Tag Archives: exchange student

The Dream of Taiwan

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Today was the first time I felt the feeling of an unmovable helplessness. There was a great dark hole within me, one that could not be filled. It suddenly hit me that I was to leave Taiwan in three days. Biking through the happy and crowded Saturday streets, I felt a desperate need to capture everything around me, for the world in front of me was soon due to vanish. It was like I was biking through a movie, as the scene before my eyes was one that I could no longer participate in. Biking through the void and surrendering my movements to simpler instincts, I rode slowly and observed. I was nearing the end of a dream.

It has already been over four months in this miragelike island of Taiwan. It was at two in the morning on February the fifth when I boarded my plane from Toronto, not knowing what to expect. Over several time zones and nameless countries the plane travelled all through the night, while inside the plane, an unlit and quietly rumbling interior gave me the feeling that I was travelling through a vortex. When I finally landed and stepped outside the airport, a new world greeted me. I left the cold deathly weather of Toronto, one in which an unrelenting snow silently lay ubiquitous, to a land where life existed endlessly unacquainted with the chill of winter. Waiting for the bus, a moist and cool morning breeze greeted me with a slightly drizzling rain, giving the early morning the feeling full of a fresh spring. The existence of the Taoyuan International Airport did not daunt the vivid greens of the trees and plants, which continued from the airport to the view past the windows of my bus to Taipei, as the greenery rose and declined with the whims of the mountains. And thus my dream of Taiwan began.

The next months plunged me further into the world of my dreams. I lived in this new world naively and wholeheartedly, gradually forgetting about the world of reality I came from and would have to return to.

Deep in my dreams I started to become acquainted with the city of a thousand winding alleyways, Taipei. I started biking to move around in my new fantastical surroundings, immersing myself with the unpredictable traffic which followed only unwritten rules. Everyday as I biked, I became used to the unfamiliar laws of these automobiles, who fought for every inch of space available to them. Motorcycles weaved through and about the traffic everywhere, and it was possible to hear their rumbling during the day in any alleyway in Taipei. Often there were one or two riders, but a family of four with a pet dog on one scooter was also not unheard of. Off the road it was a completely different story. Biking through my dream, pedestrians with their languid pace were often a nuisance to me, as they were always taking their sweet time to head to unknown personal destinations. As I passed them by, catching brief glances of these inhabitants of Taipei, it was always the old and feeble men and women that held my attention, the spectres with unwashed dark faces wearing dirty rags riding worn out vehicles from a past generation, going through garbage bag after garbage bag to separate trash for livelihood. There was one such old man who I saw a couple of times in my neighbourhood when I came back home late after a night out. Looking of retirement age, with a mound of garbage spread on the floor and an antiquated automobile beside him, I imagine he laboured all through the night in his work unknown and unseen, while the rest of Taipei faded.

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As I continued to dream, I got to grasp the vast scope of this land. I rode on imaginary trains which took me to different areas in this illusionary reality, with the passing scenery and the trembling train the only things confirming my physical displacement. Outside the windows of the train, sights I had never seen in my waking world revealed themselves to me. Green plains of tall grass and shrubs rushed past, occasionally rotating with sparse forests of green trees that were leafy near the North and turned into palm trees closer to the South. At other times the world outside my window showed imprints of human activity, with wide pastures of crops on flat lands stretching out for long distances, and the lonely plain boxlike houses with roofs in solid colours, sitting wholly weatherworn. But no matter how far the flatlands went, there were always the looming presence of mountains in the distance, full of green trees and looking like mossy rocks when they were close, and changing into bluish waterpainted objects of illusions when further away. Only when beyond the window lay the Pacific Ocean did they disappear. And on the East coast, instead of the bulges of mountains there was a variety of pure blues which grew darker and bluer until they touched the sky at the flat and endless horizon, leading across the Pacific Ocean to the tedious world of reality that I lived in when I was awake.

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In every city of my dreamland there was character. Every building and every street and sidestreet held a story and a community. At first glance, every alleyway looked generic, with short stunted buildings holding family owned businesses on the ground level, while just in front there were badly paved sidewalks under uneven arcades while vehicles motored by. However, as I got to know my area better, and my daily routine brought me into contact with the same people over and over again, whose businesses were an extension of their lives, I felt the existence of a deep personal connection to my area. The 7/11s and Family Marts were not family owned, but they still had a special role to play in every alleyway community. I don’t think Taiwan would be Taiwan for me without them.

