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Welcome to my final blog post!

My study abroad program ended last week, but I am still in Taiwan for a while, so I can enjoy Taipei for a bit longer.

How to end this blog?

To start, the final exams definitely required much studying, but were doable in the end. I really like the Language Practicum final, for which each student in my program prepared a presentation about anything they wanted and spoke for five minutes in Chinese. It was neat to learn more about my classmates and what they had learned about Taiwan, or from their experiences here. I spoke about how Taiwan is a good place for introverts to live—a surprising thing to learn about such a big city where people are everywhere! But here there’s no painful tendency toward small talk or pressure to eat with big groups of people. That’s not to say that Taiwanese people aren’t friendly, though! Everyone I’ve met here has been good to me.

The Jitao Building, which is where the CIEE office (for my program) and my art history course were

The last few weeks of the program were full of studying, eating, and taking breaks from studying by going out to night markets, cafes (there’s a really cute one in Ximen that’s Alice in Wonderland-themed!), and watching movies (the U2 theater in Ximen lets you rent a small private theater where you can choose from hundreds of movies and enjoy a theater movie experience with just a few friends—we watched 我的少女時代 (“Our Times”), which is a really well-known Taiwanese movie that came out in 2015). I also went to Hualien with a group of friends, and it was beautiful there! In Hualien we walked on the beach, hiked in Taroko National Park, and ate ten pounds of food at a local night market. There was a big farewell party/dinner during the last week of the program, and then people started to head home—strange, after thinking of NCCU as our home for the past semester.

Beautiful Taroko National Park

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to meet new friends—Taiwanese, American, and from all around the world—and to learn from them. Through talking with them and hanging out, going on adventures together, I’ve learned a lot about different cultures, and I think that’s one of the most valuable things about studying abroad. We can learn from reading the news and watching television at home, but going across the world to another country to experience what we read about for ourselves brings us to a whole new level of understanding and appreciation. Learning about another culture also helped me to look back at my own life and habits in the U.S. in a different way and not take those customs as givens.

Time passes too quickly when you’re having fun. One moment you’re stepping out into the humidity of Taiwan from Taoyuan International Airport and the next minute you’re saying good-bye to people you’ve seen almost every day for the past three months who you might not see again for a long time. Studying abroad is full of ups and downs, but it’s been one of the most transformative experiences in my life. I know that when I come back to Taiwan in the future (and I will!!) I’ll be looking at it in a whole new way.

The Main Gate to National Chengchi University

More observations about Taiwan (and the mysterious way that time flies here)

Hello from the land of eternal warm weather! It’s another sunny, 75 degree Friday in November, something I’m not used to in Walla Walla or my hometown in Minnesota (where there is apparently already snow).

Since there’s good weather here all year round, people can use the outdoor track here all the time

Last Friday my art history class took a field trip to the Taipei National Palace Museum. This class, Understanding and Misunderstanding Art of China, is my only class taught in English and taken with other international students and Taiwanese students, and we’ve most recently been learning about art produced in the imperial court in China, especially during the Song dynasty. So the National Palace Museum was a great place to go to supplement the lectures in class. It’s a huge museum that houses a lot of art objects from mainland China, because in the 1930s Chiang Kai-Shek and his government in China had all of this art moved to Taiwan to prevent it from being taken by the Japanese, and it just stayed here in the museum. It’s pretty interesting because these imperial art pieces can be said to represent the history of mainland China, so some think they should be returned to China, but then there’s also the question of if Taiwanese relate to this art history of China, which raises a lot of political debate about the relationship between Taiwan and China that I won’t get into now. At any rate, this art is all here in Taiwan now, and it was neat to take a look around the museum!

Our final essay for the art history course is to write about court paintings and to examine the National Treasure paintings, which were displayed when we visited the museum (they’re not displayed all the time—they’re actually rotated out to protect the paintings, because I guess they fade/deteriorate with more exposure to light and air or something?). We also have finals coming up (for both this class and the Chinese language class) in just one week (ONE WEEK) and I can hardly believe it. The end of the semester is fast approaching, and I just want to slow down time. This also means more time studying for finals, and more time in the library, which isn’t terrible—the library is quite peaceful, with four floors of books and quietly studying students. That’s actually something that’s struck me—the silence in the library. In Penrose library, people will study in groups and talk and brainstorm together, but here in NCCU’s library it’s pretty quiet. If people want to work on group projects, I think they meet in cafes or empty classrooms. And if we thought the Whitman quiet room was intimidating—the quiet area in NCCU’s library (there is one section on each floor) is ten times more intense: you’re not allowed to make ANY noise at all, which means no computers, calculators, notebooks, writing—even the sound of a pencil marking paper is too loud. I tried to study there once because the windows there have a pretty good view, but when I saw the signs saying this area was for reading only, no notebooks or calculators or computers, I left because I can’t handle that sort of pressure.

