It has now been almost a full month here living in Taiwan, and I would not have wanted it any other way.
WEEK 1 (August 23 - 31)
My last day in Florida was Friday, August 22. As I said goodbye to my family and sponsor club Rotarians at the airport, I was nervous but very excited. I was about to begin my exchange thanks to God, family, friends, and Rotary.
However, as soon as we had finished saying goodbye and I was alone, I began to feel extremely more nervous. With arms and legs shaking, I was not able to fully believe that for 10 months I would not see my family and friends. I would not see Florida. My future was not clearly known and I did not know what to expect. I had never been to Asia and all the internet and videos about Taiwan would not ever accurately reflect the reality that I would be living in soon. I would also be learning how to write and speak a completely new and different language - Mandarin Chinese.
My nerves calmed down once I was later accompanied by at least 7 other American exchange students at the Detroit airport. They were all also going to Taiwan, and we waited together for about 3 hours to board the plane to Tokyo. We were able to share our feelings about our exchange, family, and interests. Thankfully, the flight wasn't so boring with them by my side. They were all so cool and interesting that they made me love being an exchange student right off the bat.
Nevertheless, the flight felt incredibly long and it was uncomfortable for me. My neck hurt quite a lot (I should have brought a neck pillow). The airplane food was okay but I am pretty sure it hurt my stomach. I watched at least three movies. It was about a 13 hour flight from Detroit to Tokyo. Once I got there, I immediately boarded the plane to Taipei, so I did not get to see much of Tokyo. It took more than a whole day to finally arrive to Taiwan from Florida, but of course, it was worth it!
Once I arrived in Taiwan, I was welcomed by my host family and club. It was a heartwarming experience, even if I had felt worn out and had a bad stomach at the time. Everyone had smiles on their faces and my host family gave me bear hugs. There were so many people there to welcome me that I instantly felt that Rotary love and bonding. My host sister had created a large yellow welcome banner for me and, of course, we all took photos with it.
First of all, I would like to explain in greater detail my host family. It includes my mom, dad, and older brother. However, I also have two older host sisters and a younger host brother who are actually my host mom’s brother’s children, but I still refer to them as my siblings. My younger host brother is currently an RYE student living in Germany. My parents are both very active Rotarians. They can speak English very well, as well as Taiwanese and Japanese. Taiwanese is a dialect of Chinese that I might also learn during my exchange in Taiwan. It is a language spoken by many Taiwanese at home. Even though my host family’s English is great, I hope I can still learn much Chinese and some Taiwanese from them!
After the welcome photos, I got in the car with my host family so we could go home. I was with my mom, dad, older brother, and older sister. We were finally home at around 11 PM. My host dad and I made sure that all the Rotary first night questions were answered before I went to bed. After all, I had been warned by a fellow exchange student; I would not want to accidentally break my host family's toilet because I didn't know how to use it appropriately.
Once the questions were done (they took more than an hour to finish), I slept like a baby and woke up late the next morning. It was a lazy Sunday and my host parents told me to "take it easy", which is a phrase I have learned to love since I arrived in Taiwan. I wouldn't start school until the next Monday, so I felt pretty relaxed. I had a delicious breakfast of bread, fruits, and coffee made by the housekeeper who lives with us. She is from Indonesia and I definitely consider her as part of our family now. She does not know much English so I am learning quite a bit of Chinese and charades with her so far.
My host family is really caring and generous to me. My parents are always asking how everything is going and are always making sure that I have everything I need. I have started calling my parents Baba and Mama, which is a very important and respectful thing to do in Taiwan. Respect for age is very important in Taiwanese culture. I also call my oldest sister Jiejie and my older brother Gege. My mother named me 亞卉, which means Asia flower, or Asia beauty. She hopes that I can be a beauty here in Taiwan. I am blessed to have such a great family and I will miss them when I have to change families in three months. However, I will live my last month, which is my tenth month, with them.
That day, I learned to appreciate my new home. I love every room! The place is new, spacious, clean, Ikea-like and well-lit. I am required to wear house slippers at all times, which I like because my feet are always squeaky clean at home. I am also required to wash my hands and change my outside clothes to indoor clothes as soon as I get home. Showers are always taken at night. From my home, I can see the Taipei 101 World Trade Center, which is very beautiful, especially at night. I live in an apartment complex managed by my host dad and my older host brother. The complex is composed of two buildings. I live on the eleventh floor of one of them. The other building is being made into a hotel, which keeps my host dad and brother very busy since it is supposed to be opened by the end of the year.
