Archive for June, 2009


Saturday, June 20th, 2009

ICLP provided a sweet clinic that broke down some of the finer points of Chinese phonology. Compared to the other two lectures this week, the turn out was incredibly low. The few of us who did show up moved to the front of the large classroom and circled around the teacher. Since the majority of us were beginner students we got the option of conducting the program in English. We all were in favor of this move. The type of vocabulary required to explain and talk about language (language discussing its own language) would be immense, and I doubt any of us had those types of words. While there were next to no intermediate or above students, I feel that any clinic which seeks to go over the basics is a necessity, not an option. The basics of anything are just as important, if not more so, as the advanced grammatical patterns and sophisticated vocabulary. What good will it do if you know a particularly difficult word yet cannot even begin to pronounce it 100% correctly.

To begin with, I can make a vast majority of the sounds made in Chinese. The problem lies in the accuracy of my sounds. How close am I to a native speaker’s pronunciation of the sound is one of my top concerns. As a class we went and talked about which sounds we had the most difficulty making, mine being the umlaut that you would typically hear in German. Despite whether or not we as a class believed we were pronouncing things correctly, the teacher went through the entire list of possible sounds and taught us exactly how the mouth should move and what muscles were required. I never thought I could get an exercise for my mouth and after three hours of working on it, I felt exhausted! His description of certain sounds being “smiling” sounds really helped me out. English speakers tend not to use the same types of muscles that the Chinese language requires, especially since many of the Chinese sounds are formed at the front of the mouth with a sort of smile. We also went over the correct way of sounding out vowels. The pinyin “E” pronounced kind of like “uh” for instance requires the mouth to open while producing the sound. It’s these types of very, very fine tuning that will take a non-native speaker from good to excellent.

My own descriptions of the training are pretty weak, but over time I do believe I will get better at relating how this all works. I am not trained as a linguist, so my ways of explaining are a touch convoluted!

The next big piece was tones. Tones tend to be the thing that really intimidates non-natives, but the instructor had a great sense of musicality and break down the matter to very precise details. While I knew most of the information being relayed, I didn’t realize that the 3rd tone, normally termed a falling rising tone, is in fact not necessarily supposed to rise. “The little U shape is a liar!” the instructor said emphatically. The apparent rise is meant for emphasis, so if no emphasis is required you can drop the tone and leave it there. The only problem is, wouldn’t it be difficult to distinguish between 3rd (falling-rising) from 4th (falling). The short answer is no. Fourth tone, while a falling tone, has what the instructor calls a “punch” an initial strength that the 3rd tone simply does not have. When saying something that has a falling tone, you start at a much higher pitch and immediately drop to a low “bassy” tone. This punch signals that the tone is 4th and not 3rd. This matter has caused a bit of confusion for me, since now I don’t know how to correctly pronounce the tones with confidence, but muddy waters eventually will become clear again! The fact is, I’d love to do another clinic just like that and take more precise notes to bring back to the States. I still have much more to learn about proper sounds.

“Hooked on Phonics Worked for me!” Why isn’t there a Chinese one?! I felt like I was back to the absolute basic beginner’s blocks trying to stumble through pronunciation. It’s good to iron out wrinkles and step back for a little while. Remember that Chinese consonants are very often slightly to extremely different sounding than English ones. Precision is key! When I have some extra time, I’ll have to put up a guide with some sounds to help iron out the sounds. There’s a really cool website that shows mouth formations that could be helpful.

The Panda has reiterated some recently gained knowledge.


Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

This week has been a sudden adjustment for me. The Inter Chinese Language Program at NTU (wonderfully shortened to ICLP) has been hosting lectures pretty much every morning of this week. All the sudden I have a schedule with set things to do. It is refreshing. The lectures tend to focus on more practical elements of learning Chinese. While they (the talks) were conducted 99% in Chinese, I picked up vital pieces of information as well as interesting questions towards language learning. I’d like to sort of send my thoughts to you concerning the different talks thus far, there is one more planned for Thursday morning covering Mandarin Phonology, which has been a strong interest of mine recently.

