Tips for Taiwan

Before actually travelling, it’s always a great idea to accumulate a good list of tips in order to assure that you will encounter the least amount of problems during your time abroad. Of course, it’s important to use all of Wofford’s International Programs resources and the resources of the program you apply to, but it pays to do outside research. Searching up videos and news articles of the country you’re going to visit is an excellent way to get real time information on how your life will look for the next couple of months.

One tip that I believe is extremely important for living in Taiwan is about money. This society relies heavily on cash. Credit cards and Apple Pay obviously can be used in more commercialized settings, however, if you plan on getting a more authentic experience of the culture and eat out at more family owned restaurants, cash is usually the only way to pay. I was aware of this before leaving, but I did not know to what extent I would have to actually rely on cash. For those who accidentally miss this memo could find themselves in a troublesome spot if their cards don’t tend to work overseas. Therefore, tip #1 is to always check which form of pay is widely used in the country you plan to go to.

Some things are free, like this dinosaur museum.

Tip #2 pertains to language. Most who travel abroad tend to know or are studying the language of the country they are visiting, however, if that is not the case, it is highly recommended to download the google translate app. Especially for languages that don’t have Romanized letters, the google translate app can easily translate words you can not understand, simply by taking a picture of the words. This came in handy at restaurants when the menu was completely in Mandarin Chinese.

Favorite breakfast spot.

Tip #3; really pay attention to the type of weather your chosen country experiences each month. This can really affect how you pack and how much you pack. I typically wear hoodies and pants back home, however, Taiwan is still currently in the 80s in the middle of November. This was another tip I was aware of, but still did not pack accordingly. Not only are most of clothes not suitable for the hot, rainy and humid weather, but I also overpacked because of them. So, remember that your everyday clothing could change drastically while abroad due to the weather.

Always have in umbrella in Taiwan.

Home away from Home

As an African American woman, one must factor in the knowledge of which places to travel to and which ones will be more difficult to navigate, especially if you are more or less travelling alone. Luckily, here in Taiwan, I feel that my identity is accepted and welcomed without second thoughts. Within Taiwan, western foreigners in general are small in numbers, and an even smaller section of that are African American. Despite western media having control of how the rest of the world views us, I believe that tolerance and acceptance of the unknown in Taiwan is very high. To many Taiwanese people, I am most likely one of the first African Americans they have seen in real life, therefore I have the ability to leave a wonderful first impression with them, regardless if it is my responsibility to do so or not. Many of my new Taiwanese friends are curious about my culture just as much as I am about theirs, so it is a wonderful opportunity for them to ask me about mine while I experience theirs. Because of this new environment, it is quite obvious to me the differences between how the US interacts with my culture and how Taiwan interprets it.

My roommate and Language partner.

Speaking specifically to being American, I believe that it has come with its own unpredictable perks. Some locals love the idea of America and being able to make friends that are from there because they would love to visit one day or just want to learn American English and slang to seem cooler to their friends here. It also gives us some points that we can speak mandarin very well, often leading to local Taiwanese becoming very happy and excited when we study and appreciate their language.

Bowling with new Taiwanese friends.

As the first person of my immediate family to travel this far, regardless of academics, I was prepared to deal with more stress and unforeseen challenges related to my identity than I’ve actually faced in the three months that I’ve been in Taiwan. Despite being this outlier in the majority, I believe that this experience has led me to embrace my culture even more and understand who I am as a person while giving me a sense of home away from home.

My roommates and language partner eating hot pot.

Walk off the Stress

Choosing to study in a different country that you’ve never been to is already stressing enough, so choosing a country that’s literally on the other side of the earth just adds even more. Luckily, I have some pretty good roommates and teachers who understand and empathize with the everyday struggles we go through. Because of this, I’ve been able to find a couple of ways to clear my mind when days get monotonous.

Taipei is a very large city that was built for walking, so my first and favorite way to de-stress is to go on walks. Whether that’s with my friends or alone, I feel much better after getting some fresh air and seeing all the stores and restaurants near my apartment that I can eventually visit. There are also plenty of temples in and around Taipei that offer me plenty of opportunities to get in some steps. Most are in the mountains with hilly terrain and have hundreds of stairs inside, so they are the perfect areas to visit for exercise if hitting the gym isn’t your cup of tea.

Wuji Tianyuan Temple in Tamsui, Taiwan. Look at all those stairs.
More scenery from the Wuji Tianyuan Temple.

