In just a few short days I will have been in Taiwan for a whole month! I feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of the language and culture here, but at the same time I already feel like this beautiful country is already becoming a part of me.
When I first stepped off the plane, I was surrounded by the sound of hundreds of voices speaking a language I didn’t understand, breathtaking but unfamiliar sights, and a warm, welcoming family who I knew nothing about, but was desperate to get to know. Needless to say, I was excited, but more confused and uncertain than I’d ever felt before. As I sat in my family’s car as they drove me home for the first time, peering out at the sprawling city that surrounded me, I wondered how I would ever fit here. I’ve spent every day since answering that question.
My first few days here were spent familiarizing myself with my family and I quickly realized how lucky I was to have been placed with the Li’s. I was so fearful of speaking Chinese with them because I was embarrassed about my pronunciation skills, but they encouraged me to say what I could and praised my efforts, even if I made mistakes. They were eager to show me Taiwan and the Taiwanese way of life, but they also encouraged me to be independent and let me try things on my own. From the very first day I got here, I have been treated with respect and trust, and there was never a moment where I felt like a guest, rather than a member of the family. They have welcomed me into their home and their life with open arms, and I can never begin to thank them enough for that.
I also feel incredibly lucky to have been sent to New Taipei City. I can say with utmost confidence that Taipei has the best public transportation in the world. Before I got here, my family mentioned that the public transportation was very accessible several times in their emails to me, and I didn’t think much of it. After all, I had never ridden a public bus in my life, and even when I had visited cities with subways like New York or Chicago, the quality of public transportation was the last thing on my mind. I now understand why Taiwanese people are so proud of their public transport. You can go literally anywhere you could possibly want in Taipei and the surrounding areas in just a few hours via the MRT (a high speed rail) and bus system. It’s safe, clean (spotless, even), and often faster than taking a car. If I could pack up the MRT and take it back to Florida with me, I would in an instant.
Taiwan is also one of the safest places I have ever been. I’m not proud to admit this, but last week I was dumb enough to leave my wallet and airpods on the table of 7/11 when I was trying to get to Chinese class. After my 3 hour class finished and I realized it was missing, I ran like a maniac to the 7/11 only to find that both my airpods (which cost around $180 dollars) and the 3 credit cards, $100 cash, and unlimited ride MRT pass in my wallet, were all still there. I was flooded with relief, and I realized how different the experience could have been if I hadn’t been in such a safe country. I can also say that I will never be making that mistake again!
Both the safeness and accessibility of Taipei have allowed me to meet so many new people and visit so many new places. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t get to go somewhere I have never been before. I return home every day absolutely exhausted and filled with the excitement that comes with seeing or trying something new. Some of my favorite places that I’ve been are Taipei 101, Ximen, Yeh Liu Geo Park, and most recently, Qixing mountain.
Perhaps the most challenging part of being here so far is learning Chinese, which is to be expected. It is well known that Chinese is one of, if not the most, challenging language to learn. When I first started, understanding Chinese seemed impossible because of the sheer amount of information to learn. You have to learn characters, how those characters sound, what those characters mean, what pinyin corresponds to which characters, how to pronounce that pinyin, etcetera. Frankly, it’s overwhelming, but being in Taiwan makes me want to learn it. I want to communicate with my friends and host family. I am proud of myself when I am able to order food for myself. I am delighted when I can read a street sign! I spend hours at and after school studying Chinese, and I am beginning to understand a language I once thought impossible to decipher.
Of course my advice to future exchange students is to study the language beforehand. Everyone says that, and it’s true. But I can honestly say that a mistake I saw myself and many other exchange students make is that we never gave ourselves a reason to want to study. We were told to “study before you get to your country” and we listened, but in my honest opinion, no one studied as hard or as much as they could have. I think the reason for that is because we didn’t feel any real motivation to, so our efforts were half-hearted. We knew we were going on exchange, but it didn’t feel real. Even now that I am here in Taiwan, I still see other exchange kids not making any effort to learn the language because they don’t see a reason to.
If you are a future outbound reading this, please take my advice. Give yourself a reason to study. Don’t just say “Oh, I really want to learn Chinese/Portuguese/French/Italian” and not ask yourself why! Your reason for learning the language shouldn’t just be because “rotary told me to.” You must find reasons to be passionate about the language you are studying and will be hearing for the 365 days of your life. Now that I’m in Taiwan I study incredibly hard because I gave myself goals and reasons to do so. I want to be able to talk to my host family in their native language so I feel connected to them. I want to do well on the TOCFL (Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language). I want to be able to use Chinese in my future business career. My Chinese skills have gotten exponentially better because I made myself passionate about learning the language, rather than just doing it as a requirement of exchange.
All around, I am so thankful to be in Taiwan. Though I do feel twinges of sadness whenever I think of my friends and family, I haven’t really felt homesick because I keep myself busy and immersed in Taiwanese life. Taiwanese people are incredibly friendly and kind, and if you make an effort to get to know those around you, you’ll never find yourself bored or lonely.
I am continually surprised by Taiwan every day, and surprised by what I am learning about myself while I am here. I’ve always considered myself to be adventurous and capable of adapting to changing environments, but nothing has ever tested this belief quite like exchange. I can’t wait for what the rest of the year has in store for me.
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