Our journey in Taiwan begins

你好!My name is Henry, and I’m a Law, Economics, and Chinese student at the University of Auckland (UoA). I have been fortunate enough to receive a Prime Minister’s Scholarship along with 14 other UoA students to study Mandarin Chinese this December and January in the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan at National Cheng Kung University (NCKU). I hope you enjoy reading about my experiences in this blog!

8 December — AKL–TPE

The hardest part of any journey is to begin. So it was for me when I had to say goodbye to the people I love in Auckland. Happily, I celebrated an early Christmas with Alice, Barbie, Maddie, Mum, Rob, Normie and my darling Selle. As I walked into Auckland Airport, I could feel the warmth of our shared affection deep within me. I was ready to begin my journey to Taiwan. I met Amelia, Bonnie, Charlie, Emilia, Finley, Hine, Juliette, Laura, Maia, Rachel, Simonah, Tessa, Yina, and Zara on the other side of airport security. They were just as excited as I was to board our flight and begin our Taiwanese experience.

We had a super comfortable 12-hour flight with Air New Zealand, including two delicious meals and free drinks. In between time spent revising Chinese, I watched most of the new Elvis biopic, which I can highly recommend! We all arrived at Taipei airport well-fed and dozy, but we still had over five hours of travel ahead of us. As we navigated through customs, our new reality began to sink in: we were in a new country with a beautiful language and culture quite different from our own. Striving to understand and speak a different language is always a humbling experience. Fortunately, we didn’t have to fend for ourselves for long, as Ms Hung of NCKU met us and showed us the way to our bus, which would take us on the five-hour journey to our hotel in Tainan. Along the way, we stopped for our first meal in Taiwan, which for me, was a flavoursome beef tripe soup. Despite my best efforts, I fell asleep on the way to our hotel and woke up to find we’d arrived! Charlie and I went to our room together and quickly passed out on our beds.

9 December — NCKU orientation

The next day we took a cab to NCKU for our orientation. Ms Chen introduced us to the course content, which is focussed on Chinese language learning but also includes cultural classes, community service in Tainan and a service trip to an indigenous school in January, the purpose of which will be to introduce New Zealand to the students. After Ms Chen finished her introduction, we met our language partners and enjoyed lunch together. I really enjoyed meeting Sky! He’s a friendly business student at NCKU and head of the club that creates opportunities for NCKU and overseas students to meet. Ms Chen then took us on a tour of NCKU’s impressive campus. I was instantly excited to learn in such an inspiring environment.

10 December — Exploring Tainan

Hine, Zara and I started 10 December off with a nice walk around our local area. I was struck by how almost every street boasted a beautiful Taoist temple. You can’t help but feel their spiritual energy as you smell their characteristic incense and admire their timeless architecture.

The majority of us then went to visit the remarkable Chihkan Tower. It was initially built as Fort Provintia in 1652 by the Dutch during their colonisation of Taiwan, making it the oldest building in Tainan’s West Central District. It has gone through many cycles of ruin and repair to give it its current appearance. The place is rich in history, from the statute of the Ming dynasty-loyalist Koxinga accepting the surrender of the Dutch in 1661 to the nine imperial plinths at the south gate carried by Bixi, one of the nine sons of the Dragon King with the form of a tortoise. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

That night we visited the Wusheng Night Market. It was livelier, louder and larger than any market I’d ever seen. There was an immense variety of affordable, delicious fare on offer. I enjoyed a generous serving of Taiwanese fried chicken for the equivalent of NZ$3. There were also many attractions, such as a magician and an archery range which I walked past as quickly as possible!

11 December — Pilates and class prep

On 11 December, Amelia, Hine and I decided to take a bus to Banyan Garden on NCKU’s campus to do some morning pilates together. We got off a stop early, which turned out to be fortuitous because we got to walk through the beautiful Tainan Park on our way to Banyan Garden. It boasts a stunning pavilion on a tranquil pond loaded with adorable turtles. Fearsome stony guardian lions greeted us as we marvelled at this beautiful structure that must seem quite commonplace to Tainan locals. We eventually made it to Bayan Garden for our pilates, which left us feeling ready for an afternoon of preparation for the coming week of classes. That night the whole group chattered about the mix of excitement and nerves we were feeling on the eve of our first day.

12–13 December — Our first days of class

The view from our hotel room on the first day of class.

