Being a Person Before Being a Leader

Recently the point has been hammered home to me that you must be a person before becoming a leader. I have two stories to tell that demonstrate that you must be a relatable human in order to successfully lead others.

I go to Chinese class at National Taipei Normal University with two other people because out of all of the exchange students, our Chinese is significantly better. I am half-Chinese, another is full Chinese, and the last person is a Swiss girl who studied a ton of Chinese in the last 8 months.

Today the Swiss girl was absent, and so was our teacher. Our substitute teacher was a big, auntie-like lady with a big mouth and red lipstick. As soon as me and the other student walked into the classroom, she rigidly alternated between us both, asking the same question to each of us like it was an interview: “Where are your parents from?” “Which high school are you going to right now?”

She seemed to be doing this out of nervousness, so I didn’t take this cold welcome personally. Then she immediately told us the class schedule. We basically were going to watch a Youtube video about the history of Taiwan’s elections. She started the video and told us “This is to test your Chinese level.” After every couple minutes, she would pause the video and quiz us on specific facts from the video.

As expected, both the other student and I didn’t know some of the facts because of the technical language of the news report. The teacher explained for a few minutes, then said:

“I thought your guys’ Chinese would be better.”

I think we both laughed. I sat forward in my chair with an entertained smile on my face and stared her straight in the eyes, challenging her to continue. From this point on, both me and the other student could not take her seriously anymore.

However, after break, things changed. As soon as we walked in, she was sipping a tea. Perhaps because of the morning tea, she began asking us more questions. This time, it became more personal, perhaps a little too personal. “Does your school have both boys and girls?” “Do you think mixed-genders is better?” “Does your homeroom have a class couple yet?” “The girl in the other class, she really needs to go to a mixed-gender school, it is such a pity.”

By this time, we were all laughing. We could see the teacher open her giant mouth and laugh a very auntie-like cackle laugh. I knew things would be better now. We were less of a student-teacher strict relationship and more of humans learning from and laughing with each other. For the rest of the class, the teacher stopped quizzing us on small facts about the video. Instead, she would explain in detail all parts of the video which she thought would be difficult for us.

I nodded so much for the rest of the class, encouraging her to continue teaching this way, with friendliness instead of uncomfortable animosity.

The rotarians put us into six groups. I was assigned group leader and was told to find people to be in my group. I let my closest friends go to a different group with my good friend who was the group leader.

I told the rotarians: “Give me the ones who are left over.”

What is the worst that can happen?

I get the Frenchies and Brazilians and the crazy Danish guy. The rotarians already can’t control these teenagers.

Task: Tell your group to meet tomorrow at the Taipei Grand Hotel at 10:30am.


I go over to each one individually. “Hey, so… We have to be there at 10:30 tomorrow.”

“At night!?”

“No. A.M.” I stretch a giant grimace on my face then back away to find the next group member. Eventually I tell all of my group members, making sure they make eye contact with me to be sure that they’ve heard me. I try to sympathize with them, telling them I think it is too early as well.

I approach them with the same casual style that I have with my friends, instead of bossing them around like I am an adult. For the most part, my group came on time. I don’t think a single one of them was late.

From these two experiences, I’ve learned that in order to successfully lead someone, you must become a relatable person to them. They should be able to know your real personality. Therefore, it’s best to become friends before being their leader. Tell them something personal about yourself. As them something personal, perhaps even a little bit inappropriate. Assume familiarity. Laugh and let go of all your stiffness. After all, we are all humans and can never be limited to words like studentteacher, follower, leader.


People Honk Smarter in Taipei

My host mom is driving in her white SUV and is trying to make a left turn on a two-lane street. The oncoming traffic hasn’t had a gap in probably 20 seconds. My host mom edges the front half of the car into the opposite lane, then when the cars in front of us slow, she continues the left turn.

I used to flinch but now I don’t. I used to flinch because it seemed dangerous, but also because I was anticipating an angry honk from the driver we just cut off. The honk never came. I don’t think I’ve heard an angry honk in my time here in Taipei so far.


