For my STEP project I studied abroad in Taiwan in hopes of improving my Mandarin language skills. I attended Kao Yuan University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, which featured six week course in reading and speaking, as well as elective courses in Chinese culture such as calligraphy, poetry, and painting. What was enlightening about this experience were the trips to cultural destinations such as the great Buddhist temple Fo Guang San, the exquisite history museums such as the Chang Kai-Shek Memorial in Taipei, and best of all the great food.
In addition to eating well and improving my Mandarin, I was able to greatly expand my worldview. First, I befriended different people from all over the world. The program consisted of students from all over the world, and despite our limited time together, it felt like we had known each other for years. As I became acquainted to local culture in Taiwan, I realized how advantageous it is to know another language. I knew some conversational Mandarin and was able to help translate for my friends who were less fluent. Finally, this experience has made me realize that even though the world is so big and diverse, people all have the same basic common characteristic of wanting to connect with each other.
Through this program I met a diverse group of people from various countries around the world such as Canada, Denmark, Switzerland, Ecuador, and even different parts of the United States. During the six weeks, we bonded over our shared experience of being in a foreign country. One particularly memorable event was when we planned a birthday celebration for one of our fellow classmates. We split up into two groups. Some of us went to 65 Degrees, a locally renowned bakery, to buy a cake. We had to rush to get the cake back to our dorm because not only was it a very hot day and we were afraid of it spoiling, we needed to hide it and make sure our friend didn’t notice and spoil the surprise. The other group took went shopping for a present and bought him a chess set, which one of the hobbies he was interested in. Despite the short amount of time that we’d known each other, we immediately bonded and felt like a group of longtime friends. Even though the program has ended for several months, we all still keep in touch to this day.
While exploring Taiwan with my newfound friends, I also realized how amazingly helpful knowing another language is. Even though the de facto world language is English, learning another language makes it easier to connect with locals and makes you appreciate the local culture more. Being at least somewhat fluent in conversational Mandarin, I was able guide my fellow students around the city, acting as a translator. This came in handy when we were exploring the local shops and markets. One weekend, my friends and I were at a night market, which is like a mix between a traditional open air market and evening hangout. My one friend was trying to buy something from a leather goods vendor but did not speak fluent mandarin. Being familiar with how bargaining works at these types of traditional markets, I was able to barter with the shopkeeper and help her get a better price for the purse she wanted.
Another time, we were exploring the city around the University campus and unexpectedly encountered some of the most kind-hearted locals. It was very late in the evening by the time we were ready to head back to the dorms and we did not realize that the busses and public transportation had stopped running for the day. At first we decided to just walk back since we were not far from the dorms. I stopped a local to ask for directions on the quickest way back, but got into a conversation with him. It turns out the local was also a student waiting picked up by his parents. We bonded over student life and compared our experiences exploring Taiwan and Taiwanese culture. When his parents arrived, he told them our situation and they were kind enough to give all of us a ride home
The most personally significant experience of my study abroad trip was during the last week of classes. While the first few weeks were straightforward studying and cultural lessons, the last week had an optional a speech and singing contest the students could enter. My friend Ziru and I were the most fluent speakers in our class, so after much pressure from both my classmates and the teacher, Ziru and I decided to enter the speech contest together. The teacher picked out a funny skit and we set off to prepare for it. We practiced every day but as the contest drew closer, I felt more and more nervous. I was not very confident in my overall speaking ability and was afraid I would mess up and embarrass us. However, Ziru along with several of my friends sat me down that day and offered me a lot of encouragement. They reminded me of all the work I had done in preparation and how it would be sad to see it all wasted. This gave me the confidence to go through with it, knowing that no matter what happens my friends will support me. As I walked onto the stage with my partner, all of my friends cheered and we were able to perform the best skit of the day, winning first place. I felt so lucky to have been able to make such good friends, especially since we were all so different and had only known each other for such a short time.
This experience has taught me that having a broad worldview is not only about knowing the differences but also finding similarities between seemingly different peoples. The connections that my fellow students and I formed on this trip will be with us for a lifetime. With my newly improved language skills, I’m now regularly practicing mandarin conversations with my Chinese friends here at Ohio State. I hope to one day work in a field that will allow me to travel and work in different countries. Now knowing that there will always be people willing to help and connect with others, I feel more prepared and will be ready to face the challenges that lie ahead.