Posts Tagged ‘Taiwan’


Saturday, July 25th, 2009

It has been a long while since doing a solid blog post on this space. While my readership probably isn’t the largest out there, considering the might of bavatuesdays and confessions of a community college dean, I still feel this very bizarre obligation to continue to write to an audience I can’t quite see. Over the next few weeks I’d like to share a little bit of my own ICLP experience, perhaps also write a post-ICLP talk. Many of us have not done an intensive language program and so don’t have a very firm grasp on the benefits and pro’s that a language program can bring to the table, not too mention how one goes about selecting the appropriate program. At another time, it would be awesome to write up a broader piece dealing with the whys and how to’s of language study, but for now I will settle with a look at my time at ICLP.

I have three classes at ICLP that stretch from 10AM until 2PM with a break at noon for lunch. My classes, I think I have mentioned this before, contain no more than three people, including myself. My first two classes work out of different books and are the group classes with two other students and me. In the group classes we work our way through grammar points by setting up scenarios and looking at the dialogs of a given lesson. I’ve noticed that of the two classes one really focuses hard core on the grammar, very nitty gritty, while the other one takes a much lighter approach by teaching you how to work with certain scenarios. From there you get a basic understanding of the grammar tools that will allow you to handle transactions, ask questions etc. Now, I have to admit I am coming to ICLP with way less language experience than most people normally come to ICLP with. The best way to put it, ICLP trains scholars in the field of China studies on how to use language towards their field. So The normal langauge student doesn’t necessarily come to ICLP as his first training area. However, ICLP has recently made a point in creating classes and hiring teachers to work with students that are at or near my level. I noticed some students that are using level one books, normally these students have some experience with say reading or have massive vocabularies but require some correcting in basic grammars and pronunciation. It’s actually funny how most students tend to come here with great reading comprehension but less than quality speaking skills. Although, admittedly, most of those students are by now very proficient at speaking since we are in week…five or perhaps four I have now lost track unfortunately! My days at ICLP have felt a bit strange, I have the same classes everyday so it is a bit like being back in high school and a weird twilight zone. Everyday, I walk into the same bakery and got some delicious bread and juice, quickly jog (慢跑)to the school. I hear the bells (not actual bells but speakers under the clocks) that go off with the traditional da da dada da da dada, however you decide to represent sound via text, but you are familiar with the tune that goes off to announce classes. Classes happen, I catch my break for lunch. I’ve been using my lunch breaks for drum practice using a small practice pad, metronome, and my sheet music. The ICLP teachers (laoshi=老師)will sometimes come out and watch me play on their way to pick up lunch. It’s kind of weird being a little attraction, especially since let’s be honest my drum skills are less than quality, but it makes for good conversation! Afterwards, I jaunt over to the computer lab and check email as well as take a quick refresher glance at my new vocabulary.

This refresher glance is usually very helpful. Lately I have been getting a hold of so many words that it is hard to keep a hold of the words. The issue, which should be more fully addressed in a separate post, comes from the fact that different words can have the same sound. But this isn’t like the homonyms like bee and be, two too and to. It’s usually like “shi” with a fourth tone (a sharp drop) can be a whole host of sounds. This is really why having the characters is super important. Without the symbols you would have all these different sounds that would be awfully hard to figure out their meaning. Although I imagine context would clarify things, but we’ll find out in the future. My last class of the day is the real challenge. It’s a single person class called a 單班課 (dan ban ke). The instructor never ceases to amaze me on how he manages to work with me, especially when my brain just won’t work at all. If you can imagine you are in this class alone so you have no one else to rely on. If you don’t know the information you have to ask and then work your way around the definition of the word using words you already know. Maybe, it isn’t that complicated for other people, but my class tends to leave me really exhausted. The vocabulary isn’t usually what bothers me, it’s the correction of tones. I almost always need my tones corrected. Tones have become the bane of my learning experience. What’s sad is, you often don’t hear yourself properly. When you think you are making third tone, you are actually doing fourth. So 老師 corrects you and you still won’t get it right away.

