Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Taiwan: Not Just People and Pollution

Last night my sister arrived from the US. She is the fifth person to make the trek over here. I must say we have had a fair amount of visitors for being so far away, and we have one more (Jonathan's sister) yet to arrive on Friday.

Hosting family and friends in your home in a foreign land is interesting. I am always anxious to see how they will adjust, what things they will find strange, and what things they will love. Will they like the food? Will they enjoy the scenery? Will they wish they went to Europe instead?

Being in an Asian country, even if it's just for vacation, can be both enlightening and frustrating for many people. Granted, Taiwan is relatively westernized, but it's still has some very uniquely Asian and uniquely Taiwan aspects. So Jonathan and I always try our best to make sure our guests find the 24-hour trip around the world (and back again) worth it.

Our first visitors were Jonathan's parents. They came in August during our first summer in Taiwan. At that time, we were still learning the landscape (and the language) and perhaps we over compensated for our unfamiliarity with a slightly overzealous itinerary. We really gave them the Tour de Taiwan, pretty much circling the island and hitting all the major stops on our way. They were scuba certified before they came over (we require it of all visitors!) so we did a lot of diving too. Although we were all quite tired at the end of those two weeks, I think it was a successful trip for all of us, and I think they left Taiwan with a very memorable vacation.

Seven months later my Dad came over for the 2010 Chinese New Year holiday. Again, we pushed him to get the scuba certification, and spent many of our days exploring the sea. We didn't do the full-on island tour this time, because logistically it's just wasn't possible. Chinese New Year vacation is a time of migration for the inhabitants of this small island. People from the north go south, people from the south go north. East goes west, and vice versa, etc... For ten days, the 5th most densely populated country in the world becomes one giant traffic nightmare. So, when we did travel, we traveled at night. And where we did travel, well, we tried to pick the least "famous" of the tourist destinations. Although I don't think the trip was as full-on as my Dad would have liked, he still had a great time and got to be a part of a very important cultural experience in Asia.

For the 2011 Chinese New Year holiday Jonathan's friend Anthony came to visit. This time it was less about sight seeing, and more about adventure. Anthony got his scuba certification during his first days here, and we did a lot of scuba diving in Kending, Green Island, and Xiao Liu Qiu Island. If we weren't under the water we were either biking or hiking. We were busy being active and it was a lot of fun. By not traveling around too much we avoided most of the holiday crowds, but we still managed to give Anthony a good idea of Taiwan as we know it.

While each trip was a little different, I think we did a good job of highlighting Taiwan's beauty for all of our visitors. Most people, when they hear "Taiwan" think of people and pollution. Yes, we do have those things, but there is so much more to Taiwan than that. Taiwan is a beautiful island surrounded by clear blue oceans full of marine life. Taiwan is an extremely mountainous country as well, with it's beautifully green central mountain range, and Jade Mountain (one of the tallest in south east Asia). Taiwan has beautiful beaches, scenic drives, great biking tours, hot springs, and even some city attractions worth seeing.

While I don't know how well my sister will take the July heat, the Chinese food, or the crowds, I do know that she will have an wonderful vacation enjoying the beauty of this island!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The New "Self-Sufficient" Gardener

"Food prices are rising" I see this topic a lot on the internet.

"Why food prices are rising" I don't see this one as much.

Most people who pay attention to what they're paying at the grocery store are aware that it's more than it was a year ago. But do they know why? I was reading through someone's blog post about the increases in food prices, and throughout all of the 40 or 50 comments, no one ever questioned or tried to reason WHY prices are steadily rising. So I thought I should bring it up, it could provoke some interesting conversation. No one replied. No one seemed to care. Fine. I'll do it on my own blog then.

This article I saw on today (courtesy of the economiccollapseblog) not only looks at what specific foods have seen the biggest price hikes, but also has a detailed analysis of what is causing rising prices. In my opinion, this is an important issue to understand. Without properly understanding where the increases are coming from, we cannot begin to understand how to go about finding a solution. Perhaps many feel that this kind of thing is beyond their control, but it really isn't. When we realize that the government's intervention in markets, and it's poor monetary policy, create the inflation that we have, been experiencing, then we can begin pushing for the necessary changes to get our economy back in shape.

