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LGBTQ&A: Teaching English in Taichung City, Taiwan with Heather
Written by: Heather Nehl
Last Updated: January 5, 2021
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF
What is your citizenship?
Where are you from?
How old are you?
What is your education level and background?
Have you traveled abroad in the past?
Some international travel with friends, family, business, etc.
If you have traveled abroad in the past, where have you been?
Aruba, Spain, Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands
Please tell us about yourself.
Well, I’m Heather. I’m 22 with a bachelor's degree in Biology and Psychology. After my travels, I plan on pursuing a PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience and investigating the relationship between neuroplasticity and well-being. I love being outside and being in new places. I spend my free time doing yoga, running, rock climbing, surfing, and pretty much being as active as I can be. I consider myself a very positive and encouraging person. I love traveling and adventures, and I’d really love to visit every country!
What sparked your interest in teaching English abroad?
I wanted to take some time off between getting my bachelor's degree and my PhD, but I also wanted it to be a more meaningful time than just working and saving money at home. I looked into backpacking and voluntoursim, but when I realized I could travel the world and make money teaching, I was in. I really like traveling, but spending a week or two in a new place doesn’t really let you get to know the country and the culture, which is a major part of travel in my mind. So a long term stay is more in my interest and teaching enables me to do that while I pay off my student loans!
CHOOSING WHERE TO TEACH ENGLISH ABROAD
Which country did you decide to teach English in?
Please include the city where you decided to teach English.
What did your friends and family think about you moving and teaching abroad? Were they supportive, apprehensive, excited, concerned, etc.?
I received almost unanimous support from my friends and family. My mom was of course a little nervous - I had to feed her so much information about everything before she was more comfortable with the idea. But generally speaking, everyone I talked to about it was very excited! A lot of people in America don’t know much about Taiwan, so when I finally decided to go there I found myself educating most of the people I talked to. There were, of course, some concerns from some people, but everyone recognized that it was a cool and meaningful thing to do.
What were some of your concerns before teaching abroad?
I mean I think everyone who does this gets worried they’re making some kind of mistake. What if I hate it there? What if the job sucks? What if I don’t make any friends? What if literally no one speaks my language? What if, what if, what if?
I was mostly worried about the job itself. I've never seen myself as being good with kids, and I wound up getting hired a school that does K-12. I made sure to keep a positive attitude and remind myself that developing skills with kids counts as personal growth (a goal of mine while pursuing this lifestyle). Of course there’s always the fear that you won’t fit in and make friends and enjoy your time out there, but most people I talk to get over that quickly and deeply enjoy their time abroad! The best thing to do is remind yourself why you’re going and that you’re in charge of your situation. Being in charge means you’re the one who makes your experience good - or if you do wind up in a bad place, you’re the one who decides if you stay or not.
I also had the additional worry of getting into a long distance relationship. My boyfriend and I struggled a lot when it came to my decision to go and what would happen with us. It's a scary thing leaving any loved ones behind, but long distance relationships are another level of scary. While our worries in that department were totally valid, it’s actually so much easier than we thought. Of course, every relationship is different but it’s been a few months now and we’re doing well. Having the long distance challenge is an interesting way to grow as a couple and to experience this life style.
What resources did you find helpful when deciding where to go?
Blogs, blogs, and more blogs! There is so much information out there about living abroad and teaching abroad. Everyone who does it seems to have a blog or an Instagram or whatever. Absolutely do your research. I also loved the ITA Alumni Facebook groups; everyone in those groups is so encouraging and helpful. I’d ask questions on those platforms and get so many thorough and helpful responses. I got my current job because I asked a simple question on the Taiwan ITA Facebook page and connected with a teacher at my current school.
THE LGBTQ+ COMMUNITY IN TAIWAN
Please give your thoughts on dating abroad.