So my constant rinse and repeat at ICLP leaves me pretty tuckered out by the weekend, making traveling around Taiwan tough, since your brain is just worn down. However the classes are really well thought out. I’ve been impressed with how the school puts together the courses to work with each student’s needs. One individual has nothing but one on one classes and each class dove tails into the next. I guess it’s easier to do that with all language classes. My week surprisingly moves very quickly. The days blend into each other almost seamlessly, making it difficult to recall what day it is, unless it is Friday. Friday, all filled with tasty tea and delicious snacks and wandering around, is my fun day, period. : D

The ICLP Approach

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

I haven’t gotten opportunity to write on the first few experiences I have had at ICLP here in Taiwan. ICLP (InterChinese Language Program) is a well established program. Many scholars in Chinese studies from all different academic backgrounds deem this program to be among the top to get good and solid training. It is a title that is well deserved. I have never had such a full throttle educational experience. The place is less of a school and more of a training camp…boot camp? Without a frame of reference the school can be difficult to understand so let’s hit on that important note first.

ICLP, located at National Taiwan University, has made its mission to teach scholars good Chinese into a mantra that is focused on finding the strongest teaching method. The school is filled with brilliant pedagogues who constantly attempt to find the best and most appropriate training method for any given student. They start off with a general rule of not having any class larger than about four people as its maximum. Right now for instance I have two classes that are a total of three people (myself included). The smaller class sizes eliminates the possibility of a student hiding within the crowd. The hiding element commonly creeps up in normal language courses at universities across the states. You don’t know how to say such and such phrase or didn’t do the homework? Okay, just hide behind someone else and don’t get seen. Well, that doesn’t work here. At all! With smaller classes, each student receives a great deal of attention. Most importantly is also a fair amount of pressure to perform at higher levels, lest ye hold backeth the class! There aren’t really grades, although you do take an exit exam to assess your gains since entering the school, but the distinctly personal approach leaves students wanting to do well. Another key factor, ICLP makes use of extensive testing on both written and oral skills in order to gauge where each student’s level is at. This has some major benefits. If your speaking is pretty solid you will get put into a higher speech course. But say if your reading abilities suck, okay so you start off at a lower level for writing. Although each student is placed in classes that are meant to challenge and push them, I have yet to see a student get put into a course that is inappropriate for their skill level. Certainly students will groan about the amount of work. Yet everyone is equally dedicated to progressing. Upon entering the school you sign a contract to speak only Chinese in ICLP’s classroom, hallways and offices etc. Interestingly enough they allow you to write in your own punishment clause if you fail to stick to the Chinese only rule. I wrote in that I have to scrub both levels’ floors by hand. My lack Chinese skills have effectively made me silent when not in class unless it is using some of the pocket phrases that I have on hand.

Once classes start, ICLP’s awesome teaching style gets cranked to a whole other level. The teachers that you have for your classes will talk to one another about your performance, books, lessons and vocabulary. What they try to do is establish a core class which all of the classes connect to and reinforce. The bridges between classes have been absolutely helpful for me. One book may describe a piece of grammar better than another etc. The books function together very well.

This has me thinking about my school’s approach to teaching Chinese. ICLP’s methods get me very excited about the potential directions my institution could take their language training. What ICLP does here could be somewhat mimicked at other universities. No school has the resources to fully does what ICLP successfully does here, that’s not what we should be going after either. We need to be thoughtful planning how and what we teach our students about Chinese language. The courses, no doubt, could be more intensive and perhaps other books than integrated Chinese could be used. Integrated is geared specifically towards foreign students, but this comes with a penalty. The grammar tends to be explained from a very Western perspective. Chinese grammar however has little to no connection to English’s way of constructing sentences. While Chinese grammar seems much more simple than English, it still takes a little getting used to. There are many concepts in Chinese that simply have no cross over to English. What this may mean is the use of multiple books and the absolute requirement for every single student to purchase a dictionary. Anyway, I’ll get off of my horse for right now. I keep wondering what I can do to help with the budding Chinese program at Mary Washington. I think it has a lot of potential, because students at UMW have a strong dedication to learning and are very passionate about the courses they take. No one goes into a Chinese class lightly, and I firmly believe that if we were to intensify the courses somewhat, that the students would rise to meet the challenge.

