|Taiwan Journal 3|
Over the course of my first few days in Taipei, I became somewhat familiar with the city. Taipei as of 1989 was a very crowded city. Taiwan as a whole had about 10 million people, and about 3 million of them lived on Taipei. Like many cities, Taipei clearly had grown quicker than it was designed to, and it clearly showed. The pollution in Taipei was the worst I have ever experienced. After a long day out in the city, my skin felt gritty, and I could smudge the dirt on my forearm with my finger. It wasn’t unusual to see inhabitants with cloth masks over their mouths to protect their lungs from the grime.
Traffic in Taipei was bad, but probably not as bad as it could have been. Taiwanese hadn’t developed the “I must own a car” mentality that many Americans have. As a result, many of them rode the buses or scooters about the city. Either way could provide quite an adventure. Taiwanese packed themselves into buses in a way that most Americans couldn’t fathom. There would be times when I would be standing in a bus, literally unable to move because I was pressed to tightly against other bodies. Not surprisingly, many Taiwanese women complained about being groped in these situations. Buses could be uncomfortable for me, but riding a scooter with a friend often seemed life-threatening. Many scooter drivers seemed to feel that traffic laws were optional for them, and would routinely run the lights. Hordes of scooters roamed the streets, and they were very popular because someone willing to run the gauntlet of traffic could travel much faster than a car.
It was in this chaotic city that I had to find a job. Luckily, that turned out to not be difficult at all. Rock’s Place itself had a fair number of contacts in Taipei for teaching English. There was no concept of accreditation for teaching English in Taiwan. All I had was a high-school diploma and that was plenty. Some jobs wanted a college degree, but I’m not sure I was ever asked, and I could easily have lied. Mostly, what prospective employers wanted was someone who looked Caucasian and had a pulse. Life could be difficult for Asian-Americans who lived in the U.S. all their lives, spoke perfect English, but didn’t “look the part” of an English Teacher. I, however, was white enough, so I had little difficulty finding work.
My first job was tutoring a couple of high-school girls. The job was quite easy, and I got the sense that their parents were either humoring them or just wanted to keep them occupied. We would do a little bit of academics, but mostly we would spend our hour just chatting. What struck me most about them was how immature they seemed. We were only a year or two apart in age, but we seemed far apart in our worldview. They seemed to me more like American girls of about 13 instead of 18. This held true for other Taiwanese women that I met. I don’t know if this was just me misinterpreting their giggling and eye rolling as immaturity or if Taiwanese women did indeed mature more slowly than their American counterparts.
The second job I got through an agent. These people advertise in the English newspaper in Taipei, and hook up teachers with potential students. The job I got was teaching a class for a company that wanted its employees to learn better English. Although more work, this class was actually much more fulfilling, because I actually felt like I was teaching, and that my students were learning something. I had to be very flexible because the students in the class varied widely in their English ability. Because the class was optional for the student, I tried to make it as fun as possible so they’d show up. We did a lot of role-playing, and I even had them singing along with Neil Young at one point. I taught the class for a few months, then they suddenly told me that they were discontinuing the class and wouldn’t be needing me anymore. I found this frustrating because I had no idea whether this was actually the case, or if they were dissatisfied with my teaching style and wanted to get someone else. I had similar problems throughout my stay in Taiwan. I had trouble knowing when people were being sincere, because Taiwanese culture is steeped with layers of politeness that are hard for a westerner to penetrate. I missed honest feedback and criticism. They probably were actually giving me feedback, but being unfamiliar with the culture, I wasn’t able to interpret it correctly.
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