But, while we wait for the masses to get on board, we will all have to begin making adjustments to tide us over. I still have another month in the safe-zone, but once we get back to the US we will need to make a serious effort change the way we look at spending money on food:

  • Cook at home. One thing I know we will surely have to get used to is not eating out all the time. We will have to go from eating dinner out 3 or 4 times a week, and lunch out almost everyday, to doing both of those once a week. A lot of money can be saved just by cooking at home though, if you do it right. Buying expensive food, and cooking only enough for one meal probably won't add up to much savings. But planning ahead and preparing things that can be eaten throughout the week is a good way to economize.
  • Minimize grocery expenses. I'm usually pretty good about being price-conscious at the store, so that shouldn't be too much of a problem. But will that be enough? I came across a few websites that are solely dedicated to reducing your grocery store spending, and it's quite amazing what these women save at the store just by putting a little time and effort into their shopping trip. One key is to plan ahead what you'll need for the week, and only buy those things. Having a list or a "menu plan" not only will keep you on track and spending less, but you won't have to spend nearly as much time in the grocery store.
  • Garden. I have never really gardened before, but this is something I am actually looking forward to doing. Not only do I think it will be an interesting task to take on, but if it is successful it could result in a lot of savings on produce. Plus, I know my fruits and vegetables will be clean, inside and out. I will have to do a lot of research and reading to get myself started, and I'll probably start with the book to the right, which I gave my Mom for Christmas.

So, these are some of my plans. Actually, they're the only plans I have so far. So, all suggestions welcome below!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Links, A week in Review

Here are some of my favorites from this past week...

1. I think Ron Paul is great, and I always get excited when great things happen for his campaign. This week Ron Paul won the RLC straw poll by a landslide. Some people of course like to discredit his win with excuses like, "this poll doesn't matter" "he's just not electable" (lamest excuse!) and "oh that's just his fans going out and flooding the poll" But the truth is, he's gaining momentum in a big way. Check out his (great!) speech from the RLC this past Saturday, and judge for yourself.

2. The shirt-skirt, from, is a simple way to turn a thrift store t-shirt into a cute and comfortable summer skirt. Makes me want to get on a sewing machine.

3.12 things the mainstream media is being strangely quiet about right now. A good update on important issues from around the world, that apparently in the eyes of American journalists aren't as noteworthy as the Weiner scandal.

4. Plunder: the use of force to steal goods from someone. Legal Plunder: the legal use of force to steal goods from someone. Are they different?

5. Interesting Ted Talks speech about our (US) food supply, found via my favorite health site WARNING: Do not watch if you like eating corn

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Let the search begin

It's job hunting time!

Well, for Jonathan anyway. I seriously doubt that anyone is really in need of an almost 6 month pregnant woman, so I will refrain from trying to find a job at the moment. I almost think it may be better this way, because if things don't shape up the way we are hoping they do, at least there will only be one discouraged and frustrated person, instead of two. Instead, I can be the "hunter" and "cheerleader", doing my best to alleviate the pressure that comes with looking for a job. Yay!

Although the effort is not going to be maximum at this point, we are beginning to see what's out there, and get a feel for the market. Jonathan has taken the following steps, which I think are a great start in the right direction:
  • upload resume to websites like
  • searching casually for jobs who have the phrase "Chinese language ability a plus" under their requirement section
  • sending in resumes and cover letters for any interesting positions
I have also been spending some of my free time searching the databases, and so far I really like and I'm not really a fan of careerbuilder or monster, because I find their layouts to be so confusing, and they never seem to have quality jobs. It's always some financial services position or account manager. Don't they have enough of those people already?

I have also considered just looking up a list of businesses in the Philly area, and scanning the "Career" section of their websites for any good openings. Or even just sending in a resume and cover letter.

But, it's been so long since either of us have been in the US job market, that I don't know if there is some great new job search engine that we're not utilizing. Or some new method that's all the rage. So here are my questions-

1. Where else should we be searching? And, is there any better website than careerbuilder on which we can post resumes?

2. How are you guys over there looking for jobs these days??

3. And tell us the truth: are there even any to be had??

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Take a number, please

This morning I had my 16 week check-up with the doctor. Naturally, I was excited to go and see how our little one was making out. But at the same time I was not looking forward to spending my entire morning in the waiting room.

Taiwan has National Health Insurance, a single-payer compulsory social insurance plan, which makes it really cheap to see the doctor. But cheap doesn't always mean good, and there are a few aspects of this health care system which I find quite unpleasant. Spending my morning waiting to see the doctor is one of them.

