Published on:
March 1, 2018

by: Guest

Teacher Guest Post: Traveling, exploring, and surviving an earthquake during the Spring Festival holiday!

Living in China is an adventure in and of itself, but perhaps one of the biggest draws for foreign teachers here is the prospect of adventuring in neighboring lands. While February may only conjure images of sleet, heart shaped candies, and post-holiday blues for my friends in the U.K., it means something entirely different for us teachers here. The Spring Festival holiday, also known as Chinese/Lunar New Year, means red pockets, fireworks, and perhaps most excitingly, a month-long break from teaching and chance to travel.

Since I arrived in Hangzhou, the question of where to visit has lingered in the back of my mind. It is something that most teachers here think about all year around, the true payoff for all the work we do. Many people opt to return home, craving the company of their loved ones. Others book the cheapest flights they can to Thailand, the Philippines, or Indonesia, looking for seas, sand, and sunburn. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, all we teachers do is exchange plans, share ideas, and of course, compare flight prices!

Now, as a girl with a globally-spread family and skin that turns red after only seconds in the sun, none of these options quite appealed to me. I was lucky enough to have my mother visit for Christmas, so I had her blessing to not come home. While I lived in Seoul, I had used this same vacation time to visit Vietnam, and while I loved the food, scenery, and people I met there, the second-degree sunburn I got in Hoi An reminded me that perhaps an equatorial visit was not the best call. Plus, I had been teaching myself Mandarin for several months now – what if I went a month without using it, would I revert back to my accidental-chicken-feet-ordering state when the vacation ended?

The choice was abundantly clear – Taiwan. I had visited Taipei two years prior and fell in love with the city, harping on to anyone who would listen about how I loved the food, the architecture, the mood, the history, everything but the language. Now, with some Mandarin under my belt, the funds to travel, and an abundance of free time, it was time to scale the entire country without the crutch of google translate. One of the benefits of living in China is that flights around east Asia are relatively cheap, which is useful since most schools will not tell you the official holiday dates until days before they start. Once I knew the dates, it was done – two and a half weeks in Taiwan, then off to southern China to visit my friends there.

Anytime you visit a place you hold close to your heart there are always expectations and fears – what if everything has changed? What if I don’t make friends? What if everything is awful and my cherished memories are ruined? Certainly, I was worried about all these things before my trip – I was spending the first half of it on my own, aiming to travel anti-clockwise from Taipei to Hualien, where I would join forces with a friend to take on the rest of the country. Nothing was pre-booked, I was playing everything by ear (if my year-abroad travels taught me anything, it was that you will mind will inevitably change the second you book anything in advance). Naturally, my travels in Taiwan were certainly…different from my first trip, but not in the ways that pre-plane Zeena feared.

My trip did nothing if not solidify my love for Taiwan. Being able to speak their language even in the slightest changed my entire travel experience – I could have conversations with food vendors, hostel owners, even immigration officers. Not only did it make traveling around easier, but I could see cities and sights with a new element of sound. Being able to understand an old couple bickering about where to eat while wandering the backroads of Taipei in the pouring rain was so special to me, a self-recognition that my efforts to teach myself a new language had come to fruition. I got to practice Mandarin every day, and even met some people along the road who offered to teach me more about the Taiwanese style of the language (a family took it upon himself to try and teach me traditional characters so I could read in Taiwan, an act of kindness that I will always remember). All the initial loves I had for Taiwan intensified as I went from city to city, town to town, meeting incredible people along the way and just taking it all in.

My trip took me all around Taiwan: Taipei, Taichung, Kaohsiung, Taitung, Dulan, Hualien, Ruifeng, Jiufen, and finally, Taipei again. Every bus and train ride was an adventure; I would sit in awe at the natural beauty that is Taiwan, mountainous and green with blue waters on either side. Every day I found something new to learn about and occupy my interest. Wandering around Taichung and physically seeing how its history has changed through architecture, Japanese colonialism to the KMT takeover to now. The wonders of Coca-Cola themed bathrooms in department stores to alleyways painted entirely with cartoon characters. The unused factories across the country that have been converted into artist warehouses, and old railroads that too have been repurposed for communal use. Learning about aboriginal culture in Taitung and seeing the mesh of Taiwanese identities within one city was fascinating. Of course, all the human-based tourism was complimented with the outstanding natural construction of Taroko, its gorge, caves, and cliffs. Every place I visited, I learned more about Taiwan, its natural and human history, the issues it grapples with today, and just how people go about their lives, experiences and lessons I cherish dearly and will never forget.

Of course, no Spring Festival vacation is complete without a little drama, which I encountered in full force on February 6th while staying in Hualien. I was staying in a hostel, finishing my first blog post for this very site, when everything started shaking. We found out in the following hours that a 6.4 magnitude earthquake had hit Hualien, knocking down several buildings and claiming numerous lives. The hostel owners rushed us out over toppled motorcycles and shelves to the streets, urging us to get away from buildings that may fall during the aftershocks. I was running on pure adrenaline, no energy to be scared or process any emotion, just thinking about how to stay safe.

Given the nature of my travels (and my general lacking communicative skills), the majority of my friends and family had no idea where I was. Only a handful of people even knew I was in Taiwan. As we watched updates roll in from global news sites, I realized that my parents would probably see a BBC news alert before they heard from me and jump to conclusions. Sure enough, the BBC reported on the earthquake moments after we were allowed back inside to grab our passports and valuables. Once I had my phone, I saw the BBC was calling for eyewitnesses to describe the earthquake -in an effort to help rectify already-false reports, let people know we were safe, and empowered by my former role as a student journalist, I reached out. Within minutes, I was on Skype with BBC world talking about the atmosphere, the building that had fallen across the street from us, and describing safety precautions we were taking. Another aftershock hit during the interview, and my reaction was continued interview was caught on camera – in following days I saw my face appear in countless global medias, my words translated, my name quoted all over.

It is easy to detach from the outside world while you live in China, and even when you travel outside the great firewall, I have found my newfound lack of communication is just part of who I am now. The irony that I wanted to be as quiet about my travels as possible and ended up on global news is not lost on me, but that was not what I took away from the experience. The kindness of everyone around me, locals from Hualien who brought us food and water, the kindness of the hosts who stayed with us all night, the incredible work of the emergency services who were still working effortlessly to rescue people when I left the city the next afternoon, has been what stayed with me. It did not matter that I was just a passerby, a community formed overnight and everyone was a part of it. The warmth I still feel from seeing all the amazing acts of kindness and bravery then has helped me tackle lingering trauma and survivor’s guilt.

For me, traveling during the Spring Festival was not just about racking up country stamps or posting more varied images on Instagram (or even posting at all), but about seeing how people live, learning about lives other than your own, and making connections with people in all corners of the world. In every place I visited, natural disaster or not, I met incredible people with even more incredible stories and visions of the world. Of course it was wonderful seeing Taroko National Park, Taichung’s Rainbow Vilage, the town that inspired Spirited Away, Jiufen, and the other wonderful sights of Taiwan, but what made my time in Taiwan even more incredible were the stories, ideas, and opinions I exchanged with people everywhere I went. I am grateful for everyone I met, the friends I got to share this holiday with, and that I even had the opportunity to take such a trip.

Zeena is from the UK, and a graduate of the University of Exeter. She’s currently teaching in a public school in Hangzhou as part of the Teach China Graduate Program.


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