Working on Plan E

(Many of you have already seen this on www.expatsblog.com.  I want to be sure that the essay is included in the Tomorrow in Taiwan blog.  I didn’t win the contest but I’m happy I had the excuse to write this.  Thanks for all the lovely comments!)

It all started with a remodel project gone south and a frustrating year at work.

Dan and I had hit that middle age slump which I now interpret as a dawning sense of possibilities.  The kids were grown and doing well on their own.  Work had plateaued.  We were bored and itching for a change.

We tried one of the typical mid-life crisis remedies – a jazzy car (in this case a broken down 1959 Nash Metropolitan that we thought we might make into an electric car – lots of potential for cute, but ultimately not one of our passions).  We thought of other ways to build new income streams – a computer service company (again, not a passion) and remodeling our home to add an apartment (lovely design, but twice as much as we could pay).

So one day we sat slumped in our living room at the end of yet another bad week at work.  We had just pulled the plug on the remodeling project.   Work was looking like it would slam into a dead end sooner than we wanted to retire.  What to do?

“We have money in the bank.  We could do anything. We could join the Peace Corps.”  We looked at each other and said, “We could join the Peace Corps!”  Ten minutes later we had the online application up and started.

The Peace Corps application process takes a long, long time, particularly for older couples.  That gave us over a year to clear out the house, research current trends in encore careers, and wrap our minds around living in another country.

We yearned for a big change and a chance at a new adventure together.  We settled down young and missed our time to explore the world.  Neither of us had been on a study abroad program or even moved out of our home town. We were overdue for an adventure.  We started talking about this as “running off to join the circus.”

On Christmas Eve we finally got word about our Peace Corps applications.  We had been put on hold for at least another six months because of a medical concern. We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and said, “How else can we get our adventure in another country?”

On to the next plan.

Dan is a teacher.  It didn’t take much research for us to find out that certificated American teachers have many options for living abroad.  The wait for the Peace Corps and fixing up the house had depleted our resources so we decided we needed a paying position rather than one of the many volunteer teaching positions available.  And Dan preferred to be teaching a subject he really cared about rather than going after an English language teaching position.

We quickly decided that international schools were the place for us.  International schools are located all over the world. Some are International Baccalaureate; others are schools for the children of missionaries or expat employees of certain companies.  And lucky for us, they all recruit at several hiring fairs held around the world, including a large recruiting fair in Boston where one of our daughters was living.

This was a whole new world. There are many teachers who spend their entire career traveling the world – two years here followed by two years somewhere else that looks interesting. There are other teachers who do what we wanted to do– they retire from US public schools but itch to see more of the world so they leverage their teaching experience to jump into the international school pool.

We got a late start on the international school hiring circuit.  To do this properly, we should have started applications and signed up for fairs in September.  But in September we still thought we had a Peace Corps spot waiting for us.  So in February Dan camped in our daughter’s apartment, put on his professional clothes, and went off to find where we would live next year.

It didn’t work.  Or at least it didn’t work right away.  A little too old for some countries, not teaching a core subject, new to the game, and starting just a little too late.  Back to the drawing board. Again.  Over the next few weeks leads trickled in for Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.  They all fell through.  But Dan’s resume stayed in the database.   What we didn’t know then is that there is a second wave of job opportunities in international schools late in the school year.  Teachers hand in their resignations due to family issues or late breaking opportunities. then the schools need to scramble to fill the positions.  That’s what happened to us.

A late opening in Taichung, Taiwan led to an email exchange and an interview over Skype.  It was a great fit right from the start.  Dan is doing two things he loves – taking care of the school’s technical needs and teaching high school classes.  He proposed a new course in entrepreneurship that has proved to be very popular with the high school students.  The school provides a comfortable salary, a work visa, and an apartment.  By mid-July we were packed and on the plane.

It is so much easier for us to live abroad now than it was even five years ago.  With the internet tools available, I am in contact with friends and family at least as much now as I was when we lived in Seattle.  Probably more because I am working from home and much more relaxed now so I’m making more time for staying in touch.

The same internet tools that enable us to keep in touch with friends make it possible to create a business from wherever we are that can move seamlessly with us.  I can consult.  I can blog.  I can build and sell online tools.  We’ve only been here for three months so the details of the online business are not yet worked out.  But the possibilities!  Sure, I could have done this from Seattle. But I didn’t. This potential online business makes it easier for us to open up our own sense of possibilities.  I can do this anywhere we have good internet capability.  Dan can teach, and I can run an online business. Bring on the world!

Taiwan is a great place to be an American expat. The culture is very different here.  It’s clearly Asian, not Western.  The history is unfamiliar to us as are the dominant religions.  The way people interact and the assumptions they make are sometimes familiar and other times confusingly different.

At the same time, Taiwan is a very comfortable place to live.  The transportation system is first rate. We can eat the food and drink the water without concern.  Many signs are in English and there seems to always be a friendly local willing to help us out.  The health care is great, with a choice of Asian or Western treatments.  Western style toilets are almost always available (this is not a small consideration).  Have I mentioned the great markets?  And that food!  We are happy here.

