June 05, 2013 - Grace Kemeny, a 2004 Brandon High School graduate, moved to Taiwan in 2011 after graduating from the University of Michigan-Flint with a degree in secondary education for English and history. She is now an English teacher to seventh and eighth grade students at a private bilingual school in Taipei. Kemeny answered questions via e-mail about her experiences in Taiwan.
Why did you want to live and work in Taiwan?
I first visited in 2008 with some friends I had met tutoring English at my university. I knew I wanted to live in Taiwan the minute I came out of the airport. When I left Michigan it was freezing cold, and Taiwan was nice and warm! The people, scenery, and food made it so I couldn't resist. I've always been really interested in Asian culture so this was really a dream come true… I wanted to live and work in Taiwan because I've always wanted to travel abroad. At the time I graduated university the economy was pretty bad. Taiwan seemed like the perfect option to travel and also be able to pay my loans from school.
What are the major differences you have noticed between Taiwan and the U.S.?
Taiwan and the U.S. are worlds apart. First, it's really crowded here. There are people everywhere. There's not a lot of room for housing, so places here tend to be pretty small by western standards. The most exciting thing for me is the convenience of traveling here. In Taiwan I don't own a car and really don't need one because the public transportation is so great. There are trains, subways, buses, and high speed rail here. The train is really great because I can travel 1 ½ hours out of the city and it roughly cost me only about $1.50 U.S. The high speed rail is really great too. It goes the distance from Detroit to the Mackinac Bridge in about 1 ½ hours.
Tell me about the food, the transportation, the people, and the general culture of Taiwan.
I find the food here either really amazing or really horrible. Taiwan is a tropical island so there's always an abundance of fresh fruits like pineapple and mangos. Instead of roadside stands people drive pickup trucks and park them on busy roads. Then they sell their fruit out of the back. Taiwan was once ruled by Japan so they also have really great sushi and seafood dishes here, too. Night markets are popular here. Every night vendors set up their stands and sell Taiwanese snacks. You can get a huge variety of food here. My favorite is deep fried sweet potatoes. The worst food here is called "stinky tofu," it's basically deep fried tofu and cabbage, but the smell is horrible. The locals don't seem to mind it too much, but even after living here for two years I have to cover my nose when I walk by a stinky tofu stand.
Taiwanese people are usually very friendly. I don't speak very good Chinese and they always will try their best to help or understand me. They have a great sense of humor and are very eager to show off their country. I would say Taiwan is a hodgepodge of mostly Chinese culture, but also a lot of influence from Japan and America.
What do you like about your job?
My favorite thing about my job is my students. They are mostly very sweet and wonderful kids. I love teaching them "Romeo and Juliet" because a lot of them have never read the story before and they're always so shocked at the end. They read shortened versions of the play and the students always ask me, "What?! Did they really just both die?! I thought this was a love story!"
What do you like about Taiwan? What do you dislike about Taiwan?
I really can't pinpoint one thing I love about Taiwan. If I had to choose it would be the scenery. Here the mountains drop into the ocean. You can sit on the beach looking out at the Pacific Ocean, have mountains behind you, and a traditional Chinese temple at the end of the beach.
One thing I dislike is something I loved at first. Local temples here are always celebrating the birthday of their traditional gods. This means fire crackers, drums, and parades. I thought it was so cool at first, but now it happens so frequently that sometimes I will be trying to sleep, but can't because the temple is being so noisy.
What do you miss about home?
I miss my family the most. I used to fish every weekend with my Dad. I came from living with three little brothers to now living in an apartment alone, so sometimes it's hard to be alone in silence so much.
I also really really, REALLY miss Frosty Boy ice cream. I think that's going to be the first place I stop when I come back to visit. The ice cream here is not always close to the delicious ice cream back home. To get a bowl of Haagen-Dazs ice cream, which is only OK, cost me about $10 U.S.
What might we be surprised to learn about Taiwan?
Ang Lee, the director of "Life of Pi,"is from Taiwan, so they filmed a lot of it in a pool in an old airport in Taiwan. The beach scene at the end is actually my favorite place to relax on the weekend.
Taiwan also has national healthcare. Every time I get sick it's only about an $8 visit to the clinic. I broke my hand and after all the bills I only paid $100. For someone as clumsy as me this is really handy. A trip to the dentist for a cleaning is only $3.
Taiwan has the highest concentration of convenience stores in the world. 7-11 is completely different here— not only is it a convenience store, but you can pay your taxes there, pay your bills, pay parking tickets, get things shipped to yourself, and even pick up a marriage certificate.
Do you have any interesting/funny stories about your experiences/work there?
What's interesting about working at an international school is that my co-workers are from all over the world. My closest friend is from Australia and I've picked up a lot of Aussie slang from her. For example arvo= afternoon, sunnies= sunglasses, and capsicum= bell pepper.
A lot of the funny stuff here happens because of my horrible Chinese. Sometimes when I get in a taxi I have no idea how to say where I want to go. Once I got bit by a cat and wanted to go to the clinic. I thought I was saying the word for hospital but I was saying "fishing." The taxi driver kept looking at me strangely. Then I had to act out a cat biting me. After hissing and biting my own hand I realized I should just show him my wound. He got it right away and took me to the hospital.
I am trying to learn how to drive a scooter/moped. I am really terrible at it. My boyfriend lives in the countryside so I practice driving around there. Once I was practicing and accidentally pulled out in front of a police man. Luckily he was more curious about what an American was doing in his small town. He didn't fine me or even yell at me for not wearing a helmet. He gave me tips on how to brake better! It's a great example of how laid back and friendly the people are here.
Taiwan regularly is hit by typhoons. Right before one hits the weather is usually really nice. So what often happens is I don't bring an umbrella and then it starts to downpour.
What are interesting places/things you have seen and done while in Taiwan?
I've traveled nearly every part of Taiwan except the smaller islands. Every place is so different but really great. I enjoy going to hot springs for a soak, climbing mountains where they grow tea, and relaxing on the beach.
I once climbed a mountain where there were a bunch of monkeys. They were pretty scary because they like to harass hikers for food. They were running around our feet and I was freaked out the entire time.
Also, because Taiwan is so close to Japan I was able to take a trip there to go see Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara.
How long do you plan to stay there?
I plan on staying here indefinitely. The cost of living here is so low compared to America that I live a pretty comfortable life with few stresses. I hope to move to the southern part of the country eventually because it rains a lot in Taipei.
What are your future plans?
I plan on continuing to work. Eventually I want to take a trip to Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. Eventually I want to open up a small hotel on the beach that caters to Taiwanese and foreign travelers.
I also forgot to tell you the most exciting thing. I am on the teacher team for our school, Kang Chiao, in the dragon boat races. The races originated in China 2000 years ago. There are about 20 of us on the team and we all have to paddle in sync with a drummer. On the day we race three other boats. If we win that round we get to move on. It's tough work. We have to train at school, and then every Sunday we have to wake up at five in the morning to go practice on the actual river. We're racing in the Taipei race on June 9 and if we win we race again on the 12th. On the day of the actual festival, June 12, it is a national holiday and no one has to work or go to school so that they can watch the races. It's really exciting to be involved in something so traditional but also important to modern Taiwan.
I really recommend people to come see what Taiwan has to offer. If you want to be a teacher you can support yourself, tour the country, and pay back student loans all at same time!
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville