The pursuit of self knowledge is important to me, but it has some fierce competition from the more pressing needs like eating, exercising, and showering regularly. It’s one of those things which is always on my list of priorities, but rarely tops it. Introspection can help identify the little lies we tell ourselves and the unrepresentative experiences that tinge our memory, but it is hard. I do try to “see the forest beyond the trees”, but the trees usually get in the way. In writing this reflection, I want to share the bigger picture of my time in Taiwan. Specifically, I want to share the ways that life here has helped me to cultivate gratitude.
My Journey To Taiwan
When people ask why I am studying in Taiwan, I often explain that in 2019 I was inspired by an economics professor while studying abroad in Switzerland. When I realized that I would need additional qualifications in order to participate in the type of applied research which made me passionate, it was only natural to seek out a masters program overseas where I could also indulge my wanderlust. Taiwan, the program, and the funding were all aligned to my goals.
When I went through the process of application writing for my fulbright grant, it was iterative and slow. I am forever grateful for the profound support of my University’s fellowship office, but at the time I thought I was unlikely to be awarded this grant. I decided that the grant writing experience I gained would be sufficient to justify my efforts regardless of the outcome. I wanted it, but I didn’t want to burden myself with regrets if I failed. Still, I hoped. You can only imagine my surprise when I discovered I had been awarded this grant.
For as much as I whooped during that initial rush of excitement, I was vividly aware that it might not come to fruition. This was in March of 2020. My final undergraduate spring break had stretched into a long interminable lockdown, and the global ramifications of Covid 19 were beginning to set in. The surreal melodrama which filled my news feed could not be overlooked. It was unclear whether I would be able to begin my grant on time or at all, and the situation remained murky for months to come. In the end, I came on time along with a dozen or so other Fulbrighters in my cohort. Out of the thousands of Fulbright masters students normally traveling across the globe each year, there were less than 50, and a sizable chunk of them were in Taiwan. I had no way of predicting these circumstances when I applied for the grant in the fall of 2019. I had unwittingly picked a winning horse, and I would be going to Taiwan in spite of a global pandemic of generation-defining proportions.
My good fortune did not abandon me when I got here. Upon entering Taiwan, I underwent two weeks of solitude in a quarantine hotel room. It was boring and lonely. I spent a whole day writing a rap song. I even improvised a hook on my old recorder from middle school. Did I mention it was boring and lonely? Fortunately, the long monotonous days were interrupted by messages and video calls from new and established fulbrighters in Taiwan. The first foundations of the friendships that would form my new support network were laid then. Reflecting back, I have been blessed to meet so many wonderful people who have guided me on my journey from the very start.
At midnight of the 14th day of my quarantine I was allowed to leave for a walk and I asked directions to the nearest park. To my chagrin, the hotel clerk suggested waiting till morning; my induction into city life had begun. A brisk walk around the block was nearly enough to drive me into a panic attack. I grew up in a rural midwestern town of around 300 residents, and when you grow up in a place like that you are acutely aware of the overwhelming noise of city life. I had been to Boston and New York city during the day, but something about the idea of living in a place that was so loud at midnight left me dizzy and nervous.
Falling In Love with Taiwan
I am still a nature lover at heart, but my 10 months in Taipei have mostly eliminated my prior aversion to city life. Taipei is such a livable city that I have grown to cherish my time here, even apart from the people and the studies which brought me here. It can still be loud near the busy city streets, but I have learned to search out the plethora of parks. These are located throughout the city like oases of calm where I can do homework, play my guitar with friends, or listen to the birds and frogs. Even more importantly, the rivers which snake through the city are lined with riverside parks and bicycle paths. I often ride along the Tamsui river to get a sense of privacy, connection to nature, and adventure. I thrive on the sense of harmony this gives me. As I ride, I can bask in the humming of frogs and the twittering of birds. After rain I need to be careful to avoid running over the army of giant African(?) snails which make the perilous two meter trek across the path. When I ride at night, there are times when I am alone with only the packs of stray dogs to keep me company. At first I was afraid of them, but as with many things, I have learned to coexist; If I ride slowly through their territory, they will simply gaze on with equal parts watchfulness and peacefulness.
I have also learned to appreciate Taiwanese food. When I first arrived, I will admit that I was not a fan of salted egg yolk snacks. With repeated exposure I have only started to acquire a taste for blood tofu. Yet I have been so impressed with the variety and ingenuity of Taiwanese food in general. More so than the flavours, the textures of foods and drinks in Taiwan are diverse and interesting. Bubble tea is one of the best examples of this, but many drink shops combine foams, jelleys, and drinks of different viscosities to achieve more types of dessert drinks than I would ever have thought possible. The Taiwanese penchant for combining things that are crunchy, squishy, chewy, and jello-ey into every meal is very unique and it’s something I know I will miss when I leave.
