Sunday, February 10, 2013

(potentially long post ahead, beware.) 

So, it's been six days since I touched down on Singapore grounds after my amazing journey in Taiwan. What can I say? The seven days I spent in Taiwan have been pretty life-changing, to say the least. I'm so fortunate to have been given this wonderful opportunity to venture out both physically as well as out of my comfort zone to learn so many new things. Not only was the trip meaningful, it was also high in the fun factor, which made the entire experience so incredibly memorable.

I will be touching on day-to-day stuff although that might possibly bore everyone reading my blog, but that's really because I want to remember every single event that have happened that made an impact on the experience I had on the trip, and ultimately, an impact on my life.

Firstly, to give a brief introduction - this trip is basically a leadership camp held in Taiwan by the Dwen An Foundation and every year, RGS and RI will send four students each. This year, I went on this trip with Tiffany (PB), Yijing (PSB), Leirong (Congress) and from the RI side, Sean, Benjamin, Kenny and Jia Ze! During the camp, we will be tasked to organize a day's worth of activities for visually challenged kids within the short time period of one and a half days before carrying everything out.

Us at Changi Airport (-:

Day One (29 January 2013) 

Headed to the airport full of anticipation, excitement, a little bit of fright to be honest as well as a huge luggage at 8.30am - it was the first time we were meeting the guys so it was kind of strange and awkward, to say the least. The teachers accompanying us on the trip were there as well - Mrs Pang from RGS and Ms Lee from the RI side. After checking in our luggages and whatnot, we had a little bit of time as the eight of us so we hobo-ed somewhere and played an incredibly fail (not to mention awkward) game of Mono Deal before we headed to board the plane. (All those administrative plane-boarding details shall be skipped)

The girls sat together on the plane in a row of four; nothing eventful occurred except that I caught Pitch Perfect, ate some sort of chicken rice and listened to trashy feel-good pop music. 

On the plane with Yijing and Leirong (omg we all look so tired here and we haven't even reached Taiwan yet) 

We reached Taiwan in no time - it was a four and a half hours plane ride, but time passed pretty fast (I guess it's the good company). The eight of us were still extremely awkward with each other and trust me, it took a long time before we all warmed up to each other's presence. I think the four girls were pretty close already though - we were all acquaintances or more-than-acquaintances in school (-: In Taiwan, we were greeted by a really friendly tour guide who brought us to a bus that transported us to the place we were going to stay for the next two nights - the Chientan Student Activity Centre. Sounds like a pretty strange place, but the room was surprisingly good - plus the four of us got to stay together - how much fun is that? :D 

Attempt at an artistic shot of the Chientan Student Activity Centre

The Chietan Student Activity Centre was within walking distance of Shilin Street Market so by the time we settled down, it was already around 5pm so we headed there to grab dinner and do some shopping! We were allowed to move around in groups of four - undoubtedly, we were split by gender. The two teachers headed on their own.

The four of us started out with dessert!We shared a mango snow ice in one of the small shops and it was really really good, unlike the kinds that we find in Singapore - it was much milkier and it felt amazing in my mouth! 

Look at this gorgeous yellow blob of goodness (-: 

And these gorgeous ladies too (; Yijing looks so cute here I cannot

Tiff and I! 

After that, we walked around the night market, of which I am unable to relate the exact places we went/ the exact things that we ate but we did a lot of running around the crowded place (which was so exciting, yet tiring - I felt like I was in an action movie). We were running around like maniacs because of a curfew set down by the teachers and the fact that I had a desire to drink bubble tea before we left the place. Our night also consisted a bit of muscle training because all of us bought many boxes of Taiwan food products to bring back to Singapore as souvenirs (we were cursing a lot because we realized that we would have plenty of opportunities to buy such products the next day, instead of lugging it around. But we soon realized that it was worth it - yes confusing I know)

What is a visit to Shilin Street without trying the XXL chicken? (-: 
Chicken and smelly tofu (which I could not stand - Leirong loved it though)

It was large, and pretty tasty - and much much cheaper than those sold in Singapore (that isn't even the real thing, may I add). 

