I just returned to Beijing after spending nearly three weeks in Taiwan! I was participating in a summer retreat for the Asian Future Leaders Scholarship Program, organized by the Bai Xian Asia Institute (BXAI). The organization sponsors Asian students studying at colleges and universities throughout Asia – and Peking University is one of their six anchor universities. I’m not an Asian passport holder, and therefore wasn’t eligible to be a full-year BXAI Scholar, but I was invited to participate in the summer program along with a couple of other classmates from Yenching Academy.
Each year, BXAI chooses a new campus to host their summer program – and this year, the program partnered with National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan. This year, there were about 120 students participating in the program – 16 of which came from my master’s program. Our first few days in Taipei were spent waiting out a typhoon warning, and waiting for students who had experienced flight delays due to the weather. We were housed in the Taipei Teachers Hostel, which was just down the street from the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall MTR Station, and two stations away from the main NTU campus. I spent these first few days wandering around the neighborhood, and spending time in the numerous cafes that were a stone’s throw away from my front door.
Once most students had arrived, we piled into busses and traveled to Xitou – a nature education area owned by National Taiwan University. (A fun fact – NTU owns 1% of the island of Taiwan, and 99% of this land is in Xitou!) The area was really beautiful: a kind of overwhelmingly green space that you don’t get to see much of when you’re in big cities in Asia.
While in Xitou, we divided into several small groups, and I was put into Group G. There was one other boy from Yenching in my small group – though I hadn’t gotten many chances to talk with him over the past year since he was a member of the first cohort (one year above me). All in all, it gave me a lot of chances to interact with some new people and make some new friends. We stayed in Xitou for four days, and participated in a variety of (really silly!) team-building activities and games. I had a lot of fun. 🙂
Often times, our group would use Mandarin as a common language during meals or in small group discussions. I think that my listening skills have really improved over the past year, and I was surprised by how much I could follow. I couldn’t always respond in Mandarin, but it was always easy to ask questions about what was said, and respond in English. If anything, the language differences helped me think a lot about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. I think that it is really easy for native English speakers to take up a lot of space in conversations when you’re speaking with people who might be using English as a second, third, or even fourth language. Being outside of my language comfort zone was a really good reminder of the value of waiting and listening, rather than always formulating “what am I going to say next”.
When we returned back to Taipei, we jumped into a bunch of activities and lectures hosted on NTU’s campus. The central themes for this year’s retreat were sustainability and entrepreneurship, and most of our programming related to these topics. Some highlights for me included a panel on sustainable urbanism with four scholars/practitioners from Taiwan and Hong Kong, a visit to an eco-friendly shampoo company, and a public speaking workshop that gave classmates a chance to give 5 minute presentations on any topic of their choice.
Though we had busy schedules during the day, we were lucky to get long lunch breaks and have our weekends and evenings mostly free. During these times, I was able to connect with some friends from back in the US, and felt really lucky to have so many people looking out for me from across the ocean. (Big shout-out goes to my family from the PEER Mentoring Program at Penn – not only was I able to meet my own mentor from my freshman year at Elephant Mountain, but I got to meet my mentee’s mom and cousin and got quite the whirlwind tour of Taipei’s street food!)
I also made two short trips outside of Taipei city – one to Jiufen with my friend Dongwoo, and another to Yangmingshan and Tamshui with my friend Johnny. Jiufen is an interesting place – it has a history as a gold mining town, but has reinvented itself as a tourist attraction with claims of inspiring Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Spirited Away. Studio Ghibli hasn’t supported the claims, but the idea of it continues to draw people in droves to photograph the narrow alleyways, the food vendors, and the teahouses bedecked in red lanterns. Even though this all made Jiufen an incredibly crowded place to visit, the complexities of manufactured heritage and tourism were interesting in their own rights, and I quite liked taking the time for a cup of tea here.
Traveling to Yangmingshan reminded me of a daylong road trip that I took through Big Sur two years ago. While my friend and I drove down the California highway, we passed through low-hanging clouds, sweeping in from the Pacific Ocean. Visibility was low, but there was something mysterious about being at that height in the middle of what seemed like nothingness. The same was true for Yangmingshan: clouds surrounded you everywhere you stood, and though you knew that the landscape continued much farther, it dissolved into a grainy grey nothingness.
Landscapes like this aren’t common occurrences along the East Coast, so there is something kind of breathtaking about the cool moisture and sense of emptiness. On the other hand, there’s really not much to do at a variety of scenic spots scattered across the mountain when everything looks identically grey, so we didn’t really end up hiking or seeing too much… you win some, you lose some I guess! We took a minibus back down the mountain and then decided to go to Tamsui to grab a dinner and see the sunset. (Note to self: avoid taking standing room on minibuses in the future. The ride seemed like a cross between a rollercoaster and a Final Destination film.)
As the program wrapped up, we began to prepare for group presentations and the closing ceremony. I was glad to spend more time with friends new & old, as some of my classmates from Yenching are accepting other opportunities in the coming year and won’t be returning to Beijing. I’m looking forward to when our paths cross next: for most, it’s likely that will be throughout Asia (I’m hoping to reunite with members from my group in China, Japan, and Hong Kong during the next year) though I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll also get to play host for friends who may someday visit me in the United States.
I’m now writing from back in Beijing. I’ve got to say, it’s nice to be able to unpack my bag after being away from the city for almost two months. All the plants on my windowsill survived thanks to a rotating cast of plant-sitters, and there is something particularly cozy that I’ve missed about having a familiar bed and a collection of succulents to greet you in the mornings. In the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be helping with new student orientation for the incoming cohort of Yenching Scholars, and I think this should keep me busy into September.
For now, I’m thinking of what I want to do for the rest of the year. I might be participating in a research project in Southern China later this autumn, but there’s some delays with organization I’d be working with and the partnership with local government that make this not so set in stone. Beyond this, I’m hoping to do some research for my thesis, work on my Mandarin, and travel when I can. Whatever happens, it’s shaping up to be an exciting year and I can’t wait to share more of it with you all.
Lots of love,