Interview With Zach And Shay: Teaching English in Taipei

This month we talk to a young couple about their time teaching English in Taipei. Zach and Shay are high school sweethearts who made the move to Taiwan from Chicago. Read on to hear about their unique and interesting insights into Taiwanese culture and their observations on life in Taiwan.

Hi Guys! Thanks for joining us today. Let’s start with a short introduction, please. 

Zach and Shay, Hiking

Hiking Wuliaojian

To start, our names are Zach and Shay. We are both in our early twenties. We met in high school, and we have been together ever since (seven years). Our hometown is the suburbs of Chicago, but we both lived in the city for five years while attending university.

Zach:  I attended DePaul University in Chicago where I studied Political Science. I love living in big cities. The crowds, the nightlife, and diversity of environments are all big draws for me. At the same time, I love getting away from said city and its high-energy and high-traffic life and out into nature and its tranquility.

Shay: I spent a ridiculous amount of money studying architecture at the School of  Art institute in Chicago. However, I like to tell myself it was all worth it because I loved my major (and still do). After graduation, instead of jumping the gun on an unpaid internship while simultaneously working vampire hours in a bar, I decided to take a break and let the spirit of travel float me away- beginning in Taiwan.

How did you and Zach decide on Taiwan for a teaching destination?

Well, both of us studied abroad during our college years. Shay visited Copenhagen and studied architecture and urban planning. Zach went to Ireland and worked in their parliament and studied for a semester. So, for us, travel and living abroad was something that was embedded in our ethos and something we both wanted to do.

Zach:  Specifically speaking, one day when I was walking back from class I just had an epiphany and called Shay to tell her we should spend at least a year abroad, living in a country rather than travelling as tourists. She didn’t take much convincing and, therefore, we began our search in earnest. After volunteering was nixed due to financial considerations (thanks a lot Sallie Mae), we stumbled upon a connection for teaching in Taiwan. After hours of online research on the subject (teaching) and the destination (Taiwan) we found Reach To Teach. Shay sent an email. We started our TEFL course.  We finished our TEFL certification and the application process. Alas, though, none of it seemed real until the day of my graduation when Carrie called us while we were sitting in a Mexican restaurant with a little buzz going and told us we had been offered jobs. 18 days later we were on a plane to Taipei. The rest is history.

Shay: Yep.

Would you recommend Taiwan as a teaching destination? If you would, what would you say about Taiwan?

We both highly recommend teaching English in Taiwan. We did some initial research in other countries prior to our decision and certainly came across other countries that offer a higher pay or different benefits. But, it really comes down to the culture of Taiwan being the biggest draw and what is keeping the two of us here for an additional year. That being said, it is still very easy to save money. Teachers in Taiwan are in the top 10 percentile of earners and compared to the standard of living, one can easily save up a few extra bucks to send home each month.

In general, teaching here is a relatively easy job if you are willing to put the work in, if you have a fun and outgoing personality and if you understand what you are getting into.  At the same time, people who come here have to understand that not everyone can be a teacher.  You must be willing to be goofy and fun, but you must also be willing to be loud and authoritative.  But, alas, that is something most people already know.

Finally, there are some frustrations that come with working here.  The most annoying one for us, and for many other fellow teachers, is the lack of communication within the workplace.  It seems to us, at the very least, that the workplace and the job would go much smoother if management and co-workers would just tell you exactly how to do something and/or tell you what the problem is. The second main one would be that there is a distinct possibility you will be working six days a week, which can become exhausting.  So, clearly, that must be taken into consideration.

Were your first few months in Taiwan particularly challenging? What are some challenges that you had to face together?

Well, when you decide to up-and-move halfway around the world, you are going to face many challenges. The biggest universal difficulty here is language. The first few months are spent pointing at food and hoping it’s what you think it is. There are times when the barrier can make you feel helpless in situations where you would normally have complete control over back home. To alleviate this difficulty and make your experience here even more enjoyable, Taiwan is an amazing place to learn Chinese. But, in the end, whether you learn Chinese or not, it is not insurmountable because enough people speak enough English here to get by.

Staring. Lots of staring. Unabashed, blatant picture-snapping staring. Sometimes you feel like a celebrity, other times you feel like punching someone. The good news is that you’ll get used to it or at least become immune to it.

Moving on, we wanted to quickly talk about something that couples may face if they choose to come here together. Before we moved here, we had lived together for three years. When we moved here, then, we chose to do the same thing. The difference being, though, that the apartment we moved into here is the size of a prison cell. (This is not something that happens to everyone but, rather, is a result of our naivety and impatience while choosing housing in Taiwan.) Living with another person in such a small and confined space on the other side of the world can and probably will be stressful. It was for us. Ultimately, though, we came out stronger and more prepared for anything in the future.