Afterwards, we learnt that the guys spent most of their time playing those arcade machines where you had to control a joystick to grab toys. Then, we headed back to meet the teachers and headed back to Chientan - we arranged to meet the guys at the lobby at 10pm after we showeered because we had to prepare for a performance for the Dwen An people that we have yet to do anything about. When we did meet them that night, it was a pretty unproductive and yet again - awkward - session. Apart from the sudden outbursts of laughter coming from Yijing and myself, the discussion did not progress much at all. We just filled the lobby with embarrassing singing in less-than-perfect Mandarin. All of us ended up sleeping feeling pretty unaccomplished and perhaps a tad bit worried. Wifi was good there though (': 

Day Two (30 January 2013) 
This was the last day of leisurely touring around Taiwan and one of the best days I spent in Taiwan. Woke up pretty early in the morning and we headed for breakfast - where everything that was cooked was so insanely oily that I ended up just eating bread.

Afterwards, we met the lobby at 8.30am if my memory did not fail me and we set out on our Taiwan tour - the first stop was the Taiwan National Palace Museum (also known as 故宫) which is apparently one of the best museums in the world, according to our tour guide. The place was indeed really grand, and featured historic treasures from past China dynasties. No photography was allowed in the museum, but we did manage to take a few really pretty group shots outside with the palace in the background but they are in Tiff's DSLR - thou shalt wait patiently hehe (-: To be honest, I am not the biggest fan of museums so I didn't really learn anything from the visit there - the weather outside was just amazing though, it was bright and sunny yet cold, refreshing and breezy.

From the museum, we headed to another palace place - which I have no idea what it's called. There, we witnessed the changing of guards and it was pretty impressive - it makes me think of our own footdrill standards in Girl Guides. I mean, of course we cannot compare but their foot work was so incredibly precise - plus, they were not even allowed to blink, even when they were on guard for an entire hour. It reminded me a lot of the Mr Bean episode I used to watch as a kid of the Buckingham Palace Guards. 

After witnessing the guards, the tour guide brought us to a really strange departmental store located underground (I really don't know how to describe it) but it was such a dubious place with salespeople trailing us wherever we went. We suspected that it was a place that catered specifically to tourists and the entire time there, I felt really uncomfortable. Boy, was I glad when we left and headed to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall.

As I am currently studying China in History, I have learnt about Chiang Kai Shek himself and his role in the Nationalist vs Communist battle so it was pretty refreshing for myself to be able to see the memorial hall that was built in memory of this influential leader. 

A reconstruction of Chiang Kai Shek's office - complete with a pretty realistic wax figure of the man himself.

Another statue of Chiang Kai Shek

The memorial hall was in the middle of the Memorial Hall Square, which was this open area with a breathtaking view that housed the National Concert Hall and the National Theater. 

An attempt to capture the amazing view I saw there

Then, we headed to have a steamboat/ BBQ lunch before we got on the bus again that brought us to another tourist-specialized store that sold pineapple cakes, one of Taiwan's specialities. As the girls have already bought these Taiwan food products from Shilin the previous day, none of us ordered any - the guys did though, and at a much higher cost too! 

After that brief shopping experience, we headed for one of the highlights of the entire trip - releasing paper lanterns (放天灯) that we have penned with wishes into the sky. We had to travel for more than an hour up a mountain to reach the place that specialized in this but it was so worth it. It was so hilarious on the bus ride because I dozed off into a really deep slumber, that caused my entire body to slump against the seat of the bus with my head hanging from the side and my hair sweeping the floor of the bus (yes really disgusting I know) and the thing was that Mrs Pang saw me in this position and thought that I fainted but didn't do anything about it and went back to sleep again. When we woke up, we were all laughing hysterically about how Mrs Pang didn't even react to her student supposedly "fainting". 

The place was in the middle of the mountains, and there was this little village that allowed the releasing of paper lanterns into the sky - it's a really old shop that has been there for ages and the atmosphere there was incredible. The guys and girls got one lantern per group and we penned so many wishes on the lantern (': 

Look - this side of the lantern was white, which signified "a bright future" - so we wrote and drew our individual leadboards on it, hoping for a bright future for them in RGS. 

After penning the wishes, we would have to head onto the train tracks to release the lantern into the sky. 

I only managed to capture the guys! 

 Off their lantern went! :) 

The train tracks weren't abandoned tracks as I initially thought - we saw two trains approaching, of which I dangerously stepped on the tracks to capture the approaching train!

Why was this one of the highlights of the trip though? Sure, I had a lot of fun releasing the lantern but that's not the main point - what really caught my attention there was another lantern that a Taiwanese woman was writing on. Instead of wishing and requesting for more things for herself, she was actually penning an extremely long essay on her lantern, and the content of the wordy passage circled around thanking the greater beings for their blessings in her life so far. This really made me wonder about the mentality most Singaporeans have compared to that woman - we as Singaporeans are constantly complaining about our lives and always demanding for more, yet this woman, not the richest nor the happiest person in the world, but embodied a spirit of gratefulness and contentment with what she had. Seeing her made me think about the perspective I had of my own life, it made me feel that I should be happy with and to feel fortunate and grateful about what I have every single day. This might eventually lead me to thank my blessings regularly and  ultimately put in my best efforts in all that I do. 

