Reflections on this semester

The semester is over, and with it I have safely tucked away all of the memories it has given me. It has been a time of ups and downs as with many other things in life. As I predicted at the beginning of the semester, I am a different person with a new perspective on the world.

Without a doubt the best part of the first leg of my study abroad year was the combination of many small events. These include the many times I was engaging with not only Taiwanese students, but others from all around the world. I went on many trips and joined a few groups, so I can confidently say that I got the most out of this semester. Focusing on studies as well as the entire international experience was challenging, but I welcomed it openly and used it to my advantage to gain a more solid foundation in achieving my goals.

Speaking of academics, classes were probably the hardest part of this journey. I took on a full load of engineering coursework. Although I am fluent in Chinese, I found knowing a language and being able to apply it are two almost entirely different things. Take the example of going to office hours. This is something I took advantage of while at OU, but having to explain your question about an equation in your second language really pushes language learning. However, this challenge has let me achieve a level of fluency that I could find through few other opportunities.

Looking forward and in reverse, I find that the next semester is approaching quickly and that thanks to my time in Taiwan I am all the more prepared to tackle new adventures on my bucket list. I’m sure I will learn countless new things on later trips, but this first one might provide the foundation I need to achieve a unique experience. My study abroad year might be almost halfway over already, but I feel like it has just started!

Holidays in Taiwan

The past month or so has not only been about studying and preparing for finals, but also about enjoying different holidays. Here’s some information about what winter holidays are like in Taiwan.

Christmas isn’t as widely celebrated in Taiwan, you only hear special music occasionally or see someone put up a tree, but it is still more commonly celebrated in Christian communities as well as around the university where there are more international students. I attended Christmas special event as part of the NTU Navigators. It was an enjoyable experience and a nice way for everyone in the community to come together and enjoy some songs and games. The group even performed a play about two sons who wanted to become artists. Only one of them could afford to do so, and the other had to give up his dreams and work long shifts just to cover the other’s tuition.

New Year’s is celebrated just as widely here as in the United States. All of the people who are in a festive mood travel to watch the fireworks display at Taipei 101. It is one of the tallest buildings in the world and offers an amazing show for everyone to enjoy. The metro usually closes at around midnight, but it stays open for the very first few hours of the year since the city is still filled with activity and celebration. As the crowd disperses from watching the fireworks, some of them travel home while others continue the special night. We had classes off that Monday since New Year’s happened to be over a weekend.

Chinese New Year’s is different since it is based on the traditional Chinese calendar. Unfortunately, I will be back in the US before this special holiday since it happens to be later in the Gregorian calendar. Chinese New Year’s in Taipei in my experience has been a time when many people go home for a few days to join their larger families. The traditional home in the Chinese culture consists of a large household, and this holiday serves a good reminder of old customs. Families get together to celebrate and hope for a good year as well as experience life together as a large group.

ICL Trip (Dec. 16-17, 2016)

The culmination of the International Companions for Learning (ICL) program is a 2-day trip to the city of Chiayi in southern Taiwan. All of the international and local students met up at the university entrance and we left around 6:30 am (really early!). The trip down takes around three and a half hours, and most of us slept for the first half. We stopped at a resting station to grab breakfast and stretch our legs, and for last half I got the chance to meet a few of the other international students.

The first school we visited in the morning was Wen Ya Elementary school. I have been teaching one of the sixth grade classes at this school during the semester, and we only have two more Skype sessions left! I was really excited to finally meet the kids in person, and the kids were just as excited to see me. We played tee ball and dodgeball together, and my class even taught me how to ride the unicycle. We then ate some lunch that the school provided, and before we knew it everyone was saying goodbye.

In the afternoon we visited Sin Shan Elementary School. We watched the kids perform a dance as well as show us their skill with the Chinese Yo-yo. After touring through the different classrooms, we and the students played some basketball. There were also five rounds of intense tug-of-war, and everyone else watching was cheering on the participants. The kids showed us a little game where you perform a sequence of moves with a cup and then pass it to the person on your right. Once you get a hang of it, it gets really intense since everyone wants to see how fast they can pass the cups around.

After a long and fun day of touring schools and playing with kids, we headed to the Look Royal Resort where we dropped off our things and headed to the local Chia Le Fu night market. We decided to try some Mongolian beef, and it turned out to be really tasty! After walking around for a while, it was time for some well deserved rest. Some of the other students played pool, but I was too tired and decided to hang out with my friends in one of the rooms. We hit the hay around midnight so that we would have enough energy for the next day.

