After graduating from university in 2007, I found myself nearing the age of 27 and unsure about what to do with my life. I’d graduated later than typical new graduates, but I’m glad I’d waited to attend college until I was 23. I had some experience out there with real-world jobs and I was more mature than I would have been if I’d graduated at 23. I was armed with a degree in English and a passion and desire to explore the world, to learn about different cultures. I wanted to travel. I didn’t want to get stuck in another boring, uninspiring job — jobs I’d had since I’d turned 18. Since I’d been a little girl, foreign lands had always called to me. I dreamed of the adventures I could have out there, but never imagined that one day such adventures would come to be.
The panic that I would never travel came to me after completing a study abroad program in Ireland my last semester of college. I was captivated with Ireland, and, by the time I returned back to the states, the travel bug had bitten –HARD. However, I also was caught up in the drama of a failing 8-year relationship. I knew he and I were wrong for each other but for some reason I kept holding on. At that time, I also started thinking about teaching in Taiwan. I remember my ex laughing at me and saying I would never be able to do it. That I’d never be able to leave the United States and my family behind. For some reason, those words infuriated me and made me much more determined to start a new life for myself.
Letting go wasn’t easy, but it happened and it was right. For a year, I looked into teaching in Taiwan, did research, and secured a job through a recruiter (something I strongly advise AGAINST). If I’d known better, I would have just showed up in Taiwan to look for a job. But I left the U.S. at the age of 28, ready to begin a fresh chapter, at a time when other people were worried about getting married and having babies.
The first three months in Taiwan were a whirlwind. The culture shock wasn’t that bad. I remember the crowds, the scooters, the blaring musical garbage trucks, flashy stores and trying to cross the street without being run over. I remember learning my first Chinese words and the pride I felt ordering food from somewhere other than 7-Eleven or Family Mart. I found all that exciting. However, I also worked in a horrible cram school in the city of Sanxia, a city in close proximity to Taipei. The school was awful. Foreign teachers were treated no better than dancing puppets for the school owner and his employees. Many of the students were spoiled and uninterested in learning English. Their parents forced them to attend and it was obvious many of the students hated every moment spent inside. I luckily found a new job at a school in Hsinchu, along the northwestern coast of Taiwan. I spent the next year living and teaching there. Students at this particular school were much easier to teach (except the pre-teen and teenage boys, who were especially difficult). It was a good experience, but at the end of the first year, I found myself wanting to escape the chaos of the city. Yet, I’d learned a lot in Hsinchu. I learned that I could chase after my dreams and make them reality. I was beginning to learn how to face my fears. I learned how to drive a scooter. Using Taiwan as a launch-off point, I visited Thailand and had the chance to get up close with elephants, which had been another of my dreams.
After the completion of my one-year contract in Hsinchu, I was blessed to find a job in Puli, central Taiwan. Puli is a beautiful, mountainous region. It was here where I truly fell in love with the country. My students were wonderful (I was one of two teachers at the school where I worked) and I felt respected, like I was actually making a difference in their lives. Especially the younger students, some of whom went from knowing no English to texting me on my cellphone by the end of that second year. I made friends in Puli, and continued to visit the friends I’d made in Hsinchu and Taipei. I spent many days riding my scooter through the Taiwanese countryside and around the mountains. I took a mini road trip on my own, driving my scooter from Hsinchu to Puli. I explored Puli with new friends. I fell even more in love with Taiwanese food and bubble tea. My Chinese improved — though it never became more than about a three-year old speaking level. But I began to feel connected to the country and, oddly enough, more connected to myself than I’d felt in years.
Everything came to a halt after a return trip from the Philippines during Chinese New Year. It was March and I’d somehow contracted MRSA on an island-hopping trip. I don’t blame it on the Philippines at all as MRSA is something one can pick up anywhere. Sometime in April, I ended up in a Puli hospital, fighting a deadly infection. I was there almost a week, and when I returned back to work, life just wasn’t the same. I went back to teaching but kept battling repeat bouts of MRSA until June (when I secured some Hibiclens soap from a secret supplier ). I was worn out both physically and emotionally. I still loved Taiwan but questioned if my time in the country was coming to an end. I wondered if my getting sick was a sign I was supposed to leave. However, I agreed to stay on another year with my school and when leaving for a visit home to the U.S. that July, I promised my employers I would return. If I’d have known that I was leaving Taiwan possibly forever, perhaps I would have taken one last drive in the mountains. Ordered one last vegetarian dish from my favorite restaurant. Hugged my students goodbye. Thanked the country for everything it had given me.
But that’s not how life works. We never know what will happen next, what awaits around that next bend in the road.
I came home and experienced the worst reverse culture shock of my life. I remember that first week back in Chicago, visiting my brother in Oak Park. I cried as we walked around the neighborhood — everything overwhelmed me. The amount of wide-open space felt suffocating. I missed the rice fields, the highrise buildings, the dogs, the scooters, the food stands. I missed my students. I missed the kindness of Taiwanese strangers. I missed the sound of all those foreign voices I wanted so badly to understand. I knew my family and friends could not truly understand what I was feeling. I’d been happy to come back to the U.S. and see them again, but I felt so very alone. It was as if all that had happened before and where I was now were fighting for a rightful place in my life. Where did I belong?
I could not drink milk or eat cheese. It took me awhile to adjust to American food again (and to this day I still try to eat a lot of vegetables, fish, tofu and rice).
But slowly, I began to feel like an American again. Taiwan forever changed me — I’m definitely not the same person I was before I’d left the U.S. My “American” views have definitely changed — I’m not ashamed to be an American but I feel I have a different and better understanding of the world around me than I did before. I had a feeling my time (living) in Taiwan had truly come to an end.
After a series of events, and trying to better my health, I decided I would not return to the little sweet potato-shaped island I loved. I questioned my decision, but trusted God that I was making the right choice. My boss in Taiwan cried and begged me to come back, I felt terrible. But I knew that another chapter was about to begin and I was where I was for a reason.
There were nights I cried in my sleep, thinking about the country I’d left behind. Even now, there are moments of fleeting sadness, along with happy memories, when I think of Taiwan.
There are moments where I feel like I want to get out there again and explore the world, instead of being trapped here fighting for my piece of the American Dream (whatever it is). I think it’s different for every U.S. citizen.
But everything happens for a reason, one thing leading to the next, like stepping stones in a pond.
While living in Taiwan, I’d started freelance writing. It was this freelancing that helped me secure a job in the writing world (a career that I’d always dreamed of breaking into), first as a copywriter, and then as a newspaper reporter. My writing goals are still expanding and changing. I’m ready to move on to that next step and that next dream but I know in God’s time, I’ll get there.
Without Taiwan, I don’t know if I would have made it this far in my writing career. There are so many reasons I’m grateful to the country and, as I’ve mentioned before, I hope to one day return. I also hope that for the short, two years I spent in the country, I somehow made a difference.
I recently got engaged to a wonderful man who shares my sense of adventure. Though he’s a Midwestern boy at heart, I hope to bring him one day, as my new husband, to the little Asian country I love and once called home. Very few people know how awesome Taiwan really is and I hope I one day have the chance to share its beauties, mysteries and treasures with him.
So that’s a very basic overview of how and why it all happened.
It’s been about two years since I’ve been back in the U.S. and though I don’t post on this blog as regularly anymore, I still want to keep it out there for people to see and learn from. I hope that the stories I have yet to tell about Taiwan will always remain close to my memory.