[Written in October 2020]

I’m on a plane…again. On a gap year, again. About to live in a Mandarin-speaking country for over half an academic year, again.

In a way, this feels so similar to my gap year on NSLI-Y AY Beijing two years ago. Heck, I even spent the first half hour of my flight helping a friend with his CLS essays.

But it also feels—is—so different. I’m on my own this time, without my ‘government-issued friends,’ unattached to any program or school, not a student but an intern – and of course, in Taiwan amidst a global pandemic.

I’ve thought a lot more about my life in Beijing since COVID forced us all home. With freshman year over, and lots of time on my hands, and quarantine life meaning that staying in touch with NSLI-Y friends was just as easy as with college friends, and of course the universal missing of all things travel and experiential – it was natural to think about Beijing more, miss Beijing more, reflect on the life I lived and the person I was in high school vs Beijing vs college vs now.

I never really blogged about the end of NSLI-Y Beijing. I always meant to – just like how I meant to finish writing and sending notes to all my NSLIY-mates by the end of program (notes to half my friends sit on my laptop unsent, waiting for me to get around to actually writing the other half). There’s so much to share, so many good memories (and bad ones), of late night rooftop conversations, running around the city to find Thai tea soft serve, graduation 2.0 and our hilarious class skit, sunset over Beihai 北海, the week of no school and exploring after we finished our HSK exam, chilling in the sky lounge of one of the tallest buildings in the city, my last weekend with my host family, the sunrise from my windowsill after I pulled an all-nighter to write notes to Beijing friends (if only I’d pulled a second one to write to my NSLIY-mates as well).

I cried before getting on the bus to leave the school – actual puffy-eyes-and-uncontrollable-tears crying, something I hadn’t remembered doing since my grandpa passed when I was eight (excepting sad movies). I realized afterward, it wasn’t just sadness from saying goodbye to friends. I’d see those people again – the girl who made me burst into tears every time I looked at her face lives in Japan near the university I’ll likely study abroad at through Penn; my host family, especially my host sister, will likely be in Beijing for a while when I hopefully return someday; my NSLIY-mates obviously live in the US at visitable distances (and many even close to my home or college in CA or PA, an amazingly fortunate coincidence). No, the tears were from saying goodbye to the life, to the experience, to the NSLIY-Beijing-Stacy that would never come back.

Five students are sitting on a wooden railing in front of a body of water. The students are leaning in on each other and all are wearing red and black school uniforms. In the background there are many green trees.

I always said that the term gap year truly lived up to its name – Beijing was a gap in my life (in my normal, US-based life), and instead a whole different life wrapped up in that isolated microcosm of a program and year. Skipping through my first year of college to now, I had decided early on to take a gap year, before having any idea of what I’d be doing. Life after freshman year of college when COVID kicked us all back home has been enjoyable, but stagnant. Any other 7-month period in the past few years (Xi’an, senior year of high school, Kyoto, Beijing, freshman year at Penn) would have been filled with new people, new activities, new ideas, new experiences – and I miss that, actively miss that.

Taiwan was a mere pipe dream (visa restrictions, internship-scarce, quarantine requirements), and I was reluctantly resigned to a year of remote internships (not to say I didn’t enjoy my summer and early fall internships – I did). But surprisingly, things worked out – Penn alum were enormously generous, a company in Taipei accepted me, visa and internship permits came through, and all the other logistics fell into place (at least so far…fingers crossed for what’s to come).

So, what is to come? Two weeks of hotel quarantine in Taipei….and then living in a share apartment (with both locals and internationals my age), interning at a Taiwanese telecommunications company, taking Mandarin classes on the side, and hopefully exploring the city and surrounding nature and people and culture and myself, to the absolute fullest, until I come home in April.

NSLIY AY was a year of exploration, of fulfillment, of challenges, and of growth, in every sense – personally, in friendships and relationships, in Mandarin language and culture. And looking forward, it's is what inspires me to continue all of those things on this second gap year in Taiwan – and to be incredibly excited about everything ahead of me.

Three students in black graduation robes are jumping with their arms in the air and knees bent. Behind them is a garden with green and red bushes, and some buildings.