The NCCU library

I actually kind of like the general quietude of the library here. It’s a big university in a big city, so we’re constantly surrounded by people, which, as an introvert, definitely took me a couple of weeks to get used to. Finding a quiet place, whether it’s in the library or in a café, is really nice. I also noticed that the culture here in Taipei is more friendly towards introverts in general. Going to restaurants and to the campus cafeterias, I often see people eating alone. There also isn’t an inclination towards small talk here, so waiters/waitresses and cashiers won’t ask you personal questions and when waiting for class to start local students don’t usually talk to people they don’t know. It’s been interesting to observe how different this is from the U.S., where there’s often this feeling of a need to fill any silence!

We watched the sun set over the water in Danshui

It may be too soon to generalize, but since I’m only here for three and a half months, I’ll say it now: most of the people I’ve seen here in Taipei walk slowly. I tend to walk pretty quickly in general, even for living in America, but even my other American friends here have remarked on the different pace here in Taipei. Often we will be walking at what we think is a “normal” pace, only to get stuck behind a group of slower-walking Taiwanese, either students or regular people in the city, who are going at a more leisurely pace. In the beginning it was easy for me to complain about it, especially when I was in a hurry to get somewhere and a group of people would be taking up the entire walkway, but now I’ve been thinking more about what this means—is it strange that I’m always in a hurry? Or that even if I’m not in a hurry, I still feel inclined to walk quickly? And are Taiwanese always just so early that they don’t need to fear being late?

There’s a nice path from my dorm further up the mountain

It’s been really interesting to observe how the pace of walking might point to other cultural differences, and it makes me think not only about Taiwanese culture but also about the life I come from. I have heard before that American culture is all go-go-go, but I didn’t think about how that would affect our walking patterns. Of course not everyone in America walks fast, but I really have noticed a difference here, and I wonder what that says about our two cultures. I will think more on this, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever have a good answer!

Today I took a walk further up the mountain from my dorm and stopped to look at this scene:)

Anyway, those are just a few observations from walking around every day. And speaking of walking, Taipei’s annual Pride Parade was just yesterday (Saturday, Oct. 27), and I got the chance to watch part of it and then joined in walking in it with a group of my classmates! Taiwan’s pride parade is the biggest in Asia, so it was really neat to be able to experience it and see what it was like. Over a hundred thousand people attended this year, and it was also really important because this November Taiwanese will be voting to legalize same-sex marriage. Taiwan is also one of the more open and liberal countries in Asia.

I can’t really compare this parade to the ones in the U.S., since I’ve never been to a pride parade in America, but some of my American friends here said Taiwan’s was “tamer,” and definitely not as wild as San Francisco’s, whatever that means… Overall, it was a fun experience! One of my Taiwanese friends who went (it was also his first time going) remarked on how 舒服, or comfortable, it felt—it just had an atmosphere of acceptance. And actually, even aside from the parade, I’ve found Taipei to be a pretty accepting city. People go around doing their own thing and I haven’t had any negative experiences or encountered any negative attitudes or discrimination that I’ve noticed. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, but I also like that I can feel comfortable being myself and not feeling like I’m being looked at for any reason. After the parade, my classmates and I talked about how several of us had assumed there would be more negativity surrounding the parade from more conservative sides of the society, but we didn’t see any anti-protesters or any sorts of issues. It seemed like an overall positive experience!

Taiwan Pride Parade

Hello again!

So…a lot has happened in the three weeks since I last posted. Quick updates: Every week the weather forecast has been promising rain every day for the next ten years but now it is finally promising a week of sun starting this Sunday, I tried out the campus calligraphy club, I rode the Maokong Gondola up to Zhinan Temple, some friends and I took a few weekend day trips together, and now I have my daily breakfast order memorized (in Chinese) :))! I’m also now two-thirds into my semester here, and it’s flying by quickly!

Zhinan Temple

The temple (kind of under construction, but still super cool!!)

One of the most exciting things was the three-day trip to Yilan Country, which is in northeastern Taiwan, about an hour to an hour and a half away from Taipei. I went with the other students in my program, as well as the Cultural Ambassadors. We checked out a night market, went to a tea farm and made our own green tea ice cream, rode bikes along a river, relaxed on the beach, and hiked to a waterfall, making for a busy but super fun three days! It was a great chance to see more of Taiwan and to also get to know everyone better.

