The last week of August marked the end of orientation and the long awaited announcement of school placements, and the start of teaching! Throughout the second half of August we had toured all ten elementary schools in Hualien that would be receiving a Fulbright ETA. Each school was characterized by distinct features including student body size, sports teams, proximity to downtown Hualien, and resources just to name a few. At each school we were given a 10 minute presentation by the Local English Teacher (LET) and the opportunity to ask a variety of questions. At the end of our tours we were asked to rank the schools based on our preferences and submit a form that helped our coordinator Gill and the government representative to determine the best placement.
After touring the schools I was certain that my top choice was Fu Shi. Although this school was the farthest away from the city and required a train ride and a 6 km commute from the train station, I felt as if I was a perfect fit for this school. Fu Shi is located 20 km outside of Hualien city and about 2 km away from Toroko (太魯閣) Gorge a place that got its name from the Indigenous peoples that live in this area. The school is tiny in comparison to all the the other elementary schools; it only has 70 students in the entire student body. The most defining feature of this school in my opinion is that the student body is comprised of 100% aboriginal students from the (太魯閣族) Toroko Indigenous group. Unlike some of the other elementary schools near Hualien city where Fulbright ETAs are placed, this school is under-resourced. In addition to teaching English, the LET, Demi, also teaches music and art classes and every year the student body gets smaller as more children commute to schools closer to Hualien city. We were told that the ETA placed at this school would be teaching music in addition to English.
My interest in Indigenous rights drew me to this school and the opportunity to teach music was an added bonus. I also was excited about the commute because it meant I would have a 3 mile bike ride every day and I would be right beside one of the most beautiful sites in Hualien: Toroko Gorge! The day of announcements finally came and we all sat anxiously, sweating through our nice clothes. I was placed at Fu Shi! My enthusiasm was not nearly as evident as the principle’s who jumped up with a gushing smile and shook my hand so many times I thought my arm would fall off.
We started our first day of school on Wednesday 8/29. It technically wasn’t the first day of school because the students still had not arrived but Fulbright wanted us to have a chance to meet our co-workers and find our way to our various locations. I definitely had first day butterflies on Tuesday night. I hadn’t been on a train or even at the train station in Taiwan yet and to top it off, I also needed to transport my bike. My train left at 7:29 am so I set my alarm for 6:20 just to be sure I had some wiggle room in case I got lost or was unable to communicate in my subpar Chinese language skills.
I awoke the next morning to my roommate (Bless her soul) gently shaking my shoulder and saying, “umm… Becca I think it’s time for you to get up?” I jolted out of bed in shock and realized it was already 7:04!!! My alarm hadn’t gone off and I had exactly 25 minutes before my train was leaving. Panicking, I tumbled through the apartment trying to gather my belongings and shove them into my backpack. At about 7:13 I sprinted down the stairs and roared onto the street on my bicycle. Suddenly remembering I had no idea how to get to the train station, I screeched to a stop on the side of the road and pulled up directions. Thank goodness the train station is so close. The ticket seller was definitely taken aback by the frazzled foreigner desperately trying to communicate…
“我要一个票。。。到” (crap wait I forgot where I was going) … “oh yea Xian Sheng!” By the look on the ticket seller’s face I could tell I was naming a non-existent place, so I tried again “Sheng Xian?” still no recognition and then … “Xin Xiang?” hmmm still a no go. Finally… “Xin Cheng?” Thankfully a flicker of recognition came across her face. She nodded her head and I had 1 ticket to Xin Cheng (新城). I was about to leave when suddenly she started shouting something so I turned around and discovered I needed to buy a separate ticket for my bike. By this time I was cutting it very close so once I got the ticket I sprinted across the train station to find my platform. I had to carry my bike down the escalator and then back up another one. I quickly discovered that my ticket didn’t say a platform so I started to panic, realizing it was already 7:24. I tried to ask the man cleaning the station where my train was and he stared at me as if I had 5 heads. He beckoned to another guy who came over who listened to me and then just took my ticket, read it, and directed me to the correct train. I started to get on but the conductor ran after me saying “no no no!” I once again panicked, maybe I forgot to buy the ticket for my bike helmet too? But he took my bike and kindly directed me to another train car. He told me to lock my bike to a pole and as soon as I finished the train took off. It was probably the most stressful morning of my entire life and I vowed to set at least 4 alarms for the next morning. Unfortunately, my journey was not even over.
I arrived in Xin Cheng (新城) at 7:49 and had 11 minutes to carry my bike down a flight of stairs, up another flight of stairs, through the train station, and then bike 3 km to school. The anxiety of the morning had caused me to sweat through my shirt and shorts entirely and I hadn’t even gotten on my bike yet. And to make matters worse I had forgotten to put on deodorant and hadn’t had time to take a shower in my frantic morning rush. Miraculously, I made it to school only 2 minutes after 8 and before my co-teacher. When she came in she looked at me and smiled saying, “Wow you actually made it! You are sweaty.” Then she said, “We have a teachers meeting from 9-3 today so you can go back home!” REALLY?! I suppose at least I had the chance to figure out how to get to school and got my books for my English classes. I have my own desk which is also very nice! But the fact that I didn’t actually need to endure the anxiety filled morning… at least the mountains were pretty.
At 9:00 I trudged back to the train station and waited until the 11:09 train which was my next option to get home. I felt entirely drained so as soon as I got back to Hualien city, I climbed into my bed for a nap. But before I fell asleep, I made sure to set 4 alarms; 6:30, 6:35, 6:40 and 6:45 just in case I didn’t wake up before the morning!