Author  DRBU Staff

There’s something ethereal about travel. It’s so often held up as a goal, a lifestyle, a reward, a job perk, a bucket list item, or a dream. When I applied to attend DRBU, my parents told me I needed to take any travel opportunity the school offered me. Unfortunately, the pandemic kicking off halfway through my freshman year made that hope harder to fulfill, but due to the encouragement and support of the teachers and staff, I was finally able to take a trip to Taipei, Taiwan, this past summer. My long-anticipated travel opportunity was finally here.

I’ve traveled more than most people my age. Before I became an adult, I’d seen France, Spain, and Canada, and it was in a hotel in Tokyo that I first made my decision to attend DRBU. But this trip to Taipei was my first trip abroad alone, and it was not without a learning curve. Leaving my phone in the taxi that took me to my Airbnb apartment on the first night, only to have it rescued by my host, set the tone for the three weeks that were to follow.

I’d elected to take a rather short language course, signing up for the 3 Week Express Course at Taiwan Normal University’s Mandarin Training Center. The program promised three hours of language classes each morning, five days a week, with cultural classes and field trips in the afternoons, with weekends off. Some friends were shocked I was picking such a short course, but in the end, I felt confident saying it was the right choice for me.

The language classes were straightforward, if a bit fast-paced, but after all, I did sign up for an express course. I was technically placed in one of the beginner levels, but my experience at DRBU with Classical Chinese landed me in a class otherwise filled with native Japanese speakers. The understanding was that while we were all new to speaking casually in Mandarin, we all had experience writing the characters and were capable of taking notes on our own. I feel I was able to keep up with my classmates in that regard. We learned all the basic new language talking points—self-introduction, food, hobbies, and family. I admit I did struggle with the sheer pace of things, as every new day was a pile of new vocabulary with not a lot of chance to practice, but I do not feel that is the fault of the class. Bit by bit, various members of the class were able to communicate unique aspects of their personality through our new, shared language. The soft-spoken woman next to me revealed she had a husband and no children, but they both considered their cat to be their baby. One student had dreams of being a language teacher, and so refused to speak her native Japanese in class at all, opting for English and Mandarin instead. I gained a fun reputation as the tough American who liked lifting weights and getting tattoos. The teacher, recognizing one of my tattoos as a phrase from the Zhuangzi, came to school the next day in a T-shirt with the same phrase on it. It turns out that even if you don’t speak Mandarin conversationally, knowing a bit about Chinese literature can get you far in Taiwan!

The language course ended with an exam, with written and spoken portions. I’ll not sugarcoat the truth. I did very badly on the written portion. However, I got 85% on the spoken portion, and it seems that was enough to save my grade, as I still received my certificate of completion at the end of the program. A nice little note on my resume, if nothing else.

Each student was allowed to attend three “culture” classes, and while we were allowed to pick our favorites from the given list, there was no guarantee we would be given our top choices. Indeed, none of the classes I got put into were at the top of my list, but I enjoyed them all the same. My first culture class was a tea class, and while the instruction was impossible for me to follow due to being entirely in Chinese, I did enjoy watching the tea masterwork, and I got to meet other students partaking in the program while we all poured tea for each other. It reminded me a lot of DRBU’s tea club, which I was never an official member of, but whose company I always enjoyed at parties.

My second culture class was Tai Chi, and that was where things got interesting. I arrived at the class a half hour late due to misreading the schedule, but when I finally arrived and tucked myself into the back of the class to join in, I felt right at home. I have a past with Taekwondo, and I attended a few sessions of Tai Chi with Professor Martin Verhoeven while I was at DRBU, so I’m not unused to martial arts. That experience has stuck around because, despite my lateness, the instructor almost immediately pulled me to the front of the class and asked me to lead everyone! Thank goodness it was a Tai Chi class, so I already had an excuse to be taking deep, slow breaths, because it was admittedly a bit of a daunting task. I’m proud to say I did well, however. The teacher also asked me to help demonstrate the self-defense uses for some of the motions, which meant I had the fun task of trying to wrestle the teacher to the ground, attempting to punch him, and getting flipped over his shoulder. At the end of the class, I apologized for my lateness, but the teacher would hear no apology and asked me to return to his class if I ever felt like staying in Taiwan long-term. It was by far the most enjoyable culture class for me.

