Teaching at Neurolink

We’ve been teaching for just over 6 weeks now, so it’s about time we posted something about what our actual reason for coming to Taiwan.

Almost everyone has asked us what the children are like. The short answer is that children are the same everywhere. Some of them are wonderful, some of them are an absolute nightmare. There are students who are excellent at English, some who work very hard, and some who would probably rather put out their own eyes than be in the classroom. Naturally, every teacher has their favourites, and often this is very much due to the teacher’s personality. One teacher in the Changhua school tends to really like the more cocky students, while another finds it rude and disrespectful. Over time, you learn to just accept that everyone has different preferences, and not to get offended when someone says they hate a student you like, or vice versa.

The schools themselves, despite both being Neurolink schools, are quite different. Each school manager expects different things from their teachers, and this creates quite different environments and work ethics. In general, Neurolink has a very good work ethic, and good communication, and the teachers are treated well by the rest of the staff. However, that said, new teachers are expected to fit in with the schools’ systems, and this is often not negotiable. For example, if a lesson is due to finish at 15:50, but you have finished all the work in the course guide by 15:40, the children are not allowed to leave early, and the teacher must fill those remaining 10 minutes with  material. What this material is, is not really important, and teachers have been known to show Youtube videos or play Uno – as long as the students are speaking English, just about anything goes.

Naturally, every school has its problems, and there are definitely days where we have wanted to just throw a course guide at someone and go home early. Some days the admin work is horribly disorganised, and you are only given your classes folder 20 minutes before you are supposed to teach them, and other days you just have something thrust upon you with no explanation or advice, and you are expected to make it happen. The easiest way to deal with the former, is to hover annoyingly in the main office until you get what you need. The latter is something you just accept, and while it has caused more than enough stress and frustration. generally the school staff are equally anxious that everything should go smoothly, so even if you screw it up, someone will pick up the slack. Obviously, not screwing up is ideal, but there is usually a fall-back smoke and mirror show in case of emergencies.

The school system was a little overwhelming at first. There are a lot of aspects to keep track of when planning a lesson: do the students have a spelling test? Which words are being tested? What is the priority for this lesson? Are there flashcards or props you can use to teach the concepts? Worksheets? Reviews? Progress checks? The list goes on. It can be very easy to forget something, or to run out of time and have to rush the book work. This is why lesson plans are strongly encouraged, because they double as a checklist to make sure you get everything done. Once you get into the routine of lesson planning, and wrap your head around the system, it gets easier by the day.

Finally, one of the highlights of teaching at Neurolink is the STEM programme. There has been a pretty speedy move away from the traditional drill school mentality, and the Neurolink schools are introducing an “English in context” approach, using science, technology, engineering and maths (hence, STEM). Unfortunately, this also means more work for the teachers, who have to plan science lessons, experiments, activities, crafts and extra material for the class, but while many teachers seem to dread science lessons, we both really enjoy the variety and the break from the daily routine. Plus, the teachers can learn useful skills while teaching the students – like how to make ice-cream with salt and ice, or how to make jumping origami frogs. Ok, perhaps not the most useful skills, but certainly a lot more fun than verb conjugations!

Markets

Like many Asian countries, street markets are a big part of Taiwanese life. While you can buy all your food from a grocery store on any day of the week, the markets are a cornucopia of variety: fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices, meat, bedding, clothes, shoes and underwear, as well as street food stalls, tea shops and snacks like nuts and dried fruit.

In Changhua, there are two notable markets that we have encountered (so far). The morning market on Changshou St (and surrounds) is particularly good for fresh produce. It suffers from being on the street and so vehicle traffic competes with pedestrian traffic, making it a bit difficult and dangerous to navigate, but the sprawling lines of stalls and stands means you can virtually never see the whole market. Prices are generally excellent, but we’ve found that smaller stalls will give you a much better deal than larger stalls, because they value their reputation and customer relationships more. However, “tourist prices” can be a problem, so we try to only shop at stall where the prices are clearly displayed. Learning to understand numbers in Chinese has been helpful too, as people will generally warm to you quite quickly if you have even a smattering of Chinese! Haggling is an acceptable practice at markets, but it requires a level of confidence neither of us has in English, let alone Chinese. Complimenting a store keeper on a good price is also a good thing to do, but it can take a while to work out what a “good price” is.

The Night Market on Yong’an St is even listen on Google Maps as a point of interest. This market is more like a fair in many ways.There are carnival style games where you can win prizes, stalls selling cheap electronics and factory shop clothes and even pop-up pet shops. Most of the food stalls sell snack food or ready made meals, ranging from sushi, to sweet potato chips, to western style braised steak. We are slightly cautious here, because there are a number of stalls selling traditional dishes such as offal and blood sausages, and it’s not always immediately obvious what anything is. If you don’t like crowded places, then the Night Market is not ideal because you are obliged to move with the flow of people, unless you are stopping to buy. There is very little space for standing around if you are indecisive, and all of the seating area seems to belong to specific stalls, so if you aren’t eating their food you don’t seem to be able to sit there. The stall owners are very friendly on the whole and will try to explain their products to you as best as possible, and if you are confused of indecisive they often see it as their own fault. Again, you can haggle prices, but the market is quite loud, so it can be difficult to hear. Once you get familiar with the market it becomes easy to get a routine going, because the stalls are fairly consistent week-after-week, so if you are going to be in Changhua for a while, it can become a real feature of your Thursday nights!

