Gentry Allen 
2012-13 Outbound to Taiwan
Hometown: Gainesville, FL
School: P.K. Yonge High School
Sponsor: District 6970, FL
Host: District 3470, Taiwan
The Rotary Club of Southeast Tainan

September 8, 2012

Traveling to Taiwan!
A lot of people asked me if I was nervous going to Taiwan and to be honest I didn't really know that to feel. I was this weird mix of sort of nervous but way too excited. My flight schedule was Jacksonville to Chicago (2hr) to Hong Kong (15hr) to Kaohsiung (1hr), then a short drive to Taiwan (30min). Once I got to Chicago I called the other exchange student who was to be traveling with me, David, to see where I am supposed to meet him and Nico, because we were all flying together to Hong Kong and Kaohsiung. This is when he told me that because of the Typhoon that's about to hit Taiwan, our flight to Kaohsiung is canceled and that we will have to take the flight that leaves the next morning. AKA we would have a 10 hour layover in the Hong Kong airport. The 15 hour flight to Hong Kong wasn't has dreadful as I thought it was going to be. The plane had this cool high tech computer screens for each seat, where I was able to watch my own movies, and of course I slept.

Once in the Hong Kong airport, I checked myself into the traveler's lounge where I slept on a really comfortable chair, charged my electronics, ate who knows what (something with rice) and showered. Then I boarded the flight to Kaohsiung at 8am!

After arriving (9am), breezing through customs and tracking down my suitcases I walked out of these doors and there to greet me was all these Rotarians and my host family! It was the best feeling to know that they were as excited to know that I was in Taiwan as I was. My family drove me to their house in Tainan, where I learned the word for cake, and they tried to tell me that we were going to go eat some? Get the apartment, which is in a big apartment building, took a shower and went off with my family to eat this cake. Well it just so happened that where the cake was, was also where my rotary club was. This is the point where I experienced culture shock. All I could do was sit there, smile and say thank you as countless Rotarians came to me introduced themselves and try their dishes. Oh, by the way, Taiwan as far as I'm concerned has THE most delicious food.

While I'm there, some of the children of other Rotarians (college students) ask me if I would like to 'go' with them. Not sure were 'go' was, but hey! I'm an exchange student so I said yes. Next thing I know we are on our way to another county to go to this restaurant that only serves shaved ice with mangos. AMAZING! Then they took me to the Tsengwen Reservoir which is in-between breath taking mountains. After we go to my first temple, which was the Ancestral temple of Chiang Family in Lu-Tao-Yang. That evening they took me to a restaurant where we could see the mountains and later when it was dark the city lights of Tainan in the distance. Finally they notice that I'm about to passed out with exhaustion so they take me home.
Once at home I give my host family their gifts and we run through the first night questions. Which I was very excited to do, because over the years I've watched our exchange students, Belen, Teresa, Aidana and Nina, go through these questions. But was very interesting because the only way to do so was to nod yes/no and go show me the part of the house we were talking about.

I'm SO SO SO incredibly thankful to Florida Rotary and Tainan Southeast rotary. I think everyone should be an exchange student, it is the most meaningful and life changing experience.
I love Taiwan and I'm never coming back! (just kidding mom)

My first day of school in Taiwan was unlike any day I have ever encountered. I arrived at the school at 7:30am and was tucked away in the student affairs office where I nervously practiced my speech, which I only learned the day before I was to present. At this point I had been a total of 4 days in Taiwan, and my Chinese was so bad I could barely even pronounce my own Chinese name. Finally, my school counselor led me to the auditorium packed with the Students of National Tainan Chia-Chi Girls Senior High School (CCGSH). As soon as I arrived students that I walked by shrieked with excitement and shyly giggled to each other. I walked up on to the stage and sat with all the teachers of CCGSH. I was front row and on display for the entire school to see the first ever exchange student to attend CCGSH.

The opening ceremony began, and many teachers and school officials came to the podium to welcome everyone to another school year. Of course I had no idea what anyone was saying, but I nodded my head in what seemed like the appropriate times and applauded when everyone else did. Lastly the principle took the stage and introduced me and played a short video I had made of pictures to introduce myself and Florida. Then the moment came, and I was ushered to the front of 1,000 students. I tried my ultimate best to speak clearly my 'Rotary speech' and when I finished the entire auditorium went into an uproar in cheers for me. I felt truly welcomed to my new school, but mostly I was just glad to survive the whole ordeal. The press also attended the ceremony press and my picture was taken to appear in 2 local Tainan newspapers the following week.

I have been in Taiwan for almost about two months now, and slowly Taiwan life is becoming my normal everyday life. It's normal now to hear fireworks going off at all hours of the night AND day. It's normal now that at school the students think I'm some sort of celebrity. It's normal that I eat Taiwanese food like noodles, dumplings, pearl tea and questionable animal parts (It's better not to ask). I completely love my Taiwan life. I can feel myself changing into a completely different person. I'm even more responsible, independent and challenge facing then when I arrived to Taiwan. The other day I walked into my room and saw my bed was made. I thought to myself, "Who came into my room and made the bed?" Then I realized it was I who had made the bed. It is small changes like this that I realize I'm growing as a person.

