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  • Writer's pictureMayte Romero

A Westerner's Tale in Taiwan

Updated: Feb 2

How did it feel to be a Westerner growing up and navigating within a culture where traditions spoke louder than the winds of change?

Born in the melting pot of the United States, proudly Hispanic, my life took an unexpected twist when I landed in Taiwan—this enchanting island, nestled in the heart of East Asia, became my home for more than a decade.

As I stepped onto the vibrant streets of Taiwan for the first time, a sensory symphony overtook my senses. The air was rich with the mingling aromas of street vendors, and my taste buds were introduced to the bold flavors of Taiwanese delicacies, notably the pungent stinky tofu—a culinary adventure that pushed the boundaries of my palate, and those weren’t the only boundaries that were pushed.

Navigating the halls of a public school in Taiwan, spanning my entire elementary education and a year in middle school, I found myself in a unique position—being the only foreigner in a school with over 3000 students. The true odyssey unfolded in the intricacies of acclimating to a culture where my physical attributes became a focal point. With tresses of caramel-colored hair and eyes wide with curiosity, I metamorphosed into a visual storyteller in a land where, ironically, diversity was not as prominently celebrated as one might expect.

Taiwanese public schools are somewhat military-styled in my opinion. Collectivism was strictly enforced—same uniforms, white socks of a specific length, only sneakers allowed, no dyeing, striating, or perming of hair, and wearing earrings was strongly discouraged. Even if you had them pierced, you were required to wear invisible plastic rubber to prevent closure –– maintain a low-key appearance. While this frustrated me, coming from a Venezuelan household where ear-piercing is a customary practice from birth, I can acknowledge that this system taught me order and rigidness. Although the structured environment had its merits in instilling discipline, the lack of individuality was a challenge. While I wouldn't opt for such an educational system again, I learned the value of individual expression and the importance of embracing diversity in education.

During this time of adjustment, there were many misunderstandings. In a culture with 2000 years of history and where Confucianism still permeates today, teachers saw my enthusiasm as defiance. I learned that the hierarchy between old and young is one line that cannot be crossed and that making waves can cause a tsunami where you might end up drowning. This often clashed with my passionate soul and assertive nature, andI felt like boys’ opinions were valued more than girls’. Often, when I expressed my dislike of something, the teacher would tell me to keep it to myself, to not fight the system, and to just do my best. This was challenging for me because I found it hard to stay quiet. I am never quiet; whenever I see something wrong, I express it. Sometimes, my mission to adapt whilst not losing myself hasn’t resulted in the smoothest of flights. However, I have learned to navigate the safest route by acknowledging the cultural norms of my adoptive home.

Furthermore, I found it extremely difficult to relate to my peers. While I was immersed in One Direction and High School Musical, my Taiwanese classmates delved into Japanese anime and the latest K-pop hits. Bridging this cultural gap, I enthusiastically shared my interest in Western pop culture while embracing the opportunity to learn more about Asian culture. This constant cultural exchange became a cornerstone of my growth.

The language, initially a beautiful enigma, soon became a bridge connecting me to the heartbeat of the island. Conversations in Mandarin, once like a melodic stream of foreign sounds, transformed into a symphony of shared experiences. Learning Mandarin was extremely challenging; even having learned it from kindergarten, I can't fully remember how I thought it was at the start, but I still remember the tears I poured on the living room table while studying Chinese poetry. Thankfully, one of the most impactful educators in my life was Ms. Zhang, a middle-aged Taiwanese Christian woman who had spent a few years in Canada. Ms. Zhang truly understood the challenges of feeling lonely, lost, and hopeless in the midst of adversity. Recognizing the difficulties I faced as a foreign student, she devoted numerous hours to tutoring me and helping me catch up with my peers.

In the context of Asian education, where traditional methods sometimes involve strict discipline, Ms. Zhang stood out as a beacon of compassion and understanding. Unlike some more traditional educators who adhered to strict rules and even resorted to physical punishment, which is no longer legal in Taiwan, Ms. Zhang approached teaching with a genuine passion and motivational skills that went beyond the conventional methods. Shefostered a supportive environment that encouraged questions, curiosity, and individuality. I will forever be grateful and until this day, I believe that she was an angel that God placed in my life to make my adaptation smoother.

In a society where the role of educators can sometimes be overshadowed by the emphasis on conformity and rote learning, Ms. Zhang’s dedication to understanding and helping students navigate the challenges of education made a profound impact. Her commitment to fostering a positive and encouraging learning atmosphere was a testament to the transformative power of educators who prioritize empathy, encouragement, and personalized support. Ms. Zhang 's influence not only helped me academically but also shaped my perspective on education and the crucial role educators play in the lives of their students.

I also had the experience of less effective educators, my father still saves a letter from my kindergarten principal who, having little faith in my abilities to learn the language proficiently and adaptability with the culture, suggested that I be transferred to an international school system where I would be forced to be immersed in a fully Taiwanese environment. Thankfully, my parents never lost hope in me, and despite the odds, they enrolled me in the local elementary school regardless. Six years later, I graduated from that school reading, writing, and speaking fluent Mandarin, proving that I could not only survive the system but thrive in it too.

Throughout life, society will tell you that you do not belong, that you are not good enough, and that you will never succeed. You can listen to that and use it as fuel to build up your inner strength, or you can drown yourself in self pity and give up. I would suggest the former, but I will admit it won’t be an easy journey. Thanks to my experience, I was able to build tenacity and discipline. In fact, discipline became my biggest superpower; I might take a lot of time to learn, but I am disciplined enough to ensure that whatever I set my mind to, with enough time and practice, I will be able to accomplish.

Reflecting on this transformative journey, I feel gratitude for the challenges, the tasty stinky tofu, and the warmth of a culture that eventually embraced me with open arms. This unexpected twist became the catalyst for personal growth, expanding the horizons of my identity, and weaving a narrative that transcends borders.

As I stand at the intersection of my Western roots and Taiwanese home, I realize that the winds of change have not only shaped me but have also harmonized with the traditions that once seemed louder. In this symphony of cultures, I challenge you to find your unique melody—a testament to the resilience of identity and the beauty that emerges when one embraces the unexpected twists on life's journey.

Mayte Romero describes herself as American by birth, Venezuelan by blood and Taiwanese at heart. She graduated with a political science and journalism degree and currently works in DC on Capital Hill. 


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