October 27, 2013
Hello, world! I've been in Taiwan for over 2 months now, and...and...and...and. This lack of words is why I have yet to submit a journal entry, and I apologize to my family and friends for this. Every time I try to put my experience into words, it seems impossible. I would describe it as “indescribable,” not necessarily in a good way, nor a bad way. Let me just describe my daily life and some things I have done so far, and then we'll see if I can express my feelings about them after.
The first few days here were honestly just... miserable. (just to relieve you, I'm much better now). I felt like I was completely torn out of my entire world, out of everything I knew and was used to, and abandoned on the other side of the world, all alone. No one can accurately describe “culture shock” to you, not until you've experienced it yourself. That being said, I'm slowly appreciating it more and more, now that it's not so overwhelming and daunting. Thankfully my family is very, very nice and welcoming, which has helped immensely. Taiwanese people in general are very hospitable, especially to foreigners. They love to talk with you and be friends, though they may be shy at first. I have a host mother, father, and two younger brothers. One is currently on exchange in Germany, and the other one is here. My father is an architect and teaches at the local university. My mother is currently a “stay-at-home” mom, which is nice, because we share a good amount of common interests. She plays the cello and brings me to classical concerts occasionally, which is nice. I also got very lucky that they have a piano, which also helps me a lot. Whenever I am bored or feeling down, I feel better by playing some of my favorite familiar songs.
I go to school every day from 7:30 to 5:10. In the morning, I go to classes I have chosen that are with the Taiwanese students. Some classes include cooking, music, German, and Spanish, all of which are taught in Chinese! I think, if/when I learn a little German, I'll be speaking it with a Taiwanese accent. After lunch.. and nap time (see photos below), I go to my actual Chinese language class with the other 4 exchange students at my school. The lesson is about 4 and half hours...every day. It's long, but I'm lucky to have lessons so often. The exchange students at my school, including me, I'd say have the best Chinese in our district, just because we have class so much. It helps so much. Like I said, I've been here for about 2 months, and I can already a pretty decent conversation with a native speaker. I still make mistakes all the time, which is very easy to do in Chinese. The tones are very difficult, and the same word with a different tone can mea n something totally different. I have found this out the hard way, haha. It seems that every time I make a mistake in my tones, it means something extremely inappropriate. I'll give one example. The Chinese word for “with” and the Chinese equivalent of the “f” word sound almost exactly the same, but with different tones. I accidentally said the latter to my very traditional host grandfather, and he just stared at me. Thinking he didn't hear me, I just kept repeating it. Youth exchange is full of many awkward situations, but they make for many funny stories!
Every Tuesday and Thursday, the other exchange students from my school and I spend the first half of the day at a local elementary school. We're supposed to learn with them and have regular class with them, but most of the time they're too distracted by 5 giant foreigners sitting behind them to pay attention. The children absolutely love our visits, and the whole school runs to us when we walk in. They love to give high fives and say "Hi, William!", which ends up just sounding like "Hi, Wei-Lian." We play basketball with them every time we visit, and they really enjoy watching me dunk on their very low basketball hoops. They all stand there and say "Woooooowwwww!" It's very funny. There's usually a small group of little girls that follows me around, and whenever I turn around to look at them, they squeal and run away. I probably give 200+ high fives during the few hours I'm there. Another good part about going there is learning Shufa, which is Chinese calligraphy. We do it without the students, so we actually get to learn without having kids jumping on my back. On a more serious note, I find their attitudes towards us very interesting. You can see so much joy in their eyes, just from being there and talking to them, but you start to think, "Why?" Why do you love me so much just because I'm American? Why do so many people here want to be European or American, why do they think Western people are more attractive? Not just at the elementary school, but many people throughout the whole society. Unfortunately, in several ways, you can see Western culture slowly replacing their own, but there's still much culture still unchanged. After all, their entire way of thinking is different, and I don't think any Hollywood movie will change that.
Back to my school day. Although I am 18 years old, and already graduated in the USA, I am a first-year student at my high school. This is because the seniors are extremely busy with their upcoming exams, and wouldn't really have time for me. And by busy, I mean...BUSY. Some students (like my host brother), before special exams, will go to “cram school.” This is where, after getting out of school at 5:10, you stay until about 9 PM to prepare and study for their tests. Everything in Taiwan is based on tests, which I don't necessarily I agree with, and more Taiwanese students/people are starting to realize the faults in this system as well. So, if you're an American student reading this, especially in St. Augustine, don't complain about going to school at 9:15 and having to write a few essays a month.
For those of you who don't know me, I'm about 6'1'' and have very long wavy hair, or at least I did when I arrived here. You could say I stand out a little in a crowd of Taiwanese people. Taiwan's ethnic population is about 98% Han Chinese, with the other 2% being aboriginal and foreigners. The constant attention and “popularity” was pretty amusing and funny at first, but it gets old after a while. Sometimes I get stopped in the street or in the hallway, usually by a young Taiwanese girl, and asked if I can take a picture with them. My school is used to me now, but they still say hello to me everywhere I go, which is nice. They don't stare at me as much, that just happens on the bus now. The Taiwanese students are very welcoming and generous. They want you to love Taiwan, and they do little things to make you more comfortable...like giving me food. This is the greatest gift for an exchange student.
When I first arrived, I had trouble with the food, but it's completely fine now. In fact, the few times I've eaten American food here, I've gotten a stomach ache. I think I'm pretty used to Taiwanese food, though there are still some foods I have not yet had the courage to try. I HAVE tried some interesting things, though, such as chicken foot and pig stomach. Never again. The chicken foot was alright...tasted like chicken...but the pig stomach, just no. Everything else is good though!