As we left the village for Taiwan's bustling streets, we got lost in our journey down the mountain - I wouldn't blame the driver, the place was indeed extremely confusing to maneuver through but it was sort of a blessing in disguise as it allowed me to witness another act by another Taiwanese woman that changed my perspective in the way Singaporeans/ myself do things. We stopped by a small house to ask for directions and this kind lady actually rode her bicycle (we were in the bus) to lead us to the right direction. Their hospitality touches me so so so much - us Singaporeans will probably just give a few scarcely understandable hand gestures and leave you to figure them out on your own. (A hasty generalization I know, but you get the picture)

When we finally reached the city streets, it was pretty dark and we were an hour late to a dinner appointment with some teacher I/Cs from Dwen An's side. They were really understanding though, and we settled down for a comforting dinner of steamboat (again). It felt good having warm soup in the cold night (-: Afterwards, the eight of us headed for Shilin again, this time for Leirong to buy contacts because she broke her only pair by accident that morning. By that time, we were a bit more open towards each other, and it was much less awkward. When we got back to the Student Activity Centre that night, we arranged another meeting because that was the last chance we would be able to prepare for our performance before we headed for Dwen An the next morning.

We managed to get an activity room there so we'd be able to sing without caring about anyone hearing us. Discussion that night was really fruitful, and very fun even! At about midnight, we had to leave the room but we still had to prepare cards so we headed to the fifth floor where there were a few tables and chairs. We were all really tired by then but we stayed up together to finish the cards before heading for the seventh floor where we escaped into dreamland.

Day Three (31 January 2013) 

It was the day where we had to leave for the Dwen An Leadership Camp - it was the day where I completely ventured out from my comfort zone. It was the day where I truly started discovering things that has got to do with my leadership journey and the way I do things. 

So all of us were split into four groups - one RI dude and one RGS girl in a group with nine other Taiwan students from various schools in Taiwan. I was placed into Group 4 with Sean. By the way, the place we were at was a church (with dorms) atop a mountain with a breathtaking view and amazing greenery surrounding us. They had so many cherry blossoms and the weather was chilly, but sunny. Firstly, we started of with self introductions within the group and luckily for me, I knew what my star sign was in Chinese (双鱼座 by the way, if you are curious) because we were required to introduce ourselves with our name, our school, our star sign, our co-curricular activity as well as our hobby. We were off to a good start until we had an activity where all of us were supposed to draw a piece of paper and on the paper, there was a question. I barely understood my question - it was one that called for me to talk about my views about global warming. To do that in Mandarin would be completely impossible so I stuttered my way through but it was then did I realize that the Taiwanese students were really understanding and I honestly didn't need to worry about anything at all. 

The rest of the day consisted of workshops by various speakers teaching us the proper ways of interacting with the visually challenged. I used to think that we could simply grab their hands and lead them; little did I know that every small movement that we do with our hands means something to the person you are guiding and it takes a great load of patience and love to do it well. We spent a lot of time with our blindfolds on trying to put ourselves in the shoes of those whom we will be servicing in three days time. I was paired with a really sweet and soft spoken Taiwanese girl, and I had to lead her as she experienced being visually handicapped through dinner. I'm not sure if I did a good job, but she assured me that I did (':  What really impressed me was the fact that the Taiwan students go through so much to empathize with the people whom they are organizing activities for, unlike in Singapore - if we do a Service Learning project, we'd just focus on planning the activities well, much less of how the people we are servicing might feel. This was definitely an important takeaway from the trip.

We also performed the welcome performance that we put together the previous day in the middle of the night and it went pretty well - it was so fun (': 

At night, we had to do reflections within our group and for Sean and myself, it was probably one of the longest reflection sessions that we had to sit through. On that day, I found it really intimidating and scary even, to have to put all my thoughts into a string of fluent Mandarin characters quickly and the facilitators particularly enjoy focusing on the growth of us Singaporeans. Our first reflection session took more than an hour in a stuffy room and to be honest, as it was my first day, I barely got anything out from it - I was too occupied with trying not to sound like a banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) that I realized what I said or thought then had no substance at all.

I was really relieved when it was over, so I quickly showered and headed to my room which I shared with eight other girls, all Taiwanese except for Leirong (: 

Day Four (1 February 2013) 

The beautiful scenery we enjoyed that did nothing to lighten my mood that day. 

