Taiwan is...perfect. I've been here for about 2 weeks now, and I love it more than anything. My host district, 3460, had a week-long orientation for all 50 of the exchange students here, and it was incredible. Since we were together for so long, we all got to be really close. I've made some amazing friends already, maybe even best friends, and I can't wait to see what the rest of the year has in store.
It hasn't all been good and happy though. I had some trouble with my bank account, and I've spent the last couple weeks with no money. Hopefully we'll be fixing that soon, and I won't have to worry anymore. And I'm starting to catch a bit of a cold. But I'm glad to say that that's the worst thing that's happened to far.
The place where I'm staying is a "small" city called Fengyuan, which is actually a part of Taichung, the 3rd biggest city of Taiwan. I haven't started school yet, but I'm excited to. I'm the only exchange student there this year, so it should be interesting. Hopefully my Chinese improves quickly.
Since I haven't been here long, I don't really have much else to say except 我愛台灣!!!
January 13, 2014
Hello again! So, I'm definitely running behind on what were supposed to be "monthly updates" to this journal, so this time you can expect a long one, but things have just been so busy! I've been in Taiwan for over 4 months, and by now I feel completely at home here. I'm still struggling a little to learn Chinese--it's not exactly the easiest language in the world to learn--but I'm able to hold small conversations and get help when I need it. I'm starting to look into colleges and universities here and their scholarship programs. Once I graduate from my high school in America, my plan is to come back here to get my teaching degree and eventually a job as an English teacher. Honestly, I can't imagine living anywhere else and being as happy as I've been here.
It's not all sunshine and rainbows, of course; there are some hard times, especially during the holiday season that just passed. It was my first year not being with my family for them. It's really strange to not have celebrated with the traditions I'm used to. In Taiwan, Christmas isn't really celebrated. Many shops and businesses put up small decorations (lights, poinsettias, and tiny fake trees, mostly), but they're only there to attract customers. Only a small percentage of the population here are Christian. I had to go to school through the holidays, but at least there are a few weeks of vacation starting next week for the Chinese New Year.
Luckily, too, because that's when I'll be switching families for the first time and I'm nervous. I'm really happy with my family now. I feel like I fit in well and I'm getting to know them and really care about them. My mom and dad have been nothing but kind and helpful, even though communicating is hard because they don't speak English. My grandmother and I share a floor of the house, with both of our bedrooms and a bathroom, and she's always trying to take care of me and make sure I'm okay. It's really sweet. My youngest host sister, Albee, is a few years older than me and went on exchange to America awhile back. She's helped me so much and I'm so grateful for that, because if it wasn't for her things would have been a lot harder for me. My oldest host sister doesn't live with the family (she's married and has kids of her own), but I see her a lot and she's always really nice as well, even with the l anguage barrier between us. Her kids are still toddlers, but they're really cute. They call me "Meiguo Aiee" which basically translates to America Auntie. I think it's really great to live in a family with young kids because, as they learn new words in Chinese, so do I. Also, it gives me an excuse to watch the learning programs on TV that are directed towards 2 year olds but help me a lot (I used to have dignity, but then I became an exchange student).
I've only met my second host parents a handful of times, at Rotary meetings, but they seem nice. They speak English too, which will be helpful but I'll have to try really hard to use Chinese with them and not rely on English. I hear that they have three sons, but I don't really know them. So yeah, I'm a little nervous about moving families, but it's all a part of the adventure, right?
When I first started going to school here, I was a little lonely. I didn't know my classmates or my schoolmates very well and they were all too shy to talk to me. The only friends I had in Taiwan were the exchange students, who I could only see on the weekends, and as much as I love them, I really wanted to get closer to my Taiwanese schoolmates. But now, after attending school for just over three months (the school year for me started about a month into my exchange) for just over three months, my classmates have opened up to me more and I've met many students from other classes. Everyone is always so nice and helpful, even if their English isn't good and my Chinese is still poor. I've made some good friends here already, and I know I'll make more once my language gets better. I find myself looking forward to going to school and seeing them (once I get past the whole "waking up at 6am to bike to school in the cold" thing). A few weeks ago, w e actually took a trip to Taipei. We left, Friday December 20th, and got back that Saturday around 5pm. We saw different art museums (the National Palace Museum and the Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art were fascinating) and art colleges (including the best art school in Taiwan) that I was really pumped about getting to see. I was an art student in Florida, and was lucky enough to be placed in the art class at Fengyuan Senior High. We've taken class trips to colleges before, but this was the first time going overnight and going as far as Taipei. I feel like the trip brought me a little closer to my classmates and I'm really glad for that.