To be honest, my experience at ICLP has been highly frightening. My two semesters of Chinese does not take me very far here. My training before ICLP did not internalize grammar and vocabulary. I could essentially make the sounds and some of the tones, but in no one was producing language…just sounds. There’s a difference just parroting and full on taking the language as your own. Language is not just a grammar structure and vocabulary. It is a feeling, a feeling of communication, of connection. I have started a new blog space to talk about my homework and new lessons. The space is more focused to just saving the information I gain rather than being a flowery swirl of thoughts and confused sentences! More extended posts on language training and difficulties of Chinese, for instance I could talk for days about tones, will still be on the Panda Musings, because that’s what they are! So if you are interested, check out:

All About Food

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

I have had a few people back at home in the States ask me about the food in Taiwan. I feel that I could never capture the full nuance of food in Taiwan or even my little section of the island, Taibei (or taipei for some people). All that being said, I will be introducing you to a place called Shida Night Market. A place filled to the gills with a wide range of tastes, styles of cooking and smells.

You wake up from a short nap after touring around the city in the hot sun and swimming through a particularly humid afternoon. Let’s say you are staying at a wonderful little hostel called “The Chocolate Box Backpacker” located just around the corner from the night market. You turn down a narrow lane lined with scooters and walk towards Shida Rd. (師大路)You’re now standing in a constructed park with some strange kind of sculpture. Straight ahead you see a sign for Watson’s 24 hour store, known to some residents as the everything store. You get hit with a wave of different smells and decide to carefully cross the street, deftly dodging both cars and the numerous scooters flying down the road. You can’t read any of the signs and have no idea where to go so you start to wonder around trying to find something to eat.

Taiwan’s variety of food is literally without end. What’s even more beautiful about food here, you can eat on the absolutely tightest budget. Food, depending on where you eat, can cost you the equivalent of one maybe two USD, which is just glorious. Shida Night Market has small food stalls with certain unrecognizable meats and even well known American chain stores like Subway, Burger King, and Pizza Hut. You decide you want to at least avoid going to the “normal American” place. But do you really want to eat a traditional Taiwanese dish? Mimicking Western food has become a pretty popular thing here in Taibei. I’m only going to tell you about two of my preferred places that you could walk to. If you were say looking for some good western food. A great place to go would be a restaurant called “Grandma Nitti’s Kitchen” located on an alley kind of across from a 24 hour cafe and bar called Jr. Cafe (if you are wondering who the Sr. of that Jr. Cafe is, it would be a popular club called Roxy). Grandma Nitti’s offers two awesome things, cheap paperbacks for sale and solid Western style cooking. On their menu you’ll find waffles, omelettes, veggie burgers, and even quesadillas. If you pop in for dinner you can typically get a drink and piece of cake thrown into a full dinner package. I have only personally gone once, but have many friends who love to eat there. I personally vouch for their tasty veggie quesadillas which are made with a delicious sauce. When you are eating take a look around you. You’ll probably notice that there aren’t too many foreigns or even expats hanging around the place. Rather, it is packed full of Taibei residents…I take it as a very good sign.

But we all know what Western food tastes and smells like. You want to try something a bit different, more local food. Well you’re in luck. The traditional and “modern” cultures blend together in strange ways and produce situations where you have a 7-11 (just straight up called 7-11 by locals of xiao qi (little seven) close to the more traditional spot you’ve selected for your dinning experience in the heart of Shida Night Market. The food style is called Luwei. Quite simply, it’s a food stall with a wide arrangement of meats, veggies and styles of noodles. You pickup a pink basket and a set of tongs. No one is going to direct you so you stumble through the crowd and pick some meats…maybe a piece of tofu?, and definitely some broccoli. You also get the option of picking either rice noodles or the typically ramen noodle packet. You don’t have to get the noodles but it is a nice touch. The rice noodles are my favorite option, they tend to soak up the flavors around it and become awesomely delicious. Oh man, you are too slow!! “太慢!“ A woman with a large knife grabs the pink basket from you and starts to count out the food and chop everything off. A young man next to her yells the price to you…except you don’t speak Chinese and sort of stumble through trying to figure it out via holding fingers. You mange to only have to spend about 90 TWD (equivalent to less than 3 USD). In return you get a full, hefty plate of food cooked in delicious oils and sometimes made with a fair amount of kick if you say you want it “hen la” very (Not as strong as english very) spicy. The workers point you to the inside of a building and walk cautiously up a somewhat steep flight of stairs with your wonderful smelling dish. there’s lots of people (adults, teens, families) eating and talking loud with one another, when a woman comes up to you with a clipboard and a blue piece of paper with funny symbols. You look confused and she maybe says “Tea”. The paper is filled with different types and styles of tea both hot and cold, milk, red, or green teas. All of them are tasty. You figure since the dish is still hot that you’ll get something cold and pick a set of characters that seems to inspire something. She asks “hong haishi lu?” You look confused and just point to one…lucky you you picked red (my favorite!). You devour your meal with your newly acquired skills using chop sticks.

