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23. What Surprises Me in Taiwan?

My name is Ishaqa H. Bah and my Chinese name is Bai Isa which I like very much. I come from The Gambia (The Smiling Coast of Africa) in West Africa. I have had the opportunity to obtain an ICDF scholarship to pursue a Masters degree in Human Resource Development at National Taiwan Normal University. I thank God for giving me such a great opportunity to further my studies in Taiwan as this will enable me to discover news things in this world, especially in Asia. I am also grateful to ICDF and my Government for making this possible.

Before coming to Taiwan, I made some inquiries about what life in Taiwan would be like.  The inquiries revealed to me that Taiwan is an island in Asia, located off the eastern coast of China between Japan and the Philippines. Also, Taiwan was given the name “Formosa,” which means “beautiful island” by the Portuguese explorers 500 years ago.  Another important thing I was also told by friends who graduated from here, was that Taiwan is a very developed country, well advanced in Technology and the surroundings are very clean.

Upon arrival in Taiwan, I was very anxious because I did not know much about Taiwan and Taiwanese people and their culture. Therefore, I was extremely worried about how to adjust to the new culture and the environment. I left home on Thursday 21 August and arrived here on Sunday 23rd August 2009. This was the longest trip I have ever experienced in my life.

As a Nicaraguan living in this country, I consider Taiwan as a little box full of surprises, in other words, a small world that amazes everyone. Many writers, personalities, students, etc. have written and talked about the business world that moves Taiwan, of opportunities and experiences that enrich this oriental country both professionally and intellectually; and also the economic growth they have acquired in such a short time with great effort and perseverance. It is worthy of admiring its impressive mountains, rivers, fertile land, the museums where they retain their rich culture, its fireworks that brighten the sky, the building, architecture and temples which have served as spiritual sanctuary for many generations. I could go on with so many things that are admirable of this nation.

One of the things that impressed me the most that happened to me a few weeks ago was that I left my cell phone, without knowing it, in the back seat of a taxi when I took it from the high speed rail road station to my friend’s apartment. By the time that I needed it to make a call, there was no signal of it, so I decided to start calling from my friend’s phone. Finally the taxi driver answer and kindly said that he had the cell phone. He explained to me that he was working so he was going to leave the cell phone in the information desk of the high speed rail road so I could pick it up there. Here we met a fundamental rule of morality that it would be nice to have in our Latin American countries: what is not yours, must be respected. As our parents and grandparents will say: a moral rule has always been respected.

Before I got on the plane to get here to Taiwan, I made myself a personal promise not to have any expectations about Taiwan as a country, the university, the people and the culture. I did this so that I wouldn’t get disappointed about anything, in what would soon become my new home.

Therefore for me everything about Taiwan was an absolute surprise. The city is beautiful specially the Taipei 101 area, the night markets are great, convenient for when I am hungry at midnight and the best thing is that they sell very tasty food for a very cheap price.

Part of my surprise of life in Taiwan was the university. Ming Chuan is a great university, the students are really nice and so is the staff, but to my greatest surprise I haven’t become as physically fit as I should be by now, as climbing up the 367 steps of Ming Chuan everyday hasn’t really changed my physical appearance, but I still have 3 years to go, so jia you for me!

The culture is definitely interesting; I love the fact that there are so many differences between my culture and the Taiwanese.  I never thought I would feel as inversed into the Taiwanese culture as I feel now.

Have you ever heard of a place where time goes faster than any other place in the world? If you have not, then get ready for my story about my time in Taiwan.

Wednesday 3:05 a.m. I am inside my room at my house, and I am lying on my bed; I am trying to sleep. I move around, back and forth, but I cannot fall asleep yet. The lights are off, but I feel frustrated to know that I cannot sleep. I force myself to sleep.

It is still dark at 6:36 a.m. inside my room, but I wake up again. I feel really cold; my blanket is gone to the edge of my bed. I pull it well over me, but I am mad; I know my alarm clock is going to be ringing in an hour. I know that I have to go to class, but I still need to fall asleep right away. I want to get a good sleep as much as I can.

At 7:24 a.m. I hear a familiar sound far in my room, but I do not want to open my eyes. I feel extremely tired. I have not slept enough these days.

It was extremely hot that day; I was walking in the street without knowing where to go. It was my first week here in Taiwan and I was lost. Many questions were bombarding my head, how can I do? Nobody knows me here? Will I find my way out? Should I start praying? I was wondering what to do; I had no cell phone and no Chinese abilities to ask for help. Finally I decided to ask an old lady that was sitting outside of her house. I walked to her and told her “hello, could you please tell me how to get to Shida University?” She just looked at me and told me to come in. At the beginning I hesitated because that is not a common thing in my country to be invited in if they don’t even know you. So I wondered for a few seconds and decided to take the risk. I was there sitting with the old lady in the living room; we were just staring at each other.