I hope these random thoughts were helpful/informative in some way to you. It's very difficult to describe something so foreign and special, being a youth exchange student in general, to someone that has never experienced it. That's why, to all the teenagers out there, you MUST participate in it. The youth exchange program, and the Rotary youth exchange program specifically, is like an invisible world inside of your own world. One day you know absolutely nothing about it, then all at once you're part of it and suddenly you know people from literally all over the world. And then once you join it, you realize it's everywhere, you just weren't seeing it before. You go from a small-town high school student to a global citizen. There's more to it, though. It may seem all magical and romantic and amazing, and sometimes indeed it is, but it's also quite difficult. In fact, a great deal of the time. It's more difficult than you can imagine. With these difficulties come great rewards, however, like hopefully being fluent in Chinese by the time I return home. For those of you applying or waiting for your country, you must be ready for many outcomes. I chose all countries in Europe and South America, and so receiving Taiwan was quite a shock. After much reflection, I decided I would rather be an exchange student here than not be an exchange student at all, and I'm very glad I made that decision. Sometimes it takes everything out of you, mentally, physically, and emotionally, and this is where the benefits of Rotary step in. No matter whatever country you are in, and whether the actual Rotary club in your host country is good or not-so good, you'll have the other exchange students. They are in the same situation as you, and you can always find support, or just good company, in them.
I can't believe it's been an entire year since I was applying for the Rotary Youth Exchange Program, and now I'm a Taiwanese high school student, speaking Chinese, eating rice for every meal and playing ping pong every day. Yeah, by the way, I'm getting really good. For anyone reading this, student or adult, and for the students- no matter which country you want to go to, please feel free to ask me any questions via e-mail or Facebook. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org, and my Facebook is William Foody. If I think of anything else I'll make sure to put it in my next journal!
P.S. - My chinese name is 高傅偉 (Kao Fu Wei), which means "great tall master." So that's awesome.
May 14, 2014
Well, seeing as I just realized it's been 7 or so months since my last journal entry, I'd say there's quite a bit I need to catch you guys up on. As in...basically my whole exchange, haha. Where do I even start? I've been putting this journal off for a while because, honestly, I'm not ready to think about Florida again yet. I'm completely adapted to my environment now, completely immersed, completely comfortable...this is just my regular life now. These foreign people around me are now my closest friends and family; this strange room that I considered “someone else's” room is now my room; these crazy, busy roads where I'd get lost and scared are now where I make new friends and know my own shortcuts. This strange, little country somewhere over in Southeast Asia that I'd never heard of is now what I can consider a home.
And, the cool thing is, Taiwan hasn't changed at all. It's been the same as the day I got here, 8 ½ months ago. I'm more comfortable now, though, because I've changed. I've fully accepted Taiwanese culture into my life. As an exchange student, especially in a place so very foreign, it's difficult to let go of your own culture and lifestyle. But actually, it makes it even more difficult this way. You'll never fit in, you'll never have a good time, you'll never experience anything worthwhile. So, eventually, you just have to learn how to let go of all that negativity, and basically just give yourself over to this way of life. It's not forgetting your past or where you come from, it's just allowing more experience and knowledge to enter your mind instead of closing it off to anything new.
You just gotta learn to roll with it. Things like “Alright they're eating the pig brain, I guess I should eat it, too” and “Crap I just realized when I went to the restroom 20 minutes ago I walked back into the wrong party...but these people seem cool, might as well sing a couple karaoke songs with them, then head back.”
ANYWAYS, let's get down to it. What have I been doing?
Let's see...I've witnessed political uprisings and protests, I've performed Tai Chi in front of thousands of people, I've eaten pig tail/feet/ears (and most recently chicken testicles), I've learned how to plant rice from an old lady in the mountains, I've done fire-breathing in a street parade, I've participated in a government forum about the future of my city, I've been cliff jumping off waterfalls, I've had my parents and family come visit me, I've participated in Taiwanese youth military camp, I've filmed a short movie for my school that won them some sort of award from the Ministry of Education, I've experienced the countless festivities of Chinese New Year, and much more that I can't exactly recall right now. In addition, I just passed my Chinese proficiency that I've been preparing for for months, or I guess all year really. There are 3 levels to the test: A, B, and C (A being the lowest and C being the highest). All the exchange students in my district received level A, besides my Italian friend and I. We were the only two that passed level B, so I was rather proud of that!
I can feel my exchange slowly coming to an end, and there's no time to lose. Exchange makes you appreciate a lot of things you took for granted before, and the most valuable thing to me right now is TIME. I don't waste days anymore, I just can't afford it. I can physically feel the time slipping away, like my heart's made of an hourglass, and recently this has put my exchange in a “maximum drive” sort of mode. If I'm not at school, I'm taking a bus through the mountains to hike to a temple or biking to some hot springs, and basically just trying to do EVERYTHING I can before I'm gone, specifically opportunities I just won't have again for a very long time. I make lists every day: places I still need to go, things I need to buy, foods I need to eat, people who I should get to know better, everything. I'm really fortunate that I've found some other friends that have just as much enthusiasm about “seizing the d ay” as I do, and I'm even more excited for what's to come. Our upcoming plans: live temporarily with the monks in a Buddhist monastery, host an “exchange student Prom” that we created ourselves, prepare a time capsule with everyone from the district/create a scavenger hunt for next year's students, visit some aboriginal villages, visit all the places on my list in general, and basically just keep going strong until my very last day.
Sorry if this post is lacking a little in “in-depth” detail, but I just wanted to give you a little summary on what I've been up to and how I feel right now. However, I think these photos below will explain more than I could with words, and hopefully satisfy your curiosity. I will try to post again soon!