The school year that was

Time flies! I can’t believe that I already finished one school year in Taipei; it feels like yesterday since I moved into my dorm for the first time and met all my amazing classmates. This week marks the start of my second year in grad school, and things are bound to get even busier and more exciting!

But before I get lost in all the crazy stuff that’s going to happen, join me as I look back on all the amazing things that happened to me during the past school year!

(Warning: It’s a long post!)

Learning

A normal school day.

I came to Taiwan for grad school, so of course this one should come first! 😉

When I was an undergraduate student in the Philippines, my usual load was 2 to 3 classes in one day, and I would have classes from 8 AM to 6 PM (11 AM to 9 PM during my junior and senior year) every day. In Taiwan, I only had one class each day, and most of them were morning classes so after 12 PM, I was done with classes and I could do whatever I wanted.

But then, the workload and the course materials were intense. I don’t know if I’ve said this before in my previous posts, but I’ve experienced so many things in Taiwan that I never experienced in my whole academic career. For instance, I’ve never…

  • read so many articles and books and had to finish them all by the following week
  • given presentations every week
  • participated actively in class, unless I’m called upon by the professor
  • gotten a 30% score on an exam. EVER.
  • cried over my grades

Even if I came equipped with a decent economics background, I still felt like I was falling behind in my classes. I had a hard time at first with my social development classes too, because I’ve never had to give lots of presentations during my undergrad years. My knowledge of political science was wanting. I really had to exert extra effort during those first few months in order to survive my classes. Basically, I was not fully prepared for all the things I was going to experience in grad school, and my shy personality certainly didn’t help during the adjustment period! I was used to just sucking it up and hoping that things would get better, but during my first semester I couldn’t even count how many times I faltered during class presentations, stayed quiet during discussions, and almost cried at the thought of one-on-one consultations with professors. All the added pressure forced me to re-evaluate my habits and my way of seeing things. I changed so many things about myself and the way I worked. For example, I…

  • forced myself to recite whenever a thought or idea comes into my head
  • took every opportunity to speak to professors one-on-one, starting with casual topics and then later opening up about my academic and career interests
  • read and worked on the assignments as soon as I got access to them, and even read extra material to help me understand things
  • swallowed my pride and approached professors whenever I had difficulty with a certain course material

I used to think that in grad school, you should already know everything and if you don’t, you’re screwed. Besides all the things I learned about my field, grad school has also taught me that sometimes, it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to admit that you don’t know. Usually, people’s self-esteem plunge when they realize they have something negative that they need to change, but for me it was the opposite: the moment I acknowledged that I had to change and learn new things, everything started getting better and I gathered up the courage to explore my capabilities. I changed so many things about myself and the way I worked, and those changes did wonders for my self-esteem because I knew I was improving.

Language skills

I’ve studied Chinese in the Philippines for a total of 3 years, but there were gaps in between lessons so I’ve already forgotten most of what I learned until I came to Taiwan. Due to this and my lack of reading skills in traditional Chinese (I was taught simplified Chinese in the Philippines), I was placed in the Total Beginner Level of Mandarin lessons.

Fast forward a year later – I’m not yet fully conversational, but I can say that I have vastly improved compared to the first time I came here. I now know how to order food, make a restaurant reservation, ask for directions, tell a doctor how I’m feeling, and give simple opinions on things. I can also read some street signs and establishment names. That’s the bare minimum to get through daily life in Taipei, so at least I’ve already got that covered.

One of the first ever assignments in Total Beginner class. We actually weren’t taught characters in this class, but I just thought that TRYING to write in traditional characters would impress the professor and make up for my atrocious grammar XD

But in learning Chinese, I realized that lessons really aren’t enough. Sometimes you have to go out there and just speak. Scary, I know. And you’re not going to be an expert right away. But you’ll definitely pick up some interesting things.

I joined the university choir last semester and despite being assured that language barrier wouldn’t be a problem, I was horrified to find out that the sessions were taught purely in Chinese. What’s more, our songs were mostly Chinese too! Well, long story short, the semester ended with me being able to understand what the conductor is saying when he’s teaching, and being able to tell when he thinks I sound bad! Lol!

And here’s an interesting story: Recently, I rode a taxi on my way home and the taxi driver started to chat with me. I’m surprised that I was able to keep talking for the whole duration of the ride (20 minutes)! Before that happened, I was convinced that a full conversation was impossible for me because of my lack of vocabulary; sometimes that’s true, but for that particular situation I was surprised that I knew so many words and that some of the sentence structures already came so naturally to me! Who knew?

Travels

Besides Taichung, which I blogged about earlier, I also got the chance to explore Yilan and Hualien, two famous spots in Taiwan’s east coast.