The wait, is in a large part, a result of the "take-a-number" appointment system. Regardless of whether you are a walk-in, or have an "appointment" everyone is given a number. There are no times assigned to these numbers. So if the doctor begins seeing patients at nine (which doesn't often happen) and you are number 8, like I was today, you probably want to get there sometime between 9 and 9:15 so you can sign in and do all of the preliminary things. Of course, like I should have known, by 9:30 the doctor still hadn't called in the first patient. I didn't get in to see him until 10:15. An hour of waiting? Not so bad. I have been, on multiple occasions, waiting to see that doctor for 2 1/2 to 3 hours only to be told to come back after lunch, because he's delivering a baby now.

But I can never figure out what the heck is holding up progress, because if he saw every patient for as little time as he sees me, then he would have all of us done and plenty of time for lunch. This brings me to another issue, and quite an important one, time with the doctor. I always feel like I am being rushed through there. The doctor doesn't spend much time consulting with me before I'm whisked away into the ultrasound room. There we get a little bit more time with him, but I still feel a sense of urgency coming from him. Often he is out the door before Jonathan and I can even think of any questions we might have, and then we're just left sitting there, looking at each other and saying, "uhh, did you get all that?"

I guess when you are in as high demand as he is, things need to go at warp speed. After all, he is a fairly "famous" doctor in Kaohsiung, and I already explained how people flock to famous places. But I think besides being in high demand, there is another issue affecting the speed at which things are done there, and that is patient turnover. When you operate a small hospital where each patient only pays $3 or $4 per visit in addition to whatever is received from the insurance program, you need to have a fairly large number of people coming through daily in order to make it work. Furthermore, doctors may receive bonuses for maintaining a higher patient load. A somewhat funny example of the absurdity of this high turnover system is one of Jonathan's students- a psychiatrist, who has so many patients (for whatever reason) that he can only spend five minutes with each of them. Can you imagine going in for psychiatric counseling and only having 5 minutes with which to untangle your issues??

But some offices employ various techniques to ensure the steady flow of patients. For example, if you have a problem, like an eye infection or some kind of skin rash, some doctors will recommend that you come back every week to have it checked on. Sure, they could just be cautious and concerned, but sometimes I think the number of times they want you to come back and "check-up" is a bit excessive. Another way dentists, for example, get patients to keep coming back is to not address all of the problems in the mouth at once. I have had students here, who have been back to the dentist 2 or 3 times for a routine wisdom teeth removal. Likewise, when I had two cavities needing fillings, the dentist would only fill one of them at a time.

Please do not read this as an attack on doctors here in Taiwan. I know quite a few personally and they are all very dedicated and caring professionals. Even the doctor I am seeing for my prenatal care is still, despite his business practices, a good doctor. But, in my opinion, the constraints of the National Health Insurance policy create a lot of service issues for health care facilities. The doctors, while being very good at what they do, must employ this way of doing business in order to make it profitable for their facility, often resulting in a lower quality of care for the individual.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Cheap Taiwan part 2

In "Cheap Taiwan part 1" I introduced how good we as consumers have it here in Taiwan. But now I want to look at how this system works for those small business owners, who make up such a large part of local business. In fact, our friend Andy who has a great brick-oven pizza shop, is a good example of how free markets help small businessmen succeed.

It began as a small operation out of his home in the suburbs of Kaohsiung. He had a loyal following of pizza lovers, and he offered something different. Many of his cheeses and meats were of the "exotic" kind (well for Kaohsiung anyway) and his customers loved getting a taste of these rare delicacies! Andy had done well enough with his backyard pizza shop that he could fund an operation in the city.

It wasn't much. It kind of resembled a large tent, with a counter in front, a sink, refrigerator, and of course the brick oven. There were two or three tables on the side. It was on the sidewalk of Minghua Rd. Despite it's small size and limited customer capacity, business at this shop was really good, and Andy's Pizza built up a reputation in the neighborhood. So, after a year on the sidewalk, it was time to move on to bigger and better things. Andy got a store front (plus 4 floors, he lives above with his family) on one of the busiest roads in north Kaoshiung, and business has been booming since day one. Lunch and dinner the place is packed. Everyday a crowd of people stands around watching the foreigners making pizza. They probably have about 10 or 12 employees (up from two at the tent), three of whom make pizza. And that's really all they sell too, pizza.