Taibei also has numerous amounts of bakeries along every single street. Even when running late for classes I can still quickly stop into a bakery and pick up a tasty morsel for my breakfast consumption. My favorite thing for breakfast however is the rice ball called “fan –an pronounced more like “on” –Tuan” You can get these rice balls for next to nothing and they will stuff it full of meats, or eggs and some spices. The balls are served hot and tightly packed together by a middle age guy who labors over each ball like it is his child. He’s an artist or the rice balls. You can typically pick up a cup of cold tea with the rice ball for around 45 TWD. That is a steal, I am telling you , for how delicious it is!

Even as I am writing this, I am at a small restaurant called the Red House which sells tea, breakfast, and Budweiser. All of their seating is located on a small open balcony level overlooking the night market. Tonight I picked up a pot of hot ginger milk tea and have been sipping on it as I wrote both blog posts for tonight. The tea here costs about 150 TWD a pot and each customer has to order a minimum of 150, but this isn’t really too bad considering you can stay how ever long you want and the place is open until 3AM. $150 is the equivalent of 4.50 in USD and the tea is rocking. Its also a great place to listen to Beatles music, which I think is the owner’s favorite band to listen to. Okay, well that’s enough writing for one night! Hope I’ve at least gotten you more interested in the food. Don’t worry if you are too scared by local food…there are tons of Mcdonalds and Starbucks everywhere! Not that I would step foot in any of those places : P

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.

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!

Try, Taiwan Planning…very good.

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

You might have thought I’d forgotten all about Taiwan after the wonderful experience I had at the Faculty Academy, but lo and behold Taiwan travel plans are still well underway! But the process hasn’t been exactly easy. If you are traveling at all for any long period of time, there is the massive network of problems that you have to sort through. This process can be very discouraging, not to mention time consuming. Yet! There are many resources available to help point you in the right direction. Looking through the websites available (to be linked as they come up) you can get a sense of the step by step process of filling out the paperwork, but who will take you to the next level? I believe a personal account is in order!

Before beginning this account, I owe a great deal to Susan Fernsebner who has been my constant guide to charting out my travel and study of Chinese. She is a great asset, which taught me something: you need a person, not a program. We can read articles from a website, but nothing beats insider knowledge delivered in a relaxed setting. “Hey, let’s sit down and I’ll tell you about Taiwan and how to get there.” Something about it that just strikes me as very nice.

So where does it all begin? You’ve decided, “OK I want to go and stay in Taiwan for an extended time to learn language, what do I need to do?” (Granted this applies more to students than any other demographic, my apologies!) Let’s start by talking about what programs are out there. Professor Fernsebner directed me towards the Inter Chinese Language Program in Taipei. I can personally vouch for this program. As a US student applying, the speed at which the admissions crew responded to my questions, or even just taking the courtesy of telling me they received my application package, absolutely startled me. This program has a great reputation for solid language training. I am unfortunately only taking advantage of their summer program, but they do offer year long programs for those students and professionals who can afford to take the time (not just money but schedules) to do that type of work. ICLP, obviously, is not the only school out there, not by a long shot! I am not super familiar with all of the other schools but a web resource touches on available programs in Taipei:study abroad. As always, first hand knowledge is the way to go. If you see a different program that interests you, take some time to find someone familiar with how the program functions. A website is often not enough information! I can go through a walkthrough of applications later, but for now we will assume you have found your school of choice, and you are ready to take the next step.

So you’ll get the letter in the mail or a nice little e-mail, you are definitely in.

  • STEP 1: Freak out! It’s Awesome
  • STEP 2: Tell everyone, high fives are 100% in order
  • STEP 3: Check Panda Musings for Advice : P

Honestly, getting in–from where I stand now–has been the easy part, which is so odd for me to say since I was madly freaking out about whether or not I made it in to the program. Oh no, this is where the real fun begins. Oh man, do I have/need a visa? What is this place like? How do I get there? How am I going to eat? What do I wear? It’s a massive whirlwind of things to do, I have yet to reach the other side of this thing yet. Consider taking some time out to read up on where you are going. Lonely Planet offers awesome resources for looking at different countries and covers the whole breadth of knowledge you will need to start you off. I still subscribe to the belief that guides, no matter how detailed, can only take you so far. Going there is the way to get acquainted.

