(11/25) Elections

For the past month, Taiwan has been busy preparing for the 2018 local elections in every province. Hualien has been quite active in these preparations which has been both exciting to watch and extremely inconvenient. My first direct encounter with the election was when I was at Tongmen a few weeks ago.

Every other weekend (give or take) Gina and I travel to Tongmen, a Toroko village about 20 minutes outside of Hualien city. We attend the church service from 10-12, and then we work with the youth group for an hour teaching English through church hymns. The community is incredibly kind and welcoming and has graciously accepted us into their church. The service is in both Toroko language and in Chinese so we understand very little, but the youth that are part of the church help us find the right pages in the hymnal and are very patient with our poor Chinese. For me, the most important part of religion is the community it builds so I really enjoy these visits and getting to know the youth at the church. Additionally, they are quick learners and have incredible voices so it is a very rewarding experience. The last time Gina and I were in Tongmen, we somehow accidentally found ourselves thrown into a political rally. It happened like this:

After the church service, the church minister came to us and said, “Wait here for a moment, we are going to pray.” The Chinese words for “go pray” (去禱告 qù dǎo gào) and “eat cake” (chī dàn gāo 吃蛋糕) are very similar, so I turned to Gina and excitedly told her we were going to eat cake. “Really?” She said. “I thought she said they were going to go pray.” As we stood there waiting, an extremely loud series of bangs rang out from around the corner. Gina and I instinctively ducked, thinking we were under attack. The youth group looked at us funny and told us it was simply fireworks. Suddenly the minister came back and told us and said “Okay time to go!” She grabbed our arms and ushered us around the corner where a group of people were huddled under a tent. A man in a vest with the number 1 stood holding a microphone, shouting out a variety of things that I hardly understood due to the group of people chanting “1號, 1 號!” However, I discovered after a few moments that he was a candidate to represent Tongmen in government. Although we picked up on very little of what he said, when he called out to the foreigners in the crowd we snapped to attention. He as well as many members of his campaign group gathered in a group around us and asked to take a picture. Suddenly we found ourselves chanting his name and number one, which was quite funny because neither Gina or I could actually vote in the election.

I looked around frantically for cake but unfortunately discovered that Gina’s interpretation was correct and we wouldn’t be getting any cake. But suddenly the crowd dispersed and came back with tables and stools.

“What’s happening?” I asked our friend the minister.

“We are going to eat food!” the minister told me excitedly in Chinese. Suddenly huge platters of food came from all over and were placed on the table. The minister turned to us and said in Chinese, “These dishes are traditional Toroko dishes, they all have a special ingredient.”

“Oh really?” I asked. “They look delicious!”

“Yes!” She said. “蝦米! How do you say that in English?”

“Oh… well, 蝦米 is shrimp.” Anyone who knows me well would remember that I am actually very allergic to shellfish. I had already filled my bowl and I looked down sadly, realizing I couldn’t eat one bite. Thankfully Gina agreed to eat both bowls so I didn’t look impolite. When the minister came back and asked if we had enjoyed the food we both chimed in, “Oh yes so much!” When she insisted that we eat more, I quickly replied that I was much too full to possibly imagine eating another bite, despite the fact that my stomach was rumbling. Both Gina and I graciously thanked number 1 for his generosity, and returned to teach our English class.

This was my first encounter with the political campaign but certainly not the last. This was earlier on in the month but as it got closer to the elections, I found myself running into people campaigning everywhere. When biking around the city, I was often passed by blue trucks playing pre-recorded tracks of candidates stating their position. I almost missed my train on the way home from school one time because of a train of cars blocking the road on the way to the Xincheng station. One time when getting ice cream, Isabel and I were completely trapped by a huge mob of people campaigning for Hualien City candidate number 2, in a parade that included brightly lit floats and drummers who performed in the street. “Hey look, my student!” Isabel shouted excitedly. Perhaps the most frustrating part of the whole campaign was the candidate who had his base right across from my school in Xincheng. The week before the election, coincidentally the week my students had a speaking exam, we would hear the deafening sound of fireworks every hour or so across the street. As you can imagine, this made it extremely difficult to capture my student’s attention in the classroom.


