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Just the Beginning: Reflections on my First Year of Grad School in Taiwan

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Familiar city, new lens

     I landed at Taoyuan International Airport in late August 2017. Fresh out of university, I had arrived in Taipei to pursue a master’s degree at National Chengchi University (NCCU), funded by the Fulbright grant. I had done my alma mater proud by completing two undergraduate theses, being chosen for the Fulbright award, and graduating summa cum laude just that past May. I fully expected to come to Taiwan, complete my master’s degree, and then go to Washington to find work in the foreign affairs field.

     But for the first few days in Taiwan, I was thrown off by jet lag, the summer heat, and generally setting up my new life as an expat. Despite this being my third time coming to Taiwan, this time felt markedly different. It finally sunk in that I was moving here, and that I was here with an expressed purpose to earn a master’s degree in Asia Pacific Studies. Over the course of my first year in grad school, I’ve learned to keep an open mind to the opportunities coming my way and cherish the time I’ve spent as a student in one of my favorite places in the world.

Why study in Taiwan?

     Before I left the United States, several of my friends and family, while happy and proud for me, seemed slightly skeptical about the kind of education I was moving to Taiwan for.

     “Is it…you know, a good university?”

     “Will your degree be worth anything when you come back?”

     “Asia Pacific Studies…what can you do with a degree in that?”

     “Did you look at graduate programs in the U.S.?”

     Of course, I had no concrete answer to any of these questions, but I was compelled to defend my choice. I knew that NCCU is the top university in Taiwan for the social sciences and international affairs, and I knew if they had partnered with the Fulbright program, then it had to be good, right? On top of that, I could always argue that it makes sense to study the Asia Pacific in Asia.

     I started the fall semester with an open mind, eager to take classes in subjects that had been my research focus in university, such as cross-strait relations and Taiwanese history. Very quickly, I realized that grad school is different from undergrad in that courses in grad school are less about mastering a curriculum and more about developing your own research interests. Throughout the lengthy first semester, I learned more about these subjects and deepened my knowledge of Taiwan’s political and cultural development.

     As the fall semester went on, I became deeply grateful to be able to move to Taiwan to study the Asia Pacific. Just as I had supposed before I arrived, it is immensely more beneficial and meaningful to travel to the region to better understand its circumstances and nuances. Books on Taiwanese politics I had trouble locating in the United States were now easily accessible to me in the university library. Listening to lectures about Taiwanese history made infinitely more sense when I could visit the spots where events happened and observe customs and traditions firsthand.

     My classmates have a wide variety of interests ranging from economics to politics to culture. They hail from all over the world and bring a diverse set of experiences and perspectives to the classroom. This experience is markedly different from my undergrad days, where my peers were mostly Caucasian Americans and almost all the same age as me.

     Studying in Taiwan has given me a global perspective that would perhaps be impossible to achieve in the United States. Of course, in university I would come in contact with international students, but I was always a member of the majority population in the United States. Now that I live in Taiwan, the roles are flipped, and I am now in the minority as a foreigner. Just as American higher education is built for Americans, the higher education system in Taiwan is built for the Taiwanese, and it was my responsibility to figure it out and work within it. I was suddenly very aware of my position as an outsider to a system not originally built for foreigners like me.

Familiar language, New Environment

     This is also why I felt compelled to continue learning Mandarin Chinese here. Over the winter, I registered for a five-day, 15-hour-per-week Mandarin class at NCCU, which helped me get up to speed with traditional Chinese characters and better learn how Mandarin is spoken in Taiwan. While juggling the Chinese class and my graduate school courses at the same time was stressful, I am very glad I took the opportunity to re-learn Mandarin and force myself to learn traditional Chinese characters. It was an eye-opening and immersive experience because none of my other classmates in the class were American or native English speakers. Through that class, I was able to introduce aspects of my culture to my classmates and learn about their points of view.

     The most challenging part of the Chinese class was not necessarily re-learning traditional characters but rather trying to convey my own ideas in Chinese. On several occasions, I had opportunities to talk about world affairs, my past experiences, and larger ideas of social values and culture. However, I quite often felt that my ideas in Chinese weren’t coming across as clearly or as complexly as my thoughts in English were. This is something I believe more Americans could benefit in experiencing, because it piqued my awareness for how my classmates in graduate school must feel to be operating in English as their second, third, or even fourth language. Coming face-to-face with the language barrier is something that would not have happened to me in the States.

So why study in Taiwan? Maybe it’s for the chance to get out of America.

     There’s a stereotype that Americans are self-absorbed and ignorant to the wider world’s happenings (I’m sure I have friends at home who think I’m in Thailand). Who can blame us though, when we live in a country that has had superpower status for upwards of 60 years and spans across an entire continent? Not to mention the growing prominence of English as the “global language” that is now part of school curricula worldwide.

     In the second semester, I decided to expand my horizons and take a couple of classes outside my department in public diplomacy and international nongovernmental organizations. In these classes, it became clear how much influence the United States has in world affairs. American influence reaches nearly every corner of the planet in several disciplines such as diplomacy, nonprofit management, and theories of international relations. While this dominance was invisible to me while I lived and studied in the United States, it is much more salient here in Taiwan, where most of my classmates hail from small and middle-power countries. Nowhere in the United States have I been part of a cohort as ethnically and nationally diverse as my graduate courses in Taiwan.

     Even if I don’t end up in the foreign affairs field after this experience, I at least hope that my Fulbright experience can bring a little more knowledge of Taiwan to my friends and family back home. We Americans could learn something not only from Taiwan’s vibrant civil society and robust political system, but also from the country’s blend of traditional Chinese culture woven into a democratic, modern society.

     Taiwanese and American cultures are at once different and the same—even with origins on opposite sides of the world, globalization and urbanization have created a cosmopolitan environment in Taipei that makes me feel at home. When my parents visited me in Taipei over the Lunar New Year, I could experience Taipei through their eyes. They found a city that moves at the pace of New York with people as considerate and friendly as those you’d find in a small town.

     Even if my career path strays away from the original purpose I put forth in my Fulbright application nearly two years ago, I am confident that my experience as a student here can help others negotiate the space between foreign and local and between insider and outsider. Spending this time abroad has been crucial for my understanding of other cultures, languages, and value systems from all over the world, not just in Taiwan.

Just the beginning

     Out of everything I’ve learned this year in Taiwan, academic or otherwise, my graduate school experience can be summed up as the beginning of a career and a life that will forever link me with this region of the world. Whenever I’ve felt inadequate in my Chinese abilities, my knowledge in foreign policy, or my skills as a researcher, I am reminded that this phase of my life is only the beginning of a career centered on the Asia Pacific.

     Many American millennials and twenty-somethings often feel immense pressure to have their lives figured out. My experience in Taiwan has taught me that this race to a career is an illusion, and I’ve learned from my classmates and peers in Taiwan that there is no deadline to reach. As a result, I’ve resolved to give myself some leeway in determining my next steps and see where my interests take me. While I will continue to study hard and work toward a master’s thesis I can be proud of, I am now less worried about my future after the master’s degree. There will always be more chances to improve my Chinese, return to this area of the world, and further develop my skills as a researcher and critical thinker.

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