Seoul, Suwon, and Busan Oh My!

If there is any sign that these past weeks have been action-packed, the 2-month gap between my last blog post might be some indication (sorry!). Because a lifetime of adventures, culture shock and stories have occurred, here goes my best attempt to introduce you to my Korean life and some of the best few months I’ve ever had!

 Dorm / Campus:

T0 start, this campus is extremely cute & quaint. With just over 7,000 students the vibe is definitely more relaxed then the over 20K people I am use to Kent State, and my blonde hair definitely stands out in a crowd (especially when there are just under 30 foreign students on the whole campus!).  Classes are a lot easier, and my schedule is significantly freer than it has been in a few years – but we are equally busy with meeting new Korean friends and trying to become as immersed in the culture as we can in the short (and quick-flying!) 4 months. In addition to our new and fantastic friends, I have the greatest Korean roommates!

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Not all those that wander are lost, but we were… 

In the first weeks of this Korean adventure, a small group of us ventured north to Suwon (about 30 minutes south of Seoul). What started as a sightseeing extravaganza around the UNESCO-listed castle, turned into a night filled with navigating the city bus system and streets after accidentally getting lost and separated from our group. Lucy (a friend whose name might appear multiple times in this!) and I, thinking the rest of the group had also planned on following us, got on a bus to head back to the station. However, as the doors shut and the bus rolled away, we were two lone blonde girls in a sea of Koreans with no familiar faces in sight. We spent the next 90 minutes laughing until our sides hurt and exploring side streets in the hopes of finding an English speaking person to guide us back. Luckily, we made it back and had a great time in the process. Unfortunately, the worried group we left behind were not so pleased with our accidental explorations, but also relieved we made it back without using any modern form of technology. A great time to start the semester!

(Pictures: Lucy while we were lost, the Suwon castle, and traditional dancers we stumbled upon)

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Gyeongju – Temples & Villages! 

As part of our Korean Culture class, we are lucky enough to participate in 3 all-expense paid trips to some of the most culturally significant places within South Korea. Trip #2 consisted of a two-day trip to Gyeongju, where we visited burial grounds in mound-like structures (reminded me a lot of Marietta’s Native American mounds), the oldest (and extremely gorgeous) temple in Korea, a famous pond and traditional Korean villages.

(Pictures: Mound, Traditional House, Walls in Traditional Village, Friend skipping stones during travel break, temple, Korean kids gathering around one of the foreign students in our program and Korean kids)

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Halloween – Costumes gone wrong! 

To acknowledge the fact that Lucy & I are nearly the same person and because we spend the majority of every day together, we decided to dress up as Tweedle Dee & Dum for Halloween. Unfortunately, Alice in Wonderland is not well-known and/or our costumes were far from perfect, so they evolved into convicted pregnant twins… Here’s the evidence for your own entertainment:

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DMZ & North Korea: 

The final trip of our Korean culture class was to the border between the North & South at the Demilitarized Zone. We didn’t head to the most famous of locations along the border, but what we did see was really incredible. Heading through military-controlled areas really set the tone for the trip and made the experience more real. Our first stop was to tour the “Third Tunnel” that North Korea built to invade Seoul during the war, although never used. It was eery to have read about these constructions in the past and then to actually tour one of them. Secondly, we toured an observation point where we could see directly into North Korea. It was completely surreal to see the North Korean flag at the top of a pole and the lack of movement, or life it seemed across the border. Seeing a glimpse of the other side really motivated me to learn more about the debacle and to eventually visit Pyongyang in the the future.

(Pictures: DMZ, Observation Deck, North Korea)

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In between these trips our weekends our filled with shopping trips to Seoul, ordering Pitang (a local specialty of fried pork, cheese and a spicy sauce) and planning our upcoming getaway to Thailand…stay tuned!

再見 Taiwan! 안녕하세요 South Korea!