However, the other ETAs and I had fun with the election. One night while a parade of different candidates was going by, we cheered loudly for each truck and chanted the candidates number over and over. We definitely caught the candidates off guard, who were quite confused by a group of foreigners cheering loudly from the street. One thing that baffled me was the sheer number of candidates. Candidates were represented by numbers that were assigned based on when a candidate applied to run. In some areas, numbers went up to 18! This was shocking to me. It is still unclear to me how individual candidates are elected when the voting base is so drastically divided by the number of candidates.


Surprisingly, despite the Taipei pride parade, I saw no public campaigning for the referendums that were on the ballot for the election. The ballot included a question about whether or not Taiwan should continue the use of nuclear power or switch to coal power. There were three separate questions addressing LGBTQ+ rights, including two about same sex marriage, and 1 that asked candidates whether or not the Ministry of Education should implement the Enforcement Rules of the Gender Equality Education Act in elementary and middle schools. I personally find this issues to be incredibly important so I was very confused that so much attention was directed to elected individuals and these questions appeared to be dismissed or deemed less important.

Saturday Election Day. Unlike the US, Taiwan does not have an absentee ballot system so all forms of transportation were booked for the day as people tried to get back to their province to vote. I find this somewhat problematic, because people who are overseas are unable to vote. Additionally, students who attend school outside of their province are unable to vote unless they head back to their hometowns, a hassle that can be expensive, and for some students, requires them to miss classes. Although voting is far from perfect in the US, I will say that it was fairly convenient for me to vote this year. I received my ballot by email and resubmitted it by email, something I could have done the same day as the election.

Additionally, in Taiwan polls close at 4:30 on the day of the election, which makes it difficult for people who work on Saturdays to vote. After this time, ballots are counted individually by hand. On Saturday evening, candidates awaited the results anxiously. On my evening run, I passed by three separate candidate offices and saw a crowd of people sitting inside, watching the live count screen. As I was about to go to bed, I checked to see the referendum results. Much to my dismay, all three questions that addressed LGBTQ+ rights were shut down. Same sex marriage was denied, and it was decided that the Gender Equality Education Act does not need to be enforced in middle and high school. Sadly, the results were about 7:3 against same sex marriage and the Gender Equality Education Act. Taiwan is an extremely empathetic country, so I found it difficult to learn that something I view as a human right has been denied to LGBTQ+ individuals citizens in Taiwan. However, the lack of attention directed at towards this question and the ambivalent attitude many voters appeared to have made this result not particularly surprising. This decision made me feel both sad and isolated here in Taiwan, and I can only imagine how members of the LGBTQ+ community feel about this decision.

Overall, I am glad that elections are over. It’s nice to have peace and thankfully giant posters of candidates faces will be removed from billboards soon and I can escape the feeling of constantly being watched.

(11/11) 慢慢練習, Keep Trying, Slow and Steady

Recently, I’ve been trying to slow down. I’m what you might call a “fast-paced” individual, that is to say, I generally move throughout my day at a rapid pace. This “gogogo” mentality can be positive sometimes because throughout the course of one day, I can often accomplish many things and still have energy to go for a run in the evenings after work and classes. However, it can be a bit of a hazard when biking through the city or running in traffic. I also tend to inhale my food which frustrates my friends who discover that by the time their food has been served at a restaurant and they’ve started to eat, I’m done with my entire meal. I’ve found that I spend the vast majority of my time looking towards the future and forgetting to stop and appreciate moments as they come. So in order to remedy this problem, I’ve decided to slow down and document moments of my day and take some time to reflect on these moments.

