Friday, July 10, 2009

You know you're in a foreign country when...

...the banner ads that in America would advertise a chance to win large amounts of money instead look like this:

...and the "[wo]men at work" signs look like this:

In this post I'll be briefly recapping the past week+, using those and some photos to toss out a bunch of observations along the way. It'll undoubtedly get a bit long, so strap yourselves in. Either that, or skim.

1. News from the Mandarin-Learning Front

In the most recent comment on my blog, my cousin Nick (hey, Nick & Nat!) asked, "are you learning anything," so I'll start with that. On one hand, I've definitely been assimilating a lot of vocab. The pace isn't as crazy as it was in the beginning when I had a lot of new traditional characters to learn, but every weekday I'm adding about 20 characters (listen, speak, recognize, write), and another 5 (just aural/oral) oft-used terms and vocab from my Chinese Moral Tales class. (To be honest, I put very little effort into that class; my main class takes up all of my time.) I'm also becoming much more comfortable with speaking Chinese, even when people answer me in English. On the other hand, I'm still very weak in grammar and sentence patterns; while I can usually understand them when my teachers use them, I don't really have a solid command of what we've covered. Starting today I'm going to be working with Jun Xiang (Raphael, my language exchange partner) on common sentence patterns. Also, I try not to compare but I can't help it: I know from talking to folks that at Princeton in Beijing they're learning about 50 characters a day. I don't know that I could or would want to handle that, but I fear for my relative proficiency when I return to Yale in the fall. Finally, long sentences still blow me out of the water, sometimes even when I can understand every individual word: I feel like my mind's processing everything just a little bit too slowly to string phrase-ideas together at this point and it's very frustrating. In the end, retention is also going to be a big issue, of course; hopefully next year's Chinese class will keep me on my toes in that regard.

All of this being said, it's very difficult to get a fix on how much I'm improving. On my first day here, I could understand only a tiny fraction of what the ticket agent and bus driver were saying; now, I'm speaking briefly every day with the woman who sells me sandwiches for lunch and the owner of the hotpot shop in the night market. But would I really be able to go back and talk to the bus driver? To find out, I'd be willing to spend two hours going back and forth to the airport if I could find the guy, but right now I just don't know; maybe he had a particularly heavy Taiwanese accent that I would still find insurmountable - like Mrs. Zhang, who I still have a lot of difficulty understanding even when she's using words that I should recognize.

By the same token, Zhangs say I've improved a lot, but to be fair I was pretty complacent the first time I came to their house, and Jun Xiang and his brother (Zhi Qing) translated everything. Still, I'm proud that I'm using more Chinese with them each time. On Tuesday during our trip to Danshui, even though Jun Xiang and Zhi Qing were both there, I spent a lot of time trying my best to communicate in Mandarin. But then, of course, I realized just how ridiculous I must look and sound, with my small pinyin dictionary out, trying to talk about swimming to Li Wei and Zhi Qing: Two English-speaking Taiwanese girls, mistaking me for a tourist desperately trying to use his basic Chinese to ask a question of the locals, stopped and asked me (in English) if I was lost. I thought it was funny, and after I explained what had just happened the Zhangs found it especially hilarious, but clearly I still have a long way to go.

One reason why I fear returning to Yale is because I'm learning all traditional characters. Many are similar to the simplified ones that I will need to use to interact with all of mainland China - and Yale. Some change in a standardized way. Some are the same. But there's also a reason why the Taiwanese government body in charge of commerce just began to offer a simplified character version of its entire web site: a lot of very, very different characters that I will essentially have to relearn as I go. In fact, I imagine that somebody, somewhere is going to be very unhappy with me when I take my placement exam (the one that will tell me if I've really done a year's worth of Yale material) and write everything in 繁體子 (complicated characters, written in the same). (Doesn't that character just look ridiculous?! Compare it to 简体字 (simplified characters; written in the same), and you have an idea of what I'll be up against.