Andy's Brick Oven Pizza

He makes good money now in his "proper" pizza shop, but he probably would have a bit of debt had he not been able to begin his business as a low cost, sort of makeshift operation. These "makeshift" places are what give livelihood to many people here in Taiwan. It's not uncommon to see roadside stands selling snacks or blue pick-up trucks converted into kitchens, and no one found the sidewalk brick oven pizza tent to be strange or bothersome. Sometimes it's even as simple as a table with some homemade food, or fresh produce. It's low cost, so the people working them can keep their daily earnings and have a small income for themselves. Old or young, anyone with the motivation to work can do it. And guess what... you don't see many homeless people here.

"You need money to make money" is a sad but true reality for many entrepreneurs in America. The cost of starting a business is high because you can't just set up a tent on the sidewalk and sell you stuff, you can't park a small stand on the corner with out a permit, and I would be shocked if I ever saw someone use the back of their pick-up truck as a kitchen. There are codes, red tape, and regulations, oh my!

Many people believe these rules are "good" and "protective" even "necessary". But who really benefits from them? Who are they protecting, and when did we stop being able to protect ourselves? The Taiwanese seem to do it just fine, maybe we Americans should think about giving it a try too.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

In a Season-less World

We all know that as we get older time seems to speed up. Days, weeks, and months seem to be gone in the blink of an eye. But when you live in a place where it's summer 9 out of 12 months of the year, time seems to go at warp speed.

The change in seasons seems to divide time up nicely. You can think ahead, "Fall is coming" or "I hope it won't be a long winter"and your idea of time is separated into four distinct periods; you can see more clearly that it's passing. Sure, the seasons can pass fast (usually summer passing the fastest), but at least you can see that it's happening. Here in southern Taiwan it's always summer, and months are gone before you have time to think about it.

I swear it was just yesterday that I was writing "June 1st, 2011" on my whiteboard at school. I was thinking at that time I still had one month before the semester was over. One month before my sister and (hopefully) Jonathan's sister both arrive here for vacation. And two months until we leave. Now, it's June 16 and my sister will be here on the 28th. That is less than two weeks! Of course that is really like 4 seconds Taiwan time, and then it's one month until we leave.

In this case, I am glad that time is going by fast. I cannot wait for the semester to be over, and for our summer camp to start. I am really excited to see my sister (and she is bringing me some goodies!) and Jonathan's sister. Of course I am looking forward to going home, but I'm also not quite ready to leave.

I didn't think it would creep up on me so fast (I should have known better) and I am not really prepared. We have a lot to do, and since we are having visitors our time will be even more limited. Can I somehow make July go in slow motion? I want to enjoy the time with our sisters, but also savor the last few weeks with our friends and family here. I want to spend as much time as I can soaking in the Kending sun. I want to have a big "good-bye" picnic. So many things to do, I just hope we can find the time.

Kending beach

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Cheap Taiwan part 1

I mentioned the rice box in an earlier post, and I want to elaborate on this idea a bit. Rice boxes are the common lunch fare for many, if not most, Taiwanese. They are literally boxes, with a bed of rice, and the meat and vegetables of your choice. Sometimes they come with an egg, and they always come with free soup and tea. We were introduced to them during our first days in Taiwan, and have been rice box eaters ever since.

So what is it about the rice box that is so appealing? I think, first and foremost, it's the price tag. How does a well balanced lunch for $1.75 sound? Granted that's the cheapest one on the block, but I have never seen a rice box cost more than $3.00. Now, many of you may be wondering how in the world it is possible to eat such a great lunch for so little money. I never really thought about it in the beginning, I just paid my $1.75 and happily went on my way. But after time I began noticing that it wasn't just the rice boxes that were such a steal, but many things we bought or services we used were often obscenely cheap.

I started looking at the way day to day business is done here, and I realized that the Taiwanese have a pretty good idea of how free market economics work to bring a good product and a low price. Many restaurants are just the first floor of people's homes, opened up onto the sidewalk. The kitchen is outside, and it's small. There are no rules (that are enforced anyway) about where the sink needs to be, or how many refrigerators someone should have based on business volume. Down the road there is a blue pick up truck selling green onion pancakes off the back. Sometimes it parks here, and sometimes it parks there. Sometimes all the people waiting on their scooters for the pancakes cause a traffic hazard. But nobody complains (or beeps) and the police usually look the other way.

