It was 10 years ago that Hong Kong returned to the mainland. It was also the first time in my life I had gone over-seas. I came to Taiwan, hoping to learn something about myself, and hoping to experience something really different than the life I knew back in Colorado. With very little planning, no ability to speak Chinese, and no idea what to expect, I put the plane ticket on my credit card and came for a few weeks.

At the time, it was a breath-taking experience- the humidity, the Chinese written everywhere, and the rain. It was pouring when I got to the train station. I don’t know how the heck I managed to find a youth hostel, but I did. It was a run-down place named “Happy Family” up on the fifth floor of a concrete building. I must have been quite a sight when I got to the top. A gangly hundred and sixty something pounds, lugging three suitcases, dripping wet and grinning like crazy.

In the hostel I met all sorts of free-spirited people who had abandoned various degree programs or goals to become travelers. There was a bare-chested Canadian guy with long curly hair, who had dropped out of school because he was sick of just reading about anthropology and wanted to see something. There were a pair of Australian girls who were interested in New Age philosophy and wanted to learn something about Chinese traditions. There was a middle-aged American guy who came for a fresh perspective on life after his wife had left him. Dozens of others were just stopping by for a couple of months to fund the next leg of larger travels.

Everything about those weeks I spent here is etched into my memory. What strange, though, is to be able to examine those same memories from my current perspective. I couldn’t understand much Chinese at all then. By necessity, a great deal of my contact was with with the foreigners in the hostel. The area around the train station was torn up for construction and I didn’t know why. At the time I never would have imagined that I’d return to Taiwan six years later, much less still be here now, another four years after that.

I watched the Hong Kong handover on TV then. Seeing it again on Youtube now brought back this wave of nostalgia.

That trip changed my life. There’s no doubt about it. It was my first time going anyplace truly alien. It was the first time I shaved my head (actually the two Australians shaved it for me). It was the first time I went to a bar or a dance club. It was the first time I really got the idea that entire huge places are filled by people speaking a foreign language. If I hadn’t come to Taiwan, there’s no way I would have abandoned my math major for linguistics and then later Japanese.

Related: Former HK Administrator Chris Patten Reflects on the HK Handover (The Guardian)