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A year in Taiwan: Learning, living and teaching in another culture
JULY 26, 2010

Phil and Annalicia Niemela of Cokato recently returned home after teaching English as a second language in Taiwan

By Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

COKATO, MN – Traveling to another country is not a foreign concept. However, for Phil and Annalicia Niemela of Cokato, living and working in a different culture is an experience in and of itself.

After graduating from North Dakota State University in 2008, the couple thought about going to South Korea, but something about the idea didn’t seem right, Annalicia said.

Instead, the couple got part-time teaching jobs – Annalicia at Montrose Elementary and Phil at Dassel-Cokato Middle School – teaching physical education.

After the school year, they had “a flash of inspiration” to look into teaching in Asia once again.

“We both value traveling a lot and thought this would be a great way to do it inexpensively,” she said. This would also be an opportunity for them both to have full-time employment.

Annalicia looked online and found Footprints Recruiting, a recruiting agency for teaching English as a second language.

On Aug. 1, 2009, the couple landed in Taipei, Taiwan, its capital city. Taiwan is an island off the coast of China.

The couple lived southwest of Taipei, in Douliu. Fortunately for Annalicia, this was also where she worked. That wasn’t the case however for Phil.

Phil commuted to his school, where he taught English to seventh and eighth graders in Huwei.

This required a 10-minute bike ride to the bus station, a 30-minute bus ride, and 10-minute walk to school.

“And I was a half a block away from my school,” Annalicia said with a laugh.

Needless to say, Phil began to appreciate the quality of Taiwan’s transporation system.

In Taiwan, the people speak Chinese. The couple was embarrassed to say that they didn’t even know how to say “hello” upon their arrival.

By the time they left to come back home in June, the couple had learned quite a bit of the language, though mostly only what they called “survival Chinese.”

Since they were there to teach English, many of the people wanted to practice their English with the couple so it wasn’t much of an issue inside of school, according to Annalicia.

The couple both taught in what are called English villages.

Unlike the typical classroom setting, English villages are rooms have been transformed into airports, airplanes, restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, and more. The idea is to teach students English in popular settings where they would likely visit in their travels to the US.

Their job as teachers was mostly to get the students excited about learning English, as well as teach them about the American culture. The students had formal English classes with other teachers.

Since this was the first year of the villages, both Phil and Annalicia were responsible for creating the curriculum.

“There were aspects of the job that were definitely challenging,” Annalicia said.

For example, trying to figure out how to get things done in the Taiwanese culture was sometimes a challenge, they commented.

Solving a problem in the Taiwanese culture takes longer, Phil said.

Instead of being goal-centered, like Americans tend to be, the Taiwanese are more harmony-centered, which likely has a connection to their main religions of Taoism and Buddhism, the couple explained.

They also learned how similar the students were compared to those they taught the previous year in Minnesota.

“Kids are kids, is what we found out,” Phil said, explaining that the girls are still “giggly” and the boys are boisterous and like to play rough.

Learning another culture and the language barrier were the most challenging aspects of their time in Taiwan, but there were a lot of highlights, as well.

For instance, they were able to create a lot of connections and life-long relationships with people; both Taiwanese and other foreigners. The couple also found the different world views of others “eye-opening and refreshing.”

Aside from their full-time jobs, the couple was able to do a lot of traveling around the island.

“We didn’t realize what a great travel destination Taiwan is,” Annalicia said.

Phil explained how the geography is so diverse throughout the small island, from mountains to beaches.

One of the most beautiful places they visited was Toroka Gorge National Park, on the east side of Taiwan.

The food was also an interesting aspect for the couple.

“Some [food] was wonderful, some not so wonderful,” Annalicia said to Cokato Dassel Rotarians during a program July 15.

For example, the couple tried stinky tofu (literal English translation). This is considered a comfort food (like potatoes are for Americans), which most foreigners did not like.

The couple learned a lot about the Asian culture, and that “normal” is a relative term.

Growing up, a person learns what they might call “normal,” Annalicia explained. When one travels and is immersed in another culture, a person learns that what was normal for them is not normal for someone else.

“That’s the lesson we took away from a lot of the experiences we had over there, whether good or bad,” she said.

Though they both loved their time in Taiwan, “it’s always good be back to what’s familiar,” said Annalicia.

Now, it’s time for the couple to start job searching yet again.

Phil is the son of Bonnie and Aaron Niemela of Cokato, and Annalicia is the daughter of Randy and Lynda Johnson, also of Cokato.

For more stories about their time in Taiwan, the couple has a blog, bloggintw.blogspot.com.

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