Dawn Bollinger gives first-hand account of experience as an exchange student in Taiwan

Friday, April 21, 2017
A house in Taiwan that was built specifically in honor of a wedding.
Cutline Email/Stock:Photo courtesy of Dawn Bollinger

For nearly three decades, I have taught. Being an instructor presents its own unique challenges and joys, but so does being a student. About four years ago, I enrolled in the MATESOL (Master of Arts in teaching speakers of other languages English) at Southeast Missouri State University. Last summer, I was fortunate enough to travel to Taiwan as part of the course Transcultural Experience; Dr. Shu-Chuan Wang-McGrath and Dr. Debbie Lee-Distefano were the instructors for this group of about 20 students.

Travel always affects me creatively, energizing and enlightening. I had the privilege of observing academic classrooms, and two artistic classes.

Our group visited the National Taiwan University of the Arts, National Quemoy University and National Dong Hwa University. We sat in on an orchestra practice. The students were perfecting a student-composed piece. The composer was co-directing, helping the lead director interpret the score. The students were so engrossed in the musical score that they hardly knew we were there. The orchestra practice was quite fascinating, since some were playing instruments that were very foreign to me. We were granted a tour of a special area that had musical instruments that were hundreds of years old.

Music resonates with me because I once was a clarinetist in band in high school, and learned to play the piano as a child. Music is the only truly international language, no matter where we go, music is there. I wondered what my own orchestra instructors would make of my being there, so far from home.

We also observed a dance class, which, at least for that day, focused upon ballet. The National Quemoy University offers a variety of majors. I have no experience with dance, but I once had the great pleasure of attending a performance of "The Nutcracker" in Moscow. I can appreciate the dancer's precision and gracefulness.

Professors and students from Southeast Missouri State University, including Dawn Bollinger (middle row, far right), pose for a photo with students in a ballet class at the National Taiwan University of the Arts.
Cutline Email/Stock:Photo courtesy of Dawn Bollinger

The academic classes were situations where I had more time to study and assess, so I can be more detailed here. The teacher education students I observed at National Quemoy University had been observing various classrooms during the semester, studying various teaching techniques. My desk mate shared with me her dreams of becoming an elementary teacher. She smiled warmly as she told about her family and why she really wanted to become an elementary teacher. Her passion in her voice and pride in learning told me that this young woman would not only be quite effective, but would also be quite happy teaching.

I feel that I would be quite remiss if I did not mention other things about this trip than schooling.

Being an outsider

Being surrounded by a language that was not my own felt strange. Many mornings I would look around the breakfast area at the Taipei Hero House and note that, yes, I was the only American. I found a people who were politely curious. They would stare, but the stare would dissolve if I just smiled at them. Usually, they would nod and smile right back. A smile seemed to transcend cultural differences. Since it was May, many students were graduating, and our group of Americans appear in random pictures of graduates. They had never seen Americans, and they wanted us in their pictures; we were an anomaly.

Being far from home

Photo courtesy of Dawn Bollinger
A Buddhist temple in Taiwan.

I had been wanting to escape my homeland and my culture ever since one of my daughters studied abroad and the other lived for a year in Moscow. I wanted stories of my own. I was not homesick until the last few days of the trip. I missed the oddest American things, things I do not even particularly like. But, before I left St. Louis I made my ex-husband drive by McDonald's so I could have a quarter-pounder with cheese and some french fries. I won't need McDonald's again for years.

I enjoy telling people trip stories, but I want to downplay the unspoiled beauty of Taiwan, especially Kinmen, as I do tell about the completely deserted beaches. I don't want too many people there. I do tell them that when we were there at Kinmen we were only a 20-minute boat ride to mainland China. On that day, I realized just how far away from home I was.

I want to go back

Even if I never do, Taiwan will resonate with my memories of a peaceful unsung hero of a country, populated by extremely gracious and kind people.

Photo courtesy of Dawn Bollinger
The beach in Hualien City, Taiwan.
Dawn Bollinger poses for a photo at the beach on Little Kinmen.
Photo courtesy of Dawn Bollinger
The travel bus Dawn Bollinger's tour group used in Taiwan.
Photo courtesy of Dawn Bollinger
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