An Nguyen

Blog Post Four

A photo An took of her reflection through the window on a train to Beijing.

On a train headed to Beijing.

Through the small train windows, I see half torn cement buildings sprayed throughout the vast grasslands. Foggy figures of towering mountains loom in the background of an abandoned-looking town, marked by evenly divided rice farms, barely visible in the bright moonlight. As the train continues down its course, I see newly built streets with modern structures infused with the surrounding rivers and hills. There is a countryside with freshly finished houses and lots of people walking on the trails, lying on the green grass.

These are just some of the sights I took in as I sat in a window seat within a very narrow hallway of a train heading to Beijing. I had walked up and down the length of this train multiple times. One tends to get restless if they’re inside a moving metal container for 18 hours. I had actually purchased a sleeper bunk, which helped me catch up on some sleep I had missed multiple nights before, and I’m ever grateful. However, each cabin was stuffed with six bunk beds – three on each side of the two walls. I actually had to climb over two other people to get to my top bunk, which happened every time I needed to go to the bathroom or for a walk. With no space to physically sit up and the strong odor of tiger balm and Eagle Brand medicated oil (a smell any Asian cultured person would be familiar with), I opted to simply go and sit in one of the seats in the hallway with a table small enough to fit half of my 13-inch laptop. The description of my train ride may sound quite tiring, which it was, but the experience was worth everything.

Photo of a local man on the train ride to Beijing

A local sitting on a train to Beijing. He actually helped me through the train ride whenever I had
any questions.… And he does not speak a word of English.

When I am talking about everything, I meant this entire study abroad experience, even the crazy heat and humidity that ended me giving me rashes, the insects and bugs, and, not to mention the squatting toilets. But everything was more than worth it. The adventures that I had, the cultures that I experienced, and the lessons that I’ve learned. I hope that these won’t be once in a lifetime experiences, because I plan to revisit these memories and explore my curiosities. Every time that I take a step into someplace new, wherever it may be, I know a bit more about the world. There are endless things to learn from and one would need multiple lifetimes dedicating themselves in order to acquire worldly knowledge. Yet, I’ve gotten one step closer to such an impossible goal. In Buddhism, one would acquire reincarnation if they lived a good life and will continue to do so until they reach enlightenment. To me, understanding and knowing every language and culture around the world is my version of such enlightenment.

In addition to what I consider to be cheesy self-reflection, here is a recap of my study abroad program. As mentioned before, this program focused on the economy of Taiwan and China, as well as their relations. We learned the economic development of East Asia is very different from that of the West, which is what we are used to. The different education system, culture, and tradition results in different growth and focuses. Taiwan has been experiencing major economic growth, deserving its title as one of the East Asian Tigers. While China went through more bad times than good, it still comes out as the second biggest economy in the world, which is expected of a civilization that has survived since ancient times. One fact that blows my mind each time I think about it is this: China existed during the time of the ancient Egyptians. Throughout this program, I realized the impact of the Chinese culture on the world. From its language to its culture, China’s presence is visible throughout Asia, and now, in the West as well.

UWT students at a night market in Xiamen district in Taiwan.

UWT students at a night market in Xiamen district in Taiwan.

Once again, I’ve changed through the experiences I have had across the world. My perspective has widened once again and I am able to see things from different and new points of view. In my opinion, this is only possible when I welcomed the differences between my comfort zone and the new culture and tradition my host countries had to offer me. And that is exactly my advice to anyone who is traveling abroad. I’ve witnessed many who had put a bubble of discomfort around themselves, always comparing their easy lives in America to the different situation in a new country. That is the type of suffering one brought to themselves, by being difficult and not accepting another’s culture, traditions, and ways of life. By doing this, you are simply not enjoying and absorbing the new world that you are in. Traveling then becomes pointless and there is no point in going on new adventures when you are not willing to enjoy the journey. For me, rather than boarding a plane and flying two hours to get to my destination, I choose an 18 hour train ride instead. A plane would definitely be more comfortable, but I would not be able to witness the scenes that I’ve shared with you today and met the locals who were more than happy to help me, despite our language barrier which resulted in broken English and Chinese conversations I have had with students, travelers, workers, etc. I actually enjoy the difficulty and differences that I come across as it is proof that I am actually experiencing the world.

UWT students after a hike through the Liangshan Park in Taiwan.

UWT students after a hike through the Liangshan Park in Taiwan.

After my study abroad program ended, I spent one extra week traveling from south China in Xiamen to north China in Beijing. In total, I have been gone for nearly seven weeks. It is a bittersweet feeling coming home. On one hand, I am ready to sit and relax on my couch with my pets and go on a Netflix binge. On the other hand, I have so much more to explore and to experience. As I am currently sitting on this plane, I am missing a lot of things. I miss my comfy bed and the cool weather in Washington, but I also miss the night markets and the people I’ve met in Asia. This journey is officially ending as this plane is descending down onto SEATAC. I am getting my rest from weeks of traveling. However, the ending of this journey means the beginning of another. More countries to discover, more adventures to seek after. And that is my last advice: Whatever you desire inside, never stop seeking it. Let obstacles be obstacles. Such things are only meant to hinder you, not to stop you.