Sometimes, these alleyways turned into night markets in the evenings. At these times the sleeping streets burst with life and activity, and completely transformed, as people from beyond the neighbourhood would gather together with friends and family to wander around the streets for tasty treats. There were always so many lights and so many vendors calling out to the interested looking customer. Some were not successful, some got the occasional customer, but there was always the snack stall or diner that for unexplainable reasons always had a long line. Although I was never sure how great the actual quality of the food was at the end of the line, there was a feeling of anticipation and then happiness when you got the snack in the end. With food in the hands and in the mouth, lights and people everywhere, sounds of happy chattering while enjoying a cool evening, I would often get overwhelmed. However, the most overwhelming sensation came while walking to other stalls and suddenly smelling the putrid sour stench of sewer water. This smell would be the stinky tofu. Crispy on the outside, soft tofu inside, served with sauce and pickled cabbage to neutralize the taste of stink, it indeed could be a marvellous treat, despite the idea disgusting me in my first few weeks. And these environments would last often until midnight, slowly losing their dreamlike qualities as groups of walkers gradually vanished out of the collective consciousness of the night market.

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Along the way, I was able to meet other dreamers. Coming from different areas of the real world and finding themselves in the dream of Taiwan, together we explored this world and created a Taiwan with a special meaning for us. We created memories of Taiwan, and formed bonds with this land and its wonderful people. There were many strong relationships fashioned through the adventures and the parties and the unique experiences, but these relationships were temporal in nature. As the dream comes to a close, and as the birds start chirping to signal the start of a new morning, many dreamers have already woken up, travelling back through the vortex to the land they came from and finding themselves in their own familiar bed and outside the window, a familiar sight under the clear morning light. And as the real world drags on and on, and the dream of Taiwan starts to disappear, will we still be such good friends as we once were when we were dreaming? Perhaps we will always have the unbreakable connection of Taiwan.

Or perhaps we will not. After the last among the dreamers awakes, the dreamworld will still hold and continue to exist on its own. And it will rain, for God how it rains in Taiwan. It will rain in light drops as a pleasant hazy shower and it will rain fiercely and suddenly and disappear like a flash of lightning. It will rain for days and nights on end, clouds relieving themselves of their heavy burden, as sleepers in Taiwan hear the pitter patter of the raindrops on the rooftops of their homes. The rain will pitter and patter and wash the streets and buildings of Taiwan, and fall on every single part of the mountains and plains from the North to the South, the East to the West. Still pittering and pattering, the incessant rain will fall and wholly wash Taiwan of the dreamers’ existence, as the flowing rainstreams take with it the slightest imprints until not even the faint memory of once treaded paths remain in Taiwan.

Similarly, the constant rains of forgetfulness will rain upon our hearts, and as time passes, the dream of Taiwan will lose its vividity while a thickening fog will appear when we try to look into our experiences. Friendships made will lose their basis and the characters we met will slowly fade away from our hearts and from our memories, until photos show only smiling strangers with the image of a familiar former self. But I hope that as the rains fall and carry with it these memories, they will transport these memories to a deeper place in the heart, where they will remain and lay pure and undisturbed until the end of our time.

Korean in Paris

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It was mid-November in 2012, and the days were growing colder in Milan. The cold breeze signalled the impending arrival of winter and the encroachment of the day in which I would have to go back to Toronto. Long past seemed the days under the hot Tuscan sun in the month of August in Siena, in which cold weather seemed like a foreign concept in the dry and cloudless weather. At that particular moment, the cold was not foremost in my mind, as I was soon due to leave to majestic Paris.

Paris may seem like an eventual destination for an exchange student in Europe. One of Europe’s great capitals with a worldwide recognition and reputation for culture and beauty, it experiences innumerable tourists annually, who wish to have a taste of a fantasised Parisian life. Cities like Budapest and Shanghai have been given titles like the “Paris of the East” or the “Paris of the Orient” respectively, as if Paris holds the absolute measure of a beautiful city. To contrast, no one would dare call Paris the “Shanghai of West” or compare Paris at all in such a manner. There is a unique romantic mystique associated with the name Paris that prevents the demeaning suggestion of such titles. Perhaps all this is just speaking from a North American point of view, but Paris can only be described as Paris.

Despite Paris being Paris, it was not a location that was originally on my list of places to go to. I was very happy in Italy and enjoyed the culture and the lifestyle. Most of the travelling I did was to Italian cities. It felt like every new Italian city I visited was a puzzle piece which helped me piece together a greater understanding of the country. Ironically, with more pieces came a realization that the picture was exponentially larger than I thought.

However, there was a French friend I wished to visit in Paris. We had met two years prior in the summer of 2010 in Seoul. We were studying in the same Korean language program. He developed an interest in Korean culture due to his Korean girlfriend. Being a relatively cheap and short flight, I took the opportunity to go see him.

There is always an emotion that is part anxiety and part anticipation when seeing a friend that you have not seen for a long time. Change is always happening to people, and you are not certain whether the previous connection you and the friend once shared still holds. Change is particularly prevalent for people in their 20s, who still are going through a period of many decisions. Add the fact that you have also changed as well, and we get a further compounded problem. Maybe it is just the physical features that are the remnants of an old friendship, and the feeling of comfort you get along with the familiar face, which is a solid, physical affirmation of a previous shared connection. Maybe this feeling of ease is the most fundamental glue in a friendship, with the rest being details that are whisked off with the passing of time.

