Chinese New Year, marking the transition from the Year of the Horse to the Year of the Sheep, seems a good time to reflect on the three and a half years we've spent in Taiwan.
What I Expected
Looking back, I can see how three and a half years ago my predictions were shaped by certain erroneous concepts and images. My years teaching English hadn't prepared me for the struggle learners face when acquiring a new language, and despite the fact that we had visited twice before moving out for the long term, I was still heavily influenced by Western thinking about the East. Here are some things I got wrong:
1) Paramount in my thoughts and hopes for our transition to Taiwan was the idea that my son would, after two or three months, settle into school life, and be fluent in Chinese within a year.
2) I expected to be regularly pestered to use my native speaker abilities in English for teaching, or approached on the street for speaking practice.
3) Most Taiwanese people we encountered would be poorer than us, and lead more restricted lives.
4) I would work very hard at learning Chinese - given the opportunity for total immersion - and pick it up quite quickly.
My expectations were severely and sometimes painfully confounded.
1) At one point I seriously considered that my son might be the only child who couldn't pick up another language. He had just turned eight when he started Taiwanese schooling. After a semester of unhappy struggling in third grade with teacher who ignored him, we dropped him to second grade and a much nicer teacher who tried to help him integrate with his classmates. At some point I'll talk about my son's experiences at much greater length, but suffice to say it wasn't until he moved school and by chance was placed with a marvellous, kind and progressive teacher that he finally began making headway in Chinese and enjoying his Taiwanese educational experience. It took a year for him to begin speaking Chinese at any length, and another year to achieve any kind of fluency.
2) I am very much less in demand as an English speaker than I imagined I would be. I think my predictions had been based on the experiences of younger expats who study Chinese or teach English, which brings them into contact with plenty of Taiwanese people who want to learn English. On the rare occasions I'm approached on the subject, a simple, polite expression of reluctance is immediately accepted.
3) I've realised that the Western perspective on the East, and in fact the rest of the world generally, is media-driven and quite shameful. This was brought home to me most strongly in my most recent visit to the UK, where I saw images of starving Africans at nearly every bus stop. Africa isn't full of starving babies, and citizens of many Eastern countries are better off than many Europeans and Americans. There's plenty of poverty in Taiwan, but, for example, Taiwanese GDP and purchasing power is better than in the UK. As expats I expected our standard of living to be better here, and it is, but our Taiwanese friends' living standards are also better than those of many British citizens.
4) My major disappointment in Taiwan was in my acquisition of Chinese. Problems with schooling and housing in our first year left me with little energy or concentration to devote to language study, and in following years other factors worked against me. I was trying to forge a career as a writer, which was very time-consuming, and as a complete beginner my language level was so low that any attempt to practise speaking Chinese ended quickly when I couldn't understand what was being said. Another factor was that my free time was always spent in my son's company, when we would naturally speak English. (His go-to response when I speak Chinese in his presence is to put his hands over his ears and wince.) Having said all that, I'm still reasonably happy with my capabilities now, but I've lowered my expectations of myself, and it's been a much harder and longer road than I anticipated.
We've learned so much about Taiwan and about ourselves in the last three and a half years. I'm happy to say that one prediction I did get right is that we would enjoy living here. We do, very much. The climate; the cheapness, convenience and efficiency of living in Taipei; the wide range of activities, events and amenities; the pleasant politeness and warmth of Taiwanese people; and the interesting differences in culture we still frequently see are some of the main reasons.
For my son, our time in Taiwan has helped form his character. His experiences here will impact the rest of his life. As a parent, you always worry whether you're doing the right thing when it comes to raising your child. In our case, we were voluntarily put him through the traumatic experience of moving him to another country, another education and another culture. Although his experience has been much harder than I expected, I don't - as yet - regret it.
What does the future hold? Currently my son is in grade five, and we originally intended to have him finish elementary school (grade six), complete one year at Taipei European School, and then return to the UK for GCSEs and whatever else he chose to do. The snag in this plan is that he will spend a year adjusting to a new school and new home (we'll have to move house) only to be uprooted again. So our new plan is open-ended. Depending on how things pan out over the coming months, we'll either return to the UK when my son finishes grade six, or we'll stay another three years after that.
My preference is that we stay as long as possible. The only downside to this is missing family and friends in the UK, which feels worse as the years progress. Whatever happens, I can't imagine that when we do finally return, that will be the last I ever see of Taiwan.