There has never been a point in my life where the slogan, “Time flies” was more applicable. In the past month, I’ve barely had time to breathe, let alone collect enough thoughts to sit and update all of you on all of the adventures, minor mishaps, and good times that have taken place. So, in the spirit of brevity, here goes one jam-packed month:

Final Taiwan Days

Although I have been living and breathing a full Korean life for the past week, my final weeks in Taiwan were hopping. As soon as I was able to successfully hand mime my way through ordering at all of my favorite food vendors, adjust to the sweltering humidity and finally become comfortable on the sorry excuse for a mattress that was our bamboo mat, it was time to say Zaijian. The friendships and stories were well worth the two months and my semester in South Korea has quite the bar set after TUSA. Anyway, enough rambling:

1. Kenting Class Trip

As part of the scholarship program, we went on a class trip to Kenting in southern Taiwan for an extended weekend to become immersed in regional culture  (and quite honestly, take a well-deserved vacation!). We visited an aboriginal village, where we walked across a holy, grassy swamp barefoot that due to some unexplainable event (or more likely, I missed the explanation because I was using every ounce of energy not to sink) is able to hold our weight – or most of it. There wasn’t a single ounce of skin below our knees that came out clean. After the aboriginal tour guide “washed” our legs off with muddy river water, we headed for lunch for another free traditional meal. As was everything in Taiwan, it was delicious.

The final days of our trip were spent wading in waves on the famous beaches of Kenting at sunset, taking a half-submarine through the local waters to see the colorful aquatic life, and snorkel! Besides the fact that we all looked like we belonged on mars with our black and neon colored wet suits, snorkeling was quite the adventure – but not one I’m sure I’d like to repeat.  Swimming with the fishes was a little too unsanitary and off putting for me, but nonetheless, I’m glad to have said  I did it!

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2. Weekend Getaway in the Mountains – Alishan! 

Alishan is by far one of the most gorgeous views I have seen in my life. It tops sunsets in the Norwegian Fjords and possibly skiing in the Alps. 2 other American friends and 5 Taiwanese and I headed to the middle of Taiwan on a 2 hour train ride and a 2 hour, motion sickness-inducing car ride that winded through the clouds and mountainside until we reached the top. The air quality was impeccable and a welcome change from the normally heavily polluted air in the scooter filled city we were living in. We spent the first day hiking through the woods, which included trees that were thousands and thousands of years old. We weren’t able to catch the sunset because of the overcast skies, but the next morning made the entire trip worthwhile. At 3 am we took a train to the top to see the famed sunrise. No words can describe the beauty of the sights, so here are several pictures that might do it partial justice. (There are no close substitutes, though, for the real thing. )

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3. Chinese Opera Class, Cooking Class, Teaching English and the Final Ceremony! 

In addition to Intensive Chinese lessons 4 hours a day, we participated in extra lectures and classes to teach us more about the multifaceted aspects of Taiwanese culture. Notable among them were the Chinese Opera class ( basically a 2 hour face painting session) and a cooking class at the 4/5 star hotel in Tainan. During the Opera class, several trained performers danced and sang their way through the lecture while we tried our hand at placing an uncomfortable amount of red, white and black oil paints on our face. The end result was incredible though – and most people looked entirely different than when we started. At the Shangri La we were given a demonstration to make lotus covered longyan flowers – tasty and appealing to the eye! After we were served a tasty meal – no complaints about that!

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We also had to hold a 2-hour American culture class – never have I ever felt so much like a celebrity in my life. Before I set foot in the classroom, I was greeted with ear-deafening cheers and applause, only to stand in a picture-taking queue for a solid 20 minutes after class was over. Always appreciative of the chance to get a sneak peek into school life in other countries – it reminds me how similar people are across the world!

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Although TUSA ended and we all parted ways to various locations in the United States and around the world, the final ceremony was a fitting cap to a 2 months well spent. Lucky to have made such great friends in the short time abroad and looking forward to meeting up in the future.  :)

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Off to Korea! 

(with a quick meetup with one of my good friends from my Germany Exchange Days – It’s a Small World afterall!)

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In the meantime, I’m loving life in Korea. More on that soon -

안녕히 가세요!