When I first looked into teaching abroad, I was single and just ending a relationship. I wanted to make sure I was going to a country that I wouldn’t have to hide who I was interested in for safety reasons or even for job purposes. One of the factors that first got me interested in Taiwan was that gay marriage is legal here. If you’re looking to be single and teaching abroad and interested in non-straight relationships, make sure you pick a country that you can date safely in.
I’m in a relationship now, so my experience with dating abroad is what I see my friends doing. In general, the community here in Taiwan seems open-minded and laid back. People are in all kinds of relationships and everyone seems cool with it. There appears to be a lot of casual dating among expats, but at the same time I know a lot of people who've gotten married while out here or since meeting abroad. I think like any situation, it's what you make of it.
Was there anything about being a member of the LGBTQ+ community abroad that was unexpected?
Even though part of the reason I chose Taiwan was because gay marriage is legal, I didn’t expect to see so many openly gay relationships and people. Since coming here I’ve befriended more people in the (LGBTQIA+) community than ever before. In America I think there’s still a sense of hiding it almost, at least where I’m from and with the people I know. There’s not much conversation about it. But here I’ve met people who talk about their experiences in all kinds of ways and who are very open and casual about those experiences. It’s nice to meet people with similar sexualities to mine and for it to be so casual.
Did being a member of the LGBTQ+ community have an impact on where you decided to teach English? If yes, how so?
Yeah, like I mentioned earlier it was one of the initial reasons I chose Taiwan. At the time I was first making my decisions, I wanted the full flexibility to be myself on this journey. If I couldn’t openly express interest in someone of a certain gender, then how could I fully grow as a person (which is the main goal of my time abroad)? It was also a matter of safety. There are still some countries in which being in the community is still responded to with violence. I didn’t want to be at risk or hiding when it came to getting involved with someone. Being in a relationship now means it’s a bit less of a factor, but there is still something to be said about the openness I feel in Taiwan. I see gay couples all the time and it’s really encouraging for me on a personal level.
Did you come out while living abroad? If so, how did your host country and experience influence that decision?
There wasn’t exactly a big coming out event for me out here or in America. For someone who feels comfortable talking about their sexuality, coming out can be a daily thing. I think most people still assume everyone they meet is straight until proven otherwise. So when it comes up in conversation that you’re otherwise, it’s almost like a mini-coming out. In America I didn’t talk much about my sexuality. But here I decided to be upfront whenever possible. It's an open enough community that treating it as nonchalantly as it should be was totally possible. So in talking with my friends it would come up, but I was never like “Hey Taiwan, I’m Heather and I’m bi!!”
Tell us about finding your community abroad
I didn’t specifically seek out the gay community here, I kinda stumbled into the friends I have who identify as LGBTQIA+. I got brought into this big friend group of expats who've been here anywhere from a few months to 10 and it seems most of them have an open view of theirs and other people’s sexualities and identities. It would be cool to get really into the community here, but it’s not something I’m actively pursuing.
What were some of your most memorable experiences teaching English abroad?
Oh, there are so many. My first week here was Chinese New Year and my Taiwanese teaching assistant brought me to her family home to celebrate. That was a fun week - I was the second foreigner her grandfather has ever eaten with!
My friends and I also took a trip to one of Taiwan's little islands called Green Island - it’s supposed to be an awesome place to snorkel but a huge storm came in just as we got on the ferry to go there. It was my first time driving a scooter (the main mode of transport here), and we had to pull over so many times because we couldn’t see through the rain! Even though it wasn’t the tropical island retreat we expected, it was a really cool experience.
Did you have any difficult conversations abroad? If so, would you mind sharing?
I did have a friend who, before getting to know me and my orientation, casually asked if I’d ever date a bisexual. Even if you’ve had the conversation about bisexual stigmas a hundred times, it’s still never easy to approach. I made my standard “well I’d be a hypocrite not to” response, but we still got into the stigma conversation about bisexuality being misperceived as promiscuity and all that business. She didn’t seem wholly convinced, but the conversation went well enough.
Did you find that locals had any stereotypes? Or did you have any stereotypes about locals?