The location of where I live is ideal because it is in the heart of Taipei. This makes it easy to get to many places and I have now learned that I like the city. I always feel like there is always something to do or somewhere to go and explore. I only have to walk about five minutes to get to the MRT. The MRT is basically a really convenient and clean subway. The nearest bus stop is only about a two minute walk from my house. Something cool about the bus stop is that it has Rotary logos all over it! I also live next to the cutest dog grooming salon EVER. I always see dogs getting extremely fancy grooming done and I even saw a dog get his tail dyed various colors. I need to take photos of this next time. Near me is also the police department. I always see police officers in front of the building and sometimes they greet me which is neat.
I feel like Taipei is safe in general for such a densely populated city. For example, it seems that if you lose something, there is a high chance that someone will find it and return it. Also, at school, nobody (except me) seems to worry about leaving all their stuff in the classroom, including musical instruments and tablets, even if the room is not locked. Besides being honest, Taiwanese people are known to be helpful to foreigners. If I am struggling with something or I am lost, it is not a problem to get help from a Taiwanese, even if he or she does not speak English.
Since I did not have school the first week, I mostly went to various supermarkets, visited some important places with my host sister, attended my first host club meeting, and also attended my first RYE orientation. The two supermarkets I go to are much more larger than the ones in Florida and also offer many more international foods from Asia and Europe. There are also many employees next to the aisles who let you have samples of foods like meat, bread, cheese, ice cream, and juice. My family and I bought many kinds of seafood such as squid, octopus, and scallops. We also bought beef, pork, sweet potatoes, dumplings, soup, noodles, salad, mushrooms, and fungus. My family eats many vegetables and healthy foods. Everyday I try new foods and I think this is a great experience. Some interesting foods I have tried are fried eel, black chicken, and salmon cream cheese.
The first time I went to the supermarket, I felt quite outside my comfort zone. First of all, when you are on the escalator, you must stand on the right side of it because the left is for people who are walking. I accidentally stood on the left side that first time. Another thing was that there were so many people surrounding me and I am not used to this at all. If people needed to get past me, they would push me and not say anything. The carts would sometimes catch me off guard because they are driven all over the place; I even bumped into one and apologized to it. Also, with everyone speaking Chinese and most of the signs being in Chinese, I felt like I did not belong there. It was quite an experience!
Later in the week, my host sister took me to the Presidential Office and Freedom Square which are the equivalent of Washington, D.C. for the USA. Freedom Square is a large plaza where many large events are held. I think I would really enjoy taking a walk there again but when it isn't too hot.
The weather is so hot and humid right now! This is because of Taiwan's location. It is situated in the Pacific Ocean and with a latitude of 25 degrees north. The strange thing is that there has not been any typhoons this August, which is really rare. It has also been the hottest it has ever been since more than 100 years ago. To shade themselves from the heat and not get a tan, Taiwanese women use umbrellas. It seems that in Taiwan, women with pale skin are almost always found in the cosmetics and music industries. This is different from Florida where I usually only see umbrellas being used when it rains, even though the weather can get very hot, too. Also, many of my friends in Florida always want to have a tan.
On Thursday, I attended my host club’s meeting and exchanged my sponsor club's banner with them. I also received my monthly allowance. My host club Taipei Metro East has more than 60 members and they have been the number one Rotary Club in Taipei out of 111 others for many years. They are also hosting another exchange student from France - she is a nice girl named Charlotte. The meeting was about more than two hours long and it included singing Chinese and Taiwanese songs, as well as a whole bunch of food and a long presentation about radioactivity that I did not understand one bit.
I call the Rotarians either Uncle or Aunty as a form of respect. We exchanged many business cards together. Business cards are almost always received by both hands and are not immediately put away. Some Rotarians spoke Chinese to me and I could make out some words they were saying. Sometimes, I thought they were saying something but they were saying another thing. Chinese is a language with five tones. For example, mother is ma in Chinese, but it has to be said in a high tone. If it is said in another tone, such as a falling tone, it means to swear or scold. So, paying attention to tones when listening and speaking is extremely important. I did not get to make my two minute speech in Chinese because there was not enough time. I felt kind of relieved because that meant I had more time to practice it!