So why am I doing it? I'm not all that sure. Being in Taiwan, it seemed like a much more legitimate road to take, and a challenge; simplified characters felt like a cop-out. Also, my one-on-one teacher strongly suggested that I at least learn to read the traditional characters for our lessons, and I really didn't want to be learning to read the same set of words differently than I was learning to write them. And, one day I hope to be able to both read and write using either system. If that doesn't sound like a strong set of reasons, well, I agree. But I'm doing it nonetheless, and we'll have to wait and see how it turns out.

2. Various Good Times

a. This past weekend, David hosted a Fourth of July party for the Yalies (and one Dartmouth alum, named Paul). We bought the most "American" food we could find at 家樂福 (Jialefu, aka Carrefour, a large French chain), which is basically the Costco of Taipei, samples and all. (Taipei does have a Costco, though! It's far from central, but I plan to visit before I leave.) With six floors of everything you can think of: clothing; food; household cleaners; and everything in between. I've bought a pillow, a pair of sandals, a set of chopsticks, and a camera there, to name a few. (The chopsticks are two-part, screw-in metal ones, and make me feel so Taiwanese. Will I be brave enough to use them back home in real life? I'd love to, but that remains to be seen.) The store has a distinctly 台灣味道 (Taiwanese flavor) to it, and it's secretly one of my favorite places, but on July 3 they were really marketing heavily to the American expats in the area. Besides the few shelves of American imports, the management appeared to have developed its marketing strategy with one key fact in mind: "Americans like meat." Observe.

It was a fun little get-together; Jun Xiang came for a bit, and some of us ended up taking some chairs up to the roof, ending our day drinking wine, chatting, and generally spying on the neighborhood. There was too much Yale talk - though Paul at least feigned interest - and it was all in English, but it was great to kick back and relax with people from home.

b. Sunday night: dinner with "friends of the hostel"; Eight Elephants will always have a special place in my heart, I think, and I wish I could work there for a while. It was also Maxime's last day. I'll miss him a lot - he's a really thoughtful guy with an epic French accent and a fantastic sense of humor, and he makes one forget that he's 30. But he's told me that his house in Montreal has a guest room and I'm always welcome, so if I ever get the opportunity and he's not abroad, I'll definitely take him up on that.

c. On Tuesday I went to Danshui with the fam. It's quite a long metro ride (50 minutes?), but I got to talk to this great, friendly guy from Quebec. He seemed to be around 50 years old, and is working here (I've already forgotten at what). He's trying to learn the language - he was listening to recordings on his iPod before we struck up our very brief conversation - and he seemed happier than I was at the fact that I was speaking Chinglish with Jun Xiang et al. I don't know why, but some people just look like folks I want to get to know, and this man did not disappoint.

I wish I had been brave enough to speak to him first, but instead we did that thing that most foreigners do when they meet each other in Taipei: each clearly looked at the other but failed to really acknowledge the other's presence. The thought process goes something like this: "We have very little in common except that we're white." (I've seen very few black people here, and I can't tell which of the Asians are foreigners.) "We would never even talk to each other back in the West. Of course, we do have something in common - we're both foreigners - but what if the other guy actually lives here and speaks fluent Chinese? And should I suddenly be friends with every white foreigner I meet?" By acknowledging the tie between foreigners, I automatically feel like that much more of a stranger here, set apart by choice. Every time Li Wei sees a white person, the running joke is for her to point and says, "Your friend!" - and something inside of me strongly rebels against that characterization. So the other man and I spent most of the train ride in this way, but he was the outgoing one and broke the silence on the way out, a trick that I should really pick up in the next few weeks.