As a side note, I have grown highly interested in language pedagogy. I keep wondering what it would take to modify and expand a newly budding Chinese program at my home institution. The process of learning Chinese is demanding, to say the very least. Courses on the subject should reflect that aspect by being more intensive. Let’s face it, Chinese can be more challenging than learning the typical romance language picked up by most undergrads to fulfill gen eds. But! All of that will be an ongoing conversation, because I don’t know if a student has the ability to shake his (or her) fist for a strong Chinese language program. Regardless, it is my personal goal to continue studying the best way I can.

Monday the chief instructor at ICLP held a talk about the usage of dictionaries for studying. She had a good twenty plus books that she felt were the best guides from the Far East 3000 book, which gives details on the 3000 most common characters seen in print media, to more advance books dealing with synonymous words in Chinese. I frankly lacked the vocabulary to understand all of it. I felt surprised to see so many resources available for language learning, especially the level of specificity that some of the books go to. Functional words, synonyms, near synonyms, measure words, etc. The ICLP library has all sorts of books upon books explaining the etymology of a specific character and then some. A dictionary can certainly be your best friend, and already my 3000 guide has been enormously helpful as it offers the word, plus stroke order (the number of strokes and how the character is written), and some words that it can be commonly seen in and combined with. I really want to get my hands on some of the dictionaries and build up a collection for my own reference. Sure, right now the books won’t be super useful, however later on I can certainly see them being put to good use. The advantage of buying now is that the books won’t be any cheaper than buying them here. Some of those dictionaries are very hard to come by. Let’s face it most bookstores don’t carry pure academic texts. Even a “history” section feels much more sensationalized for a non-history audience. The language books experience similar issues. It’s all about how to pick up the speaking quickly, not effectively, or the dummy’s guide to Chinese. These aren’t reference books, they are for people who want a quick preview and not a full understanding. Imagine if someone had a Dummy’s guide to surgery, and that was all they ever read! Would you trust that person? Who gave them their license anyway? Granted, language training isn’t rocket surgery, but if you want to speak a language well you have got to have good exposure and a strong vocabulary.

An interesting turn in the conversation was towards the usage of internet resources. ICLP has taken some serious time to get to know what is out there on the web for people to use. So they found loads of dictionaries and a website that will annotate a chinese text for you. This isn’t the same thing as translation mind you! The program, found at marks each word and gives a definition and an explanation of what the word is doing in the sentence. Give it a whirl, look up a chinese newspaper and copy/paste a sentence. The really good stuff seems to be useful once you can use Chinese words to define Chinese words. All of the sudden your definitions become deeper and more nuanced, which for language is 100% necessary. Chinese isn’t all “Nihao ma”. What really caught my eye was a program called MyCT (my chinese tutor). You can pick up a subscription and take a crack at the online lessons which have been specifically tailored by ICLP. It has some great functions and has a sort of choose your own adventure style to how you can respond to other people’s comments within a dialogue. My favorite function is its feedback. When you record yourself copying the dialogue, it will give you a grade and suggestions to correct your tones, rhythm, and pronunciation. All that being said, I take beef with the fact that it only works on the PC… Regardless the program comes with a host of good lessons and can be taken at whatever pace is good for you. While I don’t believe it would totally supplement straight up training from a structured language course and lacks the ability to give full feedback (as compared to a live instructor) it makes for a wonderful substitute.

I’ll have to post up the list of good dictionaries later. The list is pretty extensive, but hopefully I will be whittling it down later (wish list coming soon to a computer near you!!)

Tuesday’s lecture had two sections, the first in Chinese by one of the instructors and the other by a grad student. Both talks focused on the tough matter of Chinese Characters. In all reality the acquisition of characters has to be one of the most frustrating and depressing tasks in learning the language. There is no royal road to learning the characters beyond doing the grunt work of constantly practicing stroke orders. However, there is some method to the madness and characters have structure and clues for the learner to pick up both sound and meaning. Understanding the nature of characters can immensely help with the learning process. The second speaker stated it beautifully “sitting there and writing the character and making the sound is just self-defeating.” If we can come to grips with the characters, we can make some definitive progress. I have heard a great deal of mixed reviews concerning the purpose and effectiveness of learning radicals. Radicals, just to fill in, are a component of a complex character that is helpful for finding the words in dictionary and also to understanding a character’s definition (sometimes).

