‘How Lucky to Be Lost’

Cultural exchange full of fortuitous moments, spontaneous connections that leave lasting impression on UM student

Story by Sarah Bortis

After countless essay revisions and guidance and encouragement from several UM faculty and staff members, especially Marja Unkuri-Chaudhry and Laure Pengelly Drake, I won a Freeman-ASIA Scholarship for summer language study abroad.

Receiving this award, as well three study abroad scholarships administered through UM, afforded me the opportunity to spend nine weeks in Taiwan during the summer of 2017.

Aside from a brief journey to the east coast to volunteer on an educational farm, I stayed in the densely populated capital city, Taipei, where I lived with two different host families and studied Chinese language at the National Taiwan Normal University Mandarin Training Center.

The Freeman Foundation promotes greater cultural understanding between American and Asian peoples, and every recipient agrees to promote study in East Asian countries. By sharing my experiences, I hope every student is inspired to take advantage of the many opportunities for study abroad in this exciting and important region.

If you asked me what was most rewarding about my trip, I could go on and on about the wonderful experience of staying with host families.

They personified generosity. Despite having busy, full lives, they made room (literal and figurative) for me to feel at home. Without complaint they repeated sentences as many times as needed for me to understand and mined my strange pronunciations for meaning. We exchanged ideas about religion, politics, and climate change. They shared their extended families, who in turn welcomed me with feasts, gifts, laughter and karaoke.

Dumplings

My hosts overfed me on Taipei specialties (so many dumplings!) and showed off some the island’s most beautiful and strange places, like the “cat village,” Houtong. When the coal mine in this town closed, residents found a new economy in their feral cat population. We arrived with a trainload of tourists prepared to bribe cats into selfies with tins of cat food and left with feline-themed souvenirs. I am permanently enriched by the experience of sharing daily life with my Taiwanese families. I cannot recommend home stay enough.

Likewise, I could spend a good deal of time describing the excellent language training I received at NTNU and the educational benefits of such an international learning environment.

In addition to first-rate Chinese teaching, classes there introduced me to people from all over the world and fostered a spirit of international exchange and collaboration. My class of eight included French, Korean, Japanese, American and Indonesian students.

We witnessed each other’s rapid progress and took solace in thinking that, although constant struggle obscured our view of it, our own language skills must be improving, too. Rigorous daily study with disciplined peers combined with an immersive language environment eventually led to noticeable advancement. I could actually feel my brain changing, and I know that challenging experience will continue to enhance my ability to communicate and problem solve in any situation.

Volunteers work together to stain a rooftop deck

It is unsurprising that these experiences were rich and rewarding. It seemed highly likely that my host families would be generous, thoughtful and curious people and that great quantities of shared time and space would lead to intimate friendships and deeper understanding. I expected my language classes to demand focused exertion and result in fast progress.

But what most surprised me during my time in Taiwan were smaller, unforeseen moments of cultural exchange.

There were conversations with taxi drivers who displayed genuine appreciation that I cared about their home and who corrected my pronunciation and grammar with all the grace and skill of trained educators. I loved the shared joy of unplanned moments like racing on the Xindian River Bikeway beside a young Taiwanese man pedaling in time to the Sam Cooke and early Michael Jackson that blarred from speakers mounted on his bike.

Maybe moments like these illustrate the rewards of travel and study abroad even better than the reliable rewards of structured exchange.

One of my favorite spontaneous cultural exchanges happened in the countryside of the east coast of Taiwan. A hand-scrawled map softening in the humidity was meant to lead me to a “secret beach” through a complicated maze of unmarked, narrow roads passing through rice fields. As I rode my borrowed bike through each intersection, my disorientation grew. Finally I knew for certain: I was lost.

Sweaty and exasperated, I stooped over my map in a last-ditch effort to get back on track. A girl of about 10 years old pedaled by, her mouth practically agape with the surprise of seeing a foreigner. A slow u-turn parked her beside me to shout out an exuberant English “hello!” She introduced herself as Janey and, once she learned where I was trying to go, ordered me to follow her. We raced off, winding through fields and over small irrigation channels. She pointed to a small cluster of buildings in the distance and said she lived there. I tried to keep track of our route as I peppered Janey with questions about her family and the area. Janey didn’t mind my having to take two or three passes sometimes to get a sentence out correctly. We beamed at the good fortune of our meeting.

As we approached a small fishing village, (the ocean was indeed near!), Janey said we had to make a stop. She jumped off her bike at a small roadside temple. I saw tiny kittens in the shadows behind the temple and guessed she wanted to celebrate their cuteness.

Instead, Janey walked away from the road, past the temple and stopped at the edge of a wide, crystal clear stream that had been straightened and contained by five-foot cement walls along which grew crowds of fuchsia flowers. We stood atop of a small stairway cut into the wall. Janey looked up at me with expectant pride as if she were showing me something truly marvelous. “Come on!” she demanded with an enormous smile, and we slipped into the stream.

The water was sublimely cool. Janey swam back and forth. She jumped and flipped, energetic before her audience. In Montana summers whenever I dive into our clear, cold streams I am transported back to my childhood when to swim was practically to grow fins.

Watching Janey splash and shout, I saw my own same self. I thought, “How lucky to be lost.”

It is a kind of magic that with just little bit of language and a gregarious kid you can transcend the boundaries of time and culture.

Sarah Bortis

Sarah Bortis is a senior at the University of Montana. She will complete her bachelor’s degree in East Asian studies in December 2017.