Christian: Backpacks and Blackboards
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Taiwan, etc.
My name is Christian Ekleberry and I am originally a Texas native. I moved to Taiwan in January 2013 after finishing my MA degree from St. Mary’s University in International Relations, focused on sustainable human development. It was my love for writing and exploring new cultures as well as a personal need to change up my own lifestyle that led me to Taipei. Landing into Taipei was the first time I set foot on the Asian continent and I have yet to look back.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
The first year living abroad was met with many questions from people I knew back home. What was I doing? How is Thailand (because many had never heard of Taiwan and kept confusing the two)? How do I survive without knowing the language? And, one of my biggest pet peeves, when are you coming home? It was around that time that I sought out a storytelling platform that would allow me to voice my experiences in a way they could understand. As I settled in to begin writing on Backpacks and Blackboards, I realized I wanted a site beyond just stories. I wanted a place that sought sustainable human development initiatives beyond cultural exchange. I wanted a place where we could all explore what it means to live authentically. Thus, my blogging vision was born.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
Oh gosh! This is a hard question. There are quite a lot of entries I love because they represent the different facets of living abroad and developing in your own skin. I guess I’ll post a few in categories and you can decide which ones would be perfect for you.
Taipei or Travel Essays
- The Taipei Evolution: Taipei is largely ignored on Asian destination scene. It’s an island but its beaches are not those found in Thailand or Bali. It’s cultural but not as taboo or historic as China or Japan. Yet, Taipei has a rich palette to offer a foreigner, especially one that loves to set out on foot.
- The Myanmar Paradox - Birthdays, Breakdowns, & Brainwork: Myanmar, the IT destination of Southeast Asia at the moment. Don’t let those beautiful temple sunsets fool you. George Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’ was not a far stretch from reality. To this day, the image of his ice melting descriptions is etched into my mind. This was one of my most challenging, yet rewarding travels to date.
Authenticity, Expats, & General Lifestyle
- The Last Great Frontier: A case for exploring the self and not just the globe.
- Receiving Value: A look into the areas of our life where we ought to also receive value instead of merely give it.
- Becoming Seasoned in a Year: A short story-driven piece that reflects the simple joys that expats find in unexpected places.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Taiwan differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
Just about everything except McDonald’s and bills are different in Taiwan than in Texas. Personally, I did not have such a tough time transitioning because I am rather adaptable. Also, Taiwanese are very friendly and have a fair amount of English to help assist you. Studying abroad in London during college helped prepare me for using public transportation and living in very small spaces. One aspect that did shake me was what I call ‘pollution.’ Not in the trash sort of way, but the visual and audio stimulations that you get ALL the time. Signs are everywhere and cars, people, pets are moving all around. Noise is nonstop. It took me a long time to adjust to the ‘attack’ on my senses. I wouldn’t dare leave the house without my headphones. Now it’s better, maybe because I’m a bit trained to quickly sort through the mass inputs, but on tiring days, it still all comes rushing in.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Taiwan? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
I was ready for Taiwan mentally. I had just finished my MA and the end of a relationship. I needed a fresh start and anywhere that wasn’t Texas would have worked. Physically, I booked my flight at 4 AM and two weeks later, landed in Asia. I could’ve been more prepared, but when moving abroad, you can only prepare so much. I do wish I would have had more historical background before moving, but talking to my students here and helping them with their school projects has given me some rich insights.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
At the moment, I’m working on my book ‘Skipping Baggage Claim’ and it will hopefully be released in a month or so. I’ll share a small peek into my book for InterNations:
Two weeks after moving to Taipei, I celebrated Valentine’s Day. I was having a charming time and had just finished a lovely dinner and ice cream date. By Taiwanese standards, I was way overdressed in a tight green cocktail dress with a low back and black velvet heels with gold studs. But on this particular night, I just didn’t care about all the looks I was receiving or how many bicyclists would nearly run me over because their inquisitive stares would cause them to veer their bikes straight in my direction. I was too busy talking and enjoying the hum of ice cream sweetness rolling around in my head. I was just about to the bus stop when I went flying through the air. Normally, good Valentine’s dates end with some version of fireworks. Only mine somehow had decided I would be the show.
Being prone to clumsy accidents, I caught myself in a way as to not break or bruise anything other than my ego. Which was now front page news: Foreigner Falls for Taiwan. Everyone at the bus stop was staring at me and a quick side glance told me that everyone in the restaurant over on the side was as well. I collected my shoe from the crack that had stolen it in the first place and laughed off an incredibly embarrassing trip. It would be 10 long minutes waiting for my bus and an even longer time before I had the guts to wear heels in Taipei again.
My move to Taiwan taught me two valuable lessons right off the plane. One: Sometimes starting off with a fall to the face gets the awkwardness over with first so that you can carry on with your life. Add in some extra caution, moments of humbleness, and a second round of ice cream to repair any emotional damage. After that, you know the rest can never be as awkward or humiliating so what else do you have to lose by walking (or dancing) in the streets? The second lesson: When deciding to wear heels in Asia, always taxi directly to and from your destinations.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Taiwan?
- Give yourself time alone to process your new life and to adjust. The first three months seem like an adventure, but when that wears off, you need to find your own stable footing. For me, I enjoy going to the Taipei Botanical Gardens or a small coffee shop to simply be my own best friend.
- Spend a day reading some blogs and literature about Taiwan and its history. It’ll help you understand the people you meet and your new lifestyle just a bit better.
- Go with an open mind; this isn’t the culture and home place you are leaving behind. It does, however, have something to offer to everyone.
How is the expat community in Taiwan? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
Taiwan has a rich diversity of expats and the community is quite close. Although, there has been a large wave of foreigners moving here to teach English and so the community has gotten a bit more scattered than before. Many expats have started groups (Foreign Students in Taiwan- FSIT), community service projects (Animals Taiwan), or holiday-themed events to help connect and share even when away from their homelands. Plus, with the rise of Instagram and other social media venues, connecting with people in your neighborhood has never been easier.
How would you summarize your expat life in Taiwan in a single, catchy sentence?
Living among Taipei’s grey cityscape has helped me color in the dull parts of my lifestyle.