A small local restaurant, kitchen outside

some food and bettlenut stands near my apartment

Want to sell something? Go for it. If there's a demand, you'll be successful. If the people like it, you'll become "famous" and they'll line up in the heat and wait just to get what you have (even if your neighbor sells the same thing). If not, it'll be over fast and maybe you can try your hand at something else. The Taiwanese don't need a government or regulations to protect them from their neighbor's food stand. Even the regulations they do have are only enforced to some degree. They know those people and trust them. They know that someone selling bad food would be shut down due to lack of business (word of mouth is a powerful tool, especially when combined with the internet) faster than a government regulator could even get over there. And they know that the laws of competition will keep the best products coming to them, fresh and delicious.

cake shop (left) noodle shop (right)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Start saying goodbye

Wednesday was the beginning of the end. I had my first "last lesson" with one of my private classes.

Saying goodbye to my private students will be hard. I have quite a few of them, all of which I know very well.

First there's Henry and Andy, my boys. I have been teaching them for about as long as I have been in Taiwan. They were my first private lesson. They're high school aged boys, terribly smart, and speak great English. It is definitely one of the classes I look forward to the most. Their parents also speak perfect English, and are so welcoming and kind. I will miss that family a lot.

Then there is Heather. She is the mother of two of my students in the buxiban, and I have been teaching her for about 2 years. She also speaks English well, and we have developed a close friendship. She is so sweet and thoughtful, always bringing me gifts from her vacations, and little snacks or fruit. She even gave me some of her old maternity clothes! I know her kids well too, I taught them both for long periods. Again, another family I will miss.

Yen and Dee are the two girls who I had my last class with on Wednesday. While I haven't been teaching them for as long as I have the others, we are very close in age and have developed a good relationship. Since our class ended so early, I hope I will get to see them again before I go.

It's hard to not get personal with the private students. After all, sometimes you are going into their home. They are curious about you, and you want to know more about them too. Not to mention, one-on-one or one-on-two conversations would get dry pretty fast if you didn't open up a bit about yourself. I don't know how personal other English teachers get with their private students, perhaps many of them don't...

Either way, it worked well for me. I have developed many good relationships with these people, and I am sure we will stay in touch long after I have left Taiwan.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Not all that bad

Some days at my work are really awesome. Like the day I took the above pictures. That was during our winter break "camp". For the month-long winter holiday, and summer vacation our regularly scheduled English class is put on hold, and we have an English class camp. The classes are smaller, material is more fun, and the idea is just to make sure everyone is having a good time.

Last winter vacation I had one class with only four students, and some of my favorite students too! We did some English work, but I didn't want to bore them too terribly, so we played a lot of games too. One day I brought in the macbook to show them photos from my latest scuba diving adventures, and then we found the Photo Booth. I had never even open the program before, but we soon discovered all of the wacky settings, and my students had a great time taking funny pictures of themselves. Before long we had half of the school waiting to try it, and even my boss got her head in a few shots.

It's days like that one which I know I will miss greatly when it's all over. If I'm ever stuck back in an office somewhere I'm sure at some point I'll ask myself, "Why did I want to quit being and English teacher?"

Monday, June 6, 2011

So, you think you can teach?

For the majority of western foreigners teaching English is the job of choice. Why?

  • High demand, there is practically an English buxiban school on every street
  • Good pay, $20USD or more per hour
  • Nice hours, afternoons and evenings. Who doesn't love sleeping until 12 everyday?
  • No experience necessary, never taught a day in your life? No problem.
  • Easy work (for the most part), just get your lesson plans in order and the Chinese staff will take care of the rest

[Granted some buxibans may not offer all of these great perks, but generally speaking these are some reasons why it's an easy job for foreigners]

So why is it that I'm counting down the days until I'm not an English teacher any more?

Well for one thing, in my opinion it's an exhausting job. Especially when you teach the little ones. Sure, they're cute and fun. But 18 seven year olds who understand very little English can become tiresome. Especially when you're four months pregnant.

I also become easily frustrated with the lack of respect students give English teachers. Now, I don't have any other teaching experience, so I'm not sure if teachers are generally disrespected by their students. But, whenever my students are really acting poorly towards me, I always ask them whether or not they treat their elementary school teachers that way, and they always shamefully shake their heads no. English class (at my school anyway) is not regarded as something very important- just a place to go have fun, and maybe learn a few words. So, I certainly
think that influences the students' attitudes towards the teacher.

