During that time, in junior year (at aged seventeen) when I was completely lost in this professional orientation thing, my Chinese teacher told me about Taiwan. I hadn’t heard of this country before, like many other people: Taiwan (The Republic of China) is technically still a territory of China, and today, two years after my exchange, I’m still asked if I “went to Thailand or something”.  My Chinese teacher told me that after I graduate from high school, I could ask the Rotary to help me go to a foreign country and live there for a whole year. I immediately fell in love with the idea, again, without really knowing what it meant: living far away from home, from everything you know, for a long time and for the first time in my life.  I was seventeen. With a glitter in my eye I answered “Yes, I want to go to Taiwan”. For one whole year. I want to leave my little town lost in the middle of France for a while.

I contacted my nearest Rotary club and asked the members if they could help me to become part of this program which sends young people abroad for a year so they can represent their country in another one. I attended a lot of meetings, met other young people who wanted to go abroad as well, and I already felt like I was part of something. I began to feel that it was real; I was really leaving my comfort zone. It took a year to prepare for my trip, and after my graduation, I started to pack.

I left France on August 26th 2012. My parents took me to the airport, and saying goodbye to them felt weird but not sad. I was wearing my bright blue Rotary jacket so that I could be recognized by other exchange students. After a long flight, I finally arrived to Taipei, where I would be living for a year, in three different host families¹.

Rotary is divided into clubs in which one or two exchange students are affected. In my host club, I had to make a speech in Chinese every month so I could get my pocket money (3000 NTD which equals 78€). I had one or two meetings every month and some other activities (but mostly meetings). Rotary in Taiwan is very strict with exchange students because they have the responsibility of taking care of us, and I guess it’s in the nature of Taiwanese people to be very protective. Some people almost got sent back to their home country for having a girlfriend or boyfriend. When you go on an exchange with Rotary, you have several host families, three generally. My first host family lived in a small flat in Taishan, New Taipei². It was great at the beginning but then, they began to feel disappointed of my Chinese improving too slowly and of the fact that I hung out a lot with my foreign friends instead of staying home and having Taiwanese friends. I felt like they were tired of having a foreign student in their home, so I was happy to move to my second host family, which lived in Banciao, another area of Taipei. They lived in an apartment at the twelfth floor of the building. I had a host brother who was my age and who went on exchange to Brazil so his English was good. At that time, my Chinese improved a lot but was far from perfect.

Being an exchange student isn’t always funny and beautiful. My second host mother was angry with me all the time. She said I was out too much, even after I asked her if it was a problem a few days before, and she had told me no. She told me that having foreign friends was useless because their Chinese is bad and I needed to improve. She told me to take Chinese classes in another school so I could have exams even though I already had a Chinese teacher that I loved at my school. She expected me to be the best of all exchange students, but I was focusing on trying my best to make other people happy, especially my host family. So while she was almost scolding me for being myself, I thought about my parents at home who would have never told me any of this, and I began to cry.

I began to realize that the better my Chinese was, the kinder my host families were to me.When I moved to my third family, I was full of prejudices about them. Everyone who knew them told me they were incredibly strict, and that they had problems with their last exchange student.I had two host sisters older than me and a little host brother who had been on on exchange in Germany. I really got along with my host sisters and parents. I threw my prejudices away. I was so happy; I had no problems anymore. I could see my friends whenever I wanted, but I was also present to my host family. We went out a lot together and my two host sisters even took me to Japan with them for a week, just before I left Taiwan to go back to France.

A view of Taipei 101 from a hiking path.

A view of Taipei 101 from a hiking path.

Contrary to the other exchange students, I went to school at a University instead of high school. This means that I didn’t have to wear uniform, I didn’t have to wake up at six am, and, I was never bored. I was in the cosmetic department. I had nail art class, hair class, massage class, etc. Every day. And I had a group of fun friends who all had different mindsets. I loved my Chinese teacher, who was the only woman to speak proper English at my school. We talked a lot together, we shared a lot, and every time I felt bad I could talk to her because she really understood me and my way of thinking.

Taiwan is so small it’s really convenient and easy to get in touch with other people. I spent most of my time walking around Taipei with my other exchange friends from all over the world. We did everything together, went to the beach, ate sushis and noodle soup, played football and skateboarded, and just had fun. You feel like you’re the king of the world: you don’t owe anything to anybody; you just do whatever you want, whenever you want. You spend your time with people you love and you feel like you’re a part of a family, really. The best was when we had our bus trip around Taiwan, we were all together, everybody was happy. We visited a lot of wonderful places: TaiChung, Kaohsiung, Kenting, Taidong, Hualien and Yi Lan… we all felt so united. That is one of the most wonderful things of the exchange. It’s still hard for me today to realize how lucky I am, for discovering such a beautiful country with amazing people, and I am so thankful for this.

Two years after, I still can’t put my Rotary Jacket full of pins from all over the world in my closet. I need to see it. I am still in touch with my exchange friends, my third host family, my first host brother who’s doing his exchange in France, and my Chinese teacher. I constantly miss Taiwan. It was the best year of my life, without a doubt. Going back to your own country is hard work. First you’re happy to see your family again, your home, your little habits. But after a week you think “ok I would like to go back now”. You spend afternoons on Skype trying to reach your friends but there’s a time difference. You look at your Facebook pictures, cry, talk about your exchange life to your relatives and friends but you’re afraid to bore them. Leaving Taiwan made me so sad. Some of my friends came to the airport with me, like I did for the friends who left earlier that me. When I had to go on the plane, hugging everyone made me realize I was really going back to France. I remember thinking “no, I can’t go back now, I’ve only been here for such a little time”. I cried and cried so much and I could feel the stare of people looking at this girl, crying, with her blue jacket full of pins. I still struggle to comprehend that it’s over.

It was a real life changer. It was weird to hear French around me again; understanding everything felt very strange and walking through Paris’ streets felt so surreal. Seeing my parents through the glass at Charles de Gaulle airport made me feel very delighted. My mind was split in two parts: one in Taiwan and one in France. That is why being back home is hard. You’re back to what you’ve always known so like I said, after a week or two, you want to leave again. I cried in my bed sometimes when I thought about Taiwan.

I can only recommend doing an exchange year. I became so much mature, so much more open-minded. It’s more than making friends, you are now linked to people; you are a part of a new family, where you can be entirely yourself, and you don’t owe anything to anybody. You’re free. My Chinese got better and I’m still learning it at school. I constantly miss my exchange year and Taiwan, this beautiful country. As soon as I can, I’ll go back to Taipei. I can’t wait.

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¹. When you go on exchange with Rotary, you have several host families, so that you have to adapt and discover different ways of life. Also, it’s a good thing if you don’t really get along with a family, as you can still change after a while.
². New Taipei is not the suburb of Taipei. It is like a city around a city. This is why Taipei is so big!