Meet U.S. Department of State sponsored Gilman Scholarship recipient Alex Montoya. Alex was a Gilman Global Experience Correspondent during the summer of 2014 studying and interning in Shanghai, China. The Gilman Global Experience allows Gilman Scholarship recipients the opportunity to record videos around academic and cultural themes to share with other students interested in studying or interning abroad in the featured country. For more videos please visit the Gilman Scholarship’s Official YouTube page.
Stepping off the plane from China I know that I will have some problems adjusting being back in good ‘ole Texas. Flying in, all I see in every direction is flat lands and plenty of empty lots compared to towers and skyscrapers filling the sky. I knew being back home I no longer have to walk anywhere, but instead have to drive to get anything done. My story remains the same but the amount of information I give out varies from person to person. Everyone is so excited to hear about my story about being abroad, but the hardest thing for me to share is the moments that I experienced. I always end with the same line, “You have to experience it in order to understand what happened.”
The most I miss about being in the city is how easy it was to get around at any point in time. Meeting with other interns or friends I made along the way, we always had a new spot to discover while being in Shanghai or traveling on the weekends. Having a solid group of friends really helped me enrich my experience abroad. We literally did everything together after work. As soon as we got off work we were already arranging a table for dinner and an evening activity for us to unwind.
Being back in the States does have its perks like seeing family, friends and the opportunity to develop new friendships by getting the chance to share my story. Unfortunately, I do miss strangers taking my picture and wanting to practice their English everywhere I go. While in China one thing that I noticed that I really enjoyed was how open people were when bringing people into their group. No matter where you were from or what you looked like, people embraced you with open arms and never doubted their decisions. Here in the States I feel as if it is a bit of a process trying to break into a group of friends especially if you don’t match their thoughts, clothing styles, patterns, etc.
Starting my last year in college I am beyond excited to venture into the world of graduate studies. This experience really influenced me to focus more on a dual program that offers classes both in the U.S. and abroad. Having such a short time to take in the culture, I find that studying abroad long-term will allow for more personal and professional development. When applying to global programs, I know during individual interviews the Gilman Scholarship and my personal story will help me start a solid conversation.
Howdy world! My name is Alex Montoya and I am from Canyon, Texas. I currently am a senior (Wahoo) at West Texas A&M University studying both Broadcasting Electronic Media and Advertising/Public Relations.
As of now, I am in Shanghai, China interning for Ringier Media Company, which is based out of Switzerland. I am beyond excited to be their editorial intern for the next month. Some of the things that I do is help push online content to readers in the area, review blogs and help keep CityWeekend Magazine up to date with current information.
While being driven to my apartment, I couldn’t help but notice all the development this city is going trough and the amount of limited space going deeper into the city. At this point, the only way to house roughly 24 million people is by going up. Always living no higher than two floors back home, I was constantly hung up on how high I would be living. 26 floors later, I unpacked by bags for an experience that has already started.
Living in an enormous city, there is always something to do or somewhere to go. Every place that I have visited, I usually have no idea what I am eating, but as always, I am never disappointed. Eating out all the time has no effect on my wallet, considering every other store is a food vendor and most servings are always fulfilling. Back home, a single outing for a delicious meal could cost me 3 days of meals here. I am glad that I actually get to see people walk around both day and night instead of driving everywhere. Another thing that I am enjoying is public transportation. It is very easy to make your way around the city, unlike back home, where I would have to hop in a hot car and drive a good distance before getting somewhere.
One of my favorite things about living in this city is that no matter which direction you decide to get lost in, everything is worth snapping a picture. The amount of cleverly placed advertisement around the city makes me want to buy what they are selling. I also enjoy the fact that just about everything has gone digital, which makes navigation very smooth. Surely living in the largest city in the world, I am bound to eat great foods, take worthy travel pictures, soak up and experience a culture, and lastly connect with people from all over the world.
It would be a terrible lie if I dared say China has not changed me. It has, and what I have learned here will guide my path in the future. Not only will the knowledge of the Chinese language help me, but the general insights into a country so vital to America’s and the world’s future will be exceptionally invaluable.