Taiwan's people are passionate in all that they do. They are a gift giving, nonstop singing, always eating culture, and will be your friend for life. A Rotarian once asked me if I thought that in my other life time that I was a Taiwanese person. I'm starting to believe that this is true.

December 5, 2012

Everyday at school, after climbing four flights of stairs, I arrive at my classroom, class 211. Eighteen girls, nineteen including me, will be preparing for a rigorous day of school and dance training.

My classmates are training to become professional dancers. Most days our class will take dance classes up to 4-5 hours a day in ballet, modern, pilates, and the traditional Chinese dance style. The teachers are always pushing us to jump higher, stretch further, turn longer.

Dance has become so much more to me. It is the part of my day that makes sense. Especially ballet, a style I have been studying since I was 3 years old. At first I could not make out what the teachers were instructing to us, my only aid was my eyes, to watch and copy my classmates. But now it is become so much clearer. Stretch. Foot. Turn around. Hand. Jump. Feel.

Not everyday is always sunshine, rainbows, and tutus. I am most defiantly the worst dancer in my class. My classmates are extremely talented. They have amazing flexibility, endurance, and technique. My first full week of classes seemed more like bootcamp than a dance class. It sounds silly but the ugly duckling is the perfect metaphor in this case. The traditional Chinese dance I find to be very difficult, mostly because I have never seen this type of dance style before. I have to watch every carefully how to do each movement, but my classmates are eager for me to learn with them, often helping me into the correct pose or demonstrating the movement.  But the amazing thing is that my classmates take me as I am. They tell me they don't care that I'm not the prettiest ballerina, and together we can learn to be better dancers.

My classmates are the most hard working individuals that I know. Everyday they come to school with a smile on their face, tackle exams and tough school material, and continue to throw themselves into the dance profession. During recital season, my classmates would be at school from 7:30am-9:00pm every day for school, dance training and rehearsal. Also returning to school on the weekends for more practice.
Every moment during the day is used for constant practice.  Everyday I come to school inspired by my classmates to work hard in everything I do.

My classmates and I share a unique bond. Without them I would feel out of place in Taiwan. They give me a purpose to wake up everyday, to attend school, to work hard. My exchange in Taiwan has been a change in mind and body. We may not speak the same language (yet), but we all speak dance. 

January 6, 2012

When I sat down to write this journal, in honor of the newly selected inbounds, I stared blankly at the keyboard. Where do I start? How can I even began to sum up how much their lives will change in the next 2 years? But that's the thing, there is no way to explain what its like to be an exchange student. You can only you live it yourself. There is no way to describe the high of learning a new culture. The confusion of what direction you think your life is heading, but really you have no idea. The constant struggle of the need for your heart to be in two places at once.

I dedicate this journal to you, future outbounds to Taiwan. How can I explain to you what a special place Taiwan is? I can attempt to ease some confusion, but in reality you have no concept of what Taiwan life will be like. I certainly had no idea. But I think that is best. If you come to Taiwan with an open mind you will be able to see it's beauty.

10 Things You NEED to know about Taiwan to Survive your first month.

1. Learn how to use the squat toilet before you get off the plane. You may think you know what your doing, but really you don't. Educate yourself, because they are everywhere!

2. Girls, well guys too, but especially girls -ALWAYS carry a pack of tissues with you. Almost all public restrooms will not have toilet paper. Enough said.

3. Dinners are eaten family style with the main dishes in the center. You will have a small bowl of rice which you will place your selections on top of. You must finish everything in your bowl. No exceptions.

4. Always eat until your satisfied, because it will be mostly likely your host parents will continue to place food into your bowl, or have something else delicious for you to try.

5. RICE RICE RICE, everyday.

6. You will have a air conditioner in your room. Turn it off when your not in the room! (In my case I only use it when I'm sleeping.)

7. You must remove your shoes before entering someone's house. My suggestion is to bring "easiely removable" shoes.

8. I know we all come from Florida and we Floridians love our flipflops, but be sure to bring other shoes. The streets are dirty and your feet will get dirty from walking everywhere and using public transportation.

9. Chinese is hard. Start learning now! At minimum memorize your Rotary Speech. You have a 100% chance that you will have to introduce yourself to the entire school and many people will be impressed that a foreigner can introduce themselves in Chinese. I have been in MANY situations where I had to stand in front of a crowd and introduce myself. Don't be the exchange student who's host parents have to do it.

10. Respect the elders. Respect your host parents. Respect your teachers. Respect your Rotary. It may seem obvious, but Taiwanese culture is built on 5,000 years of tradition. Don't forget that.