Another plus of living in Taipei that helps to alleviate some stress, is seeing all of the adorable pets that people have. Pet culture here is very different than where I’m from in America. Most people here tend to have smaller dogs, but every now and then their are some large dogs that you don’t expect to see. Because of Taiwan’s hot and humid weather, most people tend to buy carriages for their dogs to ride in and get fresh air instead of letting them walk on the hot asphalt. This means my roommates and I get to regularly ask people to pet their pups. Not only are pets abundant in the city, but it is also very common to see temple dogs, which are just random dogs who do not belong to anyone, but the community around the temple tends to the dog and they occasionally live in the temple.

Wuji Tianyuan Temple dog.

Mandarin (But not the orange)

Coming to Taiwan in order to learn Mandarin Chinese is an experience that I never could have imagined for myself when I was younger, but it’s gladly working out in my favor. However, it is admittedly not an easy journey. Back home, I’ve been learning Chinese from a mainland, Beijing perspective. If you know anything about the Chinese spoken in China, you’d know that their are 10 different dialects of Chinese, many that are so different that they have been considered their own languages. The Chinese spoken on Taiwan is arguably just as different. Of course, I can communicate and understand well enough in order to live comfortably day-to-day, and I’ve improved much more since the first week, but it’s quite obvious to local Taiwanese that I was not taught their version of Chinese once I speak and use a Beijing accent and colloquial phrases. Therefore, I believe the most challenging aspect of this language immersion program is the subtle differences between the dialects of Chinese and knowing which ones to use in certain situations.

The Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall

Despite this minor roadblock, my Chinese has greatly improved and I have gained a better understanding of linguistics and traditional Chinese. Not only do I get the three hour class of spoken Chinese everyday, but I also get the opportunity to have a language exchange partner and practice my Chinese while making a lifelong, local friend. Speaking of the three hour class, the typical class period for most college students at NTU is in fact three hours per period. Multiply that by two or three more classes and you have a workload that is infamous for how stressful it is. In fact, the academic culture here compared to the U.S is rigorous beyond belief. With a high population, competition to get into the best schools and jobs is always at its highest, therefore, it’s rather normal to see junior high and high school kids going to “cram school” right after their regular school for 3+ more hours in order to get better grades.

The National Opera House and National Concert Hall at the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall
A better view

A Day at NTU

My typical school morning usually starts at 6:30am, which is significantly earlier than I wake up back in the states. After getting ready, I finish up any homework or studying before heading out to make the long journey to school. For breakfast, me and my roommates stop at a small, yet incredibly delicious bakery across the street from our apartment. Next, we take about 9 minutes to walk to the subway and take the brown line from Nanjing Fuxing (南京复兴) to Keji Dalou (科技大楼). Once we exit the subway station, we take another 15 minutes to complete our walk to National Taiwan University. I have afternoon classes, so I actually start school at 12pm and finish at 3pm. After classes finish, we like to grab a snack from the student activity center, typically some type of dumplings. Once we return to our apartment, my roommates and I typically chat about our class content for the day and work on some of our homework. It starts to get dark around 6pm here in Taiwan, so once we finish some work, we like to go out and explore during the night. Taiwan is even more lively at night, so we never feel out of place when walking around so late. Recently, we’ve had the opportunity to visit many night markets and temples. The atmosphere of the night markets is like walking into another universe within Taiwan, filled with all different types of sounds and delicious smells from traditional Taiwanese snacks.

The Ciyou Temple (松山慈祐宫), just outside the Raohe Night Market (饶河夜市).
The entrance to Raohe Night Market (饶河夜市)

One of our new Taiwanese friends invited us to the Raohe Night Market (饶河夜市: Rao2 He2 Ye4 Shi4) recently and introduced us to new foods such as stinky tofu (臭豆腐: Chou4 Dou4 Fu3), ribs stewed in medicinal herbs (药炖排骨: Yao4 Dun4 Pai2 Gu3), papaya milk (木瓜牛奶: Mu4 Gua1 Niu2 Nai3), and Taiwanese fire and ice dumplings (桂花芝麻汤圆: Gui4 Hua1 Zhi1 Ma2 Tang1 Yuan2). The fire and ice dumplings had sesame and peanut paste inside and the ice surrounding the dumplings also had a sweet flavor.

