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Arriving in Taiwan

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If you happen to be running an international education in any given country, or indeed any education at all, I have some advice about how to conduct the first week in order to make sure that the level of anxiety your new students are suffering is as high as possible.

First, separate the students into three groups, based on their skill in a certain area (I’ll use Chinese as an example). Then tell the students in the A class (the best one), that they are a lot better than the A students last year, that they are the pride of the school and that they get most time of all students in classrooms with air conditioning (or something else which makes the learning environment endurable). So far, I think this is fairly common practice in many countries, although some Scandinavian countries might be a bit hesitant about the decision to split the class in this way. Now over to the important bit.

Second, after a couple of days in the first week, when everybody is still nervous and don’t really know what’s up or down (or anything at all), tell the students in the A class that they are too many and that you need to “eliminate” three students (in Chinese, I recommend using 淘汰, which is used, among other things, for Darwinian elimination or elimination through competition). If you want to, you can also add some sort of pseudo-explanation and say that there are two A classes this semester and that changing class is not really that bad (even though simply by saying so, you are actually enhancing the importance of a change). After some more testing, you then select a few students and discuss with them what they think (this is a nice touch, but can be removed if you want to enhance the anxiety further).

Third, now that a few students have switched classes, you wait a day or two and then repeat this procedure again. Tell everybody that you need to remove another two students, and then do some additional testing and discussing with some students until you have the desired number in each class. Neat, or what? As you can see, this procedure can be reiterated as many times as you like, you don’t even have to remove students every time.

There are some additional things to take into consideration if you plan to go through with this kind of scheme. Be aware that it’s not very nice to the teacher who has to tell the students different things all the time (they definitely don’t know about how the decisions are made, shoot the messenger is common practice, I think). Also, don’t expect people to ask many questions after you do this, because most of them will still have the feeling that every time they go to class, they are being tested, and perhaps they will be the ones who are eliminated in the next round. This will also make sure that all students think that they are about half as good (or half as much worth) as they truly are.

By way of ending this post, I’d also like to propose a way of making some money by selling the broadcasting rights to some TV channel and run a show like Big Brother. This isn’t something I have personal experience of, so please note that it’s just pure speculation.

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Looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I’m not entirely sure what has been lacking in my life for the past week or so (it feels more like several years), but I can hazard a guess. It’s not really a question of a physiological need, because I’m not starving, dying of thirst, cold or anything else. What about the next level, safety? This seems much more likely, since it includes (among other things): security of body, resources, property and health. But still I wonder if this is where the problem lies, because none of these things have really been missing (health in this case shouldn’t include mental well-being, since that’s what defines many of the other needs in the first place). Still, not having a solid foundation to build anything upon (and I think this counts as security of… well, something), is a major shortage and one which will make itself felt very quickly.

What about love and belonging, the third level? I might be considered to live in a social gap, in between giving up the security of my social network in Sweden and building a new in Taiwan (or indeed regaining what I left here three months ago, including Vanessa). This can’t be the source of the problem either, because I know from experience that it takes longer than a couple days for something like that to appear, but it might make the problems already mention a lot worse. So, onwards, towards the top.

Instead of treating the two final steps of esteem and self-actualisation as one, I’m going to handle them together, mostly because I think they are hard to distinguish. I think most people in the West never even come close to jeopardising the lower levels of the pyramid except for very brief periods of time, so we’ve grown used to constantly circling near the top. Subjectively, I think I derive the most satisfaction from the top level, but objectively, I’m of course reliant on the lower ones even though I seldom think about it. Arriving in a new country immediately chops of most of the top to layers and probably makes a solid dent in the middle one as well. This is what’s been bugging me these days.

It’s easy to think that this siuation should be somewhat similar to being on holiday and finding out that the hotel one had booked doesn’t exist and it’s difficult to find a new one. That’s a very big mistake. I’ve been in that situation before and sure, it’s awkward, but it’s nothing compared to what I’ve just lived through (and still am, in some ways). Since I feel a lot more stable now, I’m prepared to propose a few tentative reflections on what just happened.

