By Karen Lue
Shortly after being awarded a Fulbright grant to teach English in Taiwan, I received notice that I would be placed in Kinmen County, a small island closer to China than to the main island of Taiwan. Initially, I was disappointed — there was not much information on the Internet about this isolated little island, and it seemed far removed from the more urban Taiwanese cities where I’d hoped to be placed. However, after a little over six months, I’ve come to love it here.
There's so much to say about my experience in Kinmen. Teaching is wonderful but very exhausting. I teach 2nd through 6th grade at a small elementary school in a rural area of the island. I love my students, and although it was difficult to adjust at first, I’ve gotten into a rhythm with my teaching. I also get to interact with my students outside the classroom at various competitions. Each school in Kinmen has a “specialty”; ours’ is unicycling. Throughout the year, I’ve been able to attend performances and cheer on my students, which has been a meaningful bonding experience for my school and for me.
My main mode of transportation is by scooter (basically a moped), which is the easiest way to get around the island. The climate here is generally humid and warmer than in Pittsburgh, with highs still in the 60s even in the winter. Unfortunately, it never actually feels that warm because it tends to be extremely windy when scootering and there is no indoor heating anywhere. Also, the weather is a bit unpredictable. The worst part is the moisture (I've already had things begin to mold in my apartment) and the lack of heating. I am looking forward to warmer weather ahead, but we have yet to hit the “wet season” in the spring and I’ve heard the constant rain makes it nearly impossible to keep things from molding.
On Kinmen there are 22 English Teaching Assistants (ETAs), which makes a great support network. However, I think the best part about being on such a small island is that we have the opportunity to get to know locals. I've made a lot of Taiwanese friends who attend the local university. And thanks to previous ETAs, we've been able to meet with people involved in the local music and arts scene! There is so much here that I never would have expected. For example, I've become close with a woman named Tingchi. She's a Kinmen native but received her MA at NYU and has had a ton of work experience in museums and various arts organizations. After living in New York, Beijing, and Taipei for several years, she returned to Kinmen two years ago and started a local arts and culture collective with her sister.
As an undergraduate majoring in art history, I became interested in curatorial work, specifically focused on community engagement and cross-cultural dialogue. My experiences in and out of the classroom led me to apply for a Fulbright in Taiwan, where I could practice cultural exchange directly with the community. It has also been an opportunity to use art as a vehicle for cross-cultural communication with my students. Moreover, I have been able to expand upon my research and internship experiences by working with Tingchi and the local community, curating exhibitions and events that focus on generating dialogue about the changing socioeconomic environment in Kinmen. Meeting her and becoming involved with her work has been extremely rewarding. After meeting with Tingchi for the first time, I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Of course, living abroad for an entire year comes with hardships. Spending Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's without the normal break I've been accustomed to my whole life, in addition to being away from family and loved ones, was harder than I expected. Fortunately, I’ve recently returned from a much-needed three-week winter break for the Lunar New Year when I traveled to Japan, South Korea, and China. It was a nice reprieve from teaching and I was able to recharge for the new semester.
I think the greatest takeaway I've gotten so far from being here is learning how to adjust my lifestyle to match this slow-paced island. After going through four years of college marked by occasional stress and anxiety, this has been the change I needed. It's true that there is not terribly much to do here in Kinmen, but that allows me plenty of time for self-reflection and development. I have been able to not only expand on my curatorial interests, but I have also had time to work creatively on my own art. I've discovered a lot about myself and my aspirations since coming here, and I’ve even considered pursuing career paths that I had never seriously considered exploring before, such as an MFA. Even in such a small place, there is still so much to discover on this beautiful island, and I am looking forward to more adventures.
Karen Lue of Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania, graduated summa cum laude in 2015 with a B.A. in History of Art & Architecture and Economics. While attending the University of Pittsburgh, she received research stipends through the Brackenridge Summer Research Fellowship and the Fall Undergraduate Research Award. She was also a 2014 Milton Fine Museum Profession Fellow at the Andy Warhol Museum and was the first recipient of the Innovation and Excellence in Research and Leadership Award administered through the History of Art & Architecture Department. Karen is currently living in Taiwan and teaching English on a Fulbright grant.