The problem is, as one speaker stated, the radicals don’t give you a clue to the sound. Here’s the thing the thing with learning Chinese: You have a character let’s say (to use a simple example) 女, not only do you have to be able to recognize and write the character, you also have to remember a sound and definition. The character is pronounced nu (and has 3rd tone which is the falling rising tone), it means woman. Now, that character can be seen in 媽媽,姐姐,妹妹. All of these characters are family relations (Mom, Older sister, younger sister). The character for woman clues us into the fact that each of these deals with a woman. The problem is none of these are pronounced with anything resembling the sound “nu”. We’d have no idea what it sounds like. This is kind of the big deal and makes memorization a headache. How do you link sound, shape, and meaning. And then do that a couple of thousand times for all the different characters? There have been a number of different approaches, but I think it is a highly personalized thing. What works best for you? I’m not entirely satisfied with that answer. It feels very empty and not at all well explored. I found a blog post discussing an apparently popular book for memorizing characters. I wouldn’t mind at least checking the book out to see how useful it really is. Thoughts?

Since this post is bordering on being too long, I’ll wrap up by asking all the Chinese language students: how do you memorize characters?

The Panda has Pondered.

The BoPoMoFo

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

Bopomofo isn’t just some crazy sounds that we can make to entertain our guests at a party. No! Much more than that it is a way of studying the pronunciation of Chinese characters. A cautionary note: this is not the typical way of studying in Mainland China and USA. Taiwan is the primary place to pick up this system, and I personally feel it has much more potential than learning pinyin, a romanization of the sounds made in Chinese. While pinyin is a wildly popular system with wide spread use, this form of spelling comes with drawbacks. Pinyin keeps the student working with English letters. Take for example: You want to learn how to greet people in Chinese. Well, the characters for that are 你好. But how would you know what sound these characters make, granted you probably already know. The pinyin system spells it out for you like this: Ni hao. It will also have tone markings on top of certain vowels, which are considered finals in Chinese grammar.

As a side note Chinese sounds, if I have this right, are monosyllabic, but one can divide each sound into two pieces, the initial and final. Initials=consonants; Finals=vowels, normally. Thus, English speakers generally pick up the sound system very quickly. The letters zh, q, x, and r throw people for a loop, as they are not pronounced in a normal way. Zh is said more like a J, the book Integrated Chinese gives a good example of the J in Jeep. Oh but wait there is another j as well…hmmm. Even with these minor hang ups pinyin looks great. However, I feel that it is a flawed way of learning.

Good pronunciation in Chinese is hard to come by for Westerners. They tend to stumble a lot in this area, and clear distinct words are absolutely vital in communicating with Chinese, not even touching the idea of misuse of tones. Pinyin keeps the English speaker still in the English system of letters. In my Chinese classes, if I hadn’t studied my characters well enough I could always rely on the other side of the page from such and such dialogue to have the pinyin that I could fumble my way through. That’s the key issue here, fumbling. We have to stop fumbling through pronunciation and get a good handle on how to speak properly. Spelling is also the other issue at work here. For instance the capital city of Taiwan is Taipei (台北). The second character does not have a “p” sound but a “b” one, as it is the character for the word “north” as we also see in the city named Beijing. How do we spell and say things 100% accurately?

