Nervous? Why nervous? It´s not my first time going abroad, certainly not my last one either. So why should I be nervous? Maybe because I don´t know much about the country? Well, I´ve never been to Asia before, so this would be an argument. Maybe because the culture would be more different than the ones in any other country that I´ve seen before? Alright, this could be, actually. I got to know some Taiwanese already, but the ones I will get to know there will definitely be different, as they never have traveled or lived in Europe. Or maybe nervous because I don´t speak the language? Okay, this is really a point now… I mean I didn´t speak much Spanish when I went to Mexico for the first time back then, when I was seven years younger. But we are talking about Chinese! 你知道我是什么意思?
Okay let´s say I was very excited! Maybe this is what people wanted to hear. After having had several stays abroad I was really looking forward to new adventures. Even though the initial plan was to settle down and look for work after my bachelor degree, I couldn´t resist the chance of participating in a tricontinental master program. On the one hand because I was excited to get to know Asia and on the other because I feel I could go back and visit Mexico every few years. It seemed like the perfect plan: One semester in Germany, one in Taiwan, one in Mexico. Not alone, but with 14 other students from those three regions of the world. And now the first part was over and Taiwan was calling. So up on the plain and off we went.
I have always liked flying. To be in a plain for a little while, waiting to get to the destination. Having time to watch the clouds, read or think. I thought back to the past few days, wondering if I forgot to say goodbye to anyone. I didn´t have much time between the exams and my departure. “So where are you going again… Thailand, right?” Sometimes I felt some of the people don´t really know much about Taiwan. Taiwan is a small island, not too far away from the south east of Mainland China. Actually Taiwan calls itself the ‘Republic of China’ (ROC), a diplomatic displeasure for the mainland, the ‘People´s Republic of China’ (PRC). But this is an issue I want to explain further at a later point of time.
Fact is that Taiwan is much influenced by Chinese culture. This could already be seen at the arrival. Pictures and statues of roosters everywhere. Sure! The year had just begun. Chinese New Year was on the 28th of January. It is like our New Year´s Eve. 2017 is the year of the Rooster in the Chinese calendar. More precise: The fire rooster. In the Chinese zodiac, the Chinese astrological calendar you could say, there are twelve animals (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, pig) and five elements (gold/metal, wood, water, fire, earth). Therefore animals are repeated in a twelve-year cycle and elements in a five-year cycle. This means the fire rooster for example is repeated every 60 years. Who ever is interested can look up the meaning of the Chinese zodiac and his or her own animal sign easily on the internet. Weather you believe in it or not, it´s worth a look! So what does it mean in the end? According to my bit of research the fire rooster stands for trustworthiness, a strong sense of timekeeping and responsibility at work. – Not the worst preconditions for a beginning study year!
And so we arrived to Taipei, Taiwan´s capital. We stayed there for the first weekend, before heading to Taichung, where the studies and the new home for the next half year were waiting. Besides the roosters everywhere and many other impressions, which could be observed in this new culture, there was one other big thing showing that a new year is about to begin: the lantern festival.
The lantern festival also has its origins in China, but has a local character and meaning in Taiwan – just as many things brought from the mainland to the island. Originally it was about hanging up or carrying lanterns to bring the Chinese New Year celebrations to an end. In Taiwan it is more common to let the lanterns fly. They are uplifted by burning paper in their inside, like a hot-air balloon. This is how the lantern festival is celebrated all over the country. Nevertheless the origin of this practice comes from a certain place, called Pingxi. Pingxi is a small hillside town, a bit remote from Taipei. As there are many hills in the area, in former times workers had to be careful going from one town to another. There could be robbers in between. So the lanterns were let up to the sky as a signal to show that a place was safe. Nowadays this is practiced in all parts of the country.
Instead of signalizing security the lanterns nowadays symbolize peace and prosperity for the coming year. This is why people write or draw their wishes on the lanterns. Also the colors of the lanterns are important. Every color has its special meaning: for example red stands for good fortune, yellow for success in school, white for health and combined they can mean different other things.
Although the way to Pingxi took us more than an hour from Taipei, it was definitely worth it! Walking up the hill we were welcomed by a huge variety of appetizing local food stands. No wonder it was already turning dark when we arrived to the festival itself, even though we left Taipei at noon. Then finally we got our lantern, one for the whole group. Having an important and hopefully successful, inspiring and last not least happy year ahead of us, of course we chose to buy the biggest lantern – as colorful as possible! Yes, the more you pay, the more fortune you get. Part of the religion maybe, but nothing Christian Europeans wouldn´t be familiar to. Anyway, it was good fun to write the whole lantern full of wishes, for the coming year and for our future in general. There were enough ideas to fill the whole lantern.
At night we watched the actual festival, where masses of people stood next to each other and where waiting for the moment to let their lanterns fly. When the space was full and everyone found his or her position the countdown began: 3, 2, 1, … Then the whole crowd let off their lanterns in the same moment. A gorgeous picture! This was repeated every 15 minutes, having the next crowd of people already waiting to get on the field. I could have watched it many times more.
Thinking back to some former stays abroad, in some of them I remember myself living the moment, enjoying a life full of new experiences, free of any concernment. This is how it felt the days during the lantern festival. Starting a new year, knowing it will be a good one, knowing that it was the right decision to come here. And so it rises up to the sky, our beautiful lantern. Off into the future. Live and let fly.