My Fulbright experience in Taiwan has allowed me to pursue a master’s degree in International Studies and explore different facets of student life in Taipei. One of the ways I have involved myself in the campus community at National Chengchi University has been by joining the track team. Running was a critical part of my undergraduate experience in the U.S.; after seven years of track and cross-country throughout high school and college, I was not ready to give it up quite yet. Running track in Taiwan has been a very different experience than running track in the U.S. This was unexpected, since I figured that running in circles and making left turns was pretty intuitive and would be exactly the same regardless of geography. I did not anticipate how different the sport, and my experience in it, would be here, and it has surprised me many times throughout this 2017-18 school year.
Transitioning to life in Taipei has been easy for me. From the very beginning I felt quite at home in this friendly city with its many stunning views, delicious food and lovable stray dogs. Even though the past nine months have been filled with new things and different challenges, it has not been difficult for me to remain in my comfort zone. The only part of my life here that took a fair amount of adjustment was the track team, and thus, it has been one of the more enriching and educational experiences I have had. My participation with NCCU Track has taken place almost entirely outside of my comfort zone, despite my familiarity and experience with running.
I quickly realized that my Chinese was missing running-related vocabulary when I found myself unable to jump into a stretch or drill without seeing someone else demonstrate it first, and when I ran 200-meter intervals all as sprints without realizing that each one was supposed to be progressively faster. Types of workouts, names of drills, and even some event names were lost on me, and at times practice was one long guessing game. The structure of practices and workouts is different too, though I’ll spare the reader that very dry dive into training specifics.
The biggest surprise came in the form of our final meet. Up until this point the meets had been different to some degree but were generally familiar to me. The team discussed the “big meet” months ahead of time, but I assumed that it would simply be another version of the former meets. I continued to labor under this delusion throughout the hectic journey to National Central University in Taoyuan, which involved thirteen of us failing to cram ourselves onto the same train, frantically figuring out which other trains we could take, and then waiting in Taoyuan for all the team members to stagger in. The next day we headed to the campus for the opening ceremony, which turned out to be in the style of the Olympic opening ceremony. There were speeches, songs, television cameras, parades, dances, and of course, a torch. As it turns out, the “big meet” was actually Taiwan’s National Intercollegiate Athletic Games, comprising many sports and lasting five days. We paraded in, led by the NCCU flag, and joined an impressively large crowd of athletes, officials, school administrators, and spectators on the field. The mascots for the event, a cartoon chipmunk and his pinecone pal, decorated banners all around the track and even around the whole campus. While exciting, the whole thing was much more dramatic than I had anticipated, and suddenly the stakes seemed higher and the nerves awoke.
The games were long, tiring, hot and humid. Some moments were uncomfortable for me, sometimes because I could not understand something (like a stressed race official barking rapid orders) and sometimes because it was a long experience with people I did not yet know that well. Many technical details about how the meet was run were unfamiliar to me as well. For example, after check-in the runners are required to sit in numbered chairs and wait to walk to the start line. This went against everything I had been told about racing, namely, not to ever sit in the moments before a race. Details like this added up and made me uncomfortable enough that I did not feel as at home in the track environment as I expected.
Overall, track has surprised me with a lot of differences, but this is not to say that there haven’t been a number of similarities as well. Pre-race jitters lead to sleepless nights for Taiwanese students just as they do for American students, coaches crowd the sidelines during races to yell out lap splits, and hip numbers never want to stay stuck to shorts. Some things are universal. The daunting prospect of running a 10K on the track (25 laps) brings out the same mixture of nerves and dread that makes an athlete ask themselves, why did I sign up for this? and swear adamantly that they are quitting the next day. Follow that up with a 5k (12.5 laps, that’s 37.5 for anyone keeping count) and suddenly track feels like the worst decision you ever made. All this suffering does allow for bonding and the formation of friendships between teammates though, and once the laps are complete the relief tricks you into thinking it was great fun.
The memories that stand out when I look back on this year of running track bring up a mixture of feelings, many of discomfort and awkwardness, and more recent ones of gratification and pride. In true track fashion, some of it was miserable but the end result is still a feeling of satisfaction and pride to have participated. But I think there is more to these positive feelings than just the post-race effect. I have met wonderful people who have been so kind, supportive and have always been willing to repeat or explain things. They enthusiastically cheered me on in races before we really knew each other and sweated out countless laps around the track, both in practice and competition. And so, just as I bonded over this shared suffering with teammates in high school and college, so too did I bond with my new teammates here in Taiwan. I have come out of this year’s track season with new friendships and a feeling of camaraderie with the team, and that is certainly worth a little discomfort.