(I asked for permission before taking this photo of the dog co-pilot)

Sure, there have been many honks, but they weren’t mean honks. If we are about to swerve into another car in the adjacent lane, there’s a honk. If we wait too long at a fresh green light, there’s a honk. But there’s no honk when we cut someone off.


When you honk at someone for blocking you and your entire lane, you are really just saying, I’m sort of pissed off at you, because you’ve already stopped your car and honking doesn’t solve anything. In America, I’d heard a lot more “hate honks” than in Taipei. Here, its been oddly quiet whenever someone is disrespected in traffic.


Took a Break from Posting on the blog

I haven’t made a post on this blog for almost four months now, and I’m trying to figure out why.

It’s not like anything big has happened since January that is taking up my time. My laptop and iPhone are still working fine.

I just haven’t thought of anything to write about because Taiwan is starting to become “home”. It will never be home because home is where my family is, but I have become so accustomed to living here that every day is a non-event. I now wake up and am not surprised that I’m in a tiny room filled with the sound of traffic. I don’t long for a home-made veggie-packed omelette in the morning because I know I can now get a triangle sandwich and soy milk at the 7-Elevens that are on every street corner.


I also feel physically different than I was before I came to Taiwan. I have the small beginnings of a paunch. The muscles that I worked on so hard last summer on have slowly disappeared, especially in my arms. My hair has grown longer because I’m trying to be Taiwanese-style trendy. My back is stiff from sitting in class for so long. There are other health changes that I’ll get into in later posts (nothing serious at all, don’t worry).


So I’ve become accustomed to almost everything in my day to day life. That’s why it’s been hard for me the last four months to post anything on this blog. I hope to start up again starting now, since my time in Taiwan is nearing its end.

High School English Competition in Taipei

This Friday, I went to an english competition with four students from my school and two teachers. The students were second-year of high school-ers (高二) or Juniors in America. Two were in for an essay contest, two were in for a speech contest.

The speech contest consisted of a two minute prepared speech, followed by a picture-prompted speech five minutes after your first one, giving you only five minutes to craft a short speech from the picture you were given.

I wasn’t allowed to watch the speeches because only teachers were allowed, but a teacher had already planned on taking me on a campus tour of a nearby catholic university.

We got back in time for the awards ceremony, which was very bizarre for these reasons:

1). The style of teaching in Taiwan is very scolding-based. In class, especially with our homeroom teacher, we are constantly being told what we’ve done wrong (as a class; a teacher will rarely single out a single student in front of a whole class unless the student acts up during the scolding).

There were four judges, and they had embraced this style of teaching. And since they all spoke really good english, I began feeling slightly angry. It felt wrong to be scolded in the Asian style in English. It was like I was back in America, listening to judges at a competition give the usual congratulatory speech and suddenly be talked down to like an idiot.

I hadn’t competed, and I knew the competitors who had just finished were used to getting chewed-out, but it felt wrong to be scolded like this in English, because I’d never heard something like this before.

2). Each judge said something along the lines of: “Please be strong and continue studying English after this bad experience.”

One of the judges actually called this a “bad experience”. They gave a lot of tips on what to do if you get stuck in the middle of a speech.

So even though I hadn’t listened to the speeches, I could tell that it did not go well for the majority of the contestants. But I can believe it, judging from the English level of the Taiwanese students here and how shy they become when they speak English.


Giving out the awards was awkward because everyone had been scolded beforehand. The girl who won first place began crying, and I think it was the first time I had seen someone cry while getting an award, in real life, not on TV.


A Failed Attempt at the Dollarbird App

On a cold day a few weeks ago, I’d bought a scarf at a night market after comparing prices at two stores. It cost NT$270, not super expensive, but that’s almost a week of breakfasts, or two dinners.  I complained that the scarf was a little too big to my host mother, and two days later, she’d given me a smaller, and much cheaper scarf. At that moment I felt like I should be paying more attention to my income ( which is NT$4000 monthly from my host club, and NT$400-500 for breakfast each week from host mom) and expenses (all meals, transport, clothes, and anything for fun).

