“You Grew Up in the States, But Why Do You Speak Chinese So Well?”

A slightly unrelated but crucial foreword:

To all the folk, family, and friends impacted by the natural and politico social turmoil in the States and on the Amherst campus, I would like to extend my most sincere condolences and offer my deepest sympathies. While I cannot be there in person to support you, I still send my prayers for an imminent end to the devastation and a straightforward recovery.


Lanterns hung up in the Ten Drum Culture Village in Tainan, Taipei. Excursion was organized by the study abroad organization, CIEE Taipei.

Thirteen hours of flying (or three movies and a long nap) later, I had arrived in Taiwan to an unexpectedly dark evening. As soon as my foot made contact with the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, distant flashbacks flooded my memory bank. It was past business hours for almost all of the airport vendors and stores; the whirring sounds of the vending machines as they hollowly celebrated the airport as “one of the best destinations for shopping in Asia”. If any directors were in the market for it, this airport would be the perfect place to film a zombie apocalypse movie. Yet, my goosebumps did not come from fear. Rather, they were from the resurfacing memories of past summers. My mother led my brother and me down the same corridor, past the same customs counters, and into the same embrace of the tropical humidity.  Little did I know that I would feel this immediate familiarity in many following experiences during the next three days.


Map of the upcoming flight to Taoyuan International Airport, taken just before departure from San Francisco.

From the first moments of taking in the airport’s emptiness to the more recent moments of eating my favorite tropical fruits, the amount of Taiwan I had unknowingly absorbed surprised me. Most things and places summoned a scintilla of comforting recognition wrapped in a refreshing sense of novelty for I now experienced them, independent of my parents. Walking through the chaos of the bright lights and booming voices of vendors, the night markets that were insurmountably large to my child self now seemed like a somewhat more manageable 9, 10, 11 rows of vendors. Observations that I used to silently make became points of curiosity.  The more I learned, the more I did not know. Considering that I brought two suitcases at 49.8 lbs, I didn’t know that I had left enough room to bring a maturing consciousness and appreciation for the lessons here. But I am really happy that they made it here with me.


View of Xi Men Ding (西門町) Shopping District, taken in front of the MRT station. Supposedly it is Taiwan’s take on Harajuku.

Truthfully, I did not expect my brain to retain any childhood memories formed here. However, the stimulation of other senses like sound and smell breathed new life into my memories of the island. While having spent time here does mean that I am more familiar with the area and its language and culture than others in my study abroad cohort, it does not limit the educational and exploratory possibilities that Taiwan offers me. Sure, I can translate a good number of things, places, foods, etc. in conversation, but more advanced practices like interpreting Chinese idioms, poetry, and legal vocabulary still intimidate me. As such, I have put extra effort to consciously reject the crutches that are English subtitles. Moreover, Mandarin Chinese is spoken in conjunction with another less commonly known dialect — Taiwanese Hokkien (or just Taiwanese), which I cannot speak as well as I can understand. By the end of my time abroad, I hope to have a better grasp on the dialect that so artfully expresses emotions and meaning.


On a oyster farm boat tour. Oyster farmers use the lightness and darkness of the waters to determine “fertile waters” for oyster breeding and harvesting. Amazing, right? In the distance is a row of barely visible sticks, or the tops of one of the few harvesting techniques.

At the same time, I have been trying to find Chinese words to describe the amazing landscape of Taiwan. Having been a very sleepy child, I never could stay awake during rides lasting more than 20 minutes. Now I can look out the car window and see the lush green foliage, with its shades dancing in sync with the land’s changing elevations. How unfortunate it was that my younger self missed the evergreens and bamboo forests making up the mountains that earned the land its original name, “Formosa” (or “the beautiful island”). In fact, 政治大學 (Shortened as 政大 or translated into National Chengchi University ), the university that I am enrolled in, is built on the slope of a mountain. The campus’s terrain makes the hilly campus of Amherst seem flat. For one New Taiwan Dollar(NTD), or 3 US pennies, students will hitch a ride from a bright pink shuttle bus that takes them from the bottom of the mountain to the top, with stops along the way. On hot, humid days (most days so far), the one NTD is completely worth the convenience and air conditioning. Every once in a while, a hike up the mountain is good exercise. Less than a mile away is the gondola lift stop, which is another form of transportation connecting the neighboring mountains. While some students are cruising in romantic gondolas in Europe, we’ve got another kind of gondolas here in the mountains.


As the tour guide said, “This is the Taiwan Strait separating Taiwan and China. If you’re looking to head over to China, start swimming”. But don’t worry, I’ve got enough to explore around here, so a swimming excursion isn’t happening anytime soon.

With week one done and over, I am pressured to spell out my personal and academic goals that will be achieved only if I take full advantage of the next four months. For now, I will continue to ask questions about my surroundings with answers that I wish simply being Taiwanese-American would grant me access to.

Nearly all of my family lives in Taiwan, but I have yet to really find my home here.

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