The University of Iowa

Fond reflections of a Fulbright experience cut short

May 22nd, 2020

Sylvia Dean (BA linguistics/TESL '20) was the winner of a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship Award to Taiwan for 2019-20. While the coronavirus pandemic cut her Fulbright experience short, she has fond memories of her experience, which she shares below.

Sylvia posing in front of a rice field in early fall in Hualien, Taiwan

Sylvia posing in front of a rice field in early fall in Hualien, Taiwan

The first time I heard of Taiwan, it was as I looked through sepia-faded snapshots from my mother’s 30 year-old photo album. At the age of six, I was more focused on the layout of the album itself than the world apart that hid within the photos, which lacked the vibrancy and detail of modern ones.

Perhaps if I knew I’d be spending nearly a year in Taiwan almost two decades into the future, I would have paid more attention to the images. I would have imagined the smell of braised meat at the night market. I would have imagined what it was like to spend hours on end in a rice field during a harvest. I would have tried out the few words I knew in Chinese, imagining how it would feel to use them while living in a foreign country.

When I first visited Taiwan, it was through a study abroad program I heard of through my university Chinese classes. During this two-month trip, I made friends and connections that encouraged me to return one day. After three more years of formal Chinese language education and ultimately earning a bachelor’s degree in Linguistics, I was accepted into the Fulbright program to serve as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Hualien, Taiwan, for eleven months for the 2019-2020 year.

Sylvia in class with fourth graders, teaching numbers through a guessing game

Sylvia in class with fourth graders, teaching numbers through a guessing game

For the entire month of August, we passed through a remarkably fast-paced adjustment period that involved attending 40 hours of workshops each week to learn how to teach children in a public elementary school, meeting and befriending our fellow ETAs, moving multiple times, setting up bank accounts, earning our driver’s license, and purchasing scooters. All of it was worth it, however, on the first day of school.Hualien county is one of the most beautiful in Taiwan, featuring striking coastal views alongside  towering mountains. In fact, there is a road in Hualien that leads from the mountain range directly to the sea in less than 20 minutes. It’s home to one of the largest concentrations of indigenous people in Taiwan, and it’s a place that around 330,000 citizens call home. Settling into life in Hualien was like a dream. Daily life is relatively relaxed compared to the bigger cities such as Taipei and Taichung, but we were kept busy by Fulbright.

With only a bit of experience working with kids through babysitting, teaching nearly 300 third through sixth graders was an incredibly intimidating thought. Playing make believe with a couple of children is one thing, but serving as a role model and a teacher for an entire school is another beast entirely. Each grade introduced their own challenges, from over-excitability in third graders to apparent indifference in sixth graders. I learned how to diffuse conflict between students, to create a safe and welcoming classroom environment, and how to keep students engaged through our bi-weekly workshops, and through plenty of trial and error.

After school was one of the best times to get lost in the plentiful alleys and side streets of Hualien. Around 4 p.m., many people were just starting to get off work and to patronize their favorite JiaoZi stands, ZhenZhu NaiCha shops, or even one of the 7-11s, found on every street corner. I first fell in love with Taiwan because of its warmth. Not just the semi-tropical temperatures that rarely dive below 50 degrees, but the warmth of the people. Those evenings, whether I was getting lost in a new neighborhood, shopping at a new store or unsure of what to eat at a new restaurant, ever-present were the locals, with friendly words and a willingness to help.

Sylvia performing with her band, Nina & John at a wedding in TaiChung City

Sylvia performing with her band, Nina & John at a wedding in TaiChung City

Perhaps the greatest choice I made while in Taiwan was taking it a step further and getting involved in my community by joining a band. I met a few musicians on a Facebook group for foreigners in Hualien, and on a whim decided to bring my saxophone in case anything were to come from the connections. Only a few weeks after arriving on the island, I began to perform with the band Nina & John. What began as a common interest and love for music grew into a friendship with the four other band members that persists even from across the ocean.

Sylvia before a casual performance with her band, Nina & John at A-zone in Hualien City

Sylvia before a casual performance with her band, Nina & John at A-zone in Hualien City

In many ways, my life in Taiwan sounds idyllic - from spending the mornings eating tropical fruit, the days with energetic and sweet children, to the evenings of practice and performances. But as one may predict, moving to another country does not come without challenges. The most pressing one for me was homesickness. Although I had everything I needed and every convenience of modern life, around four months into the year I began to miss the wide open spaces I found in Iowa. I went to the only American restaurant a little bit more than usual, and I found myself constantly thinking about loved ones back home, including my 21 year-old cockatiel, Peekaboo.

These feelings truthfully never completely disappeared, but as I gained more control over my schedule and made more meaningful connections within the community, the weight was slowly lifted. It was just when I began reflecting on the many things I was going to miss in Taiwan when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread, and all Fulbright programs worldwide were abruptly suspended, signifying our mandatory departure.

Although I was only able to complete eight out of the eleven months that comprised my grant, it was enough time to dig deep into Fulbright Taiwan’s mission of building a world with a little more knowledge and a little less conflict. Going forward in my studies and career, I will remember my time in Taiwan as a representation of that mantra. Although working in education may seem like modest work, the smallest of places are where the roots of change are cultivated.

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