Dear family and friends,
Before I say anything else, let me tell you- I am alive. I would even go as far as to say I am both alive and well. Really, I am enjoying my new university so far, I like my dorm, I’ve made a few *at least potential* friends, and I’ve been able to take care of all my basics here. I hope the news of my self-sufficiency will let you breathe a sigh of relief.
Now that that is out of the way, here is the play-by-play account of my first week here in Taipei…
In which I take a very long flight
Honestly, before I left, I was dreading my 17 hour flight. Not because I’m afraid of airplanes (I’m not), but because last time when I took a long haul flight with United, it was absolutely dreadful. My friend and I ended up getting rerouted onto about 5 different flights, we lost our luggage, many of the staff were cruel and demeaning, in general a really negative experience. However, I must apologize for my bad mood before leaving, because my flight process was as smooth as can be. I flew with Cathay Pacific, which I would definitely recommend to others. According to an acquaintance here, they are one of the top five airlines in the world. My flight ended up leaving only 15 minutes after it was scheduled to leave, and the staff was very friendly (I’m guessing there is some sort of smiling code in their contract? They smiled a LOT. As a customer it was quite pleasant, but I imagine their face must cramp up a bit about 14 hours into the flight). The plane ride itself was about as pleasant as it possibly could have been, for sitting still 16 hours straight. Once we got on the plane the staff dimmed the lights and the guy next to me threw the blanket over his head and started snoring, so I amused myself with the in-flight tv screens. For 16 hours straight. I watched about 4 movies, an entire season of The Middle, two episodes of “Kangxi Laile” (brain…numbed…), learned numbers from 1 to 10 in Cantonese (I now only remember how to say 3 and 5), and played more games of solitaire than is healthy in one sitting. In addition, I was periodically served plane food which was surprisingly decent. It even involved ice cream and cheesecake. Yeah… although my backside started to turn a bit numb around hour 13 of the flight, I definitely can’t complain about the flight.
Getting into Hong Kong was a pretty simple affair, since I booked a room at the hotel airport. I would 100% recommend the Regal Airport hotel. If I had to pick one word to describe it it would be… shiny!
The hotel had a giant open atrium with about 10 restaurants and multiple levels. The staff were nice to me (they even wished me happy birthday when they saw my check in paperwork), and I got upgraded to a nicer room than I had paid for, since they were overbooked on the cheapest rooms. On the internet reviews of the place many had complained that the place was “getting old”, so I expected something around the quality of a Holiday Inn. But that was a lie. This place was swanky. I felt pretty silly with my sweatshirt and backpack standing in line with people in business suits and important-looking-briefcases. All I really did there was sleep… but I slept in style.
The next morning I got up and boarded my flight to Taipei (after visiting the airport Disneyland store of course, because I found that five-hundred times more appealing than stores full of duty free cigarettes and vodka). The flight to Taipei was only an hour, so nothing much to note, other than the fact that the plane was only about 2/3 full, so I had an open seat next to me. Hong Kong and Taipei are also uber-connected, so it was comforting to note that if something happened with one flight, I could just get on the next one to Taipei in about an hour.
When I arrived in Taipei I went through a health scanning machine (complete with a fun video about how we should report ourselves to the authorities if we feel sick within the first two weeks here, as to not spread diseases), immigration, and customs. In all the process took about 10 minutes, not a big deal at all. When I got my luggage and exchanged some money, I came out to a big sign with “National Taiwan University” on it. Which leads me to the next step of my story…
In which I move into my dorm
The volunteers at the airport were very nice, and helped me get a SIM card. We were all advised to get SIM cards at the airport, because getting them within the country is difficult without your ARC (alien resident card), which semester-long exchange students do not need. I met a girl from Korea (the only other exchange student at that time from my terminal), and then got on a bus to campus.
Checking into my dorm was a pretty straightforward process, I just signed a bunch of paperwork, paid my deposit, and wrote down the condition of my room (my room was missing a chair? but they fixed that right away). The only question that stumped me from the paperwork was my blood type. When I asked the girl from Korea why on earth they would ask our blood type, she looked as if I was crazy. I guess in East Asia everyone knows their blood type, so not knowing is the equivalent of not knowing your birthday, or shoe size. So I just put down what I am 70% sure it is, with the hopes that if I ever need surgery here, they will have a more scientific way of checking than my random dorm paperwork.
I really like my dorm. I actually signed up for a cheaper dorm (similar to the older dorms at UW), but I guess demand for that dorm was too high, so they put me in a nicer one.