The school we visited the morning of the second day was Yu Ren Elementary School. Out of the schools we saw on the trip, this one is considered to be in a more rural area of the city. The event started with the kids teaching us a fun little dance on stage in their student center. We then split up into groups to complete some activites which included things like puzzle-solving and archery. I met a really cool fifth-grader named Allan, and we played some basketball together. He is on the school’s basketball and soccer teams and is full of energy! He even served as my expert during our calligraphy session.

Our final school to visit was Pei Shin Junior High School. The group gave us the loudest welcome (maybe because they are older?) and performed a dance in traditional and aboriginal attire. We played a game in groups where we had to carry small objects with our shoulders together across the gym and drop them into a bucket at the end. It was our luck, because Chiayi also had a large local festival that day. We saw many schools across Taiwan perform in a marching band parade. I even got to see the real Totoro cat bus!

We headed back to the school where we got the chance to learn how to make dumplings and fish balls by hand. During dinner the students had various small performances. My favorite was the cover of Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out”. Everyone got on the stage at the end to do the Macarena dance for the finale. After our bellies were full and we were exhausted from dancing, it was once again time to say goodbye to the kids.

I had so much fun during this trip. In fact, I would even venture to say that this might have been the highlight of the semester. I’m really thankful that I got the chance to interact with so many students in southern Taiwan. It’s good that we all got this time to relax and play hard, especially since finals are only three weeks away. Before we know it the semester will be over and there will be even more goodbye’s to say. This will be an experience that I will never forget!

Saturday Adventures

I’m back with the last blog of the month! Without further ado, let’s see what I did today…

This is probably the earliest I have ever woken up on a Saturday. My group of fellow hikers decided to meet at the base of Xiangshan (a small mountain) at 9 am, so I had to wake up around 8 am to get there on time. The mountain is quite small, but with two or three breaks along the way it took us a total of around 2 hours. We had a fun time relaxing and singing songs while enjoying the beautiful nature all around us.

After a quick lunch and resting for a bit, I joined a different group at the main entrance of campus. We took a bus to the National Palace Museum, and during this time I got the chance to meet local students as well as exchange students from Japan and Germany. Once we arrived, everyone finished storing their large items (they can’t be brought in to the museum) and then we went to meet our tour guide. The tour itself lasted around 2 hours and was really interesting, probably thanks to the humor that the guide added to his descriptions of the various artifacts.

One of the items that I remember well is a sphere shaped art piece that was actually a handcrafted combination of 15 or so concentric spheres, with each sphere having the ability to roll in any direction around and inside the other spheres. It took a total of 30 years to make! Talk about dedication and patience. The guide explained that many of the artifacts are worth crazy amounts of money, and they were mostly made for emperors and other important people. Another cool thing we saw was a “Carved olive pit in the form of a boat”. Basically, someone took a regular olive pit and spent a lot of time turning it into a tiny model boat with people and working doors!

After our legs were finally sore, we ended the tour and took a short break. Then we traveled to a nearby garden area that with a beautiful small pond. We saw two black swans that some other tourists were feeding. There was a fun little “lottery” to decide which participants would get a small gift. I was one of the winners! Yay!

Afterwards we traveled to the Shilin Night Market, where we split up into small groups to experience one of the best parts of Taiwanese culture. You guessed it: Food! Sometimes locals will travel to a random night market when they have free time. Everything is really cheap, but if you decide to indulge yourself in more than the usual 2-3 things, it can still be a good chunk of money.

Overall today was a great success. Not only was it a fun day full of activities, but I also got the chance to meet new friends as well as practice a little German with one of the German exchange students. It never hurts to try out my rusty command of the language (I haven’t really used it since middle school) before I end up fully immersed next semester in their culture! The semester is more than halfway over, and I can’t believe how much I’ve learned and experience thoughout my time in Taiwan. I have a few more blogs left this semester, they will most likely be in the reflection type format. Until then, go ace those finals (if you’re in school) and enjoy the rest of fall semester!

How Learning Is Different Here

Something is becoming quite apparent at the halfway point of my semester here in Taiwan. This is something that anyone might expect, but for some reason it still caught me off guard. The teaching style and ways to learn the material are simply different here. When I began the semester, my approach was to try what had worked for me during freshman year. Let’s break down how studying and learning happens differently here.

At OU, I approached most of my classes by focusing on material presented in each lecture. Since engineering is essentially learning how to apply difficult concepts in physics and math, most professors spent the majority of the lecture working out representative problems. The goal of time spent in class was to learn tricks that are useful for tackling the homework sets. Textbooks seemed to be nothing more than a reference, even if they were “required” for most courses. I would only one of my books if I was curious about a specific topic or not sure how to do a certain problem.

