The holiday season has come and gone here in Taiwan. Although I expected the Christmas season to feel different while on exchange, I didn’t know nearly how unique this experience would be. Now that we are into January, I will share my Rotary Exchange experiences for Christmas, my birthday, and New Year’s Eve.
To celebrate my birthday, my extremely generous host parents took Lorenzo, my Italian brother, and I on a cruise from the north coast of Taiwan. We spent two days on the boat, eating, exploring, and studying chinese. I am so lucky to have such a great group of people to call my family! This year was the first time in my life that I had to attend school on my birthday. I have been so accustomed to being able to sleep in and enjoy my birthday with my family in Canada that it felt truly weird to hop on the MRT and go to school. However, that’s not to say it was a negative experience. It was the first time I have been able to spend my birthday with schoolmates. The night before my birthday, many of my closest schoolmates surprised me after class. It is a Taiwanese tradition to spray the birthday person with shaving cream. After going to the gym with David, an American student, I was planning on eating dinner with a few close friends. I wasn’t expecting so many amazing friends to surprise me with the shaving cream and gifts! Afterward, we went to a hotpot restaurant for a meal. Hotpot is another Taiwanese classic. You order your “pot” which consists of vegetables, meat, tofu, and a soup. Each table is equipped with hotplates which you use to cook your food. I would call it the Taiwanese fondue. On top of that, there is unlimited self-serve ice cream and drinks. It was a great way to celebrate with friends. On my actual birthday, my class surprised me with a few generous gifts and even a cake! They had the chemistry teacher surprise me and all sang happy birthday to me, in chinese and english. Later that night, I ate a special birthday dinner with my host family. We went to a delicious steakhouse. I am so glad to have been able to spend my 18th birthday surrounded by the best friends and family I could’ve asked for. Thank you to everyone for making it so special!
Christmas came quickly after the excitement of my birthday. While going to school on my birthday may have felt foreign, Christmas at school was a whole other feeling altogether. I was able to share the odd feeling of Christmas in a foreign country with my exchange friends. Our home countries each have unique holiday traditions, but we all experienced the same Taiwanese Christmas of 2015 together. Leading up to the holiday season, the idea of Christmas felt so far away from reality. The weather was warm and there was little to no decoration or celebration throughout the city; I felt no Christmas spirit in the Taiwanese people. It was one of the first experiences here in Taiwan that has opened my eyes to the true difference in culture. That being said, Christmas Day itself was extremely enjoyable. After opening a few presents with my host mom at breakfast, I headed to school. I spent the morning with my classmates. We had a small party with music, snacks, and a gift exchange. After school, I ate dinner with a few exchange students. Some were inbounds to Taiwan this year, and others were those from Taiwan who have returned from exchange. Funny enough, we actually weren’t celebrating Christmas. Rather, we celebrated mine, and my friend Belle’s birthdays, which both fall on the 23rd. We had a meal full of laughter and good conversation, and then did another small gift exchange. I should’ve expected it, but I was surprised when the shaving cream attack came once again. Finally, we rode bikes home, seeing the last bit of the Taiwanese Christmas. In Taiwan, I found that December 25th is just another day, but it can be made into much more with the right people.
The New Year’s Eve that I spent in Taiwan is hands down the best New Year’s I have ever experienced. The entire day was full of incredible places and people. The excitement started at 4:30PM, when the exchange students arrived at Taipei’s Grand Hotel. We had been preparing two dances for this event for almost two months. One hip-hop dance, and another traditional Lion Dance. We did two hours of final practice before our performance. Among the audience were many important Rotarians, as well as the mayor of Taipei City, Ko Wen-Je. It was such an honour to perform in such an incredible venue.
After the Grand Hotel performance, the exchange students were set free for the night, allowed to explore the beautiful nightlife until 2am. Many exchange students from all of Taiwan visited Taipei to experience the New Year’s fireworks display at Taipei 101. I met many at a party at the Songshan Riverside Park. The atmosphere was absolutely incredible. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people there. There was a DJ, dance battles, an art area, and an incredible view. I even found a place to practice the Diablo (chinese yoyo) that I had learned in culture class. However, my close friends and I had decided previously that we would watch the fireworks from a mountain in the city. It was somewhat isolated and required a 30 minute hike to reach the view, so we hoped that it would be more quiet than the middle of the city. We arrived at the top at 11:30 to see a crowd almost as big as the one we had experienced in the city. I realized that my goal to capture awesome photos of the fireworks wouldn’t be possible like I had hoped. Since we had been to the area before, I knew of a tree that we could sit on to watch the fireworks.I had climbed it numerous times before. I climbed it, but the people below didn’t appreciate it much. 50 people yelling in Chinese is pretty good motivation to climb down quickly. After the embarrassment and disappointment subsides, I was able to focus on enjoying the moment of New Year’s with my best friends in taiwan. As the seconds counted down to midnight, I could feel the collective excitment hanging in the air. Taipei 101 was completely dark. Then there was fire. The entire building was lit up, from top to bottom by colourful fireworks. The crowds cheers for the new year were quickly silenced in awe. Everybody stood together, taking in the spectacle. It was an incredible feeling to know that millions more around the city were experiencing the same from a different vantage point. After the show finished, we all embraced. High fives and greetings, in both English and Chinese, were exchanged with Taiwanese people. The exchange students there all gathered in hugs and cheers to celebrate one of the most unique, and exciting New Year’s of our entire lives. The next morning, I met friends at 5am at the nearest MRT station to the mountain. Once again, we climbed. We watched the sunrise from the exact same spot that the excitement had taken place less than 6 hours previously. My Taiwanese New Year is an experience I will never forget.
Among the three holidays, I found the largest difference between Canada and Taiwan’s traditions in Christmas. The Asian culture puts far less emphasis on celebration of Christmas. However, I still felt a sense of belonging. It was just another day, but I was able to spend the day with those important to me who made it so much more. It was a unique holiday experience for me, but I am so glad to have seen the customs and traditions from around the world. In the coming weeks, the Chinese New Year will also take place. I am sure that celebration and culture will be everywhere! We are also given four weeks winter vacation, so I will have more time to explore Taiwan with my friends. I can’t wait to update you on more of this incredible life I am so fortunate to live.
To be notified of new blog updates, please subscribe below! Make sure to check your spam folder for the subscription confirmation email. Thank you!