Bryan in Taipei: Final Thoughts and Reflections

December 30, 2018

For my final post, I’ve decided to only include pictures from Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. since it was very close to my apartment in Taipei and I passed through it every day. On my last night in Taiwan, I went there to watch the sunset and the flag-lowering ceremony, which seemed a fitting ending to my semester abroad. Keeping that in mind, I wanted to use my final post to reflect on my experience and what it’s taught me.

palm trees

Palm Trees alongside the lake that’s within the memorial grounds

I ultimately decided to study abroad in Taiwan because I was drawn to the relative independence of the program and its allure towards Chinese learners who already had several years of language study under their belt. In these two regards, the program lived up to my expectations. Given the structure of the classes being once a week for 3 hour sessions, I found myself with a great deal of free time even when taking 5 classes overall. For this reason I would not recommend the program to those only at the basic or intermediate levels yet serious about learning Chinese, unless they opt for the Intensive Mandarin track and are willing to stay throughout the entirety of the semester (from September to mid-January). The vast majority of my learning came from immersion outside of the classroom, which is easier for higher levels. In fact, any study abroad program – especially one with as much autonomy as this – is as intensive and immersive as you make it (in terms of language learning). This became far more apparent to me during my time in Taiwan.

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The main memorial hall building. Inside is a large statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen somewhat reminiscent of the Lincoln memorial.

One thing I was surprised to find was just how different several aspects of living in Taiwan versus Mainland China were. Though China in the past two to three decades has undergone rapid modernization and development, it did not seem as widespread and, frankly, Westernized as Taiwan. This could be for any number of reasons, be it comparative size, governance and policies, etc., but Taipei was a city with all kinds of Western influences present. I was even more surprised by the pervasive Japanese influence. Having just studied in Northeast China the summer before, it was immediately apparent how markedly different the sentiment towards the Japanese was in that region versus in Taiwan. The latter seems to welcome cultural, technological, and other influences from Japan quite openly, while I noticed a bit of animosity still lingering in China in some regards. Learning about these distinctions and attempting to unwrap cultural identities within Taiwan, China, and Japan was a major part of my experience. I also learned far more about China than I had expected, which is invaluable for me as a Chinese Studies major.

ancient characters scroll

A scroll featuring ancient Chinese characters. Rotating art and culture exhibits are located inside the 2nd and 3rd floors of the memorial.

 

No matter where you go, studying abroad will place you in a new environment completely different from Richmond and teach you a lot about yourself in the process. I learned how to cook for myself and plan my meals entirely on my own, though in a grander sense I also learned how to navigate in unknown and unpredictable environments and became a far better traveler. This is my 3rd study abroad experience, and each one has taught me something different about the host country and about myself. On my first two trips, I was the only student from UR, and on this one there was only one classmate and close friend also in the program. While not being around many other students from UR is not at all necessary to have a meaningful and impactful experience, it nonetheless pushed me to further breach my comfort zone and establish new friendships and connections along the way that I otherwise might not have sought out as openly. Studying abroad isn’t all easy and things will undoubtedly be frustrating and difficult, but it’s something totally worth it if given the opportunity, regardless of it’s whether its for academic reasons or to experience a new culture.

flag ceremony

After sunset, I stumbled upon soldiers performing a ceremonial flag lowering ceremony. I am not sure if this is done daily, but it was a nice last-memory of the memorial.

I want to say thank you for reading my posts throughout the semester and allowing me to share different aspects of my abroad experience. I’d encourage people to look into Taipei and other less-mainstream study abroad options because living abroad for 3-4 months is not something most have the opportunity to do and choosing to immerse yourself in a completely different culture has lots of amazing benefits. I’m excited to take my perspective back to Richmond and hear all about others’ time abroad as well.

Bryan


Bryan in Taipei: Taiwan’s Natural Beauty

December 28, 2018
view from plane

Mountains of Taiwan from Above

One aspect of my time in Taiwan that has continued to surprise me is its natural beauty. Not necessarily in the white-sand beaches, tropical island sort of way, but in its mountainous and jungle landscapes that I otherwise wouldn’t have associated with a small island. I was not expecting such an abundance of options for outdoors activities or such well-preserved park systems open to the public. During my time there, I was able to go hiking, biking, snorkeling, and more, all easily quite inexpensive and accessible via public transport. With the weather for the most part remaining warm throughout my time there, I had plenty of opportunities to escape the big-city life, even, paradoxically, while remaining in the city limits. Taipei did an excellent job at designating parks for the public and creating large zones for recreational activities and hiking/bike trails.

yangmingshan national park

Yangmingshan National Park

Yangmingshan (陽明山) National Park was located directly north of the city and offered all kinds of activities – including hot springs – for solo and group visitors. From waterfalls to wild water-buffalo, the park was filled with interesting things to do and see that I would not expect from somewhere such a short metro and bus ride away from the city.

