You are in for a treat today because Eytan of Snarky Nomad will be sharing with us his amazing Taiwan experience working as an English teacher and traveling in between. Let’s hear how he liked the school, students, Taiwanese culture and what surprised him the most about Taiwan.
So a few years ago I got back from the biggest backpacking trip I’d ever taken. 9 months long, and lots of fun. So what did I do when I got back home and was bored out of my mind and couldn’t shake the travel bug? Travel again, of course!
Without much cash to my name, I looked through all the short-term teaching jobs I could find, emailed a few places, and took a job at the first place that emailed me back. A few months later I was off to Taiwan to teach English in a summer camp. Sorry, Korea. Maybe next time!
I barely knew anything about the place aside from Taipei 101, Chiang Kai-shek, and how Taiwan and China are no longer dating. I didn’t even read much about it before I left, since I was going there and I’d find out anyway. One man’s laziness is another man’s intrepid adventurism!
Getting short-term teaching jobs in Asia
I don’t have a TEFL certificate. I’m just an English speaker who wanted to go visit someplace interesting, and in the summer camps, that works out for everyone. All I had to do was email a few places and that was that. When I got there I met the other teachers, many of whom were non-native English speakers, from places like Colombia and Sweden. As long as their English was good enough (and it was), they could be summer camp English teachers.
If you’re trying to figure out if English teaching is for you, the summer and winter camps are definitely the way to go. The short-term contracts will give you an idea of how you like the work, so you can try it out before paying for TEFL certification and signing a year-long contract, though keep in mind the atmosphere in the camps feels less like “real” school.
Some teachers enjoy the shorter-term jobs because it allows them to travel during the rest of the year. If you’re wandering around Southeast Asia looking for a break from temple visits and wouldn’t mind some extra cash, you can teach in the summer camps, travel around for a few months, teach in the winter camps, and do it all over again. This is especially easy if you’re already nearby, since closer flights won’t dig into your overall expenses, and the salary will look even better. Speaking of which:
Teaching salary and accommodation
Have you ever walked around with $1000 in your pocket? Because I sure did. Getting paid in a giant wad of Taiwanese cash gave me a new appreciation for zippered pockets and money belts.
The salary worked out so that even including the flight from the US, I was paid as much as I spent. I taught for a month, and traveled around Taiwan for a month. So basically it was a free one-month trip to Taiwan in exchange for a month’s worth of teaching. I wasn’t able to save anything, but I had a good time, and if you’re already traveling nearby, it can work out even better.
During the time I spent in the camps, they provided free food and accommodation, both of which were good. Although they definitely put us up in love hotels. But who doesn’t need a little love?
Backpacking around Taiwan
Not a whole lot of people go to Taiwan. My theory is that it sounds like Thailand and nobody knows what it is. Plus, it’s an island, and you have to fly there. If it were stuck right between Cambodia and Vietnam, you’d find an endless stream of backpackers all over the place. But there it is, all alone in the ocean, where you can have it all to yourself.
Well, mostly, anyway. They do get visitors. But if you’re blonde or have funny eye colors, little kids will walk right up and poke at you.
But Taiwan’s (relative) inaccessibility means you’ll be able to enjoy all the $2 street food and gorgeous temples you can possibly desire, without a single annoying tourist scam anywhere to be found. In fact the people will often go out of their way to help you. When we asked for directions, they’d either help us out, or call a friend who spoke English. And since the younger generation often speaks better English than their parents, this would often result in us asking 5 year old kids for directions. The result: “I don’t know. Look, I found a crab!”
Taiwan has everything a backpacker could possibly want from an exotic Asian destination, with cosmopolitan cities, national parks, sandy beaches, night markets, and spectacular street food. I asked the staff how to say “anything” so I could ask for it whenever I went into a restaurant. Guess the number of times I was disappointed. If you said zero, you are right!
Plus, traveling around Taiwan was cheap. It worked out to about $30 a day, which paid for cheap hotels or hostels, street food (which was amazing), bus rides throughout the country, museum tickets, and occasional drinks. Nightlife isn’t cheap, though. You probably won’t be partying too hard there if you’re on a budget. Or you’ll do what we did, and just get beers at 7-11 and hang out. We were classy.
Being a teacher in Taiwan
I had never taught English before, and getting up in front of a class of 60 Asian eyeballs was a brand new experience. Not to mention the schedule had us teaching 8 to 12 hours a day. Yup, I said 12. From 8AM to 8PM. We had lunch and dinner breaks (plus plenty of non-class activities), but those were often brief, and inside the classroom. It’s definitely a real job!
It helped that we had short-term camps, so we’d teach for a week, travel around Taiwan for a week, then teach again, in a totally different city. The camps are often in the kids’ own schools, so the teachers do all the traveling instead. The schedule allowed us to spend our breaks traveling around the country between camp sessions, so we never went too long without days off
It was definitely hard work, as the camps kept us busy basically all day, with quiet moments few and far between. We also had to get creative with some of the lessons, which were way too short to last the entire class, so we’d fill the time with new lessons, like teaching the kids American slang or playing hangman.
We taught kids of all ages, and the teachers would rotate between classes, so we’d teach kids from age 5 all the way up to 18. Middle school kids were the most rambunctious. Every time I turned around they’d be playing a game of trash can basketball or something.
