As part of my exchange semester in Taiwan, I had the opportunity to take part in a semester-long community involvement program known as International Companions for Learning (ICL).
This program provides a platform for primary school students distributed all over Taiwan, rural or urban, to interact with international students and vice versa on a weekly basis as well as a one-off meeting in real life in the city that the primary school resides in. This is an excellent initiative as it is a win-win situation for all parties. It creates international awareness by letting the students be exposed to foreign culture from a young age, especially for a country that is not as international as Singapore. It also allows international students from partner universities like National Taiwan University to interact with a local university student as well as local primary school students, and experience a side of Taiwan that cannot be simply be learned from visiting places of interests, but only through interacting consistently with the locals.
The deliverables for this programme are weekly Skype sessions with the primary school students that span approximately 40 minutes, as well as one of more trips to primary school for a real-life interaction as well as a physical introduction to their school life and culture. For my case, I was assigned to a class of seven students from Tainan Neijiao Elementary School, ranging from 9 to 12 years old, and had the opportunity to head down to Tainan to meet them in person, as well as students from Liu Chiu Elementary School, an offshore island of southern Taiwan.
When I chose Taiwan as a destination for my exchange semester, my intention was not so much for fleeting trips to tourist sights and places, since Taiwan is pretty close to Singapore and is a popular holiday destination so there is no imminent need for such, but to immerse myself into the culture and living environment in Taiwan which can only be experienced through an extended stay. This was a perfect opportunity since I got to learn about how it is like to grow up in the rural or suburban Taiwan from the Taiwanese children, how different education could be from what my perception of primary school education could be. For example, some the students in Tainan have to delve into agriculture and have a school farm for them to practice their classroom knowledge, and their classes consists only about ten students. Primary schools from the aboriginal areas even have lessons on living in the jungle and utilising natural resources. On hindsight, having an exposure to a different education system broadens my perception of what entails primary school education and helps me to think critically about what education encompasses as well as appreciate the education system we have in Singapore.
On one of the weekends, we took a trip down to Tainan to finally meet our kids in person. At the primary school, we watched some performances put up by the kids, such as the lion dance and traditional drums and gave us a hands-on try on it. We had lunch with them and just spent the remaining time continuing our conversations we had over Skype. They also held some activities for us, such as bringing us around their school farm, teaching us traditional games such as the Chinese Diabolo which looks like a yoyo that is played using both hands. It was short but special meet-up with the kids and was heart-breaking when we eventually had to leave, and some of them started crying.