dragon cave

Dragon Cave

I also enjoyed Dragon Cave (龍洞) on the eastern coast of the island. We went at the end of November when the water was pretty chilly, but still decided to go snorkeling and saw a lot of fish. There were some really impressive rock formations as well and, since it was off-season for tourists, the place was completely empty. This was in many ways the perfect day trip from Taipei and one that few people really know about.

lion's head mountain

Lion’s Head Mountain view at sunset

Lion’s Head Mountain (獅頭山) was definitely a spontaneous, day-before kind of decision, but I’m glad I went and, once again, surprised it isn’t more well-known. At this spot, Buddhist temples line the central mountains and are interconnected by hiking trails. It was interesting to see real Buddhist monasteries that were self-contained and secluded from most of society. Some temples were modernized while others kept to traditional styles.

These three sites are just a small sampling of natural beauty in Taiwan, which is far more extensive than simply Taroko Gorge and Sun Moon Lake. The best part that is probably unrivaled in most other places in the world is the fact that the entire island can be traveled with relative ease by public transport, making it that much easier to take a day trip from Taipei or a long weekend around the island. For anyone interested in studying abroad in Asia, this is definitely something that stands out and makes the experience that much more engaging.

Bryan


Bryan in Taipei: Night Markets

December 6, 2018
Japanese Food Stand

A Japanese food stand at the Tonghua Street night market, one of the more local ones in Taipei

One of my favorite parts of living in Taipei is the food, and there’s nowhere better to find good late-night food than in one of the city’s many night markets. These night markets are spread throughout the city and typically busiest on the weekends. You’ll find traditional Taiwanese food, a smattering of food from other countries (mainly Japan, Korea, and Vietnam), and all kinds of snacks.

Taiwanese Hamburger

Taiwanese hamburger (掛包 guàbāo), a popular snack made with a steamed bun, pork, pickled vegetables, peanuts, and cilantro. I actually had to get a second one because I ate it too fast and forget to take a picture!

Celebrated by tourists and locals alike, night markets offer a fusion of local and foreign flavors that can’t be matched by visiting a single restaurant alone. One thing that I appreciate about living here is that, at least in general, food safety seems to be less of a concern than it can be in places like mainland China or Thailand. That being said, you can be as adventurous as you want, with choices ranging from fried dough sticks (油條) and egg cake/quiche (蛋餅) to octopus and the infamous stinky tofu. One thing I’ve learned is genuinely how difficult it can be deciding what to eat when there are so many different smells, stands, and options, but that’s one of the things that’s best about these markets – you can keep coming back for more.

Tonghua Night Market

While it’s widely considered a great location if your apartment is located near a metro stop, I would also add living near a night market to this list. Like metro stops, there are plenty of them throughout Taipei and some bigger and busier than others, but having access to these is a great way to satisfy cravings for street food while also seeing and interacting with such a bustling and extraordinary environment. Whether it’s the more popular ones like Shilin or something a little more modest, night markets are really one of the things that make this city special and something I’ll miss when I go back to the U.S.

Wonton Soup

Wonton (餛飩 húndùn) Soup

Bryan


Bryan (not) in Taipei: Borneo!

November 26, 2018

During an extended weekend in November, I had the chance to visit the island of Borneo. The island is shared by three countries – Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia – and is the third largest island in the world; I visited the Malaysian part in Sabah. This was easily one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been and it taught me a lot about this island’s unique history and fusion of peoples and cultures.

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Sabah City Mosque at dawn.

Though I traveled to the island during rainy season (which is not too different from Taipei’s), I lucked-out with the weather since it only rained the first day and second night I was there, giving me plenty of time to explore the city of Kota Kinabalu and the nearby islands, jungle, river, etc. As soon as I arrived, I realized how great a deal of multiculturalism was present, with a mix of Malay, Indian, Chinese, local indigenous, and other groups all present in the city and living together, eating together, and so on and so forth. I also saw the profound Muslim influence in Malaysia, with the Islamic Call to Prayer played publicly multiple times a day, wide array of halal food available in restaurants, and other cultural markers such as dress, though also saw many Catholic churches and other religious representation. Food was a brilliant mix of different cultures and local ingredients. The baozi 包子 I tried in a local Chinese restaurant easily rivaled and in my opinion surpassed those I’ve had in both Northern China and Taiwan.

hillside.png

A local home located on a hillside in an indigenous village in the jungle, about a 90 minutes drive from Kota Kinabalu.

