling some residual jet lag. So, I woke up on Sunday on another teacher’s couch in Taipei, after a crappy night’s sleep, with a racing heart and all sorts of panicked thoughts running through my head. It was like everything had just hit me all at once. Am I really half way across the world, teaching English? Why did I think this was a good idea? A year?! How am I going to do this for a year?! Should I extract myself from this crazy experiment? What would I do instead? All I wanted to do was curl up on my couch at home and watch hours of TV.
Madalyn and I headed back to Taoyuan, with me still in a state. Apparently she had had a similar episode last Sunday, so she understood just what I was going through. I am so grateful that she’s here too. If it was just me, all alone in Taoyuan with no one else to talk to and hang out with, except the kids at school… it would be a lot more difficult, and significantly less fun. So, instead of doing lesson plans when we got back to the apartment -which we really should have, we went for a scooter ride and explored Taoyuan county. It was great fun. We found a great restaurant, and a foot massage joint. There are a lot of massage parlours in Taiwan, and some are of the “happy ending” variety. Being illiterate in this country, it’s difficult to discern which is which. We decided to take our chances on one, and just pointed at the others getting their feet worked on.
Two young Taiwanese boys waited on us, and tried very hard to make conversation with their limited English and our horrendous lack of Chinese. At one point, they were trying to upsell us, but we weren’t sure where, exactly, they were heading with it. At first the one boy said: do you like massage? We replied in the affirmative, even though at that exact moment, he was trying to remove my pinky toe. He paused, digging for the right words, and followed with, “do you like.. um… other massage?” Madalyn and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. The boys were confused. Turns out, he meant a regular shoulder massage, which we assented to and it was lovely. I will definitely be a repeat customer there. My feet take such a beating at this job, and I’m slowly getting over my guilt at making people touch my feet.
After floating out of the massage parlour, we attempted to make our way back to the apartment, and got completely lost. We went the wrong way, wound up on the freeway and rode about an hour into Taoyuan county. There are a few cities in Taoyuan county and right now, they all look really similar so we weren’t even aware that we had left Taoyuan city until the road took us into the countryside. Evidently, we had gone through about four cities. In retrospect, a map would have been a good idea. We stopped at a gas station for gas and directions and one man who was there filling up and spoke English enlightened us to our mistake. He told us we had a lot of courage to take the scooter on the highway (I learned later that this is quite illegal and we could have gotten a big ticket) and literally saluted us. He pointed us back in the right direction, and said “god bless”, as though to further emphasize how much help we needed.
We made it back safe and sound, and exilerated. My freak out had completely dissapated. How could I throw in the towel when this is my life now? Every day is overwhelming and challenging and fun, and it’s all such a grand adventure. Being in over your head is a good thing, even though it doesn’t necessarily feel all that good. That’s the point though – growing pains are just that. As Chuck Thompson says, “comfort is the enemy of creativity“.