But I also believe my being a foreigner plays a part. Most of my students either forget, or don't realize the extent of my Chinese understanding, and therefore think they can take advantage of the language barrier. For those teachers who don't understand any Chinese, well, I don't know how you do it. Then there is the "monkey" aspect. To some degree, there is the expectation that we foreigners are there to put on a show. Or that we're just there for show. And this can extend beyond the walls of the buxiban and onto the street as well. I cannot count how many times I have overheard some parent telling their kids, "look over there, it's a foreigner! Go say 'hello'!" while pointing at me from across the road. I used to try and not let it bother me, always telling myself that maybe they just don't see many foreigners, but that's re
ally not true. Plus it's really widespread throughout society.

After awhile you start feeling like you are a zoo animal..."say hi to the foreigner little Jimmy!"

But it's not all so bad...

Why hasn't your Chinese improved?

After being in Taiwan for one year, we felt our Chinese had improved a lot. Jonathan's parent's were here visiting for two weeks, and judging by our ability to make hotel reservations, order food, and have small conversations with people we met during our vacation we were proud about how far we'd come.

I can't remember clearly at this point how good my Chinese actually was, but it probably wasn't nearly as good as I had thought. But that's the thing with Chinese. After a year's dedicated hard work, and 240 hours in the classroom you really feel as if you've come so far, but the sad reality is you are only 1/8th of the way there.

The struggle with learning Chinese is how many components there are to the language. There are characters instead of an alphabet and words. There are five tones. There is a spoken language and a written language, which sometimes can be used interchangeably. The grammar, luckily, is very basic.

Now, here is something I could not grasp for a long time: there are only 80 sounds in the entire language. And that is where the tones come in, helping to distinguish the word. Let's take the sound "shi" for example. Now, when I type in the sound "shi" I get so many options I can't even count them all. They are all represented by a different character: 是, 時, and 十 all sound like "shi" with only the tones distinguishing their meaning. But, this isn't a good example, because
"時" and "十" actually have the same tone (second tone) so really you have pay attention to the context of whatever conversation you are having to know which one they are saying.

Want to learn Chinese now?

I remember I used to make this chart of the the similar sounding words. Like all the shi's or all the xiang's but there came a point where there were just so many, and I realized that it would be impossible for me to maintain the chart in any useful way. Memorization was the only option.

I won't continue trying to explain how complicated this language is, because it's complicated to explain how complicated it is. Like that?

So back to my progress. I thought I was doing great, making vast improvements. And then we had dinner with aunt May's parents. It's hard to talk to some older people because, here in southern Taiwan, for most of them Taiwanese is their primary language. Of course they can speak and write Chinese too, but their accent is heavily influenced by Taiwanese language, and almost unintelligible to the untrained ear. So at dinner, Jonathan and I struggled to find one or two words, amongst the jibberish, that even resembled what we knew to be Chinese. And at the end of the night, after much failure and almost every sentence needing translation assistance from Paul and May, A-gong (May's father) said, "but you've been studying for a year, why haven't you improved?"

A-gong and I, finally understanding each other

Wow! You can speak Chinese. You are so good!

So, within the confines of our classroom at Wenzao we were gaining confidence, but our real life Chinese still needed a lot of work. Most of our meals were limited to rice boxes, where one only needs to point at the picture and pay, or the few nearby restaurants at which Jonathan's aunt May had translated the menus for us. All in all we had about 5 or 6 places which we were rotating, and they were getting old fast.

rice box

But somehow the people we met and talked to were always praising our Chinese.

"Wow! You can speak Chinese. You are so good!"

"No, no. My Chinese is not good"

"Yes, so good!!"

"No, really..."

Later I found out how to tell them they didn't need to be so "excessive" with their "praises", which in the end only impressed them more. Ay-yah.

But, were they actually impressed or just being nice? At first I wasn't sure, but as I met more and more foreigners who had been living here for years and still couldn't utter basic phrases like, "I want that one" I began to understand why my horrible (albeit new) Chinese skills were wowing the locals.

It is really terrible, and quite embarrassing how many foreigners here cannot speak simple Chinese. Now, I understand it's not an easy language, and many people work a lot and don't have time to take a class. However, when you move to another country you should at least make a small attempt at learning the basic words and phrases you will need, to get by if nothing else.