As a student of Linguistics, I was quite impressed by the level of multilingualism on the island. I was told that in Sabah alone there were 72 languages spoken (likely including dialects) and most people living there could speak at least 2-3 languages fluently. At Chinese restaurants and stores, I ordered in Mandarin and no one batted an eye. British historical influence was also quite present. Cars drove on the left side of the road and English was very widely spoken, even among the older generations. Beyond the city, I was also able to travel to the more remote countryside areas of Sabah and see local life and industry. Coffee and tea – two of my favorite things arguably – were both locally grown and quite good. I heard several different opinions on Malaysia’s place in the world and learned of the rivalry between East and West Malaysia.

rafting

Whitewater rafting on the Kiulu River in Sabah.

Borneo seemed to offer it all in terms of things to do, with outdoor activities ranging from snorkeling in the crystal-clear oceans to rafting in the river to hiking in the vast swath of jungle landscape, though it still did not seem overrun by tourists (yet?) or otherwise inauthentic in any way. Malaysia itself is a relatively large country that varies so much from places like Kuala Lumpur to Penang, so any one thing shouldn’t be expected, but this trip offered me a much deeper insight into this cultural melting pot that admittedly I wasn’t fully expecting. In my case, leaving Taiwan helped me see it in a slightly different light upon returning, which is something everyone should keep in mind when studying abroad.

zipline

Zipline from Gaya island to Sapi island, which is the longest island-to-island zipline in the world.

Bryan


Bryan in Taipei: Public Transportation and Daily Commute

November 8, 2018

Out of almost any city I’ve visited, Taipei has to have one of the best public transportation infrastructures in terms of both efficiency and convenience. While the roads can still get pretty jam-packed with traffic – especially with all of the motorbikes riding around – a significant amount of people in the city rely on public transportation. The city’s metro system, the MRT, is extremely clean and almost never late, running from around 6am to midnight everyday. The highest fare runs no more than $2USD, so it’s very affordable as well. There’s also the public buses, which are even cheaper and still very convenient. Like any city, rush hour means it can get very crowded, though this typically will only last several stops. It continues to amaze me that, even when it’s crowded, many Taiwanese people will leave the ‘priority seats’ open for the elderly, disabled, and pregnant passengers to sit. This is an attitude and level of respect that I’ve seen in several other respects here as well and one that is deeply linked to Confucian tradition. Much like the Japanese, queuing to the right side of the escalator and allowing people to pass on the left is also widely practiced here and lets you move at whatever pace you want. In fact, I’ve noticed that, even though Taipei is a relatively big city, people here are still fairly relaxed and not constantly rushing or jaywalking like in other cities.

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Taipei MRT on the Wenhua Brown Line

My commute to school each day is about 40 minutes depending on traffic. While this may sound like a lot, it is surprisingly pretty manageable given I only have class three days a week due to the 3 hour once-a-week class structure. I have several options for getting there, though I typically choose to ride the bus directly. This costs between $0.50-$1.00USD depending on which bus I take. With no transfers and some time to kill, I often use this time to listen to music, podcasts, or even do some reading, so it passes pretty quickly. I’ve found that the trade-off for living off-campus is living more directly in the city and engaging with the community in a wholly different way than by living in a school dorm. In this apartment, I have a Taiwanese flatmate with whom I practice my Chinese (in fact, he speaks English well but will only answer in Chinese), a friend from Richmond also on semester exchange, and one other roommate from Europe. Our apartment is located conveniently next to a metro stop, so I can reach anywhere in the city in about an hour at most. This has meant exploring the city has been a lot more accessible on weekends, on top of discovering new restaurants, parks, and other places.

Though it certainly wasn’t easy starting off, living like this in Taipei has given me more autonomy and independence than I’ve ever had and has helped me decide what I like most and least about living in a city, my living and spending habits, and other useful information that will teach me a lot after I graduate, too. I’m fortunate enough to have had other experiences abroad where I got to live in both a student apartment and with a host family, so I would say each has its own perks and each gave me different perspectives and insights. I’d encourage anyone studying or traveling abroad for extended periods to look into finding ways to engage with the culture and the community that are somewhat more unorthodox, like taking language/calligraphy/cooking classes and/or finding locals to help you get out of your comfort zone. I think what I’ve realized most of all is any experience like this is completely what you make of it, which is both a heavy responsibility and a fantastic opportunity.

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People ride mopeds/motorbikes like this all over the city. To make it safer for everyone, there are special rules for these riders to follow, but they’ll still often go beside buses and cars trying to pass!

