Interview With Kelly Chapeskie
Want to know about living, teaching and eating in Taiwan from someone who is currently doing just that? I thought you might. Here’s an interview with world traveler Kelly Chapeskie from Ontario, Canada. She moved to Taiwan through Reach To Teach in late 2013, and is currently living the dream in Kaohsiung. She’s funny, talented, beautiful, and an amazing teacher as well as a fantastic writer. And I’m not just saying that because we’re friends!
OK, Kelly, thanks for your time! First, how about taking a second to tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in Canada, and have enjoyed the taste of travel from a young age. In particular, I’ve enjoyed the experience of not just traveling to new places, but also of living there. I’ve lived in France, England, Ghana, Tanzania, and I’m now living in Taiwan. I’ve generally tried to explore as much as physically (and financially) possible within these countries and outside of them. I think this has a big connection with my undergraduate work in religious studies and anthropology, and my later MA in the Anthropology of Food. Which would bring me to a big bit about myself: I love food!
What inspired you to try teaching abroad?
After completing my MA, I was experiencing a bit of a dilemma. From London and then Tanzania, I had returned to Canada to write my dissertation. I had the intention of settling down there, but after a few weeks I caught myself eyeing almost any plane flying overhead. I also caught myself in what seemed to be a jobless environment. Not to mention, a cold and snowy winter was fast approaching. In the midst of a lot of self-questioning, it was in a yoga class that the revelation came to me: “Why not teach English somewhere fabulous and hot?”
I didn’t look to Taiwan right away. I weighed a lot of options, and I hope to one day also encounter the other countries I was considering. But with a lot of research and perhaps a little (or a lot) of serendipity, I found myself accepting an offer with RTT at a small school in Changhua, Taiwan. I’m very grateful I did!
What was something you have done in Taiwan that you never expected to do?
Stay! I thought I was coming for one year and that I’d move on to another country after my contract was completed. But there is still so much I want to see and do, I couldn’t bring myself to leave. Taiwan has a lot to offer culturally and linguistically, and the landscapes and cityscapes are so diverse. I didn’t expect it, but one year turned out to be very insufficient! I’ve felt this sort of connection in other places as well, but this is the first time I’ve been able to justify staying abroad financially. I’ve changed cities and schools, and so far this has already opened up a whole new experience of Taiwan. There’s still so much to learn!
Tell us about an experience at your school that you’ll never forget.
Nearing the end of my last contract, I was finding it very difficult to say goodbye to my kindergarten class. I had been teaching them for two and a half hours every morning for a year. As you can imagine, in an environment of song, dance, art and story, the connection we created was incredibly strong and I feel real love for them. I tried to convince myself in my final days at the school that it was the best thing for me to move on, and that it would benefit them as well. I thought, “They can’t have the same teacher forever!” Yet I was having my doubts.
Well, on one of my last days, one of my students had forgotten his socks. The only student with a spare pair decided she didn’t want to share them with him. When I asked why she didn’t want to share, the entire class started singing in its entirety, Raffi’s “Sharing Song”—one of the many songs I had taught them throughout the year. In that moment, choking back a tear, I knew I had done my job, and that it was time for them to gain a fresh perspective from a new teacher and for me to feel good about moving on. I still miss my students in that class greatly (including the troublemakers), and I can say that with each of these little individuals I have had moments I hope to never forget.
The standard of living here isn’t exactly the same as where you’re from in Canada. How has it been, dealing with these differences on a daily basis?
I understand ‘standard of living’ as something that’s very relative in so many ways.
I would say my income over my expenses is much greater here than in Canada. I have a much higher purchasing power. My apartment is bigger, I can afford things I probably wouldn’t afford in Canada, and while living very comfortably, I am able to send a good deal of money toward my insane bank loans every month.
Yet my access to certain things is also limited. It is sometimes difficult to find basic (and comfort) things that are definitely taken for granted in Canada. Good cheese and yogurt are a start. But even what I thought were simple things, for example low SPF sunscreen (less than 50) and non-whitening creams and foundations are incredibly rare. I haven’t been able to buy new shoes or pants in about a year either, because my feet are too big, and I’m much taller than the average Taiwanese woman. For almost anything, what might seem a simple task generally turns out to be not-so-simple. My embarrassing disability in spoken and written Chinese is certainly no help!