Blog Post Three

It is four in the afternoon, and the rain is tapping on my window. The wind is violently slapping the palm trees in front of my room, and I can see students making a bee-line to their residential buildings. Just a few minutes ago, the sun was shining and the heat was hot enough to cook eggs on the sidewalk. This is very typical of the weather in Taiwan and China. From my air-conditioned room, it actually looked like it could be cold outside. As soon as I walked out of my door, however, my thought blew away with the hot wind.

Honestly, the concept of cold weather simply does not exist here. For such a hot and humid climate, one would think that iced water and other cold drinks would be common. I was so wrong. Hot tea, on the other hand, is something people from this area love. They love it to a point where, when speaking in the little Chinese I know, it legitimately took five minutes to explain to the waiter that I wanted cold water with ice. The waiter then brought a cup of hot water and a bucket of ice because they did not have cold water ready. This was the one thing that I did not expect. I honestly didn’t even think about the fact that hot water is more preferred. However, it is healthier for you, so I understand.

Photo of a woman driving a moped down the road near Yangmingshan National Park in Taipei.

A woman driving a moped down the road near Yangmingshan National Park in Taipei.

Although I prepared for my travel without planting too many expectations, there still have been many little surprises. The most surprising thing about both Taiwan and China are the similarities to my experiences in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. The mopeds, mountains, rain, and especially the squatting toilets (also known as squatters) are all very nostalgic for me. Re-seeing the simplest things like the squatters or the abrupt heavy rains actually put me to tears. This was all a part of my childhood; to run in the rain whenever it poured because it was so hot or to ride in the front of my father’s moped, grabbing onto the steering wheel pretending that I was driving.

Other than being nostalgic, this study abroad program has made me learn and see things from a very different perspective. The program that I am on is focusing on the history of China and Taiwan and their economies. During class, we would discuss international relations and economy, and, when I walk outside, I could see everything through a new point of view. I became more aware of the influence each country had on one other and the influence of other countries on them. The Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC, etc., are present everywhere I go. I have never traveled while studying, so seeking out new adventures in an academic way was new to me. Tying what I see and experience to the topics in my classes has been very pleasing, and that is exactly the motivation for me to explore more than what my program offers. If I am here to learn and experience China and Taiwan as a part of my education, I figure it would be best to make the most out of it. Through the discussions in class and the materials that we have learned, I am able to connect everything so much better. Those “aha!” moments in the classrooms are worth the time I’ve spent sweating and exploring. Overall, other than the packed schedule, continuous exhaustion, and major lack of sleep, this program is going perfectly.

A mountain peak covered by clouds. Yangmingshan National Park in Taipei.

There is about one week left of my program. Rather than being anxious about coming home, I am more excited about my upcoming solo adventure in Beijing. Though there are instances when I miss my soft bed and the cool climate, exploring the world keeps me busy enough to not get homesick. However, I am getting more and more regretful as the end date creeps closer… Regretful for the program to end so soon without me seeing and experiencing as much as I wanted to. I am also excited for a different experience when I am truly traveling by myself and to come home and see differences between the different worlds. That is one of my favorite things about arriving home after going abroad, noticing the little things that are different in each part of the world.

Blog Post Two: When Traveling, Please, Actually Travel

From my experience traveling to different countries in Asia, I knew to arrive in Taiwan without any expectations. I did not expect it to be an extremely humid and fun-chaotic place like Vietnam, nor neat and well systematized like the city of Seoul. All I knew about Taiwan before coming here was its history and the weather of the country. I was right to keep an open mind and was ready to accept whatever I saw in this new country. Honestly, I think having such a mindset is what makes travelling much easier on oneself. 

Taiwan is a place that is very similar to the places I have been to, yet extremely different. You cannot expect to go to an Asian country and expect them to have the same culture of America. Don’t expect there to be a Starbucks or McDonalds every corner. And even if you do, have a taste of the local specialties before shrinking back into your comfort zone. My motto is to try it at least once, whether it be food or going on adventures.

Photo An Nguyen took of Raohe Market, Taipei

Raohe Market, Taipei

I arrived in Taiwan at 9:30 pm about four days before the official start date of my program. I had already booked a hostel and decided to be a little adventurous the moment I got out of the airport. Instead of wasting money on taxi or calling an uber, I took public transportation to my hostel. It was quite challenging, especially because it was at night and I was lugging around multiple suitcases and a heavy backpack with my huge camera. I got lost on the way there. I did not know how to pay and was standing in front of a ticket kiosk for about 15 minutes before someone came up and offered me help. Here’s a tip for when you are traveling: If you are ever too shy to ask for help from strangers, just look up and down from your phone with a confused look, walk in circles, people will know that you are a lost tourist. Believe me, it works every time.

In the end, it took me two subway trains, three different buses, and a lot of walking around to get to my hostel (finally) at around one in the morning. Honestly, I admit that it would have been a lot easier, and less sweaty, for me to call a taxi. However, I basically conquered the public transportation system of Taipei that night. This proved to be useful when my professors counted on me to lead us to our destination whenever we took public transportation while on an excursion.

