A bittersweet goodbye

January 19, 2009 at 11:05 AM | Posted in Musings, Taiwan | Leave a comment

Today was our last day in Kaohsiung, and as I write this I’m on the high-speed train that will take us back to Taipei and then back to our normal lives. While in some ways I’m more than ready to go back—as usually happens at the end of a trip, I’m ready to not have every meal be an event, every day not a new challenge or adventure, not having the element of suspense when I point to something on a menu and not knowing whether I just ordered noodles with stewed beef tendon or noodles with vegetables. I miss talking on the phone with my friends and family. I don’t like having my days and nights flipped from most of the other people in my world.

But for all that, this has been one of my favorite trips ever. Sometimes on group trips I don’t always bond with either the American-based group or the group that we’re visiting, but on this trip I truly enjoyed the company of both groups and made some wonderful new friends. Today after we presented our case studies of the factories we visited, we went to a Harvard-KMU Academic Exchange Symposium. Harvard and KMU have several joint programs through the medical school and the public health school, and so six people gave speeches about both the research they had done and the experiences they’d had. Two of those speeches stick in my mind in particular—the speech given by James, one of our Taiwanese student hosts at KMU, and one given by a medical student who had done two rotations at Mass General through Harvard Medical School. James, who usually keeps things pretty lighthearted, talked a lot about what he and his peers had learned from working with us. Although we all had a ton of fun—more fun in a two-week period than I’ve had in a very long time—I was surprised to hear how much they had gotten out of the visit in addition to the cultural exchange. James talked a lot about how our approaches to problem-solving and our work ethics served as examples to him and his classmates, and how they learned so much just from working on our reports together. He also talked about how they were so impressed with our adventurousness—particularly around food—and that it reminded them how much a person is able to push their personal limits.

Then the Taiwanese medical student who had lived in Boston doing a sub-internship in urology and pediatric nephrology through a Harvard-KMU exchange talked about her experience. Throughout it all she kept saying how grateful she was for everyone’s kindness and generosity and acceptance, and how much she had learned. At the end, she said something like, “Since participating in this program I have learned a new meaning of thank you. You have changed my life and my career.”

It was then that I really realized how this exchange was about a lot more than factories, karaoke, and giant feasts. Throughout our stay, the KMU students would tell everyone—including taxi drivers—that we were Harvard students who came to visit them. One of the deans spoke about the exchange programs, and one of his proudest points was that Harvard students receive 2.5 credits for taking a course at their school—the implication being that the quality of their academics was so high that Harvard would give its students credit for participating in their class. Among ourselves, we had discussed how for months the students had been preparing for “The Harvard Students” to come—probably picturing us as either no-fun extreme nerds or jackets-with-elbow-patches types—and how much we surprised them with the way that we actually wanted to hang out with them outside of structured programs, go to their favorite places, eat the foods that they liked, and learn from them in addition to them learning from us.

This trip has involved a lot of comfort-zone-pushing for me, as well. As in Tanzania and especially Madagascar, it’s a very good experience to look so visibly different than everyone else around you. Especially because Kaohsiung is really not a tourist destination, when I would go off on my own or with a few friends, I or we would often be the only white people around, and people definitely would look twice at me—there was no slipping into a shop to unobtrusively look around. Part of that was the language barrier, which I talked about earlier. It’s profoundly humbling to realize that although I’m a student at a world-renowned institution, I can still be completely unable to communicate something as simple as a taxi destination or what filling I want in my dumplings. I didn’t even know how to look up the right words in a dictionary. In France I could get around because I could read, talk, and relate things to Spanish, but I had no traction here.

But that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t connect. Today after the programs, we had a gift exchange with the KMU students. We had gotten them each a few things both before and during the trip, which we gave them. They bought us each one or two personalized gifts—different things for everyone—that reflected something they had learned about our personalities or things we liked. For example, I loved Erin and Puffy’s three dogs, and kept joking that I wanted to take Yang-Yang home with me, so they bought me a stuffed dog that looks just like Yang-Yang (and they brought the real Yang-Yang to the train station to say goodbye). One of my Harvard classmates has an iPhone but no case, so they got her an iPhone case from a store that she liked in one of the markets. They did this for all eight of us. And then the gifts just kept coming—one student got each of us a customized stamp with our name in Chinese characters, another bought us each a kind of Chinese Magic 8 Ball, we got KMU mugs and bags and keychains and calendars. I’m astounded by their generosity, not just today but throughout our stay. One of the doctors who took the class with us saw that I had the same computer as him and that I was curious about his silicone keyboard protector, and the next time he saw me he gave me a box with a new keyboard protector in it. Another doctor came out to dinner with us one night, a huge and delicious meal—for about forty people—and paid for the whole thing without telling anyone. We only learned a few days ago that it was him. We all spent this afternoon taking pictures, reminiscing and saying goodbye—I can’t believe we’ve only known them for two weeks, it feels like forever.

So for now, it’s goodbye from Taiwan—I’ll probably pick at this blog throughout the spring, but be sure to tune in again for more travel adventures if and when I go to Paris this summer!

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