Living in Hualien
What are the strengths and weaknesses of living in Hualien?
The outdoors: Hualien is broadly speaking a beautiful place to live. The mountains are stunning and the ocean is in our backyard. There’s only one main beach about 20 minutes away, but the coastline is such an aesthetic advantage with a great bike/running path and coastal roads north and south with consistently beautiful ocean views. Taroko National Park is a fast 1-hour bike ride away (30-45 minutes by bus) and has a paved road and a handful of trails that are free to access. Some trails require a permit, payment, and advance planning.
It doesn’t take long to connect with Taiwan’s agricultural roots. Here in Hualien, you’ll pass neighborhoods that were probably just rice paddies 15 years ago, and which in many cases, still are. Farmland and gardens dots the city’s periphery, and there’s undoubtedly a “je ne sais quoi” about communities engaged in small-scale agricultural production that feels palpable interacting in markets and in certain neighborhoods. Hualien is a fully modern city in most respects, but has yet to fully shift to an industrialized service sector-driven economy.
Little/big feel: Hualien’s main avenue and arteries that stem from it are buzzing many nights of the week (though the city gets really quiet from about 10 onward). There’s everything from Carrefour and Adidas and pro bike shops to an awesome, clean, comfortable night market and dozens of cool coffee shops and brunch places. That said, the traffic isn’t bad, it doesn’t feel congested, and the air quality is great. I feel like I get the best of both worlds in Hualien.
Tzu Chi (right in town) and Dong Hwa University (about 20-30 minutes out of town) can be considered strengths depending on your interests. Evening Chinese classes at beautiful Tzu Chi University are of high quality and are conveniently located. (The main campus also has a stunning meditation hall that feels like a Buddhist rendition of the Lincoln Memorial every time I ride by.) Considered together, both universities are also opportunities to get to know people our age, though this won’t happen automatically since the campuses are both rather insular. Connections won’t make themselves (say, at the local college bar - because there’s not one), but with a little effort it’d be possible to get to know university students, either socially or through language exchange.
Travel distances: Visiting anywhere on the west coast of Taiwan requires about half a day of travel, and travel to Taipei requires 1-2 weeks of advance planning and a couple hours in both directions.
Weather: ...earthquakes? Typhoons… but they aren’t too bad.
Why did you choose Hualien?
Alex: I chose Hualien for the natural beauty, comfortable pace of life, and cultural richness at the heart of some of Taiwan’s most prominent aboriginal communities, all without sacrificing much in the way of convenience.
Isabelle: I actually put Hualien last, but now I can’t imagine being placed anywhere else. The city and its people completely won me over.
How is the public transportation?
There is a bus system in Hualien, but most people travel on foot, bike, or scooter depending on where they are going. When it comes to going to Taroko, the bus is an excellent and very convenient option. Whether the city is walkable depends on your housing location: broadly speaking, two of the three houses are within walking distance of downtown shops and restaurants; one is located in a quieter residential area and requires a 5-10 minutes scooter ride to the city center.
How do you travel from home to school and around the city/county?
In Hualien City, ETAs travel on foot, bike, and scooter. It is possible to explore the city without a scooter if you enjoy walking and biking. For English Camps, ETAs go to them by bus or train and are picked up from stations within the county by their partner schools. As for exploring the city, from one end to the other (night market to train station) is only a 30-45 minute walk, so it is convenient to shop around.
What is your daily routine as an ETA?
Alex: Get up and run while the air is still crisp (5:30-6), followed by oatmeal, coffee, and some reading, then out of the house by 7:30. Reach school by 8 and participate in that day’s pre-class activity for 30-40 minutes, if there is one (e.g. assembly on Mondays, teacher meeting on Tuesdays, silent reading on Thursday, etc.). Teach 2-3 classes in the morning and spend a free period preparing for and planning other lessons before lunch. Lunch at noon with some of the school staff in their office (which is great Chinese practice), go for a 10-minute walk around the block, brush teeth, hang out with kids lingering in the office, write an email or two, then teach another 1-2 classes in the afternoon starting at 1:20. I use another free period in the afternoon to take notes on classes from the day, prepare parts of my bi-weekly written Fulbright report, or generally make myself available to my co-teacher for any help with prep-work she needs. Two nights per week I ride my bike 20 minutes to Tzu Chi university for Chinese class from 5-6:30 and then come home to make dinner afterward or meet up with roommates to eat somewhere. After dinner, I usually read, study Chinese, connect with people back home, **Nov-Dec work on grad school applications**, take a walk, blog, or listen to music until about 10 or 11.
Isabelle: Get up at 7am to leave the house by 7:45. Arrive at school by 7:50. I have one of the shortest commutes of all the ETAs. From 8:00 to 8:40, I work with my most advanced students who are preparing for the General English Proficiency Test (GEPT). Like Alex, I teach about 2-3 classes in the morning. During my free periods I usually grade or lesson plan. During the 3rd period break, the 4th graders in remedial class come to me to practice their ABCs. At lunch, I sit with the other subject teachers in the kitchen. Before afternoon classes start I work with my GEPT students again or do one-on-one tutoring with students (as requested by their parents). I will then teach 2-3 classes in the afternoon. On Mondays and Thursdays I stay at school until 5 to teach English remedial classes. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I attend Chinese classes that Tzu University. For dinner, I usually grab a bite to eat with my roommates. After dinner, I usually study Chinese and write in my journal until 10.
How is the weather in Hualien?
The weather is variable based on the seasons. There is no heating in the winter so it can get quite cold. However, in the summer it can get quite hot and humid as Taiwan is tropical. Most of the schools we teach at have air conditioning, but not all of them. In terms of temperatures/humidity, Hualien has lower levels than Kaohsiung and Taichung, and is also much less polluted with cleaner air.
What are some fun extracurricular activities I should do in your city?
Hualien is filled with excellent hikes and outdoors activities such as surfing. Many of us are also involved in language exchange, working out at the gym, rock climbing, and different community service opportunities in the city.
As a Christian, a church community for me is rather important. Is there a church in Hualien?
There are several churches in Hualien, and one English-speaking church in particular that a handful of ETAs here attend each Sunday. There is also an additional mission here in Hualien with a strong cadre of Americans (maybe a dozen in total?) who are welcoming and connected to the community. I think there’s also weekly bible study through one of these outlets.
What type of environment is there and what social/professional networking opportunities are in the area?
I would say this is very field-specific. Professionally speaking, the universities are probably the richest repository of networking opportunities - faculty, graduate students, business schools, etc. all represent ways to meet people that you wouldn’t meet through school, and you should be able to access these networks either through your local Fulbright advisor, coordinator, or other unfathomable ways. To tap into the start-up culture of a fast-growing information economy, or to network in the private sector/industry sense, this probably isn’t the place to be (see: Taipei). However, that’s not to say it’s a desert of social networks. There are opportunities for professional and personal growth all around you, provided you’re willing to look for them.
How easy is it to travel from Hualien to Taipei?
The TRA train from Hualien to Taipei is about 2 hours on the fastest route. Slower trains might take up to 3 hours.
Have you been able to travel to other parts of Taiwan?
Yes! Hualien, while not the most accessible of cities, is a few hours from Taipei which is connected to the entire west coast by HSR (Taipei to Kaohsiung is around 2 hours by HSR). By TRA (the regular trains) you can access all of Taiwan within at most a 6-7 hour train ride.