One of the things that I found cool at the meeting is that the center of each table rotates and has many different kinds of food, so all you have to do is rotate the center piece of the table to get the food you want. I had to eat with chopsticks and I felt like a mess because I am not very good at using them.
On Saturday, I attended my RYE orientation with the other exchange students and the past exchange students, or ROTEX. Getting to meet the exchange students was really fun and so was exchanging pins and business cards with them. My blazer is getting more and more decorated by the minute! The orientation presentations reminded us about the Rotary rules, taught us the importance of the program, and gave us many kinds of advice, from dealing with culture shock to family and school life. I got to meet very passionate Rotarians and learn what they do in the district. We ate delicious Taiwanese style Pizza Hut pizza which included toppings such as chicken and shrimp. After the orientation, the exchange students, ROTEX, and I went to a nearby Thai restaurant, which was the perfect ending to such a busy day!
The next day, a Sunday, I went to Smoothie House (a very popular shaved ice shop) with my host sisters, Taiwanese friends, ROTEX, and exchange students. I had a giant and mouth watering mango shaved ice which is a Taiwanese specialty. It might be my favorite dessert now.
WEEK 2 (September 1 - 7)
On Monday, I attended my first day of school. I had to introduce myself in Chinese in front of the entire school (more than 1000 students). Another exchange student attends my school and he is from Paris, France. We got a photo taken with our new school friends. I felt so welcomed by all my classmates, teachers, and the principal! My RYE Counselor was also there for me at school.
My high school's name is Xisong Senior High School but in the building there is also the Junior High School. Senior high school includes first, second, and third grade, which are the equivalent of 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. I attend school from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM. However, my Taiwanese classmates arrive to school at 7:30 AM to study more. The school's outer walls are little small pink tiles. Here in Taiwan, many buildings' architecture includes tiles (my apartment building is covered in tiles).
According to my classmates, our school is very small. They said medium sized schools in Taipei have at least double the amount of students. Instead of water fountains like the ones in the USA, we have drinking water machines that have 3 different temperatures. There is cold, warm, and boiling. At first, the boiling temperature really surprised me, but then a teacher explained that the boiling water can be used for hot tea or noodles, and also for cleaning chopstick s. Another thing that really surprised me was that there were sinks in the hallways. When I asked a student what the purpose for them was, she said that they are used for cleaning the school. Students have a certain time in which they clean the school, such as mopping or window washing. As of now, I have yet to see a janitor in school. Also, the school does not have Western toilets. They are squat toilets. The toilet paper is not located in the stalls, but outside of the restroom. This might take a while to get used to! However, in my home we have Western toilets.
I get to school by bus and it takes about 30 minutes with traffic. The busy bus stops have many seats and a shelter which I really like. What I like the most, however, is that there is a digital sign that tells you when your bus will be coming. Inside the bus, as well as the MRT, it is usually really quiet. Many Taiwanese can be found looking busy with their phones. Portable phone chargers are very popular here since phones are used quite a lot. The buses have highly cushioned seats which are quite comfortable. Both the buses and MRT have a good amount of seats for those with children or pregnant, and the elderly or injured. The Taiwanese seem to be very polite and respect this.
The traffic in Taipei is much heavier and wilder than Florida's. Something that I have not gotten fully used to is that motorcycles can pass in between cars where there are only two lanes, and they even ride on the sidewalks. Sometimes it scares me a little but I have not seen an accident happen yet. I think drivers and pedestrians here have very fast reflexes.
The first day of school, I went the wrong direction trying to find my bus stop after school. Fortunately, I was immediately helped by two classmates. They not only took me to my bus stop, but also invited me to eat Mos Burger with them next week. Mos Burger is a Japanese fast food restaurant that serves rice burgers. As one of the teachers in my high school said, Mos Burger basically took fast food and made it better.
I did not have any classes this week. I was at the library the whole time, usually listening to music or studying. However, outside of school, I had a blast with my family. I have two host sisters: one of them is 21 and studies in one of Taiwan’s national universities, and the other is 18 and is now a ROTEX who spent her exchange in Germany.
