A few weeks before leaving for Taiwan, I went to the Liaison Office of Taiwan in Cape Town to apply for a Taiwanese Visa. Required: two photos, the acceptance letters from NTU, a flight ticket and proof of financial support. The process went smoothly, except that the official changed my application from that for a multiple-entry visitor visa to that for a resident visa, stating that I would need the latter for a stay of such length as mine. A few days later, the visa was ready and I was good to go.
But the visa would return to haunt me. Flash forward to arrival: a few days after orientation, which was basically a guided campus tour and introductory lecture explaining the logistics of every possible procedure we might need or wish to undergo whilst in Taiwan, we had registration. Now, for registration, we had to pay our accommodation fee and internet access fee, hand in our medical examination forms (they didn’t even ask for the super-expensive x-rays they had stated were compulsory) and pick up our student cards. Those of us with resident visas also had to at this time apply for our “alien residence certificates” or ARC’s, which are basically like temporary ID’s for foreigners. So I quite happily handed over the application form and my passport for inspection, only to be told that my visa was incorrect: I needed to have a visitor visa, not a resident one, and also I was a “foreign student”, not a “student of Chinese”, as my visa held me to be. So, a few days later, I traipsed off to the National Immigration Agency (NIA), whence I was redirected to the Bureau of Consular Affairs (BOCA), whence an email was sent to the Liaison Office of Taiwan in Cape Town in order to establish how the error came about (I would not pay for the new visa if it was confirmed that I had not been at fault). Two weeks later, still not having received the promised phone-call to inform me of the state of affairs, I made my reappearance at BOCA, and was allowed to apply for a visitor visa, but, alas, single-entry, as multiple-entry visas are not issued from within Taiwan. So much for my travel plans. Nonetheless, a few days later I picked up my new visa: valid for 60 days, to be renewed within 10 days of expiry. I stuck my passport in a drawer and promptly forgot about it.
Flash forward 2 months: rummaging about some old stuff in a drawer, oh hello, what’s this? My passport! Uh-oh. By the time of this discovery I had overstayed my visa 5 days. I set out for the NIA, where I had been supposed to renew the visa and tried to renew it anyway, but was obviously unable to do so. Nope, I had to leave the country, apply for a new visa abroad, then re-enter. Also, there was a overstay fine, depending in severity upon how long I overstayed. I went once more to BOCA to affirm this and was told the same thing. Anyhow, in the space of 3 days I was off to Seoul to get a new visa (some friend had gone there on a weekend trip, so at least I would be joining them). Before leaving I went once more to the NIA to get an exit-permission slip. Oh how well I by now knew those two lovely institutions that are BOCA and NIA! Things ran smoothly in Seoul (apart from my getting lost and very stressed trying to find the embassy, but nothing dreadful). The morning after having handed in the application, I had a new visa and could relax and enjoy the rest of the trip with my friends.
My dorm is by the back gate of campus, but is on campus, unlike the other exchange-student dorms. It is an international student and graduate student dorm, and as such has only about 20 exchange students living in it, with the other 300 or so living in the other dorms, on the other side of campus. This was very sad for the first two months of my stay here, because it really doesn’t have the same vibe those other dorms have, and it has taken me forever to actually make close friends with the other students, there not exactly being very many of them around, and no one actually chilling in the lounges or public areas or anything. Even much later, by which time I have met some wonderful people, it remains somewhat annoying that the other dorms, where all of them live, and the meeting point for any event or get-together, is a good 30 minutes’ walk from where I stay. On the up-side, it’s about half the cost.
I looooooove the public transport here! One can get anywhere by metro, bus, train or taxi or a combination of the above, and everything runs on time. I’m going to have major withdrawal symptoms once I get back home and there’s none of this stuff around.
Also, I much enjoy playing five-a-side football with the other exchange students – there’s a little pitch by the side of the sports field (which is largely reserved for rugby practice) and in the first days of my arrival we played here nearly every day.
Then there’s the 7-11s, one on almost every street corner. Here you can buy EVERYTHING. Food, clothes, detergents, stationery, alcohol, concert or train tickets – you can even pay bills here.
That’s about it as far as first impressions are concerned – super convenient, people really friendly and everything running very efficiently.
My Taiwanese Life:
I have now been in Taiwan for about two months. I cannot describe just how happy I am at present – I have met the most wonderful people, and we spend almost every weekend together on some trip or another, not to mention various daytrips, dinners and post-class-pub-chilling. Taiwan itself is marvelously beautiful. I had heard of its natural beauty before coming here, but I have never in my life experienced so many amazing and diverse landscapes within such a small area. Or, as my friend puts it “I have never been this high on nature before.”
I must say I am extremely grateful for how relaxed my academic life is at the moment. Lecturers are very kind and understanding, especially towards exchange students (what with our time here being limited and all) and I’d be lying if I said I don’t take advantage of this to some degree. That is, I from time to time prolong a weekend trip to cover Monday as well, or take the Friday of too (only having one class on this particular day). Also, I have never stressed less about exams and assignments before (we had midterms recently).