She got her phone and called someone and later went into the kitchen and brought for me some tea and cookies.  For a moment I thought I was in a coffee shop because the lady was too nice. Suddenly a young lady entered the house and she could speak fluent English.  She asked me where I wanted to go. I briefly explained my situation and she drove me to the university. On our way there she explained to me that the old lady was her grandmother who called her and explained that a “foreigner” was lost.

Taiwan is a beautiful country, with nice places to visit in Taipei as well as in the country side. People are different in terms of culture, attitude, and we do not share the same values. Living in Taipei for study is challenging and it offers a rich cultural experience: there are so many surprises and things to discover. One of the surprises I am going to talk about is the way people (some people) care for pets!

I like pet, especially dogs, cat (depend on the color). But in Taiwan, it was amazing to see how much people care about pets, dog essentially. There are several species and sizes of dogs: from the smallest o the biggest, some cute and others really “ugly.”

It is so common to meet people, single or in couple, carrying pets in bags, and even in cradle. Cradle for dog! How surprised I was when I saw for the first time pets in cradle! Some people like so much their pets that they bottle-feed them. Of course for pups and sick animals, it is wise to bottle-feed them, but not for dogs, I mean not pups and healthy animals!

In my culture we also like animals: it is common to find a pet in each family, essentially dog, “man’s best friend”. By taking care of animals, children learn patience; they also learn to become responsible. But animals do not receive the similar treatment like children in the family.

Taipei is delightful in many ways but the unpredictable weather dampens any plan at a moment’s whim.  It has driven my creativity in finding alternatives to ever changing plans or new activities more suited to capricious days.  For instance, I have found myself giving my Canadian born Chinese friend salsa lessons in the middle of our dormitory lobby.  If reliable, clear skies determined the maintenance of an exercise schedule, I would never find a convenient time to exercise.  Instead, I have grinned with disbelief at having come to enjoy a slow jog under the warm rain, invariably, at the very least, once a week.

Sunlight deprivation is one element I have not been able to work around.  I don’t recognize myself. I find myself missing rooms streaming with light when only a year ago I converted them into dimly lit spaces. The spring season tortures me with the promise of familiar humidity and light only to be replaced by interminable, gray, chilly days.  I never fully understood the lure of beaches or rivers but the merging of bleak days into what seems to be sunless time, has me anticipating the warmth of tropical water and light.    However, the greatest surprise has been that I have always thought of myself as being highly adaptable.  I would have never thought that of all things; the weather would put me to the test.

Taiwan has welcomed me as a second home since I came last August. There are a lot of things that have amazed me very much in this country. I come from Nicaragua, Central America, a totally different environment in all the imaginable aspects. The feature that surprises me the most is the remarkable Safety life. When I referred to Safety, the first thing that comes into my mind is peace and tranquility.

Every time I talked with my friends and family, I described Taiwan as the safest country I have ever been. I like to travel a lot, and I have visited a lot of rich and poor countries. It is really impressive that you can walk in the streets and use the public transportation without the fear of being robbed. Since I have been here, I have received 2 different visits from my friends and they get impressed about how is everything here, just exactly how I described it in my emails.

I believe that one of the main reasons of the serenity of this nation is because Taiwanese people are committed to human contribution, this means that they work together to make a better place to live in. They can be well called as nationalist citizens that really love their country. It is impressive how you can learn good and remarkable values in here. The security is a treasure that we have lost not only in my country but also in so many countries in the world, and we need to work hard on that to get it back for the future of our progenies. The citizens of Taiwan have a big respect of the authorities, another value that we left behind in many of our nations.

Despite Taiwan being such a small country, its infrastructure has never ceased to impress me ever since I arrived. I’m not only referring to Taiwan’s roads and engineering structures, but to its public services, telecommunications and transportation system as well. I believe I have traveled to enough places inside this little – yet of huge proportions - island to make an objective judgment about the matter in hand. I have been to cities North and South, to its mountains and lakes, by car, motorcycle, bus and train, and haven’t found significant things to complain about its organization, transportation networks and public services.

I believe a country’s infrastructure is paramount to its development and the development of its society and economy, an aspect in which Taiwan has excelled. As a first and most clear example is its system of roads and transportation. At a small scale, movement inside cities and towns is very practical and effective for pedestrians, public transportation users, and drivers alike. Signposting is clear and abundant, not to mention that every sign has its own English translation. The network of buses and bus stations in cities can virtually take you to any important place without having to walk great distances. Furthermore, the MRT system in Taiwan’s two largest cities (Taipei and Kaohsiung) is a very economic and fast way to move in and around the most frequented areas in town. I think that of all the advantages of the small scale transportation system, user-friendliness is the most notorious one, especially amongst foreigners.