Zach and Shay in Taiwan

Photo by Zach and Shay

Let’s start with the “bad” news; the lack of a “personal bubble.”  By this we mean that in the United States/North America the people seem to understand themselves and others as having a “personal bubble.”  We walk, drive, stand, etc., at least a majority of people anyway, in a way that minimizes the chances of disrupting other people. It is a sort of cultural social contract.

One of the things that you will quickly notice while living here is the people’s seeming disregard for other people around them. It is a seemingly endless focus on themselves and their endeavors.

You will take an umbrella to the head, whether it is raining or sunny.

No one will move to the center of the MRT in order to make room for people getting on.

People on iPads/iPods/iPhones and various other technological devices will not pick their heads up and, if given the chance, will walk right into you.

A walk symbol for pedestrians is merely a suggestion to stop for drivers of scooters, taxis, and other vehicles.

In summation, this is something you will probably notice. It isn’t rude. It’s just their culture and their cultural social contract. But, it will probably annoy you.

Now, the “good” news:

People:  The people in Taiwan are incredibly accommodating, helpful, polite, and a number of other superlatives. Part of this is no doubt due to their pursuit of “saving face,” but for us it also seems to be much more than that. It seems to be an honest, sincere pursuit to interact and assist foreigners, and it seems each other, whenever they can. We can guarantee that if you were to stand around looking lost, you would be approached and helped within minutes. For example, two of our friends were lost trying to find a beach north of Taipei and were approached by a few middle-aged Taiwanese people who proceeded to bring them to their beach house, invite them in, invite them back, and then take them to the beach.  This is not something that is uncommon or unheard of either. (And, no, it is not a dumb idea to get into a car with Taiwanese people. Taiwan is incredibly safe. No stranger danger here.)

Food in Taiwan:  Food is everywhere here, which causes you to think about it constantly. Making matters worse, or better, is that the abundant food is amazingly delicious and the selection is fantastically diverse.  Whether it is night markets, restaurants of varying culture and cuisine, or just random street vendors, it is consistently good. You get the point. (Must tries: Taiwanese “$100” restaurants, dan bing, and cong zhua bing.)

Diversity of Environments: In Taiwan, at least in Taipei where we live, there is an amazing amount of diverse and seemingly incompatible environments. Within the matter an hour you could spend your time in the concrete jungle or in the actual jungle. You could be on a flat street at a night market crawling with people and filled with stands, or on a mountain crawling with wildlife and filled with trees and bamboo, all just an MRT ride away. The possibilities are endless. This makes escaping the city life and its pressures easy. It also makes living in a big city mind-bogglingly simple. Taiwan is truly a place where you can experience everything that is good about the world, and it is all packaged in a relatively small and convenient package. What’s not to love?

What is your favorite travel destination in Taiwan?

So far we feel like we haven’t traveled enough in Taiwan, but we are staying another year so we hope to accomplish much more before we leave. From what we have experienced in our time here, we have two places that stand out in our minds. The first is Taroko Gorge, located in Hualian. This is Taiwan’s version of the Grand Canyon, but instead of red stone it is made of white marble. The second Wuliaojian, located near Taipei. This is a challenging, fun and beautiful hiking trail up one of Taiwan’s many gorgeous mountains. We’ve tackled quite a few hiking trails in our time here thus far, but this one has been the most spectacular, though not the safest.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about? 

Toroko Gorge, Hualien, Taiwan

Toroko Gorge, Photo by Shay and Zac

In conclusion, we feel that whether you travel in Taiwan (you most definitely should) or somewhere else in this wonderful world, you must embrace BOTH the similarities and differences in Taiwanese culture. We have seen amazing similarities between the people here in Taiwan and people back home. In general, people all over the world have incredible resiliency, adaptability and drive. Accepting this is something that really helps you accept and adapt to living abroad. At the same time, you must be willing to accept the dissimilarities as well. Some will be irritating and seemingly irrational. Others will be amazing and eye opening. But, they all are important. Living abroad has proven to us to be the greatest and most effective mirror into understanding our culture and ourselves. We have learned more here from observing those around us and ourselves than it is possible to learn in any classroom. It has been and will continue to be a truly amazing experience.

In summation, jump into the deep end and travel.  You will be rewarded.

Do you have any favorite blogs or websites about Taiwan that you’d like to share with our readers?

Shout out to:

Hungry Girl in Taipei

Travel Asia – My Several Worlds

Traveling Vanilla Bean

Hopefully we will get our own up and running soon!

We can’t wait until you do. Thanks for a terrific interview! 

 

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