In my opinion, getting lost in a new city is the best way to learn about it, and that was what I did in the few days I had to myself before my program started. The first day, I walked to a subway station, which is called MRT stations in Taiwan, and got on whatever train I saw first. I took a few other trains here and there and, obviously, I got lost. From me being lost, I found out how to buy public transport cards at a convenience store. I also learned that when taking buses here, you have to look at signs on the bus to know whether you pay when boarding or after alighting. Basically, I was studying the locals and getting to know the city I am in.

Photo from An Nguyen blog of a sushi stand near Longshan Temple, Taipei

A sushi stand near Longshan Temple, Taipei

I spent the next few days exploring the city and places that are not listed on my program. I figured it would be best to cover all of my bases. Once again, when will be the next time I am able to come to Taiwan? Better make the best use of my time here.

Other than the time to myself, I have been to many excursions with my program: to museums, a national park, cultural explorations – things I would not have known to do if I was travelling by myself. That is one different thing about going on studying programs abroad rather than just travelling. You are actually learning things you would not have known when simply exploring for pleasure, especially with the purpose of my program. We are learning about the Taiwan and China relation as well as the economy of both countries in a international outlook, linking that to the whole of East Asia as well. And as a Global Studies major, this absolutely quenches my thirst for learning about the world.

I am absolutely enjoying my time here. Despite the abundant amount of school work and long field trips in the scorching sun and humid air, I am having fun because I keep a positive attitude. Believe me, the moment you put yourself in a dark corner of your mind, thinking that everything sucks, then everything will definitely suck for you. Remember to keep an open mind and just realize how lucky you are to be travelling abroad. That is my advice to you for today.

Blog Post One: Why Travel At All?

Taken in South Korea during a festival. Summer 2017.

Taken in South Korea during a festival. Summer 2017.

One simply does not decide to travel across the globe overnight.

It’s a build-up of curiosity or a lifestyle that leads to the start of a person’s adventure. One can only have the thirst to travel when they have something they want to discover. Why do people travel? Why do people go to different places on vacation? It’s a simple answer. They want to experience and discover something different.

I moved from Vietnam to the U.S. as a little kid. I’ve now been back to Vietnam about half a dozen times, traveled to Thailand, South Korea, and Canada. The world continues to evolve, and I would think I know a little about the world because I’ve traveled. I’ve never been so wrong. Every time I’ve traveled, whether by myself or with friends and family, I learn and experience something new. It is an expectation that has never failed me.

Coming from a background with a lot of traveling, I did not know where, but I knew I was going to study abroad while I was in college. One of the first things I did when school started this year was to make my face known to the Office of Global Affairs. I attended multiple Study Abroad 101 sessions, which really provided me with useful knowledge on how to approach and research the study abroad programs offered at the school. Lucky for me, I knew which program to apply for pretty early, even before it was officially announced. Each summer, for many consecutive years, a study abroad program in China is offered. I talked about the program the first time I sat down with my counselor, I’ve contacted the Office of Global Affairs, mentioned it to my professors, and even reached out to a past alumnus of the program. I made sure to let those who mattered know that this girl, she is going to attend that program in China.

Sapa, a town high up in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountain. It is home to many tribal groups such as Hmong, Dao, Xa Pho, etc. Summer 2017.

Sapa, a town high up in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountain. It is home to many tribal groups such as Hmong, Dao, Xa Pho, etc. Summer 2017.

Once the application was done, and I was accepted, the most dreadful thing about studying abroad or traveling at all came next: Money. In my opinion, other than dead-week and finals, taking care of the funding for my program was the most stressful thing. I knew it was going to be costly, and so I started very early. The Office of Global Affairs provides many financial aid sessions for those who are interested in study abroad programs. I attended one as early as Fall quarter. The session mentioned everything that was of importance when preparing for studying abroad. I knew to apply for summer aid as well as a financial aid revision request ahead of time. I even jotted down a few scholarships from the information provided for me. I was getting funded for my program. Many may not realize it, but UW Tacoma really advocates for its students to travel. The number of advertisements, sessions, programs and scholarships offered was easily accessible for me.

Months of planning later, I am now packing and flying to Taiwan tomorrow. I actually arrive four days ahead of the start date to have some adventuring time by myself. I couldn’t help it, it’s in my blood. I will be then heading to China after Taiwan with my program. However, not surprisingly, I am staying for an extra week in Beijing after the program for some more adventuring. When will I ever have another chance to travel to China?

I know that most are very afraid of a commitment such as traveling. It is a big financial problem to solve. And so, if you are questioning yourself whether or not to take a step into the world, answer these questions and you will know what you want: How much do you know about the world? Would traveling help expand your knowledge? What would you discover going to the places you are interested in? Why are you even considering traveling from the start? What is stopping you? Is the commitment, the time spent preparing worth the discovery of a new world? And lastly, close your eyes and imagine yourself traveling, imagine the crazy photos you’re going to take, imagine the new people you’re going to meet, imagine the beautiful memories you will make, are those things something you ever want to experience?

Far from now, when I grow old and am looking back, I want to be able to say I’ve lived a fulfilled life.