The thing is, while this can make life seem quite difficult, there is typically a reason why we can access certain things more easily than others. And that’s part of the journey of exploring a new place. There are a plethora of other things to try out, and along the way of experiencing a new and different (neither lower nor higher) standard of living, you can learn a lot about the language and culture of your new surroundings.
What has been the toughest thing to get used to in Taiwan?
The language in Taiwan. Without a doubt. I’ve done fairly well in the past with other languages, but this was my first encounter with Chinese. To wrap my head around the tones and the writing has been an incredibly daunting task. I think this is one of the reasons I’m choosing to stay on here. There’s no way I can leave without attempting to tackle it in a real way. Here’s hoping I can!
What are some of the great things about living in Taiwan?
The people are so amazingly friendly. Despite the language barrier, if you flash a smile, you’re certain to receive a grin from ear to ear in response. I’ve received a great deal of help from whom I call my travel angels here in Taiwan. These are people who appear from what seems to be out of nowhere, and seeing my confused, foreign face (I look confused a lot here), they scoop me up and help me out in whatever way it is that I need. This can be help found in booking a train ticket, finding an address, checking into a hotel, entering credit into a phone, ordering from a menu, or completing any other imaginable daily task.
If you don’t encounter a travel angel in the moment you need it, Taiwan has an amazing hotline you can call, iTaiwan, with 24-hour assistance for foreigners. They will help you with any difficulty you might encounter, and they’ll even translate for you in (one of many) moments of linguistic uncertainty. It can be difficult to rely on strangers so much, but it’s also humbling, and it is one of the most profound and overall positive aspects of living here. I can’t imagine surviving here without the generous help I’ve received along the way.
Have you had the chance to travel around much during your time here?
I’ve been able to explore a fair bit of Taiwan, but I still have so much I want to see of the country. I made it to the Philippines and Hong Kong around Chinese New Year, but I still have so much I want to see of Asia.
The jobs here are quite demanding, and vacation time is limited. The work ethic in Taiwan is intense, and it took my first year to really adapt to it. This is another reason I’ve chosen to stay in the country. Everything is so close, and flights are cheap all around the area. Now that I understand the system a bit, and hopefully as I’m spending less energy adapting to the way of life here, I can take greater advantage of my awesomely strategic location.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about coming to Taiwan to teach English?
First of all, you should come! It’s pretty wonderful here. And if you do, try to keep an open mind and stay positive. There will be down sides as there are to any job or place, but if your attitude is positive and if you show up ready to learn as much as you’ll teach in Taiwan, you can be very happy here.
People will help you, so be ready to accept help. Get a language exchange partner or find a Taiwanese friend to have a regular language/cultural exchange with. It will really open up a new world to you. Get a bicycle or a scooter—it will let you see more of your new place. If you’re tall, especially a tall girl, bring a couple of good pairs of jeans that fit well, and a few options for shoes. The weather in Taiwan can vary from quite cool to hot—so boots, shoes and sandals are all nice to have, and with a lot of walking you wear them out… and you’ll struggle to replace any!
Overall, I’d say bring an adventurous spirit. You can easily find whatever rhythm it is you want to fit into here, but it’s also nice to step outside of your comfort zone once and awhile. You’ll see a lot more of what this awesome country has to offer, and you’ll be all the richer for it.
In closing, sum up your experience in Taiwan so far.
Inspiring. Intriguing. Frustrating. Delicious. There are so many other adjectives I could use but I think these four sum it up nicely. I’m inspired by the wonderful people that surround me here, both Taiwanese and foreign. The work itself is even inspiring! Life here is intriguing and often leaves more questions than answers. I’m constantly learning, and constantly wanting to learn more. This can also be what makes it frustrating. I generally always feel inadequate or even childlike with the amount of basic cultural and social skills that I ridiculously lack. At the end of the day however, it’s delicious. The overall feeling (outside of food) is delightful, but also, the array of affordable local, international and fusion foods make living here a very worthwhile and tasty adventure.
Cheers, Kelly, thanks again!
If you’d like to hear more about Kelly’s amazing journey, follow her blog here.