I started out this week by reflecting on with my commute to work. When I tell Taiwanese people what school I teach at every day, their initial reaction is always, “喔太遠” or “Oh, so far!” It is true that my school is definitely the farthest of any ETA from Hualien city and as a result, I need to be out of my apartment on my way to school before my roommate is even awake. I typically spend my morning calculating exactly how many minutes I have until I need to be out of bed and out the door, and deciding whether or not I can risk a 3-5 minute detour to 711 to stop and buy coffee before I need to be at the train station. Once I arrive at Xincheng, I bike like a maniac to school and constantly check my watch in order to get there before 8:15, even though this endeavor depends entirely on whether or not my train arrives on time. While this daily routine may improve my math skills, I forget to stop and look around which is a shame because I have a spectacular commute. This week I decided to turn things around by taking in the sights on the way to work.


The view looking out from the Hualien train station.


A peek at Toroko Gorge from the Xincheng Station

I also wanted to stop and document the stunning backdrop of my school, which is just on the edge of Toroko Gorge. I often take this for granted and forget how lucky I am to look out of my classroom every day to this.


View from the second floor classrooms


A side view of my school on a sunny day


A view directly from the English classroom

While I was in the mood for reflection, I decided that it was time to stop and reflect about what my actual purpose as an ETA is in Taiwan. It’s easy to lose sight of the impact ETAs have on the community we briefly become a part of throughout the year when everyday becomes a mundane routine of waking up early for work and planning lessons to teach English. In a workshop this past week, two of our advisors asked us what our mission as an ETA in Hualien was. After a heated argument between all ten Hualien ETAs that lasted for at least half an hour, we finally came up with a definition. “As Hualien ETAs, we become a part of communities that we will both carry with us and leave behind. We seek to build lasting relationships rooted in understanding. Together, we believe in learning through a sharing of culture.”

I have recently discovered that I cannot measure my success as an ETA by how well my students do on tests, or how much their English language improves because this isn’t a fair evaluation. My elementary school 富世 lacks many of the resources larger schools have and my students often don’t have the means to go to after school 補習班 (remedial) english classes like some students in Taipei or even Hualien City. Additionally, my school has different priorities than many of the other schools in Taiwan because the curriculum emphasizes a celebration and preservation of Toroko Indigenous culture. While this sometimes takes away from English class time, this is an important part of the identity of my students and therefore learning about Toroko culture through Toroko language classes and traditional drumming and singing should take priority over English language fluency. However recognizing this makes it difficult to understand how I can contribute to my school community in a meaningful way.

I was asked in my last Fulbright report to say how I wanted my students to remember me after I was gone. After some consideration I decided that I wanted my students to remember me as a teacher who cared about their lives both inside and outside of school, and a teacher that motivated and inspired her students to pursue their passions and care about learning. I’m the first ETA to ever be placed at this elementary school, and therefore my students, much like me, don’t know exactly what to expect from me. Many of them come from difficult family situations. I discovered this when I ate lunch with the first grade class and asked them about their families. At least half of the students told me that they lived in a single family home and didn’t have either a mother or a father, and afterwords their homeroom teacher explained that their parents had died or walked away from their families. Other students bring extra lunch food home every day for their families. Many students rotate between the same three or four outfits every day.

That being said, in my entire life, I’ve never had students who were so excited to see me every day. Every time I leave the office I have to physically brace myself for the attack of the 1st and 2nd graders who come running from every direction and tackle me in a massive group hug. These are the students that I don’t even teach because they haven’t started learning English yet. I’ve developed a special handshake with each of my forth graders and each time I see them in the hall they immediately get into handshake stance. My students have so much spirit and energy, and I hope that they can see how much I want them to succeed and care about learning.

One day in my extra help class after school, I was teaching my students English words for careers. The textbook chose the words, “doctor, teacher, nurse and police officer” for the students to learn. The lesson we were supposed to teach was, “Is your mother/father/brother/etc. a doctor/teacher/nurse/etc.?” After going around the room, every question asked was answered with a resounding, “No, she’s not” or “No, he’s not.” Demi and I switched to Chinese to learn what their family members did and one boy said that his father worked at 711. Another girl finally exclaimed, “My mother, father, brother, and sister all work cleaning houses and I don’t want to do that when I grow up!” Demi and I struggled to find words and quickly asked, “Well, what do you want to do when you grow up?” She didn’t have an answer which surprised me because when I was her age I spent countless hours daydreaming about all of the different things I could do when I grew up. Other students reacted similarly until one boy said, “I want to be an astronaut!” After a few moments other students started to contribute their answers, and the mood quickly lightened in the classroom.