Since I have arrived in China, I have learned a lot about what it means to be Chinese. Beijing has been good to me, since it is the cultural hub of China, a place that has long been the capital, and along those lines has famous buildings to accompany a profound history. By visiting the Great Wall 长城 and the Forbidden City 故宫, I get to witness the strength of imperial China and observe a culture distinct in the world’s collage. It has humbled me and expanded my knowledge beyond the typical Western history most know in the United States; I get to put into perspective modernity and the shifting dynamics of East and West interactions.
I had the opportunity to travel in China to see just how big the country is. I stayed for a weekend at an oasis in the Gobi Desert of Inner Mongolia 内蒙古, a province in China that borders Mongolia. I also took an overnight train to Xi’an and back, lending me the chance to see the world-famous Terra-Cotta Army 兵马俑. Every journey I get the chance to make only further embellishes the depth of history and culture in China. When riding a camel in the Gobi, I could not help but wonder who might have come before me in China’s 5,000 year history, or when I finally saw the Terra-Cotta Army and realized that it was 2,200 years old – that is simply unfathomable!
Additionally, I have learned what I want to do in the future, from my study abroad experience. I am from a rural town in Maine that no one knows of outside the state, a town so small I had never heard of it until I moved there, yet I have survived in one of the largest metropolises in the world, Beijing. I feel like I could live anywhere in the world after this and be happy there, too. I have also met some great people from all over the world, forging some bonds that will never die. Life, success, money – what would it matter without companionship? It is something I realize now that having companionship is an integral part to achieve a happy life.
It is indubitable that my career path post-degree will be impacted by my experience here. The Gilman Scholarship provided me with a positive mark on my résumé, which will help towards future employment in study abroad field. Additionally, if I choose to continue studying literature or philosophy, I will have to look at China’s contribution to the fields. I have already taken an interest in the philosophies of Confucius, Mencius, and Lao Tzu, and why would I end this interest?
There are still many more days here in China, but I can already confidently say that this country has bettered me, perhaps even more than I an aware. With every milestone I achieve, I am able to self reflect and I will always be grateful for this experience and how it has impacted me.
After living and studying in China for the past three months – it is going by so fast! – I have had to deal with some ups and downs, a few odd experiences, and the typical feelings encountered by a person abroad, that of homeward desires and foreign adventures. Just like normal life, life as a transient expatriate entails ups and downs that I have had to learn to ride like a spiteful wave, and my reactions are reflected sometimes by the descriptions of culture shock. However, I have been to China before for two months, and so I have not undergone any severe culture shock like the chart accompanying this blog suggests. Nevertheless, I will go through each phase and address how I experienced or did not experience its effects.
As with any new adventure, in the beginning of study abroad I, like everyone else, was excited to begin what at the time seemed like life afresh – or at least college life. In our orientation I got to see many of the most famous places in Beijing, namely the Forbidden City 故宫, Tiananmen Square 天安门广场, and the Great Wall 长城, and stayed in a nice hotel while all the activities were preplanned for me. I was carefree and I loved it; the purity of freedom was exhillerating. I was also lucky to get a few crystal clear days to see some sights, like the Olympic Park. Life is good when you need not do anything but relish beauty!
Of course, after about a month of living in an apartment buying my food and taking care of my life and academics again, I dropped down from this proverbial high, but I did not begin to get annoyed with parts of Chinese culture or become homesick. Instead, I got depressed because there was a period of about five days where the Beijing smog got so bad I could barely see some of the buildings outside my room’s window. I felt trapped inside my apartment and soon my will to go out and see parts of the city began to fade. It took some effort and timing to get out of this state, namely by monitoring weather and making sure on every good day each week to go and see the city. I made a point of this, and for about a month every weekend I would visit another famous part of China for the day, such as the Temple of Heaven 天坛, the Summer Palace 颐和园, or the Temple of Confucius 孔子庙. This lifted me of out the smog induced depression because it gave me something to look forward to each week.
