Hai Lun Chang, who often goes by her English name “Helen,” is Agnes Scott’s first and so far only Taiwanese student. Helen is a sophomore Engineering major and pianist from Tainan, Taiwan. Helen and I talked about her feelings on studying abroad in the U.Ss and her opinions about her home country.
Hai Lun in front of Tamsui Lover’s Bridge in Taipei, Taiwan.
Helen chose to attend college in the United States because of the opportunities for freedom. “I like to study by myself instead of in groups, and American education gives me the freedom to do that. In Asian universities, you often have to have class from seven in the morning until nine at night, and you’re just doing homework all the time.” Such a strict schedule doesn’t fit with Helen’s lifestyle. “College is supposed to be the peak of your life,” she says.
Other kinds of freedom also add to Helen’s enjoyment living in the U.S. “People don’t judge that much, especially based on appearance,” she says. “In Asia, people say, ‘You’re ugly, you’re fat,’ or they judge you a lot based on how you’re dressed. And if you don’t obey certain stereotypes of your culture, they’ll just blame you more. Like, if you’re a woman and you smoke, they’ll think you’re a really bad person, or you have a tattoo, people will think you’re really bad.” In Chinese and Taiwanese culture, tattoos are often viewed as particularly rebellious.
When asked what she dislikes the most about the U.S., Helen immediately replies, “Racism.” She laughs a little, then elaborates: “I’ve had lots of bad experiences when I walk down the street and some random guys say, ‘I speak Mandarin,’ then just say ‘Konnichiwa’ (a Japanese greeting) and a bunch of random Asian words to me. I feel really weird because I don’t just go up to random white guys and speak German or French.”
When asked what she misses most about Taiwan, Helen replies, “The social bonding,” adding, “People are just really nice, even if you’re a stranger. That’s what it’s like in South Taiwan, where I live, but not in the North.”
“And the food is really good,” she says.
I ask Helen if she’s ever felt that she has to represent her country in a certain way or correct a stereotype. She nods and says, “The main problem is people don’t really know where Taiwan is. Most people think Taiwan is a part of China. And most international students are Chinese — I’m the only Taiwanese in the history of Agnes Scott so far. But we really treasure our independence because Taiwan is a democratic country. And I speak Mandarin so people keep thinking I was born in China, and it makes me really annoyed.”
For those who don’t know much about Taiwan or where it’s geographically located, Taiwan is a small island nation 180km east of China. Tainan, Helen’s home city, is a municipality in southern Taiwan, and it is the oldest city in the country. It is known for its temples and spiritual festivals. Taiwan has been governed independently from China since 1949. The two countries maintain a fragile relationship, which has improved during the past seven years but is periodically tested.
Helen continues, “Taiwan’s really different from China. People don’t mix up North Korea and South Korea, you know? I don’t know why they mix up Taiwan and China — I guess because Taiwan is small and in the middle of nowhere. And because Taiwan’s name is ‘Republic of China.’
Among the stress and hard work of taking twenty-two credits, including engineering classes, music remains a more peaceful part of Helen’s life. She can often be found in the practice rooms of Presser Hall, and her favorite piano piece is Beethoven’s D minor sonata.
Helen says that after college, she’s not sure where she wants to live. She may stay in the U.S. or may move to other countries depending on the job offers. As far as her engineering degree, she’s interested in careers in cosmetics or pharmaceuticals.