Freya, Chinese (Mandarin)

Freya is an alumna of the 2014-15 Chinese academic year program in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and earned a master’s degree in international politics at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in 2021. She is still pursuing her passion for Chinese and recently moved back to Taiwan.

When I left Taiwan at the end of my NSLI-Y exchange year in 2015, I knew I had learned a lot and that my experience would continue to benefit me in years to come. However, I did not realize the true depth of NSLI-Y’s impact on me as a person until I returned to Taiwan in 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I started my MA program at Johns Hopkins’ SAIS Nanjing in 2019. The process of moving to China and settling in while staying on top of my classes—the majority of which were taught in Chinese—was tough, to put it lightly. Needless to say, I was very much looking forward to a relaxing visit to Taiwan to reconnect with my NSLI-Y host family in Kaohsiung during my winter break. As my first semester was wrapping up, “rumors” began circulating about a new deadly virus going around. I had planned to spend a couple of days in Shanghai celebrating Chinese New Year before flying to Taipei, but by the time I arrived in Shanghai, it was very clear that was not going to happen. Instead, what I experienced was surreal and something that I imagine has never before happened in Chinese history: complete silence, no people, no celebration; only the occasional ambulance siren could be heard.

By chance, I got the last flight out to Taipei before the route was shut down. The second I landed it felt like I could finally breathe. Everything that I had learned during my NSLI-Y year suddenly took on a new and distinctly practical significance. I had a nuanced understanding of Taiwanese culture, what to expect in terms of Taiwan’s response to this adverse situation, and, importantly, how I fit into it all. Thanks to NSLI-Y, I understood how I could individually contribute to the public good in a culturally sensitive way.

a group of people taking a selfie

When I was a NSLI-Y student in Kaohsiung, local students would sometimes wear masks to school when they were sick. At the time I found that quirky or even strange. Looking back now, COVID was the first time I had ever had to think about public health in my life, but it certainly wasn’t the first time Taiwan had experienced a respiratory virus epidemic. In 2003, the island was hit especially hard by the first SARS outbreak. With the backdrop of COVID in 2020, habits that I observed as an exchange student, such as wearing masks to school, no longer seemed so quirky. Instead, they were revealed to be deeply compassionate and socially responsible behaviors. While I watched nearly everywhere else in the world descend deeper and deeper into chaos on the news, life in Taiwan was happy, comfortable, and safe. People were cautious and intentional, expertly balancing quality of life, personal well-being, and caring for those around them. It’s difficult to put into words the genuine sense of pride I felt experiencing life in Taiwan during this time. Despite the fact that the circumstances were unusual, and even though it had been 5 years since I was last in Taiwan, I felt like I was home.

I had only planned to visit Taiwan for about 10 days before heading back to Nanjing for my next semester. I had left all of my belongings in my apartment in Nanjing, including important documents like my birth certificate. The university told us to try to stay abroad for a couple more weeks while the situation was being monitored. The timeline was extended several more times, and long story short, I ended up staying in Taiwan for 2 months and attending my classes remotely.

When it finally became clear that I wouldn't be returning to China, I made the decision to cancel my lease in Nanjing early and returned to the US to ride out the storm. I left Taipei on March 15th, 2020. As I made my way through the airport, I reflected on the last time I left Taipei and how emotional it was to say goodbye to my host family and come to terms with my NSLI-Y experience ending. When I spotted a couple of young people wearing NSLI-Y shirts in front of me in the security line, I couldn't believe my eyes and wondered if they could possibly be that year's students. Turns out that year's cohort was on the same flight! I had a hard enough time leaving Taiwan as planned during my NSLI-Y year. I can't imagine having to leave on short notice under emergency circumstances. Meeting them was bittersweet; it was truly heartbreaking to hear about their untimely departure from Taiwan as it was happening, but I was also beyond excited to connect with people with so many shared experiences. The attached picture is of us at the airport. Seeing them was like traveling back in time. I remember the Resident Director asking me if I was still in contact with other students in my own cohort. As it turns out, I was preparing to be the maid of honor in my best friend's wedding (whom I happened to meet through NSLI-Y)!

For almost 2 years after that day, I wondered what things would have been like if I had just stayed in Taiwan. The time I spent there in 2020 was so special and eye-opening. It shaped my perspective on the pandemic and international politics in a dramatic and very personal manner. I fell in love with the country all over again, and I decided to move to Taipei! I am currently in the process of settling in and I feel a strong determination and responsibility towards improving my Chinese and committing to traditional characters.