I have been lucky to not feel homesick so far. Of course I have missed my family and especially my girlfriend, who is difficult to contact because she is studying abroad in Paris, but I have never felt helpless or even thought about going home early or giving up Chinese. I feel that this is because I have been away from my family for two months before when I lived in Sichuan, China – if you can even call two months ‘living’ in China. But I am happy that I am completely comfortable living abroad. Not only does it benefit me now, but it also means that I am open to living abroad sometime in my future, if I so choose.Right now I am comfortable in a routine of work inspired by a saying from Confucius: “Rotten wood cannot be carved” (真是朽木不可雕也). By rotten wood I think Confucius means someone who is idle and non-diligent, someone who cannot be taught because of the way they live and study; someone who is unlearned only because they are too lazy to work for knowledge. I was inspired by this quote and have been trying hard to purge myself of my ‘rottenness’ and learn as best I can. I used something I love – philosophy – and wove it into a purpose while in China, connecting me to Beijing and Chinese culture while honoring my own interests, and now I have found my place.
I think that as long as I am purpose driven and remind myself every day why I came to Beijing in the first place – to study Chinese! – it is difficult to have homesickness, even if I miss the people I love, because by doing my very best I honor them. In the end I must not forget myself or the purpose I came here for: my friends will not, my family will not, nor will my girlfriend. If I genuinely care for them, I must honor my original purpose. And I honestly would not have it any other way.
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”
– Cesare Pavese
In China, I have found it fascinating to witness how I can be a foreigner, a 外国人wàiguó rén, yet still feel often enough like I have not tread so far as I actually have. Every day, I have class where the teachers speak exclusively in Chinese, but the moment a break occurs, my cohorts and I revert to English. I have come to feel the trap of being a foreigner, being set in one’s ways. It is a struggle to keep myself from speaking English all the time, and I often fail. I spend much of my time speaking with other Americans in my program for hours in English. Call it a defense against homesickness, a flirtation with familiarity, but the blunt fact is that it is hard to make the most of this short experience as an expatriate.
Out of the people I know who study abroad, not many people go to a country as foreign as China. Many go to Australia, Great Britain, Spain, or maybe Ireland. Often, many of these students do not have to deal with what I have to: they can go out into the streets of Brisbane and talk to anyone they want, or go to a play or the movies in London without any language barrier. Though I am here in Beijing to study Chinese, there is a problem with the fact that I had not studied Chinese much before coming. Therefore, I cannot just go and make Chinese friends because the conversation would be over very soon!
Though, this is good because I am learning a lot about the language, it has made my experience far different, than if I had decided to study abroad somewhere in Europe. It is very easy to get around and do things in Beijing, and my Chinese is good enough for most common situations that arise, but I often feel separated from the city. I know I am an American, the Beijingers know I am, and that is something so evident here in China, whereas if I were in Europe, I would not look so foreign. It is a struggle sometimes because the environment is so foreign, and I am so foreign from the environment. Here in Beijing, it is tough reminding myself that I need to be studying Chinese. I tend to withdraw into myself and the small American corners of the city, as a natural way of trying to make myself feel comfortable. It is like I need to try tricking myself into being lost in Beijing sometimes, because only when I stop watching American shows and start listening to Chinese music, do I really take advantage of my experience here.
The brutality of travel can be mitigated and overcame, as long as I make the most of everything. Becoming a foreign recluse, hiding from Beijing is not a way to experience the city at all. Exploration, living with an adventurous mindset – that is where growth is sowed. To trust strangers and live with only the bare essentials has long-term benefits, that one cannot gain from trying to remain cozy at home. You learn the most from falling down. Staying off-balance in a foreign land will teach me so much about who I am, who other people are, and the relationship between me and them.
My biggest hope is that my Chinese language will grow, so that I can make more use of the study abroad experience and maximize everything about spending a semester in Beijing. I have had a great time here already – I can only imagine how great it can be if I can communicate better! As my Chinese teacher would say, “好好学习!” (Study well!)
Indisputably, one of the must have experiences while traveling is eating local cuisine. Hands down, nothing but food will let you know a culture more intimately. I have noticed that in many places I have traveled how small culinary differences can sometimes unravel an entire cultural outlook on existence. The customs of eating a dinner can represent the morals of a people just as well sometimes as a moral treatise.
