By Vanessa Burggraff -Alumna, Class of 2014
“Post-Grad.” It has such a scary ring to it. An undergraduate student spends an average of four years studying in one particular field. That focus often becomes what they live and breathe for four years, and once they get that piece of paper saying, “Congratulations! You have graduated!” it transitions into a horrific moment of “now what!?!”
Maybe not all students feel this way, but this terrifying afterthought definitely rang true for myself. I spent four years at St. Cloud State University majoring in Global Studies and minoring in Women’s Studies. Unfortunately, I found Women’s Studies as a new-born passion too late in the game to double-major. I had the wonderful opportunity to work for the Women’s Center on campus and be a member of Women’s Action. I also participated in The Vagina Monologues and directed That Takes Ovaries. By the end of college, I felt like I was living and breathing female empowerment, just like I thought a good feminist should. Then, graduation struck! The safe cocoon of friendly environments I had grown accustomed to were replaced by the “real world.” I had decided a year before graduation that I was going to live my dream and travel abroad for a year. Not only was I leaving St. Cloud, but I was also leaving the United States for a country in Asia called Taiwan. Currently, I am a Native Speaking Teacher (English Teacher) at a CRAM school in Taiwan. I teach children ages 3-11.
When I first arrived in Taiwan, I immediately knew I was on my own. The safe cocoon was thousands of miles away. I went from studying different aspects of women’s lives and experiences to teaching grammar and the ABC’s. Where was I going to make the connection between feminism and teaching English? One evening, I dramatically texted my friend and asked, “How am I going to keep my feminist soul from dying?” Their answer was, “Just switch the lens.” I realized I was no longer the student; suddenly I was the teacher (when did I grow up so fast!?). It was time to apply what I learned in class to my new job.
I eventually found different ways of being a feminist in the classroom. I continue to teach my kindergarten students to be nice to each other, to embrace whatever color is the student’s favorite (pink is cool and so is blue), I show them that they can like the blocks if they are girls, and they can like the kitchen toys if they are boys, too. In my Elementary classes, I make sure all the students are getting a chance to answer questions and I started calling on the ones that weren’t raising their hands. I went from having only two female students raising their hands to all of them in just a few weeks. That was a proud teacher moment!
While part of my job has been hard, (some of the students deal with domestic violence issues in their homes, which tends to lead to behavior issues) it also has been super rewarding. I have had numerous conversations with my previous third grade class about how I don’t have a boyfriend but that it is okay. And even conversations about how my best friend is a boy who likes boys, and no he doesn’t like me like that because he likes boys more (try explaining that to someone in their second language). They are curious and they ask questions, and it is amazing to see what they know at such young ages. I never thought I would be giving my feminist perspective in simplified third grade form when I decided to move abroad, but I’m so glad they feel safe enough with me to ask me questions and be okay with my responses.
Outside of work, I have been taking full advantage of being in Asia and having the opportunity to travel. I’m glad that I have my feminist perspective to consider different aspects of my personal life or my traveling and that I am able to critically analyze them through a feminist lens. In Taiwan, personal questions are not actually personal questions. Strangers will openly ask if I am single, how many hours I work, and how much I get paid. My biggest pet peeve is their response to whether or not I am single.
They will say, “Wow! You moved to Taiwan by yourself?”
I will answer, “Yes, I did.”
Then they will say, “You are so brave!”
This response is accompanied with a stare of awe and a pat on the shoulder. Of course my fellow male colleagues have never gotten this response or been asked questions about their relationship status.
Being a single woman traveling alone in Asia is seen as either brave or crazy (people in the US have also labeled me as both as well). I call it living my life to the fullest and doing what I want. Recently, my marital status was questioned when I went to the doctor for stomach problems. There is a symptoms box in the form the doctor fills out. He asked me, “Single or married?” and when I said, “Single” he typed it in with my other symptoms. My conclusion: being single in Taiwan leads to stomach pains or stomach ulcers. Beware!
Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t all sexist side comments in Taiwan or Asia. I have had amazing opportunities, such as walking along the DMZ border in South Korea, eating lunch by an active volcano in Bali, climbing Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and crawling through the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam. Most of these countries I have traveled to alone. I always knew I had the ambition to do all of these things, but I know feminist theory and Women’s Studies helped me embrace the ambition and empowerment. They gave me the tools to feed my empowerment and address sexist questions.
Throughout this crazy year being abroad and being post-grad, I have learned a thing or two. My feminist soul will not die; I just need to learn how to feed it without the structure of a syllabus or a professor guiding the way. I have found books, blogs, and friends in Taiwan that I could talk to and share my thoughts and opinions with. I also created my own blog where I write about the places I have traveled including the things I have done in Taiwan. Not every post has a feminist perspective, but because it is a part of me I think there is always an underlying tone of it in my posts. I have continued to proudly tell people I am a feminist. While sometimes it takes people aback, it has sparked more conversations than I could have ever imagined.
Is being a post-grad Women’s Studies minor or major all flowers and sunshine? No. Sometimes there is loneliness or a sense of loss, especially when you miss a wonderful community you were a part of for a few years. But one can take the feminist perspective they have learned and adapt it to their everyday life. It is one of the new challenges a recent graduate faces, and I say embrace it!
Vanessa Burggraff graduated from St. Cloud State in May of 2014, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Global Studies (minoring in Women’s Studies). She currently is living in Taiwan where she works as an English teacher in a Kindergarten and Secondary bushy band type school. In her free time she likes to travel around Taiwan and Asia, read feminist books, color, and watch Netflix. If you have any questions about teaching abroad or what it is like to be a woman living in Asia, Vanessa invites you to contact her through her Facebook.
Photo courtesy of Offclouds.com