Let’s travel back to the engineering department at NTU. I walk into one of my engineering classes and everyone has their textbooks out ready to participate in the lecture. Very few students plan to rely on blank sheets of notebook paper like me to get them through the presentation. The professor starts the lecture and whizzes through the PowerPoint slides as I frantically try my best to write everything down. Only a complete chance of strategy will allow me to succeed. After talking to students and professors, I learn the core of how learning happens here: Textbooks are secondary, but they can by no means be neglected if you want to do remotely well. This might be due to the fact that little to no homework is assigned. We’re essentially given the job of choosing problems to practice in order to master the material.

It’s been a pretty busy semester so far to say the least. After all, the main task during study abroad is to study. This doesn’t mean that I can’t do other things, so I’m still involved in different activities outside of classes. I also really enjoy the occasional chance to spend time with new and old friends each week. It’s like a never ending supply of new cultural experiences! I’ve been talking a lot about my time in the classroom, so I’ll have a blog coming soon that focuses less on academics. Check back soon!

On Midterms & Next Semester

It’s been around a month since I blogged last time. As mentioned previously, this post will be about how tests have been and what I’m doing to prepare for next semester.

I came into the semester ready to take all of my midterms in one week. This is because the university has an official “midterm week”. But it turns out that’s only really true for freshmen. For the rest of us, midterms are scheduled by each professor just like at OU. My exams worked out to be spread evenly throughout this month. Overall, it’s a big relief since I’m not having to review for multiple tests at the same time. Last year at one point I had three midterms back to back in a single day. Talk about pushing time management to the limit!

Next semester I will be studying at the Ruhr University of Bochum in Germany. Now is the point when I’m really glad that I spent a good chunk of time figuring out study abroad logistics (housing, planned courses, etc.) for the entire year while still at OU. Managing two semesters at the same time might not be an ideal situation when you get tests on top of everything. All that is required of me at this point is to submit an official application to the university along with an extra housing application. I’m still trying to figure what I need to do in terms of entrance requirements. Apparently as a US student, I’m supposed to complete my residence visa application after I arrive. I didn’t know this is the process for international students studying in Germany, so I guess each country really does have their own way of doing things!

My current plan for classes is to take two engineering courses and one German language course. From what I’ve heard up to this point, German courses tend to be quite rigorous in terms of independent study time and thorough application of concepts on tests, but more on that in another blog. Also, it would be great to complete an additional internship to complement my coursework if the opportunity arises. We’ll just have to see how everything works out!

Less than two months are left in this semester, and I’m still surprised at how fast the time has gone by. I’ve learned a lot about myself and the culture around me. Students are learning, teachers are lecturing, and others are outside playing a game of pick-up basketball. It’s helpful to remind myself that I get to spend most of my waking hours participating in the day-to-day lives of individuals in a place halfway around the world. Whether I’m working hard or playing hard, I remember that I’m also making connections to a people and society along with memories to last for a lifetime.

Typhoons, Classes, and Volunteering

It’s been over a month since the start of the semester and I’m already knee-deep in the content of my courses. Midterms are fast approaching and homework remains a steady stream, but here are some of the fun highlights of this term at NTU so far:

  1. Typhoons – These beasts of mother nature carry a lot of destructive power and are also known in the Atlantic and East Pacific as hurricanes. Over the course of merely 2-3 weeks we had three Typhoons hit Taiwan! Two of them were relatively harmless, while the 3rd (Typhoon Megi) was bad enough that school and work were cancelled for two days. Everyone essentially got an unexpected two-day vacation in the middle of the week.

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That tree is noticeably not perpendicular to the ground

  1. Classes – I’m taking seven classes, most of which are engineering-related. A huge relief is that powerpoints, quizzes, and exams are mostly in English, so I don’t think that aspect of the courses will give me trouble. The content is quite interesting and challenging, so I’ve spent more than a few hours hunkered over my textbooks. By the way, textbooks here are so cheap! Everyone here gets the international editions, which are basically the same except they are all softcover. I can get an engineering textbook that normally costs 150-250 dollars (ouch…) here for no more than NT$1000 (about 30 US dollars)! Here is a picture of the content that I’ll (hopefully) have gained a grasp of by the end of the semester:

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Lots of interesting material to study!

  1. Life Outside of Classes – Everyone here is always making sure that they are staying up to date with their academics, but that definitely doesn’t mean that they don’t have fun once in a while (or maybe quite a bit more often). I attended the student clubs fair at the beginning of the semester and found a group that I’m still actively involved with throughout the week. The group is called the NTU Navigators, and it is a fellowship of Christians who are dedicated to living according to the Bible and making spreading the Gospel a priority. I think it’s really great getting to know fellow students at a deeper level half-way around the world and to seeing how they approach life in an entirely different context. The main activities are bible studies, morning group prayers, and weekly sports events (like soccer and Frisbee).