If you are a student you’ll be looking for a visa, specifically a multiple entry (it comes in either single or multi). The multiple entry has some really key advantages, the biggest being if you have some sort of emergency back in the states you have to address, you are able to come in and out with no problems. The visa, however, comes as an intermediate step. The first thing you have to do is get a hold of plane tickets. Right, you’d think you should get the visa and then the plane ticket. For the different embassies and consulates you need to prove that you have a way in and out of their country. The nation you are going to, as far as I can tell, wants to make sure you aren’t just going to be bumming around within its borders.

I had felt pretty nervous about visiting about the final step of handling the visa, actually going to the consulate (TECRO) in DC or in any of the many other locations throughout the states. It helps to look through the “consular division” portion of the website for visa info. The things you are going to need:

  • passport that has to be valid for at least six months
  • flight itinerary (simple print out will do)
  • two passport sized photos
  • filled out application, able to be downloaded from the TECRO website
  • a recent bank statement

This last one was kind of surprising and threw me a curve ball when I was at the office this afternoon. I hate being unprepared, but I was glad to get everything in and taken care of. Now I have to wait for my passport to get stamped. The office gave me the opportunity to have the passport sent to me. I figured that having the thing sent to me could turn into a recipe for disaster, lost passport=good bad.

That’s where I am at for now, more info later? Oof just a whole lot of work on my plate. I am shaking in my boots a bit. While at the office, I started looking at the Taiwanese flag…I feel like there is a fun study in the making, the history of the KMT flag.

The Journey to Taiwan—An Opener.

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

On Friday at 3AM EST, I received an e-mail from the Inter Chinese Language Program in National Taiwan University; good news all I got hit up with an acceptance! This has been a matter of great anxiety, whether or not I’d gain acceptance from the school. Long nights praying and checking my e-mail at three in the morning, knowing that Taiwan exists 12 hours into the future. But now, thanks to the help of professors writing recommendation letters and so forth, I can let all of that slip behind me and be grateful that I made it in. But how do I get over there? This month, since I want to leave by June 1, will be a time of figuring out the ropes to gain a plane ticket, visa, and a place to stay in Taipei. How the heck do I do all that? There is a lot to do in less than 31 days. But the process already started yesterday. Tickets, although pricey, are indeed manageable. I uncovered a round trip for a little over twelve hundred with a hefty layover in Los Angeles, another home for the H1N1 that is receiving huge amounts of press coverage. I have my own thoughts on all that, mostly dealing with the latent connection between H1N1 and the zombie outbreak that most of us have been preparing to deal with for years now (thank you Left 4 Dead and Zombie Survival Handbook!). For the past two years May has always been this tumultuous month. Everything either happens or needs to happen in those 31 days. Case in point, my mom insists on a family vacation to Florida for “bonding time”. Some of you may snicker or sneer at me for complaining about a vacation, but when you have to take a driver’s test to renew your license—long story—and get fillings for cavities, on top of all the things you already had to take care of, it creates a lot of stress. This month does have some good prospects at least. For one, I get to hang out with Professors Fernsebner and Harris at the upcoming Faculty Academy and my girlfriend (cue audience going awww) is coming down to see me for two weeks or so on the seventeenth. It’s good times and sunny days from that angle. The larger, looming question is when am I going to find time to make some $ for that plane ticket. It will get handled, just a matter of how not if. I have been blessed to make it this far…no turning back, no turning back. Keep your eyes open, I’ll be talking about the visa and plane ticket things later.

I’m never one to just leave you without some sort of goodie, and the treat for reading today is a great video from a Taiwanese website about going to Taiwan. Notice how just being in Taiwan apparently makes you want to fly. Weird, right?


The flight process should be fun.  I have never traveled abroad before, so this should all be kind of crazy go nuts.  I can see it now, working in the classroom and just randomly flying away threw the window, over Taipei.  Expect more!  And if you don’t read the blog you should probably go fix that.