Getting settled

One of our first priorities for starting an actual life in Taiwan was to find somewhere to live. We were very fortunate in that our school manager spearheaded this process for us, and had a list of potential apartments ready for us, covering a range of sizes, prices and features.

As we mentioned before, Taiwan does not have a strong home cooking culture, so while we had initially hoped to find an apartment with a kitchen, we soon realised that we would have to be more flexible. It’s not that apartments with kitchens don’t exist. In fact the first apartment we visited came with a basic kitchen area (a built in two-ring hob, a sink and counter space for more appliances), but was very much lacking in many of our other requirements, like space to walk around the bed, and a wardrobe, and actual windows. While this apartment was only NT$5000 pm, we weren’t willing to compromise on living space and daylight, and an apartment with both a kitchen and living space was over NT$10 000 pm. The apartment we chose costs NT$6000 pm, for what is essentially a bachelor flat. It came partially furnished, with a bed, a desk, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers, a small fridge and a thumping great flat-screen TV, and has a balcony which doesn’t offer the most scenic view, but gives a bit of extra space which we intend to turn into a small garden. The bathroom is very basic, but Taiwanese people seem to value functionality above all else in terms of bathroom decor, and this does, at least, make it easy to clean!

All of the buildings we looked at had individual electricity meters for each apartment, and a monthly electricity bill is added to the rent, which covered water and internet. However, our building offers a subsidised rate for electricity, which we were very keen on as the 40-plus degree heat makes the airconditioner pretty much essential. The building also has its own laundry room and rubbish room, which are huge perks and not as common as you might expect. The washing machines cost NT$20 per load, which is slightly cheaper than visiting a laundromat, and the rubbish room means we don’t have to chase after the refuse truck ourselves (more on that later).

We are currently working on adding useful things like hooks, bedside tables and shelves, and we intend to buy a few small appliances so that we can occasionally cook for ourselves. Fortunately, we have found an “everything shop” which is an absolute treasure trove of  reasonably priced household items, often items which you didn’t even know you needed until you saw them. This has been an absolute blessing, and our frequent visits have made us very popular with the owners, who have even tried to sell us baby toys as part of our settling in process.

P.S. Although we were lucky enough to have someone to help us find an apartment, there are a number of websites aimed at foreigners in Taiwan, which can be very useful, such as Tealit, Century 21, and ExpatAds.

First impressions

Neither of us has never been on an international flight where the overwhelming majority of the passengers are from the country the plane is going to. It seemed that the entirety of Taiwan was returning from holiday on the same flight. Furthermore, it seemed that everyone on the plane knew each other and there was a constant hum of conversation as each new arrival in the waiting area was welcomed with great enthusiasm. As we would later discover, Taiwanese people are actually just very friendly and find it easy to make conversation with strangers, even across a language barrier.

Our first days in Changhua city found us in a hotel officially called the Sanming Guesthouse (or something to that effect), but the mirrored ceilings and artistic nude paintings and portraits in every room have earned it the popular title of The Love Hotel. A little tacky, yes, but it was clean, our showers were hot, the room was air-conditioned and room service was available every day if we wanted it, and for only R400 (NT$800) per night, we weren’t going to complain about the decor. The koi pond and artificial waterfall on the 10th floor were a nice touch though, and provided the soothing sound of running water at night.

As we arrived the day before a long weekend we had four days to ourselves to just be tourists. Unfortunately it rained for three of them. The heat of Taiwanese summer (which is often in the range of 40°C) is matched only by the intensity with which it rains, making it risky to walk to the corner shop for lunch, let alone to be sightseeing around the city, for fear of drowning. However, in between torrential downpours we made brief forays out into the streets to see what was on offer. Eating out is a factor of every day life in Taiwan, so we were spoiled for choice in terms of places to get food, but as the menus were almost always exclusively in Chinese characters (kangxi) we occasionally had to just guess what things were. Luckily we had apps that could help us decode many of the dishes, and so we often knew the basics of what we were ordering. But, unlike South Africa, where menus will often spell out the contents of a meal, in Taiwan you will find things like “signature dumplings”, with no further description. Foods like pork knuckles or chicken feet tend to be quite clearly labelled as such, though. So if, like us, you are a bit of a cautious eater or have specific dietary requirements, it is easy to avoid any foods you are wary of. People at stands are also very willing to help if they can, and if you aren’t embarrassed to use tourist sign language and talk in single-word sentences, we have found we can get by quite easily.

Despite the heat and the rain (both of which make us feel very lazy), Changhua is always busy. The streets only quieten down around midnight as life happens at strange hours in Taiwan. Except for the 24 hour stores and the morning markets, most places only open after 10:30 am each day, which can make it difficult to shopping done, or find somewhere to have breakfast. But the city comes alive at night. Going out to a bar at 6pm means you will probably be the only people in there for the next three to four hours. Eating dinner, buying a dress, or getting ice-cream at 10pm on a Thursday is completely normal, and some restaurants and shops are only open at night. This has taken some getting used to, and on our first weekend we set out at 9:30am on a Saturday to do some shopping, only to find everything but the department store and the 7/11 closed. However, given that we only finish work after 8pm each night, the ability to still buy a broom or a pack of coat-hangers on the way home is hugely convenient.

These are all just first impressions and as we learn more about our new home we’ll share our experiences and talk more about the people, the country, the culture, and the food!

(Note: Taiwanese people are more passionate about their food than any other nation we have ever encountered. Therefore, we will probably end up talking about that a lot!)