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.

sys memorial

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 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


Bryan in Taipei: Arrival and Adjustment Period

September 7, 2018

It’s been a few days since I’ve arrived in Taipei and moved in to my apartment. Upon arriving I almost immediately noticed the towering, bamboo-inspired Taipei 101 in the skyline. My apartment is about a 20 minute walk from it, so it’s a very lively yet local area with lots of restaurants and cafes. Taipei has a very convenient metro and bus system, which makes accessing the rest of the city incredibly easy. Even beaches and mountains are accessible. There are plenty of possible day trips.

Elephant Mountain

My first “hike” here has been up Elephant Mountain. Lots of tourists and locals gather here and spread out on some rocks to see the city. We tried to make it by sunset, but unfortunately we underestimated the amount of stairs going up! The perch overlooks the city and offers a view of Taipei 101 that’s hard to beat.

Din Tai Fung

Din Tai Fung specializes in Huaiyang cuisine (also known as Jiangsu cuisine), which is among the ‘Four Great Traditions’ or schools of classical Chinese cooking

Having travelled to Taipei for a short week when I was 16, I already had a pretty decent idea of the abundance of good food in this city. That being said, I knew my very first meal had to be at the much-acclaimed Din Tai Fung. This restaurant is known for its world-famous Xiaolongbao. It has spread throughout Asia and is even in the United States, but I had to go to the original. It was even better than I had remembered and the service and atmosphere were phenomenal as well.

Skyline

View of Taipei at sunset from a local rooftop restaurant

In retrospect, it was a good decision to come before orientation and school started. I’ve had the opportunity to explore the city and get comfortable with everything before starting classes. I’m excited for the semester to start so I can see more of the school and clubs and activities on campus.

Bryan in Taipei


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