I started 12 December by connecting with my loved ones back home on FaceTime. After the calls ended, I still couldn’t help but release a wistful sigh. I have the double-edged fortune of people I love spending time with and hate being apart from. Notwithstanding this, my video calls with Alice, Mum, Rob, and my wonderful Selle were rejuvenating and helped me make the most of the day. The pandemic and this trip have made me realise what a great blessing reliable video calling is!

My first class on Mondays and Tuesdays is a one-on-one session with a friendly NCKU undergraduate student. We spend an hour talking in Chinese and going over the textbook together. These sessions are very helpful, and my counterparts are always very friendly. Then I have lunch with my classmates at Yule St, a nearby street of restaurants popular with students. The food is delicious and sold at a price students can afford. After lunch, I have my main Chinese language class run by Ms Xu and Ms Lin on alternative days, which I attend with a small group of other students. Over two hours, we get the chance to improve our Chinese language skills. Afterwards, I usually head to the library to study with classmates before we grab dinner together on our way home.

14–15 December — Enjoying Tainan food with Sky and other adventures

On 14 and 15 December, Sky, my language partner, took me to two delightful Taiwanese restaurants. The first specialised in two Taiwanese staples: stinky tofu and duck blood. I must admit that both smelt quite horrible to me, but I placed my faith in Sky and was pleasantly surprised to find that they tasted rather pleasant, though I can’t describe how! The second served us delicious seafood and noodles, a dish for which Tainan is renowned across Taiwan. I loved mine so much that I virtually took it all in with one gulp! Afterwards, Sky took me to a cute night cafe that smelt lovely and served tea, coffee and mouth-watering cinnamon rolls. It was an excellent place for us to spend some time studying together. On my way home, I bumped into Hine, Juliette, Maia and Zara, and we decided to explore a pretty street of shops together. One of the shopowners liked us so much that she gave each of us our own set of light-up ears as a Christmas gift!

16 December — Moving to the dorm, exploring Anping and Christmas partying

On 16 December, we moved from our hotel room, which we had stayed at to satisfy covid regulations, to our NCKU dorm. Our room is comfortable, and the shower pressure is even better than at the hotel, though there is only hot water between 5 pm and 1 am! Charlie and I will live in this dorm until 19 January, when he, most of our other classmates, and I will move to Taipei to celebrate Chinese New Year before our return to New Zealand on 27 January. Let me know what you think we should add to our dorm, so it feels a bit more like home during our stay!

A portion of the Anping tree house

Next, we began a half-day trip around Anping, an eastern part of Tainan home to some of the city’s European and Japanese colonial history. Our first stop was Anping tree house. The British Empire constructed it as an opium storehouse in the 19th century when Taiwan was under the control of the Qing Empire. The British infamously forced the Qing to open its markets by illegally importing opium and physical coercion, so it was fascinating to see a part of that story in person. When the Japanese Empire defeated the Qing at war in 1895, they took control of Taiwan from the Qing and cut off Britain’s access to its opium storehouse in Anping. Hence, it fell into disrepair, and a banyan tree took hold inside of it. Today, it has grown to inhabit almost all of the nearly two-centuries-old house, giving the building its current name. Perhaps it is a metaphor for decolonisation? I was too busy posing, then failing to keep a straight face, to fully consider the metaphoric significance.

Next, we visited Fort Zeelandia, which the Dutch East India Company built between 1624 and 1634. It became an international business centre and helped advance Dutch trade interests in the region, which were vast and growing at that time. Koxinga laid siege to the fortress in April 1661, with the Dutch surrendering in February 1662, ending 38 years of Dutch colonial rule in Taiwan. Little of the old fort remains, save for an ancient-looking brick wall. The Japanese reconstructed much of it during their control of Taiwan.

Next, we headed to a pretty street of shops, many of which seemed to be run by animals (so cute)! We also passed a stunning temple dedicated to Mazu, a Chinese sea goddess whom many Taiwanese Daoists hold in exceptionally high regard, given Taiwan’s reliance on the sea for food and mild weather.

We returned from Anping to West Central District to enjoy a Christmas party with NCKU students and other international students at Legends Bar. Jerry hosted it, and by all accounts, it was an enjoyable night, though my performance in darts and pool was abysmal.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my first blog entry, and please look out for more to come!

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