shared stories

a reflection of my trip to taoyuan, taiwan

For most of us, the concept of a classroom probably isn’t a storage room filled with boxes of ramen, bags of rice stacked onto each other, and the stench of rusty, old furniture layered with dust. On the windowsill, a cockroach slowly makes its way across the dry, cracked paint. Eight students sitting on hard plastic benches surround a long, rectangular table, eyes centered on the teacher, ears open to new ideas, and hearts eager to learn. Above all, a wooden cross hangs on one side of the room, watching and guarding us.

I’d always conceived how my first trip to Taiwan might entail visiting some tourist hot spots like Taipei 101, or how I’d be strolling down the streets of Taiwan’s famous night markets while gobbling down all the fried squid and milk tea. Instead, I found myself in a small village occupied by Taiwan Natives. The town, Taoyuan–not to be confused with the synonymously named gateway city west of Taipei–is tucked to the side of the long-winded Southern Cross-Island Highway in Kaohsiung. I arrived along with other volunteers mostly from Fu Jen University after a rough, six-hour ride from the capital, about the same distance as traveling from San Francisco to Reno.

Taoyuan was one of many places heavily affected by Typhoon Morakot four years ago, the deadliest typhoon in Taiwan’s history. The town of less than 5,000 people was left under massive flooding and landslides. Coming from the Bay Area, I had been forewarned to expect a different living standard than what I’m used to in the States. I was made aware of this fact again on the first evening when the running water ceased.

Despite basic amenities, my greatest fear was the students. I have never interacted with Native Americans, let alone Taiwan Natives; and, knowing only a handful of Mandarin vocabularies, I had envisioned how my lessons would end in complete awkwardness. Yet to my surprise, the locals were extremely forgiving of my choppy sentences and incorrect word tones. During my stay, my students walked me through the town as we sang, danced, and shared our contrasting lifestyles. We had candid conversations about who is the best-looking teacher, then later gathered in circles to have dinner that their families delicately prepared. At the end of the second day, my class had invited me to take a picture together. I only wish that photo could capture how warm I had felt. What started out as student-teacher relationships had gradually evolved into friendships.

On a particular afternoon, the sister who resided at the Taoyuan Catholic Church took us, the teachers, to the Taoyuan History Museum. I was struck by how simple the museum was, merely filled with black and white pictures of aboriginals. Back home, we’d probably call it an art gallery. There were no giant statues of great leaders, nor were there any replicas of houses and buildings. It was puzzling.

Yet I realized this town was different from my perception of a town. This is a town where everyone knows their neighbors by name, where children can run around to all the houses, and where everyone is truly brothers and sisters. As days passed, I got to know my students more and more. I paid visits to their families, toured their ranches, and saw where they went to school. And all along, we took numerous photos of our time together. Afterwards, they would upload it online and share it with their friends. I remember seeing some of these photos, and the description reads, “These were the best two weeks of my entire summer. Come back again!”

I began to understand why this museum was the way it was. For them, the most important treasures worth preserving were their memories. While our museums typically kept the first typewriter, computer, and the other likes of it, their museum kept everyone’s shared dreams and unconditional love. Each person I met in Taoyuan had an amazing story, and beneath each of the pictures on the museum walls held the peoples’ identities, heritage, and values. Whether he or she was a farmer, a public servant, or an elementary school student, we all have mutual hopes, fears, and affections. I loved hearing their stories, and if you’re not afraid of showing who you are, they’ll listen to yours as well.

There is a Chinese saying that life is a constant succession of goodbyes. That might be true, but perhaps a better way of putting it is we’re always looking forward to reunite with people we care deeply about. In this interconnected twenty-first century, we can surely cross oceans with the click of a mouse. Hence, our challenge then becomes traveling with a purpose–to contribute to a local community and immerse in a new culture as no tourist can. I can say to my new friends in Taoyuan that I will be back again to share new stories.

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