Bryan


Bryan in Taipei: Expat Community & Elections

November 5, 2018

Dog and Flag

One thing that has surprised me during my time here is the representation of different countries from the expat community. In terms of students at my university, the vast majority of exchange students are from European countries, with the occasional American or Canadian as well. This helps create a different kind of abroad experience where I’m not just surrounded by other Americans, but get a whole range of different perspectives instead. Outside of school, most of the Americans I have met are English teachers and businessmen. The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) – the diplomatic and cultural exchange body of the US in Taiwan – hosted a ‘Town Hall’ event for American citizens staying here, which allowed me to hear from many different kinds of Americans living all over Taiwan. It struck me as quite strange at the time that this was the first time in several months where everyone in the room was American. Even during my other times abroad in the mainland or otherwise, I was always surrounded by a group of Americans from the program or group, so living without that has been eye-opening and has probably given me a more enriching experience overall as well.

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Town Hall hosted by AIT for US citizens at an American school in Taipei

Everyone attending this town hall was also reminded to make sure to vote in the November midterm elections. Though my requested absentee ballot never came by mail, I was able to get a Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot from the town hall to mail in and ensure I can still vote in my state. It’s also election season in Taipei, so there are ads and political rallies all over town. The mayor of the city, Ko Wen-je, has recently received a lot of Western press coverage from his music video with a popular Taiwanese rapper (look it up, it’s actually pretty catchy). It’s really interesting seeing how elections pan out somewhere other than your own community/country and seeing people’s passion. This city continues to surprise me with how modern and livable it is – American cities could even learn a thing or two from it.

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Local political rally in front of Taipei City Hall


Bryan in Taipei: Monkeys and Mazu

October 22, 2018

The title of this post should actually be ‘Bryan in Tainan’ since that’s the trip that inspired me to write this. Tainan is a city in southern Taiwan (the “南” (nán) in its Chinese name, “台南” (táinán), means south) known for its history and culture from the Qing Dynasty. I also visited its southern neighbor, Kaosiung (高雄), on the recommendation of a mountain there with scores of wild monkeys. Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed.

Monkey Road

About a dozen monkeys along the road up the mountain in Kaohsiung

When I arrived at the hostel, the owner couldn’t understand why so many foreigners were obsessed with seeing monkeys. Whereas she saw them as annoying and bothersome animals, most of the tourists who visited this mountain from other countries were incredibly excited to see monkeys in the wild for the first time. Signs were up all over the hiking trails warning hikers not to provoke the monkeys or eat in front of them. Apparently these monkeys have grown accustomed to the presence of people walking by and to an extent feeding them as well, so they were much less apprehensive than I would have expected. I even saw a few walk straight in front of hikers and hang out beside two elderly people drinking tea.

Hand Puppet Performance

Hand-puppet street performance by local students in front of the templeEnter a caption

In Tainan, I also saw someone dressed in a monkey costume in front of a temple doing some sort of performance. If I had to guess, this would have been inspired by the Monkey King from the famous classical Chinese novel, Journey to the West. It was just one of many of the street performances I saw – all accompanied by food stands, of course. I even ran into a hand puppet performance in front of a tiny temple in a not very busy side street. Although it was difficult to follow, I ended up watching almost the whole performance with only one other person in the crowd who likely worked at the temple. She was happy to see me interested and to explain the basic/dumbed-down version of the plot to me in Chinese as well.

Fort Zeelandia

The Dutch Fort Zeelandia in Tainan

Nearby, I also ran into a fortress built by the Dutch in the early 17th century called Fort Zeelandia (or 安平古堡 in Chinese, meaning Anping District Ancient Fort). This was another vestige of foreign influence/colonialism in Taiwan that now still stands as remembrance. Taiwan and its relatively young few hundred years of history have seen a striking number of foreign countries or empires’ presence and influence, which is interesting to see throughout the island. Tainan is the historic capital city under the Qing Dynasty, so these roots stretch even farther back than Taipei, which was more bolstered and developed under the Japanese colonial period than the Qing Dynasty.

Statue of Mazu

Mazu (sometimes spelled Matzu) is the Chinese goddess of nautical navigation pictured in the statue above. You’ll find statues and shrines to her throughout port cities throughout this region and Southern China. There are lots of legends about her and how she became elevated to the status of goddess, but the basic idea is that she helps guide sailors back home safely. In an area prone to typhoons, this was important before modern sailing technology. I’m not certain why there were so many children playing and blowing bubbles that night I visited, but with the sunset it was an incredible sight altogether. I was taken aback visiting the south by how friendly and laid back people there were. I had a problem returning the city bike to the station and asked someone also renting a bike if they could help, and they proceeded to spend upwards of twenty minutes of their time helping me. Another person I met at a food stand was surprised I could read some of the Chinese characters (traditional here is much harder) and told me that if I could read the street signs I ought to go to this restaurant that the locals love instead of the touristy place I was headed towards. It was fascinating how different it felt being in a place only two hours away from Taipei by high speed rail and I am tempted to go back before I leave.

Bryan


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