Chinese cuisine is no exception to this rule, and this is why I try to go out and eat different Chinese foods almost every day I live in Beijing.
Beijing’s street food is a must have. Not only is it dirt cheap – you may find yourself spending only 4 kuai, the equivalent of $0.75, on a meal – but it is also an experience, similar to getting a hot dog in Times Square. On many street corners there are food peddlers showing off their goods to thousands of people each night. There are fried meats on a stick, meat and veggie wraps, 包子bāozi, noodles, candy carts, and much more, from fruit to sweet potatoes and roasted nuts.
My favorite street food is a delectable treat that is a Beijing original: 糖葫芦 tánghúlu. Essentially, all it is are a bunch of fruits on a stick and covered in hot melted sugar and then cooled so that the sugar forms an ice-like casing of sweetness around the fruit. It is like a magical fruit salad that is portable and even better than fruit salad – sorry fruit salad, you know I still love you! I like the strawberry ones the most, but they come in many varieties, including mixtures of kiwi, grapes, pineapple, tomatoes, strawberries, hawthorn, and more.
I also love roaming around Beijing and looking for small restaurants, that most other foreigners are too sketched out by to eat in. These restaurants serve genuine Chinese food, that most Chinese people actually eat. One such place I found is in 五道口Wǔdàokǒu and it is called 成都小吃Chéngdū xiǎochī, literally meaning ‘Chengdu snacks.’ Chengdu is the capital city of 四川Sìchuān province China, a province well-known for its 辣味儿là wèir, spicy flavor. Often while there, I order 麻婆豆腐má pó dòufu, a traditional type of soft tofu drenched in a thick spicy soup, and 宫保鸡丁gōng bǎo jī ding, which is exactly what it sounds like: Kung pao chicken. Except this Kung pao chicken has 四川花椒Sìchuān huājiāo Sichuan flower peppers, which after a few bits will numb your mouth, making everything you taste far more intriguing.
Unlike in America, the way to eat this food is by having a bowl of rice for yourself and taking from communal dishes what you are eating. Usually, when I think of ordering food at a restaurant, I order something and other people order their own dishes and we eat from our individual plates. Though it may be argued that sharing dishes at the center of a table is not exactly hygienic, it also opens conversation up by encouraging interaction with others at the table. It is also common courtesy to make sure everyone at the table always has enough food. Imagine a Thanksgiving dinner and how everyone is always happy and talking to one another as they get each other food, that is what the Chinese style of eating is like.
In addition to having simply amazing spicy food – I am pretty much in love with Sichuanese food! This small restaurant does not cater too much to foreigners, meaning that it gives a more authentic Chinese feel. It is a great place to practice some 汉语Hànyǔ – Chinese – and observe customs. One of my favorite observations is how Chinese men – though it may be more of a Sichuanese custom – drink beer from tall bottles, but they always pour the beer into what is almost a shot glass. It appears to be that throughout history Chinese have never drank from a tall glass, but instead have had a larger container that they pour into smaller cups or bowls. This is mostly founded on how historically Chinese have drunk their tea; they are drinking the beer in a way that is culturally molded by centuries of tea drinking. Also, their glasses are never empty because if someone drinks theirs another will fill his and then toast him. This is a way for men to enjoy each other and for them to gain ‘face.’
面子miànzi, noun: face; reputation; prestige, etc.
‘Face’ is a cultural concept in China that helps mold social order. It is one’s reputation as a polite individual. The concept is more complicated than I can fully explain here, but in the instance of the man pouring the other man more beer he is showing that he is kind and unselfish. Qualities such as parsimony, fickleness, and being ungrateful hurt one’s ‘face,’ so by sharing beer and encouraging the other to have a good time, this man is building his ‘face.’ At the same time, the fact that the other man cheers the one who pours the beer and drinks with him is a way of giving him ‘face.’ If he did not drink the beer he would be harming his friend’s ‘face.’ It is important to work on building one’s ‘face’ in China, but it is also important to 给面子gěimiànzi, meaning literally to ‘give face.’ This concept runs back far into Chinese history, back to the Confucian concept that life should be well-ordered, and people should be respectful of one another. Confucius even believed that ritual and music, as Lin Yutang wrote in The Wisdom of Confucius, were needed to create a “moral harmony which should make government itself unnecessary” (Yutang, 8). ‘Ritual and music’ means social interactions and customs, as well as ritual and musical performance, and this cultural concern with ‘face’ is a direct product of this philosophy. It makes it amazing to see how the philosophy of a man who lived over 2500 years ago is still in practice today, even in a small Sichuanese restaurant down a back alley in modern steel and glass Beijing. To be part of that is a great privilege I have. Whenever I go to this restaurant with a friend, I always make sure to keep his glass filled and his face smiling.
