Teaching in Asia vs. Central America: One Teacher’s Perspective

Many teachers who are looking to go abroad don’t have a specific location in mind. Rather, they look for a place that will suit both their professional background and their personal wanderlust. The following reflection is from Teacher Courtney, who taught in Costa Rica before joining BGL in Taipei, Taiwan.

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If I was to pick one true, unmatched passion in my life, it would unmistakably be travel. It has been this way since I was a kid. I can remember the excitement and anticipation of family road trips and the joy of gazing out the window at new and inspiring scenery. As I have gotten older, this passion has only intensified to the point where I have strategically weaved my professional career together with my travels. Thus far, I have done so in two very distinctly different locations; San Jose, Costa Rica and Taipei, Taiwan. Each were such extraordinary journeys that were incredibly rewarding.

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I moved to San Jose in the summer of 2008 to complete the final semester of my teaching practicum. Fresh off of a recent trip to Spain and throughout Europe, I was anxious to absorb the culture and customs of the Ticos and put my Spanish skills to the ultimate test. Teaching and living in Central America are two very different experiences. On one hand, days in the classroom are a twisted sonnet of Spanish and English spent with incredibly intelligent, bilingual students. Each day you hone your expertise in the realm of multicultural/multilingual education. On the other hand, the wandering soul in me would take over on the weekends and I would find myself on a different beach, mountain summit or international border. The duality of my lifestyle was so incredibly addicting and exhilarating that I fell in love with my life and in turn, my profession.

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After returning to the States at the end of the year, I submerged myself in the American education system, coupling my newly-acquired understanding of the classroom with learned pedagogy. I found myself facing the unique challenge of educating middle school students who were chronically in and out of homeless shelters and living on the streets of Central Phoenix. It didn’t take long – three years to be exact – before I was ready for another international journey. Due to my previous location, it seemed only natural that I set my sights on a new faction of the Pangea for another professional and personal challenge. My open-minded exploration eventually led me to a unique opportunity teaching in Taipei, Taiwan, for a company based out of Los Angeles, Banyan Global Learning. Needless to say, I was intrigued and thoroughly amped on the idea of traveling to Asia, a portion of the globe on which I had yet to trot.

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As my travels began, I was amazed at how much nervous travel-energy I had, especially in comparison to all of the previous adventures of my life. The thought of literally being on the other side of the world, far from all that I knew and trusted, was paralyzing.

 

However, upon arrival in Taipei, any previous anxiety I had manage to manifest had lifted. I found myself surrounded by an incredibly authentic culture, in many respects untouched by Western influences and yet existing in beautiful harmony with the fluxing world. Winding neighborhoods scattered with temples and shrines, genuine smiles from a truly kind and generous people abounded, and my mind wandered through waves of knowledge, experiences and paths. For the first time in years, I remembered how it felt to be truly alive and acutely aware of how fragile and inspiring life can be.

 

Professionally, I had never before found such a balance of being intensely challenged while simultaneously in awe and inspired by my student prodigies, most of whom were trilingual (speaking Mandarin, Taiwanese and English). For such a young age, they had so much warmth and acceptance toward a new face and new teaching methods. All at once, the teacher in me became the student.

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To say that I wasn’t challenged to my core along the way would be a lie. Navigating a city where you are not only unable to speak the language, but also read the language, was challenging at times. Self-expression became steadfast and much more of an act than a word or phrase. I quickly grew to trust my instincts and appreciate the weight of a kind word or gesture. In hindsight, the duality of this challenge opened me up to strengths in myself I never really knew existed. Unlike my experiences in Costa Rica, where I was able to fall onto my “crutch” of my language abilities, in Taiwan, I had to find other methods. My life in Taipei began to change as I began grasping basic phrases, learning daily from my students and being exposed to an entirely new side of myself. I was slowly assimilating and falling in love with my new home.

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Now, as time has passed (it’s been just over a year since I returned from my incredible Taiwanese adventure), I have had a chance to become accustomed to the normalcies of my native land once again, and I can’t help but reflect. I find myself quick to compare these two very distinctly different travel experiences, weighing the good and the bad in both. Each opportunity was a beautiful balance of professional growth and exposure, accented by an introspective expansion that left me only wanting to see more.

 

When asked which experience trumps the other, or which I would recommend, the lines are blurry and I am not able to make a clear-cut decision. Yet there are a few changes I found in myself that are unmistakable and of which I can be completely. Living in Central America was beautiful and rich with culture, natural beauty and a welcomed proximity. But, my time in Taiwan exposed me to an altered and grander picture of the world and of my personal goals. Living in Southeast Asia made me, without question, a better teacher, a more patient person, far more independent and, above all, acutely aware of my life-long goal to live a life full of authentic, worldwide travel.

 

 

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