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I honestly cannot believe I’ve been in Taiwan for a month now. It is hard to put everything that has happened and everything I’ve done this past month into words because it is such a rollercoaster and in many ways indescribable. But I’ll start with the 14 hour plane ride from Atlanta to Tokyo. It was surreal to leave my parents at the airport to board my flight and I don’t think it truly hit me that I wouldn’t be seeing them for another 10 months. I’m still not sure it has hit me. The first flight was fairly uneventful and on the second, 3 hour flight from Tokyo to Taipei, I met another exchange student. It was fun to be able to talk to another student and navigate the Tokyo airport together. I arrived in Taipei at about 9 in the evening after 21 hours of travel. A bunch of people from my host club came to welcome me at the airport with a big sign. They were all so friendly and nice to me. Then we waited for awhile because my host parents were late to come pick me up. I had texted my host mom that I had landed at the Tokyo airport but there had been some miscommunication because she did not realize that my flights were confirmed and that I was arriving that evening. I was pretty embarrassed about that but they were very nice about it and I think they just chalked it up to my lack of Chinese language skills. After my host parents arrived, we drove an hour from the airport to my city, Miaoli. I thought for sure we would be going home so I could sleep but instead we went out to dinner even though it was almost midnight. But everyone was super nice and they didn’t make me feel too bad when I dropped food on the floor of the restaurant because I couldn’t use chopsticks properly. (I’m happy to say that now I can use chopsticks very well). I finally got to go home and take a shower and go to bed and I’m pretty sure I was the most exhausted I’ve ever been.
My host family is so nice to me and I get along with them very well. I have a host mom, dad, two older sisters, and a brother. But I am the only kid in the house because one of my host sisters is at university in Taipei, the other works as a nurse in Taoyuan and my host brother is on his own exchange in Brazil. But I’ve seen my host sisters a lot as they come to visit often and it is always fun to hang out with them. None of my host family can speak English, only some words here and there, which is very good for my Chinese. My Chinese has already gotten better (although I’m not sure how much that is saying).
The Saturday after I arrived, I had my district orientation with the rest of the inbound students. It was super fun to meet the other students and be able to finally speak some English. There are about 25 of us in my district and I go to university with 9 other exchange students in my area. University did not start until last week but my Taiwanese high school started the following Wednesday. When I walked into my class on the first day of school everyone cheered and shouted questions at me that I did not understand. It was so funny and I felt very welcomed. I had heard from other exchange students that sometimes it can be hard to make friends in Taiwanese school because they have all been in the same class with the same people for years and so it is hard to break into their group but this was definitely not my experience. All of my classmates are so nice to me and make sure I don’t get lost and that I buy the right lunch. They are extremely friendly and I feel very lucky to hav e been put in their class. Besides my classmates, school itself can be very boring and they send me to the library a lot to “study” (I don’t actually have any homework yet although I’ve been told that once university starts I will have actual studying to do). But in Taiwanese high school I am not expected to hand in assignments or pay attention so a lot of the time I am just sitting around on my phone. But they put me in the art class at my school so for the first 2 or 3 hours of everyday I get to draw with my classmates. The art classes at my school are famous and prestigious so my classmates are drawing huge, beautiful paintings while I’m drawing apples. It is kind of hilarious and we all laugh about it. I also started riding my bike to school this past week which I was incredibly nervous about because the streets are narrow and can get crowded but after doing it a couple times I’ve found that I enjoy the bike ride. The first day I biked to school I thought I was going to pass out because I am not used to biking 3 kilometers first thing in the morning but now I can get to school without feeling like my lungs are on fire. Since I’ve started biking to school, I’ve been appreciating my 30 minutes of nap time that we get everyday at school a lot more.
Last week, my university classes started with the nine other exchange students in my city. This means that now 3 days a week I go to Taiwanese high school and the other 2 I go to university to take Chinese language and culture classes. These classes include Chinese knot tying, Chinese cooking, Chinese dance, Chinese song, and Chinese language. On the days that I go to university, I bike with another exchange student, who lives on my street, to the bus station. Then we take a bus about 25 minutes with 2 other exchange students to Yu Da University. The first day, on the ride back, we missed our stop and had to walk a very long distance from the next stop to our bikes at the bus station. This was the same day I had give my first presentation to my Rotary Club and needless to say, I was very late. But they still gave me my monthly allowance so I guess they weren’t too upset.
Besides school, my host family has taken me around Taiwan on the weekends. One weekend we went to Kaohsiung, a city in southern Taiwan, on a tour bus. We also went to Danshui, a part of Taipei and took a boat ride and saw Fort San Domingo left over from the days when Taiwan was ruled by Portugal. Just this past weekend, my host parents and I hiked to the top of a 仙山 (xianshan). It’s a mountain in my county and standing on the peak was one of the highlights of my exchange so far. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The hike up there was hard and sometimes scary but it was worth it. I think the mountains are one of my favorite parts about Taiwan. They are everywhere! I see them when I look out my bedroom window, on my bike ride to school, from the school hallways, basically anywhere you stand in Miaoli, a view of the mountains is around the corner. In my opinion, Miaoli is awesome because while it is not as urban as Taipei, it still feels like what I would imagine a city to be. The streets and buildings are close together and it is very walkable (or in my case, bikeable) but at the same time I’m surrounded by mountains! Another interesting thing about Miaoli is that the garbage truck plays the music that ice cream trucks play in the US! The first day I heard that and realized it was the garbage truck was so hilarious because then I had to explain to my host mom in my broken Chinese why I was laughing at a garbage truck.
Another huge thing about my life here in Taiwan is the food! I had obviously heard that the Taiwanese eat certain foods that Americans find odd but I just figured those were exotic delicacies, not an everyday thing! But I have gotten used to eating things that I do not recognize and some new things I’ve eaten since I’ve been here have been stinky tofu, squid, eel, blood, snake, intestines, and fish skin. Overall, the food here is really good and fried squid is actually delicious! It reminds of southern fried chicken. One of my favorite things to eat here is called baozi which is basically bread stuffed with meat and sauce. I also love the milk tea! We have milk tea in Atlanta but it is definitely not the same thing. I’ve also started eating like double what I ate in Atlanta. I thought that Americans ate a lot of food but the Taiwanese could eat us under the table. They eat a lot of food and good food too! They don’t like to eat cold food and so convenience stores like 7/11 and Family Mart have pots of eggs and mushrooms and sausages and other various hot food to take on the go.
Some things that I did struggle with my first weeks here were homesickness and a lack of independence. I was homesick for about the first week or two of my exchange and sometimes something will remind me of home and I will feel homesick all over again. But it goes away just as fast as it comes and settling into a daily routine here has helped a lot now that my brain is not being constantly overloaded by new and confusing things. For the first 2 weeks I definitely felt an acute loss of independence. Back in the US, I could drive myself around and make plans for myself and for the first weeks here I felt like a child again. This contributed to my homesickness but it went away fairly quickly. Now I can go make plans with my friends and everything by myself which might not seem like a big deal but, trust me, it is. Hopefully this journal helps people thinking about exchange right now just as they helped me. When I was reading these exactly a year ago I would never have believed that I w ould be writing one now and sometimes I still stop and look around and marvel at the fact that I am actually in Taiwan!