The spring semester has finally started in Daegu! The weather is warming up, trees are just starting to sprout buds and I am excited for the quickly approaching cherry blossom season. In January, however, it was much colder so I hopped on a plane to Taiwan where the weather is much warmer all year round. I was in Taipei for a little over a week, and I explored the beautiful city and visited many of its interesting tourist spots.
I knew I would make a blog post about visiting Taiwan, but at first I wasn’t sure about what exactly I was going to write. I could talk about the great food I had and the tourist destinations I visited, but to be honest I’m definitely not an expert on any of the stuff I tried or saw, and I find it a little boring to just list the places I visited. Reading about traveling is never quite the same as actually experiencing it yourself. Instead, I would like to talk about my experience in Taiwan in comparison to my experience in Korea.
I am having a long term experience abroad in Korea. I have had many months to get accustomed to the culture and the area I am living in. I have been studying Korean for a few years now and while I am not fluent, I know enough to navigate daily life fairly easily. I have had time to learn from mistakes I made when I first arrived here. I familiarized myself with the culture before I came here and while I have done my fair share of tourism here, I am also experiencing daily life as a university student.
In Taiwan, I could not speak the language nor was I especially knowledgable about the culture. Sure, I looked up some information so as not to make any huge cultural faux pas but I am not familiar with Taiwanese culture the way I am with Korean culture. I was only in Taiwan for a short time and my experience there was mostly limited to the experience of a tourist. I had a lot of fun in Taiwan, but I was limited by my inability to speak Mandarin. Speaking English was sufficient to get to tourist destinations and eat at some common franchise restaurants, but I was not able to “go off the beaten track” and have a less touristy experience. If you know me, you know that I like to experience the daily life of a place just as much as I like to visit museums and historical sites. At times, I felt very frustrated and like an “ignorant American” being unable to speak the language. I felt like I was expecting others to speak English if they needed to communicate with me.
Luckily, I have made a couple Taiwanese friends who are exchange students at Kyungpook National University here in Daegu and I met them on a couple different days in Taipei. One of my friends lives in Taoyuan, which is right next to Taipei and where the airport is, and she was kind enough to pick me up from the airport and she let me stay at her apartment for my first night. Her family was so kind, taking me to dinner, giving me gifts, and welcoming me into their home. The next day she took me around Taipei and I had so much fun. I feel so grateful to her, I felt like a little baby that she was taking around. Having friends who are locals is one of the most helpful things when you are traveling somewhere new. This is just one more reason why studying abroad is so beneficial: you can meet people from all over the world, so you will have a whole host of new friends that you can visit if you travel to their home countries. Thanks to my friends, I was able to get a small peek into the daily life of a Taiwanese person, eating Taiwanese-style breakfast, visiting a special Chinese New Year market, etc.
Just because I had a very touristy experience, doesn’t mean I didn’t have an amazing time in Taiwan. A tourist’s experience is still an enjoyable one. I saw fascinating museums and beautiful landscapes and architecture. I ate delicious food in fancy restaurants, fast food places, and night markets. I drank my weight in Taiwan’s famous bubble tea. That being said, I certainly wouldn’t claim I got more than just a small taste of Taiwan and its vivacious culture. My trip was fun and educational, but it only reinforced my belief that to develop a deeper understanding of a country, you must spend time experiencing the daily life and you should make efforts to learn the language. Language is deeply tied with other elements of culture, and without it you will most likely struggle to break barriers and communicate well with people. My trip to Taiwan was exciting and unforgettable, but it was not as rewarding and fulfilling as my time in Korea has been.