While here in Taiwan I’ve heard from several native speakers that their system of learning characters provides a much better foundation for speaking. It’s called the bopomofo system or sometimes will be shorted to MPS for Mandarin Phonetic System. As children we all learned English through phonetics. Who can forget the cheesy ads “Hooked on Phonics worked for me!” But all jokes aside, learning the characters phonetically seems like a great option that should at least be introduced to students taking a Chinese course, although most courses are geared towards traveling to/doing business with Beijing. Over the past few days I have been working really hard at getting this system down. What they do is create another set of symbols each representing a sound. The first set is for consonants (initials), and each have a final that goes with it. That might sound weird but think about how we represent the second letter of the English alphabet “B” well it isn’t just “B” now is it? It is actually pronounced “Be”. Same thing here. So while people might say “Oh them Chinese don’t be havin’ no alphabet.” Well, yes and no. So what do these symbols look like, and how are they used to teach character pronunciation? Wonderful questions. Toujia Elementary School provides a wonderful sample photo for us to work from:

BopomofoOkay so the photo isn’t huge, but I didn’t have a large size and the full size will just take up the entire screen. I don’t like that, so there! Alright, in this picture we have large characters in black. To the right of each character are some pink symbols. The pink symbols stand for the individual sounds made by that character. The top left in the pinyin would be spelt zhi with a U shape on top of the i it means paper. The one below that is wen. Bopomofo gives you ever individual sound so there is absolutely no mistaking how it should sound. It takes a bit of practice, but after a while you get the hang of the spelling system and can not rely on pinyin so much. The first symbol will almost always be an initial, unless it has the symbol for “w” and “i” which is pronounced like an “e”. Next it will have a symbol for a final vowel or set of vowels. Finally you will see a tone marking which lets us know which tone is used for the character. TONES ARE IMPORTANT!! I can’t stress enough how important correct tones are. If you want a good example of how messing up tones completely changes the meaning, please see a youtube video entitled, cao ni ma.

I personally feel like pinyin with its english looking letters can be a bit of a crutch for beginning students. The only problem now is that many people use pinyin on the computer to type characters online. I have seen plenty of computers around Taiwan that have the phonetic symbols on the keys, not to mention that they are on the majority of cell phones for texting. Regardless of whether you are using pinyin or MPS, the real trick is getting off either system by memorizing the sounds are relying on your memory of the character. Everyone in Taiwan seems able to do it! If pinyin is so easy, why don’t the Chinese just discard the characters? It could happen, but I highly doubt it. The usage of characters is absolutely essential, and a wealth of meaning as well as history would be tossed into the gutter with their disuse.

If you want to try out the MPS (bopomofo or zhuyin) check out this website. It has each of the initials, all of which are clickable to listen to an accompanying audio file. Go technology!

The Panda Learned a Good Lesson.

Purpose of Travel?

Saturday, June 13th, 2009

Taipei offers so much in the way of study opportunities, that I often have to concentrate on my purpose for being on the island. The fact is that there are many things to learn and research here. The National Central Library across from Chiang Kai-shek memorial (or at least what it is known as for now) has all sorts of reading materials locked in its halls for anyone interested in looking into Sinology dissertations. On one of the uppermost floors is a whole collection dating back to the late 1800s, all about Asian topics. I will state, tangentially, that the library does not allow for books to be checked out. It makes sense since you want all the materials available around the clock, but still it is a major bummer. The fact that so many resources sit just a few metro stops away from me, gets me highly distracted. All of those dissertations are written in English, and what am I here for? Right, that tends to be one of life’s “Big Questions”, however my question focuses much more on a short term goal. My stay should be devoted to language study.

The struggle produced an interesting question. Do we have to gear our study abroad to language learning vs. special topic research? The fact that I felt literally torn over either hitting the Chinese Language books or research interests me. Is it possible to do both items at the same time? How can we make studying abroad effectively meet students’ needs? I personally sit in a difficult position. I am fairly new to the language of the country I chose to study in. This means that I really can’t function in society beyond a highly nominal level. It translates to me needing more separate time to study out the language and then bring it onto the streets. This summer it seems many students sit on that level. Most of us studied Chinese for two semesters but have next to no skill or ability to fluidly communicate. Now say if I came here with much more solid skills. The entire playing field would shift and I could focus on researching things, using Chinese works as a way of honing my language even further. Students who are looking to study abroad should seriously consider their reasons for doing such. Factoring those reasons can narrow down the locations and institutions from their pool of choices.

