If you’d asked me a year ago or five years ago if I’d like to travel to Taiwan, I’d have told you it’s not something I’d thought about. In the past decade, my travel fantasies have increasingly turned toward Asia, but until this autumn, the tiny island of Taiwan was nothing more than that – an island I could identify, thanks to many years of geography bees, and something I mention once each year in my classroom.
Despite all this, I ended 2019 and began 2020 with a journey to Taiwan – an unexpected journey that began several years ago.
The First Leg: Understanding East Asian History
Asian history never interested me until I became a teacher. Suddenly I found my 20th century Cold War history very incomplete, centered as I was on Europe, the U.S., and even African history. As I began teaching 20th Century World History (and now, The World Since 1900), I quickly realized I needed to learn a lot more about East Asia.
I don’t know how I discovered the National Consortium for Teaching About Asia (NCTA), but somehow I found it, and about four years ago, I began taking their free online courses. First there was a course on Mao, then one on Japan after World War II. These courses, and others, led to a chance to write for a special issue of Education about Asia , and since one thing leads to something more, I’ve continued to enroll in NCTA courses periodically, including this past fall (and one that starts next week).
The Second Leg: A Surprise Study Tour Opportunity
I’ve been dreaming of NCTA and other study tours for awhile, to be honest, but hadn’t yet had the opportunity for one. This one came to me out of the blue, with an email in October: for the second year in a row, the Republic of China (Taiwan government) wanted to sponsor American teachers for a study tour of Taiwan. Was I interested in this opportunity?
Was I interested? Was I ever! The next week was a flurry of paperwork, with the proviso that things might not work out. I braced myself against hope at the idea of getting to travel to Asia for the first time, and bemoaned how little I knew about Taiwan. (It was a little embarrassing to write that my teaching about Taiwan literally begins and ends with “And then the Nationalists fled to Taiwan when Mao declared the People’s Republic of China”.)
Despite – or perhaps because of – my glaring ignorance of Taiwanese history, everything came together. By mid-November I had plane tickets that would take me out of my home city on Christmas night, with a return on January 2. My first trip to Asia and my first trans-Pacific flight were really going to happen.
The Trip: Adventures, Discoveries, and Kindred Spirits
The goal of a study tour is only partially to sight-see. In this trip to Taiwan, we traveled up and down the island nation, visiting as many places as we could, but it’s also about experiencing the place and the people and expanding your knowledge in the process. At least, that’s how I experienced this study tour. Everything we did helped me understand Taiwan and its history and people a bit more, and left me eager to go further.
For six days, we traveled up and down Taiwan, beginning in Taipei, spending new year’s eve in Kaohsiung, and returning to Taipei before we went home. In the weeks ahead, I hope to put together a story map that more accurately captures all these great experiences, but for now I’ll share some highlights.
Day 1: Arrival in Taipei, call at Ministry of Foreign Affairs to learn about US-Taiwan relationship, and visit Affiliated High School to speak with students. Dinner: Din Tai Fung dumplings
Day 2 to Day 3: high speed train to Taichung, bus to Sun Moon Lake. We spent the day touring the lake and visiting the Formosa Aboriginal Cultural Village (not pictured). On the morning of Day 3, I walked with several others to the Wen Wu temple (in the dark before dawn, in the rain) and we all went to Hugosum Tea Garden.
Day 3-5: Our time at Sun Moon Lake seemed far too short, but new adventures awaited in Tainan: we spent two nights there exploring the city and its history, which has ties to the Dutch, the Japanese, and the Chinese.
From there, we traveled to Kaohsiung, where we finished 2019 with a visit to the (former) British Consulate, the National Kaohsiung Performing Arts Center (where I got to play the piano), a visit to a night market, and watching fireworks from the hotel window with new friends.
The only bad thing about this trip was that it ended too soon. Just as we adjusted to the jet lag (14-hour time change for me!), and really began feeling like we were getting to know this beautiful country, it was time to fly home.
From start to finish, it was an amazing experience. I’m only starting to mentally unpack all I saw and learned and felt, partly the consequence of coming back and jumping back into my life here.
After trips like this, things are never really quite the same again – they’ve changed because you change, usually for the better, or so I like to think. Moving into 2020, I’m excited to learn more about how this unexpected journey changed me and how I see the world.