I want my students to know that I support them and that I want them to believe in themselves. I can sense that many of them have a bleak outlook on life. It is true that they have to work incredibly hard and opportunities aren’t presented to them in the same ways they are for other students. But they can still accomplish great things both inside and outside of their communities and I want them to know that, as do many of the other teachers at 富世. Therefore, I don’t view my purpose so much as to make my students fluent in English and to help them to test well because I know I will not be able to achieve this goal in the course of one year. Instead, I think my purpose is to make my students excited to learn and to care about their successes. I want them to see English not as a subject thats important for them to know but as a tool of communication they can use talk to other people like me about who they are and why they themselves and their community is important.

It’s already November, and already 1/3 of my Fulbright grant has passed. Although the days seem long and I sometimes find myself counting down the minutes until I can get home and into bed, the weeks are flying by and it’s important to stop and think about what I can do in these next few months to fulfill my purpose. I’m working to strengthen my relationships with both my students and my coworkers, and I am also working hard to improve my fluency in Chinese to better communicate and understand the people I interact with. As Taiwanese people often tell me, Its time for me to “慢慢練習” which literally translates to, “practice slowly” but I take to mean, “keep trying, slow and steady!”

(11/4) Halloween and Hikes


After our grand adventures in Taipei, Winnie and I made our way back to Hualien by train. When we arrived I took her to my favorite walking/ running trail in all of Hualien. It’s right along the water and I discovered that it is especially beautiful around sunset. Along the way we spontaneously decided to walk to the brand new and famous Starbucks in Ji’an. I didn’t realize quite how far it was however… and as a result we ended up walking almost 5 miles whoops! And even though neither one of us got exactly what we wanted because the barista didn’t understand us… it was sooooo worth it for the views.


The most spectacular view in all of Hualien City according to me


One of the best parts about Winnie being in Hualien for me was taking her to all of my favorite restaurants and having her try all different foods. I successfully made a reservation over the phone at my favorite Korean place as well which I’ve been unable to accomplish up until this moment so this was definitely a highlight of the week. Tuesday I had to go to work, so Winnie took the day to travel around Toroko Gorge.

Wednesday was Halloween and something I’ve come to realize throughout my grant is that my students and coworkers view me as some kind of an American cultural icon. While this is entirely inaccurate and I cannot represent the culture of an entire country, I am in this difficult position where I don’t have the vocabulary to entirely explain this concept, and I also need to educate my students about American holidays and culture. It’s particularly difficult to explain how diverse America is and that we don’t have universal holidays that are celebrated by all members of the society. However, it is easier for my students to understand this as members of an Indigenous group, who have their own cultural events and customs.

Although I’m going on a tangent here, I had an interesting conversation with a few of my coworkers about Indigenous groups in the United States right after Halloween. It was very difficult because none of us had the vocabulary in each other’s native language to explain colonialism and the horrific history of they many ways Indigenous people have been, and continue to be, oppressed in the United States. My coworkers mentioned that they thought black people were the Indigenous groups of the United States. I quickly explained that they were misunderstanding and that there are many, many Indigenous groups that have lived in the US for thousands of years before black and white settlers arrived. This was a surprise to my coworkers and I think there was a moment of solidarity as my coworkers, many of whom are members of the Toroko tribe. Their community has experienced settler colonialism as a result of Japanese colonial rule, mainland Chinese rule, just to give a few examples. Their stories are very similar to the ways Indigenous people in the United States have experienced settler colonialism.

Anyways, jumping back to Halloween, I found myself holding an assembly the day before Halloween at my school wearing a giant pumpkin hat and dancing to the monster mash. I then taught all of the students at the school to say “Trick or Treat” and my co-teacher prepared bags of candy for all of the homeroom teachers. The students were told to go “Trick or Treat” around the school. It was pretty funny because if the students were unable to accurately say “Trick or Treat” their homeroom teacher would send them back to Demi and I and we would teach them again. So for most of the day I had little children running into the teachers’ office frantically asking me how to say “Trick or Treat” the right way, sometimes multiple times.