But how can one even learn, experience, and appreciate the real culture of a foreign land when communication with the natives of that land is so limited? How can people go on living here year after year, eating mostly Western food, socializing with mostly Western people, and not ever really leaving the comfort of their own bubble? Granted, many foreigners here do have Taiwanese friends (or spouses), but not many have Taiwanese friends with whom they only speak Chinese. And therefore, although there is still a link to gaining perspective on a culture, language plays a major role in developing deeper understanding.

For myself anyway, I couldn't imagine living here and not being able to understand what was going on. I think I would probably go mad without the ability for communication.

Have you ever in a situation where you couldn't communicate?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Let's Learn One of the Hardest Languages in the World!

"Why are we learning Chinese?" is a question my husband often asks me after a long night of studying.

Ummm, uhh...

It's hard to answer that question sometimes. Learning Chinese can often be very discouraging, and the amount of time needed to do it well is exhausting. It's a daunting task, and the fruits of your labor aren't always so easy to see. Most people say it takes 8 years of intense study to achieve true fluency, three times longer than most European languages.

So why did we think we would become fluent in three years?

Signing up for the Chinese classes was one of the first things we did upon our arrival in Taiwan. The semester began two weeks later. We could not speak one word of Chinese going into the class, we didn't even have Chinese names. On the first day we already felt behind. Most of our classmates had been living in Taiwan for some time, and had decided to take a class in basic Mandarin. They knew a few phrases, and had names. We didn't even know how to write pinyin.

There was little English used in the class, although our text book had English translations. Some days we left class with hardly any idea of what had been going on for the past two hours, only some indecipherable attempt at writing pinyin in our notebooks. But Jonathan and I made it a point to study every night after he got home from work, which mainly consisted of memorizing characters, and writing them over and over and over again in a workbook until we knew it.

By the end of the semester we could see that our hard work had been paying off. Well, within our class anyway. We certainly passed the level of most of our (Western) classmates were achieving, and could compete with the three Japanese member of the class (they can already basically read and write all of the characters).

But on the street, well that's a different story...

Why Taiwan?

I have been asked this question so many times now, that the answer is practically automated. It's an important one to be answered, and it must be done. But we need to go back, way back, to my first real job out of college.

It had always been my dream to live in Manhattan and have a wonderful career there, so I studied Fashion Merchandising at Philadelphia University, and started my first job in New York City 2 weeks before I was scheduled to graduate. I didn't waste any time in getting myself there, but it also didn't take long before I began questioning my "dream" career. I never thought I would find office life as suffocating as I did, nor did I think I would come to view my job as pointless. By six months into my job, the thought of being there for an indeterminate amount of time scared me. I didn't like the way we treated our Chinese counterparts either, or all of the pressure we put on them over things like back pocket details and thread color. In New York, we went home at six o'clock, but in China they worked day and night over what I considered to be trifles.

Perhaps I could find a job, within my industry, doing something a little bit more meaningful? Maybe if I learned Chinese, I could become involved in improving the position of the workers in China? Or at least have more leverage to find a job I felt passionate about?

I decided to stick it out there for at least a year. Then, in March, much to my surprise and relief the company announced it would be closing it's New York office. I spent the last month at my office making plans for my future. My husband, Jonathan (who was only my boyfriend at the time) had mentioned that his uncle Paul lived in Taiwan, "maybe you could get in touch with him, and go there to learn Chinese?" Hello, Yes! When I told my (mostly) Taiwanese colleagues about this idea, they were delighted, and immediately began helping me research my plans, and even gave me Chinese lessons in our office. Before long, Jonathan was on board too, and we began saving for our big move.

Making a move like that is not something that is done lightly. We spent a lot of planning and A LOT of time convincing our families and friends why this was a good idea. There were times when I thought it wasn't going to happen. Times when I thought that the feat of moving to the other side of the world was just too big. Many people questioned the viability of it. But in the end, our determination to make this change gave us the courage to do it.

The night we left America was sad. Our families went out for a nice dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in New York, Marseille, and then battled heavy traffic in the city on our way to JFK. I don't think I talked much during the car ride from the restaurant to the airport. I was nervous and sad. Am I making the right decision? When will I see my family again? Will Taiwan be anything like what I am expecting? After many tears shed at the terminal, many hugs, and many goodbyes, our families drove away, and we were alone.

And although we were together, there was still a feeling of aloneness. We hadn't even checked our bags, yet I already felt we were on our way. This is it. No turning back.