The first thing I’ve learnt is that I’m truly dependent on people I’m close to in Sweden. It would be very hard to build such a network of friends somewhere else, not only depending on language problems (it would be utterly impossible in Taiwan), but on the simple fact that I seem to enjoy long-lasting and profound friendships. I enjoy chatting and meeting with new people as well, no doubt about that, but that’s no substitute for the real thing.

The second thing I’ve learnt is that I’m rendered completely incapable of rational thought when I have no fixed point to use as reference. This has never happened before, and I regard myself as a person who’s fairly good at making good decisions, even if the have to be done on the spot. Not so this time. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, feeling that I should have done something else than I actually did more time that feeling that I’m satisfied with what I have. That’s also a new feeling, I’m usually wholly confident that I make the correct decisions in most cases.

I’m not sure what this means in the long run, but it means that I’m not going to put myself in a similar position again, ever. If I’m going somewhere new, I will make sure I prepare better (for instance by deciding on a temporary solution that might not be good, but is reliable; in this case I could have applied for a room in the dormitory, just to make sure I got that point of reference. It might of course be moved, but I need to know where it’s going before it’s shift. Taking a step and finding that nothing is there when I shift my weight is not something I want to experience again.

In ending this introspective post, I want to invite other to dicsuss. Have you ever encountered a situation like this? What did you feel? How does that compare to what I’ve been writing the past couple of days? This is something new for me and perhaps I can understand it better if I hear what other people have to say, so even if you don’t have any personal experienc to share, I’d be more than happy to hear what you have to say about mine.

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This day has been incredibly hectic and made a lot worse because of lack of sleep and food. I woke up fairly early to make sure I got to the university in time to solve some of my most urgent problems (like where the classrooms are, which group I’m in, how I should register, etcetera) if not fixed, then at least outlined so I know what to do. Not knowing anything is the worst imaginable situation and even if I only had to suffer it for a couple of days, it still counts as one of the worst episodes in my life (more on that later, in another post).

At five o’clock I had learnt several things. First, I’m going to be in group A (which is the highest level for freshmen), at least unless something weird happens (they have too many students and have to change some into another class, but I’m going to fight hard to stay where I am). Second, I know the courses seem interesting, but very different from the language centres. The teachers seem to think it’s better than language centres, but I’m not so sure. At least three times as many students as I’m used to just can’t be an advantage. Third, there are, at least so far, no problems concerning my late arrival or anything else related to the more bureaucratic aspects of my education here.

At five o’clock, I also went to my temporary room to check with the landlord if the other room (mentioned here) was vacated. It was, but I was only able to inspect it at eight o’clock or so. It was alright, but I was still set to stay in the dormitory at the university that night, just to see what it was like. I told the landlord that I couldn’t decide now, and left for the dormitory. The moment I crossed the threshold, I knew that I didn’t want to live there. I can’t explain why, but I really did want to go back and rent that room.

So I did. Had I called five minutes later, the room would probably have been rented to somebody else, but I suppose I was lucky and the room is mine now. It isn’t super, but it’s good enough. In short, it’s fairly small, well-furnished, has a nice cable connection and is located around 25 minutes walk from the university. On the downside, it costs a bit (5500 per month, which is about 1200 Swedish crowns; cheap compared to Sweden, but it’s not very good here) and the building seems to be fairly poorly isolated, at least when it comes to sound. We’ll see about cold in a few months. I’m going to stay here at least for the first semester, and then I’ll see what happens.

This is what it looks like. I’ll publish more photos of the town, the university and so forth, but all in due time. For the moment, I’m happy to know I have somewhere to stay.

It almost feels like a cabin in Switzerland, but only almost.

Small but adequate, I hope.

And the bathroom door is one centimetre too narrow to fit my chin-up bar.