When we met at Crimée Station, it was a relief to find out that the friendship was still there. There was one big difference that I immediately noticed, and it was in the language we used to communicate. Two years prior, we used English due to his insufficient Korean. At this meeting, we used Korean. While acquainting ourselves with each other anew, I started to find out how excellent his Korean grew to be, far surpassing my own abilities in my first language. It was an interesting turn of events. In the month of our friendship in Korea, I had always thought that he was reticent and reserved. I was finding that he was not. I was seeing aspects to his personality that were put behind an opaque wall when we used English to communicate. With Korean, his self was able to shine through. Meanwhile, it was the opposite for me, as my Korean put me behind the opaque wall this time.

For lunch at his place, we were joined by another Frenchman, an acquaintance of my friend who also spoke very good Korean. Together, we ate a nice simple lunch of some bread, potatoes and blood sausages with a cocktail. Afterwards came the drinking of an alcohol made of oranges that was as strong as vodka and reminded me an orange version of the Italian limoncello. Of course, the primary language of our increasingly drunken communications was Korean. Two Frenchmen and a Canadian in Paris, who would have thought.

Continuing through the afternoon fuelled by drinking games involving the Nintendo Wii, we started to think of options for dinner. Naturally, we decided on a Korean Barbeque restaurant, not even discussing any French style bistros. Away in the Parisian subway we went, speeding off in tunnels below the surface to some location in Paris I still do not know to this day, while the orange liquor slowly withdrew to the bottom with each passing of hands.

It was the first Korean restaurant I went to while in Europe, as Italy did not have enough of a substantial Korean population to justify such a luxury. While in the restaurant I remember flashes of merriment; drinking a soju cocktail which involved a loud banging on the table for its creation, which brought the owner up to our table to quiet us down, although afterwards he was appeased with a taste of the cocktail; meeting French-Koreans, some who were ironically not able to speak Korean at all, while the Frenchmen at our table spoke fluently; eating wonderful tasting meat with each bite bringing me a supreme happiness, while the drinks contributed with a bright and dreamy glow. Afterwards, the two Frenchmen and the Canadian walked downstairs to the basement of the Korean barbeque restaurant in Paris to sing karaoke on a Korean karaoke machine, bringing an appropriate end to all festivities.

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After sobering up and reflecting on this experience while walking on Parisian streets, I began to think about language. The use of language is an aspect of communication we do not think too deeply on, for the reasons that it is a part of daily life so basic that it is unnoticeable. We can often be oblivious to the role it plays in our communications with other people.

As a student in the University of Toronto in the Rotman Commerce Bachelor’s program, which holds a 50% international student population, I had the chance to interact and work with many international students. I always believed that they were shy and afraid to express their opinions. I did not like working with them in group projects for this reason. Now in Taiwan as an exchange student, there are times when I am put in the same situation. One of my classes requires group work every lecture, and the class is comprised of all Taiwanese students except me. My group members have been very accommodating and have spoken English so that I can also contribute my opinions. There was one class when they communicated in Mandarin instead, and I was unable to contribute although I had done the work beforehand. I think they probably thought I did not do the work for that class. Just like my French friend when I first met him, just like the international students in the University of Toronto and just like me here, we may find ourselves in situations in which one of the parties involved in a communication is stuck behind the opaque wall of an unfamiliar language. In an increasingly global environment, perhaps patience and understanding is required for better communications, and not unfair judgements.

Languages are also interesting due to the special characteristics each language holds. Korean is a language which has many graduations of formality and respect. There are two main methods of speaking, one which is an informal way a person would use with friends, and an informal method, which one would use with strangers, elders and peoples of higher position. This method carries with it implicit assumptions of respect and formality. Age is an important determinant in creating the context the relationship operates in. If an individual is even one year older than another, the former has an authority over the latter. The younger individual must address the older person with special titles which come with implications of respect and deference, while it is the other way around for older individuals to younger individuals. Furthermore, the informal method of speaking is often used by the younger individual when communicating with an older individual.

As my French friend is 3 years older than me, I did not know how to address him in the correct way when using Korean to speak. I remember avoiding using his name or any title to address him, due to the ambiguous nature of the current relationship. There was a cloud of uncertainty hanging over our interactions, until without thinking I called him “hyung,” the proper address for an older male. After addressing him in this fashion the first time, the once cloudy and ambiguous relationship became as clear as day with this single admission. At the same time, there was a feeling that it signalled the start of a relationship with a slight submission from me to him.