Many an adventurer finds their way by first becoming lost. This is the art of travel, to be an interloper and know it. But no one ever became lost through epic estrangement, like in high tales from fiction; one must place themselves into the unknown in our world. If one is traveling according to a plan, how can they be lost? By taking large strides forward to where one’s eyes no longer see.
As I prepared for my flight from Boston to Beijing in early September, I felt surreal. Not anxious with the butterflies everyone talks about, rather a heightened sense of self. Such existential lenses are blurred by travel, and when I knew that come the next day I would be on the other side of the planet – unable to call my family, unable to kiss my girlfriend – I felt the world dissipate until there was only me. No longer manacled by the life I had created, I felt an almost eerie sense of being lost. The feeling only amplified when I was transplanted into the airport, then the aircraft itself.
I met others in my program headed off to China, the land of dead empires and gold horizons, but new people only made me realize the bones of my life, the important things I wished to speak of, and the gluttony, that which I told no one. No matter how many people I met, I always knew – and still do know – that this was my journey, my path to carve. I took a large stride coming from a small rural town in Maine to Beijing, a mega-metropolis and capital city, and as time sets into me I become more and more at home. But when I think about it, I am a wanderer, a 外国人wàiguó rén, a foreigner. Even though the Chinese writing on buildings and the sounds of people speaking Chinese all about me becomes normal, I know I am still an interloper.
China is as radically different from my home as it gets. No amount of preparation truly prepares you for the scope of another culture. The moment you think you know, you do not. The most enlightening part of travel for me is knowing just how much my life depends upon me. The world does not revolve around me, but my life, my ability and my success, does. It seems simple, yet this simple fact is never more evident than when you take a great stride. I had to leave my home and travel to the other end of the world to fathom the gift of travel: awareness of myself.
This awareness lets me understand China better than if I kept to the comfort of American things, than if I had come to China without the focus on myself and what I can do while here. I needed to first unfurl myself to begin unfurling another culture. Now I can explore with an open mind the alleys of Beijing, fearlessly bike among other 同学tóngxué (schoolmates), and fully soak myself in the experience of living in China中国zhōngguó, the middle kingdom. Being lost is the best way to learn, so I have embraced the experience of travel in Beijing. I hope that my introspection fuels my exploration of this new world and increases my sensitivity to Chinese culture as I struggle to learn the Chinese language and create a different life for myself in Beijing.
Culture shock is something I heard about all the time in the International House at my university. I saw it first hand in my friends who were very far away from home. Prior to leaving the states for the semester my friends and family who’d studied abroad continuously warned me about how it would feel to be away from home. At the time I was convinced I wouldn’t be shaken by a life abroad. My school is a short two hour ride from home, but in the past year and a half I spent little of my time in my suburban Tinley Park.
When everyone asked me if I was afraid if I would get homesick, I always answered NO WAY. For most of the year I could be found in Central Illinois attending school, working a part time job, or practicing with the Gamma Phi Circus. I rarely left my campus except on a few visits to see my sisters at their university another hour and a half east or to return home for big holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving. Even though Central Illinois is just a few hours ride from the Chicago suburbs, it’s a whole new world. On my first trips down to school I learned to accept that I would no longer be surrounded by houses and forests as I am at home, but by vast seas of soy and corn. I was living away from home already I didn’t feel homesick then, how could Taiwan be any different? I asked myself as my departure date neared closer and closer. I knew getting away was exactly what I needed.