Picking tea leaves at the tea farm

Walking on the beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Right after returning from Yilan, we had to start studying for our Chinese language class midterms. It definitely spurred frequent trips to the library, the consumption of not-so-healthy snacks from Hi-Life (the convenience store conveniently located on the first floor of our dormitory), and only minimal hyperventilating, but the actual midterm itself wasn’t too painful. For the test, we had a written part (fill-in-the-blanks, multiple choice, reading comprehension) and a speaking part, but it was a lot of what we had been doing in class, so our daily classroom practices definitely helped prepare us for the midterm. And I daresay my Chinese is improving because of it! Today one of the Cultural Ambassadors told me she noticed an improvement in my Chinese from when she first met me, which was one of the best things she could have told me! It’s also been getting easier to get around and even read the signs and menus—who would have thought that living here for two months could have done that?? 😀

Barbequing under the bridge in the rain!

Our reward for successfully completing the midterm came in the form of a traditional Taiwanese-style barbeque that Friday night. In the typical barbeque party in Taiwan, they don’t stand at grills flipping hamburger patties—instead, we set up small grills that six to eight people would stand or squat around, grilling anything and everything that could go on a stick, kebab-style. We grilled tofu, corn, Taiwanese sausage, sticky rice cake, and lots and LOTS of mushrooms! It was raining that night, so we all set up the little grills under a bridge and had the barbeque there, where we chatted and ate until we were more than full. Usually families will hold these kinds of barbeques during the Mid-Autumn Festival, and in a way our barbeque was kind of family-like, with everyone crowded around the grills and sharing sticks of BBQ pork. It was all about sharing and togetherness. A lot of Taiwanese culture surrounding food is like—on not-too-busy nights, meals are occasions to share with people you care about. The tables are usually round and set with a rotating “lazy Susan” (not sure what they call it in Chinese) and dishes for everyone to share, maximizing the “togetherness” feel. Even in a big city with over 2.6 million people, you can still find pockets of family and togetherness, one of the things I love about the culture here!

You can grill anything your heart desires at this bbq party:D

中秋节快乐!

This past Monday was the Mid-Autumn Festival, which meant no school, eating mooncakes and pomelos, and looking at the full moon. In Taiwan, it’s popular for families to get together and have barbeques as well. It’s been raining a lot here recently, and a lot of people thought it might be too cloudy to see the moon during this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, but as night fell the sky cleared up a little and we had a good view of the moon!

Full moon over the night market.

Some of my relatives live here in Taipei, so I spent the morning with my grandparents, talking and eating pomelos (in Chinese called youzi 柚子) and mooncakes. It was really nice to be with them, since during this holiday a lot of Taiwanese will get together with family members! There’s a saying in Chinese that during the Mid-Autumn Festival, “月圆人团圆” (“yue yuan ren tuan yuan), which essentially means that when the moon is full, people should be back together—friends, family, etc. In the afternoon, I met up with a friend and we walked around Daan Park, a big park in the middle of Taipei, and then went to a night market to look around and eat mango shaved ice—probably my favorite thing to eat here!

Me with my bowl of delicious ice (shared with a friend, of course :))

I also recently had my 20th birthday here in Taiwan. I didn’t expect much to happen, being newly-arrived in a new country and not knowing a lot of people, but I was able to celebrate with my grandparents and two sets of aunts and uncles the day of. And, the Friday before, my Chinese language class went out to lunch to celebrate as well—unexpected, and pretty touching! There’s something about a group of people whom you haven’t known for too long asking you out to lunch to celebrate your birthday that’s just so nice. My classmates are from all over and are all incredibly kind and funny. It’s been really neat learning about their countries and also practicing Chinese together, and we all get along well, so our class periods are always interesting and the atmosphere is comfortable. My teacher is also amazing. She emphasizes the importance of us practicing our speaking, so in class we always have fun activities and speaking exercises to get us practicing as much as possible. And she’s so cool for taking the time to go out to lunch with her students!

View of Taipei from my school

I’ll admit that for me, there’s no place like home. I’ve always loved spending time with family and friends from back in Minnesota or at Whitman, so being in Taipei where everything—from the language to the culture to the people—is different took some—well, a lot of—getting used to. Celebrations are supposed to be happy occasions, but they can also bring homesickness if you’re far from the people you care about. But here in Taipei, spending time with new friends and classmates, these celebrations were extra special. Lesson learned? No matter where you are in the world, you can meet wonderful people. My classmates, relatives, teachers, and even people you meet in restaurants or stores—there’s this one place next to campus that sells rice balls, and the family who works there is always so nice—are all helpful and friendly, and that really makes being on the other side of the earth easier 😊.

Welcome to Taiwan: Orientation Week and the First Week of Classes

Hello from Taipei!

After around 18 hours of flying, I arrived in Taoyuan International Airport in Taipei on Sunday, August 26. Because of the lovely time zone difference, I left home on Friday, August 24, so it was a long trip! I met the other students on my CIEE program—there are 11 of us—at around 9 am, so we had the full day to get settled, learn a little about Taipei and National Chengchi University (NCCU), and try to beat the jetlag (this last one was rough).