-Jessica

25 Days, 25 Observations

Despite the fact that I am surrounded by 35 other Americans on a daily basis and rely on English and very very basic Chinese to get around, the culture here is about a complete 150 degrees. (We can thank globalization for the presence of convenience stores, Starbucks and McDonalds for the lack of the extra 30 degrees.) So, here’s a compiled list of my top 25 observations:

1. Face Masks – People where them riding scooters, in classes, in restaurants, and on trains. Essentially anywhere breathing takes place masks are worn.

2. Restaurants = Food and not drinks. – Unlike in the United States, or the land of limitless options, restaurants almost never have a drink menu. The lucky few will provide complimentary tea or water, but that’s a rarity that is not taken for granted! There are plenty of drink shops (mostly tea varieties) nearby.

3. Sealed with a film, delivered in a bag. – Speaking of drinks, all beverage shops that serve drinks place them in a machine that seals them tight. No lids involved! After sealing, they are delivered in a mini bag, which is actually extremely convenient when needing to free up your hands for a few minutes. Personal favorite = mango smoothie!

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4. No tips. - To add to the already super cheap food prices (a full meal here ranges between $1 and $2 USD), tipping is just not a part of the culture. Coming back to the 15-20% going rate in the States will be difficult.

5. Separation of Genders  – Keeping genders separate is a much stricter policy in Taiwan. There is a security guard in our dorm to make sure that no boys head to the girl side and vice versa. We even have to use different washing machines. This is a strange concept for me, especially because boys lived in the apartments next to mine on both sides at Kent.

6. Scooters are King – It’s difficult to describe how tightly scooters are tied with the culture in Taiwan, but hopefully this picture does some justice (This is what my 15-minute walk to school looks like nearly the whole way). Even on sidewalks, where it is technically illegal to ride them, it’s an unspoken rule that they have the right of way. I have spent many minutes on my walk to school moving out of the way for scooters and waiting for them to find a parking space…

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7. Pale is in, tan is out. – Not once have I been so glad to have extremely pale skin. After living in a country where tanning booths and fake tan products are available at nearly every turn, it is refreshing to have nearly an entire population appreciate the translucent coloring I currently have. In fact, there are a lot of whitening products on the market, people wear long sleeve clothing and pants despite the 100 degree weather (and 100% humidity!) to keep away from the sun and UV protection umbrellas are a common item. (I might actually invest in one for the US, despite the weird looks I know I will get. I’d rather have healthy skin!)

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8. 7 Eleven. It’s no secret that there’s a Starbucks on every corner in New York City, or so goes the saying. In Taiwan, 7 Elevens are the store of choice. They even have them in hospitals, department stores, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two existed in a university building.

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9. Water machines – This is more of a necessity than a cultural nuance, but because the water is not safe to drink from the tap, our dorms, school and I’d assume most other building are equipped with water machines that dispense hot, cold and warm water on command. I think they’re neat at least.

10. Deny compliments – Western culture is very “I” oriented and is often marked by competitiveness and the desire to stand out. The same could not be said in the east and it is expected that you will deny compliments, from fear of being perceived as too narcissistic and standing out.

11. Accept things with both hands –  I’ve noticed even in everyday shops that the cashiers will accept money with both hands… looking into why that is.

12. School is stricter – This not difficult to do, but we were given rules as to how to behave. In the US (at college), everyone is on their own. There are often unspoken rules about arriving on time, etc, but even those are just guidelines. Here there is no eating in class, no late arrivals, sign-in sheets, and overall a stricter environment.

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13. Stray dogs – This city is filled with the nicest stray dogs I have ever seen, but I still keep my distance. They are everywhere, though, and the people of Tainan do their best to take care of them.  It’s not uncommon to see the dogs wander in and out of open shop doors without being chased out.

14. Order food with tally sheet  – At all of the restaurants I have been to, you order by tallying everyone’s order on the sheet or on a menu and paying the full group amount in cash. This always ends up testing our math skills, since more often than not, we all don’t have exact change.