When I arrived in Taiwan I only felt a little homesick after scary experiences like watching stray mangy dogs wander the streets and almost being smashed by scooters. I got little jolts of homesickness once in a blue moon. My first month here was spent exploring Taiwan. I climbed mountains, visited temples, and even bargained in the most famous street markets in the country. I didn’t even have to start classes for a few weeks; it seemed I had all the time in the world. All my friends back home were jealous, and the new ones I made here just had more to show me. I was so happy I had the opportunity to see exactly why my friends and advisers were raving about Taiwan! Then things started to change. I realized my Mandarin wasn’t as good as I thought. I started to feel isolated from the people around me. It gets harder and harder every day not to miss simple things like the way people greet each other. It seems that nowadays even certain smells and sounds can make me feel homesick.
Today I walked down the street on my way home from class. It was a normal Taipei day. The sun was not shining and there was a steady drizzle of rain dancing across the top of my umbrella. I waited with a small crowd of other university students at a crosswalk, and then made my way towards a restaurant to grab a bite to eat. On my way something caught my eye, something I had never seen before. There was a stage built over night in the middle of a street next to my favorite dumpling shop. The stage faced a small temple that I had forgotten existed because it was surrounded by stinky tofu stands. On this stage danced a woman. Clad in what I would later find out to be traditional Taiwanese gowns. Her singing wasn’t anything I had heard before. It was more nasal sounds than anything. In addition I couldn’t understand anything because she not only sang through her nose, but also in a high pitch I didn’t know was humanly possible. My Taiwanese friend explained that she was worshiping the god of the temple by performing. That was why the stage faced the temple and not the street. The entire performance was all for a god. Even more he revealed that she was not singing in Mandarin at all, but in Taiwanese which has eight tones. Running into these types of instances reminds me what a different place I decided to travel. I am a little ashamed to say that I found the performance eerie – a reminder that I was not at home, but in a foreign culture where I did not understand the customs. I left the dumpling shop without my usual box of fried dumplings.
When I finally got home, I sat on my bed and thought to myself what did I get myself into? All I want is to stuff my face with a good Chicago style pizza, some Chipotle burritos, and some good hearty bread and cheese while not listening to music that I can feel ringing inside my skull more than hear with my ears. But I can wait. I’m content to ride out this phase of the culture shock roller coaster. Only tomorrow knows where I will find myself.
*Note: this graph on Culture-Shock shows the stages that many of our study abroad participants experience. It seems like Brett is going through stages 2 and 3 (when differences become irritating and homesickness occurs). However, most students quickly recover from these phases, and Brett knows that tomorrow he will most likely find himself in another stage of the “culture shock roller coaster.”
“The meaning of food is an exploration of culture through food. What we consume, how we acquire it, who prepares it, who’s at the table, and who eats first is a form of communication that is rich with meaning.”
– PBS, The Meaning of Food, 2005
Cuisine is an important part of every human’s life, I mean after all we all have to eat to survive. But more importantly food is one way that humans connect and interact. How the people of a country eat their meals is an important part of experiencing a new culture. This trip to Taiwan is my first time outside of the country and although America may have many types of foods, it has been my first experiences with real foreign food. The many new tastes, smells, and textures are hugely different from those I am used to at home. I have made it a point to taste each and every strange food offered to me. This has become a challenge as much of the food has a not so appealing smell and has proven to have some even more surprising flavors. There are tons of new foods, new and eclectic places, and different ways of buying goods. There are four main things I have noticed about the foods here that are particularly peculiar to me are the variety of meats and organs available, the abundance of fresh seafood, the many new sweet and tangy fruits and their juices, and the delicious teas that can be found in every restaurant.