Although it is expensive compared to my original choice, it is still significantly cheaper than my apartment in Madison, and I even get my own room and bathroom. The dorm is a mixture of international and domestic students- I like that we are integrated. As for the actual dorm facilities, my building has a kitchen/tv room, a study lounge, laundry machines, a ping pong/ billiards room, and a small gym/ workout area. It is also about 10 feet away from 7/11. So yes, I’m a fan. The dorm has more rules than the dorms at UW, which I like. We’re not allowed to have visitors over overnight, we can’t talk loudly after 11 pm, our buildings are separated by gender, and all smoking is prohibited. Our rooms didn’t come with mattresses, but I was able to buy one for about $30 (its thin but comfortable, apparently that is the norm here). And right when I was buying my mattress, I ran into someone who was looking for me.
In which I meet others
Thanks to a complex system of personal connections, mutual friends, and luck, I’ve already made some friends (or at least decent acquaintances) here through Facebook. And lo and behold, as I turned around at the front desk of my dorm, there was P, waiting for me (I have no idea how to handle names on the wide-open-to-the-world-internet, so I’ll just include initials, I guess). I met an American friend of hers, and later we met up with YC, the other girl who I had been in touch with. I honestly don’t know what I would have done without these girls. They spent hours taking me to the supermarket, setting up my computer and teaching me how to use a popular computer application here, taking me out to eat, giving me tours of the area, and even giving me a used phone (thanks YC!). Because of them, I was able to get everything I needed here without difficulty, and I was able to skip the awkward social situation which pretty much dominated the first three months of my freshman year (gah, are we friends? are we not friends? I don’t know…).
In which I attend orientation
That night I woke up to a small earthquake. It wasn’t bad- actually I thought it might have been that I just was sick with jetlag, and therefore the room seemed to be shaking. Apparently it was a level 4 earthquake, with the epicenter right under Taipei. If all earthquakes are like that, I think I will be ok. My second day here I spent all day at the Office of International Affair’s student orientation. The group of international students here is pretty diverse, and I met people from all over the world (except for the mainland Chinese students, who were put into groups together for linguistic and visa-procedures-for-mainland-students-are-super-stringent-and-confusing reasons). In the morning we had a campus tour (there were school sweatshirts for the team with the best group pictures, my team didn’t win, but it was good incentive), followed by lunch and a powerpoint-filled orientation. There was a LONG waiting period during lunch, but it was amusing because the group next to ours had a ukulele, and took the time to hold a sing-along in the hallway. I have no idea why a student brought a ukulele to orientation, but I thoroughly approve. The orientation itself was pretty amusing and very helpful. Plus we got a free school chopstick and spoon set, so as not to kill the environment by using disposable silverware when eating out. After the whole of orientation, I met with P and YC again, continued to ask them a LOT of questions (but the end of this time, I’m pretty sure they were cringing when I asked “how does this work? what does this do?). They were “mothers” in the best of ways.
In which I go on multiple adventures
The next day I paid some fees, waited in some lines, and finally received my student ID. Student IDs are magical here, because they double as “easy cards” or “yoyo cards”- the cards used to pay for buses and the MRT (subway). So, I used my newly obtained card to go on adventure to Nanjing East Road, a large fancy shopping district. The subway itself was clean, fast, and easy to navigate- it’s considered one of the best in the world. I went to Ikea and Nitori, a Japanese store much like Bed Bath and Beyond. If you are curious, Ikea in Taiwan is exactly the same as Ikea in America, which makes sense, considering they are just the same store exported from Sweden. I got a plethora of Ikea-tastic home items, and even some Swedish meatballs to boot. Later on, I met with my “student tutor” and her friend. They decided we should go to Shilin night market- the largest night market in Taipei. I really wanted to enjoy this, but I ended up just being really overwhelmed more than anything. They had me try a lot of different foods, and they were very kind to me, but I felt bad because I was pretty exhausted and my Chinese was deteriorating rapidly. However, they were SUPER sweet and surprised me by taking me to a bakery and buying me a birthday cake, and singing me “Happy Birthday” in both Chinese and English! It was so sweet I started crying just a little. They probably thought I had lost it. My volunteer even gave me a cookoo clock with Taiwanese landmarks on the front as a birthday gift.
In which I almost die, but don’t, and bond with YC in the process
I celebrated the beginning of my Lantern Festival/Valentine’s Day by sleeping for about 12 hours. In the process I think I finally got over my jetlag. After finally waking up, I explored the area by my dorm for a while. I have to walk through 2 streets to get from my dorm to the main campus, and these streets are crammed with shops. Think about if you took about 10 state streets and squeezed them into a very small space. The area has a high ratio of restaurants, coffee shops, and *bookstores* (!). In a different district Taipei has Asia’s largest bookstore (Eslite), which is open 24 hours. I’m thinking I will definitely have to take a visit, as I’ll be in bookworm heaven.
After exploring, I met up with YC to go to a festival which I had been hoping to go to ever since I decided to study in Taiwan- the Sky Lantern Festival in Pingxi. Sky lanterns are made of paper, and when lit underneath they fly, just like a hot air balloon. They’ll be familiar if you’ve ever watched the movie Tangled. Anyway, at this festival, over 1,000 sky lanterns were let off.