The story turns out that I popped over to Da’an Park (大安公園*) to study Chinese sitting on a bench and keeping another eye on the dark clouds rolling in overhead. It was probably the better decision. I picked up a dictionary recently with the 3,000 most common characters needed to read and and understand print media. Considering the daunting task of that many characters, I figured I’d handle it by systematically studying 10 characters a day. Sure, I probably won’t even be able to stick to that kind of rigid schedule, but at least a time table is there right? : P My purpose for being here is language instruction. It means that I need to spend the majority of my time diligently studying and tacking advantage of the practice field I have surrounding me. Perhaps when going abroad next year my abilities will make my purposes a little more flexible. But if I want the language I have to work at it! I read about a doctorate student that literally studied over dictionaries two years straight, sometimes having to look at an entry time and time again to get it right. Chinese is not a language for the weak at heart.

While at Da’an a woman directed me towards the Taipei Public Library. I picked up another library card and can now actually check out books and access a free study space. 太好了! I’ll ask again, has anyone else used Children’s books to be able to read with a basic vocabulary?

The Panda asked!

*Thanks to a new reader for catching my error with this character!–corrected June 15.09

Money Money

Friday, June 12th, 2009

I’ve been getting used to the prices here in Taipei and also the exchange from US dollars to Taiwanese Dollars (which gets reduced to either TWD or NT). When I first got here I brought some money in foreign currency (USD) and then a hefty chunk in travelers cheques. Normally the cheques have the advantage of being used and accepted practically everywhere, but this is sort of a misnomer in my opinion. The traveler’s cheque works great for some of the more pricey digs you can visit, but most of the locals businesses here in Taipei don’t seem to take this as a legitimate form of currency. Your best bet is to go to a bank and get most of them exchanged for the local currency. I wouldn’t suggest you change the whole batch over because it is never safe to carry around large sums of money…people have a sixth sense for Americans roaming around aimlessly with cash. The advantage to a traveler’s cheque? If you happen to lose the cheque or it gets stolen, you have a receipt number that accompanies the cheques and acts as your account with whoever you got the cheques through. American Express tends to be the most popular from what I’ve heard. So, something happens and you can call in to American Express and declare the cheques stolen and get your money back. The problem with that system is that a whole market of “losing” checks has sprung around this system.

According to Lonely Planet, a very reliable traveler’s guide that serves a wide audience and has suggestions for almost every country and travel destination, travelers using debit/credit cards will have no problem in Taiwan. The fact is though that this statement should not just be accepted without checking with your personal bank. I myself cannot access my bank account with my check card. This came as a very serious and devastating realization, suddenly I was very much so disconnected to some of my major resources and funds while abroad. If you look at your card it will have some logos on it. For the states the normal ones are Visa and Plus. These two groups, Plus in particular, mean that the card has the capability to be used abroad. Plus for instance is a money network that functions globally. However, I have learned that sometimes a bank will issue a specific card that has the ability to be used abroad, or the card has to be activated to do that function. All of this is to say, don’t assume that your bank will provide you access to your funds while abroad. I didn’t bother to check out that information, because everything I read told me it would not be a problem. It never hurts to investigate for yourself. That type of behavior should be the default, check and re-check with your bank. Once you get it cleared, you can use your card just about anywhere, 7-11, higher end restaurants etc.

So how am I handling the issue? Well, I have been very thrifty since I came to Taiwan, for starters. Things here can be very cheap, depending on what you get. For instance, I went to a bakery and picked up a decent lunch meal for the equivalent of 2 USD. That’s not bad at all. But then again, I’m not the type of person that has an obsession to do touristy things. I just don’t find the guided view of a country to be enjoyable. The second thing I have done is check into using Western Union as a way of getting a hold of funds from abroad. I haven’t had to use it yet, but this seems like a highly acceptable alternative to direct access to my account. If that option works for you, then go for it, but having a card with access is always the better way to go. You simply have far more control than any other method available.

On the matter of exchanging money. Many banks charge a fee for the exchange. So it is normally recommended that you exchange large chunks rather than a series of smaller amounts. You’ll lose more money with the second method.