Started the morning going through breakfast with my blindfold on because my buddy went through dinner the previous night blindfolded and all of us should understand how it really feels to be visually impaired. It was not too bad, everything relied a lot on trust and my buddy was so caring (': Sean was sitting beside me, also blindfolded, but it made me feel a little less lost - at least I didn't need to converse in Mandarin all the time. 

After breakfast, we listened to a talk by 张志成老师 (Mr Zhang) about Service Learning and it literally gave me a whole new perspective with regards to the things we do back in Singapore, back in RGS. As a House Captain and a prefect, I have had to plan countless school events, both major and minor and most of the time, a common practice amongst us student leaders when we fill in proposal forms is to come up with the activity we would like to carry out before "crapping out" the aims and objectives so that it would sound politically correct with the ultimate aim of it being approved by the teachers so we would get the job done. In Mr Zhang's eyes though, that is not the practice we should be doing - we should do things with the end in mind - we should know why we are planning such activities and not just doing it for the sake of doing it. One of the phrases he said was 要做什么事,就要做最好的 (Whatever you do, it has to be the best you can offer) because if you don't do your best, everything will be pointless and I wholeheartedly agree. The talk he gave us left me (and the other RGS girls as well, if I'm not wrong) with a sinking, empty feeling because I realized how I might have taken what I do for granted sometimes but at the same time, I wasn't sure if I was able to completely change the way I work because in Singapore, everything is about efficiency and the lives we lead leave no time for concentrating on the emotional aspects, but rather just sticking to deadlines. 

Then, we had to be split into different groups to plan the activities for the visually impaired children, something like sub-comms within our entire Dwen An group. Yijing and myself were in Activity Group 1, in charge of planning two and a half hours worth of fun and games for the children. Our group consisted of one other Taiwanese girl and the rest of them were all dudes - it was really intimidating and this was when my day started going downhill.

In the group discussion, all of them were so incredibly passionate about what they were doing that they did not really bother about whether Yijing and myself were able to follow the discussion (this makes them sound really evil but it's honestly not their fault, it's just that all of us were working on a short amount of time and there was no time to lose to stop to ask if group members could follow). So throughout the entire planing duration, I felt so useless, irrelevant and dumb, even. I was unable to aid them in anything, and I felt sort of like a burden - say if someone else took my place, the group might be able to progress faster. 

That night, during reflection session within our original group (Group 4), I couldn't contain myself any longer and started telling my group about how useless I was feeling that day - I was holding back tears so it felt really strange but I'm glad nothing trickled down my cheeks. My group facilitators managed to make me feel a bit better and I was really relieved that I got it off my chest. After the reflection session, when I was walking back to my dorm to grab my bathing stuff, Sean told me that I sounded like I was crying during the reflection session and that was my breaking point - I started to cry because I felt really miserable, as if stuck in some place I didn't even belong in. He was definitely pretty shocked to see me cry, but I told him not to worry and headed to grab my clothes. When I came out though, he was waiting for me - an action that I was  really touched by - and so I told him how was feeling (which definitely made me feel so much better because it was really difficult expressing myself in Mandarin during the reflection session). He didn't really know how to comfort people very well, and I felt really bad for him because he was so shocked and guilty from seeing me cry but thank you for making me feel a lot better that night! :) 

Before I slept that night, I thought about what happened and realized that in Singapore, I am usually taking on the dominant position when doing group work and how I might have overlooked people that felt the same way as I did that day - I might have ignored the people who felt useless or worthless because I was always so work-centred, focused only on completing the task at hand that I might have long forgotten about human relations such as team work and inclusiveness. Putting myself in the weaker position gave me an entirely new perspective on the way I sometimes did things as a student leader - it feels terrible to be in those positions and I must definitely try to avoid such situations when working with other people in future. 

Day Five (2 February 2013) 
The entire day was dedicated to preparation work because the visually impaired children will be joining us the next day and everyone was so committed to making everything perfect. 

My group became so much more inclusive towards Yijing and myself - our group leader Zi Yi somehow became extremely situationally aware and I'm really touched at the way he delegated work to us even though we might not be the best persons for the job. 

That day, we were all really focused at putting the final touches to our activities and I was also really inspired by Zi Yi - I might never be as great a leader as him in the way he made every group member feel like their worthwhile. I find it really difficult to delegate tasks to the people whom I feel aren't the best at it because I like the work I receive to be of the highest standard as it saves a lot of time for both parties. This is one of my major weakness that I face as a student leader - empowering others to act. However, after my experience the previous day, I finally realized how important it is to actually possess that leadership quality.

