“Where is home?” For most people, this is a very straightforward question. But for me, it’s a little more complicated. Although I was born in the United States, I spent most of my life living in Asia, including Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing. I have grappled with the concept of “home” for as many years as I can remember. I knew my Fulbright year would be special, but when I reflect on my experience, I realize that I walked away with lifelong friends who are a second family to me, and with memories that truly symbolize the feeling of “home” I have for Taiwan.
Before I went to Taiwan, I promised myself to live every day to the fullest. I ran two marathons, traveled throughout the country, attended religious and cultural ceremonies, and even earned my Taekwondo black belt.
However, it was my work as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) that really meant the most to me. On weekdays, I worked with a local English teacher, where I co-taught to over 1,000 elementary students. Teaching in a foreign country had both its rewards and challenges. Whenever students were excited to learn, it was hard to not love teaching. It was great when students expressed how much they liked my class, brought me little notes, or gave me big hugs.
But there were times when my students challenged me to discover creative strategies in the classroom. In addition to teaching English, I also coached soccer for 6th grade boys. Admittedly, it was initially difficult to coach an entire team of preteen boys, but I knew I had to gain their trust and respect somehow—and the only way to do that was to take the field. I wasn’t afraid to put myself out there and play with my students, and to their surprise, I easily held up my own against them. After that, they were definitely more attentive in class! Moments like those—where I truly connected with my students—were inspiring.
On Fridays, I also volunteered as an English instructor at the Chongqing Elderly Center. Every class was a joy! We laughed, and discussed everything from the cultural differences in humor, to world religions. I had one student share that he converted to a different religion four times! It was those experiences of listening and learning from my students that made my Fulbright year all the more worthwhile.
On the day of my students’ graduation ceremony, I surprised them with a commencement speech in Chinese. But then they surprised me with the greatest gift of all. Afterward, every single student lined up just to say goodbye and to exchange one last hug. It’s a moment that still brings tears to my eyes. But that’s the best thing about my time in Taiwan, and advice I would give any prospective ETA. Go in with an open heart because you never know who or what you might end up embracing. Even though I didn’t expect it, my students felt like my children, the Fulbright staff felt like family, and Taiwan—even if it was only for a brief year—felt like home.
This piece was originally posted on the Fulbright Student Blog.