From the soft luo buo gao (蘿蔔糕), to the juicy xiao long bao（小籠包), my journey of discovering Taiwanese cuisine has taken me through lots of famous night markets. Yet, the local breakfast shop has given me some of my warmest memories in Taiwan. I have visited a few times every week since I arrived. When I first started to go there, my chinese was very limited and the half-dozen women who work there didn’t speak english. Still, they were patient with me. Now, 10 months later and with improved chinese, it brings me so much joy to visit with them and be recognized as a regular.
Language, Culture, and the Experience of being Visibly Foreign
One of the things I have grappled with in Taiwan is the knowledge that I am visibly foreign. More than that, I am a white man with a conspicuous American accent. I grew up in very white parts of the country and this is my first experience traveling to a majority non-european country, so this has been a new experience for me. Sometimes people treat me differently in ways that are fairly innocuous, but it leaves me surprised, confused, and uncomfortable. I was raised to believe that gratitude was the mark of a happy life, but I don’t feel anything like gratitude for arbitrary privileges which have been granted to me on the basis of characteristics outside my control.
I was with a group of American and Taiwanese friends on a beach this May when a stranger asked to take a picture with me. He had pretended to join our game of soccer, but he soon asked about my nationality. I was the only white person in the group. Unsure whether I had misunderstood his Chinese, I agreed to take a picture with this stranger. His girlfriend took a picture while he smiled and pointed his thumb at me. I simply did a “thumbs up”, as though my gesture could alter the nature of his behavior. I didn’t feel threatened and if anything, my perceived race had secured a smile from a stranger, but I did not like the feeling of unearned privilege it gave me. I have had to learn to live with the knowledge that some people will only have an interest in me because of my race and nationality. Fortunately, this is untrue for the vast majority of people I have met in Taiwan. Yet, it has taught me to be more cautious and discerning with my relationships. Learning about the way some foreigners are privileged above others, particularly migrant workers from south east asia, has given me pause to question the behavior of strangers and acquaintances towards me: would they still treat me this way if I was not a white american? In a strange way, this has also given me a newfound appreciation for the relationships that go beyond those superficial traits.
One of my largest challenges in Taiwan has been learning Chinese. Learning languages has always been my worst academic subject by far. My attempts to learn Spanish and German were throttled in the crib by my insufficient motivation and a lack of self confidence. With Chinese, I wanted things to go differently. I started self teaching with online materials prior to arriving in Taiwan, but even joining at the beginner level proved challenging for me. I asked friends for help and I watched mandarin tv shows.I spent 10 hours in class plus an additional 15 outside of class each week just to keep up. It has not been easy, but making progress has been extremely rewarding. Sharing bawdy humor, talking to someone’s mom in their native language, learning the colonial history of a word, learning my first pun in chinese, paying in exact change, and ordering a new dish successfully. These are just some of the little triumphs I have discovered. I still smile when I reflect on my chinese name Bo De Tian (波德天). When I first started to use it, I was often greeted with confusion and laughter. Eventually I learned it that the way I was pronouncing it sounded very similar to Wo De Tian (我的天), “oh my god!”. The teachers, friends, classmates, strangers on the street who have shown me patience and empathy have given me the confidence to keep trying to improve. I owe them a lot.
From the ancient Shang dynasty to the migratory events of the 20th century and onwards, learning the history of Taiwan and China has been fun and a good motivator to continue learning Chinese. I have been similarly thrilled to learn about the local culture and religion. Whenever I have asked local Taiwanese whether a particular temple is Taoist or Buddhist, they invariably say it is both. Religion here is also special in its inclusivity. Growing up catholic taught me to expect strict adherence to dress codes and a general air of quiet formality. By contrast, everyone here insists that I am welcome to enter temples and even participate in worship so long as I am respectful. I usually follow a “monkey see monkey do” approach, but I really value this policy of welcoming outsiders in. Burning money at Guandu Temple (關渡宮) with my friend to commemorate her deceased grandfather was a moving experience, and one I am thankful for.
It Takes A Village
The common threads throughout these experiences are the people who have supported me in my journey here. These friendships have helped me to grow as a person. They have also brought me happiness and companionship in a year that has been hard on humanity. In particular, my friend and roommate Winston has learned to live with my wild energy swings and night owl sleep schedule. The classmates in my program have also been exceedingly patient with me pestering them with questions about their countries’ history and society. Reflecting upon my time in Taiwan, I have a lot to be grateful for.
Managing Editor: Chao-Hui, Wei (Bonnie) 魏肇慧