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Since my adventures yesterday (of which I wrote only two hours ago or so), I’ve had some time to clear my mind and outline what options I really have and the various consequences they entail. As is usually the case, something like this becomes a lot more lucid if spelt out, so that’s what I’m going to do now, both for your information and for my own sake.

Option one: Rent an apartment in Linkou…

…and hopefully find somewhere to live which is not too expensive and not too far from the university. This might be a bit more difficult than I thought at first, because most buildings here are at least half an hours walk from the main gate, which means it’s impossible to get very close. Buying a bike would of course shrink the time down to something like ten minutes, so I suppose distance is not a big problem. I have an apartment ready, which will be vacated on Monday and costs $4500 NT, which is the cheapest I’ll ever find, but it’s a bit small.

Advantages: Moderately priced, a room entirely to myself, not far from campus, have a viable option available now, immediate peace of mind (if I choose to stay where I’m now)

Disadvantages: Bad location for going elsewhere, locked for at least six months by contract, moderately priced

Option two: Find an apartment in Taipei to share with someone…

…which means that I need to find a suitable one, preferably close to either the main campus (to have access to the school bus) or the train station. These areas are among the most desirable in Taipei, so it’s going to cost and it’s going to be hard to find.

Advantages: Easy transportation to other places, probably a good apartment, probably no need for a long-lasting contract

Disadvantages: Very expensive, required commuting to school every day, room mates uncertain

Option three – Find a room in the student dormitory…

…even though I’ve always said I don’t want that. Let’s examine the reasons why. To start with, it’s impossible to meet Vanessa there, but I also think I’d like a room entirely to myself, regardless of how small. The first one can be countered by the fact that the rent will be very much cheaper than anything else, which will make it possible to meet Vanessa elsewhere instead.

Advantages: Very cheap, very close to campus

Disadvantages: No room entirely to myself, room mates uncertain, difficult to go elsewhere

Some thoughts

Writing all this and discussing it with Vanessa, I realise a couple of things. First, living in Taipei is probably not a good idea. The only main advantage is that it’s easier to get to different places, but that will come at a cost. The money I save by living in Linkou, I could easily spend on speedier transportation (like taking the high-speed rail instead of bus) if I want to go somewhere else. This means that the easy-to-get-to-other-places advantage might be negated simply by having more money at hand.

So, having decided (sort of) to live in Linkou, there are a couple of options. I could live in a small apartment of my own in the same building I’m currently in now. It’s not big, it’s not super good, but I’m not sure i need that. The forty minutes on foot to the campus is manageable.

I could also keep on looking and see if I could find another apartment, even though I’m not sure what kind of place would be better than the one mentioned above. Perhaps a little bit bigger and/or closer to the university, but that might be very hard to find.

Lastly, I could probably stay in the dormitory, which feels a bit uncertain. It might be good, but it might also be catastrophically bad and completely ruin my sense of personal security and integrity.

Conclusion (or something)

I’m almost going crazy because of all this. It seems like I need a solid foundation in life to function at all, and I’m sure that most of my angst right now is accommodation related. However, the fact that I’m hungry, haven’t had time to shower since yesterday and still a bit jet lagged of course doesn’t make it better. So how about doing something about the few things I can actually control right now and get some food, a shower and then some sleep?

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Yesterday, I said that by this time today, I would hopefully be able to tell you about the wonderful new apartment I’d found close the campus. Sadly, that’s not true at all. I’ve found temporary lodging reasonably close the university, which means I can continue my hunt for an apartment tomorrow, but I’m only a little bit closer to finding somewhere to live than I was this morning.

It started out quite badly this morning with my leaving the hostel, heading for the underground station from which a bus would take me and another student (Joy) to Linkou township close the campus. For half an hour, I thought I had misunderstood something about the directions, because nobody was there to meet me (and nobody answered phone calls either). This was solved about forty minutes later when it turned out that Joy had overslept, but was now on her way. I don’t consider this a problem, though, because as it would turn out and the topic of this post implies, she offered invaluable help during the day and I’m greatly indebted to her for that.

