This August I have spent 2,5 weeks in Taiwan volunteering at the Universiade Taipei 2017. Universiade is a multi-sport event like Olympic Games but, as you might have guessed, organized for university students only. The level of competition is pretty high and they say that the winners of Universiade have around 35% chance of becoming Olympic gold medalists. There were around 150 delegations from all over the world and it was the biggest event of this kind for Taiwan. I have to confess that I really did not know much about Taiwan itself before going there and my only motivation was to take part in the games. I already had experience with the Universiade in Belgrade in 2009 (wow, so long ago) and it was amazing! So I was hoping Taiwan would be fun as well… It turned out I was absolutely right =)
I have applied in September last year online at their website, after a short Skype interview I got an invitation in March of this year. I was not feeling physically well the whole year and had a lot of struggles with my health, so I was really not sure if I would be able to volunteer. But I decided to book my flight to Taipei anyway and hope for the best. In June I have changed my medication and started feeling much better. I was still very fragile but I decided to give it a go. My therapist said that this would be good for me and that I would feel better once I am on vacation and out of the routine. On the 11th of August I took my flight to Taipei and started a new adventure!
The Universiade itself was only supposed to start on the 19th of August, but international volunteers had to complete a compulsory 4 days on-site training beforehand. I tried to skip the training and wrote to the organizers explaining them that I already had enough experience, but they did not let me volunteer without completing the course. In the end it turned out to be exactly as I expected – a waste of time (I wish I traveled around Taiwan instead!), but the good thing was that I got to know the rest of volunteers! Later on we were placed at different venues and we wouldn´t have had this possibility to get to know each other, if it had not been for the first 4 days spent together.
There were a lot of volunteers from different countries, but only few of them were really “international” in terms of newcomers. The vast majority were the volunteers already living in Taiwan (from Latin America, Africa, Asia – mostly studying at local universities). But there were as well some of the “crazy” guys who really came to Taiwan just for the event. Every time later on when I told someone local, that I came to Taiwan just for the Universiade, they were sooo surprised! “Really?! You came just for the event?!?” “Wow” “Thanks for coming!”. That part “thanks for coming” I heard many many times. It felt weird to be appreciated so much, but I will not deny it, it was very flattering =)
After 4 days of training we were ready to start volunteering. Some of us had their shifts every day, others were only scheduled for specific competitions. But we also could specify our days of availability and as far as I know they were all respected. Me, for example, I wanted to work every day except for one weekend, when I had a friend visiting me from Kuala Lumpur. My first place of work was in Athletes’ village at the main reception desk. At first I did not want to work there, because I actually applied to work as an attaché and wanted to be more with the teams and see different competitions. But then I really liked the job! There I could use all the different languages I know while helping people to solve their problems. Sometimes I felt like a super hero hehe 😉
In the very beginning I helped a team from Azerbaijan that could only speak their native language and Russian to pass all the registration formalities. It was very hard and it took us like 5 hours to complete this task. There were some issues that Taiwanese volunteers did not want to take into account and we spent many hours on negotiations and multi-cultural adjustments to arrive to the common ground and get the team registered. In the middle of our heated discussion another Taiwanese girl came to help us – and finally with her assistance we started moving somewhere. Couple of hours more and the team got their accreditation badges. Day later I got an Azerbaijani t-shirt from the guys as a thank you present for helping them.
Here is our savior =)
The thing about Taiwanese, at least how I see it being a foreigner (and Russian) is that they are very strict and respect the rules a lot. Any deviation from the process causes a “full stop”. Any tiny movement out of their responsibility area – full stop. Nothing is decided unless supervisor authorizes it. I come originally from a let’s say “flexible” mentality, so working with the local people was sometimes like hitting the wall. I want to say it now and I will probably repeat it many times later – people in Taiwan are amazing, veryyy nice and veryyy friendly! Very helpful as well! I really have great memories. But searching for alternative solutions and taking initiative is not their strength (again, that is only my point of view and conclusions are based on a relatively short exposure to the culture). What was great about our “savior” is that instead of saying “no, it’s not possible” she suggested other options to try and we could eventually agree on a mutual solution Yeii! You see, there is some hope for Taiwan =)
Once I helped a girl from Domenican Rebublic, who could not enter the Athlete’s Village, because someone else by mistake has taken her accreditation. The guys from security came to our help desk searching for someone who could speak Spanish, so I went with them to help her. It all started again with “no, it’s not possible to enter the village without accreditation”. But after 15-20 minutes of negotiations and going back and forth to the supervisors, we finally managed to get the girl in and provide her with a temporary pass. Another time we helped an Italian coach to find his phone that he left in one of the shuttle busses. We went to transportation desk, then to another transportation desk, they helped us to find the bus, the driver and even sent someone to get the phone from the driver (you see, Taiwanese are very helpful!). The Italian guy was so happy we helped him so fast, that he came back afterwards and gave us Italian pins. Generally, during such sport events everyone is collecting pins from different countries and pins them to their accreditation. The more you have, the better! I am not the one who runs after the pins and tries to get as many as possible (I honestly don’t like it when people come to everyone and ask “do you have pins?” – it becomes annoying very fast) .But receiving pins as a gift from a friend or from someone who is grateful for your help – this is a special thing! I got one more pin from Colombia, because I helped Taekwondo coach who could not speak English to find a way to buy some equipment for the competition. Once I helped a Russian journalist to interview the mayor of the village and later on Turkmenistan delegation – both as always could not speak English and were unable to solve their problems on their own. You see, my life at the reception desk was quite interesting and I really loved my job there.
