Leaving for the Ilha Formosa

One of the most clichéd things a student can say when going abroad is “I’m excited”.  It seems obvious, doesn’t it?  Going across the world to immerse oneself in a fascinating new culture, and venturing out daily to create once-in-a-lifetime experiences should, in fact, be exciting.  Yet, despite being overused, nondescript, and dull, when I think of my feelings going into my semester abroad, the one word which overwhelms the rest is “excited”.

National Taiwan University is no ordinary school.  It’s the best university in Taiwan, and one of the best in all of Asia.  As a freshman, I fell in love with Taiwan and resolved that one day, after I had learned a decent amount of Chinese, I would travel there.  Lo and behold, I soon discovered that our school has a partnership with NTU, which one of my TAs had attended as an undergrad!  Since this discovery I have been hoping to do an exchange semester in Taiwan, and I have been actively preparing for about a year, finding information and meeting with two classmates who participated in the program as well.  Now that my application is in and the details are settling into place, I have to admit am overwhelmed by the fact that I really will step on a plane in two and a half months and go to Taipei.  I feel very, very blessed and lucky to have this opportunity.

In many ways, going to NTU is much like becoming an incoming UW freshman all over again, sans a bit of acne and with an added language barrier.  I get to pick my dorm, my department, and my classes.  I get to join clubs and make friends.  I get to go to class and walk around campus, and inevitably have a minor heart attack as I read the first day syllabus and get lost navigating around the small radius that constitutes my home.  And lucky me, I get to do it in one of the best universities in all of Asia.  Now it is simply a matter of preparing, filling out paperwork, waiting, and anticipating the jitters I will get as I meet my “student volunteer” in the airport.

Reasons for Unbridled Excitement

~~ The support.  I have received an incredible amount of support from my friends and family, and I must say, even though I’ll be going on my program alone, there will not be a shortage of people to meet me on the other side of the world.  I have been able to connect with a few students from NTU doing exchange at UW, and they are utterly fantastic.  They have been willing to give me advice at every turn, and have even compiled a list of “potential friends” for me!   If I find even a handful of people at NTU who are as nice as they are, I will have no problems making friends.

~~ Taiwan is beautiful.  Some of the most stunning photos I have ever seen were taken in Taiwan.  The small island is home to a great variety of plants and animals, as well as mountains, beaches, hotsprings, rivers, and islands.  As a person who loves to hike, I will definitely have to take some trips away from Taipei to experience this.  The camp counselor/ amateur photographer in me is sure to emerge!

~~ Do you know what students in Taiwan do when they want something to do for fun?  They eat.  They eat delicious, cheap night market food. When I ask a student who has studied at NTU about the food, their eyes light up within milliseconds.   As if I didn’t need any more convincing, there is also not as much of a drinking culture in Taipei.  Neither of the NTU students I spoke with drank, despite being over legal age.  As a student at UW who doesn’t drink, this is a very welcome cultural change

~~ The school.  Not like I didn’t hit this over the head previously, but this school is nice, to say the least.  And I’m going to get to take political science and history classes from a Taiwanese perspective.

~~ The convenience.  The NTU students emphasized time and time again with me- Taiwan will be more convenient than Madison.  The bus comes every 5 minutes, the subway is omnipresent, and you can fulfill literally all of life’s needs at 7/11.

~~ The weather.  I am leaving Wisconsin winter to go to a tropical climate.

~~ The safety.  Living in a big city where crime is not rampant?  Sign me up

~~ The culture, both old and new.  Taipei houses the largest collection of Chinese artifacts in the world in the National Palace Museum, and traditional practices and cultures are alive and well, from temples to medicinal practices.  At the same time, Taipei is a very modern city, which is home to some of my favorite singers, actors, and actresses, as well as the backdrop to many of my favorite movies and tv shows.  I am very excited to see the mixture of new and old in this city.

What Will Take Some Adjustment (aka What I Fear)

~~ The language.  I am a Chinese major, and can usually at least vaguely understand what is going on around me in an everyday immersion environment.  However, I’m not sure how confident I am that my language skills are good enough to follow academic discussion, or even everyday discussion, in a lot of circumstances.  Add on the fact that I have to learn the traditional writing system, and Bopomofo, a new system for typing characters, and I have quite a bit of work ahead of me. I am simply going to study as diligently as I can before I leave, and pray that my mind will be able to process what is going on around me on my first day.  Fortunately, this is an incredible opportunity to be immersed in the language, and I plan to take every opportunity to learn all that I can!

~~ The traffic.  When I was in Mainland China, I often would only cross the street by following close to the nearest kind-looking lady I could find.  I’ve heard Taipei traffic is brutal.  Seems it’s time to take up this tactic once more.  Only time will tell if I dare to graduate from following the heels of kind looking strangers to actually getting a bike

~~ The bugs and humidity.  This is a tropical island.  And as such, there are bugs, especially mosquitos.  In my camp-counseling days, mosquitoes and I did not get along well.  Guess I will have to stock up on the DEET before I leave.

~ Typhoons and earthquakes.  These happen often.  And I have never experienced either before.  I guess I will just have to warn my roommate so she understands why I am having a heart attack during a slight tremor.

~~ The sticking out.  Put very bluntly, I will stick out at NTU.  Being an American, I know I will stick out like a sore thumb.  just hope people treat me fairly, and neither dote on me nor despise me for looking different.  Never have I felt more uncomfortable or imperialistic than when people would ask to take pictures with me in Mainland China.  Really… I am the farthest thing from a model America has to offer…

~~ Ogling at the “exotic other”.  Everything in Taipei is going to be completely new to me, and I want to experience as much as I can.  However, at the same time, I fear alienating my friends by commenting on every small aspect of their lives that doesn’t match with mine.  I want to appreciate Taiwan, but I don’t want to distance myself from it by considering it an “exotic other”.  Although I’m sure I will encounter cultural mishaps both small and large while abroad, I want to make sure I check myself before commenting on something which may be a very integral part of the lives of my friends, classmates, professors, and neighbors.  I want to consider NTU as a second home, and as such, I want to understand the lives of those around me, not simply gawk and take pictures of things I find “strange”.

As you can see, I’ve given quite a bit of thought to what my experience will be like.  Only time will tell what will actually happen once I get to Taiwan.