Last year I left for an adventure in a far away land -- Taiwan. Ilha Formosa, or the Beautiful Island, is just off the coast of China, a tropical paradise on the other side of the world. In between munching on the succulent native fruits and enjoying biking alongside mountains, I learned a few good lessons about living in a multicultural world.
There are some things you can’t learn in your own country, some situations you’ll never be confronted with snug in your own bubble. These lessons, however, will be the ones that most shape who you are. They were for me.
Here's a handful of the many lessons I learned while rocking my gap year in Taiwan.
1. Your Bubble is Tiny -- Don't Get Caught Inside
Usually when people travel for an extended period of time, as anyone taking a gap year is, they won’t have a very large sphere of movement. If you’re working or volunteering or interning, you’ll be stuck in one place. For me, this place was my school and the small town where I bought groceries. I could have gone the entire year without moving much farther than the distance between the two. It’s hard, especially at first, to venture out on your own. It can be downright scary to encounter completely foreign concepts brought to life in people and places.
Learning how to use the public transport system, getting familiar with foreign currency, adjusting to a foreign food palate; all of these things taken together can very overwhelming. It’s good not to throw yourself in too much at first – when you’ve just arrived, acclimating to your school or work environment for awhile is a good idea.
If you’re like me though, once you’ve gotten comfortable, it will be hard to move outside the familiar bounds unless you really push yourself. Fortunately, I had several Taiwanese co-workers who loved to show me and my American team-mates all the nearby attractions.
If you have native co-workers, ask them to show you what’s interesting around your area. They’ll be thrilled! After all, who wouldn’t want to show off their own country? Taiwanese especially love it when you take an interest in Taiwan.
Ask them to take you to nearby cultural attractions, good restaurants, or just out into the countryside to see Taiwan’s natural beauty. Since the island is small, magnificent features are rarely more than an hour’s journey.
If you’re not the only American in your new home, it may be even harder to break out. It’s comforting to have a little bubble of English with you; it helps you feel at home when you’re surrounded by a foreign language. But it can be so so easy to just sit there in that bubble forever watching the world around you without ever taking part. Don’t let that happen!
If you have American friends with you, try to get them on board for exploring the area. Dedicate a few weekends in advance and do some research to make the most of your time away. Stay at a B&B in the mountains, take a tourist train through a factory, visit a wharf or salt field, or just rent a bike and bike for a day in the wild. You can’t really go wrong.
2. Learn Mandarin -- Just Do It!
Let’s face it; Mandarin is generally seen as the world’s most difficult language to learn, and that may be true, but what better way to learn than to immerse yourself in this fantastic language? A year is a long time, and if you work at it, you can easily become conversationally fluent by the end of 12 months.
When you arrive, ask around to see if there are any tutors you can afford. If not, ask for language exchanges. Most Taiwanese people want to improve their English, and would love to help you with Chinese. Check out Meetup.com for exchanges in your area, or ask at local universities or churches. A lot of places will already have exchanges in place that you can join.
Obviously, knowing the language is going to help you live day-to-day in Taiwan. Knowing how to ask for things, ask for different sizes, basic ordering phrases, and destinations will make traveling and shopping that much easier, especially if you’re in a rural area where English is rare.
Of course, a big city like Taipei will have clerks who speak wonderful English, but anywhere else could pose a problem. Picking up a bit of Chinese before you arrive is probably a good idea. My advice is to focus on basic survival phrases and don’t worry about the characters. That can come later, or never if you’re not planning on pursuing the language seriously. And nearly all the signs will have English underneath, so learning characters isn’t strictly necessary.
Chinese, aside from being a beautiful language, is also very useful in the global community. Think of how valuable you would be to potential employers if you had a good grasp of Chinese. It’s a daunting language for most, but if you bring that skill to the table, I bet it would give you an edge in most corporate environments.
That aside, showing an active interest in learning Chinese will endear you to your native friends and co-workers (or boss!). It shows respect for the culture and a willingness accept the value of another way of life.
A lot of foreigners typically expect English to be spoken everywhere, so by humbling yourself to learn the language of the land, it gives a good impression.
3. Keep An Open Mind
It’s a totally different culture in Taiwan. Certain things that Americans or other Westerners wouldn’t think twice about may be offensive or totally alien to Taiwanese. It would take forever to go through every difference between the two cultures, but I can give you a brief run down.
Most of Taiwanese history is deeply tied to the mainland Chinese culture. Confucianism runs strong through most of Asia, so its tenants of filial loyalty and ancestor worship influence the entire social strata. Elders are given respect and preference in many situations, and polite behavior is expected at all times.
As a foreigner, you’re technically outside of cultural expectations, but you don’t want to reinforce the stereotypes of loud obnoxious and insensitive foreigners. Keep your voice down in public, and don’t point, stare, or laugh at anything you see that might be a little odd.
Also keep an open mind in regards to things that might seem wrong or off to you. Being in Taiwan means accepting their viewpoint. You may have trouble eating food from roadside stalls or eating dishes with questionable meat, but if you must refuse to eat it, at least keep from criticizing it.
4. It’s Not Thailand, and It's Not a Third-World Country
I can’t tell you how many times people asked me where I was going or where’d I been, and always heard “Thailand,” when I said “Taiwan.” It seems like Taiwan is pretty unknown to most people in America.
I had to gently tell people that Taiwan and Thailand, while both part of Asia, are very different. Thailand has a bit of a history for being unsafe and poor, and while that may or may not be true, it’s a very different reputation for Taiwan. Taiwan is very, very safe -- my girl friends and I felt completely safe walking by ourselves just about everywhere (and I’m pretty nervous most of the time, so that’s saying something.)
It has it’s poorer areas out in the country, but I found the people to be wonderfully warm and friendly and the beauty is unsurpassed, especially in the mountains.
Taipei is actually a huge international city, and it has high end malls with all the most expensive brands, world-renowned restaurants, clubs, museums, and theaters. Don’t think you can escape modern urban living in Taiwan. Taiwan even has several Costco’s (a handy place to shop for American food).
If you haven’t done a bit of research before hand, you may have similar expectations – that Taiwan is like Thailand. I urge you to go on Wikipedia or go to the library and do some digging. Find some blogs (like mine!) that share people’s experiences. Taiwan is a marvelous country with a lot to offer connoisseurs of every type.
5. You’re a Representative of Your Home Country
You represent your country no matter where you go. People you meet will automatically associate your behaviors with your home country. Just think if you met a succession of Taiwanese at home who were rude or disrespectful. You’d probably think, “I never want to go there! Taiwanese people are so awful!” (Of course they’re not, but you get my point.)
Make your impression good for the sake of your country, if not yourself. Even when you’re not directly interacting with anyone, people are still watching you. Don’t be the loudest person on the bus and reinforce the idea that all Americans (or Westerners in general) are obnoxious and oblivious to other’s needs.
Take care to ask about appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Things like jiggling your legs, particular ways of beckoning people, and other actions and gestures may be offensive, so find a willing mentor to help you assimilate smoothly. I can’t tell you how many embarrassing moments I had due to ignorance. They were funny for sure, but I was happy to learn better.
No matter what situation you find yourself in, remember that you are acting as a representative. Do the world a favor and act accordingly.