The fire and ice dumplings (桂花芝麻汤圆) look plain, but they were very sweet.

This entire experience has completely changed my daily routine from when I was in America. Mostly because I now have more free time than usual, but also because I am pushing myself to be more adventurous while I have this opportunity. Back home, I would probably spend all of my time in my dorm doing homework, and maybe go out on the weekend, but I’ve made a 180 from my previous lifestyle here.

Another temple we passed on a night walk.
A Chinese Guardian Lion that we saw (石狮: Shi2 Shi1)

Hello, Taiwan! (你好台湾!)

In today’s travel culture, some countries have relaxed a little, and allow travelers to enter and leave as they please, despite the ongoing problem of Covid. However, Taiwan is not one of those places. My first 7 days in Taiwan were spent in a very nice hotel, situated in the middle of Beitou; a city just northwest of Taipei. Most of that time was spent people watching and speed-running through orientation over zoom. The view of the mountains also helped relieve some of my boredom.

The view from my quarantine hotel in Beitou.

We finally escaped our quarantine on September 1, which was also the first day of in person classes. I’m currently living with 4 other amazing students in an apartment off campus. Even though the commute to National Taiwan University is a 30 minute journey (including the subway), the location of our apartment is very convenient. We’re surrounded by the culture and language in a way that forces us to act as if we were locals; an experience that would have been watered down if we lived closer to the center of Taipei.

Our apartment is right above a hot pot restaurant.

The weather here is nothing I’ve experienced. I thought South Carolina had unbearably hot summers, but Taiwan’s humidity has it beat. Not only that, but it rains everyday. Everyone carries an umbrella here because the rain comes with no warning. Despite that and the heat, there is surprisingly not a lot of harsh sunlight, which is great for those who don’t like to wear sunglasses. Because of the humidity and heat, a lot of people wear linen type clothing or anything that flows.

This is how most women dress daily.

The main difference that I’ve noticed in terms of society, is how independent young people are, especially with transportation. There are even elementary school kids who walk to and from school by themselves with no problems. Another big difference, which is somewhat an inconvenience for me, is the wide usage of paper and coin money. In America, most people have transitioned to using debit and credit cards, but Taiwan is still big on using actual cash. I struggle carrying all of the coins. Hopefully, I’ll use them up buying nice souvenirs.

Did I pack too much?

Ever since I could remember, I’ve always wanted to travel to the other side of the world. Of course, the natural pathway to achieving that goal was to eventually apply for a study abroad during college. Currently, my major is Chinese language, and one of the requirements for that degree is to study abroad in a country whose main language is Mandarin Chinese, which fit perfectly into my dream plan.

I haven’t arrived yet, so please enjoy this photo of Taipei, Taiwan from Google.

However, being able to have this experience was not won easily. Due to the outbreak of Covid-19, my original plans of travelling the spring semester of my junior year were utterly destroyed and I eventually had to reschedule. I also had to deal with the hard decision of either completing courses on Wofford’s campus which would fulfill the requirement, or pick an area that was not my first choice. I originally chose either Beijing or Shanghai, but visas were no longer being issued. Not long after, I eventually chose to go study in Taiwan. I didn’t know much about this country at the time, other than the ominous things we hear in the news about its relationship with China. Despite this uncertainty, I knew I had to take this last opportunity I was presented, and I’m very happy that I did. The program I chose has been running smoothly so far and I’ve even been able to communicate with other students on the program, which puts my mind at ease.

As of right now, I’m not actually nervous, which is a big surprise, even to me. I think I’m at a point in my life where I’m just ready to get out and explore things I will never get the chance to explore here at home. However, I am a little anxious about my luggage. I honestly cannot tell if I packed way too much, or if I didn’t pack enough at all, but I can fix that once I get there.

Did I pack too much?

What I’m mostly looking forward to is honestly the food. I love food, a lot, especially hotpot and Boba. I believe I might spend all my money solely on the food and not have enough for souvenirs. Other than that, I’m really excited just to experience a culture that is different from America’s and to meet new people who can teach me new things. After this experience, I hope that my Chinese language proficiency will exceed even my expectations. I also believe that my work ethic and ability to adapt to any environment will improve greatly with this opportunity, as well as my social skills. In the end, I’m grateful that I will be fulfilling one of my life long goals while gaining valuable lessons.

A very good textbook series for those wanting to learn Chinese on their own.