By La Trobe student Simone Laiu
The most daunting part about going overseas and being an exchange student is the beginning. You are entering an unknown country, an unfamiliar airport and you don’t know if they are able to understand your language. BUT, for me, my mind was at ease as my host university, Taichung’s National Chung Hsing University (NCHU)’s Office of International Affairs (OIA) had arranged a buddy system where each foreign exchange student was paired up with a local volunteer student. They received us at the airport, helped us buy mobile phone sim cards, and took us to the dormitories near the university.
Taiwan being a very small country (it’s 1oo times smaller than Australia), space is very limited, so you may feel a little claustrophobic at first. In particular, when I was first shown my dorm room, I was a little surprised at how small it was. You share the room and bathroom with three other girls; for me, it was two Indonesian girls and one Taiwanese girl. It was kind of like a bunk set-up, where the bed was above our desk and wardrobe. Bedding is provided for the exchange students, so you don’t need to worry about that.
Though we all had our own Taiwanese buddy, we usually travelled in big groups, as most of the Taiwanese buddies knew each other. We were quickly shown the Taiwanese lifestyle, which differed a lot to Australia’s. The dormitories and most apartments did not have kitchens, as it is cheaper and more convenient to eat out in Taiwan. A typical meal can be as cheap as 40 Taiwan Dollars ($1.40 in AUS). Near the university and the girls’ and boys’ dorms, there are plenty of small shops to buy breakfast, lunch and dinner (above). Though the owners’ ability of English is very limited, they are very friendly, but it is still a good idea to go with your buddy first, take one of their menus and write some English notes for yourself. Also, compared to Australia, the price of goods here is ridiculously cheap. I recommend you bring only a few changes of clothes and then just go shopping crazy when you get here. The Taiwanese will take you to all the good spots like Yi Zhong Jie, one of my favourites.
The OIA and buddies helped us enrol in our subjects and organised for a ‘chop’ – it’s a stamp that has your Chinese name (Yep! If you don’t have a Chinese name they will give you one) and they use that instead of signatures – and we were also given the opportunity to participate in free, twice a week, evening Chinese classes. Going to NCHU each day to study was a pleasure. The environment is very clean and beautiful and is a popular destination for professional wedding photos. Their main lake in front of their library represents Mainland China, and then there are two small ponds that represent Hainan and Taiwan. In regards to classes and classmates, I had a couple of classes where I was the only foreign student. In the beginning I did feel very isolated, but it isn’t because the Taiwanese are unfriendly, but more that they are shy and the majority are not confident about the English speaking abilities, so don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and ask questions if you are unsure about something.
The OIA organised a welcome party early in the semester and the university’s international week was also around the same time. This was a perfect opportunity to make friends and possibly find someone from the same country as you, unfortunately I was the only Australian, but countries from around the world were happy to take photos with me and the Australian flag! It was from these gatherings that we formed the Facebook group “Exchange students’ traditions and life in Taiwan”. In between the academic work there were mass amounts of travelling and exploring Taiwan usually with the people from this group. This group of friends became my family away from home. We laughed and shared amazing experiences, and when times were rough, we were there for each other.
Other than the travelling, sometimes we just stayed in Taichung and sang Karaoke, played pool, or went out clubbing. A popular night with us was Wednesday nights, as it was Ladies’ night and many places had very cheap prices or no entry fee at all for ladies.
Regarding transport around Taiwan, it’s very convenient and mostly 24 hours. They also have a High Speed Railway (HSR) which can travel up to speeds of 295km/h. Taipei and Kaohsiung also have Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) which is cheap and convenient way to travel within the city. Unfortunately there’s no MRT in Taichung, and buses are not very regular. The most convenient method of transport is scooter. A few of my foreign student friends got a licence and bought a scooter, but for me, I was too scared of the traffic. I’ve seen so many vehicles run red lights and even though it’s a pedestrian crossing and the ‘green man’ signals us to walk, always look both ways, as it is a game of ‘chicken’ between the pedestrian and cars/scooters – whoever gets there first, goes.
Something that I’m always going to remember is the deliciously cheap food. Taiwan offers many types of cuisine. Some of the must try foods in Taiwan is the Beef noodles, Taiwanese egg pies, soup dumplings and ‘Modern Toilet’ restaurant. Also, make sure you try all the authentic Taiwanese snacks in the night markets like ‘Stinky Tofu’ and ‘Sweet Potato balls’.
Before I knew it, I was in my last month in Taiwan. Though it was only a little over 5 months, the friends I had made were like family. We ushered in the New Year together at the famous Taipei 101 Tower, and the fireworks that came off the building of 101 levels were spectacular. We then settled ourselves and finished our final assessments for the semester. For me it was a feeling of looking-forward-to-going-home, and not-wanting-to-leave-Taiwan at the same time. Stories were retold; tears were shed and hugs were shared all around – a truly bittersweet ending. The farewell was just as warm as the welcome, with many people joining me for a last supper and seeing me off to the airport. Taiwan has truly touched my heart….TAIWAN UP! ^_^