Alright, that’s it for my ranting! The bottom line is that you should always check and double check.

The Panda Has Mused.

Language Books

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

I visited a gem of a bookstore hidden within the confines of an apartment building off of Jinzhang st. here in Taipei. To be completely honest, I gave up looking when I first tried and came back to my apartment to look up the address, again. Anyway I got there! It’s quite an amazing place that is literally filled with amazing books that can be found in closets and sinks. Rumor has it that all of the serious academics shop here. Well, given my poor reading skills I picked up a new dictionary that goes alongside the Far East Everyday Chinese series. It has the 3000 most common characters seen in print media, good place to start indeed.

The dictionary purchase and an upcoming placement exam at ICLP got me thinking about reading materials for language students. I had talked to a young man living at the hostel I used to stay at called the Chocolate Box Backpacker. He has three almost four languages under his belt and stated that learning German as a first language made his life easier, “It would have taken forever to pick it up later on in life.” The language skills of a child? Isn’t that where most 100 level students (myself included) sit at? We can’t really read any material and have very small vocabularies at best, at worst we are mostly speechless and just know how to make the sounds. Given the child like abilities, I’ve been considering the possibility of actually looking into purchasing some children’s books in Mandarin. How are kids in China/Taiwan being taught their own language? I think it might prove to be more valuable than you realize. The advantage is that grammatical concepts would be introduced in a very easy way, possibly using the native language to describe the grammar, which has the potential up of getting you able to explain concepts in Chinese. The immediately obvious downside is the type of vocabulary may not be at all what say a marketing expert needs to get by.

When there are tons and tons of language books flooding a market, how do you know which book is the right one? I used to think Integrated Chinese, a standard in lots of universities, was the best choice. However my introduction to other textbooks has shifted my paradigm away from a course taught completely out of one text. What are your thoughts? How would you go about teaching a language course that creates well rounded students with a solid handle on not only vocabulary but also grammar? Is my interest in Chinese children books absurd?

The Art of Strokes

Monday, June 8th, 2009

I had never given much thought to the types of strokes I was using when creating chinese characters (hanzi, 漢子). Typically I looked at a character and just tried to figure it out. If the line had a certain type of squiggle, I would be sure to just remember that exact line and copy it in the future. Over the past day or so, I have grown very conscious of the types of lines that are used to create the characters. While the Integrated series used at Mary Washington does cover these strokes, it is more of a footnote than other books. But I now know the names of each basic stroke. It honestly helps to decipher a character as well as write each line correctly. I remember having some trouble throughout my first two semesters in Chinese distinguishing which direction to draw a stroke, did that go from top right bottom left? Or bottom left to top right? Does it even matter?

To beginners, as far as I can tell, the stroke order and direction of said strokes are all the same. I do a very basic exercise now where I look at a character and as I draw it, say each stroke I am drawing. This is particularly helpful when learning traditional characters. For those not in the know, which is a lot of us, there are essentially two sets of 漢子, traditional and simplified. Simplified characters can be found predominantly on mainland China, particularly around Beijing. The Chinese government took some of the more complicated characters and either slightly modified, overhauled, or ditched them in order to expedite the written learning within their borders. However this can get really difficult when the two sets sometimes do not match at all. What do you do when your histories are in traditional but you only read simplified? I don’t know if there is an answer to that question yet. Turning to traditional, these characters can be wildly complex looking to new students (新學生, xin xuesheng). If the mainland (zhongguo 中國) is writing simplified, who is doing traditional? Well, surprisingly a great number! If you go into any Chinatown across the states you will see that all the signs read in traditional and these complex symbols are the mainstay in Taiwan. In response to my new surroundings and with the ICLP’s placement exam approaching, I have been digging into the traditional characters. A familiarity with both are essential, especially if you are doing work with written material that pre-dates all these changes.

So the strokes! Well, I’m not entirely certain how to write them into a word press blog, but we can do this: check out this website’s guide to strokes. While the links are pretty much all outdated, it still offers all the information, including some stuff about components and stroke order. I have rediscovered the basics for myself. One day knowing the name of the strokes probably won’t matter, but by then it will be internalized, so I’ll still be carrying it around with me, I just won’t know it!