My sisters and I went out to drink the best bubble milk tea in Taipei, located in Gongguan Market, and it was AMAZING. It was made from brown sugar and it was very fresh. For those who don't know, bubble milk tea is milk tea with chewy tapioca bubbles and it was invented in Taiwan.
We then spent the whole weekend together outside Taipei celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival. This festival that falls on a full moon is celebrated with many family outdoor barbecues throughout Taiwan. We visited my host sisters’ parents in Changhua County, along with a German exchange student who goes to the same university as my host sister. It took about 4 hours by bus to get to Changhua County from Taipei.
My host sisters’ parents were so friendly and caring to me and the other exchange student. They took us to see many special places, such as the Baguashan Great Buddha, the beautiful Longshan Temple, a glass museum, and Wangong Wharf. The Great Buddha was very large, detailed, and had five floors with a temple inside. The Longshan Temple, a famous old temple, was breathtaking with its many colors. The ceiling art was spectacular. There were dragons, statues of the gods, and many colors like red and yellow. The glass museum had many different kinds of glass sculptures. My favorite one was the Taipei 101 glass sculpture, which was taller than me with a nice, shiny, teal color.
Wangong Wharf had amazing seafood. The whole seafood market smelled so fresh. The scallops were very tasty and chewy. We also had a barbecue with family and friends at a friend’s front yard. We ate many meats and fruits. I ate chicken hearts and dragon fruit for the first time! My host sisters’ parents also took us to eat at a fancy buffet which was better than any buffet I have ever been to. I loved the sushi and tea ice cream.
WEEK 3 (September 8 - 14)
Unfortunately, my oldest host sister and I had to leave Changhua on Monday (there was no school because of the Mid-Autumn Festival), but this time we took the fast train. So, instead of taking four hours, we took one hour. I loved the fast train! My other host sister had to stay and I was disappointed because of that. Plus, I did not know if I was going to see her again since she would be going back to Germany to study for a year in two weeks.
This week was my second school week and even though I was still spending all my school time at the library, I made some very great friends. I now have two close friends: Ting An and Angel. I am their first foreign friend. I met Ting An at my bus stop and she is in the second grade. She lives really close to me and we sometimes ride the bus together. I did not know what bus was best for me to take to school or home, and she completely had my back. I asked her where I could buy school supplies, and she said she knew and would be happy to take me to go buy the school supplies next week.
I met Angel on the first day of school and she is really friendly. She is in the first grade. She offered to take me to Raohe night market next week. Taiwan is known for the night markets found all over the country. Food and night markets are a large part of Taiwanese culture. It is said that night markets have many kinds of delicious and affordable food. Both of my friends have taught me so much Chinese and about Taiwan already. My RYE counselor was right - I can learn the most from my classmates.
Many Taiwanese students are busy studying or attending cram schools. In Taiwanese culture, education is very important and it can get very competitive when it comes to college entrance exams. Parents send their children to cram school after school so they can continue learning more. Taiwanese people are very hard working and many of my classmates have busy schedules. The students in first grade (10th grade) have more time than those in second or third grade since they have a lot of pressure for college. Therefore, most of my classes will be in the first grade, even though the students will be about two years younger than me. I do not mind at all, though, since I would really enjoy building good friendships with the first grade students.
After school, I participate in Taekwondo and Guitar club. I am just starting out in Taekwondo as a white belt and I find it to be both challenging and interesting. I used to be an orange belt (the third level) when I was in elementary school but I stopped. Now that I am back, I have to practice a lot and hopefully I can get better over time. It is really good exercise and hopefully it will keep me from not gaining too much weight from all the delicious Taiwanese food. Guitar club is really fun and I am learning how to play a Chinese song by Mayday, which is a very popular alternative rock Taiwanese band. I have played guitar before but I did not practice as much as I would have liked to. Now my goal is to practice as much as I can and learn how to play many songs. I think Taiwanese people generally love music and singing, hence the large guitar club and all the singing at my host club’s meeting. Karaoke is also popular here and I really want to go to a KTV one day!
WEEK 4 (September 15 - 21)
This week I got my class schedule, and I really like it. My class schedule is as follows:
Monday - Math in English with the teacher and the other exchange student in my school, Cultural Class, PE Class, and Art
Tuesday - Chinese mandarin at another school from 8:30 AM to 11:30 AM, Tai Chi at yet another school from 1:30PM to 4:00PM, and guitar practice at my school
Wednesday - English Picture Book (yes, it is a fun and easy class), Music, Math, Study Hall (I use this to study chinese), and Guitar Club.