For both of us this adventure is providing an opportunity to step away from our established routine to reconnect with who we are and who we want to be. Because we are not in our home country we can try new things and decide what we like and what we do not like.  The inertia from routines built up over the decades we lived in Seattle kept us in one place.  It wasn’t a bad place.  But moving to a new country creates space for us to explore, to invent, to sample.  To be new.   Here we cannot do what we have done for decades, even if we want to.  Here we must reinvent.  That reinvention is part of living abroad.  We are feeling opportunities again.  And that is a very good place to be.

If there was one thing we learned from the past two years, it was to always be flexible. We are quite adept now at coming up with a Plan B.  Or in this case, a Plan E.  Or more.  And I’ve noticed that the more plans we come up with, the better they are.  I’m glad now that we didn’t get our Plan A or Plan B or Plan C or even Plan D.  What we are doing now is so much better than the first plan we set our hearts on.  As Dan says nearly every day, “we get to live here!”

We are grateful that we got all the way to Plan E.

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We’re Aliens Now

Oh frabjous day! We have now been in Taiwan long enough to receive our Alien Residency Cards (ARC).  That means that we are finally legal to sign contracts. And that means that we can get cell phones (purchased on Tuesday night – right before the storm), get internet and cable TV in the apartment (ordered, but not yet installed), and take ownership of our car (uh… too nervous to drive until we know the streets a little better).

We feel like real people again.

On Getting a Head Start

Dan and I were talking last night about how fortunate we have been to get a head start here before the rest of the new teachers.  He just received the schedule for the new teacher orientation which starts on August 3.  The new teachers will need to jump right from the plane into orientation to the school, the people, the town, and the shopping. And school starts just a few days later.

We were privileged to walk into a beautiful and spacious apartment, with all the furniture that we bought in advance from the previous tenants.  And we will have access to our car by next Monday.  Dan was also able to rest for a full weekend before starting work.  Most important, we have both had a chance to get to know the staff before the busy work of the school year begins.  (Great people.)

Of course Dan has also been hard at work learning the tech systems here and troubleshooting some of the challenges.  This was also much easier to do without the teachers trying to kick off their courses at the same time.  Plus he’s been paid for the extra days! Almost too good to be true.

All in all, a good decision to make.

Our First Week

We’ve spent our first week in Taichung settling in and taking it easy.  We haven’t done much exploring beyond our immediate neighborhood (a few blocks around the apartment).  Instead Dan has been going to the school each day to figure out the computer systems and get ready for the students and teachers to arrive while Betsy has been puttering around the apartment figuring out (or not) how to work the stove and the washing machine and making endless lists of supplies to buy.  We’ve both been falling asleep early (with effort we stayed up until 8pm last night!) and I’m not sure if that is because of the heat, the jet lag, or the sheer volume of change we are dealing with.  As a result of this “nesting” instead of exploring, so far this has felt much more like moving to a new town than it has like a touristy vacation. I think that’s a good thing.

We have plans to take a taxi to museums and malls this weekend to get a better sense of the city.  Exploring farther will be much easier when we can take possession of our car and as the weather cools in a month or two.  It looks like there are some great bicycle paths to explore.

We have one more week to be the only new folks on campus. Some of the returning teachers come back next week and the new teachers arrive the week after.  I suspect that school and our social lives will be much livelier in August.  In the meantime we will ease in slowly to our new lives and try to be as prepared as possible when the school year starts.

We’re Here!

Ni hao!  I’m writing this from the computer lab at the school.  We just had an extensive tour of the school grounds and all the buildings.  What a great location in the foothills! Everyone has been very friendly and helpful and Dan has been bouncing more with every techie thing he saw.  I think this will be a great fit for us. 

The apartment we are living in is very spacious and well situated for shops and restaurants. The previous tenants left lots of stuff for us.  Most of it we can use, but we will be finding another home for the crib and changing table.  🙂  When we woke up at 3am on Sunday (after sleeping most of Saturday to recover from the flight) we started moving furniture (quietly) and making the place our own. I am particularly excited about the “room of my own” – an office that we are making out of the former baby’s room. 

In the past two days we have made careful explorations of the neighborhood, tracing back to the apartment and venturing a block or two farther each time.  So far the most difficulty we have had being understood is getting the address of the apartment building written down so we could find our way back if needed. We had the written version of “where do I find…” but couldn’t quite figure out how to get the concept of “the address for here” across.  Not to worry – we eventually got the written address and then realized that everyone in the neighborhood knew exactly where we belonged and what we had been up to.  Apparently we stand out in this crowd.

Big, Big Grins

The last time I remember grinning like a fool in a government office was when we got our marriage license 30 years ago. There we were again last week, filling out forms, answering questions and grinning like fools. This time it was to get our visas to Taiwan. The very nice people in the office were kind enough to not openly laugh at our enthusiasm.

This week we also found out more about where we will be living. The teachers who are moving out sent us pictures and it looks lovely – fairly new, on an interesting street, and with three bedrooms! We are going to buy the furniture and household stuff from them (right down to the food in the cupboard) so they won’t have to move as much and we will be able to just walk right in to what we need to get started. Even better, they sent us a map with their favorite restaurants (Thai, hamburgers, and three Indian restaurants) and their favorite hiking spots.

Visas and plane tickets in hand, we’re ready to move to Taichung! Uh, except for the packing. Lots and lots of packing.