The trip itself was a big event: five of Raphael's friends (one guy and four girls) came along. Judging from the timing and the fact that they didn't seem familiar with his sisters, I'm guessing that one of the main reasons he invited them was because I asked him why I always saw his sister's friends but hadn't met any of his or his brother's. They were pretty fun, but also pretty shy, and right now I think I enjoy hanging out with the sisters' friends more overall. We ate dinner at a nice restaurant (the older Zhangs also came along on this one, and it was their treat), and then went to Bali (across the river) to go bike-riding for a while in the dark. This was also apparently very much centered around me: Li Wei told me with some embarrassment that they remembered me saying I really like to bike. After that we ate and drank a bit more and played some of the games you find in the bigger night markets here. We all collectively failed at ring-tossing, but, in an extension of this ongoing, multi-event "competition" I have with Dai Ling, the handful of target shooting lessons I've had at Yale paid off and I dominated the (actually very easy) BB-gun game. Dai Ling and I are now at 2-1, advantage me; a pull-up contest is next, so I think I might pull into a pretty solid 3-1 lead, but since she's the family's "games guru" and will undoubtedly devise something crazy after that, I won't get my hopes up.

3. English in Taipei

Here are two photos to get us started, both from the same street on the same day:

People in Taipei want to learn English.

However sweeping and general that may sound, it's true. Out of the many buxibans here - "cram schools," or what we might call "private tutoring services" - offer a variety of subjects as a supplement to public education, either after school or during the summer - English is by far the most popular option. Most people unexpectedly know at least a tiny bit of English, even if they're often too embarrassed use it - people like Jun Xiang's mother, or a worker at the hotpot place in the night market. Even Dai Ling and Wen Hui, who will probably never actually have to use English, have a small and haphazard vocabulary that they can use when pressed, even if they can't make sentences; like many people here, they've always vaguely wanted to learn, and will actually be starting lessons this weekend.

Part of it is because English makes up a significant section of the national university entrance exams, which Jun Xiang just took. (From what I gather, they're kind of like the SATs, but much more knowledge-based, and you only get two shots.) Another reason is surely that English is so useful, even for people who don't work for international companies. If a foreigner is trying to find a place to eat in the night market, you'll be much more likely get his business if your menu is in English or you can understand his questions about foods, prices, seats, and the like. But finally, I also think that English is in. The youths here, if they know enough, all want to practice their English with you, or show of for their friends by talking to you; shirts with English writing abound, even if they don't make sense.

It shocked me when Xuan Xuan told me how much she makes an hour as a teaching assistant, correcting papers and teaching a few classes at a buxiban with a 45+ hour work week: 150 NT. That's less than $5 U.S. - though when you account for purchasing power I'd put it closer to $10. Why? Because she doesn't really speak English all that well either; she's certainly not fit to be teaching the language to any but the lowest-level classes. And yet, for the most part, she's all that Taipei's got. With the huge demand and the (relatively) low numbers of native English speakers coming hear to teach, it's no wonder that the average salary for the latter is more than four times Xuan Xuan's - about 650 NT, in fact. Because without foreigners (and oftentimes even with them), an English buxiban is simply part of an endless cycle that's pretty common here: teachers who speak bad English teaching students to speak bad English, perpetuating a Taipei full of youths who speak a little English and adults who have forgotten almost all of it. In many cases that doesn't seem like a big deal, but in those cases it's also clearly a waste of money.

The upshot of all this for me? A few years down the road, it's very possible that I might come back here to live for a while - and teach some English. It's a fantastic city... and after all, I'm a white, pending Yale graduate with previous ESL experience. I just might be able to command 900 NT per hour, or over $25 USD when exchanged - which ain't bad for the recipient of a BA and a liberal arts education.



  1. Ethan!
    It sounds like you're having an extraordinary time over there. I feel obliged to thank you profusely for writing this blog; yours is truly unique insight that I'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Have fun in Taipei, stay well, and be sure to enjoy this life-changing experience. (I know you will.)

  2. "But I'm doing it nonetheless, and we'll have to wait and see how it turns out."

    You'll be fine. A lot of PiB students mention the problem with retention (and that's real), and your work on traditional characters is only going to help you in the long run.

    Also, many a person has started with ESL-type stuff and used it as a foothold to great adventures.