The meats here are an intimidating part of Taiwanese cuisine. It’s one thing to ask for pork, beef, chicken, or lamb; but there are many more parts to an animal that would never be served in America available at any night market or restaurant. Here you can eat almost any organ from every animal! Beef hearts, pig intestines, chicken feet, fish eyeballs. Many of these strange selections of meat and fish are also quite tasty. For example I have found that even though beef tendon looks like a strange mystery gelatin, it tastes almost like a nice cut of chuck roast with the texture of an extra fatty cut of steak. My Taiwanese friends and the locals alike encourage me to try every strange food that we see in the night markets. I have been more than happy to oblige them by probing many of the new taste and smells. Yet I have faced some problems while here. For one it seems to me that it is increasingly hard to avoid pork here. I like a good pork chop or pork dumpling once in a while (ok well maybe every day in the case of the Taiwanese dumplings) and although the Taiwanese have many delicious ways of preparing pork; I feel as if I have already eaten three whole pigs in my two week stay here and I am starting to get a little sick of it. Among my new international friends who are Muslim and vegetarians it is hard to get food that isn’t prepared with pork in the dish or even on the same grill. Even some menus name a flavor as “seafood” or “corn soup,” yet contain pieces of pork. I feel like this is one thing that I wouldn’t mind more control over, but it hasn’t become a personal problem as of yet.
Beyond the meat one big adjustment I have made in the two weeks since I arrived is eating seafood. Seafood in the Chicagoland area is a bit scarce. Fresh fish is usually a little expensive, so I have never eaten it on a daily basis unless I was eating frozen shrimp or salmon. Here I eat seafood at least once a day. It is the freshest and tastiest I have ever eaten! The many varieties of seafood never cease to amaze me. You can try anything from jellyfish to squid or even sea cucumber. Many of the stranger types of seafood are also quite delicious when prepared in the traditional way. My favorite odd seafood I have tried is sliced jellyfish that is served cold, with some greens and dressed in a vinegar and soy sauce mixture. It is a bit crunchy and very refreshing almost like a thick Jell-O. Another dish that I sampled at a Chinese New Year family dinner had a whole fish. When I say whole fish I mean head, scales, fins, eyeballs, and lots of small bones. But in addition to the freshly cooked fish, the dish had a rocking sauce. I think it had broth from the fish, soy sauce, ginger, a touch of vinegar, and lemon or orange juice. Along with the sauce the fish was covered in chopped green onions and another lemony vegetable that I am not familiar with and that my host could also not identify. This was by far the best prepared fish I have ever tasted and would eat it again in a second. In fact at the second Chinese New Year dinner I attended with a buddy from my university, they served the same dish. My buddy said my eyes lit up like the sky on the 4th of July when I saw them bringing it out!
Fruit here in Taiwan is the best part of the local cuisine in my opinion. Even at home I love to try different types of fruits and enjoy any flavor of smoothie or juice. It has been very cool to try the new Asian and Taiwanese fruits. The fruits and juices are also really fresh, in fact you can even watch as the vendors cut and juice the fruit right in front of you. Upon deciding on studying abroad in Taiwan I heard that mangos taste better than any American varieties and all the fruit in general taste much sweeter and natural. As I have progressively tried more fruits, I must agree that many of the fruits are much better! The mango doesn’t have a piney taste that I associate with mangos back home. Also most of the juices I have tried here in the local night markets are made with all fruit and the choice to have no added sugar something that you might not find at home. The other fruits that are never available in America are even more exotic and succulent.
Whenever I am feeling just absolutely parched I keep my eyes peeled for a bubble milk tea shop. They are on about every corner here in Taipei. They have a variety of flavors, each with a different taste. The basis is a plastic cup with tea, milk, sweetener, tapioca bubbles otherwise known as pearls, and any other flavor your heart desires. Bubble milk tea is a sensation that has spread to many parts of the United States, but the real thing is much better. Many do not like bubble milk tea at first. It is an odd combination of eating and drinking. One must chew the larger tapioca balls before swallowing the tea. So after ten minutes of slurping a large cup of tea, milk, and tapioca pearls many feel full and a bit exasperated with the amount of chewing. I have found that I prefer the smaller version of the tapioca pearls. It allows for slurping of the drink at a faster speed and is less of a choking hazard.
Another interesting part about the cuisine here is the high amounts of fried foods. One might think that as an American I would have a lot of experience with fried fruits, but Taiwan takes using oil to another level. Chicken, pork, beef, vegetables, tofu, you name it they fry it. I was told that I would be eating a lot of fresh vegetables, which I have, but I still feel as if the tons of fried foods I encounter are ingested by most of the Taipei population on a daily basis including me. So here I feel fuller faster and my skin has become very oily because of all the greases and oils I am ingesting. That being said, I surprisingly feel as if I have lost weight since arriving here in Taipei.