My two biggest impressions of Taipei from my first day here were of the food and the heat. The food here is AMAZING—there are dumplings, bubble tea shops on every street, fresh fruit, shaved ice, bakeries, basically every delicious food you could ever imagine—and it’s all cheaper than it would be in the U.S. The weather is also amazing—amazingly hot and humid. But it’s a small price to pay to live in Taipei!

Our first week consisted mostly of orientation activities to get us CIEE program students acclimated to life on the other side of the globe. Taipei is the capital of Taiwan, an island nation (officially the Republic of China) located in the Pacific Ocean near China. Whether Taiwan is a part of China or its own country depends on who you ask, and its old name is Formosa, meaning “beautiful” (for “beautiful island”)—which is exactly what it is! During orientation week in Taipei, we met our Cultural Ambassadors (NCCU students who can accompany us as we navigate Taipei and help us practice Chinese), learned about the good places to eat around campus, and how to take the public transportation. It was definitely overwhelming at first, going around the big city with everyone around us speaking Chinese and seeing all the signs in Chinese, but after a little more than a week and a half and a couple of forays into the city by myself and with friends, I’m starting to (hopefully) get the hang of it!

Part of Raohe Night Market–perhaps not the most scenic part, but I’m just an amateur “photographer!” 🙂

During orientation week, we went on a day trip and a walking tour of Taipei, among other fun orientation-y things, but my favorite was going to Raohe Night Market. Taiwan is pretty well-known for its bustling and lively night markets, which are walking streets lined with shops and stands with everything you can think of: food, of course, and clothes, stuffed animals, little trinkets, freshly-made juice—it’s pretty incredible. We went on a Saturday night, so the market was packed with people. Normally I avoid crowded places, but there was something about moving along in the slow stream of people, taking in all the smells and lights and sounds of people talking that was exciting. Already, then, the night market experience has taught me that stepping out of my comfort zone has its rewards—who knew I’d love walking around such a crowded and hot area? Now, I definitely want to go back, and to also explore the other night markets around Taipei.

These are toppings you can put onto shaved ice, one of my favorite things to eat here!

This week we started classes. NCCU is a big university with 16,247 students—a LOT different from Whitman. It’s separated into an upper and lower campus, with upper campus (where I take my language class and where my dorm is) on a mountain, and lower campus at the bottom of the mountain. There’s a bus you can take up and down the mountain, but I’ve also gotten used to walking. Plus, when you see sixty-year-old women walking up the mountain in long sleeves and long pants (I am in awe at Taiwanese people’s tolerance for the heat), you feel kind of silly for waiting for the bus unless you’re going somewhere in a hurry.

Anyway, class so far has been challenging, but I expect I’m going to learn a lot of Chinese while I’m here! I take three hours of Chinese language class five days a week, and starting next week I’ll be adding another class, “Understanding and Misunderstanding the Art of China,” to my schedule every Friday for three hours. The language class is with other international students–in my class there are German, French, Thai, Indonesian, Swedish, and Czech students!

Even though I’ll need to spend time studying for class, I also know a lot of the language learning comes from going around Taipei and talking to store/restaurant employees, asking questions, and observing the signs, so I’m going to try to balance studying with exploring the city! The biggest challenge so far, though, is getting around places with the language barrier, which makes settling into this new culture a little harder. For example, it’s difficult for me to read a lot of the restaurant signs on the streets, and when I do go into a restaurant, it can be hard to know what to do—do I seat myself? Do I pick up my own menu? Do I pay first or later? I don’t want to look like an ignorant foreigner, but I kind of am an ignorant foreigner! 🙂 Small things like this mark small cultural differences, and my not being able to read the signs or instructions in the restaurants—not to mention the menus—makes it more daunting. But I know that as time goes by, as I do things more and more, I’ll grow more comfortable with it and start to learn the little secrets to living in Taiwan.

I’ll end this first blog post (before it gets too long) (it’s probably already too long) with a comparison, which I’m hoping will make this post more meaningful and artistic (unlikely). There are a lot of stray dogs living on campus and throughout the city. People will feed them and they find shelter under awnings when it rains, and, strangely, they seem to enjoy lying down in the middle of streets that aren’t too busy. I think that at this point, only a week and a half into my Taiwan adventure, I feel a little like a stray dog—I live in Taipei now, but I’m not always sure where to go or what I’m doing. But these dogs always look comfortable and seem to be at home wherever they are, whether they’re lying down in the middle of a road or running around with their friends. That’s kind of how I want to feel as the weeks go by. I know I’ll always look like a foreigner and people will be able to tell—and there’s nothing wrong with that—but hopefully I’ll become comfortable enough here that I can feel at home.

We went on a day trip to three places, including Yeliu, which is where this photo was taken! Lots of cool rock formations carved by the ocean.