It’s been five months since my husband and I left Taipei, Taiwan, our home for the past two years, to move back to the States. We returned just in time for Portland’s Fourth of July festivities where we celebrated with family and friends. Neighborhood houses were decorated with American flags, and streets were closed to traffic so that kids could jump in bouncy houses, get their faces painted, and march their pets in a parade. Families hosted backyard beerfests, karaoke and talent shows. The day was filled with hot dogs and hamburgers, potato salads, and berry pies and literally ended with a bang: an awesome display of fireworks. Perhaps I was jet-lagged and experiencing reverse culture shock, but our homecoming felt very surreal to me. I felt out of place in this world that should have been very comfortable.
Teaching and traveling are my passions, and teaching abroad had always been on my bucket list. Just over two years ago, the opportunity presented itself (via Twitter, no less!) and within months I took a leave from my teaching job and started making arrangements with my husband, Lutz, (a retired college professor who shares this same passion) to rent our house, sell our cars and find a good home for our dog. I wanted to know all about Taiwan, so I spent time doing my homework by researching all I could about our soon-to-be new home.
A recurring theme that kept surfacing was the friendliness of the Taiwanese people. We found this to be very true. We were welcomed into homes, treated like family and invited on trips. Our new friends wanted to show us all of Taiwan: the temples, food, hot springs, mountains, beaches, night markets – you name it, we were included. Taiwanese hospitality was above and beyond what we had ever expected – this I will treasure the most. But like any experience abroad, it came with distinct challenges.
For instance, learning Mandarin is not easy! Now that I’m back, people ask me if I can speak Chinese and I embarrassingly admit that I can’t. Their responses are usually the same: “What? You lived there for 2 years and can’t speak the language”? It’s a good thing that I had Google translate on my phone, but communication would often get mixed up even with these modern technological tools. I know that if I had been able to speak the language a whole other layer of Taiwan would have presented itself. Luckily, most Taiwanese speak very good English.
At times, teaching itself also was quite the hair-raising experience. Large classes (42 kids to a class) with no teaching assistants was challenging. And, the Taiwanese expectation is that behavior problems are all dealt with in class; the principal is not involved in disciplinary action and parental contact is discouraged except in extreme cases. Despite this, my relationships with my kids were great, all 84 of them, and I do miss them – even the ones who gave me grey hair! One of the benefits of staying a second year was that I was able to loop with my classes. This allowed me to bond not only with my students but with their families as well.
Living back in the states, I’ve boycotted Chinese restaurants that serve greasy, gooey, Americanized Chinese food – not the real, fresh authentic cuisine we ate in Taiwan. We’re still trying to settle in: we’ve unpacked our household goods from storage, we’re about to purchase a car, and we’ve retrieved our dog. There’s not a day that goes by where my husband and I don’t mention something about our experience in Taiwan.
Two years is a long time to spend in a different country; it’s just enough time to begin to feel a part of it. By the end of our journey, I loved most everything about Taiwan: the people, the culture, the food, and the country, and I realized that I was becoming Taiwanese! No wonder I was so conflicted when I returned home, as living in Taipei has helped me to see the world from a more global perspective.