The similarities are as startling as the differences, but two first- year teachers seem to have found their happy places – on opposite sides of the world.
Teresa Frieb’s son, Tobias, and Tammy Sturn’s son, Eli, have a lot common. In some circles they might be considered brothers from another mother, even though they have never actually met. Each is the youngest in a three-sibling family and graduated from small-town high schools (Tobias from Otis-Bison and Eli from Ellinwood). Both have mothers who co-teach special education at Great Bend High School and each has chosen early childhood education as a teaching career – not typical for men.
Above all, the two young men enjoy a sense of adventure. Tobias and Eli graduated from college in May – Tobias from Emporia State University and Eli from the University of Kansas. They each were lured away from central Kansas by recruiters at job fairs. That’s where many of the similarities end.
Tobias bit on a job in Kwigillingok, Alaska, a 300-person village on the Bering Sea in the southwest part of the state. Eli signed up for a job in Taichung, Taiwan, a city of 2.7 million with a humid, subtropical climate.
The Northern Lights
Both locations are on the ocean, but they are as different as summer and winter. Teresa said Eskimo parents in the Alaskan village are involved in their children’s education, but they are more interested in keeping their native Yupik language alive and teaching their children traditional skills like hunting. Those skills are vital since most will never leave the village. In Taiwan, according to Tammy, parents have very high expectations for their children and want them to learn all the skills to succeed in the technology age.
In contrast, the Eskimos live in poverty – most with no indoor plumbing – while the Taiwanese live a more affluent lifestyle with all the amenities found in big cities. Teresa shared some of what she has learned from Tobias through Skype and on a trip to Alaska she made last summer to get him settled. The only way to get into or out of the village is by airplane and once you arrive, there are no vehicles other than snowmobiles and four wheelers.
Trips anywhere are logistically difficult. There are no roads, only boardwalks that connect the half-dozen structures in the village. Buildings are from three to six feet off the ground as protection from the ocean waves and typhoon winds.
The district furnishes an apartment for Tobias and other teachers that is actually attached to the school, which makes his commute very short. His apartment has running water, but no shower. He must go to a communal wash house similar to a car wash where he plugs quarters in to get hot water.
“He’s adjusting to the light and cold … and the food,” Teresa said.
Right now, the sun comes up at 10 a.m. and sets at 4 p.m. During big hunts for walrus or moose, school is called off so the children can help. Villagers all share the bounty, so Tobias has plenty of local food to eat. However, imported food like canned goods is very expensive. For instance a can of corn costs $4.09 and a jar of applesauce is $6.35.
Half way around the world, Eli is having his own adventure in a tropical paradise and as proof he is always barefoot in the classroom. Modern transportation and roads make traveling easy in Taiwan, which is roughly the size of Maryland and Delaware combined. Because of the mountains, it takes four or five hours to cross the island.
Although by Kansas standards it is hot there year round, the locals appreciate their seasons. It is currently winter, but the temperature is a moderate 80 degrees. Tammy said Eli recently tried to buy a pair of shorts to supplement his wardrobe and was surprised that none were available during the winter season.
Eli is adjusting to life in Taiwan, but he still feels very much like an outsider, Tammy said. His six-foot frame, white skin and body hair make him really stand out. “He’s the hairy American,” she laughed, explaining that Taiwan is a hairless society.
“The kids want to touch him all the time and pull the hair on his arms,” she said.
Eli is getting used to the food and has even tried exotic coffee brewed from beans previously eaten by a Chinese Civet.
“Farmers go around collecting the poop from these civets,” Eli wrote in his often humorous blog, “Coffee Beans and Doughnut Crumbs.
“They then use them to make specialty coffee. Some people swear it’s some of the best coffee in the world,” he wrote. “Others say it tastes like crap (insert rim shot here). Well guess what a coworker of mine gave me the other day?
“So, yes. I drank the squirrel-poop coffee because I’m an open-minded individual and being single for the rest of my life can’t be all THAT bad. Be proud of me, Mom and Dad. This is what I went to school for.”
Eli’s sister visited him over Thanksgiving and his mom and dad are planning a trip to see him, as well.
“We have always traveled a lot as a family,” Tammy said. “That’s probably where he got.”
Both mothers are proud of their youngest sons and happy that they have the self-confidence to strike out on their own. Besides, through the wonders of Skype, they never feel very far away.