I can sort my life evenly into two geographic regions. I was born in Taiwan and moved to the United States when I was ten and have lived exactly half of my twenty years in each country. Though I’d missed Taiwan intensely, I hadn’t been back in a decade, until I flew back for the American Councils Tradition and Modernity in Taiwan program. Now ten years older and a grown adult, I was both nervous to return and excited to reacquaint myself with the country I’d left a decade ago.
The first thing to hit me when I landed in Taipei on a muggy Thursday evening was the heat: temperatures in the high 80s Fahrenheit even at night, the humidity making the air soupy and cloyingly thick. I knew Taiwan was in the subtropics, but I’d forgotten just how hot it was. But after a few days, I found myself noticing the heat less and less, learning to embrace it. (I’m thankful for my water bottle, though. “Hydrate or die-drate!” has become my friends’ and my motto throughout the program).
I also had other things to distract me: namely, Taiwan’s incredible food, readily available on practically every street corner. On one of my first evenings here, some of my fellow program participants and I visited the Raohe night market and were dazzled by the overwhelming array of food: sizzling oyster omelets; milkshakes made from fresh papaya chopped and blended before our eyes; of course, stinky tofu, which we found by literally following our noses.
On a class trip to Wulai, a mountain aborigine village, my friends and I tried chewy fried sesame mochi and wild boar sausage dripping oil, both sweet and savory. And on one particularly hot day, we cooled off with a gondola ride up to scenic Maokong and some ice cream. All of it was absolutely delicious. (People worry about the “freshman fifteen,” but I’m personally more concerned about the “Taiwan twenty.”)
With ordering food came another challenge: communicating in Chinese. Translating the signs was the first hurdle. Many of the menus in the night markets are completely in Mandarin, and while I recognize many of the characters, I have to whip out my phone often to translate unfamiliar words to find out what exactly is on the menu. (To anyone thinking of traveling to a Chinese-speaking country: Google Translate and Pleco are your friends!) Moreover, Taiwan uses traditional Chinese characters, and I’ve only studied simplified characters. However, I surprised myself by very quickly learning to recognize the traditional counterparts to the simplified characters I knew. However, then comes the issue of actually placing the order in Chinese.
Going to Taiwan has stretched my speaking ability in a way that a classroom environment just cannot replicate. I thought I was managing pretty well ordering food and conducting small transactions in Mandarin until I went to Starbucks to see what Taiwan-specific snacks they offer (darling little pudding cups and peanut jelly frappuccinos, among many others). When I went to order, the barista started speaking in rapid-fire Mandarin at me, asking me how I wanted my drink customized. I understood about two phrases and left Starbucks abashed and nervous to use my Chinese. Thankfully, over the past week, I’ve regained my confidence by practicing with convenience store clerks and the “Sunshiners,” the extremely friendly Taiwanese students working with us students on the TMT program. Sadly, all my subsequent trips to Starbucks have always resulted in confusion, though my embarrassment has grown less and less as I’ve accepted that some miscommunication is inevitable when learning any language. Lesson learned: beware Starbucks and their exceedingly complicated drinks! (Serves me right for going to an American chain in a country where fresh fruit smoothies and soymilk are readily available on every street!)
I’m not even halfway through the program, but I’m so excited for what’s next! It sounds trite, but Taipei is such a wonderful city and I really don’t know how I’m going to be able to leave. Well, I’ll think about that later–right now, I’m going out to eat dumplings.
By: Ellie Theriault
Program: Tradition and Modernity in Taiwan
Term: Summer 2019