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Indebted to an island: an American student on her way home from NCKU

Tainan, Taiwan, August 21, 2013

As a five-year-old at the mall food court, I would pass by The Great Steak & Potato Co., Sbarro, and even McDonald’s, to eat at Mark Pi’s Express, a greasy Chinese fast food chain. I’d watch the cooks throw crisp red and green peppers into the air, sizzling as they returned to the woks. It became a treat to go there and watch the cooks prepare the dishes of everyone before me until they finally got to mine. Cashew Chicken from Mark Pi’s Express was even my consolation meal after needing a retainer in third grade. As I ate from the Styrofoam plate, through the discomfort of the new contraption at the roof of my mouth, I wondered about China.

Once I got older, I graduated to Peking House, owned by a family who moved to Ohio from China. My family went there so many times (at my request) that they came to know us all by name, and what we typically ordered. I could have never imagined then that in just a few years I would be in Taiwan, learning their language, experiencing the same total immersion they felt when they came to my hometown.

But thankfully for me, I was met with an entire network of people to teach me how to live, and welcome me into their world. I’ve connected with my teacher, tutor, language partner, and host family in entirely different ways, yet somehow, they’ve all overlapped. I was able to piece together enough vocabulary from my class and tutoring sessions to tell my host family, “No, he is not American. Justin Bieber is Canadian.”

And thanks to my host family and our excursion to a pineapple factory called Sunny Hills, I will never again forget the Mandarin name for pineapple cake. Very subtly, each experience connects to the next. The Taiwan United States Sister Relations Alliance (TUSA) program persists in having students build off of their prior knowledge to reach a new level of understanding in both language and culture.

I never expected a scholarship to provide so many friends, a new means of communication, and escort me all over Taiwan, from snorkeling in Kenting to popping my ears on the 89th floor of Taipei 101. To me, the relationships and experiences TUSA has created are invaluable. I never could have guessed how much I would learn this summer when applying for the TUSA scholarship, lying on the bed in my college dorm room. Only now do I see how important of a decision that was, and how my time here will more brightly color my perception of people and places everywhere in the future.

In my Chinese painting class, the teacher would dip his brush into the ink and very finely connect a few lines, a few dots, letting the brush linger just a little longer in certain spots, to create elaborate temples and beautiful mountains, just like the ones I saw the sun disappear into on the highway. “Everyone can,” he would say. I watched my friends copy his movements, duplicate his style. He was right. During that class period, they were Chinese painters.

And I think the language teachers and tutors approach their classes in the same way, believing that even students with no prior knowledge of Mandarin can learn a lot in two months. I know I did. I’m just lucky that Taiwan’s Ministry of Education is as generous as the people who live here, willing to invest in someone who is passionate about learning even though she can only prove it through her word.

TUSA has allowed me to step into the Qing Dynasty, a bride. It’s allowed me to take the scariest taxi ride of my life and hike through the clouds of Alishan’s hazy forests. It’s allowed me to come face-to-face with furious dragons carved into temple pillars, and watch incense dissipate before golden shrines. Every day I feel so lucky that out of the hundreds of essays they received, they picked mine. They trusted me to be an ambassador. And I just hope that one day I can repay this favor, whether it’s teaching English or hosting and introducing the people I’ve met here to the United States.

But I am definitely indebted to this country and the people who have so charitably cared for me. I will never have another opportunity like this one. Though just a small country, the “heart of Asia” is very big, as it turns out. Big enough for 36 Americans to fit inside and feel at home.

Allison Gray (allisongray27@gmail.com) is a journalism major at the University of Maryland, USA. She was picked for the Taiwan United States Sister Relations Alliance (TUSA) Ambassador Summer Scholarship Program, which teaches students the Mandarin language and Taiwanese culture. She is studying at National Cheng Kung University (NCKU), in southern Taiwan.
Provider: 新聞中心
Date: 102.08.21
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