My classes differ vastly from those I have back home. They are much smaller, and with quite a lot of emphasis being placed on class discussions, as opposed to the more lecture-like format at SU. This being said, I don’t think the emphasis on discussion is characteristic of classes at NTU, as most of my lecturers are actually foreigners, and claim to be rather experimental in their teaching method. I have only one Taiwanese lecturer, for my Chinese class. This class happens to be one of my favourite, as, being full of international students, it’s the single most diverse class I’ve ever attended. I am also very fond of my philosophy courses, which quite a few of my close friends also attend, and both of which have the same lecturer. Introduction to Phenomenology is an undergraduate philosophy course, and very interesting, and then I also have Questions in the Moral Philosophy of Emmanuel Kant, which is a graduate course, and probably my favourite, except for the fact that it is three hours long and takes place at night.
To be honest, I find it far easier to befriend the other foreign students than the Taiwanese students. This has something to do with the fact that there is quite a “student culture” among the exchange students – that is, they’re always hanging out together, going places together and organizing events and trips together, what with wanting to make the most of the time and all. The local students are far more studious than the exchange students (big surprise) and already have their own activities, friends, lives basically, whereas the exchange students have to start from scratch, and consequently soon befriend each other.
Probably the biggest cultural difference I have noted between South Africa and Taiwan is the directness, or lack thereof, in personal interactions. In South Africa, while one does find a good deal of simpering and pretense, I think there is quite a high value placed on honesty, directness and forthrightness, especially among students. In Taiwan, while the people are incredibly friendly, they also seem more evasive in their way of communication, so that I think it would probably take a longer time to build close friendships here. At least, this is my personal experience as an outsider, and is obviously affected by my own cultural prejudices.
As a South African, I was a little surprised to find myself something of an “exotic specimen”, both among the Taiwanese and foreign students. I’ve had numerous variations of the “if-you’re-from-Africa-why-are-you-white?” question (from both groups of students) and much good-natured curiosity. A few of my European friends have expressed an interest in coming to South Africa, and a Taiwanese friend is possibly coming on exchange to SU in the second semester of 2014.
One positive effect this exchange program has had on me so far is to deepen my love and appreciation for my own country, and to become more aware of its struggles and inequalities, as I try to explain them to my friends. While I hope to travel and possibly live abroad for some years of my life, I think I will always wish to return to South Africa. Cape Town, in particular, has truly grown dear to me during my time here, taking on the status of a “spiritual home”, or indeed “the Mother City”, as it is called.
Hello again, South Africa:
So, after four months, I’m back in the Mother City. My time in Taiwan has been incredible, and while I’m happy to be back and excited for the new year, it’s rather depressing to think that the whole experience has come to an end, and that, chances are, I’ll never again see those friends I made abroad.
The check-out procedure at NTU is fairly simple, but best not left for the last-minute. I had to obtain stamps from my dorm director, the library staff, the office of academic affairs and the international office, after which my student card was deactivated. As for dorm check-out, a member of the staff came to check my room (clean, empty, nothing broken, etc.) and my deposit was returned to me once I had handed in my room key.
Most of my friends had already left by the time of my departure, so my last few days in Taiwan were rather miserable, what with constant packing and cleaning up and being alone, thinking about the whole experience and it’s being basically over, but on my last day I had lunch with some dorm buddies, strolled around campus for a while, and finally set off for the airport.
As I have written, my last days in Taiwan were sad days, and this not altogether unpleasant melancholy stayed with me throughout the flight home, and will probably reoccur throughout the year. What this means though, is that my time abroad has profoundly affected me, and had a deep impact on my life. I have experienced, in these four months, more than I have in years back home, and have shared these experiences with some of the best people I have met in my life. Having grown deeply contented with my life abroad, it’s coming to an end has been sad, but this sadness in turn magnifies the joy and happiness the experience has brought me.
I can strongly recommend a study-abroad experience such as mine. Taiwan is an amazing and versatile country, with marvelous people, but wherever you go really, your life will have been made richer by the going. I don’t suppose I can come up with any catchy ‘lessons-learned’ or express exactly how this experience has impacted my life or changed the way I think, but I do know that it has taught me a lot, more than I quite know how to capture in words. What I can say is this: there is something indescribable about being surrounded by people from all over the world, learning about their different lives, sharing one’s own, and feeling, despite being a foreigner and an outsider, a deep sense of belonging in a country not one’s own.
Not having been back for all that long, I am still quite happy and content with everything. I’ve been meeting up with friends from high-school days, playing football with my brothers, climbing Table Mountain – in short, keeping busy – and I’m excited for my final year of undergrad study in Stellenbosch. That being said, I sort of sense that there will be times of dejection, probably tears, frustration, the works. I suppose it’s an inevitable part of having what has been an amazing part of my life come to an end. This is life, though, incredibly sad in that everything must end, but perhaps this is what makes us treasure it, for there is great beauty, as there is sadness, in the evanescent moments of our lives.