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.

IMG_8231

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.

IMG_8234

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.

IMG_7475

(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.

IMG_7527

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.

IMG_7666

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.

IMG_7358

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).

IMG_7337

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.

A Story of War (Part 2):

After getting a full view of the battlefield from the fighter jet, I felt over-qualified to be joining the infantry on the Taiwanese main assault. The skirmishers had gone in already, I’d flown above the battle and missed most of my Japanese targets, and now we were going in for the first frontal ground attack.

The commanders gathered us into attack squads of about 10 each. Training with the commanders since last weekend, I’d come to realize that they were incompetent. They were hesitant to give any orders, had little control over the Taiwanese infantry, and preferred to wait for the generals to step in instead of just doing something first and questioning it later. Last saturday, I’d almost complained to the generals about the commanders’ incompetence.

We were thirty minutes late to intercept the incoming Japanese troops. We were quickly briefed, again, on this new weapon called “water dumplings”.

“How do you use this weapon on the Japanese? With English?” The commander of my squad said, half testing us, half hoping that we would tell her what to do.

“You wrap the filler with the wrapper, then nuh-nuh-nuh,” one soldier said, gesturing with her hands, intentionally failing in the last part of her sentence, just like the commander, because she had split intentions. Half was her being scared of being correct, and half was her not knowing the words in English. I wanted to jump in.

“Yeah,” the commander said, suddenly seeming like a soldier herself, lowering herself to our status by not taking control.

The enemy was upon us and we frantically deployed the “water dumplings”. They were coated in an incendiary called “Taiwanese culture” which made the new weapon even more devastating.

IMG_6978

The weapon seemed to be effective, as you can see in this action shot. Look at their cheeks! Water dumplings!

IMG_6983

With my 99% English ability and one squad member’s 70% Japanese ability, we successfully stopped the enemy from advancing using the water dumplings dripping with Taiwanese culture.

After the smoke cleared, my squad was still good for the most part, but a few members had some burns. The Japanese enemy was hit more than we were, which was good, and they had fled toward the hills in the distance. The commander stumbled next to me and pleaded that we continue with the attack. We trudged forward, the generals rumbling past us in their jeeps, and the commanders lagging behind us with the weight of their fears and insecurities.

A Story of War (Part 1): Japanese Students Finally Meet Taiwanese Students

IMG_6976

It felt very much like an army camp before a battle. Teachers running around everywhere, students getting into groups, lining up, repositioning, lining up again, waiting for the army of Japanese students to arrive.

The numbers of the “enemy” were far greater than our own, but I have to say, we were much better equipped. Most of the members of our Taiwanese battalion had 50% English ability, although it depended on the moment; if you are too afraid to use this mighty weapon, it is exactly the same as not even having your English ability in the first place. The Japanese army had most of their infantry at a surprisingly low 15-20% English ability (because they were the enemy, I’m exactly sure about the number). They won the numbers game however; we were outnumbered perhaps 5:1.

While the Japanese students came onto the battlefield, I was a pilot standing in the middle of a line of infantrymen, all of us clapping our hands, applauding them for their courage to face us on the battlefield. I was disguised well. But one Japanese student saw it on my face, and gave me a high-five as he walked by.

I sat still during the first stage of the battle in one of the 300 seats in the auditorium, where the leaders of both armies attacked and counterattacked through microphones and translators. The principals of both schools tried matching artillery strikes, but somehow failed to make a real connection. Then they sent in the air force, and I was up.

I had prepped my shooting skills with another teacher a few days before, and even went to the flight simulator every night for the past week, so I was confident that I would be well prepared. However, the weapon I was using felt wrong. English? I was going to give it my best shot either way. I am a pilot, after all.

Everything went silent and became clear, as what usually happens when I’m in the cockpit, poised above the opposing force.  I unleashed my full 99% English ability on both the Japanese and Taiwanese troops. My bullets and rockets missed for the most part, which was sort of expected. I was then surprised to see another pilot flying next to me, holding a more practical weapon, a 70% Japanese ability. Most importantly, she had the will to use it, so she hit almost every single member of the Japanese army.

We landed on the airstrip, hustled back to the 300 seats in the auditorium, and immediately slung on our packs and grabbed our rifles. We were now infantrymen.

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.

IMG_7016

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.

IMG_6974

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

IMG_6973

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

IMG_6967

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.

IMG_6832

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

IMG_6835


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.

IMG_6845

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.

Taiwanese Students Prepare to Meet Japanese Students

IMG_6887

I signed up to be a tour guide for incoming Japanese students from a sister school. I did not think it would be a huge time commitment. Maybe one or two info sessions before the Japanese students come, and an entire busy day of showing them around the school and Taipei. But no, the teachers at my school who are organizing this event are giving us so much preparation. I expected to go through probably one-fourth of the preparation that we are actually going through right now.

IMG_6889

 

In America, whenever we had foreign students visit our school for a day, we would just receive an email a few days earlier explaining the situation, and would be given a reminder to come say hi to the students at a designated time. The students would be given a tour of our school. No big deal.

In my school in Taipei, we are treating this like a huge event. But this is a sister school, and it happens every year, so I guess it is a big deal.

Today we were taught how to make eye contact, shake hands firmly, and introduce ourselves in English to the Japanese students. The teacher had us look into the eyes of the people sitting around us for 10 seconds without breaking eye contact. Next was shaking hands. Then introducing ourselves.

The teachers kept reminding us (threatening us) that we should be outgoing with these Japanese students, and to have the guts to speak in broken English. To help, we were given a short list of small talk topics like the weather in Japan and if it was their first time in Taipei.

IMG_6890

In America these things come naturally as teenagers become adults. But in Taiwan, I think students don’t have as much exposure to formal settings because they spend more time studying instead of doing extracurriculars. You rarely can find a student here that is participating in a volunteer organization outside of school.

On a related note, my host mom and I were talking about air hostesses and found out that they are completely opposite to the students here. My host mom said Asian air hostesses are generally younger, more attractive, and more welcoming to customers when compared to American air hostesses. American air hostesses are generally older and less welcoming (by welcoming I mean the Asian concept of being sort of subservient in a way).

Anyways, I can’t wait for the Japanese students to come to our school and see how the two cultures interact.