Thursday - Chinese mandarin again, Life Counseling with my teacher advisor, Library Time, and Taekwondo
Friday - Study Hall, Music, PE, Life Counseling with the secretary of the school, Class Meeting, and Performing Arts.
I think my favorite class is Cultural Class because this Monday, I learned how to make soap. There were different kinds of molds, colors, and scents I could choose from. I made some pink, jasmine-scented Hello Kitty soaps and also some really beautiful flower ones. I gave one to my host mother and she really seemed to like it. I hope I can make more again.
I also like Mandarin class because I enjoy learning Chinese. It is three hours long. The class is full of other Rotary exchange students, which makes it really fun. The exchange students are from the USA, Thailand, Germany, Russia, France, Spain, and more. After class I sometimes go out to lunch with them. The first restaurant we went to was Sushi Express, which is very popular in Taiwan. There is a conveyor belt full of different dishes of sushi and desserts that you can choose from, and they are very cheap.
At my high school, the students have an assigned classroom and desk in which they keep all their stuff. The teachers will usually come to the classrooms instead of the students switching classes for every period. I do not have an assigned class. Instead, I am in various classes. Some of them are first grade, others are second grade. I really like this because I get to interact with more students and I can compare and contrast how the students are in each class. For example, in art and performing arts, the students are more social and make jokes. In English Picture Book, they seem a bit shy and more quiet. Something that I have observed, however, is that they all love to take photos no matter what class they are in. The boys seem to be very touchy with each other and it is really funny, especially in performing arts class. They might hug or jokingly push each other. On my Facebook news feed, I will always see new photos of my classmates with their friends in school. Facebook seems to be a very popular social media site for Taiwanese high schoolers.
When I don’t eat lunch with the exchange students, I eat lunch with one of my teachers or with my classmates. When I eat lunch with one of my teachers, we usually go out to eat and take about an hour. When I eat lunch with my classmates, we eat for a half hour in the classroom. I buy a typical, hot Taiwanese lunchbox from the school for only 55 New Taiwan dollars, which is about less than 2 US dollars. It is much better than the school food back in Florida. The lunch box I usually eat includes chicken, rice, and vegetables. Most of my classmates bring their own food from home in a metal container and they keep it in a big steamer located in the classroom before lunch. They love to share their food with me and I also share mine with them. Sharing food is part of Taiwanese culture. After lunch, for half an hour there is nap time for all the students, which is a good time to relax after a big lunch and take a break from the long school hours.
Giving gifts is also a big part of Taiwanese culture. On Tuesday after school, my friend Ting An bought me tea, a Japanese chocolate bar, and passion fruit juice. It was incredibly delicious and I will definitely return the favor! On Wednesday, Angel took me to the Raohe Night Market and bought me stinky tofu and a pepper bun. The stinky tofu is very famous in Taiwan since it smells terrible because of the way it is fermented. However, it tasted great! The pepper bun was filled with juicy meat and spicy peppers. It was hand made and baked to perfection. I also had a delicious, sweet bubble milk tea, of course.
On Saturday, I went to Taipei Main Station with Ting An and her friend. We went to the cutest bookstore ever! It had five about five floors and had many adorable school supplies like notebooks, folders, and pencil cases. Here in Taiwan, all things cute and adorable are greatly appreciated by many, especially by girls. After the bookstore, we went to eat curry. Taipei Main Station is huuuugeee. It has many restaurants, and we went to a food court that had five different curry restaurants all next to each other. Curry seems to be very popular in Taiwan. I had a Japanese-style curry with chicken, soup, and orange soda. I had never eaten curry before coming to Taiwan, and I can happily say that I love curry now!
It has now been almost a full month here living in Taiwan, and I would not have wanted it any other way. I have the best host family and club, as well as the most friendly Taiwanese friends. The culture is so rich and different from Florida’s, but I feel so at home here. I have not been homesick to the point that it has affected my daily life. I already feel like I will miss Taiwan so much once I have to leave, because a part of my heart will be left here. I don’t want to think about it now, though, because I still have so much more to do and learn and so many people to meet! Until next time, 再見!