Having just returned to Taipei from San Francisco, I’ve seen how Taiwan’s successful curtailing of Covid-19 has made life as normal as it can be — only accessorized with masks and routine temperature checks.

Not so, however, for Taiwanese international students. Around forty thousand Taiwanese students study abroad every year, over a third of them in Canada and the United States. With the unabating rise in coronavirus cases, international students have the option to enroll in a semester of remote or hybrid classes from their home countries or North America.

With life during the pandemic in Taiwan and North America at seeming polar opposites, I wanted to understand how Taiwanese international students chose to approach this semester. For some, staying in Taiwan was a no-brainer. Yet for others, the decision was not so straightforward.

The challenges and affordances of online learning

Ebelle Weng, 20, was pulling a rare all-nighter to finish work for a freelance client before our interview. Otherwise, she’s keeping a balanced schedule in Pasadena, California, studying digital art at ArtCenter College of Design. “I’m thankful for ArtCenter because they’ve been giving us crazy good classes with crazy good people,” she said.

When campus closed earlier in March, she returned to Taipei and finished the semester online. She didn’t want to repeat that for the Fall. “It was terrible for me,” she said. “I did not have any sleep at all, [and I] would just go to a deep, deep lazy mode.” The time difference itself was challenging, and Weng’s five-hour long studio classes didn’t help.

Weng wasn’t going to let coronavirus stop her from realizing her goals. “My plan was always to finish with my head sharp,” she said. As a second-year student, she’s on track to graduate in just another year and a half. Focused on obtaining both her degree and dream of working in advertising, she decided it was best for her mental health and career to return stateside.

Remote learning from Taiwan was also challenging for Ethan Chen, 19, in March, which he thought was a poor use of money. This semester, he took a leave of absence from the University of Pittsburgh to study at National Taiwan University (NTU) as part of their Visiting Students Program, effectively an exchange semester for students from foreign universities.

Taiwanese university life is a new experience for him and NTU specifically has long held a halo effect over him. He takes classes alongside full-time students, though he admits to an unexpected disappointment at the classroom environment, comparing it to a “higher-level high school.”

Despite his misgivings, over the summer, he started considering switching plans altogether and transferring full-time to university in Taiwan. It wouldn’t be the first time he had changed course educationally. In order to prepare for university abroad, he had applied to Dominican International School, a Catholic international school in Taipei, for high school. After a year studying in the U.S., a new option is now on the table. Covid-19 is a “second chance,” he said, to consider where he wants to study, and by extension, where he wants to work in the future.

Connor Cheng, 18, wasn’t thrilled about online classes either when he returned to Taipei in March. He still isn’t. Luckily, he doesn’t need to attend classes at ungodly hours, for most of his lectures at the University of Toronto (UofT) are pre-recorded, with only occasional live sessions. It’s challenging to stay motivated with the online and asynchronous format, however. “In the library you can’t just browse on your phone and lie there,” he confessed, adding that he felt detached from his studies.


Photo Credit: Eric Chen

Connor Cheng

Though he had expected feeling motivated to be difficult, it made sense for him to continue this semester remotely from Taipei. The UofT campus is not entirely open, and his parents prefer that he stay in Taiwan. “I want the Covid thing to be over,” he said. He didn’t want to delay plans of getting his psychology degree in four years, moving to Los Angeles, and possibly pursuing culinary school. As a dual Taiwanese and Canadian citizen, Cheng is paying the lower domestic tuition, which justified the cost of continuing his studies on schedule despite the reduced learning experience.

If tuition is the least of concerns for Cheng, it’s the one thing that frustrates Jamie Lee, 20, as UCLA is only granting a nominal reduction in tuition for her online semester from Taipei. However, she’s passionate about her psychobiology major and remote instruction hasn’t prevented her from engaging meaningfully. The online format makes little difference for Lee because her foundational classes would have otherwise been lecture halls packed with hundreds of students. It was also easy for her to find sections for classes that took place during waking hours in Taiwan. She was even able to supplement her online learning with hands-on research by joining a psychology lab over the summer at Yang Ming University.

