My first impression of Taiwan was – “Wow… This isn’t Japan…”
Now that might sound a little too obvious, but this is something I really have been trying to drill into my head since arriving. Half of the reason I decided to come here was that this is “not Japan.” I have a B.A. in International Affairs and come May 2006 (if all goes according to plan), I will have an M.A. in the same field. I have come to realize that it seems a little strange for me to call myself a ‘master’ of international affairs (or relations, or whatever name you feel like giving it) when all of my travels abroad have been in one country. I have been to Japan four times (spending a little more than two years there in total), studied the language in school for eight years (I like to think I am fairly fluent), and studied the politics, administration, culture, and social issues extensively. I have not completely ignored issues affecting other countries, but I have studied them less intensely and with no actual ‘experiential’ learning. Part of the reason I came here was to remedy this problem.
I have spent so much time studying Japan in the U.S. and Japan that Japan has ceased to feel very foreign to me. I speak the language well enough to talk to most people about many different issues. Things that seemed strange and mysterious to me when I first went there ten years ago on a study tour as a high school student know seem ordinary. Another major reason for coming here was to renew my zeal for travel – to ‘discover’ an exotic land, meet new and interesting people, and broaden my perspective on the world around me.
Taiwan has already amazed, baffled, and inspired me. Naturally, my biggest problem so far has been a linguistic one. It has been so long since I have been completely unable to carry a conversation with 90% of the people around me that it feels like I have almost completely lost the body language skills I effectively employed as a high school exchange student. Most people have been extremely understanding, however, and most young people are able to speak enough English to help out when I need something to eat or need to know which bus stop to get off at.
That being said, however, I have not yet spent all that much time exploring the city or talking to the locals. Ken, my exchange buddy (a Taiwanese student here at the university assigned to help me adjust to life here), has been a real lifesaver. He is a genuinely nice guy, with a positive attitude and a good sense of humor. Not only did he help me manage an intercity bus trip with all of my luggage and the subsequent move-in to my dorm, but he has been really helpful with setting up my dorm room and answering my questions about Kaohsiung.
He has taken me into the city for brief trips to eat and shop every day I have been here. We use the preferred mode of transport here, the motor scooter. I was a bit nervous to hop on the back of a motor scooter for the first time with a guy I just met driving me around a brand new country, but who else am I going to trust over here? Traffic here is crazy and it seems like there are more motor scooters than people. Driving down the main streets sometimes seems like a free-for-all, but I think (that is I hope) there is some method to the madness that is Kaohsiung traffic.
I had to buy bedding on my first day. Dorm bedding is a thin mattress affixed to a straw mat. I bought the most comfortable-feeling one at the store, but there was only one left, so I am stuck sleeping on teddy bears for the rest of the semester. For sheets, I went for cheap ones (again, I am only here for four months), so I have a pink flower pattern on top of my blue-teddy bear mat. Thankfully, the beds are raised up above our desks and are accessible only by ladder, so I don’t think anyone will laugh at me too hard.
My dorm building is really old and dirty. It is strange having to walk down the hall to take a shower or go to the bathroom, but I am getting used to it. Fortunately, air conditioning was just installed last month, so I have a brand-new, fully-functioning AC unit in my room. It has been a lifesaver as I have scrubbed and dusted my room for the past several days so I could unpack in confidence that my clothes wouldn’t be covered in dirt during the first week of class.
Getting used to life in the tropics is a bit rough because it is so humid here. The temperature isn’t unbearable (somewhere in the upper 80’s – lower 90’s), but the humidity is even worse than Japan. Walking around in the air conditioner-less hallways for more than a minute or two will leave a fine coat of sweat on your skin, even if you just took a shower.
I feel like I have many pets here to keep me company. There are stray dogs all over the city, but they don’t appear to be really dangerous. They don’t roam in packs, and I haven’t seen any foaming at the mouth, but I don’t call them over to me just to be safe. Little green lizards crawl all over the inside and outside of the dorms. As a reptile fan, I love this, but as a bug-hater, I love it even more. There are supposed to be many monkeys on this mountain, but I haven’t seen one yet. All the same, I keep my windows locked because they are notorious thieves.
The food is great and the prices are even better! You can go to a small food stand/restaurant and eat a three-course meal for about $3 U.S.! A decent sized meal (just enough to fill you up) goes for about $1.50! I am a big fan of dumplings and dumpling-like food, which seem to be one of the main dishes here. The noodles and soup are also great. One of my new favorites is a kind of Taiwanese bread, which is basically deep-fried batter. It is crispy and puffed-up, so the inside is mostly air, but it looks like a small version of the French baguette. It tastes a little like an unsweetened, crispy donut, and it is considered traditional Taiwanese breakfast food.
It is amazing how few Taiwanese are obese, considering how oily the food is here. In Japan, I was told this is because they drink so much oolong tea, but when I told this to Ken, he said he had never heard this before. I have heard Japanese say that oolong tea breaks down fat, but I am not sure if this is based on science or just good advertising for oolong tea in Japan. Personally, I think it is because it is so humid here that everyone sweats out everything they eat. Just to be safe, though, I am consuming mass amounts of oolong tea. Taiwanese oolong tea, however, differs significantly from Japanese oolong tea in that the Taiwanese add sugar. Japanese oolong tea is unsweetened, but I have not had any unsweetened tea since arriving, except for one small bottle of Japanese green tea I bought at 7-11.
National Sun Yat Sen University really has a good location, if you don’t mind being a little separated from town. This university owns a beach resort (yes, it is on campus!), it is set up on a mountain overlooking the harbor, and it is massive. I haven’t been all around campus yet, and I am sure I could easily get lost because all of the buildings are red brick. The area is heavily forested and I am told there is a zoo somewhere on this mountain (the monkeys I spoke of earlier are wild, so I don’t know if they have any on display at the zoo). There is a ferry that picks up just outside the main gate of the university that takes you to a thin island in the harbor. This island, I am told, contains nothing but seafood restaurants as far as the eye can see. I am looking forward to going there.
I am sorry I haven’t taken any pictures yet, but I have been busy moving in. I will be sure to take many tomorrow, as I am finally going to one of the famed Taiwanese ‘night markets’. I am going with some of the other foreign students. So far I haven’t met any other American students, but most of the foreign students are not here yet. The ones I have met represent many countries: Japan, South Korea, Panama, Paraguay, Hungary, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Israel, and Thailand. It should be an interesting semester to learn international relations with such a diverse group in such an exotic location. I will be sure to keep you all posted! I will also try to post a little more frequently, with slightly shorter posts. I always feel like I have forgotten something when I wait this long and I know I tend to ramble.
Well, it’s out! I will try to get back to posting tomorrow night! Until then…