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Perspiration: Adjusting to Life in Taiwan

Iris with her host family in New Taipei City, Taiwan. Iris Fu


My first week abroad was marked by a lot of sweat. 

Sweat. It’s everywhere: In the stickiness of my armpits and the hair stuck to the back of my neck. And, the cicadas. Ohh, the cicadas, screaming at the top of their lungs, louder than the man on the mic, hosting a morning festival, which, I am not certain what it is about.

My first two days in Taiwan is characterized by the word "perspiration." Taken literally, the weather here reaches 38 degrees Celsius (my weather app says it “feels like 45”, so you know it’s hot), and it is so humid that going outside feels like stepping into a pool of wet air. Wet, hot air. Free steam room, anyone?

I have been working really hard, trying to understand my new environment, adjusting, and making sense of my purpose within it all. This morning, my host mom read me a China News article on a new U.S. legislation prolonging U.S. defence in Taiwan. Though most phrases in the article were completely new vocabulary to me, I felt an undeniable pull in my gut. I want my future related to foreign service.

A future in foreign service

Yesterday, the NSLI-Y group and I had the pleasure of going to the American Institute in Taiwan, Taiwan's version of an embassy. (Dubbed “institute” because America can’t have an embassy in “unofficial countries.”) There, the security was very strict. We had to empty all of our electronics from our bags, battery packs and even headphones.

The people we met inside though, were incredible. They were American foreign service officers who treated us like we were right at home. I learned about the foreign service career path from a panel of five officers. The prospect of traveling—living in a place, interacting with its locals, trying new food—excites me. At the same time, moving every two to four years to a completely foreign place seems like a burden when I think about raising a family of my own.

It's the first time I realized that I wanted a certain career because it satisfies my sense of wonder and fulfillment, but that same sense clashes with my desire to raise a happy, stable family.

I reached out to the only woman in the panel and we met over lunch. I wish I could say that I got a clearer sense of whether foreign service would be a suitable lifestyle for me, especially when I plan to have a family, but she confirmed a lot of my worries. Her husband doesn’t work and takes care of her son, which means that the traditional gender roles are reversed for her family. She told me that this will be the first time her young son has to say goodbye to the friends he made. I knew that this would not be her son’s last time either. Do I really want my kids to grow up like that, moving every two to four years? Would my partner be willing to sacrifice his career, and limit himself to options that allow him to move frequently?

This trip is the first time I realized that I wanted a certain career because it satisfies my sense of wonder and fulfillment, but that same sense clashes with my desire to raise a happy, stable family. Perhaps family and career don’t have to contradict, but I just haven’t figured out how yet.

Back to school

My walk to school this morning was amazing. All the streets and corners I met upon my arrival my first night were covered by a thick layer of darkness. To see them shed with light this morning brought a renewed joy to my face. I couldn’t stop smiling at the grandma cutting cabbage in a rusty looking makeshift shack or the man who tried to sell me a food item I didn’t know existed.

Though I feel foreign in this new city, I don’t feel out of place. I feel at home getting to know a new way of life and a new climate. I feel at home struggling to grasp a language I haven't yet mastered and enjoying the thrill of riding a motorcycle on the narrow streets.

With that being said, I'm still learning to trust the motorcyclists when I am a pedestrian. Since there are no sidewalks, cars, motorcycles, and pedestrians all share the same skinny alleyways. I am so scared that I will get run over by a motorcyclist ignoring stop signs and zooming past at 60 km per hour, but I am learning to surrender to things I can’t control. The motorcyclists’ speed and proximity as they zoom past is just a reality of New Taipei City. I am learning to trust them, to recognize that they want me to live just as much as I want to live. I am learning that if I assert myself, and walk confidently across the street, they will slow down.

Most of all, I am learning that I can thrive in this new environment, no matter how much perspiration it takes at first.

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Iris Fu

Iris Fu is studying Mandarin in Taiwan through the National Security Language Initiative scholarship granted by the U.S. Department of State during the summer between her junior and senior year of high school.

Website: https://www.instagram.com/iriss.fu/

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