Monday, December 27, 2010

The Lighter Side of Teaching English in Taiwan

teaching English in Taiwan

I was puzzled why someone so enamored of face creams, hand moisturizers, health food, and enzyme bio-technology would come to Taiwan because it's not known for its fresh air and clean spaces; but then, that was Nicole, a woman from California who I'd met at a youth hostel in Koashiung. She was the first person in my trek around Taiwan with whom I could connect. We roamed around together for two days before I took a bus to Tainan City.

After a few days, I told Nicole to come, she would like the city, and not to waste her time looking for a job in Koashiung, which was noticeably hotter and more polluted. Within days of her arrival in Tainan, she got a job at the YWCA and she hinted to me they were looking for other teachers. Nicole had no intention of staying very long, just long enough to pick up a check before returning to California; this gig would just cover her travel. I, on the other hand, was going to be staying for longer than two months and wanted something more substantial and after viewing the grungy classrooms and the silly teaching schedule at the YWCA, I decided it was not where I wanted to work.

While touring around Tainan the next day, I saw a large billboard for an Anderson's School on the fourth floor of a high-rise. I took the antiquated elevator up and asked the two secretaries if I could see the boss. 'He not here,' the older one said. 'He back later.' I ducked into the classrooms and thumbed through their work books, then went out to a fruit stand across the street to wait for George, director of the school. Ten minutes into my mango juice I spotted the secretary waving and shouting at me from the front of the building. 'Boss man here now,' she yelled. George was a tall, handsome but sullen piece of work with brylcreemed jet black hair slicked back to the top of his collar. He hired me with very few questions asked and barely looked at me during our interview.
'One of our teachers is leaving,' he said. 'Bring your resume tomorrow.'
How easy was that, I thought. Christ, I could be a worm-picker from Idaho for all he cares. And just like that, I had a job in Taiwan.

bars on windows in apartment in Tainan City Taiwan

Now that I had a job, I had to get a flat. Luckily, the YWCA provided a flat for Nicole, and there were other vacant flats in the same building, so I took one on the fourth floor (unlucky number) at number thirteen (another unlucky number). All the windows were covered in metal screens secure enough to keep stormtroopers out, and I wondered how I'd ever escape in an emergency. The bed had a stained double mattress so solid that if I sat on it too hard I would have damaged my lower spine. Some other chipped pieces of furniture completed the decor. The only saving grace was a wide, leafy tree outside my front window that cheered me up and blocked out the view of the other drab buildings.

I started at Anderson's School in March 2002. I was lucky to have a mentor when I was there, an American named Greg, who taught me everything there was to know about babysitting. I sat in on his classes and took notes and he was generous enough to let me copy his materials. Also teaching there was a dread-locked Australian, Mark, and the three of us became good friends. The classes weren't too difficult, although I had kids from the age of 4 - 12 in one two-hour class. When George and his wife Bonnie weren't arguing, there was a good vibe to the place. George complained that he didn't want to be there running the school because he was a stockbroker, he wanted to be a banker, and the school and its problems were a headache for him. Rumor had it the school was just a money-laundering operation for Bonnie's father and another rumor flying around was that a fired teacher who had written ill of the school had suffered his leg broken in three places. Seeing the amount of corruption in Taiwan, I believed it. There were a lot of rumors, but one thing was for sure: it wasn't really a school and within a short time it went out of business.

students at Bushiban in Taiwan

Meanwhile, back at the apartment, Nicole was feeling guilty about running out on the YWCA after just three weeks and whined about it obsessively, biting her nails as she wondered which excuse would be best. Could I tell them she had to leave suddenly because she had an accident? Or her father was sick? Or she was being deported? Could I return all the things she'd borrowed from them? Could I apologize for her? I said yes, yes, yes, because if it hadn't been for her help when I had been sick and needed a flat, I would have lost my sanity weeks earlier. But I didn't have to say anything because she told them herself, and after she was off the YWCA came to collect the bedding and dishes she had left scattered around the room, grumbling about ex-pats as they stuffed everything into bags and boxes.

After a couple of months, George approached me and called me into his office. 'You're playing too many games with the kids,' he said. Okay, so I'll play less games. A week later he pulled me aside again and said 'You're not giving them enough homework.' Okay, so I'll give them more homework. The next week he pulled me aside again 'You need to play more games, the kids are bored.' Okay, more games. The following week he pulled me aside once more and said 'You're giving them too much homework, the parents are complaining.' Okay, less homework.

This went on a couple more times until one day I was sitting in the lunchroom taking a break with Mark and Greg when George came in and said 'Nancy, you're not reading enough stories to the kids' and I looked at him and said 'Oh, for God's sake dude, make up your bloody mind what you want.' He frowned and walked off and within a week, cameras were set up in the classrooms so the parents could watch the class.

Finally, by June, I decided I needed a vacation so I dredged up my old standby excuse. I approached George in his office and with a long face I sat down in the armchair opposite his desk. I told him my mother had died and I needed to go back to Canada for a month. He said, 'No problem. You come back one month?' 'One month,' I said.

Two hours later, after I'd finished my class, he approached me and asked me to come into his office.
'I have to let you go.'
'Why?'
'If you go to Canada, how do we know you'll return?'
'But I'm going to. I just need to go deal with some stuff. Really.'

I assured him I'd come back, but it didn't matter, his mind was made up and it was over. I went out to grumble to Mark and Greg.

'Christ,' I said, 'first my mother dies, then I get fired. Nice.'

And just like that, I didn't have a job in Taiwan anymore.