However, getting to the festival was not as simple as it could have been. YC got off late from work (it was a big deadline day, so she couldn’t control this at all), so we ended up missing the train we were originally going to take. No big deal, we could just take a free shuttle bus from the MRT station. However, we arrived to the shuttle bus stop about 5 minutes after the last bus had left! Eventually we decided to team up with 4 other people and get a taxi. And this is where things started to go wrong…
The taxi driver’s first words were “will you get carsick?”. For the record, this is not the first thing you want to come out of your taxi driver’s mouth. We had already negotiated a price, about $10 for the hour-long ride, but the taxi driver was convinced it would be better to take a freakishly twisting mountain road to Pingxi instead of the nice, straight, gridlocked highway. He calmly explained that the area would look pretty during the day, while taking corners at about 5 times the speed limit. I swear he saw yield signs and took them as a challenge to speed up. YC and I spent the hour-long-roller-coaster ride with our hand gripped tightly to our seatbelts. I didn’t even turn around to see if our four fellow passengers felt the same way. The driver’s only saving grace seemed to be that he was legitimate- his license was shown clearly in the car- he was just crazy. Thanks-be-to-God we finally did arrive. There is an idea that exists in both English and Chinese that those who experience misfortune together are brought = together closer to it. When we finally got out of the taxi, YC and I hugged each other, hugged the sweet, sweet ground, and decided we were now officially friends.
However, this story does have a good ending. We arrived within 5 minutes of the finale of lanterns being set off. It was, in my opinion, worth it. The white paper turned a deep red as hundreds of lanterns lifted off into the sky together (except for the few which were caught by tree branches and set on fire… sad day). We caught the very last song of the concert, and then went off to buy corndogs (which apparently are a “traditional Taiwanese snack”? It’s like I never left America, haha). Then we took the nice, SAFE, free shuttle bus back home.
In which I take a test
On Saturday, I woke up early to take my Chinese placement test. All in all, it wasn’t bad at all. The test included grammar, writing, reading comprehension, and an oral test. I didn’t do horribly on the written portion, and my oral exam teacher was very kind (she kept asking me if I had really only taken Chinese class for three years, which was very sweet of her). She suggested to me that I take a class in which we read “real” things instead of using a textbook, but assured me if the class was too difficult I could switch levels. In all, the test took a long time, but wasn’t a bad experience.
After the test I ventured out to a stationary store to buy school supplies, since the paper size is different here (therefore papers stick out awkwardly from my American folders). All the school supplies here are very CUTE. Which makes me wonder how males possibly buy notebooks. I bought my notebooks, and went happily on my way.
In which I go to church
After the near-death-taxi-experience, I figured I had better go to church on Sunday. I was really surprised by how many churches are around campus. Christians make up about 10% of the population here, so I thought churches would be few and far between, but nope, they’re everywhere. After a google search the night before, I decided to go to a giant sky-scraper-like-church near campus. According to the bulletin, almost 3,000 people go there every week, and they offered English translation of the service through an earpiece. The church service itself was almost identical with every other service I’ve ever been to, so I guess that doesn’t change across hemispheres.
After the service, a girl about my age came up to me and asked if I was new. She was very nice, and it turned out she was actually from Minnesota. She invited me to her small group, where I met a Korean pastor, and a couple more Americans, one who was even from Green Bay! (it was the “international” small group, but most of the people were still Taiwanese). Afterwards I even joined them to go out to eat. It was nice to find a place that was so welcoming, and to start to get connected here.
In which I go to school
Finally, today I am starting classes. My first class starts in about 45 minutes, and I am both nervous and excited. Being here is like starting freshman year all over again. I’m still really getting used to things. For example, this morning I bought meatball noodles for lunch (success!), but when I arrived to campus and tried to open the container, I spilled soup everywhere, mostly on myself. I was able to clean it up, but now I smell like meatballs. At least the stains dried! I have a feeling that will not be the end of my dorky, awkward encounters with life here.
However, with that said, things are not as different here as I expected they would be. People are
kind, and so far seem pretty similar to people… well… anywhere. No one singles me out or treats me differently, even though sometimes I have difficulties reading things. And the campus itself is very pretty, with gardens and Japanese-era architecture. Some things stick out as very different (people wearing face masks, the million different categories for recycling), but in general the adaptation here hasn’t been too extremely difficult. For now, I am going to ride the initial excitement of being here, and try my best to explore as much as I can. I feel very lucky to be here, and for all the kindness others have shown me. Now it’s simply up to me to adapt to life here. And for food-loving, book-loving, school-loving me, this seems like a good area to adapt to.
Heading out of the library, off to class.