A Very Late Gap Year In Taiwan
P. R. Travis
Goodbye, Graduate School:
The names and faces, and some places, have been changed to protect the innocent.
“I can’t do this.”
“I can’t do this. I think I’m going to be sick.”
I was in the basement of the Medical Engineering building at my university in Florida. I was dissecting rats. More specifically, I was pretending to help Isaac dissect rat jaws. He was running the anesthesia machine and the syringes to stop the hearts. I was trying to help him get a head start on his study of the mandibular joint. If I had ever thought that maybe in some distant future I’d want to pursue a PhD of medical science, this task proved beyond all doubt that no, that was not what I wanted.
“Sorry, I can’t. Why don’t I clean up the lab and meet you upstairs.” It was not a question and Issac was kind enough to assent. If I had to guess though, I’d say he was pissed.
I cleaned everything extra thoroughly as a penance for not dissecting the rat jaws. Even so it took me at most a half hour to stuff the headless white rodents into little plastic sandwich bags, douse all of the surgical benches with alcohol, clean out the anesthesia machine, pick little tufts of furry gore off of the guillotine, and take out the garbage, overflowing as always with one-time-use medical supplies and their sterile wrappers. It seemed like a waste to use so much sterile equipment to dispatch rats. But that seems to be the way medical science works.
After the rat jaw debacle, I ghosted around in the upstairs lab for a few more weeks. I wrote some computer code for other experiments that other students would someday use, hopefully. I thought I was pretty good at that. But writing code does not lead to a PhD. Only a grueling combination of dissections, scientific papers, and out-of-state conferences over the course of half a decade would do that. In that I had no interest. The time had come, inexorably, for my foray into academia to come to an end.
I groped around for ideas of what to do next. I had turned 31 in February. Many people with more stable constitutions would be years deep in a career by then. But I had spent my early twenties searching for a meaningful engineering career in the defense industry. I eventually decided I’d rather dig ditches than look at my cubicle wall for one more second. I had most recently tried to be a research scientist for a bit under two years, and that was quickly ending in disaster.
Besides the macabre nature of the work itself, there were the inevitable early Sunday morning surgery dates, coupled with the unavoidable late Saturday night dispatch dates, conjoined to the inescapable long weekdays in the laboratory collating data. Academics work hard, long weeks and weekends. I just didn’t want that.
I made a few phone calls to the local school district, intending to apply as a prospective math teacher. I liked math. I also knew how it applied to real life (if you’re an engineer). I thought I’d make a pretty decent math teacher. But after talking to the county hiring coordinator, and finding out the number of prerequisites to even qualify to file an application, I decided that I would hate the job before I ever got the offer. In the state of Florida there were three different certifications for mathematics teachers that needed to be completed on the applicant’s own dollar before the actual application process. There was, further, the prospect of not teaching high school calculus, which was what I really wanted to do. It wasn’t even close to worth it.
Actually it probably was worth it, but I can acknowledge this only with the added wisdom of teaching overseas in Taiwan. At the time I thought it was kind of ridiculous to ask applicants to do more than fill out an application and take a drug test.
When I dismissed math teacher as a possible career, I briefly considered baker and purveyor of fine teas from around the world in my own small shop in a small downtown on the coast. This is one idea that I have come back to several times in the last decade. I have never acted upon it because the amount of start up capital is intimidating. I put it back on the back burner against a day when people, including myself, have disposable wealth again.
Enter the carefree friend six years my junior, and graduating senior. The day his class marched to pomp and circumstance, Steven got on a plane for East Asia. He did so with a little savings, a bachelor’s degree, and a long list of references on couchsurfing.org. His “plan” was to travel all of Southeast Asia, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and to start looking for work as an English teacher when he ran out of money. Among the several ideas I had had so far, doing what Steven was doing seemed like the most realistic.
I could not bring myself to follow Steven’s carefree model though. I Googled: “teaching in Taiwan”, “dating in Vietnam”, “women in China”, and “life in Korea” about 30 or 40 times each over the course of a month, finding some reasons to go to each place and many not to.
I eventually narrowed my search down to Korea and Taiwan because I wanted to be somewhere somewhat westernized. Of the two I preferred Taiwan because I wanted to learn Mandarin. However, when I posted my resume on DavesESLcafé.org, I was inundated by Korean recruiters asking me to send a resume, diploma, professional photo, criminal background check signed by the head of the FBI, and my TEFL certificate. I didn’t have my TEFL certificate or a letter signed by the head of the FBI, but only the public schools required a TEFL, the recruiters assured me. I still needed the letter from the FBI to carry with me to Korea when the time might come.
I ultimately landed five interviews: three in Korea and two in Taiwan. The first in Taiwanwas with a recruiting agency, and near the end of it I learned that the agency would take a 20% cut of a client’s first two months pay for their services within the capital, Taipei, but only 10% outside of Taipei. That seemed exorbitant in both cases, and I decided that I did not want their help. In hindsight it may have been a more reasonable deal than what I ended up accepting. At least the costs were up front and disclosed.
The next one for a buxiban (a private night school for children) called Gloria in northern Taiwan, I completely botched. I installed Skype on my Mac and added the name of my interviewer days in advance, failing to notice that my contact never seemed to be on line. When the interview time came and went at 10 PM Eastern Standard Time, I checked my email to see that the hiring coordinator at Gloria had tried to call me but I that had not answered. Oh F__k. I restarted my laptop and logged back on to Skype to see my interviewer on line, but: Θ Busy. I’d have to wait for the next available slot in a few days.
In the meantime I had three interviews at Korean schools and with Korean recruiters which blur together. One interview, I found out afterward, was a preliminary interview for the follow-up interview. I was invited to have the definitive interview at 3 PM Korean time, and 2 AM Eastern time. That upset me. It also served as a red flag. Why on earth would they be so inconsiderate to someone they want to give a second interview to?
It should have served as a red flag for Asian business culture at large, but I did not yetknow that. I declined and counter-offered to interview the next day at 10 PM my time, the same time slot as the preliminary. They accepted the interview time, but ultimately not me. I counted this fortuitous.
Finally the day came for Gloria to call me back, and in the end the hiring coordinator offered me a position to start on August 1st of 2014. Gloria guaranteed twenty hours a week at their various branches in the greater Zhong Li and Tao Yuan areas, twenty US dollars per hour, accommodations in a teachers’ dormitory, and a ride from the airport. Both cities were in Taoyuan County, which was about a one-hour bus ride from the capital in Taipei.
On the day I arrived in Taiwan I also was pleased to find, in addition to the above promises, a small bag of chocolate cookies and two bananas. ‘How thoughtful,’ I thought, ‘They know I’ve been on a plane for 24 hours and got me a snack.’ But I was dismayed immediately after at the 5-foot width of my bedroom, the consistency of my mattress, and the deafening roar of the air conditioner.
All those things were in the future. On the night of the interview I was happy to have found a school in Taiwan willing to hire a 31-year-old engineer with no teaching experience. I gave away, lent, or sold everything that I could not fit into my two door hatchback and headed back to New Hampshire for the obligatory family visits, and then to catch a plane.