When Christmas finally rolled around, I got a package from my family in Florida that had everything from homemade fudge from my mom to a shirt my grandmother bought me from France. I even picked out gifts for my host family that my mom sent from Florida. On Christmas day, I brought my laptop to school and Skyped with my family from the school library. It was pretty much the closest I came to celebrating Christmas. I'm not going to lie, I felt more homesick than I ever thought I would during Christmas week. It really hit me then how much I miss my parents, my siblings, my friends, my pets, and parts of America's culture that I don't get in Taiwan. Never once though, did I think about going home early. Nor did I reconsider my future plans to come back. If anything, once the week passed and the festivities in the US ended, it just made me want to share my new home with my friends and family even more.
Part of what I want to share so much is the FOOD! It's easily the most common question I get asked about living here: "How do you like the food?" Honestly? I love it. A lot of the other exchange students here complain about missing their country's food, but I'm always finding new and strange things to eat here and I can't find the time to miss American food too much. Sometimes (most of the time) I have absolutely no idea what I'm eating. And the best advice I can give to future Taiwan inbounds is, don't ask unless you're really not afraid of the answer. And chances are, even if you ask what something is you won't understand the answer haha. Just a few weeks ago, my Ba (dad) came in and gave me something that was spicy and unidentifiable. Once I finished eating it and decided that it was good enough for me to not be too freaked out by the possible answer, I asked what it was. My sister told me it was chicken butt and Ba made cl icking noises then waved his hand behind him like a tail. So I'm not actually sure what part of the rear end of a chicken I ate. And that happens A LOT.
When it comes to what you do with your time during your exchange, don't be afraid to ask for something. Chances are, someone will be willing to give it to you. Just last week, I was talking to the principal of my school. I mentioned to him that I was planning to come back and teach English in Taiwan, and he surprised me by offering to help me. He said that, after the winter break, he would set up a time for me to teach a class at the school. I never thought doing that would even be a possibility, and it's equal parts terrifying and exciting. It's not the first time something like this has happened, either. For the most part, people want you to be happy in their country as much as you want to be happy. So even if nothing comes of it, it can't hurt to ask.
For any future students coming specifically to Taiwan, one thing you should definitely try to do is go to Taipei for New Year's, to see the firework show at the 101. Depending on your district, it may be difficult to go, but if you can it's definitely worth it. So, so many RYE students from all over Taiwan meet in a park near the 101 in the afternoon and stay until a couple hours past midnight. I was able to meet a ton of new people and several people who I met on facebook months before exchange started but hadn't had the chance to see yet. I got to catch up with the people I flew here with, and even saw Erica and Will, two of the other Florida kids here this year. It was easily one of the best nights of my entire exchange. After I got back to my home in Taichung (at 4am), I messaged my mom in Florida and she told me that she found a channel on youtube that live-streamed the Taipei 101 firework show. It was really cool to think that, while we were on opposite s ides of world and celebrating the New Year in very different ways, we were watching the same thing.
When I talk to people in the States about things I'll do when I get back, it feels a lot like how I felt before my exchange when I talked about Taiwan to people. It feels like it's so far away and like I have all the time in the world before it happens. But I'm almost halfway through my exchange now, and if that wasn't weird enough, I'm officially an OLDIE. The time is literally just zooming by and before I know it, I'll have to say goodbye to this country that I love so much. So, to all of you future outbounds, no matter where you're going, don't put off the things you want to or have to do. That goes for before your exchange, during your exchange, and even after your exchange really. If you're anything like me, you'll probably ignore that because really, August is so far away, right? It's not like you're leaving tomorrow, you still have time. Heck, I put off writing my report about Taiwan for Rotary for as long as actually possible (shh, don't tell Al that). But every day, I wish that I had just spent that little bit of extra time I had doing this or that, because now that I'm here, I can't do it anymore or change anything. Sorry to be getting all serious here, but this is something that I feel I needed to get out there. Rotary really wasn't kidding when they said that you'll have so much more responsibility than you're used to. Things will go wrong, you won't plan for some things to happen, and you’ll have to do some quick-thinking and problem solving every day. It'll be hard, but remember that you were accepted to RYE for a reason. Even if you don't know that reason, Rotary saw something in you and they believe in you. You can do it. :)
April 8, 2014
好久不見!! Out of the 7 months that I’ve been here, this is my third “monthly” post. As always, I’m super busy but I’m loving almost every second of it! Taiwan has well and truly become my home, and as I navigate my way through the busy streets as well as any local, it’s starting to hit me that I have less than 100 days left before I return to America.
