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What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade

Part 1: before the blog (you are here)
Part 2: meeting other bloggers
Part 3: how blogging helped me as an entrepreneur
Part 4: The biggest drawback to blogging


The first glimpse of a different life

When I was in college, blogging was new and exciting. As I was starting this site, other members of the Nintendo Generation were starting theirs, too. Some were like diaries, some were focused on personal interests many were mashups of both. I was enthralled by them. These blogs weren’t wooden news reports. They were often unfiltered and a closer look at what life was actually like for other people. One of the saddest parts of the growth of Facebook is that personal blogs have largely been subsumed by wall posts—nearly always a much less honest look at someone’s life.

I had become very interested in what it was like to live abroad. I couldn’t afford to and had actually chosen my school based on price. I desperately wanted to get out and experience life in a place different from where I’d grown up. It felt impossible at the time, but I knew that once I graduated I could go abroad to teach English. I’d heard that in some places, there was a tremendous demand for native English speakers and that with a language and literature degree I would definitely be able to find a job.

So I searched.

Google returned many links to blogs of Americans about my age who were studying or teaching abroad. I became a fan of one called A Better Tomorrow. It had Chow Yun Fat images in the banner and was written by a Swarthmore student studying in China. His Chinese was at a level I could only dream of and his stories of traveling around China were amazing! Another one called Sinosplice was written by an English teacher in China who had previously lived in Japan.

I read both with interest and started devouring everything I could find about language learning, language teaching and where to live. I decided to go to Japan if I were accepted into the JET program. After being rejected, I chose Taiwan.

redbeanyum

Moving to Taiwan

I had a really hard time when I first got to Taiwan. I wanted to learn Chinese, but everyone else wanted to practice English. Further complicating things, Mandarin was the second language in Chiayi (嘉義), the city where I was living. There wasn’t a language school for foreigners either.

Additionally, I was only the second American at the English school where I was teaching and the Canadian teachers completely shunned the other American… and me. It was during the 2nd Iraq War, anti-American sentiments were strong amongst many Europeans and especially Canadians and I was surrounded by young, ideologically motivated Canadians who literally believed discriminating against Americans (or at least those who pay taxes) was the morally correct position. Yikes.

I did manage to win over some of my coworkers after a month or so, but still it wasn’t the right environment for me. I didn’t believe the school was that effective. I loved the city and how I bicycle everywhere and I loved how friendly people were, but I just wasn’t learning any Chinese or advancing my career.

Moving to Taipei

Taipei was like a different world. Even then, the MRT was amazing and the city was incredibly walkable. Everything cost 20% than I was used to, except housing which was at least triple. There were tons of schools for learning Chinese. It was a stretch to afford tuition on part-time work but I did it.

The teaching methods and materials are the subject of another post, but in the end I was able to make some good progress despite them. I credit the many language learning blogs I was reading at the time for giving me both the inspiration and the know-how to succeed in such a difficult environment back in the days before language learning podcasts or apps had arrived and we were all looking up Chinese characters by radicals and stroke order in paper dictionaries.

My learning was incredibly slow and I couldn’t afford to study every semester. I also wasn’t making any forward progress on the work front. I was doing a marginally better job of teaching my students, but at its core it was unskilled work and the structure of the curriculum and business prevented me or any foreign teachers from making significant improvements.

Choosing to invest in new skills

I realized my work was essentially a commodity. I might get a slightly better wage through negotiation or becoming a popular teacher, but I was a very easily replaceable cog in a huge machine. There wasn’t much possibility of advancement either—to best of my knowledge the company didn’t tend to promote non-ethnically Chinese people.

The best opportunity I saw was to gain more skills that would make it possible for me to land a much better paying teaching job. There was also the option to pursue credentials, such as a TEFL certificate, but TEFL teachers are also largely commoditized and as I had learned even back then the TEFL training is highly opinionated but poorly backed by research. Some ideas, such as not using the students’ native language at all are clearly driven more by market prices of employing bilingual teachers than they are by what’s best for the students. Unsurprisingly, a TEFL certification is worth almost nothing in terms of increased earnings.

The climb

I worked hard at learning classroom-related language and started coming in to work early and watching my local co-teachers when they taught their half of classes. Within a few months I was able to get a job at 750NT an hour as opposed to my original 550NT. I had to prepare some materials for class and grade homework but there was a lot of latitude in terms of creating supplementary materials and learning how to be a better teacher when not following a very structured system from a large chain.

About six months after that, I got a job at a larger school with even more stringent requirements at 900NT/hr. I left that job months later due to a stupid contract they wanted me to sign that would have given them broad ownership of things I created on my own time. Their top teacher from the previous hired me at 1100NT/hr with a 50NT raise every 6 months and profit sharing if I stayed long-term. I moved out to his new school that week.

My blog

At this point, I had been living in Taiwan for two and a half years and was earning more than double the average foreign English teacher. I was 26 years old and I could speak two foreign languages very different from my native one.