From what I’ve seen, I don’t think there is much judgement around LGBTQIA+ here. I think relationships involving two women appear to be more common than two men. There are a lot of people who have a nonbinary appearance, although I would never want to assume. And for the most part it seems accepted. I haven’t talked much about it with the locals, but I know there is still some stigma. I live in a pretty big city, so I think people are more progressive.
Outside of LGBTQIA+ matters, the locals think foreigners are a hoot. I’ve had kids and adults wave at me and get so hyped when I wave back. People ask to take pictures with me and my expat friends like were celebrities. My building got a new doorman, and he was delighted when he realized I lived there. I don’t know what stereotypes they have of us, but I know they get excited about us. I personally tried not to go into my time here with stereotypes in mind. I wanted to take it in without letting my assumptions hold me down. I knew that Asia is a bit more conservative than my area in America, but I didn’t let that idea take a strong hold when I approached living here.
Were there any cultural boundaries you found to be different than your home country? If so, please explain.
Throughout Asia, there is the idea of saving face. While it's not as pervasive as some blogs make it sounds, it's still a factor that comes up day to day. A lot of people in Taiwan try to be as polite and accommodating as possible, but that sometimes comes along with annoyance and passive aggressive additions. What I find interesting is when it affects work. Even if our managers don't like something that we do or have an issue with an idea we present, they try their best not to say it outright. There are a lot of little comments that are kind of snide but still not upfront. I don't worry about it, but I know some expats get frustrated with it.
What are your thoughts on safety in your host country abroad, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community?
So, Taiwan is an absurdly safe place to be. In general, I've never had a moment where I've felt endangered or like I was in a bad place. I walk alone at night here, headphones in, like it's nothing. Even areas that, to American standards, look sketchy are really nothing to worry about. This sense of safety carries over to the community as well. I've seen so many couples openly walking around without any apparent harassment or judgement. I think Taiwan is a really safe place in general, but for members of the community as well.
Have you participated in any pride celebrations abroad? If so, please tell is about them.
I have not yet, but I'm keeping an eye out. There are a lot of drag shows here in Taiwan, so I imagine there's a Pride or two somewhere!
Have you had any weird and/or funny questions from locals?
This is totally unrelated to LGBTQIA+ issues, but a lot of Taiwanese women like to ask foreign women about whether or not they drink cold drinks while they're on their period. In traditional Chinese medicine, the goal is to keep the body warm, so cold drinks in general aren't viewed as healthy, but especially so for a menstruating woman. So I've had a lot of women, even upon first meeting, who ask me if I drink cold drinks on my period. I've had one person ask me why foreign women crave ice cream on their period.
Do you have any advice for people planning to move to this country/move abroad?
Definitely research where you'll be going. Outside of the major cities (Taipei, Taichung, Kaohsiung, maybe Tainan), things can get kind of quaint. I know a few people who wound up in small towns and got antsy. I live in Taichung and I love it. Also, be aware that air pollution is a part of life here. As is sticking out. Excluding my coworkers, there are days that I pass like one other foreigner on the street and that's it. I knew this coming in, and I looked forward to it, but I know some people were surprised and had to adjust hardcore.
Do you have anything else you'd like to share? If so, please feel free to write that here.
Be aware that teaching abroad is filled with wonderful times, but it isn't 24/7 adventures. Living somewhere means that you'll have days that you just go to work and hang out at home. You'll watch Netflix and sleep in. It's a part of life everywhere you live and that's ok! We're all human; we can't spend an entire year on "full speed ahead" mode. I think we see the best parts of other people's adventures on social media, and it makes it easy to think that this is a life of daily glamour when it's really not. I love teaching and living abroad, and there are so many great adventures to have from it, but the presence of a mundane side of life took me by surprise.
A graduate of International TEFL Academy, Heather is an aspiring neuropsychologist currently taking time off before pursuing her PhD. Her and her boyfriend are living and teaching English in Taiwan. They plan on teaching online and traveling the world over the next year before returning to America and continuing with their career and educational goals.
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