Top ten lists are everywhere these days. As readership moves online, and as viewership becomes more dependent on a catchy title to encourage a curious click, writers have become adept at condensing regular material into this appealing format.
One of my favorites this year was a Foreign Policy piece by Stephen Walt entitled “How to Get a B.A. in International Relations in 5 minutes.” In a few paragraphs that take no more than five minutes to read, Walt lays out key concepts that a student of IR would actually remember five years after graduation, like anarchy, balance of power, and comparative advantage. As I took the bait and opened the article, I thought to myself, “Ah, here we go…good thing I decided not to do that double major after all, because this is everything I need right here.”
While not quite suitable for an academic paper, this uber-condensed format is just fine for the casual reader. So in an effort to make this article more appealing to whomever is browsing through the Fulbright website, I’ve decided to jump on the bandwagon and turn my jumble of thoughts into a consolidated list.
Here you go, the top five things Kirsten will remember about her Fulbright year in Taiwan five years from now:
1. The People
Taiwanese people continue to impress me with their honesty and generosity, even and especially toward foreigners. Taxi drivers often shave off the last 10 NTD of the fare and round down or stop the meter once the destination is in sight. One night after I had gotten in a taxi I realized I only had 200 NTD in cash. I told the driver to let me know when the fare approached 200, because I’d have to get out then. But he replied, “Don’t worry about the price. I’ll get you home even if it goes over.” Sometimes I buy a crepe from a middle-aged woman who sets up shop in a little alley by the university. One day I came a bit late in the evening, and she had already run out of the ingredients for my favorite crepe. She was very sorry and she immediately and earnestly offered me part of her own dinner that she had brought from home. I have never met anyone on the street who was unwilling to help me, and many have gone out of their way to ask me if I need any help. I especially love that I first can assume that a stranger will have good intentions. I’ll definitely have to readjust my personal safety barometer when I get back to U.S. cities.
2. The Sub-Tropical Weather
Taiwan is the most wet and humid place I’ve ever lived. Every time I think the rains are finally over, someone informs me that the monsoon season is coming up. How many monsoon seasons are there, really?? And it doesn’t matter what it’s doing outside, I’m always fighting a losing battle against mildew in my apartment. The humidity makes for an unbearably muggy and sticky summer too. On the bright side, there’s no need to worry about dry skin, even in the winter!
3. Learning Chinese
By the time I left Taiwan, I had taken more than 650 hours of Chinese class. That alone should be motivation enough to keep up my studies post-Taiwan, so that I won’t have wasted all those hours! But really, my Chinese studies have allowed me to experience Taiwan in a much more personal way. Even though I still feel like a foreigner wherever I go, being able to speak Chinese has allowed me to connect with people on a deeper level and better understand the nuances of Taiwanese society and culture. Furthermore, I’ve come to much prefer the Taiwanese accent to the northern Chinese one, so I’m glad I don’t have any of that Beijing harshness anymore when I speak. I find the different dialects and accents of Chinese fascinating, and I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to learn traditional characters and a new accent.
4. My Shopping Struggles
Never before have I expended so much fruitless energy shopping. My size-nine feet are apparently ghastly large (who knew?), and the clothes are either of poor quality, made to fit a stick-thin frame, or high-priced international brands. If anyone ever asks me what to do to prepare for their Fulbright grant in Taiwan, I will tell them to go shopping and buy up all the clothes and shoes that they will need before leaving the land of cheap and plenty.
5. My New Insights Into Regional International Relations
I discussed this more in-depth in my piece last semester, but I think one of the most valuable aspects of my time in Taiwan has been gaining a deeper understanding of regional issues and political relationships. There are certain aspects of international relations that must be internalized before analyzing any current issue, like lingering post-WWII distrust of Japan, ASEAN’s cautious consensus-building style of cooperation, or the stabilizing nature of the U.S. military presence and diplomatic relations in the region. I now feel confident that I will be a well-informed contributor to my master’s courses next year and have enough of a knowledge base to begin researching and writing my thesis in the fall.
Of course, like Stephen Walt’s five-minute international relations B.A., this list is insufficient to truly understand how fruitful and enriching my year in Taiwan has been, but it’s a good start. I suppose I’ll have to reassess in five years and see what actually comes to mind when I think back to Taiwan. In all likelihood, I won’t remember any of the little frustrations and only have fond recollections of this exciting and eye-opening year abroad. I’m grateful to the Fulbright community for their support, and I’m humbled to have been a part of such an impressive group of scholars. I hope to be back some day to make more memories in Taiwan!
Kirsten Asdal graduated from the US Naval Academy in May 2013 withe a B.S. in Chinese. She will complete a masters in Contemporary Chinese Studies at Oxford University in 2015, then report to her first ship, the USS MICHAEL MURPHY(DDG112), to serve as a division officer.