With the Russian journalist it was a funny story. He actually did not intend to interview anyone (he just wanted to see the village), but there was some misunderstanding and they scheduled an appointment for him with the mayor of the village. As I was the one who helped the journalist to find the press center, they asked me to stay and help interpreting during the interview. They promised it would take only 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes turned into 3 hours as after the interview we went for a walk across the village! I really did not want to do that, I was very tired and my shift already ended! But obviously I could not leave him alone so I made the “press tour” and visited all the facilities in the village with them. Next day I came to Angela, the one who asked me to stay for “15 minutes”, and told her about my 3 extra hours (!!!) and that as of now (as a reimbursement) I would visit her every day in the press center and get free coffee that they had there. Hahaha! The coffee was really good =) Later on couple of times I went to say hi to Angela and enjoyed with her the free coffee and the famous local pineapple cake.
After a couple of days all international volunteers from the Athletes’ village were reassigned to be attachés – that is to assist the delegations with their daily needs. I asked for a Spanish speaking delegation and got Chile. The job is quite fun and if your delegation is nice (mine was) it is one of the best positions. I was accompanying my delegation to different sport events and helped them solving all kinds of issues. I’ve been to athletics, volleyball, basketball and taekwondo with them. It was great to watch the games! Sometimes the job of attaché can be very demanding as well… I know people who had to go to the airport in the middle of the night to pick up the delegation or to stay for the whole night in a hospital, because something happened to the athlete. There are as well some delegations (mainly from developing countries) who are extremely unorganized and unprepared for the event. Their documents are missing, their participation fee is not paid, their delegation arrives later and so on… In such cases the attaches have to sweat a lot (even to the point of nerves breakdown) in order to solve all their problems and get the team ready for competition. Sometimes attaches get very weird requests and questions. Just an example (true story): one guy from one delegation asked where he could buy 100 bulletproof vests. It turns out that they are relatively cheap in Taiwan and a friend of his needed them. Facepalm. =)
One of the greatest things of being an attaché is having an “all access” accreditation. That means you can enter all the venues! You are supposed to be doing that only while being on duty, but normally no one minds if you use it to watch some games as well 🙂 As I love watching sport competitions I went couple of times to support Russian team. I watched volleyball and rhythmic gymnastics.
I have bought some tickets as well (when I did not have the all access yet) and went to see basketball men’s final. It was an amazing game! USA vs Lithuania. The competition was tough, but Lithuania has given it all and became the champion! I was very pleased =)
During the evenings when we did not watch other games we were doing some sightseeing around Taipei. I have to tell you that August is probably the worst time to visit Taiwan: the outside temperatures were unbearable. Every day +33/+35 and very humid! Only when the sun sat down it was somehow possible to move around the streets, even though it was still very hot (+30). My favorite thing was to ride public bicycles. There were many shared bicycle stations across the city and it was so convenient to move around by bike. We went to some food places, night markets, local temples and other attractions. Sometimes we went with some fellow Russian volunteers to just sit outside our dorms on the ground, talk about everything in life and then listen to old Russian pop songs, haha. These were the priceless moments!
I enjoyed my time as a volunteer a lot. Chilean delegation gave us flowers on our last day of work and invited us for lunch – that was so nice of them! The closing ceremony was a bit messed up, but we could enter the stadium with our delegation and the crowd was screaming and welcoming us … unforgettable moment!
I liked Taiwan and Taiwanese people, I would definitely recommend visiting this country! I wish I had more time to travel around the island, they say it has beautiful nature and I hope I can see it one day. I loved the volunteers I met – for me this was the best part of this adventure: talking to people, getting to know them and their life, hanging out together and enjoying the spirit of united international community. Unforgettable!