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If the Answer is Yes

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by Vicky Chen, Berkeley, CA

Vicky's sister, Alice, also presents her experience of disability in Taiwan in this newsletter

Vicky on a motorcycle
Vicky in Taiwan  

When I received the acceptance e-mail from the Taiwan Tech Trek (TTT) internship program early in the spring of 2011, I was shocked and a little scared. The year before, a friend of mine had told me about this program for students with one or more Taiwanese parents. At the time, I figured, “Why not apply?,” but it never really crossed my mind what I would do if I actually got in, because I didn’t really expect to be accepted.

So when I was suddenly told that I had to decide within a week whether I wanted to take the offer and spend my summer in Taiwan working at a science and technology museum, I panicked. “I did it again,” I thought, “jumped into something headfirst without considering the greater implications.” That was exactly what had happened three summers earlier when I signed up for a study abroad program in Taiwan and ended up spending more than a month stuck in headache-inducing anxiety and unforeseen negotiations with a program and a university that had never had a legally blind participant and didn’t know how to deal with me.

At the same time as I remembered those difficulties, I knew that if I didn’t do this internship, I might regret it for the rest of my life. I asked myself, “If I didn’t have a disability, would I go?”

The answer was yes.

I can’t count the number of e-mails I sent to my host institution after I signed the acceptance letter. I started with one of my usual introductory “Hi, I am a disabled student” e-mails and then proceeded to send increasingly detailed messages about my circumstances, concerns, and reassurances. Ironically, they weren’t asking me about these things. Actually, all their replies could be summed up as, “Don’t worry, we’ll be happy to have you join us.”

I just couldn’t believe that they really understood what I meant, especially because I was writing to them in English and they were writing back in Chinese. But in the end, I had to quit being nervous. I knew I had done my best to prepare, I had reviewed the little information the internship program had given me, and that was that. By the end of June, I would be back in Taiwan for the first time in three years.

It turned out that I needn’t have worried. I was amazed at how far Taiwan had come in terms of accommodating disabilities during the last few years. Not only were all of my coworkers eager and happy to help me figure out how I could be a part of their team and contribute to their programs, but it turned out that there were already other people with disabilities on staff at the museum. I was also very impressed by the service on the high speed rail. When a worker noticed my white cane and came to help me, she offered me her elbow, instead of grabbing my arm, so she could guide me in the right direction. I thought to myself, “Wow, a lot of people wouldn’t know to guide a blind person that way.”

My job at the museum was to work alongside several other Taiwanese college interns to help prepare and lead educational activities for children. My first few weeks on the job, I assisted my supervisor with her research on how children learned as they participated in her Lego robots summer camp. While the other interns helped the children build their robots, my supervisor and I collected data through surveys and interviews with the children, trying to figure out parts of the activity they liked or disliked and why.

Daily team meetings in the evenings let us go over what went well, any problems we ran into, and what we could do better. When Lego camp ended, we started preparing educational activities for the ocean and ships expo that was going to take place at the city harbor at the end of the summer. Our schedules swung crazily – sometimes we were extremely busy and other times we had lulls because everyone was just exhausted. The days we had to work and the days we got to rest were determined by the schedule of the museum’s summer programs. That meant that sometimes we’d get three or even five days in a row off, but then we’d have to work non-stop for the next fourteen. It was tiring for me, because I was used to working five days per week, but the experiences that came with it and the people that I worked with made it all worth it.

For me, one of the biggest drawbacks of having a disability is that it makes it easier to decide not to do things, especially when I’m in another country. It can be so tempting to just do what is asked of me instead of pushing myself to do more. There is nothing technically wrong with this, but if I had limited myself to what the internship program asked me to do, I would have lost out on many of the memorable experiences that living in another country can offer. The last time I went abroad, three years ago, I came back to the United States feeling that I’d had fun and learned a great deal, but that I hadn’t gotten as much out of it as a lot of my fellow students had. They had really gone out and explored and learned what it was like to really live in Taiwan. This time, I promised myself that I was not going to limit myself to the program’s requirements.

So I went out to dinner with my supervisor, even though it was dark and I usually don’t like going out at night. I joined my coworkers at karaoke, even though I didn’t know the songs and couldn’t read the lyrics on the screen. I tasted the cheese flavored Asian hotpot, despite how gross it sounded and turned out to be. I rode home at midnight in the pouring rain on the back of one of my coworker’s motorcycles, getting so drenched that I could feel the water pooling and squelching in my shoes.

All in all, despite an unexpected allergy attack and getting bitten to death by mosquitoes, it was definitely a summer to remember. I got to do things I never thought I’d do and meet incredible people. It’s a little sad that I might never ride a motorcycle again, but before going, I had no idea I would even have the chance. And like the many other new experiences I came home with, it was scary at first, then thrilling, and even though it’s over, it will forever have added something to the way I see the world.

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