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A typical scene at the Student Activity Center dining area

  1. Group Projects & Workshop Experience – Some of my classes are not the “traditional” type, but are instead more focused on team exercises or hands-on work. I’m in a class called Machine Design Theory (機械設計原理) and the entire focus is on a project. The goal is to design a device or machine that will climb a pole and grab small spheres attached to strings by magnets at different radii around the pole. Our group is really diverse internationally, and it’s cool to see the creative forces of Taiwanese, Singaporean, Nicaraguan, Chinese and American students working on a project together. The other class I’m enjoying is not really a class but instead three hours each week in the university’s workshop learning how to use tools and machinery. It’s called Workshop Practice (工場實習) and includes learning the basics of how to use the lathe, mill, and other devices. We just finished learning how tap screw threads and use the drill press, and next week we’ll start working on a mill. It’s exciting to learn all of the technical terminology in Chinese that I can store in my memory bank along with the English equivalents.

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The final result of two workshop sessions

  1. International Companions for Learning (ICL) – I’m currently a volunteer with this program that connects international students like me with a local Elementary or Middle school in Taiwan. We teach the kids about our cultures in English each week. It’s lots of fun, and I’m really enjoying the opportunity to teach my class about American culture and the English language. It’s great to see that NTU makes an effort to include foreign students and allow them to use their full potential to make an impact across the island.

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A beautiful courtyard inside the NTU College of Medicine

  1. Life at OU – I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have any thoughts about life back at my home university. Freshman year was an amazing experience and was a huge transition for me personally and socially. I got plugged into different groups, and it seems strange at times not seeing those people since last Spring. It really helps to stay in contact with friends and family, and I think this challenge will grow me tremendously to say the least. I already know that once these two semesters are over, I’ll be thinking back about my time spent at these universities!

After midterms are over, my next big goal is to get everything sorted out for my semester in Germany. In the next blog I’ll talk about how midterms went and further details for my application to the Ruhr University of Bochum. Hopefully you are having a great time with your own semester at OU or elsewhere. Until next time!

Traveling to Taiwan!

My journey begins at the Wills Roger World Airport in Oklahoma City. If you decide you want to study abroad while at OU, this will most likely also be the beginning point for your adventure. It’s a morning flight which means I have to wake up pretty early, but I’m used to this since I’ve been on earlier flights before. Besides, leaving my house at 5 am isn’t going to stop me from getting excited about something like study abroad. A quick bite for breakfast and I’m off to the gate for my departure!

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After the (relatively) quick hop over to California, the next step is the long plane ride all the way to Taiwan. For some reason, flight time is longer going there than coming back. I’m pretty sure it has to do with wind directions and other physical phenomena. Maybe there’s a reason I decided to study engineering rather than meteorology like my Freshman roommate? It’s a 13-hour flight, so I make sure to enjoy the luxury of having unlimited legroom while in the San Francisco airport.

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The thing that always gets me are the waves of heat (and humidity) that hit you when you arrive in Taiwan. Sure, the plane’s been designed with your comfort in mind, so you won’t feel anything until you actually step off the plane. That’s the first wave, and it’s followed by a good amount of walking and waiting in line for immigration. Something really cool that I forgot to take a picture of is a board right past the baggage claim area that has the word “Welcome” on it in at least 20 different languages. In case you’re wondering,  the second wave hits you at the double doors of the main terminal.

There are so many things I could talk about in regards to how Taiwan is different from the US. I’ll most likely go into more detail on differences in future blogs. One thing that would definitely stand out to anyone arriving here for the first time: Scooters. They are everywhere, and if you walk to any major road the entire side is lined with parking for these small vehicles. In the photo below, you can see how popular this method of transportation is. It really makes sense since driving an actual car in a crowded city like Taipei can be a real hassle. If you look closely, there is an approximately equal abundance of scooters and signs, but I think the number of scooters might have still won this time.

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I’ve settled into my dorm room and have gotten most of my paperwork and registration done for the upcoming semester here at NTU (National Taiwan University). Classes start on Monday so things will get really busy pretty soon. However, it turns out that we get next Thursday and Friday off because of the Mid-Autumn Festival, which means it’s going to be a relatively easy first week. Everybody here was working today on a Saturday since they are making up for missing two days next week. Good to know that a full work day over the week-end is not a regular occurrence!

Anyways, that’s it for my first blog. The next one will most likely have an update on how my first few weeks of classes went. See you guys then!