Arriving in Linkou, we met with a guy who was a representative for a housing agency or something like that, and he helped us find different places we had checked out beforehand. We were unable to contact some of the landlords, and the other apartments were out of the question for other reasons (too big and thus too expensive, or old and dirty but affordable). Perhaps I had evaluated the situation badly and apartments would be a lot more expensive than planned?

Not so. The last apartment we checked was quite nice and was also reasonably priced, but when we were about to sign the contract, I suddenly noticed that my mobile phone said “Emergency calls only”, which of course meant that my provider had no coverage of the area. The area in question turned out to be very local indeed, and the phone worked outside the room, but not anywhere inside it. This meant that nobody could call me while I’m home, which would be very bad indeed. In addition to this, the room has no windows, which I think is okay, but combined with the phone problem, it simply isn’t worth it. I decided to continue searching.

At this point, it was around six o’clock, which meant that I would get no more looking around today, and besides, Joy had been with me all day and didn’t deserve to drag me around any longer. I had two options: either going back to Taipei and find some temporary lodging there (very inconvenient since I would’ve had to go back here again first thing tomorrow) or check with the university if they could accept me for only one night. The second option turned out to be impossible for some reason, so I was resigned to going back to Taipei with a heavy heart.

Then the landlord from the last apartment we checked called (the one without phone coverage) and said that I could stay in the apartment I didn’t want for two days if I wanted to, without signing or paying for anything. He said that another tenant would be moving out on Monday, and if that apartment was better, I could rent that one. He also said that I didn’t have to promise anything, I could live here for two days even if I decided ultimately to go somewhere else. So here I am, with somewhere to stay at least for tonight and tomorrow, and my plan is to keep on searching. I simply just don’t dare signing a contract for half a year without being satisfied with the accommodation.

Today’s events in some ways illustrate what I like most about Taiwan. As a foreigner, I’m welcomed with open arms and most people are very friendly and helpful, even if they don’t have to. Joy could have said she needed to go a lot earlier and the landlord had no obligation whatsoever to offer me to stay in the room for a couple of days. But everybody so far chose the most friendly and welcoming approach, making me feel a lot better than I would’ve felt otherwise. I’d be lying if I said I was comfortable and happy, butit could have been immeasurably much worse.

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Taiwan regained

Although Taiwan perhaps isn’t the paradise the title alludes to and I wasn’t thrown out when I left, it still feels like something have been regained when I once again come to some sort of a halt here in Taipei. Some sort of halt in this case simply means that I survived all the way from my home in Linköping (over 30 hours car, train, plane and bus, in that order) and that I’ve found a place to stay, at least temporarily (it’s a youth hostel across the street from Taipei Train Station). I also have internet and power, apparently.

The trip presented no serious problems, even though the flight from Amsterdam was delayed by about one and a half hours, which meant that the connection in Hong Kong could’ve been very tight. Still, both I and my luggage made it through to the final destination. Flying is always pretty boring, but I did get some reading and some cubing done. I also managed to sleep a lot, which is unusual and perhaps not that good, since it should worsen the jet lag.

Tomorrow, I’ll go to Linkou, which is the name of the place I suspect I will spend most of the coming year. I have a list of apartments to check out, but I’m still not quite sure how to go about it. I have arranged to meet someone (a friend of a student ambassador from the university) tomorrow at ten in Linkou, but what’ll happen after that, I don’t know. I do hope I’ll be able to post again tomorrow and tell you about the wonderfully cheap and excellently located apartment I’ve found, but I would settle for finding a decent place within walking (or possibly biking) distance of the campus. Well, time will, as the say, tell. Now that I’ve said what I wanted to say and thus also confirmed that I’m safe and sound, it’s time to sign off. See you tomorrow!