Doing an Erasmus+ exchange in Asia: Andrew Whiteoak's experience in Taiwan
Andrew Whiteoak is an MA student at the University of Tartu. He is majoring in International Relations and Regional studies, with a special focus on Russia and an interest in nuclear deterrence. Therefore, it came as quite the surprise when Andrew announced that he will be flying nearly 8000km away from Tartu to do an exchange semester in Taipei.
As Andrew's exchange semester at National Chengchi University is now already behind him, we asked him to reflect on his time in Taiwan.
You spent your fourth semester of MA studies in Taiwan. Why Taiwan?
For an International Relations student, the opportunity to spend several months in Taiwan was an exciting prospect. The ‘Taiwan Issue’ does not receive much attention in Western media, and many people don’t know a great deal about its precarious international status. The chance to speak to scholars, fellow students and ordinary people on the ground was very appealing.
Under which program was the exchange organized? Was the application process complicated?
My programme was the Erasmus+ International Credit Mobility. As you might expect with any programme that involves generous funding, there is a fair amount of paperwork to get through. It isn’t especially complicated, but it will take some of your time, as you need to sign/scan/send several documents both internally and externally to the host university. However, the staff at Tartu’s Study Abroad Centre are very helpful and willing to help at every stage. A key bit of advice would be to get your travel docs sorted as early as possible.
Usually students go abroad to see a different country and culture. But you were already a foreign MA-degree seeking student in Tartu. Why did you decide to leave Estonia for a semester?
It wasn’t a long held ambition to study abroad as an already international student: I just saw the email listing the possibilities for my programme and thought, ‘why not?’. As great an environment as Tartu is for living and learning, the prospect of experiencing an entirely different culture and learning first-hand about Taiwan was difficult to resist.
Its been a few months since you returned. How do you look back to your time in Taiwan?
Very fondly. It passed by incredibly quickly. As I write it feels like no time since I was finalising my application a year ago. I learned a lot, had some great lecturers, met some fun and interesting people and saw nowhere near enough of beautiful Taiwan.
What were the largest contrasts compared to Estonia or Great Britain?
Public transport is excellent and very cheap in Taipei. That is definitely not the case in the UK, which is mostly privatised - go figure. Also, rubbish bins are notoriously tricky to find, but the streets are incredibly clean. On that note, refuse collections are carried out by workers driving musical garbage trucks. Like a British ice van, on hearing its tune, people scurry out of their apartment buildings to throw their rubbish in the back. There's a different tune for recycling too!
What did you enjoy most in Taiwan?
The food is up there: the fact it is so inexpensive to eat out was great. The default friendliness too. Even though average English language proficiency isn’t as high as in Estonia, locals always tried their best to help, utilising hand gestures or translation apps with varying degrees of success!
From an academic perspective I found issues surrounding collective memory, interpretations of history and national identity particularly interesting. The recent events in the United States surrounding controversial statues has echoes of the longstanding debate over what to do with representations of former dictator Chiang Kai-shek. Many statues have been removed, but not destroyed: it is still a sensitive issue, with large swathes of the KMT (the current main opposition party) still holding the former leader in high esteem.
What surprised you the most?
Possibly Taipei’s very healthy post-rock and shoegaze music scene, with several local bands regularly gigging at various alternative music venues in the city. Having the opportunity to catch live 90’s British-esque noise/dream pop once or twice a week was highly unexpected!
How would you compare studying at National Chengchi University and Tartu University?
Classes are a standard of three hours, punctuated by ten minute breaks on the hour signalled, a little oddly, by Big Ben-style chimes over the campus-wide PA system. Strangely, sleeping in class is not completely unacceptable as it would be in the UK or Estonia. One Taiwanese student suggested it showed you’d been working hard!
Unlike Tartu, NCCU is on a distinct campus, rather than being distributed around the city. Taipei is a sprawling metropolis with a population many times that of Estonia. Going out at night could be difficult to coordinate as the city is so vast. If you do make it out and you can afford a few drinks (an average beer might set you back €6, and by ‘average’ I mean the equivalent of A le Coq Premium!) you may end up at a KTV, or karaoke bar, which seems to be a very popular past time, and less in an ironic way like it is in the UK.
What was the most valuable thing that you learned? What did you gain from a semester abroad?
I think you always gain from visiting or living somewhere new, even if you have a terrible experience, you can at least take away future anecdote.
In Taiwan I especially enjoyed hearing the views of other students, both local and international. I got fascinating insights from people who had grown up in societies quite alien to my own and gained a far deeper understanding of Taiwan and its politics than I could have hoped for from afar.
I now have many contacts, both students and professors, who have said they are more than happy to help with any of my future studies. This is very reassuring as I begin to put together my thesis: knowing I have trustworthy, willing sources should I get stuck or need a local perspective for something i read in the news.
What would you say to other students considering a semester abroad?
It is as much about taking in life outside the classroom as it is inside. What can appear initially benign, such as the name of a street or a free handout at a museum can be quite significant. Just by being there, you’ll be learning by default, whether it’s noticing a cultural ritual on your walk home, such as burning fake money in the street, or seeing politically-divisive stickers and graffiti in a bar at 2am. So in short, just go for it!
Any recommendations to students going abroad? Something you wish you had been told beforehand?
Be aware of any host university bureaucracy: unlike Tartu, registering for courses can be quite cumbersome. Make sure you know all the deadlines for registering and dropping courses! While the minimum is 15 ECTS, it's s worth doing one or two extra courses if they interest you. Learning as much as you can about the host country from local experts is really rewarding.
I’d also say not to put off visiting that museum, national park or nearby temple because you think you have months to do it. It’s very easy to get bogged down in work toward the end of your exchange and you risk running out time. See as much as you can as soon as you can. Join clubs and societies if you can or use something like Couchsurfing events to find local hiking trips or attend language exchange meetings. Keep your eyes and ears open at all times!
PS: If you are interested doing a similar exchange in Asia, then there is still time to apply for the 2018 spring semester. You can apply to universities in the People's Republic of China, Republic of Korea, Japan, India and Israel. The deadlines are the 5th and 10th of October, depending on which program you apply to. Read more about it HERE.