I’ve also been looking at the bopomofo system. You can look it up on wikipedia, if you are super curious, but I would like to talk about that later in a larger discussion of different systems representing the sounds that each 漢子 makes. Okay!

Panda Signing Off

But Does It Feel Foreign?

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

A lot could be written about what Taipei is like, and honestly I will get there sooner or later, or even just throw up some photos and allow you, dear reader, to “oooo” and “ah” all over them like a monsoon. To be honest, that just really doesn’t interest me. I like having a more narrowed topic and filling in the gaps here and there. That can be a rant for another day.

While walking around Taipei, I have to remind myself that I am in a foreign country. Sounds strange? On the other side of the globe from my home state of Virginia, where when it is day here, it’s night over there. I roam about the city at moments forgetting just exactly where I am in correspondence to the world around me. As an anthropology major, the phenomena has gotten my brain firing off all sorts of ideas and hypotheses. The problem: I am not experiencing the wonderment of another country. Rather, I have found a strange sense of familiarity with the tall buildings, mostly unreadable signs, and clean, slick looking subways. Even the surgical masks that a few Taiwanese wear does not affect me. Yet, that comes across as a floating feeling, like a dream where everything around you is familiar, and like most dreams there is a moment where you wake up.

The moments of awakened realization typically come when a barrier arises between my integrating with the surroundings and myself. These instances can be anywhere from mildly amusing to fairly jarring. Getting a hold of cash–which will be another post for tips–or having to deal with some administrative process that involves my passport tend to be the thing that breaks the fourth wall and sets me aright. I’m not a Taiwanese citizen and my stay here is a privilege and temporary at that. An administrative barrier then brings my mind to dealing with the consulate to get my visa etc. etc. My first week, despite those encounters, has led me to believe that the rest of the summer should go by smoothly. I’ve grown very familiar with the subway system and think nothing of crowding in with a bunch of other people, holding on to the white handles hanging from a bar near the ceiling of the train. Also, BIG NEWS, I got my hands on a room in an apartment suite by my third morning in Taipei. A living space that is officially mine, not a hostel or a hotel, really gave me a sense of ownership. Couple that with obtaining a library card from Taiwan National Library by day four, you get the sense that I have, in a short period of time, integrated myself with the surroundings.

Until I look in the mirror or a young child points at me frantically. I’m sure the kid had seen a foreigner before, Taipei attracts a lot of Western Business men, especially those who work in technology fields, then of course there is the over saturated English teaching market, which young adults held as the “free” ticket to a foreign country for a year or more. The fact: long hair, beard, piercings, and white. I stand out like a zebra in a pony herd. Sure we all have four legs and what have you but I’ve got crazy stripes that demarcate me. I’ve mentioned integration. The key word, as seen above, is surroundings. I’m comfortable with the environment. What has yet to happen is an overall blending in with the people. Beyond not being Chinese, which really is not the matter being discussed at all anyway, I don’t speak Chinese well at all.

Having completed one year of Chinese at the University of Mary Washington, and coming out near the top of my class, I felt somewhat confident in my communication skills. Well, that has been utterly shattered, as well as my belief in the Integrated series being a superior set of books. While I still feel they are good, it isn’t the best out there. Chinese at Mary Washington is a budding project, yet the school has given this language very little attention. Three classes a week, only equaling up to a few hours, does not, and could never provide, the type of language training required to be proficient. Granted the 101’s of many language classes in the states only meets for that long. If the university expects the program to develop, mind you the interest is there on the part of the students, it needs to- absolutely needs to- be opened up to a full week class. If money is the issue, funnel more cash into it. A recession is happening, money is tight, but a great deal of success can be had out of a good and solid Chinese program! –I’ll stop thumping on my pulpit now.

Either way, my language skills are very week. Classes have yet to begin, and the placement test is literally right around the corner. I spent most of Sunday working on some of the new material I picked up at an amazing 24 hour bookstore!! Maybe over the next few weeks I will get better, but ten weeks is not enough time to do that. For now, it is time to keep working, looking towards the future.

