Submitted by: Chea Le Ting
Ever since I was young, I have always been captivated by Mandopop and Taiwanese idol dramas. Thus, while I’m an English Literature major, I opted to go to Fujen Catholic University in New Taipei City, Taiwan for my semester exchange from September 2018 to January 2019.
Taiwan is truly amazing! Besides boasting the perfect blend of tradition and technology, their respect and pride towards the preservation and championing of their own culture is also deeply heartening.
Besides sipping on the best milk teas almost every other day and meeting the friendliest of people, my exchange experience was one-of-a-kind and I came back with a different outlook on life. Here are some of my key takeaways:
With independence comes responsibility and discipline. Being independent is not just about being able to stay alone without your parents, or walking to a nearby canteen to buy dinner. It’s being able to discipline yourself in doing things when you need to and being able to make the best decisions for yourself, be it in terms of chores, responsibilities, or finances. You also learn how to save yourself in stressful situations.
I remember going for a jog one evening and was approached by a group of male foreigners. They surrounded me, my back almost touching one of the guy’s chest. It was one of the most frightening events I have encountered. I did what I thought was best for me then – I called for the attention of two joggers who were making their way towards the field as if they were my friends and found the courage to squeeze my way through the burly men. The two joggers immediately caught on that I was in a bad situation. Thank heavens, they played along, and took the time to walk me to my dormitory.
I took a lot of things in Singapore for granted before leaving for exchange. It took me leaving my comfort bubble to realise that simple everyday things such as clean water, transport, safety, and social support made a whole world of difference. It never hit me how much I found comfort in my family, friends, and Singapore until things got tough in Taiwan and I grasped that I was terribly alone with no one to turn to or seek solace in, even if it was for a hug or a hearty bowl of mee pok.
I have always taken pride in being able to understand and communicate in Chinese fluently. Hence, going to Taiwan did not really scare me in terms of language. Yet, by the end of the first week, I was with more feelings of insecurity and vulnerability than I had felt in the 23 years of my life.
I often found myself struggling to take notes and keep up with the teacher, while attempting to Google Translate half the information that was being taught. I was scared of being laughed at – and being unable to live up to my own expectations of myself.
I had half a heart to drop the classes I took, but ultimately decided against it. Sure, I was terrified, but I refused to remain stagnant and pushed myself to carry on. When I stopped pitting myself against the local students and started to focus on improving myself, I started to recognise that I was not as bad as I thought I was. All I just needed was a little more confidence in expressing myself. Thankfully, my lecturer was patient with me and when she commended me in front of the class on the last day of school, I left the class in tears. Tears of happiness, gratitude and pride.
During exchange, we are bound to meet and interact with a lot of people, local and international alike, and find ourselves arrested by all sorts of emotions at certain points. I found myself learning to let go of the things I once clung onto so dearly: ideals and expectations; my microscopic view; grades, status, and appearances.
Exchange will stretch you as a person and teach you about independence and resilience, while helping you to navigate through your place in the world. It allows a new perspective of Singapore through the eyes of these people you meet and henceforth have a better understanding towards cultural differences.
When you talk to the locals or other international students, you may find yourself becoming an ambassador of Singapore and NTU, which can be an unique position to see things from. Regardless of how small we think we are on the map, all of us have fond stories to share with our international friends. It’s a lot about learning and growing as a person together with the new people and things around you.
As usual, every good chapter must come to an end. There is a certain kind of perplexed fascination and disappointment in knowing that there is a chance I will never get to stand at the exact spot in Taroko National park or eat at the same breakfast place behind my university or to even be with the same exact group of friends again, but I was contented in knowing that I had the chance to be part of this particular moment and to have such an enriching chapter in my youth. My days in Taiwan have long become a valuable memory that I’ll always hold close to my heart.
A lot of students go on exchange with the mindset to play and travel and I initially wanted to do that too, but I was not going to rob myself off the opportunity to learn and to grow so I worked hard and played even harder. It’s been almost months since I have returned back to Singapore, but a part of me feels like I brought home with me a little piece of those stories of the people I’ve met in Taiwan that were replete of weight and flesh. That said, I’ve never felt so fundamentally light before.
The question is how long will I remain this contemplative and grateful before I lapse back into the norm I was so used to before I left? It is true that one learns a lot during exchange but when all the emotions connected to this amazing experience eventually settle down, who will I be then?
We shall see. Till then, I can only hope that I will continue to spread positivity and share what I’ve learnt with the people around me.
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