The following are remarks I delivered at an orientation ceremony in Taipei on Friday for scholarship students who recently arrived in Taiwan. It is interesting that I was asked to deliver such a ‘speech’ in light of my last blog entry.
Let me first and foremost welcome you to Taiwan. I certainly believe that the time you spend here will be a vital investment in your future, critical cobblestones on your road to success.
Education has always been important and especially so in today’s world. Hence, an investment in one’s education is a worthwhile one. I often say that education is one of those few things of which others cannot relieve us once we have achieved them. We must therefore be grateful to the government and people of Taiwan for the various scholarships they provide.
It is two years since I arrived in Taiwan as a recipient of a five-year Ministry of Foreign Affairs scholarship. Those, for a number of reasons, have been two very enriching years. I can now speak Chinese with some level of fluency and I am into my sophomore year, reading for a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication at Ming Chuan University International College. Those are the obvious. That is the formal part of that which I came to Taiwan for. I am sure that you did not come here today to hear me talk about that. Neither do I intend to bore you with such rhetoric.
Appreciate Difference: Show Respect
You can get a formal education almost anywhere and therefore it is those unique experiences that you get in Taiwan that makes it so special. A lot of those experiences revolve around Taiwan’s culture. And it might be some of those cultural elements that you might find most shocking. Of course, I am talking about culture shock! I am talking about those things that are so unbelievable that you would have considered impossible were they not happening right before your eyes. Like someone asking you how much is your rent, where your money comes from and such the like.
It is important to remember at ALL times that Taiwan is not your home country and hence might have a culture that might be quite different from yours. This calls for understanding and respect. While you would not want the people of Taiwan to impose their culture on you, you also should try not to impose your way of life on them. Be tolerant, be patient, be open to difference and be willing to learn. Don’t be too quick to judge and don’t be too rabid in your criticism – and, most of all, SHOW RESPECT. For the most part, the people of Taiwan are gentle, loving and well-meaning, though the manner in which those traits are expressed might not be what you are accustomed to.
Prepare for Homesickness
A challenge that each of you might probably encounter is homesickness – those times when you start missing your home country to the extent that everything in Taiwan seems to sicken you. Your impulse might be to pack your bag and return home. Taiwan becomes like a thorn in the flesh.
Homesickness might be triggered by being away from home during an important festival such as Christmas or the change in weather when winter comes, if you are from a tropical country.
But stick it out. You will not die. I can tell you that from my own experience. During November – December of 2006, I was ready to go home. I wrote emails to my fiancee, family and friends. I detailed to them all the reasons why I should leave Taiwan. However, through their encouragement and that of friends here in Taiwan, I was able to stick it out. And I am still here. When you are homesick, the emotions can be overwhelming. You may lose your appetite and lose weight; you might lose interest in those things that previously interested you most. Take time for yourself but do not withdraw too much. Listen to music, spend time with friends, play a sport, cry if necessary. Write or call your family – tell them how you feel. When you get over your bout of homesickness you will be stronger because of it and, like me, will be in a position to talk firsthand about it and encourage others.
No Shame in Learning
Some people find Chinese a challenging language to learn. I made light of the language by making friends and having language exchange sessions with them, helping them to improve their English and me my Chinese. While I will not try to fool you into believing that my Chinese is exceptionally good, during the conversations I had with my Taiwanese friends I was able to transition between what I learn in the books and the Chinese that people speak on a day-to-day basis, especially among the youth. I am sure that most of you do not speak your mother language as formally as you write it. Speak Chinese and don’t be afraid to make a mistake. I can guarantee you that Taiwanese will not laugh at you if you do. One Sunday a few weeks after I got here, I tried to order some food and said to the vendor “我要吃什麽” (wo yao chi shen me).
I was hoping that I was telling him that I wanted to buy something to eat. I realized later that I was actually asking him “What do I want to eat?” How was he to know that? Was I embarrassed? Of course I was! But there is no shame in learning.
Finally, I encourage you to immerse yourself in all that is good and desirable in Taiwan. Learn about the culture; visit scenic areas; go cycling on a Sunday afternoon; take a trip to the zoo, Alishan, Sun Moon Lake or Kenting; play a sport; go to church or wherever your religion dictates; join a dragon boat team; celebrate a festival with a Taiwanese family; visit a temple if only to appreciate the beauty thereof. Taiwan has much to offer. Savor it. When your studies are done there is no guarantee that you will ever have an opportunity to come back to Taiwan. But who knows? Maybe you will return as a diplomat, media practitioner, business person, or even vacationer. And if that were the case, you will be more comfortable knowing that you have an understanding of Taiwanese culture and an idea of where north is.
Remember in all things, attitude determines aptitude. Adopt a healthy attitude and enjoy your time in Taiwan.