Students Reflect on Trips to Taiwan and Japan

On April 16, students from two classes within the East Asian Studies department gathered in the atrium above Harris to share their experiences about visiting Taiwan and Okinawa, Japan over spring break. The symposium was sponsored by the Academic Resource Center.

The Taiwan trip was led by Senior Lecturer in Chinese Tek-wah King and included students from the Intermediate Chinese class. “We chose to take these students because they are pre-abroad students who have been studying the traditional Chinese characters, which are only used nowadays in Hong Kong and Taiwan,” said Professor King. “This was an opportunity for the students to see and use characters they are familiar with.” This trip was done through the Traveling Research and Immersion Program (TRIPs) at Connecticut College, and is traditionally done every four years, however this time it had been eight years since the previous trip.

The trip to Okinawa was led by Visiting Assistant Professor of Japanese Takeshi Watanabe for his course centered around Post-World War II Japan. “I wanted to take them to a smaller Japanese island, one with more diversity within the culture,” said Professor Watanabe. “Okinawa has a different culture and different problems than Japan, and I wanted to show that to the students.”

While on the Taiwan trip, each student had to focus on a different project while away, and each had a poster dedicated to his or her topic at the symposium. Projects included  “Theater in Contemporary Taiwan” by Anna Glidden ’16, “Tea Time: Taiwan’s Tea Culture” by Lily Ky ’16 and “Taiwanese Street Food: More Than Snakes, Bugs, and Monkey Brains” by Erik Wu-Leung ’16.

As Wu-Leung said about his topic, some people may see this food as strange or exotic, yet Wu-Leung grew up with this cuisine and wanted to show why and how it is used in Taiwanese culture. “One thing you’ll notice all this food has in common is… [that] the people are not picky, everything is made out of necessity and leftovers. Bubble tea was invented because someone had tea and tapioca pudding, and they put it together.” He went on to say that because of food scarcity, most snacks are made to use up all parts of the meat or produce, much like sausages.

Wu-Leung appreciated how lucky he was to grow up with this cuisine, and while abroad he enjoyed helping people who were uncomfortable with these unique foods and saw it as a unifying experience.

Another goal of this trip was for these students to experience a part of Taiwanese culture before they choose where to study abroad. “The rest of China uses simplified characters, so it was important to take the students to a place that uses traditional characters and speaks Mandarin,” reiterated Professor King. “Also, I grew up in Taiwan so it better serves the students for us to go there.”

Part of Professor Watanabe’s goals for the research excursion was to let students experience the multiple opinions and unique culture within the island. “We visited an American military base, protest site, peace memorial, university, the US Consulate General and met with high school and university students,” said Ian Rathkey ’14. “It was a varied, educational, yet also fun experience.”

Watanabe echoed his student’s opinions. “I was very inspired by the survivors of WWII and wanted to show their stories to the students. We also went to a small, untainted island off of Okinawa, which has a very sacred religion.  I think the students enjoyed learning about that as well.”

Sara Gildersleeve ’15 went on the trip hoping to learn more about the relationship between Japan and Okinawa.  Her project was titled “Okinawan Identity as a Political Force” and focused on the political and economic forces that influence the Okinawan identity today.

What she found, however, was a trip structured around learning about all the different aspects of Okinawa and hearing stories from all sides of the issues there. “We went to a cave where Okinawan school girls worked as nurses during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II; at one point we turned off all the lights to experience what it would have been like for those girls.  Afterwards we went to a peace memorial and then heard a survivor’s testimony. I couldn’t imagine being there trapped in such a claustrophobic space.”  Said Gildersleeve, “My most profound moment on the trip was seeing how much my views about the world changed, the general picture was more complicated, and the more I heard, the less I knew.” •