To keep track, I downloaded a free app called Dollarbird onto my phone. It looked pretty simple to use.

You could add categories for any type of expense you have.


You can see, per month, what your biggest expense is.


My favorite part is the graph that charts your balance as it changes over time.


I was in love with this app, gleefully subtracting $60 for each breakfast, looking at the graph go downwards, until every Sunday evening, when it hopped back up by $500.

Then the problems began troubling me.

First, there was the problem of scale. I had about NT$8000 when I started using the app, plus ~$500 in my wallet. If I counted my starting balance as $8500, then each time I ate breakfast(only NT$60 at most!), the graph would barely change at all. I decided to keep the NT$4000 I get monthly from the club, plus the NT$8000 I had stored already, in a “bank” and not count it in the app. Therefore, I made my balance the amount in my wallet (NT$500), and for the rest of the lifetime of the app, the graph showed only the balance in my wallet.

Second, there was the small problem of representing my MRT pass. I added money to it once every couple weeks, but I wanted to see an impact on the graph each time I used the card. This way I can see how many times I used the MRT each week, instead of how much I paid to put money on the MRT pass every few weeks. Therefore, I decided to only deduct money from my balance when I used it for transportation, not when I took money from my wallet and deposited it into my MRT pass.

Third, it is really hard to keep track of small change.

Fourth, there were so many grey areas when I used money for non-regular expenses. For example, when I had to pay NT$300 to add texts and call time on my phone, I deducted it from the chart because it could be a regular expense, but also only happens once every three months. Also, what about chewing gum?

And the graphs turned out to not look so pretty. I wished that each data point would be a spike, then lead to a flat valley of non-spending, the length of the valley directly related to the time between transactions. But I realized that there are no flat lines, only straight lines going from one data point to the next (look at the last of the three photos posted above).

I am deleting the app soon. It was a good month or so with Dollarbird. I hope I will start it again later in life, when my expenses and income become more straightforward (I will include ALL my money in the starting balance). And when I get back to the US currency.

A Short Tour of an Organic Farm

A few weeks ago Rotary took 50 of us exchange students to an organic farm on the outskirts of Taipei. After taking a tour of the farm, we sat down at stone tables, four to a table, and were taught how to dye cloth naturally.

By this time we were all tired.

We were taught how to do many things “naturally” at this organic farm, and many exchange students did not appreciate it fully. We were given a smoothie made of pineapple, apple, and five types of green veggies (all organic), plus a mysterious juice that the farmers said would help digestion. There was a very solid layer of green foam on top of the juice when we drank it, and I think most of the exchangers thought it was ok. Then they gave us yams, sweet potatoes, and half the exchangers did not eat it because it was very starchy and sweet and yellow (I’ve seen mostly carrot-orange yams before).

Anyways, to naturally dye cloth, we put leaves and their flower buds on one half of the square cloth, folded it triangularly, and hammered it with a rubber mallet.


Once you saw the leaf juices showing through the cloth, you could unfold the cloth and see this:


The next activity we did was try to build a traditional sweet potato oven. Things became very surprisingly messy now.

A rotarian began digging an open spot in a field of weeds and then we knew we would be building a mud oven for real. A farmer asked us to walk over to a small creek that looked stagnant and pick up slabs of river dirt to make into an oven.

I was hesitant to help (so were 45 of the other exchange students) at first because my thinking was that river mud could be manure or the excrement of local animals or people. And all sorts of things live near the river (a very tiny crab, white but covered in mud, once crawled out of a block of the mud once). Why did we need river mud?

The very small number of helpers found it easy to grab the river mud once their hands had gotten dirty once (once your hands are dirty, you might as well continue transporting the river mud). I joined in a few minutes later because a Canadian rubbed my hands dirty with her nasty muddy hands.


