Pierce is from Virginia Beach, VA and participated in the 2019 Chinese summer program in Taiwan.
The best advice I got before spending the summer in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, was from the handbook I received pre-program. It implored me to “expect everything to be much harder than you think it will be. Even basic daily tasks, like ordering food, are more difficult when done in an unfamiliar language and place.”
At the time, this worried me. Had I gotten myself into something that I couldn’t handle? Was I in over my head? What if my language skills weren’t sufficient, and my family made fun of my accent? What if I couldn’t order food, and slowly emaciated to nothing but skin and bone?
Thankfully, my mom’s words calmed me: “Pierce, there are lots of times in life where you’re going to be uncomfortable. What you have to remember is that discomfort is an opportunity for growth.”
With my new motto (and plenty of rain-gear for 台风 (typhoon) season) tucked into my suitcase, I got on the plane, and headed for Taiwan, prepared for the uncomfortable, the frightening, and the worrisome. This is what I found:
Reality: Coming into the program, everyone had different levels of knowledge. The students that were most knowledgeable never condescended, and those that knew comparatively less were quick to pick things up. The atmosphere and fantastic teachers at 文藻大学 (WenZao DaXue, the college we attended in Kaohsiung) made language learning both easy and enjoyable. I did, however, have to make myself uncomfortable to improve – this meant talking to everyone I could in the target language, and fully investing myself in class activities. With time and concentration, language tasks that at first seemed impossible became almost second nature.
My worry: My host family, and Taiwanese people in general, won’t understand my feeble attempt at producing language. They’ll pity me and simply switch to English.
Reality: I made a million mistakes, and there were times where I was frustrated that I couldn’t communicate my exact meaning. However, I could always count on the patience and kindness of my Taiwanese family, classmates, and teachers to help guide me towards language growth. The people of Taiwan are some of the kindest and most well-meaning I have ever met. There is a word in Mandarin, 热情, which means warm-hearted, or hospitable. We ended up using it so often to describe the Taiwanese that it became an ongoing joke. No one mocked my language ability, and no one interjected in English when I was trying to use Chinese. Every Taiwanese person that I met seemed proud I took on the challenge of learning their language, and was eager to assist in any way they could.
Reality: While on program, I tried everything. I devoured every food, drink, and 小吃 (literally: little eat) that I could get my hands on. I won’t lie; 猪血糕 (pig blood cakes), 臭豆腐 (stinky tofu), and 鱼旦 (fish balls) seem daunting at first. However, because I didn’t let my preconceived notions negatively affect my attitude towards dishes, my food prejudices changed over time. For example, I didn’t like fish before my program. Now, I would give anything to go back and gulp down a whole stewed fish with my family, just one more time.
My worry: I won’t have much in common with my host siblings or parents. I won’t be able to sustain conversation because of our differences. I might even say the wrong things and offend my family.
Reality: In truth, there is little use talking with people that are exactly like you. Having differences in ideology makes conversation far more interesting; my family and I discussed gay marraige (just legalized in Taiwan this year), the political situation in Hong Kong, and Taiwan’s independence, while maintaining respect for one another’s opinions. These conversations also led to ironing out funny misunderstandings. For example, my family was shocked to hear that the drinking age in America is 21, not, in fact, 15. I quickly realized that my time overseas was not just an opportunity for one-way learning, but for two-way exchange. This led to one of my trip’s great enjoyments: soaking up my host family’s traditions and way of life, while also sharing American culture.
NSLI-Y taught me that life is full of things that will push me out of my comfort zone; however, it is only through pushing through these moments of discomfort and unfamiliarity that I can grow as a person, a citizen ambassador, and a language lover.