By Michelle Aitkin
Art by Aimee Chappell (@aimeechappellstudio)
Last year I went on exchange to Taiwan. I try not to talk about it.
When people ask how it was, I say “yeah, great!” rather than going into a blow-by-blow account of the entire semester I was there. When I returned home, one of the stranger experiences was filling in a government survey asking me things like how ‘inspirational,’ ‘motivational,’ the previous five months of my life had been.
Exchange is all of those things. But what has stayed with me the most was the experience of living away from home, and the way that my perception of my self and my place in the world has shifted. What I had thought to be universal truths turned out to be products of my own cultural heritage that I could leave behind without losing any part of me.
I left Perth ready to prove myself in the great world, and with an intense need to be as perfect as possible with as little trying as possible. I planned to absolutely kill it at exchange. Instead, on the other side of the experience, I’ve learned that it’s fine to be terrible, and to just keep on going. So here is a list of things that suck about student exchange. And how I had a radiant, life-affirming, eye-opening time messing up again and again.
Easy things become hard.
Preparing to go through a checkout at the grocery shop is hard enough when you know you’re going to be able to understand and talk to the cashier. Doing it in Mandarin is a lot scarier. The whole way down to the shops from campus I would practise phrases like ‘No, I already have a bag,’ and “I don’t want a membership card,’ and ‘hello!’. I’d be so stressed by the time I got to the checkout, I’d probably mess them up anyway. But every week they would forgive me and I would return to buy food and not starve.
People might point and laugh. (You can also point and laugh at yourself.)
The young, the old, teenagers of the opposite sex… I had a lot of pointing fingers directed my way. I was paranoid, partially due to my own hyperawareness of how much I stuck out, literally, in standing a head taller than most people. I made friends with a lot of babies on the subway. It’s a proud moment to have a baby smile and laugh at you, rather than scream in fear or disgust. But hey, it doesn’t really matter. People can laugh if they want, and it’s fine to join them.
A whole new set of domestic habits can throw you for a loop.
Apparently it’s common practise in Taiwan to stay up til 2 or 3 in the morning. Which is fine, until you’re living in a small sized coffin-like bed in a dormitory with three other people and want to go to sleep a lot earlier than that. I wasn’t too keen on other ideas such as dousing the entire room with peppermint oil every time a bug was sighted, or needing to wear house slippers inside, and normal shoes outside, but NEVER house slippers outside or normal shoes inside, and NEVER EVER just socks. But when I considered why I didn’t subscribe to these habits, and the answer was because my mum doesn’t, I realised that I could just get over it.
It’s OK to not achieve anything in a day.
I’m not saying that a person deserves a gold star for getting up in the morning, catching the train somewhere, and coming home, but darn it, sometimes I felt like I deserved one. I boarded a plane absolutely convinced that I would use my time to the fullest; write a new play, make a dance, transform into a native Chinese speaker, somehow be instantly rich and famous upon my return… But instead, I learned about the tiniest and most beautiful things. I released a flaming lantern into the sky, went into a shop selling only false eyelashes, walked a mountain trail, had coffee at a randomly chosen spot on the subway, looked inside temples… The acts of looking and listening became so much more fulfilling than my desire to be an agent, always pushing myself forwards.
So yes, exchange was enlightening. Just not in the way that competitive, forward-focussed, instant-perfection-seeking pre-exchange me had expected. And of course, I’m still all of those things, but now I know I can take that me to anywhere in the world, and she may do terribly, and she may mess up, but she will survive, and learn, and pause to smell the roses.