I’d read dozens of books about language teaching and language acquisition and was teaching well over a hundred kids and doing it vastly more effectively than I’d seen at any other school. As my life situation improved, I became increasingly focused on helping others—my students, language students in general and other language teachers.

I’ll be honest. I felt I had something worth sharing.

So that’s what I did. I wrote about what I’d seen in the job market for foreign English teachers, I wrote reviews of my Chinese text books. I spent an entire day using my virtually non-existent programming abilities to hack together a tool for adding tone marks to pinyin. I even shared my investment ideas and every single trade I made.

Looking back on it, it kind of amazes me how enthusiastically I wrote about everything and how much time I spent on it even back when it was such a tiny group of people reading.

Part 2: meeting other bloggers

Over the years, I’ve offered an extra bed or at least a couch to a number of online friends who have stopped by Taipei or wherever I happened to be living. I’m not sure my grandmother would approve, but I think the conventional wisdom about is wrong on this topic. The risks are mostly over-stated and the benefits are often overlooked. People are mostly good and on the whole and as far as I can tell, helping travelers out is a net gain for both the traveler and the host.

The online friends I’ve invited over fit into three groups. Some, such as Brian, keep mostly to themselves, spend a lot of time on their laptops blogging or doing whatever it is they do and don’t really impact my routine one way or the other. Without exception, they’re always good for an interesting conversation or two. Hosting them is definitely a net positive. The second group are people like Darin. They make plans to come and I offer them a place to stay, but then they end up canceling the trip. Nothing is lost and nothing is gained… except maybe an increased chance of them offering me a place to stay when I visit the country where they live. The third group is those like my friend Wayne who end up becoming great friends and hanging out with me regularly for months or even years. That’s not only worth it, but it’s enough to upset the risk of a really bad guest (which I haven’t experienced yet).

One other thing that has been absolutely wonderful is that an unusually large number of people have let me crash at their places. John, when I visited Shanghai, PR when moving in Taipei, Matt before I left Colorado and now Ben in Kunming. I can’t really draw any connection between me having other guests at my place and them inviting me to stay at theirs, but if I did believe in earthly karma this experience would certainly reinforce that belief.

I’m fried. Peeling, too. I went to Yilan last weekend with Wayne and Eric and played in the sun all day. It was a long day, but it was just the way to end summer break.
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to be filled in soon…

(06/21/08) I’ve been buried under a mountain of work, once again. I can’t even remember what, exactly, I had been planning to write in this post. The key point, though, was that Franc (AKA “Prince Roy) became my best buddy in Taiwan during the later part of his tour, he left, and I’ll miss him dearly. I hope we meet again in Laos, PR!

Update: Prince Roy has a much more detailed entry about his departure. So does Poagao.

To be updated once people give me my pictures…

So, I did a “walkabout” for my birthday. Basically, it was a celebration of many of the wonderful things about living in Taiwan, and a chance to hang out with some good friends. The plan was to meet up at the 鍋貼 restaurant by Yongchun MRT and walk from there to the Jingmei nightmarket, hitting 7-11’s on the way for snacks, beer and whatever else it would take to sustain us for the several hour walk.
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What a day. I rolled out of bed at 10am, brushed my teeth, and sleepwalked over to Starbucks for a business meeting. It went pretty well.

Then, it was to the school, where I had to so some last minute editing for my Tuesday/Friday class’s first semester exam. For some reason or another, the internet connectivity was horribly spotty (and it’s on a LAN, not a WAN), but I got everything done.

The Bookstore

Next, it was off to the bookstore. I went to the new Caves Bookstore, near 圓山 MRT, and what a bounty they had for me! Over fifty books I had ordered for my students were there waiting for me, and I found a new series of readers that may have some potential for curriculum.

I’ve been very satisfied with the Oxford University Press Bookworms series, on the whole. However, their “starter” level books are terrible. They use the simple present tense for just about everything, and do so in unnatural ways. Chinese speakers have a tendency to do that anyway, and the last thing I want to do is reinforce the problem further. The problem is that the level one Bookworms are a bit difficult for low level students. I push my kids pretty hard, and it takes them about year before they’re able to read them. Not only that, but I have to give them some vocabulary sheets are support so that they can get through them at a reasonable speed (15-20 pages/hour).

Today, I saw a series that just may fill in some of this gap for beginning level students– OUP Dolphin Readers. The entire series is at a very low vocabulary level, and the books are full of good illustrations that make them much easier for students to understand. Levels 3 and 4 include multiple verb tenses, and at least from the browsing I did, the 1st and 2nd level Dolphin Readers managed to avoid the unnatural usage of the present tense that’s so common in other EFL books. They even offer headword lists online. The only problem is that the Dolphin Readers have a lot of writing activities inside them, and I’m really looking for something that can be re-used from class to class. Few parents would be happy paying for all those little readers.