I tried my ultimate best to come to Taiwan completely open minded and adaptable to any situation I may find myself if. And truthfully it has helped me become more adjusted with my new culture. There will be many things you will not understand about Taiwanese culture. But, don't be scared. Rotary chose you for Taiwan because they believe you are smart, independent and adaptable.
Good Luck!

March 21, 2013

There are three words to describe Chinese New Year in Taiwan. Eat, Pray, Honor.

In my case, I ate for 5 days straight. In each home I visited I found one commonality , as soon as we walked in the door, food was offered to us. Then, after socializing with all the family members, we would eat a huge family meal. I have never eaten so much in my ENTIRE life. The only way to describe how much you will eat during Chinese New Year is to imagine eating a Thanksgiving sized  meal for lunch AND dinner.... for multiple days. And of course only in Taiwan, after you have completely stuffed yourself, you will go to the night market after dinner for even more snacks or pearl tea. The amount that Taiwanese people can eat remains a real mystery to me.

A lot of your time during Chinese New Year will be spend traveling to temples. Most of which are very old and are temples your family has been praying at for generations. I can remember one great aunt having us stop at every temple we passed, to pray for the New Year. We also visited a few grave sites of deceased relatives to pay respect and pray over them.

Chinese New Year is spent traveling to as many elder relatives as physically possible. I traveled to Penghu, a tiny island off the west coast  of Taiwan, to visit my host father's mom and dad. I also went to Kaohsiung, the second largest city in Taiwan for my host mom's parents. Then, Rotarians picked me up and took me to their family gatherings in my own city of Tainan. When you visit these relatives they will have a special gift for you. It's called the red envelope and inside a red envelope will be money. When an elder offers you a read envelope you must thank them and wish them good luck.
My Chinese New Year was made special by the elders I visited. I would always find myself wedged on a bench between a grandmother and great aunt. Or sitting on the floor with my host cousins watching grandpa play mahjong with the uncles. My hand was held, my plate was full, and I was called the American granddaughter.

One great aunt in particular will forever stand out in my mind. Standing no taller than maybe 5 feet, this women lived in her family's generational home located behind a temple -a house well older than 100 years. She did not speak any Chinese, so instead I had to use Taiwan's second language, Taiwanese. As we were walking her to the car, because the streets were too narrow to drive a car down, she told me "You are very far away from your mother, today you will be my granddaughter". Just like that, I was apart of her family. She didn't leave my side the entire day, even holding my hand when we were walking.

This is another moment when I realized how different my life has become, that the person I came here as is very different from the person I am now.  My exchange was made in the oldest city of Taiwan, where you can get lost in small alleys,  where the locals don't speak Chinese but instead Taiwanese or Hakka, where there is a temple every 5 feet, where you sit on the floor in your host relatives 100 year old houses. Exchange is more than just living in a big foreign metropolitan. The life I built in Tainan I wouldn't change it for anything.

Chinese New Year is a magical time in Taiwan. It is the time of the year you can see how loving and caring the Taiwanese people are. It's a time to eat. A time to wish good luck. A time to cherish your family. It's a time that I am so incredibly thankful to experience. Thank you Rotary.
Happy New Year! 新年快樂!

June 18, 2013

There will be times on your exchange when you will look down at your feet and wonder. How did I get here? This is a question I pondered while staring into the stage lights of Japan's cultural dance festival, Yosakoi. Yes, Japan. This year I had the rare opportunity to travel to Japan twice with my classmates, funded by the Taiwanese government to promote tourism to Taiwan.
We first traveled to Japan October of 2012, where my classmates performed at a smaller show and then we traveled for three days exploring Osaka, Japan. But, the second time we would travel to Japan in June 2013, I was invited to perform alongside my classmates.
Because we were a sponsored team, my classmates and I practiced almost every day for an entire month. My teachers pushed us to our very limit to perform our best for the people of Japan. I have never pushed myself so hard physically and mentally. Each practice was a practice really of body and mind because practice was solely taught in Chinese (and a little Taiwanese too). But, never have I been so excited to tackle a challenge.
When we arrive in Sapporo, Japan, we all become instant local celebrities. People everywhere wanted to take pictures with us. Even a news team came from Tokyo to film a story about the dancers from Taiwan. People of course were always a little confused why there was a 'foreigner' in the dance group. But my classmates would always exclaim "She is Taiwanese too".
My time in Japan was defiantly the peak of my exchange. It tested everything that I have learned while in Taiwan; Foreign travel, my Chinese Language, traditional Chinese dance and being an ambassador.
The opportunity to perform in Japan to represent not one, but two countries is something I will never forget. I'm so incredibly honored that Chia-Chi Girls Senior High School and the Taiwanese government believed in me enough to allow me represent their country.
The journey to Japan defiantly wasn't an easy one, but never in my life have I ever felt so alive and purposeful.
Thank you Chia-Chi Girls Senior High School. Thank you Tainan South East Rotary. Thank you Taiwan.