My roommate and her friends were my travel buddies during my first trip to Yilan, so it was pretty memorable! Yilan is a must-visit for people who love art and food – it’s full of street art AND local delicacy factories!
This was also where I first tried bathing in a hot spring, as in the Japanese onsen style where you’re required to strip to enter the bath! Eeep!
Yilan is also the place where I first learned how to surf, so it’s very close to my heart. I wish someone caught my first successful surf on camera though!
My Hualien trip was, in a way, one of the best mistakes I’ve made in a long time. The group trip was actually meant for exchange students only, but I signed up, thinking that it was for all international students.
But then, I’m glad I signed up because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t get to visit local villages and do things like this!
How awesome is that?!
I also wouldn’t be able to sample yummy indigenous food if I just stayed home!

But the best and most memorable trip for me wasn’t for fun or touristy purposes. It was a field trip for one of my social development classes to an indigenous village in Taiwan, where an aboriginal botanist showed us the cypress forest they are protecting from illegal logging. Not only did I see Taiwan’s natural beauty, I also got to see this indigenous group’s culture through their use of the forest resources and their enthusiasm in protecting these resources for future generations.

This is how high up the village is!
When we arrived in the village, we were welcomed first in this building. Here, the villagers taught us a few things about their advocacy and their culture.
In a way, the village felt like home to me because the food they ate and the way they served it were very similar to Filipino food!
The cypress forest is a huge part of their culture and they get many resources from this place, so they want to preserve it for future generations.
A fallen cypress tree’s roots
Never in a million years did I ever think that I would ever hike up a mountain, but for this field trip, I did! It was a long (and sometimes dangerous) hike! I may have complained all throughout, but after feeling the positive effects that physical activity had on my body, I started to exercise more! Thank you, professor! 😛

Meeting people

Meeting people is already difficult, but I was sure it would be even harder to do so in a foreign country where you’re a complete stranger to the local culture. This is why I really went out of my way to meet new people during the past year. I went to events, spoke to people, joined organizations… I did all of those so that I could build my own social circle in Taiwan. I’m glad I did, because I got to meet lots of bright and wonderful people in Taipei, both international students and locals. A handful have become close to me; they have been my travel buddies, holiday companions (it’s super sad being alone during Taiwanese holidays, I swear), stress balls, review-mates, and so much more. Some of them have left Taiwan already, but I’m really happy to have met them. This just means I have more reason to travel the world, since I will have friends no matter where I choose to go!

The Southeast Asian group! (L-R) Vietnamese, half-Filipino half-American, Filipino, Thai, Indonesian!
There were 10 freshmen in my program, so in this photo we’re missing the other 4. Lol
The squad I met in Hualien. We’ve only been together for a short time but we all clicked right away. We still keep in touch to this day!
And of course, my favorite travel buddy! Whenever I’m thinking of hanging out or going somewhere, I just give Bunika a quick text and she’s game! She’s already back in Thailand though, so I might just go there to see her haha!

Independence

Living without my family in a foreign country gave me the opportunity to get to know myself on a deeper level and learn life skills that I wouldn’t have had the chance to learn if I had my parents constantly looking after me. But this isn’t just about learning household stuff or financial management because it is so much more than these things. For me, independence is more about discipline than anything else: getting your ass out of bed and going to class (despite the temptation to go back to sleep), being conscious about your health, doing things now instead of putting it off for later, putting off unncessary purchases, among others. After a year in Taipei, I can say that I really learned how to take care of myself, make decisions, and trust my instincts.

In this quest for independence, I also learned how to handle myself during days when everything just seems to be falling apart. Sometimes I would wake up feeling like crap, and sometimes I would be super duper ill. Sometimes I would beat myself up over a bad test result. Normally, I would be very self-critical during times like these but when I moved here,  that mentality changed. Of course I still allowed myself to feel what I had to feel: I wasn’t okay, I wasn’t feeling great, I did really badly. That was fine. But instead of dwelling on those for a very long time, I got right back up after reflecting and started again. Because I only had myself, and if I didn’t love and take care of myself, who will?

Of course I still have a long way to go, and I admit it. It definitely wasn’t easy, but going through the process of learning, adjusting, and re-learning made me discover that I could do so many things that I didn’t know I was capable of, making me more self-confident.


TLDR; it was an awesome school year and I learned so many things about myself and Taiwan! Now that I’ve finished reflecting on the past school year, I think I’m ready to take on the next semester! Let’s do this!

16 Comments

  1. It sounds like quite an experience!

    I’m shy myself so I know how hard that can be to deal with. But kudos for trying to overcome that! Looks like you did quite well with that!

    Good luck with the next semester!

