12 Jan Teaching English Abroad as a Muslim Woman
A myriad of questions still run through my mind when I think of my two-month volunteer English teacher stint in Taiwan. How did I end up in Taiwan? How did I explore the entire island so seamlessly? Why did I break my leg just two weeks before my initial departure? Why did the job I interviewed for, before leaving, wait two and half months while I taught English and explored Japan, to have me start?
As a Muslim, I believe in Qadr – divine destiny. Our life, from conception in our mother’s womb, to our death, is already written. Maktub. Every event that occurs in between is already written. This is why when something happens, good or bad, we say Alhamdullilah (thank you God). Every detail is meticulously planned by God so every occurrence has wisdom behind it, whether we realize it immediately, later on, or never at all. God knows. So while we may think we’ve lost control of our lives, knowing that God never lost control anchors you down with stability. We rarely see the big picture. We see a droplet while God knows about the ocean. And the places we go, the people we meet, our experiences all deeply intertwined with those of others, though we may not notice at times.
Teaching English in Egypt is my initial plan. AIESEC, an organization for young people to develop their leadership through practical experiences in challenging environments all over the globe helps me get in touch with AIESEC program coordinator, Gamal, in Egypt. We video chat about the teaching opportunity. Egypt seems like a likely venture. But then my assigned AIESEC program coordinator in Canada stops me. She tells me it will expensive and that AIESEC Egypt doesn’t have connections with AIESEC Canada, so if something happens they may not be able to help me. She then informs me she taught English in Taiwan and loved it.
That country never crossed my mind, let alone did I ever think of visiting. I’m not fond of East Asian food so that makes me hesitant. What would I even eat? My heart still wants Egypt. I can’t quite recall why I eventually accept Taiwan – it just happened. I think at that point I’m so desperate to leave the cubicle life and just travel and live somewhere else, I accept anything at that point. Taiwan it is.
2017. I dipped my feet in travelling that year. Something I had desperately wanted to do for years after watching my older sister travel from country to country.
It starts one late night in May when I book a solo flight to Vancouver for October later that year. A deep bout of depression overtakes me for months prior, and I want out. The office life is suffocating. I feel trapped. More travel opportunities arise later on. My mom asks me if I want to travel to the United Arab Emirates over the summer with her. I leave my high-paying government job to go with her. I book Banff and Jasper with my sister for right after I arrive from UAE. Travel feels liberating. I want more.
As my solo Vancouver trip approaches, my panic grows. Why did I think solo travel was a good idea? What did I think booking an Airbnb with a male host? Am I going to be safe arriving at midnight, all alone in Vancouver? I call and try to reschedule my flight, but more so because it’s scheduled to rain the entire week I’m supposed to be there. It’s too expensive to rebook so I don’t. Best decision ever. Even though I break my leg and my English teaching position in Taiwan needs to be rescheduled the following year after my fractures heal.
Days before my departure to Taiwan, my parents grow frightened. My dad begs me to cancel and my mom’s scared I’m being lured into a crime ring. But everything’s already booked, and I’m determined. And stubborn. No one will change my mind.
My school location is in a rural Taiwan city, Changhua, just 20 minutes from Taichung, the second largest city after Taipei. The school principal places me with a wealthy, Porsche-driving host family who live in a beautiful house with an elevator. The third floor is for me. My bathroom toilet seat is heated. Bliss. But they make me ride a bright orange bike to and from the school, which I eventually learn to love. Sort of.
Teaching English as a Muslim Woman
Schools in Taiwan are massive and extravagant. You can tell they focus a lot on education and teaching by how they’re built. I teach 12 – 16 year old’s. There are a few teachers in the school who speak English and, unsurprisingly, they also teach English. I present to many different classes about Canada and play games and offer prizes with the students. I also attend a cottage trip for the graduating students which is lit as hell. Fun fact: the cottage trip leaders, who seem like college students, make me go up in the middle of the circle, surrounded by everyone and invite me to dance….alone. Best memory until this day.
Being a Muslim and wearing a hijab does not hinder my ability to gain acceptance from the Taiwanese people. Many can tell I’m Muslim by my hijab. Many are curious and ask me why I wear it. The principal once asks me to do create a presentation about Islam for the students. He later rescinds that suggestion because the teachers thinks that parents will think we’re trying to indoctrinate Islam into their children.
Exploring Taiwan as a Muslim woman
I won’t get into this much because I have plenty of blogs about this.
When I first arrive in Changhua, the principal takes me to an empty flat and says I can live in there alone. I, for some reason, refuse because I don’t want to live alone. He then tells me I can live with a host family.
During my time there, I live with three different families.
The first one is a huge family, with a mother, father, daughter, son, grandparents, nieces, nephews and many friends. They’re wealthy and own a business where they create the trinkets the hang on purses. The second family was my favourite—a single mother and her lovely daughter who went to the school I taught. The third family was a couple with two young boys. They once proudly take me to a seafood restaurant they own and introduce me to everyone as the Canadian that’s staying with them. They’re all eager to have an English-speaking person in their house so their children can learn English. Not once did I ever feel uncomfortable with any of them. I always had a nice large bedroom and bathroom to myself in every house.
In-between teaching, the teachers take me on trips and excursions to explore more of Changhua. There is one teacher in particular who takes me out a lot to explore different festivals and shrines.
I ride my bike to and from school every day. I receive many many stares, but also many smiles.
Food in Taiwan
My AIESEC teaching program comes with three meals per day. Halal food isn’t popular in Taiwan and East Asian food is my least favourite cuisine so I’m wary. My principal begins ordering me specially made vegetarian lunches, which is kind of him, but I still didn’t like the food. During lunch I went mostly hungry. It was a lot of rice, tofu and other vegetarian things I couldn’t decipher. My host families’ breakfasts and dinners are always way better.
My first host family takes me to halal restaurant in Taichung. I had the most delicious beef dumplings and all sorts of other delectable Taiwanese dishes. My inability to use chopsticks always led me to using a fork. Awkward.