For the actual day of Halloween, I got to bring Winnie to school because it was a camp day. We went to Fengbin that day and threw the students a Halloween Party. We painted their faces and gave them candy, it was so much fun!


On Thursday, Winnie came to my school 富世 to see my students. They were all sooo excited to see her and kept trying to ask a million questions despite the fact that she doesn’t speak a speck of Chinese. Nevertheless, we had fun and my co-workers were also excited to meet my friend. I accidentally introduced her to my students as either a capsize instructor or a transvestite instructor because I mispronounced the words for sailing which was rather awkward but thankfully we quickly moved past that embarrassment. Thursday was also Winnie’s last day in Taiwan so we went to the night market to celebrate. It was pouring so we took a cab to the best noodle place I know of in Hualien where they hand pull the noodles right in front of your face. Then we walked to the night market. Although it wasn’t a clear night the view of the ocean was still beautiful. We played some archery and won some socks, and then headed back home for the night.


The evening was pretty bittersweet. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Winnie, I felt like we hardly had any time to catchup. Which I suppose is the way it will be for most all of my college friends moving forward, a rather unfortunate fact of life. But at least there will always be social media and the occasional visit or Bates reunion. On Friday morning, she packed up and caught the train while I made my way to school as usual. It was a cultural day at school and I wish Winnie could have been there to see it. My students all performed their drum routine and we made mochi, a famous Taiwanese dessert with sticky rice on the outside and a variety of flavors on the inside. I accidentally offended some of the visiting teachers when I didn’t understand the gift giving culture and tried to regift a necklace but thankfully they were patient with me and our school’s Dean saved me by providing a gift to give back.


Weekend Hiking

Instead of staying home and being sad about being alone again, I decided to spend the weekend adventuring. My coworker invited me to join him and his family on a hike which I gladly accepted. He is a volunteer in Toroko Gorge National Park so he knows his way around the area quite well. He took me, his son, and his wife on a hike from the starting location 綠水, a beautiful part of the gorge where a suspension bridge extends across the chasm (the same bridge that Elaine and her family had taken me to see before!) The trail was actually extremely teacherous. Because it had rained for most of the week, it was very slick and river crossings were higher than usual. There were ladders, rods, and ropes all over the trail as well.


At one point during the hike, we passed by some other hikers, all police officers, who had been on a backpacking trip. As they were greeting us, one of the men suddenly tripped and flipped over a log and tumbled a ways down the hill. Luckily, he was in a spot where there wasn’t a dropoff but he was injured because he had smacked his head on the log. Thankfully he seemed to only be dazed for a bit and then stood back up. But afterwords, my co-teacher explained to me that the hiker had been startled to see me there as a foreigner hiking with a Taiwanese family and as a result, he had misstepped. I felt horrible but I suppose there was nothing I could really do to avoid that.

The whole way up my co-worker’s son kept asking, “我們快到了嗎?” or the Chinese version of “Are we there yet?” which I found quite amusing. When we got to the top we heated up water and made instant noodles for lunch. It was surprisingly cold near the top so I was thankful for the noodles and the warm fleece I had carried. The view was pretty spectacular. We stopped and took pictures from a cliff where we could see across Toroko Gorge National Park. The structure we stopped at was an old cable that was used for logging many years ago.


When the hike was over my co-worked dropped me off at home and exhausted, I crashed for a loooong nap. However not too long because that night was a Jazz concert with famous musicians visiting from all over the world and myself and the other Fulbrighters were VIP guests. It was a very talented group and we had a blast bopping along to the music in our seats.

I decided Sunday needed to be a day of rest and rejuvenation so I spent the day catching up on work and preparing for the next week. Although I was feeling lonely and incredibly sore from the hike, overall I was satisfied with a week well spent with the best company adventuring in Hualien.