    1. Thanks a lot! 🙂 I still have a long way to go when it comes to overcoming my shyness, but I do feel more comfortable in my own skin now! I’m still not completely confident but we’ll get there 🙂

  2. Wow! I loved your school/Taipei round-up post. I felt so accomplished and happy for you by the time I finished the post, haha. I loved when you said “It’s okay not to be okay”. I think sometimes we push ourselves too hard and our work doesn’t always end up being the best because we’re so stressed out. I’m glad that you ended up feeling for confident of yourself! Go you!

    Congrats also on your improved Chinese skills. Learning a new language is sooo hard and I imagine being separated from family, in a foreign land, where everyone speaks a different language can be really hard to adapt to! Being able to hold conversations with a native is amazing!

    And it’s super cool that you got to visit an indigenous village! it’s very fascinating to think about how many different cultures there are around the world.

    Yay for a completed year! Are you studying in Taiwan for the remainder of your grad school?

  3. I really enjoyed reading this reflection and your posts about your school life this year. Living at home myself still throughout my UG life, I always find it interesting reading other people’s experience living away from home. Let alone different country – it’s amazing and admirable how you managed to adapt to this totally different environment! Very proud of you 😊

    I feel really inspired by the section about meeting people. IT’S SO IMPORTANT to meet people and surround yourself with wonderful, happy, interesting people – they honestly enhance the experience for you. I go out of my way to meet new people too – especially since I don’t live in halls. 😆

    So happy on your achievements, well done! <3

    1. Thanks a lot Pauline! 😀 Living alone in a foreign country wasn’t easy at first, but I’ve gotten the hang of it! 🙂

      Yeah, I kind of feel like residence halls are a great way to meet people, just because they’re EVERYWHERE lol. That’s how I met some of my friends. But then again, I realized it wasn’t good to limit my circle to the dorm residents (mostly composed of foreigners), so I really made an effort to connect with locals who live off-campus 😀

  4. Looks like your school year was amazing and fulfilling for you as a person. I’m glad your were able to improve your Chinese as I know it isn’t an easy language to master but that’s amazing. Sometimes I can read French or Spanish just by picking words I do know. It’s amazing.

    1. It’s true that it’s not easy to master, because reading and writing are very hard and sometimes I get confused with the tones too! Haha! I still have a hard time speaking because my vocabulary is still very limited, but I get by! 😀

  5. Crazy how it’s been a year already! I remember your entry when you started school in Taiwan, and time has flown since then. Good job on picking yourself back up after having a hard time with your classes at first! It sounds like you’ve learned a lot and have figured out what works for you. I totally agree that it’s ok to admit you don’t know something because that helps you move forward from there!

    That’s awesome that you’ve improved so much in your Chinese skills! I think that’s a good sign that you can hold conversation and know enough for everyday life, even if you don’t feel like you’re fluent yet. The trips you took look like a lot of fun, too, and that looks like a great experience to go to an indigenous village. I’m glad you met so many new people!

    Being independent in a foreign country really sounds like a challenge. That’s a good point that it’s more than just financial and household stuff. Taking care of yourself is also really important. I think you’ve done amazing so far! I hope the next school year will be a good one too!

    1. Yeah, I think that knowing the bare minimum to survive everyday life is enough for now; at least I’ll be able to handle day-to-day situations with ease! Besides, I’m still continuing my formal lessons so I know I’ll learn even more words during the next year 😀

      Thanks Cat! Super excited for the next school year! 🙂

    1. Yeah! I didn’t realize it’s been a year since I first moved to Taiwan, but now I can say that I’ve really changed a lot since I moved here <3 I guess that's what time (and the lessons that go with it) does to ya! 😛

  6. I’m glad you enjoyed your first year in Taiwan! Seeing the graph with slopes in the blackboard makes me wanna cry because I suck at Economics though I am taking it as a minor course. (AB Sociology minor in Economics). I really suck at Economics especially the APLIA that’s used for answering our online assignments. Every Macroeconomics, I’d cry after the class (well not always lol) but for me, it’s so hard but I did practise everyday until then I mastered the lessons. I guess, practice is really the key for perfection. lol. I studied Mandarin Chinese for six years when I was at my elementary years. I am still fluent of Mandarin Chinese over Japanese and I’m glad I still do. 🙂 Also, hoping to visit Taipei soon! xx

    1. Sociology and Economics do make a great combo, it’s so cool that you’re doing that! 🙂

      I think Macroeconomics is fine, but in my case I really struggled with Microeconomics. I really thought I was going to fail that course lol! But you’re right, constant practice is key to mastery haha! This is why economics professors require lots of homework – you really won’t know whether you understood the concepts until you actually start answering the problem sets.

      It’s so cool that you’re fluent in Mandarin! I’m jealous!

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