We were supposed to put the sweet potatoes inside the fire, and then collapse the walls and let the heat from the walls cook the sweet potatoes, but we didn’t get that far. Once the walls of the mud igloo had gotten about 10 inches high, it dawned on all of us that we would not be able to complete the top of the dome because it would just collapse. The mud just didn’t stick together as well as it needed to. We put some pieces of wood inside the half built dome, lit it on fire, and let the smoke rise up around us for the effect. The exchangers, the ones who hadn’t helped with the mud and still had energy as a result of standing around looking at us, began dancing to pop music in the blowing smoke.

We left the farm early, maybe because of the failed “natural” sweet potato stove. I was happy, because two other exchangers and I were rushing to catch the 5:50 showing of Interstellar. It turned out to be a very awesome film.

Going Abroad Makes You Less Judgmental

First, a picture of my class during lunch watching a video about HIV/AIDS. This is the first time the TV has been used this year. Every classroom’s TV turned on and played the same video at the exact same time. Everyone was fixated on the TV for the entire lunch period.

Back to the title topic.

Today on the way home from school I was walking alongside a park. It was cold (61 degrees Fahrenheit- but with the humid air in Taiwan, it felt much colder (I had on a cap and a scarf in addition to my long sweatpants and jacket school uniform)), but there were still people running and walking around the park with tank tops and shorts.

For exercise since I’ve gotten to Taiwan, I’ve ran around the park 3-4 nights so far, but mostly have done pushups and abs workouts in my room, or recently have started climbed the stairs in my apartment building. There are always people running and walking around the park, no matter what, except when its raining (people associate wet hair with getting a cold here). Finding time to exercise is difficult, because my school starts at 7:30, sometimes 6:45, and ends at 5, sometimes 6, and I’m tired from walking home every day.

Cutting to the point, I saw a man jogging in jeans, a polo, and normal sneakers. If I’d seen this man  three months ago, before I’d gotten to Taiwan, I would have scoffed at him, and thought what an amateur, he’s not even dressed properly for exercise. In America, I had plenty of time and space to go on runs. The traffic wasn’t so bad in my hometown that I had to worry about the time spent waiting for my sister after dance class, or for a carpool parent who’s late. I could easily get home, relax, then drive back to pick someone up. Long waits aren’t necessary in small towns where you can get back home from the center of town in 15 minutes.

But now, when I even have trouble finding time to exercise, I can understand why he isn’t dressed for exercise. Perhaps he’d just finished his shift at work and is waiting at the park for his child to finish school. Maybe he’s taking advantage of every minute that’s given to him, efficiently using the 10-15 minutes of waiting for his child to exercise. Also, the traffic in Taipei is horrible, so the dad could have been getting some exercise in while he was near a public park (hard to find open space in Taipei compared to American cities).

I guess it took a change of scenery for me to realize that every person lives in a different context, on a different timeline with different rules and events. Coming to Taiwan put a big curve in my timeline, bringing it closer to the jogging man’s, so that’s why I didn’t judge him today.

Writing Tools in Taiwanese Schools

The major writing utensil in American schools is the No. 2 pencil. Sometimes its portrayed as a big yellow wooden one with a juicy pink eraser, and nowadays I see more mechanical pencils.


A group of foreigners found in Taiwan: mechanical pencils, No. 2 lead, a Bic ballpoint pen, and two pink erasers.




New additions to my pencil case. In the back is a white-out dispenser. The largest pen was handed out as an advertisement for a cram school. Free pen!


Students in Taiwan rarely use pencils. They use pens all the time and therefore need white-out as an eraser.


One theory of mine is that Chinese characters are closer together. Writing one Chinese character takes up the space of two English letters. Looking at a paragraph of Chinese characters looks like a solid block of ink while looking at English paragraphs, you can often see each line. Students here have to be much more precise when they write. Therefore, they use pens.

And they are different from the  pens that I used in America. The pens can be ballpoint but super thin. You can’t really see the ball on the tip of the pen like you can with pens in America. The pens make scratchy sounds when you write really fast, like the quill in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.