It’s not just the food that is different it is the way I pay, sit, or walk with it that differs. In America you get fast food, eat at home, or have a nice sit down meal in a restaurant. In Taiwan it seems that the fast food is everywhere. I can buy anything to go, especially at the night markets. Much of my eating has not been done sitting down in a restaurant, I spend most of my nights eating and walking. The night markets are an awesome Taiwan version of our outside outlet malls, except much cheaper and with more illegally sold items. It is actually really funny to watch the stands that don’t have licenses to sell their goods on the street run from the police. They are all very organized with walkie-talkies and everything to communicate to one another so as not to be charged or fined for their vending. There are also many legal stands set up throughout the night markets selling food. Finding restaurants and stands selling all assortments of foods from stinky tofu or stir-fried organs to delicious fruit treats or egg cakes is too easy. I really love to walk new night markets and try all their famous varieties of cuisine. Some night markets are famous for selling things such as snake and turtles. Others are more famous for selling different assortments of cakes and baked meat pies. Beyond new foods in each of the night markets typical snacks can be found, so for those of the faint of heart who do not like to try new foods there are many western type snacks to be found as well.
For the few occasions where I sat down in a real restaurant to eat, like my Chinese New Year dinner with my buddy’s family or with my friends near Taipei 101, the restaurant experience was also very different. For the Chinese New Year festivities the waiter brought our food in courses. The first few dishes offered cold meats including duck which tasted surprisingly like ham and seafood my favorites a delicious chewy jelly fish and crab mixed with potatoes and carrots. The next couple dishes included a very new black chicken soup, spicy chicken and sesame filled pastries, and another shark fin and mushroom soup that was absolutely delicious. Then for desert we had some tasty taro filled fried dumplings. All of the food was placed onto a lazy Susan, a cool spinning contraption placed on the top of the table. It allows for everyone at a round table to access each dish without having to pass around plates. I think more American restaurants should have a lazy Susan. They make getting seconds so much easier.
One part of the Chinese New Year meal I found a little strange was that all of our drinks were strangely not served to us directly by cup or even in a pitcher. We were in quite a fancy restaurant, but the drinks were served in cartons and then we poured them ourselves. It seemed quite strange because all of the china was mind-blowingly beautiful and then we were given paper cartons of juice. It felt cheap as opposed to the food we ate and the china we used. Refills were also a problem for my other American friends and me. In other more casual Taiwanese restaurants unlimited rice and tea are the norm, but they are self-serve unlike the United States where a waiter would offer to refill your drink or watch closely and bring you refills no questions asked. In addition we found that the cups were way too small and getting refills became bothersome. To battle the lack of refills I find myself bringing massive water bottles with me wherever I go, so I always have refills of water to drink whether I am walking the street markets or in a restaurant.
Prices on food are extremely different from what I am used to at home. Because the American dollar is strong here I can buy quite a lot of food for a small amount of money. Usually it doesn’t cost me more than ten dollars to eat a ginormous meal. To pay even ten dollars is a bit expensive for a typical Taiwan meal. I pay close to or under five American dollars or 150NT per meal. That’s a big change from what I am used to paying per meal back home, unless I am eating nasty unhealthy fast food. Yet the actual paying process is extremely different. In the United States getting separate checks is almost never a problem. So everyone one eats a meal with pays and gets correct change back. It has become a big problem when going out for meals with others as I have to work out my payment and change with the group before paying otherwise we don’t get correct change. I have found that I try to bring lots of change and smaller bills with me so I can give correct change to my fellow diners.
I look at all the problems I have faced and know that they just give me character. The new experiences are priceless and the food is great so I have no complaints! Eating here for the past two and a half weeks has been quite the adventure. From new foods to new places and ways of doing things, I feel as if my world has been flipped inside out. Yet I like the flip and I think everybody should come to Taiwan if they have a chance to have a good taste of all kinds of cuisine and a new dining experience.