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Why I Chose to Study Abroad in Taiwan

Moving across the world is always difficult—but the global pandemic brings unexpected challenges. Photo by VisionPic.net from Pexels.

I decided to study abroad in Taiwan—then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Here's how my semester abroad is unfolding so far.

I really didn’t think I would ever be learning Chinese in Taiwan. If you had asked me a few years ago about this place, I doubt I would have recognized it as a country, let alone been able to locate it on a map. But here I am, stuck on this beautiful island, amid a pandemic that is ravaging the world.

My globe-trotting background

This isn’t my first stint abroad. Although I am a Canadian citizen, my parents are both immigrants from Slovakia, and my childhood was spent flying back and forth between the two countries and trying to reconcile the disparate languages, cultures and education systems. I consider both English and Slovak my mother tongue, though sometimes I find I am not able to express myself in either language. In grade seven, I decided that being bilingual wasn’t enough, and I enrolled in a French Immersion Junior High School. I fell in love with the French language, and despite my slightly harsh Slovak accent (I’m still unable to pronounce the French ‘r’ properly, as in Slovak it is rolled), I consider myself to be fluent. I took part in my first exchange program when I was 15, where I spent an amazing three months living with a French family in a small town near Versailles. This experience confirmed to me what I already suspected about myself—I was hungry for novelty and couldn't stay in one place for too long.

My first overseas exchange confirmed to me what I already suspected about myself—I was hungry for novelty and couldn’t stay in one place for too long.

Fast forward a few years, and after a gap-year in Europe and many more memories, I am now a third-year student at the University of Ottawa. I decided to study there to further improve my French and take part in the university's co-op program, but the capital is a painstaking four-hour flight from my hometown of Calgary. I study biology and environmental studies, and I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have a solid plan post-graduation (assuming that I graduate of course). I always thought I would study abroad again at some point, but it wasn’t until last year that I started seriously thinking about it. Where would I go though? The world is a big place (shocking, right?) and there are many cultures and vistas that I was itching to explore.

Beginning my Taiwanese adventure

I started by writing out every single country that my home university has a bilateral agreement with—44 in total—and then I set out some parameters for my selection. I didn’t want to go anywhere in Europe, since I’m a European citizen and can easily travel there and am familiar with many cultures in the region. I also didn’t want to go to a place where English or French is the main language because I wanted to be challenged with the opportunity to expand my linguistic horizons. These two restrictions eliminated more than half of my options. I focused on two continents, South America and Asia—both of which were unfamiliar to me and I was interested in exploring. I really wanted to go to South America to build on the limited Spanish I could remember from high school, but all the courses were taught in Spanish, and my proficiency level just wasn’t there yet.

Ultimately, I chose to spend a semester in Taipei, Taiwan, at the National Taiwan University (NTU). The Winter semester here begins mid-February, more than a month after my fall semester in Ottawa ended, so I had lots of time to prepare. I arrived on February 4th, and since then have been holding fast to this rollercoaster of a journey. The first month of my adventure passed with few responsibilities but plenty of uncertainty. I was lucky enough to fly to Taipei with my dad and spent the first few weeks with him in Taiwan and the Philippines. I moved into my dorm on campus on February 10th, expecting to begin classes a few days later. As is often the case though, things didn’t quite happen like that.

An unexpected challenge: the coronavirus pandemic

I’m sure you’ve heard of a tiny little virus called COVID-19. Along with several other stipulations (which I will talk about in another post), NTU decided to postpone the start of the semester by two weeks, the length of the incubation period for the infection. This meant that I now had an even longer vacation, and, with the reasoning that the coronavirus may prevent my boyfriend from coming to visit me at the end of my semester—and flights being so cheap—I managed to convince him to come to Taipei. We climbed in Long Dong, went paragliding at Wanli Coast, snorkelled in the Philippines and ate our body weight in food several times over. We were even able to spend Valentine’s Day together for the first time, since most of our three-year relationship has been long-distance.

Eventually though, the fairytale shifted, and I was left with reality. My dad and boyfriend went back home to Canada, and I had to fend for myself. This realization hadn’t completely sunk in until, with tears in my eyes, I said goodbye to my loved ones and left the airport alone. My classes were supposed to begin the next day; I didn’t have any school supplies, and I hadn’t even visited the NTU campus yet. Suddenly I was doubting my decision to go to a country so far from home where I knew no one and couldn’t speak the language. What had I signed up for?

I couldn’t sleep that night, painfully aware of how quiet it was in my room. The silence of being completely alone. But I set my alarm for 7a.m., prepared the clothes I would wear the next day and braced myself to make it through the morning and the rest of my stay abroad.

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Rebecca Janacek

Becca is a Slovak Canadian doing an exchange semester at National Taiwan University in Taipei, where she is studying Biology and Mandarin Chinese. She is passionate about the environment and loves going on adventures!

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