My third culture class consisted of traditional Chinese calligraphy, a craft I’m completely untrained in, so my results were not pleasant to look at. However, the teacher was a master of his art, and watching him demonstrate different fonts was a wonderful experience. At the end, he passed out red paper talismans with various couplets on them, so we all got to take home a little piece of his work.

The field trips were by far my favorite part of the Express Course. Like with the culture classes, each student could make requests for which sights they’d like to see off a given list, with the understanding they might not get their first picks. I was given the opportunity to see Shifen, Tamsui, and Jiufen.

Shifen is a pretty little town near an absolutely beautiful hiking trail and waterfall. Taking the hike to the waterfall meant I got some glorious picture opportunities, as well as the chance to mingle with other students in the program who were in different classes than me. It was during these field trips that I met the handful of English-speaking students in the program, which was admittedly a bit of a relief after so long of struggling through conversation with folks in Mandarin. Language learning is hard!

Tamsui is a coastal town, though the field trip itinerary didn’t allow for much time to explore the town properly. Most of the field trip was spent on a small ferry riding around in the bay, which was a beautiful experience all its own. In mid-August, Taiwan is very hot and humid, and storms are frequent, so I got to watch lightning dance in the distance. Afterward, I got mango ice with some other students, which was delicious.

Jiufen was my favorite field trip. There are rumors that the town gave famous filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki the inspiration for his film Spirited Away, though Miyazaki himself has denied these claims. Whether they’re true or not, Jiufen seems happy to lean into the rumors, with Studio Ghibli-themed gift shops tucked all over the place. The town is embedded in the side of a mountain, with many steep stone steps and winding tight pathways in place of normal city streets. While the rain did make me a bit afraid of slipping and hurting myself, I greatly enjoyed getting lost in Jiufen, shopping at small shops for gifts to give my loved ones back home, and basking in the atmosphere of the place. There happened to be a small museum named Ghost Lore in town, and I happily paid TWD 150 (about USD 4.79) to shuffle my way through the museum’s three rooms. It contained everything from genuine Daoist occult artifacts to Spirit Halloween store zombie statues dressed in Qing dynasty fashion to a two-headed turtle preserved in a large jar. As a lover of all things macabre and eerie, it was a well-spent hour for me, but it would’ve perhaps been too disturbing for someone of a more delicate disposition or disappointing to a more hardcore horror fan. I rounded out the evening waiting on a balcony for the rest of the students to gather, overlooking the lush green valley below the city and listening to the steady rain.

Not all of my time was spent in class-dictated activities. About half of my afternoons were free, and weekends were blissfully empty. I wish I could say I spent every possible second I could explore every inch of Taipei and meet new people, but I’m sad to say I am not that sort of traveler. When I wasn’t holed up in my AirBnB to recover my energy, I was usually strolling the streets closest to it, looking for food. I had heard tell of Taiwan’s cuisine, and while I didn’t go to as many restaurants as I’m sure someone else might have, I did enjoy what I partook in quite a bit. My biggest self-determined journey was to take a couple of trips on Taipei’s subway system to another district of the city to enjoy the night market there and get a tattoo (a skeleton dancing with butterflies to match my Zhuangzi quote if anyone’s curious). Anyone staying in Taipei should visit at least one of the night markets. They’re chock full of cheap souvenirs and tasty street food.

My experience in Taipei had a lot to teach me, and not all of it was pleasant. While I enjoyed the classes and field trips, the stress of traveling on my own for the first time was intense. I often found myself hiding in my apartment, calling friends half a world away and wishing one of them had come with me. While the schooling gave my days structure, it also took a lot of my energy, meaning I didn’t do nearly as much exploring as I might have otherwise. That being said, I don’t regret the trip at all. I think it’s valuable to know my limits when it comes to travel, and I did have a lot of wonderful experiences. Taiwan is a beautiful country, and I’m thrilled to have added it to my growing list of places I’ve ventured to.