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15. No hugs, no physical contact – I first noticed this then when taking a group picture. Normally it’s second nature to put your arm around the person next to you. But with Taiwanese friends, that just led to an uncomfortable few seconds as you could feel them tense up. Turns out you almost never touch friends! Lesson learned.

16. Everyone is incredibly nice – I have never met so many generous, selfless people in my life. Everyone goes out of their way to  make sure everything we need is taken care of and that we are enjoying our time in Taiwan. Between the bike shop owner that opened his doors hours after it closed to let us take shelter from the down pouring rain, our language partners who drive us and guide us to the best places in Tainan (and give up their time to do so), the locals who have always been willing to lend a helping hand or are unnecessarily patient with our lack of Chinese, and my extremely generous extended host family, this country is full of pleasant people.

17. Majors / Colleges – I would venture to say that 75% of my friends in the United States have changed their major at least once, added or dropped a minor, or are still uncertain as to what they want to study. We have the freedom to choose and continually rechoose the path we wish to follow. In Taiwan, students are placed on a track at the age of 15 based on what they test well in. When it comes time for college, they all take a long, mind bending exam to determine what they are able to study at university. The higher the score, the more options they have. For example, only students with high marks can become doctors or engineers (but they can also choose lower score majors if they wish), but students with lower scores are limited as to what they can choose.

18. No trashcans – Finding a trash can is like playing a game of hide-and-seek. They aren’t in classrooms, in restaurants (for public use at least) and there are absolutely no trashcans on the streets. However, the amount of litter is extremely small! Whether that is attested to the culture (more socially responsible) or that the Taiwanese people know where they are, we all have had to carry empty water bottles and other trash around for longer than we would have liked!

19. Bamboo Mats - Our mattresses are bamboo mats covered with small cushions. Our room won the lottery, because we were accidentally given two each. Our backs are thankful, because even with two mats, using them is not a luxury experience.

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(Note: This is one of the beds during my host stay – not from my dorm room)

20. Taxi Culture –  Public transportation is lacking in this city and the only way to get around is by foot, bike, scooter or taxi. Taxis are relatively cheap and we often rely on them to get to places that are out of reach with the other modes of transportation, but it is essentially a hit or miss with how skilled the driver is.  Sometimes I feel like a crash test dummy, other times I can enjoy a slow stroll through the city.

21. Garbage Trucks sound like cream trucks - Imagine the confusion we had when we heard the repetitive melodic tune that is closely associated with ice cream in the US turn out to be garbage trunks. I’m still not quite sure why such a happy song would play during such an unpleasant task, but to each their own.

22. Hole in the wall Restaurants. The best restaurant in Taiwan could very well be hidden behind the facade of wear and tear, unappetizing decor and questionable sanitary practices, but often these restaurants are the gems of the city. It’s a 50-50 chance that sometimes our stomachs are not always willing to take, but the winners have been absolutely amazing culinary feasts.

23. Cockroaches. Mosquitos. Spiders. Oh my. – Before heading to Taiwan, the horror stories surrounding monster-sized spiders greatly outnumbered any warning of the realistic bug problems that include hungry mosquitos and an abundance of cockroaches. We all have chicken-pox-like battle scars from those biting bugs and have tested out the quality of our shoes by taking out a cockroach or two. It may all be part of the experience, but it’s not a pleasant one!

24. Ghosts – We’ve been warned, especially as Ghost month approaches, to never whistle at night (for fear of a ghost following you home),and put away laundry (or a ghost could wear your clothes) and stay away from swimming in the ocean (or a ghost could swap souls with you).

25. Towels – Full body sized towels do not seem to exist. Instead all excess water is removed with a dishtowel. I was warned about this before coming, so I thoroughly relish the luxury amenity of additional inches of material.

 

As an added bonus – here are a few pictures from my host stay this weekend in Kaohsiung. The experience reiterates number 8 on this list as the people I met this weekend were incredibly welcoming, generous and despite the extreme communication barrier, went out of their way to make sure I was “happy.” (A question they reiterated throughout the 3 day stay.)  I hope to update this in the near future, but time keeps flying!

