So, this’ll be Taichung then.
Three days ago I touched down in Taipei and ever since then things have been something of a mindfuck to be honest. Whatever my expectations were of this place they were well off target and there couldn’t be more of a contrast to sleepy Surat Thani. I felt the difference soon after getting off the plane as I was being driven to my new home by Eric, boss of my branch of Shane English School. On the map there’s quite the gulf of countryside between Taipei and Taichung but I’d swear, albeit through the darkness of twilight, that there was no break, no patches of rolling green countryside and palm trees, just an endless urban sprawl.
To say Taiwan is a bit more developed than Thailand is not unlike saying Iraq’s a bit more dangerous than Ibiza. My pre-emptive explorations online had led me to believe that Taichung was a relatively small city, a nighttime population of 400,000 if some sources were to be believed (yes, I took them as gospel), but the truth is somewhat different. Yes, Taichung City’s population may vaguely resemble that figure but the travel websites neglect to inform you that Taichung City is like London City – a relatively small nucleus in a growing mass of satellite towns which have congealed over the years into one enormous mass with no distinguishable dividing lines.
Thus the school which I imagined – based on Google maps and a misreading of scale – to be withing walking distance of the city centre is actually more like 6km away. This isn’t a problem in itself – it’s no further than I was from work when I lived in Portobello, an easy scooter ride and, in this much more clement climate, a perfect cycling distance. On the other hand it does make orientation, discovery and settling in something more of a challenge. While Surat Thani could be explored on foot in an afternoon I can barely make it more than a few km from my base without becoming hopelessly lost! Oh well, it’s early days yet and I have a good five months before Em arrives in which to become an expert in navigating this metropolis.
So aside from the size, what’s been going on? Well unlike my previous job I’ve been left to fend for myself in terms of accommodation, no small task given the nature of the city, my pathetic Mandarin abilities and my lack of transport. Fortunately I have at least a short-term solution – a gorgeous 10th-floor apartment in a complex smack in the centre of the city, sharing with a 27 year old footwear specialist with Nike called Kristina, from Minnesota of all places. The situation with the rental of the place is a tad odd so perhaps I’ll have to find something new within a few weeks but it sure takes the pressure off in the meantime. I really don’t want to have to leave this place though:
Should the worst come to the worst and I have to abandon ship then there are options. The teacher I’m replacing, a Torontonian also called Eric, is leaving the flat he shared with his girlfriend when he goes to join her in Mongolia. It’s spacious, gorgeous and located halfway between my current pad and the school but unfortunately it’s also hideously expensive. I may be willing to swallow the cost for the sake of living in such luxury though… Another alternative is looking at the three-bedroom apartments on the market. Most single-occupancy places (bedsits, studios, efficiencies, whatever you want to call them) are insanely small and usually so sparse and sterile as to make me want to slit my wrists as soon as look at them. However I could afford the rent on a 3-bedroom place, usually much, much larger in terms of living space and better furnished and decorated, until I found willing flatmates to share with me. So, options are there, pressure is off for now, and breathing has resumed as normal.
(That reminds me, funny incident – a health check is madatory for overseas workers so I had mine yesterday. As the nurse took my blood pressure and pulse a quizzical expression arose on her face. She asked Boss Eric something in Mandarin, apparently asking if I exercise every day because my pressure and pulse are very low. Win!)
That blood pressure may be on the rise soon enough though; Boss Eric has mentioned my upcoming teaching schedule a couple of times and, well, it’s going to be hellish. I expected to be garnering around 20 hours of teaching per week, possibly up to 24 or 25 at a push. Nope, it seems that I take over Co-worker Eric’s schedule which is the busiest of the lot, meaning 27-28 hours normally and probably more during summer and winter school holidays. Don’t get me wrong, the primary incentive behind coming here is to save money and more hours means more moolah but jesus, possibly over 30 teaching hours in a week? Burnout is suddenly a potential concern. The fact that a couple of these classes will be kindergarten, something I expressly did NOT want to teach – they’re not human yet, not for a couple of years – only adds to the stress.
There are bright sides though. Obviously the money will be excellent, earning around three times what I was in Thailand and, thanks to my boss’s accountant, apparently not paying much more tax. The working hours suit me as well, typically starting anywhere from noon till half one through till about nine; that’s admittedly late but it means I get my morning gym session in. Also I was led to believe that the daily schedule would involve Sunday and one other day off, changing from teacher to teacher. Nope, Boss Eric thought this was unfair to his teachers so we all get Saturday and Sunday off, a proper weekend, which will be a true godsend given the intensity of the weekly schedule.
In another stroke of luck I’m not to be thrown in at the deep end straight away. Next week I travel up to Taipei for a five-day training course in teaching young learners, something I’ll be grateful for as I feel my strengths currently lie with teens and adults; tips and pointers for the little ‘uns will be most welcome. On my return I’ll start teaching but I’ll be eased into it, the first couple of weeks consisting of a mixture of teaching and observing Eric’s classes while occasionally covering classes for other teachers. The downside of this is that I technically start off with a deficit of hours – the school works on some crazy ‘hour bank’ system meaning I’m guaranteed a minimum level of pay for the first six months but I have to ‘pay back’ any hours which aren’t worked, including training, observing, etc. It’s no big deal though, I reckon my schedule should allow me to catch up pretty quickly.
And that’s about it for now. I’m yet to really meet any other westerners here apart from my roomie who disappeared to Hong Kong for a holiday pretty much as soon as I met her and the guy I’m replacing. Still, it’s early days – much more difficult to get that sort of thing going in a big city than somewhere like Surat where you can’t move without bumping into another teacher 🙂 At least I’ve found a couple of good Taiwanese food stands, a very tasty though dangerously expensive tapas bar and a charming little coffee shop with free wireless where I sit writing this post. With every passing second a little fragment of apprehension flakes away from me and is replaced by comfort, familiarity and optimism about the future.
More to follow, watch this space…