When leaving Taiwan makes sense

Kirby Yen, 20, is enjoying his second year at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) in Amherst, where he’s living in an apartment off-campus with his girlfriend and taking classes online. His family supported his decision to return to the U.S. His friends, on the other hand, were surprised. “They think this is a waste of money, waste of time — a meaningless decision.” But Yen’s semester is “going pretty well” and he’s happy to be back. Online lectures actually help him better absorb the coursework for his Chemical Engineering major, since he can rewatch the recordings. With parts of the UMass campus open on a hybrid model, Yen plans to find a research position in an engineering lab.


Photo Credit: Angela Ma

Kirby Yen

Coursework aside, his social relationships were also a priority for returning stateside. “I wouldn’t want to stay in Amherst by myself — that’s hell,” he said. He had been apart from his American girlfriend for five months, and she decided to return to campus, as did a handful of other friends.

Yen also wants to make the most of his undergraduate experience. When he returned to Taiwan in March, he felt time drift away without purpose. “I got four years in college, I don’t want to spend one of my years in Taiwan,” he said. In Amherst, he feels safe and has time to try new things, like playing soccer, and spending time with international friends, which would otherwise be a “rare opportunity in Taiwan.”

Weng’s decision to return to Pasadena also baffled her friends. “My friends were against it. Everyone just thought I was going back because me and my ex-boyfriend were still together.” She said he was not a deciding factor, and they have since broken up.

Taiwan would be Weng’s first choice to live in during this pandemic, but given her goals, staying would equal stalling. “Sure, I can stay [in Taiwan] and keep doing this online class thing and wait for my whole mental health to go to shit, but the whole world is still moving, time is still going. I can’t just hide in Taiwan." The normalcy of life in Taiwan, instead of being a refuge, would be an escape from moving her life and goals forward.

Time and freedom to grow

For Alex Chen, 20, being in Taipei is giving him a renewed sense of purpose. He’s taking a gap year, which he called the “best decision of [his] life.” If it weren’t for the pandemic forcing him to leave Seattle University in March, he wouldn’t have considered it at all. Online school isn’t worth the time and money to him, especially since he’s studying business, which emphasizes learning by doing.


Photo Credit: Sage Chen

Alex Chen

On the surface, he is still juggling a lot — meeting mentors on how to start a business, freelancing as a photographer and filmmaker, and playing soccer with a local team — but sees the gap year as an opportunity to slow down. “I did a little too much in college,” he said. He was burned out, and wants to use this gap year to be more intentional about how he’s spending his time and what he’s learning.

The pandemic has also given Weng more quality time. “Quarantine really helped me because for the last year of my life, I was always running, just letting myself be so busy with every aspect of my life.” She took time to reflect on how she wants to grow as a creative person and built better habits. “I learned I really am truly an unbreakable cockroach,” she said, adding that she’s learned how to ask for help, manage her anxiety, and made time for new hobbies like hiking.

This appreciation was echoed by others. Lee, ever the social butterfly with packed daily schedules back at UCLA, cherishes her alone time and realizes she overestimated the social time she needs. For Ethan Chen, taking classes at NTU allows him to build a routine, something he lacked when taking online classes. With this time, he can be more deliberate about whether to join the army next semester, return to Pittsburgh, or transfer to a university in Taipei next year.

Cheng feels more ambivalent towards this extra time, however. While he has what he called a “pretty Taiwanese lifestyle,” he is eager to get back to his life as a student at the University of Toronto. If Ethan Chen is uncertain about the future, then Cheng feels stuck in time. Despite the normalcy of life in Taiwan, he feels as if the world and his life is “on pause.”

Whether these students are in Taiwan or back in the U.S., continuing school or taking a pause this semester, all are in pursuit of a footing in unstable times. Rather than defaulting to what seems “reasonable” — taking online classes or staying in Taiwan because it’s safer — they made choices that worked for them. Their sense of normalcy isn’t guaranteed by Taiwan’s stable pandemic conditions — nor negated by the pandemic in the United States. In designing their semesters with intention, these students are creating their new normal.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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