The Election

On my way home from the bookstore, some middle aged Taiwanese guy commented on all my books, and we got to talking. It turns out he’s a History teacher at a university near where I live. He gave me an update on the election– it was an utter rout. I had thought that Ma would win, but I’d never imaged that he’d pull in 140% of Hsieh’s vote total after his party already won three quarters of the legislative seats a couple months ago. The people have spoken for the KMT and spoken loudly. It will be interesting to see what they do with their mandate.

Wayne called me up and told me a bunch of people were meeting up for a post election party, so I hurried home, dropped of my stuff and headed out. I had expected it would just be the usual suspects– Wayne, Franc, and Poagao. I was pleasantly surprised to see that David and Maoman made it there, too. The food was great, and I’m sure those guys will have a zillion pictures online tomorrow.

All in all, it was a pretty good day.

Wayne sprung this question on me yesterday. I swear he should have been a CS major.

The Hundred Hatted Prisoners

There are a hundred prisoners in a dungeon, sentenced to be executed the next morning. Fortunately for them, the king of the land is eccentric and offers them a chance to survive. He tells them he’ll line them up, one in front of the other, with the most guilty in the back and the least guilty in the front. They’ll be bound, so it will be impossible for them to see those behind them, but they’ll be facing down a gentle slope and will be able to see all the prisoners in front of them clearly.

Next, the king will place a hat on the head of each prisoner. Some hats will be blue and some will be red, but the exact number of each is secret. The prisoner in the very back will be able to see which color of hats the other ninety-nine prisoners are wearing. The second prisoner will be able to see the hats of the ninety-eight prisoners in front, but not his own or the one on the prisoner in the back. It will continue like this, up to the prisoner at the very front of the line, who cannot see any of the hats.

Finally, the king will walk up the line, starting from the back, going to the front, asking each prisoner what color his own hat is. Anyone who answers incorrectly will be executed immediately, via silent odorless methods undetectable to those who haven’t yet been asked what color their hats are.

The prisoners may talk with each other tonight and collude to create a strategy for the next day. Once they are lined up for execution, though, they will not be allowed to speak, except to answer the king when he asks, “What color is your hat?” Even then, they may only utter a single word, “red” or “blue”.

If the prisoners work together with the right strategy, how many need to risk their lives?

This logic puzzle doesn’t really have a “sucker answer” like the coin-tossing one did, but the answer is a smaller number than one might first think. It’s a smaller one than I first thought.

For the past week and a half, Wayne has been staying at my place. He just moved into the city from rural Yilan, and needed someplace to crash. What’s interesting to me, is that I even met him at all.

When I first created this site, my main inspiration was my favorite blog- A Better Tomorrow. Written by a young American who had studied abroad in Beijing, and then gone on to travel all over China, it represented the most credible, most human account I’d ever seen of someone of a similar background who had learned Chinese well. Since that had been my original goal in coming to Taiwan, I read each page of A Better Tomorrow with anticipation. The tales of being swindled at knife-point in the north-west, the updates about classes, the uncensored observations about people… all of it was fascinating to me.

After the Nanjing-Hopkins program that the author, the very same Wayne mentioned above, had been enrolled in was canceled due to SARS, I was shocked to learn that he was coming to Taiwan, the place I’d chosen to study Chinese! On, I kept reading, entertained with stories of “stuff you wouldn’t see in mainland China” (such as Buddhist televangelists), translations of Lian Zhan’s political ads comparing himself with Gandalf and his rivals with Sauron, and a hodge-podge of other things. Then one day, Wayne abandoned blogging in favor of photography.

After I started blogging myself and this site became one of the larger Taiwan blogs, I eventually met Wayne via mutual friends who blog, such as PR and Poagao. It’s kind of amazing to me that due to this site, I’ve been able to get to know someone who was once “that guy with the coolest China blog on the net”. Even more surprisingly, he’s restarted A Better Tomorrow… sort of.

On Sunday, I met up with my old teacher from CU, Prince Roy. We met up with Wayne, the author of the excellent but discontinued blog called A Better Tomorrow, and Poagao, the American guy who gave up his citizenship, became Taiwanese, did his time in the ROC army and wrote a book about it. Amazingly, Poagao and Prince Roy were classmates, and they both knew Wayne, too. What a small world. Poagao wrote a much better account of our day on his blog, but here’s what we did:

After getting to Jilong, we visited a temple with a giant Guanyin statue and a bell tower.
Buddhist Bell Tower
I managed to land a $10 coin on one of the spinning hands at the wishing well (after missing with all my $1’s and $5’s). It will bring me health 🙂
Wishing Well
Then we went to an old fort, where I slipped down some really mossy steps. I wish I had a photo of that place to put up here.

Finally, we hit the Miaokou Night Market. Mmmmmm.
Miaokou Night Market
All photos by Poagao.