At night, the facilitators made all of us blindfold ourselves and hold the shoulders of the person in front of us, forming a human train before leading us into the hall. It was such an inspirational moment, with soothing music and the head facilitator talking to us about how we should empathize and how much the activities we plan are going to impact the children the next day. The way they focus so much on the emotional aspects when they do things never fails to impress me, honestly - it felt magical. When we were told to remove our blindfolds, we were greeted  with a large banner featuring the theme of the day camp for the kids which we decided only the previous day. It was incredible how they were able to churn out the banner at such an insane speed.

The banner reads "绿野仙踪奇遇记" which is basically based on the story of The Wizard of Oz.

Seeing the banner truly gave us the energy for the next day - to know that nothing is impossible and that we'd be able to provide an exciting day for the kids coming. 

Day Six (3 February 2013) 
Day of execution - a really exciting day for all of us, we were all filled with energy despite a clear lack of sleep the previous night. Tiffany, Leirong, Ben, Kenny and Jia Ze were all in the comm that partnered with the kids for the entire day so they had to head down the mountains on buses to pick the children up while the rest of us prepared for our individual activities.

The first activity was of course, activity 1 - which is my group and everything went really smoothly! Our games went on with not much of a problem and the kids were really hyped up. When it was time for me to read my story to the children, I sort of stumbled a little and halfway through it, my phone blacked out which left me in a state of panic (of course). Luckily for me, Yijing was beside me and helped me get through it (': 

After our activity was over, I felt so relieved and accomplished - we were free to go around and help any activity and it gave us the opportunity to mingle with the children as well, who were pretty adorable (I normally do not particularly like children) but their positive attitude and spirit is truly infectious. Tiff's kid was really playful, and ran all over the place, not participating in most of the activities but Tiff was so patient with him (': She's so amazing, I will never have that kind of patience to run with the little boy. Although they might be visually impaired, a lot of them are gifted with incredible talents - again this made me think of how fortunate and blessed I should be feeling with the life I have been given. 

The day passed on with few hiccups and when it was time for them to leave, all of us were really reluctant, but I was really glad that the day was over because it has been insanely exhausting. We had a reflection session within our Activity group and during the duration, I was not afraid to share my true feelings at all, no matter how terrible my Mandarin was - so I told Zi Yi how great a leader he was - hopefully my assertion has given him a bit more energy to continue on his amazing journey.

That night, for dinner, the facilitators sprung a surprise on us, ordering a lot of junk/ fast food for us - pizza, fried chicken, bubble tea and carbonated drinks! We were left in the hall without their supervision and it was party time! :D It felt amazing spending time with my new found Taiwan friends (': 

My roommate, group mate and bath buddy! 

My buddy for the first day - we lead each other when we were blindfolded on separate occasions (': 

That night, the reflection session held in our original group (Group 4) was so meaningful, I can't believe how much I've grown throughout my five days at the Dwen An Leadership Camp. But, of course, such growth might just be zilch if I do not practice it in my daily life in Singapore. 

After everyone have settled in their beds, the eight of us sneaked out to write our cards together - there was so much we needed to tell our new found Taiwanese friends before we left the next day but the lethargy we were experiencing did not help at all. We didn't manage to complete the cards so we woke up the next day at 5am to continue it. 

Day Seven (4 February 2013) 
Most of us managed to wake up at 5am, but those who couldn't got a bit of extra help in the form of us going into their individual rooms. We managed to churn out cards for all our group mates as well as facilitators and we looked like pandas as we headed for breakfast - but it was definitely worth it as we really wanted to thank every one of them personally for the hospitality they have shown to us these few days.

When it was finally time to bid farewell, we gave all our cards as well as a Singapore souvenir (a merlion keychain) to each person, hoping that they will remember us and the times we spent together because I, for sure, will remember it. I gave every single one of them a big bear hug and when I got to Zi Yi (he's really really tall by the way), he actually bent down and told me that he's really flattered that I think of him as a good leader and that I've inspired him at the same time as well (no idea how I did that - but Taiwan people are really good at making people feel good!). 

The bus ride to the airport was long and heavy - I cannot believe that I actually teared up when we left the place. We arrived at the wrong airport terminal, but let's save that light hearted story for another day, shall we? :)

I can't believe it's over - it honestly felt like a dream or a fragment of my own imagination.
But it happened.
And I'm so grateful for that. 

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