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Tea Time & Typhoon Lagoon

We stampeded the grocery stores and stocked up on every variety of insta-noodle, cancelled our plans for an exciting weekend getaway with our host families, and obsessively reloaded tracking websites as we prepared to battle the impending “super” Typhoon Soulik from the cozy confines of our dorm rooms. While lightening and thunder rattled the ground and stirred up a little bit of a frenzy the days before, the actual event was… a little disappointing.  So, in the words of T.S. Eliot “This is the way the [typhoon] ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” Thankfully, at least, it turned out better and not worse!

Here’s a panorama from my dorm – the skies essentially stayed the same throughout the whole ordeal!

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Lightning from my classroom building 3 days before the Typhoon hit.

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Hanlin Tea Room

Since the Typhoon has passed and the temperature and humidity index are once again soaring, life has returned to it’s usual busy routine. Today, we headed to the Hanlin Tea Room for a traditional tea ceremony and a taste of Taiwan’s most desirable and famous tea: Oolong.  After a very riveting visual instruction series by a Taiwanese Tea Artist, we attempted to brew our own cups of tea. For your own tea-brewing pleasure, this is how it’s done:

1. Boil water in a kettle.

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2. Clean tea cups. (& watch in awe as the Tea Artist endures scorching steam without a flinch!)

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3. Add tea leaves into separate tea container. Make sure there are no “mountains” – spread the tea leaves out evenly. Porcelain is best for Oolong, because the pores in the material allow the tea to breathe and the flavor to seep through. Tea leaves are also best kept at cold temperatures, preferably in a freezer, refrigerator or at room temperature (in that order of preference).

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4. Shock the tea leaves with hot water in the container. Drain with miniature strainer into separate container.

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5. Fill the container that contains the shocked tea leaves with boiling water, cover and let sit for 60 seconds for the first pot. Let set for 70 seconds for the second container (if you wish to make more!) After 60 seconds, pour tea once again into separate container.

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6. Hold the newly filled container carefully along the rim and securing the bottom with your palm. (Careful: extremely hot!) The first cup poured is the highest quality, the last is the least.

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7. Enjoy! (Without sugar or milk!)

This was an absolutely amazing cultural experience! Soft lighting, bamboo wicker seating, lowered tables and a barefoot requirement created the perfect ambience for an afternoon tea. We were also given a bubble tea treat (tea, milk, and tapioca balls) as a farewell gift – even more special since this popular drink (throughout the world) was first created in this tea house.

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Can’t wait for the adventures that still await!

-Jiā wén

Taiwan: Scooters, Street Food & Sweltering Heat

It’s 12:30 a.m. nearly two weeks after I arrived and I am just now finding some spare time to get around to updating all of you! Our schedules are packed, but in the past 12 days we’ve all had some truly amazing experiences. Because it’s late, and there is a lot to say, this post is just going to be a list – longer ones to follow later :)

My Top Experiences in Asia (so far): 

1. Layover in Tokyo – One of my good friends from high school lives in Tokyo and agreed to meet me at the airport at 6 am to catch up for an hour. It was great to see an old friend, not to mention the fact that I was greeted with many thoughtful gifts from both Momo and her dad (& an ice cream tea treat after.) Definitely a great start to this long journey!

Momo in Tokyo-Haneda!

2. Arriving in Taipei  – We were greeted with hundreds of security guards, television crews, paparazzi-type photographers. It turns out this was the reason:

http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/asia/story/taiwan-gang-leader-nabbed-airport-after-17-years-20130629

 

3.  A Chinese Name!  After many failed attempts, I finally have a real Chinese name! The application for the program required a Chinese name, but since this is my first attempt at the language, I was clueless as to what names I could chose. Thinking I had outsmarted the system, I copied and pasted a section from my admission letter where it stated “Full Name: and some unknown Chinese characters”. Based on assumption, I thought I was automatically given a name, but it turns out that it was actually just a direct translation of “full name” into Chinese. So, for the first week my Chinese name was in fact “full name.” Great way to start :)   During my Chinese class, we were given real names, which like many names in the United States are divided into three parts: the family name and two first names (in that order).  I am now known as  麥嘉文  or (Mài jiā wén ) The coincidental part of it all is that Mai, or my last name in Chinese, means “wheat”, which is eerily similar to the meaning of “Miller” despite the fact that our names were randomly chosen by our teacher!