School Projects

In school, Wednesday is my project day.  I spend nearly four hours in the same laboratory, the first two with six students from 204 (Juniors) and the last two with seven classmates from my homeroom 104 (Sophomores).

Both groups are full of the smartest of both classes, yet we were hindered by lack of resources and direction. The only computers we could use were at the school library, a two minute walk across the high schools campus. We had to think of an idea to pursue, use a lab notebook that wasn’t checked by the teachers, and use materials that we bought ourselves or spend class time going to nearby shops to buy them.

The teachers helped to varying degrees.


When you can’t afford Christmas lights you make your own.


We used this hot needle (right) and a “high quality solder” (left) to connect the LED legs to the insulated wire.


Homemade Christmas lights that don’t work very well.


204’s teacher basically ran the entire show. He designed an aquaponics setup that got more and more complex as the weeks went on. It’s a layer of pebbles with probably ten seedlings planted on each level.


Behold the magical machine! (The teacher put a bottle of his own urine into the system to add ammonia. I found out after moving around pebbles for five minutes and scrubbed my hands and forearms very thoroughly.)

So the 204 teacher plans the project and we do the dirty work.


Digging worms in the compost heaps behind the school building.


Of course we are using chopsticks here to dig out plants.





The teacher comes out to help us.












The one piece of fancy equipment we used was a microscope.


104’s project was even worse because the teacher let us do everything.

IMG_6516  IMG_6517


So yeah… We are dripping shampoo on sloped surfaces (now on balloons inflated to varying tensions) to observe Kaye’s effect.

My high school in the U.S. did not do science projects. For me, science fairs are events straight out of elementary school. In the U.S., I participated in a summer camp that paired me with a university professor for four weeks. I worked in the professor’s lab doing what an undergrad researcher would do. At the end, I made a printed poster and had a poster session. It was much more professional and more directed. I followed the professor and learned about real areas of science through hands-on experience. In Taiwan, we are struggling to get by with few supplies and little to no direction from the teachers.

I Crave Traditional Breakfasts in Taiwan

There are two types of breakfast in Taiwan: Western and Chinese. Western breakfast is popular among young people and are sold on main streets while Chinese breakfast is more popular with older people and is sold in side streets and alleys.

Western breakfast: Sandwiches, always cut triangularly, very white bread, no crust. It is often three slices of bread. Ingredients often include this like ham, fried chicken, egg, and 肉鬆 (the best I can describe it is meat powder). Very few sammiches have vegetables.


Here was a not very tasty western breakfast that cost NT$70. I’d ordered the same thing as my classmate. That is my Lactaid pill.

Chinese breakfast: Soymilk, stuffed buns, 饅頭 (buns without stuffing), dumplings, 蛋餅 (translates to egg wrap, basically egg and your choice of meat filling (often tuna) wrapped in an crepe-like pancake). I like Chinese breakfasts because it is warm (sandwiches aren’t) and I can drink soy milk (I am lactose intolerant).


Pan fried dumplings with soy sauce and hot sauce, plus soy milk in the background.

One cool thing that I slowly realized eating breakfast here is that the soy sauce is almost always soy sauce paste. It is thicker and easier to dip into because it sticks better than watery soy sauce.


Egg wrap with soy sauce paste inside a typical breakfast carry-out container.


Breakfast is cheap here. I can get one egg wrap and a medium soy milk for NT$40 which is less than $2 USD. 













A fancy breakfast with dumplings, white carrot cake, and egg with basil. And soy sauce paste of course.

I drink soy milk every morning instead of milk or coffee because I am lactose intolerant, as I mentioned before. Soy milk at a breakfast shop always comes in a paper cup with a plastic covering like the ones on bubble tea. People here don’t usually drink cold soy milk, and I get mine warm.


The jokes on all the soy milk cups in this shop were really bad. This one says: Q: What color is spiderman? Red? Wrong! A: He’s white! Spider man (is a Caucasian).