Reflections from my first month in Taiwan

What an incredible month it has been! After spending a week in Japan, I arrived safely in Kaohsiung City and quickly settled into my new home for the next six months. In between filling out a stack of paperwork and several trips to the immigration office to secure my Alien Registration Card, I was able to explore the largest city in Southern Taiwan. I had a great time visiting the former British consulate, checking out the famous “dragon and tiger pagodas,” and traveling through one of the most beautiful subway stations in the world.

After my first week in Taiwan, I had lunch with a group of Fulbright alumni at a restaurant in the northern part of Kaohsiung. Michelle, Jhenyi, and Sandy (and her husband Andrew) were so welcoming, and I really appreciated the opportunity to have an in-person conversation after traveling by myself for a few weeks. In fact, we ended up talking for over three hours! I was also excited when Michelle invited me to her house to celebrate the Chinese New Year with her family next month. I cannot wait to experience this major cultural tradition here in Taiwan! Michelle is in the midst of writing her dissertation on professional learning communities; during her Fulbright to the states last fall, she researched the manner in which American teachers work together.

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After lunch with my new Fulbright family

Later that day, I had a chance to meet my advisor, Dr. Ping-Huang Chang, a professor at National Kaohsiung Normal University. This institution will host me as a visiting scholar throughout the spring semester. Dr. Chang and I worked out some logistics, including my observation schedule, and identified several possible classes that I might audit. He also organized a meeting and dinner with the principal and a few teachers from Kaohsiung Girls High School, the place where I will be conducting a lot of my exploratory research. I was particularly interested in the discussion we had about culturally relevant pedagogy and the math teachers’ interest in a new curriculum. The group also gave me copies of their government-issued math textbooks, which will be a helpful resource moving forward. Everyone was so welcoming and I could not be more excited to have the opportunity to learn from this exceptional group of educators.

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My advisor Dr. Chang (far right) and school team

It has also been intriguing to work through some cultural differences and misunderstandings. Although I had read a great deal about Taiwanese culture before coming here, I quickly discovered that it is one thing to understand something intellectually but quite another to actually experience cultural differences first-hand. For me, one of the biggest cultural differences that I have noticed between Taiwan and the U.S. is the way in which people view personal space in public. In this part of the world, people will often stand and sit very close to you on a fairly regular basis, and even sit next to you in an empty subway car.

Most restaurants also offer tea instead of water, and when they do offer water, it is often served steaming hot (I guess drinking “ice water” is an American thing?). One of the funniest examples of cultural differences that I encountered thus far is the way in which tomatoes are classified. In the U.S., tomatoes are often the focus of a somewhat whimsical debate over whether they are fruits or vegetables. Though tomatoes have seeds, the American taste palate often judges them to be a vegetable. Well, in Taiwan, tomatoes are always sold in the fruit section of a store; they are even found in fruit salads!

During my second week, I took the Taiwan High Speed Rail up to Taipei for the Fulbright Midyear Conference. I traveled with a group of ETA’s (Fulbright English Teaching Assistants) who have been living in Kaohsiung since August. During our trip, they shared some of their favorite things to do throughout the city and offered some nuanced advice, too. Many of the ETA’s are close in age to me, and I am looking forward to getting to know them better once we are all back in Kaohsiung at the end of the month.

The Midyear Conference was held at “The Great Roots Forestry Spa Resort,” which is a 45-minute bus ride from downtown Taipei. The hotel was built on top of a natural hot spring, which provided a relaxing way to wind down at the end of each day. During the conference, we learned about the history of Taiwan, received cultural adjustment advice, and listened to updates from scholars in the middle of their research.

As I alluded to this past summer when I was at the Fulbright Orientation in Washington, D.C., it is truly inspiring to be surrounded by thoughtful leaders who are eager to change the world in every field imaginable. We heard from researchers studying public health efforts, North Korean deterrence, and even water flood policy. One of my favorite presentations was given by a professor who was translating Buddhist chants into western-style music for his students in Utah. There were also two professors studying the Taiwanese legal system, with an emphasis on the legal rights of indigenous people. Each ETA group also gave a quick presentation that highlighted fun activities in their host cities, many of which were given through a humorous lens. I was one of three scholars that recently arrived in Taiwan; our presentations were more focused on our research plans moving forward.

Several sessions really challenged me intellectually, including a provocative address on Indo-Pacific policy chaired by Dr. Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang. Dr. Huang served as a Taiwanese diplomat in Washington, D.C. for 15 years and, consequently, has a unique perspective to offer. His presentation helped me realize how much I have to learn about the far-reaching politics of Asia and the increasingly important role China, Taiwan, and India will play in global affairs moving forward.

After the conference ended, I explored Taipei on my own for a couple of days. During my first night in the capital, I ran into fellow Fulbrighter Chris Upton, who is a lawyer and Ph.D. candidate that is researching the rights and rule-crafting processes in Taiwan’s indigenous rights framework. He grew up in Taipei, the son of two Baptist missionaries. He graciously showed me around the 228 Peace Park, the controversial Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, and took me to dinner at his favorite hóngshāo niúròu miàn (braised beef noodle soup) restaurant in the entire country. It was a memorable evening. The next day, I visited the National Palace Museum, had lunch at the famous Din Tai Fung, and took the fastest elevator in the world to the top of the Taipei 101 building.

As I look forward to the month ahead, I am excited to start visiting schools. The concept of time remains quite disorienting for a multitude of reasons. Even though I am 13 hours ahead of Daylight Savings Time on the east coast, I feel as though I am a day behind on the news. For example, when I am going to bed on a Tuesday night, I am often getting the news from Monday in the United States (I have been watching the international version of CNN, which is noticeably more worldwide in its scope when compared to the largely domestic programming found in the states). In addition, the major holiday break in Taiwan falls over Chinese New Year, meaning that I have heard a lot of people talk about their break as we often talk about our winter break during the last week of December. In other words, it feels more like late November here than February!

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The beautiful, albeit controversial, Cheng Kai-shek Memorial

To close, I am looking forward to celebrating the biggest American sporting event of the year: Super Bowl Sunday! Well, maybe I should refer to it as Super Bowl Monday while in Taiwan. Who knows? Anyway, I found a local British pub that will be offering a “Super Bowl breakfast” for expats that are interested in watching the game. It should be interesting celebrating this uniquely American “holiday” in Taiwan. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em I suppose: Let’s Go Eagles!!

 

Learn Chinese!

English                              Chinese

Hello                                  你好 (Nǐ hǎo)

Thank You                        謝謝 (Xièxiè)

Nice to meet you            很高兴认识你 (Hěn gāoxìng rènshi nǐ)

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