The following post was written by Global Gap Year Fellow Halden Levin.

Dear Reader,

Hello again. Where am I? Let’s begin with this moment. Right now, I am double-masked in a row to myself on a plane to Taiwan. It all seems a bit surreal to be flying; am I floating in a dream or finally flying? Finally flying seems to be the answer. However, as you can guess, getting to this point was not an easy task.

As I mentioned previously, I am a part of both GGYF and the National Security Language Initiative for Youth’s (NSLI-Y) Chinese Academic Year program in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Although my NSLI-Y cohort, composed of nine unique individuals from across the United States, traditionally planned to travel to Taiwan at the end of August/beginning of September in 2020, due to COVID-19, our plans were delayed, and instead, for this past semester, we’ve been engaging in a virtual program with our teachers and language partners at the Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages and our lovely local coordinator named Spring.

Back in November, we were informed that only the NSLI-Y programs in Taiwan would be allowed to travel. This news was bittersweet. As a member of the NSLI-Y cohort learning Chinese in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, this news meant I am able to travel, but NSLI-Y students learning Chinese in China would not be able to travel, and neither would those learning Arabic, Korean, or Russian. If I was informed that my entire year would be virtual, I would be disappointed, but would of course try to make the best of the situation. I can completely understand why those NSLI-Y students were upset, but also understand why the State Department deemed it unsafe to travel to those locations.

This news also meant that many steps needed to be taken to prepare for international travel, even more than during non-pandemic times. In addition to filling out many different forms and documents, we were all required to apply for a visa. In 2018, when I applied for a visa to travel to China, I utilized an express service, which made the visa application process quick and painless. This time around, the visa application process was far from quick and quite far from painless.

After spending multiple hours filling out the online application, I carefully printed and gathered all the necessary documents to send to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Atlanta, GA, which is considered to be one of Taiwan’s de facto embassies in the United States, as Taiwan is not officially recognized as a country by the United States. I sent my application around mid-December through USPS. This was a mistake.

With a lack of resources and need for restructuring, USPS was already struggling before the pandemic, but when COVID hit and then the holiday season came rolling around, packages and letters got stuck in molasses. It took almost two full weeks for my application to get from NC to GA, which normally would only take about 2-3 days, as my package was sent through USPS Priority Mail. After my visa application was received by the TECO office in Atlanta, GA, the Consular Division fairly quickly processed my application, but despite calling and emailing to get some sort of confirmation or understanding of the process, I rarely, if ever, received a reply.

After processed and mailed back to me, my visa took another almost two solid weeks to arrive in my hands, partially due to the election occurring in GA at the time. By the time I received my visa on January 12, we were supposed to travel just 8 days later on January 20. However, the following day, January 13, we were told that our travel plans were delayed by Taiwan’s CDC. I suppose 13 really is an unlucky number; my dad has been trying to convince me for years. Quickly, about a week later, plans changed again, as we were given approval to travel by Taiwan’s CDC.

I believe this yes-and-then-no-and-finally-yes situation occurred in part because of the Lunar New Year on February 12, 2021. Around the Lunar New Year, many Taiwanese living or working elsewhere in the world return to Taiwan to reunite with their families and celebrate one of the most important holidays of the year. Also, there was recently a small outbreak of COVID in Taiwan. Out of an abundance of caution, many Lunar New Year gatherings and celebrations have been canceled. I completely understand and respect Taiwan’s CDC’s decision to delay our travel plans and am incredibly grateful that, even though our travel was delayed again, we were still granted the opportunity to travel to Taiwan.

Our proposed travel date was moved about two weeks from January 20 to February 5. The last week of January and first week of February, I carefully prepared to travel, sober in regard to excitement. After many delays and still many uncertain variables, getting excited about travel became difficult. To ensure we were all safe to travel, as in COVID free, we were all required to quarantine at home for two weeks prior to domestic travel and take a COVID test 7 days before domestic travel. After that, we were required to take a mail-in COVID test within 3 days before traveling to Taiwan; this is a requirement of the Taiwanese government.

After our mail-in COVID test, most individuals in my cohort were booked to fly out two days after. However, there was another sudden change. Apparently, we were not guaranteed results from the mail-in COVID test prior to our international flight. As a result, our implementing organization (iEARN), decided the best course of action was to fly us all over to San Francisco a day early. With only 5 hours until my new departure, I had to finish packing, say goodbye, and head out the door. February 3 was a whirlwind.

The following day, we all took another COVID test and prepared for international travel. As I write this, we are safely traveling to Taiwan with only a few more hours to go. Once we arrive, we will quarantine in individual hotel rooms for two weeks before meeting our host families and beginning in-person Chinese classes. This pandemic has certainly tested my flexibility and taught me to be as prepared as possible and go with the flow. Also, never forget to wear a mask, bring hand sanitizer, and avoid unnecessary physical contact with others.

For a look into the first part of my gap year and continued adventures, please see my website called Little Dragon’s Journey. As a brief overview of my website, there are five main pages:

Blog, Little Dragon’s Podcast, Musing, Culinary Adventures, and Reciprocity.

  1. Blog: This is where I publish blog posts. There are more-or-less daily blog posts from my NSLI-Y experience in 2018 (I engaged in the NSLI-Y Chinese Summer program in 2018), a few post-2018-NSLI-Y-experience ruminations and reflections, and then current 2020-2021 gap year posts/podcast transcripts.
  2. Little Dragon’s Podcast: To allow my blog posts to be more accessible, I created Little Dragon’s Podcast. Every Monday, I post episodes in the pattern of gap year letters, culinary adventure journals, 2018 blog post reflections, and one or two additional episodes based on topics of interest or thoughts/stories I wish to share. Please note, throughout February, I’ve been posting a month’s worth of episodes on Monday to share content I created during the first half of my gap year.
  3. Musing: Here you can access the two Chinese language playlists I created in Spotify, one with more chill tunes and the other with more upbeat music I listen to dance or workout. If you have any suggestions, I’m all ears.
  4. Culinary Adventures: I recently created this page to share pictures of all the different dishes/recipes I’ve tried this year. Each picture shows the date of creation and links to the recipe I used to make such.
  5. Reciprocity: As an NSLI-Y alumna, I am incredibly grateful to this program for the opportunities it has granted me. Through this page, I provide resources relating to NSLI-Y and information on how to continue to be involved with NSLI-Y. I created this page when I was a NSLI-Y Alumni Ambassador last year in 2020.

While in Taiwan, I will try my best to continue to consistently publish thoughtful content. Please go check out Little Dragon’s Journey if any of the above sounds of interest.

Well Wishes,