Ella Gilbertson dreamed of being an exchange student for as long as she can remember. When presented with the opportunity to make her dream a reality for her junior year of high school, the Tualatin High School student assumed she'd be going to a Spanish- or French-speaking country, as these were the languages she had studied in school.
There was just one problem: the exchange program she was participating in, which the Tualatin Rotary Club helps coordinate, already had too many students signed up for European countries, and not enough students interested in Asia.
To help offset the issue, Gilbertson volunteered to live in Taipei, Taiwan, for an entire school year, even though she didn't speak a word of Mandarin — and her first host family didn't speak a word of English.
"They were very eager to help me, and very eager for me to learn Chinese," Gilbertson said about the host family, which was the first of three families she stayed with. "It made for a lot of Google Translate conversations at first, but it helped me to learn the language much faster."
Gilbertson recently returned from her year abroad, and will start her senior year at Tualatin High in the fall. She said she's happy to be back in her hometown — but she's still adjusting to living in quiet Tualatin, after an eye-opening year across the globe.
"It's definitely different from Tualatin," she said about Taipei. "There's a heck of a lot more people in a small space, and that was really different and hard to get used to because it was so loud all the time. But on the other hand, it was super convenient, because I could leave my house and not walk five minutes before I could get whatever I needed."
In addition to the compact city environment, Gilbertson experienced culture shocks that including: using "squatty potties," or drains in the floor, instead of Western toilets; carrying an umbrella with her at all times, rain or shine; and eating many small meals throughout the day.
That last item was a surprise to Gilbertson, who had been told to expect less food in Taiwan than she was accustomed to in America.
"That was not true," Gilbertson said with a laugh, and then explained that while the portions were general smaller in Taiwan, she was constantly being served food as a gesture of hospitality. "It would get to the point where I physically could not eat anymore, and they kept going."
But Gilbertson said she didn't mind, because of favorite foods like Taiwanese shaved ice, served with condensed milk and mango, and "stinky tofu," or fermented fried soybean curd.
"People either love it or they hate it," Gilbertson said, referring to stinky tofu. "I was one of the few that loved it."
While studying abroad, Gilbertson also visited Hong Kong, and a small island off the coast of Japan. These trips were among her favorite experiences, along with the unexpected things, like attending a four-hour lecture on the history of native Taiwanese people that she expected to be boring, and ended up fascinating her.
In fact, when asked what advice she'd give to the students preparing to embark on their own years abroad, Gilbertson said two things: "never say no," and "have as few expectations as possible."
"Going to Taiwan, I knew very little about it, and I think that helped a lot, because I didn't have a lot of preconceived notions," she added.
Now that she's returned, Gilbertson said she feels as if "not much has changed, but at the same time everything has changed."
"I'm still getting used to the lack of buildings and noise and everything," she said. "It's nice to be back with my friends and family and have clean air, but I definitely miss Taiwan."