The Panda has Mused.

First Day Crazies

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

I have definitively arrived in a foreign country where no one knows who I am. Sounds horrific to say, but it is actually very nice. I finally am in Taiwan and somewhat settled in at a hostel located near Roosevelt Road. I have to admit that I don’t have a very proficient way of starting this post. What do you talk about when you first get to a place?


Maybe, who knows, one day someone will stumble upon good old Panda Musings and require my help making their way to Formosa. If that is the case, and I shall write as if it were, then let me begin with all of the departure madness. I tend to want to spend less and therefore have to go through some inconvenience to get around. My line of reasoning: I am a young college student who has more time and less money, and if time is money than I’m filthy rich! TIP: when a flight booking website like expedia sends you tickets, you still have to go to the desk to get the real ticket. It might seem obvious to you, but I felt hunky dory waiting in line to pass through security only to find out…I had to start over. Also, I had ot wait a long while to find someone who could help me get my tickets, apparently I was an anomaly that day. So, my flight from Dulles was less than awesome. For whatever reason everyone and their grandmother wanted to get back to LA on a Monday night–which was great for me since it gave me all sorts of victims to talk to. The flight attendants packed us all into this metal canister that was about to hurl itself into the air and move across the continental US. It wasn’t all bad I got seated next to a nice family who would occasionally say hello but didn’t seem to interested in chatting for long. United Airlines, despite having a better reputation than a smaller company I normally use called Airtran, weren’t very friendly at all. Sure, it is a packed flight, but come on lighten up a little!

I rolled out of LAX completely lost and needing to find out where the International portion of the airport was hiding. This should have been fairly easy to do, but a lack of good signage makes for a very difficult time. I had assumed that the airport was just one giant complex, not knowing that I needed to hop on a bus that traveled around the port. I tried walking to the baggage claim section of the United Airlines, but an middle aged worker stopped me and redirected me to a back way to quickly reach the outside. I walked through security in the opposite direction at a lightning trot to avoid any awkward questions and reached my exit point:

The Sketch

The Sketch

As of this writing: you have to wait for Bus No. 2, you’ll see a Blue Sign that reads something like, “Airport transfer”. I bumped into a group of travelers going off to China while on the bus. I’ve noticed that I am sort of an odd man out traveling alone like this. I take a little bit of reckless pride in taking on a challenge solo, but it certainly has its disadvantages I am certain of that.

I hopped on Malaysia Air for my flight to Taipei. A young guy, recent high school grad from Utah, talked to me about his time in Taiwan, apparently his family used to live there (here). We talked about popular teenage trends, but he seemed pretty disillusioned, “Taipei is boring…” perspective is key. We board the mega plane, a huge Boeing 747, I had never been on a plane so big in my life. The flight, being 13+ hours gave me a lot of time to sleep and think. The airline provided juice, water and two meals, both of which were very tasty! Crossing over the island, I felt my heart leap as I realized a startling truth “S***, I’m in a foreign country!” However, the airport–TPE– looked just like Dulles, which can be very surprising to a new traveler. I sped through customs and the immigration process, and by sped I mean faltered like an idiot as I fumbled around with a pen to fill out paperwork. Originally, I wanted to fill it out in Chinese, acting suave and cool, but at that point it came to me that my chinese is honestly weak at best.

Alright this has already gotten way too long, but expect fun photos and talks about random things!


Note On Hostels

Lonely planet will offer you a lot of advice about hostels, but they won’t tell you about a little place I found called the Chocolate Box Backpacker. It’s a great little living space with a very homey feel. I hung out with the staff for most of last night just enjoying the evening. We listen to Beatles music and drink tea…great times. It is located right off of Roosevelt Street near the Guting MRT station (Exit No. 3) I always get lost so if I can find it so can you! I highly recommend it, particularly if you are traveling alone and need to find some very helpful friends and fellow travelers. The fact that it is so out of the way, compared to other hostels, will help give you a more settled feel.
Alright kiddies the Panda needs to focus!