When I thought about going home a month or two ago, all I could think was “No! I’m not ready to leave yet!” And while I still don’t want to have to say goodbye to the people here who have become my life, it’s becoming easier to think of going back to America. I’m going to miss my new friends and family and my life here more than anything, but I feel ready to go back to the friends and family and life that I left behind. As I get closer to my return date, I feel simultaneously excited, relieved, stressed, and sad. I can’t wait to see my family and my friends who have waited for me all this time, but it’s impossible to escape the knowledge that I may never again get to see my friends and family who have been here with me all this time. Every Rebound and Rotex I talked to before I started my exchange told me that this would by far be the hardest part of my year, but nothing they said could have prepared me and nothing I can say will prepare the future students for how it feels to lose one life while going back to an old one that’s completely different than it was when you left it.
I remember thinking that there’s no way that things can change too much in just the 10 months that I’ll be away, but they can, and they will. So far, while I’ve been gone two of my cousins have had babies, one cousin has moved to New York and gotten engaged, one of my oldest friends found out she’s pregnant, my little brother grew up, and my best friend is officially being adopted by my parents. That’s not even including all of the people who I used to be close to who have changed too much or who have stopped talking to me (it sucks, but for some people the saying “out of sight, out of mind” definitely applies to you while you’re gone). Many of my friends have also graduated and gone to college this year, or will soon after I get back. Not only do things change, but you miss things too. I missed two births, luckily I’ll be back before my friend’s due date, but I’ll have missed almost her whole pregnancy. My younger brother has gone through puberty; he’ll be all grown up when I get back! My best friend, now sister, has had really hard times and I wasn’t able to be there to help her through it. My grandmother came to America from France for the first time in years, and all I could do was Skype with her. My great-grandmother suffers from Alzheimer’s, and won’t remember who I am when I go to visit her anymore. Even my bedroom back home has changed, redecorated by my parents so that my sister and I can comfortably share it now that there are two of us.
I know that all of this sounds pretty bad, right? But never once have I regretted my decision to go abroad this year, and no matter how hard it might be some days, no matter how much I miss Florida or how much I miss, it will always be worth it for the things I have been able to experience. I’m going to go back to America as a much better person than I was before I left. Before I started my exchange, I was shy and I had pretty bad social anxiety. I couldn’t order food or even answer the phone without my heart racing or feeling dizzy, much less do it in Chinese! A part of me thought I would never be able to survive away from my parents and the help I relied so much on from them. But honestly, it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to go on exchange. By the end of my first month, it was pretty clear that if I don’t learn to start doing things for myself, then I’m going to have a pretty lame year. It’s easy as anything now, to meet someone new a nd have a conversation with them.
One thing that I and I think every exchange student, at least a little, found during our time abroad, was my confidence. I can’t speak for other students in other countries, but for me, after living in a country where my race was the minority, I quickly got pretty used to being the center of attention. In Taiwan, having a different skin color is a perfectly valid reason for someone to blatantly stare at you, and even take pictures of you (it’s rude for them to take pictures without asking you, but they’ll do it anyways. When I catch them trying, I try to turn it into a game and make faces or strike a pose). Also what I’ve noticed here is that their idea of “beauty” is very, very heavily influenced by Western culture and Western media. For me personally, with extra-pale skin, big blue eyes, and blonde hair, there literally has not been one day in the last 7 months where I haven’t been stared at, asked for pictures, complimented by strangers, or even yelled to (I do want to make it clear that the yelling isn’t like in America, where men tend to yell rude, sexist, obscene, or just plain inappropriate things to women. Mostly it’s just people, still typically men, who are walking or driving past when they notice a foreigner and shout “Hello!” to get our attention. It’s harmless enough, though it gets annoying after a few months). I can’t tell you how many pictures there are of me awkwardly standing next to strangers probably floating around online. Anyway, the point I was trying to make here is that it would be really hard not to be more confident after all of this. I hate to admit it, but I think I’m going to miss being the cool foreigner.
As of right now, I have 80 days left, and while I’m ready to see my family again, I’m going to get as much out of my last months here as I can. The way things have gone so far, I’ll probably post one more time here, and probably as I’m preparing to leave. So goodbye for now, or as they say here in Taiwan, 拜拜! ;)