Week 5: Worlds Apart

Getting some distance.

Okay last weekend was crazy and fast and filled with excitement. Our whole group of about 30 students and a few teachers road-tripped our way from Tainan to Taipei. We set out early Friday morning (no classes and no weekly test!) and returned early afternoon on Sunday.

Our class went to the National Palace Museum and then we had the rest of the weekend to ourselves. Of course the National Palace Museum was beautiful and interesting, but I’m not going to spend a post talking about a museum.

As I’m writing this, I have realized that I don’t know the names of most places we went. We had a packed weekend and I loved every second of it, but honestly I didn’t really care about where we went. I’ve found that whether or not a place is famous doesn’t really make a difference in your experience. The only difference is that there are more people. So when my friends wanted to go see or do something, I didn’t need to know the name to decide if I wanted to go. Mountain climbing? Yup! Lantern lighting? Yup! Stay in the hotel and sleep? Hell no.

Friday night we went hiking on a mountain that I don’t know the name of. We started hiking right before sunset, so we had peaks of the rosy skyline through the plush leaves on the way up, a stunning view of Taipei 101 backlit by a burning horizon at the top, and glimmers of city lights at dusk on the way down.

The top of the mountain had some huge boulders that people were climbing on to get pictures with Taipei 101. But we realized there was a line of about 30 people waiting their turn to climb up one boulder (that had little steps) to take pictures. And of course every person was taking about 10 minutes atop the rock. So instead, our group found another, slightly more dangerous boulder, and climbed it ourselves. We helped each other up, the tallest going first and then the ones on top heaving up the others. Eventually all 5 of us were positioned on top of the boulder, laughing uncontrollably at all the people waiting in line staring at us, saying “they’re insane” in Chinese.

I’m going to skip ahead to Saturday because so much happened that I know I’m going to forget something.

We started out early to avoid the heat and catch a train to I-don’t-remember-where (I think it was Shifen but that might have been later in the day). We hiked through a small town that had train tracks running right through the middle. Wooden rails lined both sides of the tracks and bustling shops faced the railway. The town was packed with venders selling fruits and fungus juice, paintings and figurines. And then the sky lanterns…

Sky lanterns were a big thing in this town. Families would buy a huge paper lantern about the size of a baby elephant and lay them out on the wooden rails bordering the train tracks. They used the rails as makeshift easels, painting their wishes and dreams in swooshing Chinese characters. Families then rushed onto the train tracks, set up the lantern with every family member holding onto a side, and then on the count of 3, they all let go and watched their lantern float up into the sky. Then of course, a man monitoring the tracks would blow a whistle, and all the families would sprint off the track before the train came howling down the rails, only to crowd back onto the track once the caboose passed.

We hiked through the town, over what seemed to be an abandoned highway, and then across some bridges that were basically just a step up from a rope bridge, until we ended up at a beautiful waterfall. Then we loaded onto a bus that didn’t have any seats left, so only our group of friends were standing in the aisle as the bus whipped around narrow turns and almost collided with every other oncoming vehicle. But then we saw the view and our jaws dropped.

We had arrived at Jiufen. Mountains, temples, little orange and white houses, and a gorgeous view of the coast.

Jiufen is basically a maze of alleyways packed with street vendors and lit by little red lanterns suspended above the crowds. It’s loud and confusing and thrilling. At one point I pulled off to the side of the alley to wait for my friends (it’s very easy to get separated) and I found myself in a miniature cave opening with white scrawl on the damp walls. Curiosity hit and I walked into the cave, ducking my head to squeeze through the narrow tunnel.

About a minute later I came to a set of very steep, narrow stairs. I scrambled up the stairs (literally scrambled because I had to use my hands to get up) and discovered some cafes with dilapidated facades, a shrine with burning incense, and a cute little gazebo wedged into the side of the mountain. My friends rushed out from the cave and ran to the gazebo, claiming it for the evening. We got some takeout food, set out a blanket, and ate dinner watching the sun set over Taiwan.

There was also a parrot. Not really sure what that was about. All we saw was an occasional stripe of red, blue, and green fly past our little “home” whenever a man (standing somewhere below our ledge) whistled. I guess parrots are popular pets in Taiwan?

The bus ride home was a long one, with a lot of people, and my friend and I ended up sitting on the emergency exit stairs to take a nap. All things considered, we slept pretty well. Fire hydrants don’t make the best pillows though.



At the end of every day I realize that my brain is perpetually switching between languages, switching between lives, and maybe even switching between personalities.

Languages naturally bring out different sides of your personality, because languages are different ways of conceptualizing the world.

Languages sparse up the world in different ways and then culture fills in the gaps and keeps it growing. My favorite part of the language learning experience is piercing the culture veil and getting a deeper look into how language and culture are inseparable.

In a kind of humorous example, when you say “iron rice bowl” in Chinese, you’re talking about “a steady job”. Everyone wants an iron rice bowl.

But on a more personal level, I have no time to think about my life back home. I’m fully immersed in my life here, right now. I’m considered a regular at local cafes and restaurants. I walk in and the waitress will start making my coffee, or my fried radish cake (its better than it sounds) or my leek dumpling soup. I get confused when text pops up in English on my phone, because I expected characters to pop up instead. My English sucks. I forget that I start college classes again in 3 weeks. I forget that I’m also a chemistry major. I forget what time I used to eat dinner. I forget what I used to eat for dinner, but I know it wasn’t fried radish cake. Nothing about my daily routine is the same as it is at home or at school.

It’s very freeing in a very weird way, because I don’t have time to stress about the things that I would stress about at home. I’m in a new place surrounded by completely new people living a completely different life. And a part of me worries about what that means when I do go back home. Reverse culture shock is real. But we’ll deal with that later.

It feels weird to talk about myself on this level, and I think that’s because American culture has turned it into a taboo. These posts are just me writing down my thoughts in a rather disorganized fashion to tell my friends and family that I’m still breathing and going to class everyday.

But being in this language/life/personality limbo has brought some things to my attention.

I think American culture limits our expression of self confidence. You’re supposed to be secretly confident in yourself. You’re supposed to do your own thing and be secretly proud. Other people can compliment you, but you shouldn’t compliment yourself. Complimenting yourself is a sign of arrogance.

This sounds like a load of crap to me. Sure, arrogant people can be annoying and difficult to work with. But arrogance is making up for other self confidence ticks.

I think self confidence comes in many forms, and none of them should be considered a taboo.

Self confidence doesn’t mean you always trust yourself in every situation. It may just be that you’re willing to see how much you can push yourself.

It doesn’t mean that you love everything about yourself. But being honest with yourself, even if it means admitting to yourself that you have weaknesses, is another form of self confidence.

I think self confidence takes courage. And I don’t think it’s a defined stage, or a specific destination that you can say you finally arrived at and relax or enjoy the view.

The more time I spend away from home, away from routine, away from the things I used to use as confidence-crutches, the more I realize that my Taiwan life isn’t bringing out a “different” personality. Actually, it’s bringing out the truest parts of my personality.

For now, all I know is that I’m changing. I don’t balk at rope bridges anymore; I run towards them. I climb boulders now too, apparently. Whether you call it confidence or insanity is a minor detail.


One thought on “Week 5: Worlds Apart

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s