Written on the 506 train
Saturday, June 6, 10:03 am
For the next two and a half hours, Steve and I are going on a scenic, slow tour of the landscape between Taichung and Taipei, thanks to Taiwan Rail (台鐵). We are taking a not-so-express train that goes through many smaller towns, though still not the local train, which doesn’t even have seat reservations. So far, we have seen some lovely fields, rivers that are running fuller than they used to be because of the recent rains (but still not at full capacity), and some mountains and hills in the distance. It is not the kind of scenery we would expect to see in the US, because these aren’t a part of long-running ranges like the Rockies and the Appalachians. The mountains here are steeper, younger, and you come up on them very suddenly.
— Connie Ma (@ironypoisoning) June 9, 2015
For the rest of the train ride, I think I will take the time to record my impressions and thoughts about my internship so far. There are two sorts of different experiences I’m going through simultaneously, which I will write about separately. The first is the fact that working (and living) overseas in Asia is a very different experience from the US, and I’m growing to understand more about the non-profit sector here. The second is that I am putting into practice what I’ve learned in my first year of public policy grad school about policy analysis, program evaluation, and statistics in order to run this program evaluation of their youth capacity building program.
The few days before I started at my internship, Steve and I were running around Taichung trying to set up our household. Even though we were crazy tired and busy, I still found time to worry about starting this internship. Plunging into full-time work, even just for ten weeks, is a considerable mental strain. What if my boss was hard to deal with? What if I couldn’t actually understand what they were telling me, since I knew nearly no professional Chinese? Even though I had talked on Skype to my prospective supervisor and found her very kind and the project for the summer quite promising, I was still on the verge of telling Steve that we had made a bad mistake, and couldn’t we just chill in Taiwan for ten weeks instead?
Of course, on my first day of work, it had to rain torrentially. I wore a raincoat and also had my umbrella, but still arrived slightly late, and my skirt and shoes nearly soaked through. Despite the inauspicious start to the day, it ended up being quite nice. I spent the morning meeting with my supervisor and the department assistant director, getting a thorough orientation about all the programs that this organization runs. I became more and more impressed as the morning went on, because everyone in the social work and training department of headquarters (where we were) had master’s degrees in social work. Despite this being a non-profit organization, it was national, with over 1,300 employees and twenty-something branches in all over the island, serving the whole country, so the perspective is really more that of a federal-level agency. I learned that the agency has two main branches of programs: the first regarding foster care and child abuse, and the second focusing on families in poverty. It gathers over 70 percent of its funding from public donations, and closer to 20 percent from the government. It’s in a fairly stable financial position right now, which was a refreshing change from working in non-profits in the US, many of whom are often a few pay periods away from having to close their doors.
I could go on at length about my first day, but in order to keep this post a reasonable length, I should discuss further the cultural differences between working here and working in the US. First of all, people wince a little when I tell them I work 8 am to 5 pm. That comes with a healthy 1 and ½ hour break though! At 10 am and 3 pm, an automated bell chimes a short melody, signaling a fifteen-minute break. People are encouraged to get up, walk around, maybe share snacks with each other. 10 am is also when we order lunch; there are six floors of the organization, and secretaries or administrative staff on each floor take turns by week to order lunchboxes for the whole organization, although we can also simply choose to order our own if we can get enough orders. I usually opt for a simple lunchbox with a chicken or pork cutlet, or even a veggie lunchbox, and then it comes with several side dishes of veggies and a hearty portion of rice. We write down the order, and leave the coins in a box (they usually cost between 50-70 NT (~2 USD). Then the bell chimes again at 10:15 am, and people head back to work.
By noon, people have delivered the lunchboxes, and the bell chimes again for an hour-long break. Sometimes, I read at my desk, which other people do, but I’ve been going more often to the main meeting room on our floor, where everyone gathers to watch TV on the big screen TV that doubles as a computer screen when they have meetings. Taiwanese news channels (as a side note here) are often quite sensational, sounding like the TV equivalent of The National Enquirer or something similar. But people generally laugh at what they cover, and I get to ask some questions and learn a little bit more about Taiwanese culture and society. After finishing our lunches, we recycle everything – the oil-covered cardboard that our lunchboxes are made of and even any leftover foods, which go into a food bin. The Taiwanese recycling system is truly amazing, and of course, since they live on an island, it kind of has to be. At 3 pm, we have another fifteen minute break, and around 5 pm, people begin heading out after clocking out by touching their RFID pass to a pad near the elevator. I typically walk back to the apartment which takes only about 20 minutes, and ruminate on where we’re going to dinner.
Next time, I’ll write about my experiences in the Southern Taipei City Branch Office, and our weekend in Taipei from this past weekend.