From South Africa to Taiwan

Falling in Love with Taiwan

By Bertus van Aswegen

I was 22 years old when I boarded my first ever flight—a flight from South Africa to Kaohsiung, Taiwan. It was three weeks after graduating university and I had just sold my navy-blue Toyota Corolla to pay for my flight ticket. I was excited and ready for adventure, and although I knew I was coming here to work, that was not something that crossed my mind at the time.

Earlier that year my friend’s roommate met a guy on a bus who was teaching in Taiwan, and they kept in touch. When my university held an expo about living and working abroad, we heard of Taiwan and were put in touch with the guy from the bus. Things happened fast. He arranged for an online interview with his school, and my friend and I both got the job, despite me being told my accent is too South African. I guess they must have been desperate, or my new friend put in a really good word for us, because a few weeks later we were saying tearful goodbyes to our families at Johannesburg International Airport.

After a horrendous thirteen-hour flight (I am almost 2 meters tall and economy class is not made for someone with my stature) we arrived in Hong Kong. Taiwan and a whole new life lay just around the corner. The flight from Hong Kong to Kaohsiung was much better, and within an hour our plane landed in the place that I had I no idea I would still call home after nearly two decades.  

We landed just after 16:00 on a Tuesday afternoon in December. The school sent someone to pick us up at the airport, and we were taken to the main branch immediately after getting our luggage. There we met the owners and managers, and we were “introduced” to my friend whom we pretended to know since childhood. We had a quick walkthrough of the school and I remember I was quite surprised by the size of the classrooms; they were tiny. The one that eventually became mine had no windows and was about the size of an average bedroom back home.

After all the formalities we were taken to the school apartment where we could stay for as long as wanted. It was decent, but definitely not luxurious, and the overhead lights were white and blinding. It was the first time in more than 24 hours that we were alone, and reality slowly started to sink in—this was it; a new country, our first job, a new life.

When “my friend” finished work, he came over and took us to the nearest 7-eleven and I still remember the smell of eggs boiling in black tea and what I assumed was MSG. I love tea eggs now, but it was a real shock to the senses. We ended up getting some potato chips and cake for dinner and passed out pretty early on our first night in Taiwan.

The next morning, we signed our one-year contracts and that’s when we learned my friend and I were being split up and had to work at different branches. Looking back, that was a blessing because we were forced to meet new people and couldn’t rely on each other at work. Training started that afternoon and consisted of me shadowing the guy I was taking over from for 6 days. We spent every minute of the working day together, and I had the opportunity to get acquainted with my future students.

I think that first week was when I slowly fell in love with the newness of everything; cheap lunchboxes, NT$10 green tea and sleeping in every morning. I remember thinking (or convincing myself) that doing this for a year wouldn’t be so bad.