Taiwan! (aka “I’m still alive”)

It's been well over a year since I last blogged. Now that I am forced to write a blog post for my school, I might as well update you (and myself) with what I've been up to the past 15 months.

So many events happened since my last blog post in October of 2012. Here are the highlights:

  • November & December 2012: Worked at the Evernote office in Beijing, China
  • January 2013 - April 2013: My 4B semester at the University of Waterloo in Canada
  • May 2013 - August 2013: Started kottab.org, an initiative dedicated to improving the quality of education in the Arab World
  • September 2013 - January 2014: On exchange for my final semester of school at National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan

In addition to the highlights above, I managed to squeeze in trips to Jordan, Korea, Japan, California, Germany, Austria, and the Philippines.

The reason I am writing this blog post is because NTU, the school I have been studying at for my last semester, requires me to write a blog post to document my experience. Therefore, my exchange experience in Taiwan will be the primary focus of this post. I won't be writing anything too personal, but I'll rather focus on observations I have made about this beautiful place.

Taiwan is now a place that's very near and dear to my heart. I fell in love with my university, the people I met there, the culture, the landscape, and even the weather!

The Education

My exchange to Taiwan is the second exchange experience I have. My first exchange experience was in Singapore in early 2011 at National University of Singapore (NUS). While I immensely enjoyed my exchange experience in Singapore, I was very disappointed by the quality of education that I received at NUS. Aside from the Mandarin course that I took there, the technical courses were way too easy and I benefited little from them. This is a huge contrast compared to my experience at NTU. All the courses at NTU, be it Mandarin or computer science related courses, were top notch. The courses were very demanding, well structured, and I benefited a lot from them. In fact, the quality of the courses that I took at NTU is better than most of the courses that I took during my fourth year at the University of Waterloo, my home university.

Two of the three technical courses that I took at NTU were taught in Mandarin. Assessments and lecture slides, however, were in English. This was a bit challenging, but was a very interesting experience. I realized it's actually doable to take these courses without being terribly fluent in Mandarin. The English slides, combined with the few words that I can understand from what the instructor is saying, I can imagine in my head the context and the general message the instructor is trying to convey.

One thing I really admire at NTU was how seriously they take sports and art. You can take courses there in, say, Rumba dancing or ping pong, and you'd be given credit that can count towards your degree.

The People

I found the Taiwanese very hospitable and welcoming. I had two language exchange partners there and one of them, 彭新韵, I spent a considerable amount of time with. A friend of mine was a Taiwanese Canadian and she also introduced me to her family, whom had generously invited me over dinner and took me on a trip to Jiufen, a beautiful gold mining town off the northern coast of Taiwan.

A couple of other observations:

  • Honesty: I found the people in Taiwan a lot more honest and direct than those in Mainland China. When I was in markets in China, I usually had to bargain down to one third of the price initially proposed. In Taiwan, although more expensive, sellers propose reasonable prices and leave little room for bargaining.
  • Beauty ideal: I observed that the Taiwanese adopt the Western beauty ideal and it was something that I, an Arab, was able to experience up close. Whenever I am accompanying Westerners, I very often notice how the Taiwanese would often give them a more "special" treatment compared to the way they would treat me. That's not to say that they weren't super friendly to me, but that a slight disparity in treatment (compared with those who are tall, blue-eyed and/or blonde) was noticeable.

With Mainland China

How the Taiwanese and Chinese perceived each other was a matter I was really curious about, but it was something very difficult to observe first-hand. My Mandarin was not good enough to tell apart Mainlanders from Taiwanese. From what I have gathered though, the Taiwanese didn't think very highly of Mainlanders and consider them less developed. On the flip side, I have seen several cars driving around Taipei with a huge flag of mainland China. They had large microphones mounted on top and giving speeches that are presumably trying to persuade the Taiwanese to be part of China again.

For the Taiwanese, it's easy for them to visit China. China even offers big incentives and high salaries to those who wish to move and live in mainland China. The Chinese, on the other hand, need a visa to visit Taiwan and, from what I heard, might need to be part of a tour group to visit.

Cleanliness

I found the streets of Taipei very clean (or, at least relatively, given that I moved there after months of living in Cairo, Egypt). It didn't take me very long to notice though that there are very few trash cans. From what I understood, the reason is they don't want households and shops abusing it for disposing their own waste. It ends up being a slight inconvenience having to carry an empty cup for an hour after you finish a drink, but you quickly get used to it. Recycling is a big thing in Taiwan as well, and that's something I highly admired.

Food

There were tons of food options in Taipei, especially in Gongguan where I was living. Aside from the traditional Taiwanese food, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese cuisines are available in abundance.

Sightseeing

I fell in love with the nature in Taiwan. From hot springs to geological parks to gorgeous little islands, Taiwan has an excellent transportation system that makes all these places easily (and cheaply) accessible.

Here are some quick highlights of places I have seen in Taiwan:

  • Jiufen (九份): A town on the northern coast of Taiwan. Jiufen used to be a gold mining town at the time of the Japanese, but it has now turned into a tourist destination thanks to its scenic views of the Pacific ocean.
  • Yeliu (野柳): A geological park also on the northern coast of Taiwan. The rock formations (known as hoodoo stones) are a very distinctive feature of this place.
  • Taroko (太魯閣): A gorgeous national park with very beautiful nature. There there is a place known as the "Eternal Spring Shrine", a shrine built on top of a waterfall and considered one of the scenic landmarks in the area.
  • Green Island (綠島): An island off the coast of Taidong in Eastern Taiwan. Aside from the beautiful landscape, it is home for some really nice scuba diving spots.

As you can probably tell, I wrote this post in a bit of a hurry 🙂 I'll try to discipline myself to post more updates in the future.

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