I won’t be able to say if teaching English is right for you, and it definitely helps to have a class full of fun kids, but it keeps you busy all day. I’m definitely glad I did it, but I was always happy to relax at the end of the day and have some quiet time after being the center of attention all day long. Plenty of people love it, of course. Just think about a time when you’ve had to speak in front of a class, and then imagine doing that all day.
That said, the summer camps were different than regular classes. Most of the activities involved goofing off in English until class was over. The more we could derail the lesson into ridiculous nonsense, the more fun it was for everyone.
Which brings me to:
The kids were hilarious
There were no end of shenanigans in these summer camps. The kids would flirt with the TAs, play broomstick hockey in the back of the classroom, and teach us Chinese swear words. Once they realized they weren’t in “real” school and the crazy Western teachers just wanted to have fun all day, things got pretty ridiculous.
- We played a game of capture the flag, in which the kids immediately realized that the guys were the ones who should go after the target, while the girls played defense. They formed a protective shield around the flag, 3 Asian girls thick, arms locked together, and were completely invincible. Nobody won.
- During a vocabulary lesson, they were asked what might be good to bring on a hiking trip. Immediately they replied, in order, “Girl. Beer. Condom. Cameraman.”
- They gave me their PSP to play. No wait, that’s not right. I saw them playing a PSP in class and I took it away so I could play right in front of them.
- The guys would “misunderstand” the dance routines so they’d “accidentally” bump into the girls in front of them. Yes, we had dance routines.
- One lesson involved making pretend passports and boarding a pretend flight. One girl filled out her flight info with “From: Taiwan. To: Your heart.” Another girl claimed her place of birth as “my mom.”
- The kids weren’t allowed to speak Chinese, and whenever they did, we’d confiscate some play money they could use to buy things in the camp. In fact we’d trick them into it because then we’d be able to use the play money to buy clean camp t-shirts. The boys would rat each other out, while the girls banded together to unanimously claim their friend had <em>definitely</em> been speaking English.
- There was a water balloon fight. And it was amazing.
Most Asian school systems involve long days and serious studying. Teachers can be pretty strict, and there’s very little free time outside of school. This is probably a big reason why the kids were so enthusiastic about having teachers that didn’t take anything too seriously. Class could actually be fun. The first day or two would be quiet, but after everyone knew each other, things got better and better. By the end of each camp, the kids were sad to see us go. Which is why… Even the teenage boys will cry like little children!
I’ve never seen anything like it. Entire classrooms full of teenagers who are <em>supposed to act super cool</em> were bawling their eyes out as much as the kindergarteners. Apparently being a tough guy isn’t important enough in Asian culture to prevent a 17 year old jock from bursting into tears simply because he’ll miss his teacher.
Every camp ended this way. Hundreds of kids of all ages crying and hugging everyone in sight. Lifting their teachers and TAs up on their shoulders and throwing them into the air. Crying some more. Right in front of their friends. And teachers. And parents!
Keep in mind the longest of these camps was 8 days. I mean, I know I’m cool and all, but I can’t be that cool, right? RIGHT!?!?
It was pretty great.
More fun facts about Taiwan
- Taipei 101 was the world’s tallest building. It took several years for another tower to come along and overshadow it, but it still has the world’s fastest elevator, at 60 km/h. Plus, just look at it. It’s so much cooler than so many others.
- They love 7-11. They have more per capital than anywhere in the world, with stores every few blocks. They even serve Chinese fast food, too.
- They design 80% of the world’s laptops. Weird, right?
- They’re afraid of sunshine. The ladies, anyway. Apparently having a fair complexion is considered attractive, so they avoid the sun like the plague. They even carry umbrellas on sunny days to stay protected.
- They’re afraid of rain. Acid rain fears meant the kids put on ponchos to walk the 20 meters from the schoolhouse to the cafeteria. They looked at me like I was absolutely insane when I walked right through it.
- They walk in the middle of the road. Restaurant owners set up tables right on the sidewalk, and motor scooters take up the rest of the space. Since the side streets barely have any cars anyway, people just walk right through them.
- They have no forks. Not in any regular places, anyway. In 2 months I saw 2 places with forks. They’re only in the fancy Western restaurants that had worse food than the $2 meals at noodle cart on the sidewalk. So if you can’t use chopsticks, you’re probably screwed. Plus:
- They have switchblade chopsticks. Sanitary obsessions and an alleged health scare involving restaurants reusing disposable chopsticks meant that lots of people started carrying their own. As you can see, mine are the coolest:
Oh yes. Be super impressed.
Bye Bye Taiwan
As my time in Taiwan came to a close, I was sad to say goodbye. I might never have visited if the Taiwanese camp hadn’t emailed me before the Korean one did. I didn’t know too much about it, or how it would be different from other Asian countries nearby.
Taiwan doesn’t have the name recognition of other Asian countries, but that’s part of the reason it was such a friendly place. We were never hassled. No one tried to sell us anything. No taxi driver tried to overcharge us. No one asked for money. Nothing. Just friendly people who treated us like guests, rather than customers. On my first day in Taiwan I was invited into a condominium development, offered some tea, and even though they knew I wasn’t going to buy anything, was told I could come back whenever I wanted to use the pool.
And, of course, random kids would come up to say hello. Not so much in the big cities, but in the smaller towns, they’d just walk over and hang out. It was a good time.
So, obviously, I’ll be back someday.
Eytan Levy is a pretentious English major who can’t get enough of traveling around the world, and discovering the sort of unexpected cultural differences that help people rethink what it means to be normal. You can find more of his work on. Follow his adventures on Twitter.