* University/ Institute: Leiden University
* Nationality: Netherlands
A couple of weeks ago I arrived in Taiwan, not knowing what to expect of this yet to be discovered island off the coast of China. As I stept out of the plane, I remembered the moment Dani (my classmate and good friend back home) asked me if I was interested in going with her to this summer course. I instantly agreed, but in the back of my mind I thought it was all still so far away. Now, I was walking out of the airport and felt the notorious hot air of Taiwan brush against my face and I instantly knew that this was going to be a trip to remember.
Before I came to Taiwan, I already studied Mandarin for a year at Leiden University in Holland. It’s the only place in the Netherlands where you can get a higher education in Chinese culture and language and I must say I feel lucky to be one of the few that are following this very interesting and challenging course. Naturally, when I got here I was itching to practice my Mandarin skills and in a way show off what I had learned this past year in school. Boy, was I in for a surprise! Right away I got my first reality check when I tried to explain to the cab driver at the airport where our dorm was. He didn’t understand a word I was saying and I didn’t understand anything that came flying out of his mouth with a speed of a hundred miles an hour. After hearing “shenme” (meaning “what” in Mandarin) for the so manias time, I gave up and showed him a piece of paper where we had to be. At that moment I knew I still had a lot to learn.
After a long hour of dosing off in the back of the cab we finally arrived at the I-House, the place we have been calling home for the past six weeks. Everybody has been so nice here and is always ready to help with anything. Even after long study sessions till 3 am in the morning, every time while walking back to my room I got to hear “Wan’an” (goodnight) with the nicest most genuine smile from the night guard. And after coming back from a long hot day of strolling through the streets of Taipei, it’s always been a relief hearing the beeping sound of my room unlocking and being able to turn on the air conditioning and relax in a very peaceful environment It’s the little things that count! The I-House has definitely become a home away from home to me.
When Dani and I settled in that day, we both fell asleep almost instantly. After a thirteen hour flight and the cab drive it has been a long travel and naturally we both were very tired. The next morning we woke up, it felt like it was the first day of school all over again. We had our first introduction to the courses and on that same day a placement test to see on which level you could speak, write and read mandarin. I was a bit nervous, but it turned out to be fine. We both placed in the intermediate class and got to meet our new classmates the next day.
The Mandarin classes here are way more challenging than those back home. We have a very energetic teacher and the only language spoken in class-yep you guessed it- was Mandarin. While you might think “well of course, that’s what you came to learn here right?!”, I can assure you those three hours of class where the most intense hours of concentration I’ve had during my whole year of University. Coming out of that class I felt a bit insecure about the coming weeks, but also motivated. I was determined and eager to learn.
The course consisted of four classes a week, three hours a day of constant speaking, reading, writing and listening exercises and I’m not going to lie it was hard at times. But now that the course is over, tomorrow we have our big final test, I have definitely noticed progress in my language skills. Speaking and listening, especially understanding, have been the biggest challenge but I feel that after a few bumps in the road and a lot of practice it’s been worth my while coming here to NCCU.
Of course, while I was here I didn’t only study. Taiwan has so much to offer in every aspect. The title of this essay, as you might have noticed, is a pretty cliché one but it’s the truest to what I’ve experienced here on this beautiful Island. Let me explain. While I was in Lugang, an urban township in northwestern Changhua County, I stayed in a very charming hostel called Tai17. Dani and me decided to go away for the weekend and explore this little town and see how a smaller city was different from the always busy Taipei. This little town is known for it’s old preserved architectural structures, many temples and delicious Baozi( a type of steamed filled bun, of a bread like texture). There is no other way to describe Lugang, but quaint. Every corner you turned (trust me Lugang has a lot of them) there was something new to see, but always true to its old traditions. For example, we happened to stumble upon an old shop were the owner has been making Chinese lanterns in every size and form for seventy years. Traditional professionalism at its best.
As we walked the streets of Lugang for a whole day, going from temple to temple through little alleys and walking on the market we ended up eating at a little food stand on the side of the road. The people were so nice and welcoming and even though we had a bit of a language barrier, we ended up eating a nice bowl of Chinese noodles with delicious pork and steamed veggies. A full stomach makes a happy heart, is a well used proverb back home and it couldn’t have been more true at that moment.
The next morning the very nice owner of the hostel we were staying at had made breakfast for us. While we were sitting at the breakfast table enjoying our sandwiches, I happened to notice a book in the book shelve. It was Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and it all fell into place to me. This trip, not only the one to Lugang but also everywhere else we have been to, was defined by those words.
First of Eat. Taiwan has a rich food culture, everywhere you turn there’s a little restaurant, food stand, juice bar or night market. You can get everything from squid nuggets to traditional dumplings all in just one street. And everything tastes as good as it looks! The night markets are my favorite place to try strange new things like “stinky tofu”, but fancier restaurants like Din Tai Fung (famous for its delicious dumplings) are also on my favorite list. One thing is for sure, for every taste there is something to find here.
Pray. The second thing you will see the most here in Taiwan, except for the many restaurants, are temples. Everywhere you go you will stumble upon one. From small ones in an alley to really big ones like Longshan Temple, they are all well visited by locals here. The bigger temples are always very busy, and there is a lot going on. Every temple has it’s gods, that can help you in a specific area like love, school, work, health etc. Walking through temples and feeling the presence of belief of the prayers offering essence and other goods to the gods for good fortune, you can’t help but also start to feel a sense of belief. I always stood in awe looking at all the detailed work put into the architecture, every temple has something special.
And last but not least, Love. This is the easiest one to explain to someone that has been to Taiwan, because it is almost impossible to not fall in love with this place. The people, the culture, the food, nature, everything is just amazing on its own. I guess you will just have to visit this special island, to understand what I mean.
Before ending this essay I would like to tell something about the best experience I’ve had here. It was a couple of days ago, on the 5th of August 2013. I went up to Zhinan temple and it was absolutely breathtaking. I've never seen such a beautiful place in my life, I just felt really small and everything else seemed so unimportant. When I was watching the sunset and the frogs and crickets were chirping, I actually got overwhelmed with a very sad feeling. The day was coming to an end and it made me really realise that this amazing trip to Taiwan was also coming to an end and that I wouldn't see this beautiful place anymore. On the other hand I felt this feeling of infinite beauty and happiness, I'm just so happy I came here and got the chance to see all of this. I’ve experienced things I have never experienced before, from jumping of cliffs in Taroko National Park to visiting the world’s second largest building, it has all been a great adventure.
Taiwan has really captured a piece of my heart and I think it’s safe to say that when I leave in a couple of days, it won’t be a goodbye but a see you later.
The International Building where NCCU Chinese Language Center located
The sunset scenery taken at the Zhinan temple
The food stands of the night market
Taipei 101 Building