Almost one year ago, 2014-16 South Korea ETAs Rachel Brooks and Dawn Angelicca Barcelona set out to visit Taiwan. Rachel talks about her adventures in the country, made possible through meeting up with Taiwan ETAs.
By Rachel Brooks
It wasn’t until I left the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport that I realized how comfortable South Korea and Korean had become. Unfamiliar characters and voices were everywhere as I wandered the streets of Taipei in search of bubble tea and my hostel. In Taiwan, I was excited, anxious, and reminded of July 2014. When I boarded the plane for South Korea’s Incheon Airport to begin my Fulbright grant that summer, I clutched my handmade index cards of hangul, the Korean alphabet. I glanced through those cards and my Korean textbook on and off for the next fourteen or so hours of flying.
Except this time around, I studied no Mandarin or Taiwanese before heading to the island destination during winter break. I visited Taiwan with a close friend and fellow Fulbright Korea English Teaching Assistant (ETA), Dawn. Equipped with nothing more than the ability to say hello in the local language, we explored Taiwan and saw our guidebook suggested sites, such as Elephant Mountain and the National Taiwan Museum. While they were wonderful, we hoped to accomplish more than sightseeing popular destinations; we craved authentic experiences exploring hidden gems and local favorites. That’s why our favorite part of the trip to Taiwan was something that our guidebook couldn’t offer. By connecting with other Fulbright grantees through Fulbridge, we were able to visit places a Taiwan ETA’s homey apartment, vibrant classroom, and even her favorite fruit smoothie stand. Our short vacation was infused with local residents’ experienced points of view.
The connections started when Dawn emailed Fulbright ETAs in Taiwan who she found on the Fulbridge map. There, they specified interest in hosting, meeting up, travelling, or even doing teaching exchanges with other users. Thanks to the many Taiwan ETAs active on Fulbridge, we made plans to meet with them in two cities, Yilan and Kaohsiung. Both cities offered unique vibes and experiences.
We first met three ETAs and a couple of their friends in Yilan. We got in via bus and met an ETA at the station before heading to the area’s night market for some tasty treats. Once there, we feasted on green onion pancakes, oyster pancakes, and waffles. We even tried our first – and last – servings of stinky tofu. While leading us to all their favorite market spots, the ETAs placed in Yilan shared insights about their time teaching in elementary schools and getting to know the community. One ETA talked about playing sports with students during lunchtime, and another raved about the midday nap time built into her school schedule for students and teachers to rest. We later stopped by a quiet, serene park and small Lantern Festival show before heading back on one of the last buses back to Taipei.
Our next stop was Kaohsiung, the second largest city in Taiwan after Taipei and home to many ETAs. Farther from Taipei than Yilan, we took the high speed rail and opted for a longer trip. We got in early for lunch with three ETAs at a local and very affordable dumpling establishment. Here we tried delicious soup dumplings and an assortment of other steamed buns with iced soy milk to quench our thirst. After the five of us enjoyed our meal, the Kaohsiung ETAs showed us the scooters they use to get around town with ease. Two of them let Dawn and I borrow extra helmets and catch rides to a local elementary school where another ETA was scheduled to sing in Taiwanese for a performance.
That night, we stayed with Kaohsiung ETAs in apartments around town. I stayed up late talking and bonding with Asia, the ETA I stayed with, over our teaching methodology and experiences. It was wonderful to share stories. We gave each other innovative ideas for lessons and activities that were met with success in our classrooms, and even started plans to do a pen pal project together.
The next day, I got to visit her school. As an ETA at an all girls’ high school, I loved the chance to observe an elementary school classroom and the different activities the ETA used with her lively fourth grade students. It was fun to see her call and response ideas and chants as well as how the students reacted. Again and again, laughter, gasps, or questions filled the air as she shared bits about her life in the United States and American culture. It was clear how much the Taiwan ETA’s students adored and valued having her as a teacher.
When lunchtime rolled around, we met three Taiwanese teachers, whose English names were Catherine, Joann, and Joanne (“Big Joann” and “Little Joanne,” as they described themselves, one older and one younger). After sharing laughs and getting acquainted, we discussed teaching in South Korea, schools and culture in Taiwan, and life in the United States. We asked each other about everything from a typical school schedule to student uniforms. The elementary school students’ winter uniform consists of an adorable orange sweatshirt with black and white sleeves and a sporty soccer ball pattern.
It’s amazing to think these interactions were possible because of Fulbridge, an initiative only recently created. The chance to connect with Fulbright ETAs in another country made this trip so special and fun. We never would’ve tried Yilan’s bread crafted in the shape of a cow’s tongue or known about the colorful lanterns on display at a park in Kaohsiung that day. Because the Taiwan ETAs conclude their grant year before the end of the grant year in South Korea, Dawn and I are hopeful that some of them will visit us in South Korea. If they come to Seoul or Jeju, they have friends available at the click of a button.
Rachel Brooks was a 2014-2016 ETA at Shinseong Girls’ High School in Jeju-si, South Korea. She graduated from the College of William and Mary in 2014.