I saw him twice afterwards in Paris, once in a Starbucks completely incidentally while on a guided tour, and finally in another Korean restaurant for lunch, where the waitress commented on his proficiency in the language, and told him that he was so lucky to have a good friend to learn from. She was referring to me, so I kept my mouth shut and smiled so she would not find out the truth about our actual abilities. And thus went my first experience in Paris, city of lights, city of romance, city of beauty. It was an unexpected surprise, finding a culture so close to my heart in a location that was so foreign to me. The five days in Paris ended quickly and I soon found myself boarding the plane back to Milan, my temporary home which held the promise of more adventures to come.

The Plastic Bag of Raw Meat

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This is a true story which happened to me on the night/early morning of March 1(2), 2014. It is a story which still confuses me to this day. I know I shall never have all the pieces to solve the mystery. I suppose this is just life and some things are unexplainable, like the plastic bag of raw meat that is the focus in this tale.

This story takes place in the methodically chaotic city that is Taipei, where I am, at the time of writing, an exchange student. As anyone who has been on an exchange may know, one of the blessings the exchange program grants is the opportunity to party in a foreign city. This story happened at the aftermath of one of those kinds of nights. After being a responsible drinker (one who does not launch particles of half-digested food back out through the same opening it came from) for almost a year, this particular night saw me push past self-set limits in search of a great enjoyment. As those who have experimented with alcohol may know, there is a tipping point with a steep descent. And on this particular night, I fell.

I took a taxi with a newly acquainted French associate to get back to our respective homes. We had been at an unmemorable bar/club after coming from a comparatively lively dorm party. We were two out of the original four that had headed out for grander heights of amusement. Unfortunately, it was in here where I pushed past a little bit too far. Thankfully, falling made me feel a lot better and I was now more lucid in comparison to the state of reckless excitement I felt before.

After arriving at our neighbourhood, he turned right to go eat at Mos Burger, a fast food chain, while I turned left to head home. There was a slight drizzle but it was not unpleasant. After walking a quarter of the way I saw one of the street stalls open, one which specialized in chicken oriented dishes. I suddenly felt like it would be prudent to eat some chicken noodle soup for the stomach and the hangover the next day. Some warm broth always did me good after poisoning myself a little too much.

Behind the stall was the same old woman that had been there last time I came for a late night meal. She was of diminutive stature with a voice of a surprisingly solid tone. She looked as if she was way past a reasonable retirement age, with a thin wrinkly skin surrounding her skeletal features. The thing that caught my eye the most was her hands. It was abnormally large and seemed unusually solid looking for a woman her age. The way the thin layer of skin surrounding the hands pronounced the underlying bone and muscle structure gave it a cruel look. I ordered my chicken noodle soup, and I examined the way her practised hands used a short butcher knife to hack a chicken leg into equal widths, creating a convincing ‘thack’ sound every time the knife went down. There was only one other customer at the stall, an older looking gentleman.

After drinking the broth and eating every edible portion of the chicken and the noodles, I felt satisfied and felt like it was time to go home to rest. During this time, the gentleman had eaten his meal and had already left. The rain changed from a drizzle to the start of an all-night downpour. Listening to the rhythmic tapping of the rain, I was glad that I was sheltered from the rain. However, the lack of an umbrella meant that I was not to be safe from the rain for long. It was at that time when I heard someone shouting at me from behind me, from the direction of the street. I turned around and it was the driver of the taxi. I couldn’t clearly make out what he was saying with my imperfect Mandarin, but I made out some of the words he said:

“一起。。。 送给你。。。” (“Together… Give to you…”)

The old stall keeper went to the taxi driver and soon came back with a plastic bag. With some clarification, it did seem to me that he was saying the person with me in the taxi wanted to give me this bag of unknown contents. It was a nondescript plastic bag with a plain gray colour, like the ones you would get from shopping at an outdoor vegetable market. However, it was clear that the contents of this plastic bag were not vegetables. There was a definite mass to it, and it had the texture I could only describe as a firm squishiness. The taxi driver drove away. I finally looked into the contents of the plastic bag. It contained sizable hunks of raw meat.

At the time, I did not know what to make of the situation. I had been on two rides in the past few hours. One was an alcohol driven roller coaster ride with a steep drop. The other was the change of mood and state from a wild exuberance from the party to a solemn calmness befitting the sounds of rain in an empty street with the occasional sounds of a motorcycle. The whole situation seemed surreal.

Not being used to being given raw meat at 3 am in the morning, I asked the old stall keeper if she wanted it. She looked inside and said no. So I took the 5 minute trip to my room with the steadily pouring rain, accompanied by the definite weight in my right hand, and the occasional contact of the bag of raw meat with my right thigh. One hundred metres from my room, I dropped the bag off in front of the entrance of a neighbouring apartment and did not see it the next day.

 

(picture above is the noodle stall)