Is studying in Taiwan worth it?
I write this blog post from my desk, snug in my office at Florida Tech. I am finally home after spending three weeks in Taiwan as part of the Study Abroad: Taiwan program, where I studied Chinese intensively at Tunghai University.
The question I am most commonly greeted with at my return is, “Was it worth it?” I find this question hard to answer quickly. I am fortunate enough to have had prior study abroad experience—earlier this summer I participated in the European Study Abroad: The Netherlands program for Global Strategic Communication. I also completed my first Master’s degree at Trinity College, Dublin, and lived in Ireland for one year. I have studied, travelled, or lived in Ireland, The Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Italy, and Belgium—that is why I feel comfortable giving an opinion about the study abroad experience. So, the short answer in my quasi-expert opinion, was studying in Taiwan worth it? A thousand times YES!
What makes Taiwan different from other Study Abroad experiences?
Everything. America was settled predominately by Europeans, so even though there are differences between American and European culture, we spring from European roots and share many common ideas and values. Studying in Taiwan is entirely a different experience than Europe. Comfort foods you are used to don’t exist; meals and snacks are a culture of their own in Taiwan. While in Europe, Americans can blend in if we keep our mouths shut and wear the right clothes. In Taiwan, I was conspicuously American no matter how I dressed or how accented my Chinese was—there is no moment of the day when you can simply “blend in.” It is complete cultural immersion because at every point of the day, you are confronted with something new.
What are the biggest challenges to studying in Taiwan?
Illiteracy. Very, very, very little is translated into English, so even ordering at a restaurant is impossible because the entire menu often is entirely in Chinese and has no pictures. Fortunately, as part of the study abroad program, we had a constant Taiwanese companion to help us navigate through daily life, but not being able to read anything was intimidating and could get frustrating. It was also the most rewarding mark of progress, however, as by our final day we could start recognizing words. 你好! Which I now can read as “hello!” (“ni hao!).
What was different than I was expecting?
Taiwan is much, much safer than I was expecting. Knowing that we would be in a large city on the other side of the planet conjured images of seedy streets and human trafficking. At no point in the entire three weeks did I ever feel even remotely unsafe or find myself in a sketchy situation—I wish I could say as much for three weeks in the US! Also, I was surprised to learn that Taiwan has a thriving night culture. Students are at school until 4 or 5pm, and then attend cram school (voluntary classes in important skills, like English or piano) until 9 or 10pm—it is really only after school for the day that people have time to socialize and unwind.
Most stores are open until well into the night hours, and night markets thrive in most cities. The toilets were also something I was not expecting—generally it is BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper), and mostly they are—horror of horrors—squat toilets.
Lastly, because Taiwan is in Asia, I naively associated it with the thousands and thousands of years old history we commonly learn about China, Korea, and Japan (for example, the first dynasty in China was over 4,000 years ago). I was flabbergasted to discover that Taiwan was really only settled in the 16th century by immigrants from Mainland China. In comparison with China and Europe, Taiwan and the US are baby countries. It was like finding a long-lost sister country, discovering that we are both the new kids on the block together. I recognize the same pioneer spirit in both of our countries.
What was my favorite part?
Hands down the people—they are the nicest people as a whole I have ever encountered. I must admit that my opinion on this part arises from the fact that I fell in love with Taiwan as much as they fell in love with me: every day we were treated like VIPs, and everything we did was complemented on enthusiastically (“I love the sound of your voice,” “I love your nose,” “You hold your chopsticks so prettily,”). I was literally told that I was beautiful over one hundred times one day, and often asked to pose for pictures with people on the street. Restaurants would send over free food, and shop owners would automatically give us discounts. Little kids on the street would give me stickers.
Because Westerners are uncommon in many places in Taiwan, the people you meet are 1) interested in meeting a “real foreigner!” and 2) eager to make a good impression. Moreover, they have a culture where respecting your fellow person is essential; therefore, in my opinion, they are much nicer as a whole.
The final say…
Was Taiwan worth it? Yes, yes, yes! I am going to start saving my pennies so I can visit my new friends as soon as I can!