Living Abroad in Taiwan for three months: unexpected realizations I’ve had during my time abroad

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With only two weeks left in Taiwan (we’re on week 11/12 of CET’s language-intensive semester), my friend Avery asked me last night: “What is one thing you’re not going to miss about Taiwan?” Between the two of us, we had difficulty finding things we didn’t like about living abroad in Taiwan. Compared to a “traditional American” study-abroad experience (which, in my opinion, most Americans choose to study abroad in Europe), adjusting and living in Taiwan has not been difficult– and instead has been a more magical experience than I anticipated three months ago.

When I first came to Taiwan three months ago, I was scared about adjusting to a Mandarin-exclusive environment, missing my home community, and making friends with local Taiwanese people. Since coming here, all of my “scary” expectations did not come true, and instead, I found joy in so many simple things (like struggling to order from Mandarin-only menus, walking on my street and finding some of the best food of my life, having funny conversations with locals, biking everywhere, walking at night). Compared to my home community in the US, I have more freedom in Taipei to travel to different cities in Taiwan (because public transportation is amazing here), eating out at restaurants and cafes is more accessible (as they are often very cheap), and I’m challenged to practice my Mandarin with locals every day. For the past three months, I feel like I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the “struggle” of day-to-day life.

One of the most unexpected parts of living abroad/participating in CET’s study abroad experience has been creating meaningful friendships with other Americans. Although CET’s program is not a language-pledge program, I believe it takes a certain kind of person to willingly give up everything they know for three months and go halfway across the world to learn Mandarin in Taiwan. Many of the students who are studying Mandarin with CET are high-achieving scholars, with many people applying/being awarded prestigious scholarships like the Boren, Gilman, Fulbright, Freeman Asia, CLS, or the Huayu. Thus, students here are very supportive of helping other students apply for fellowships or scholarships, and we have encouraged each other to continue pursuing opportunities in Asia abroad. I’ve enjoyed meeting people who are passionate about learning Mandarin abroad (as my school has a limited community of people learning Mandarin), and I’ve had a lot of deep, meaningful conversations with people about our investments in Mandarin learning.

As a result of CET’s random housing selection, I’ve become really close with all my roommates and a group of three Americans. Although I didn’t know where I would live until I landed in Taiwan (which initially caused me a lot of anxiety), CET assigned me an apartment near Taipei 101. I have the type of personality where I can pretty much get along with anyone, but CET did a fantastic job of creating my 6-person house– as we all have similar interests and like to explore and travel. Initially, in the first two weeks, I spent a lot of time with my housemates (as most of us have morning classes, and we would all eat lunch and dinner together after classes), but we individually branched out and found people who also aligned with our interests. Luckily, the people I became friends with also lived on my street, and we often walked home together from classes/ studied together at each other’s homes. The three Americans I became close to was Caroline (one of my housemates, from the South who goes to school at Furman), Avery (from the East Coast, goes to school in Denver), and Emily (originally from Xinjiang, moved to Nevada in middle school and now goes to school in D.C). Because we’re all from different parts of the US, we have different lived experiences, but we all share a lot in common.

Over the past three months, each person has taught me an important lesson that has unexpectedly changed my outlook on life. Because Caroline is my housemate, we have shared many meals and discussed many things into late hours of the night— all of which have changed my understanding of American politics, the American South, and how Cheerleading is another form of drag. Before meeting Caroline, I hadn’t met anyone from the South (because I’ve lived in California and Michigan for most of my life) and had common stereotypes that Northern people have of the South. Listening to Caroline’s stories of what poverty looks like in the American South or being able to talk with someone who understands the Israel-Palestine-abroad conflict was refreshing, and I wasn’t expecting to have constant soul-nourishing conversations/insightful conversations when I first moved abroad.

I first met Emily through mutually applying for the Fulbright, and we bonded over how complicated the process was. As the week went on, I learned that we both had a “bucket list” of things we wanted to do in Taiwan— and we both sat down and started to fill our calendars with places we wanted to go in Taiwan. I was drawn to Emily’s go-get-it attitude (as we both prioritize traveling, and like to “make” things happen), and we bonded over our similar outlooks on life, lived experiences, and laughing loudly over silly jokes. For three months, Emily and I have traveled a lot, and she has encouraged my Mandarin learning through English-Chinese jokes. Emily has taught me not to take life so seriously (I can hear her laugh in my head as I write this) and to find joy in simple pleasures (like eating a good cake, taking a good nap, and taking funny pictures). She has also pushed me academically to continue pursuing opportunities in Asia after CET, and has helped me find additional fellowships to apply to.

Avery and I share many things in common, but we first connected over our passion for photography and adventure. We happened to be in a lot of similar groups together (Avery first became friends with my housemate Ming, we live on the same street, and Emily, Avery, and I all would travel together), and as time went on, we learned we have similar music taste, art, humor, and outlooks on life. Avery encouraged me to be goofy in public (through our mutual MRT silent disco concerts), sing loudly, and allowed me to be vulnerable, sharing mutual experiences. Through Avery, I regained my interest in photography (as I brought my camera to Taiwan, but barely took any pictures until this week), and together, we’ve encouraged each other’s artistic lenses.

Through Avery, Emily, and Caroline, I’ve started to look at returning home through different lenses– and I can see myself living long-term beyond the boundaries of the United States. Through our friendship, Avery, Emily, Caroline, and I have encouraged each other to pursue opportunities that will challenge us and further our understanding of ourselves and our professional careers. I am very thankful for this experience, as I have gained lifelong friends who will continue to support me in the US and beyond. Even after CET’s program, I am excited to have new places to visit (Denver, Colorado, and the South) to continue learning about my friends beyond the space of Taiwan.