“This was going to be a completely new experience for me because I would immerse myself in a culture very different from the one I grew up in. I knew it would be hard and stretch me beyond my comfort zone, but I felt hopeful at my ability to grow and learn throughout those ten months.”
Callie Bonne, then 17, turned toward the airplane window, trying to hide her tears from the Taiwanese grandma sitting beside her. She glimpsed her mom standing behind the glass planes of San Francisco airport’s boarding area and felt a pang of loneliness, knowing that the next time she would see her mom, brother, grandparents and friends would be in 10 months.
Callie was about to begin an exchange in Zhunan, Taiwan where she would spend her senior year of high school.
“It didn't really hit me that this was happening,” Callie said. “I’ve never been away from my family for even a month. I was going somewhere where I didn’t know people, so my mom was my last look at all the things I would miss back at home.”
Callie had wanted to do an exchange ever since her aunt’s son spent 10 months in South Africa. She also loved the 2-week exchange she did in Sicily, Italy in July of 2018 through her aunt’s Rotary International (which organizes youth exchange programs) district in Minnesota, and wanted to immerse herself in another culture for an entire year.
In October of 2018, Callie applied to the Northern California Rotary and was accepted to the program the following January. Although she first wanted to travel to Spain, she ultimately decided on Taiwan because she studied Mandarin in her sophomore year and had heard amazing accounts of the country from her Taiwanese friends.
“This was going to be a completely new experience for me because I would immerse myself in a culture very different from the one I grew up in,” Callie said. “I knew it would be hard and stretch me beyond my comfort zone, but I felt hopeful at my ability to grow and learn throughout those ten months.”
During the 13-hour flight, Callie alternated between feeling excitement and sadness. She tried to distract herself with music, yet kept on thinking about what was in store for her. She tried to convince herself that the cultural immersion she would receive was worth all the experiences she was giving up, such as senior prom and graduation.
At about 8 p.m., her plane landed in Taiwan.
The moment she stepped out into the waiting area for arrivals after picking up her luggage, she was met with about 20 people from her rotary club, including all three of her host families, the club president and the club counselor. They were holding a huge sign that said “Welcome Callie Jay BONNE” and another one that said “Youth Exchange Committee District 3501 Rotary International.”
Seeing the crowd of people cheering and clapping for her, Callie gasped and hid her head on her luggage trolley, repeating to herself, “oh my gosh” and “wow.” She was both laughing and crying.
“I broke down because I could not believe what I was seeing,” Callie said. “That was when it really hit me that I was here.”
After what felt to Callie like a million photographs, Callie’s first host family drove her to the center of town to a small nondescript restaurant. There, Callie tried Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings), which she said were absolutely delicious.
During dinner, Callie asked her host family about their interests and daily lives. Although her host brother (then 16) and her host dad could speak English, her host mom only spoke Mandarin.
“It was kind of awkward, but at the same time, it was incredible that this family that did not know me personally beforehand was willing to have me live in their house for three months and take care of me and feed me every day,” Callie said. “Especially with a language barrier, it's harder for me to feel instantly connected with someone, but I felt instantly grateful and instantly happy to see them.”
Left to right: Jiufen Old Street, Callie's vocational school, Ximending neighborhood in Taipei
Afterwards, Callie’s host family took her to their home: a four-story building that includes a dance studio on the first three floors and a living place on the fourth floor. They showed her around the top floor and then took her to her room, telling her to sleep for as long as she wanted.
“After brushing my teeth, showering and getting into my bed, I remember just lying for a while, just thinking: “I'm in Taiwan, outside my window is the town that I'm living in, this is the house I'm going to be living in for the next three months, this is the bed I'm going to be sleeping in,” Callie said. “It was kind of strange.”
Although Callie knew that she would have fun exploring Taiwan and interacting with other exchange students from all around the world, she feared that she wouldn’t be able to make the most out of the opportunity. She remembers thinking, “What is going to happen to me?”
Over the next couple of months Callie adjusted to her new life. She began taking English, Mandarin and occupational classes like art, fashion, cooking, and even a beverage making class at the vocational high school. Additionally, she got used to taking public transportation, learned to be more independent and adopted Taiwanese social customs like preserving face — or one’s dignity, reputation, and self-esteem, especially in public. Face can be lost through emotional public displays or showing disrespect and it can be given through compliments and other actions that raise others’ self-worth.
Even though Callie got used to Taiwan, she still stood out starkly with her lighter colored hair, freckles and pale skin. She was stared at everywhere she went, as she was the racial minority.
“It felt a little uncomfortable,” she said. “I'm kind of used to it now, but I still think it’s funny when little kids in the supermarket yell ‘foreigner!’”
While Callie had little doubts and bursts of homesickness throughout the first six months of her exchange, she doesn’t regret her choice. As she created incredible friendships and bonded with her host families, Taiwan began to feel like home.
“I will never regret my decision because of the wealth of new experience being in Taiwan has brought me,” she said. “The people I’ve met, the places I’ve been, and the knowledge I’ve gained made these ten months unforgettable. I’ve dreamed of studying abroad since I was young and this experience was all that I had wished for and more.”
Callie on railroad tracks and beside a lantern in the Pingxi District of New Taipei, Taiwan