 

4. Opening Ceremony Dinner –  For me, so far, Taiwan means food. And lots of it. The first day of our program concluded with an seemingly endless supply of delicious food and great company! Here is just a sampling of all that was offered “family style”.  Chopsticks are not my friends – but for means of survival, I get by.

Asparagus/Bamboo Pumpkin & Clam Soup Duck Table Beef and Soy Spring Roll (Yum!) Spicy Cabbage Fried Rice with fried fishes (with eyeballs)

 

 

5. Scooter City - Although it’s not possible, I’d be tempted to say that the number of scooters (mopeds) that exist in this city outnumber the actual population. They are  paired on the streets with equally fearless pedestrians which leads to a harrowing traffic system that more or less resembles the game Frogger. Riding on the back of one, though, is exciting! A few of my new local friends took us to a fantastic restaurant one evening that included a  night ride on the back of one of these devices. Seeing the city (which looks like a gigantic Chinatown NYC) at dusk, passing by temples next to food stands and other juxtapositions that this city has so far represented was one of the best experiences I have had here!

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6. A Trip to the Night Market –  To continue along the lines of food (apologies for inducing any cravings!), we spent one of our first nights in Tainan perusing the famed Night Markets that featured fair-like food stands with an amazing assortment of exotic eats and treats. With the help of our language partners (which I will explain in an upcoming post) we navigated the stands and were guided to the most famous of Taiwanese food – some more tasty than others. The most memorable item, which might I mention, is highly regarded in Taiwan, was Stinky Tofu. It takes a strong stomach and nose to get past the stench which polluted the air from quite a distance away. I had to actively try not to gag – it smelled like the pig pens at fairs (times 10!). The taste is more subdued, but it was not tasty (and not worth the smell!) Some other treats of the evening included, sugar glazed tomatoes, Mango cream puffs, sausages, ducks blood (Not quite adventurous to try that..),  crickets, and other unspeakable items.  Here’s a glance at what night market life is all about!

Stinky Tofu cooking language partners stinky tofu eating the goods Nightmarket fare sugar coated tomatoes and strawberries stand ducks blood ducks blood games for kids cream puffs

 

 

7. Cultural Seminar: Chinese Painting – As an additional part of this summer program we have to attend weekly cultural sessions, which are actually fascinating! This past week’s was Chinese painting where we tested our hand at the ancient Chinese art. Our teacher, a Chinese painting master and Taiwanese funny man, instructed us through humor how to paint a quality picture without 30 years of experience. With using only black paint and varying amounts of water to dilute the color, this was my result:

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8. Saturday Field Trip around Tainan – Not only are our weekday schedules chock-a-block, we also have weekend activities, which usually include trips to area sites around Taiwan. This past weekend we went on a temple sightseeing-spree, followed by a lagoon cruise in an oyster farm, a short stint at a beach and another 8 + course meal in a very fancy restaurant (I’ll spare you more food pictures :) )

Confucius Temple Side Wall of Temple Chinese writing Side door for VIPS - only Gods enter through front Making final wish Making wishes to Confucius Wishes Temple Garden Entrance

A friend on the program

A friend on the program

Mango Shaved Ice Koxinga Koxinga's Shrine Literature Temple - for good grades Boat Captain & Oyster BBQ Chef friends friends TUSA program participants Roadside sights

 

 

For two weeks, we have done quite a lot and slowly (very), but surely, my Chinese is progressing. Soon, I hope to be able to say more than my name, hello and thank you. I’ll update you more in the coming days, now that I am starting to get settled into a real Taiwan lifestyle :)

再見! (Zàijiàn)

- Jiā wén