At the end of my junior year of college, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime as a recipient of a grant from the ASIANetwork Freeman Foundation Student-Faculty Fellows Program. This program allowed me, along with five of my peers and two of our university’s faculty members, to embark on a four-week trip to Taiwan to study female entrepreneurs in the Taiwanese culture. We traversed the entire island, beginning in the western city of Taichung and staying there for ten days. We then traveled south and stayed in Tainan for four days. From Tainan, our group took a ferry to Penghu, a Taiwanese island off the western coast. After spending three days on Penghu, we flew back to the main island and began traveling up the east coast, stopping in Hualien for four days and Jiaoxi for one night. We ended our travels with a four-day stop in Taipei before boarding our twelve-hour flight back to the United States.
This experience has completely altered my perceptions of both my own life and the world around me. While I have always thought of myself as an independent person, my trip abroad has given the concept of independence a whole new meaning for me. I had never left the country or been on a trip without my family before, so that itself was a very difficult undertaking. Even though I live on my own during the school year, my family is just a quick phone call away. Of course, I was not completely alone, as I had my research team with me, but nonetheless, I had to accept and overcome the fact that I would be away from my family for an entire month.
This newfound extreme independence only grew as my time in Taiwan continued. I, and a few other team members, do not speak any Chinese, which made navigating the streets without a Chinese speaker very difficult. In the beginning of the trip, I did not dare to leave our hostel or hotel without someone who speaks Chinese. I found this to be very limiting, so I decided to bring my map and my Chinese phrase book and go exploring. After finding my way back from a few wrong turns, I was eventually able to make my way around alone. Being able to venture out on my own gave me a great deal of confidence and independence that I could not have earned any other way.
Because I had never left the United States before this trip, I had a very limited view of the world around me. For the first nineteen years of my life, I was so accustomed to the Western world that I was desensitized to most other cultures. I once took a course entitled Introduction to East Asian Studies, but I did not feel that I was able to fully understand what I was learning because I had never experienced Asian culture. Being completely immersed in Taiwanese culture for four weeks allowed me to gain a new perspective on what I had previously learned while learning new and invaluable information that I could not simply pick up from a textbook.
I learned a great deal about both myself and Taiwan’s culture on this trip. However, I believe that the most valuable thing I learned over those four weeks was that Taiwanese culture is not too different from my own. I entered this trip expecting innumerable differences between myself and the locals and a severe case of culture shock. While I did have many cultural experiences that were unique only to Taiwan, I found myself feeling at home much more than I anticipated. As we mingled with university students, I felt I as if these students could have been from my university. They were no different than me. We all had similar goals, values, hopes, and beliefs, despite our different cultures. This experience has helped me to realize just how small this big world really is. I was able to mature emotionally, academically, and culturally on this trip, and I am eternally grateful for this opportunity.