January 8, 2012 at 10:53 am (Learning Chinese, Taipei)

I almost can’t believe it, but I’ve in been in Taipei three weeks tomorrow. It’s definitely been a long three weeks, but in a good way. I feel so comfortable here, and when I think of home sometimes it feels like another world from so long ago. And yet, I still have those sporadic moments where it will suddenly hit me that I’m in Taipei and that it’s a big deal. Some nights when I’m laying in bed I almost can’t believe that I am actually living in this city. Taipei is a fun city and I have even managed to find my way onto the news here:

I make a couple of appearances in the video. Someone from the church I have been attending invited me, along with the other Chinese Corner participants (I’ll explain Chinese Corner later) to go jogging with a group at Taida that was trying to run 2012 laps in honor of the new year. This was after I had been in Taiwan a little over a week, about two days or so before the New Year. I agreed, showing up at the university  Thursday morning at 7 am. If you know me you probably know I am not an early riser; fact, I could easily sleep until noon every day. As if it wasn’t bad enough that I had to get up so early while on break, I’d had less than four hours of sleep the night before, because I just couldn’t fall asleep. I ended up sitting up watching episodes of Misfits until 3 am. Nevertheless, I made myself go because I was still in the stage where I knew almost no one in the city and I recognized the importance of being social. Between the lack of sleep and my general lack of fitness I only managed to do 9 laps in the 40 minutes we had to run. Sigh. But at least we all got these cool T-shirts and bracelets to keep. And the tv cameras. It seemed there were a few channels covering the event, which I was not expecting. A few hours later the news aired a segment about us, and by that night the above video was already on youtube. Yuck.

Another cool thing I did was go to Taipei 101 New Year’s Eve. The concert was too crowded by the time we got there around 9 pm, so we just chilled in front of Taipei 101 for a few hours, playing games and talking while we waited for the fireworks to start. By we, I again mean some people who go to Chinese Corner. Here’s a video one of my friends from Chinese Corner took of the fireworks:

Anyway, the main focus of this post is not how I have been entertaining myself these past weeks but Chinese, specifically my experiences with the language.

I’ve been studying Chinese since coming to college, so for almost two and a half years now. It seems like I’ve been studying it for awhile, but I feel like after this past summer’s time in China I’ve hit a roadblock in learning. I honestly don’t feel like my Chinese improved at all this past semester, which isn’t good because my Chinese wasn’t good to begin with. I think my lack of improvement is do to many factors, but the main culprits are 1) a textbook that was way above my level, and did not contain as much useful vocabulary as I would have liked 2) a class that was half filled with native speakers 3) not enough class time and too many vocab words 4) lack of in class conversational practice and 5) not enough time on my part to adequately study Chinese. Thus, I came to Taiwan a bit shaky in my Chinese skills.

Surprisingly, communicating with people has not been as bad as I thought it would be. I’ve definitely had some rough spots, but everything has been manageable. The first week I had Ling Jen and Jin Long around, which definitely helped ease the transition, as they could translate things for me that I did not understand. The next week, I was on my own. The biggest difficulty in living on my own has been eating out. I do not have a meal plan, and since I do not like to cook I have been eating out at various restaurants. Understanding menus in Chinese is HARD. I know the characters for the essential words (rice, noodles, tofu, 青菜, pork, beef, chicken, fish, dumplings, and soup) but nothing else. Perhaps people who don’t know anything about Chinese restaurants would not see this as a big deal; after all, it seems as if I know enough words to order food. Well, I do and don’t. I say I don’t because often times in Chinese restaurants they have very “colorful” names for dishes that even the locals have to ask for explanations for. The problem is, I can ask for a description of a dish, only to understand one or two features. Thus, I have mostly been eating very simple dishes, wish does get a bit boring. That is one reason why I’ve been enjoying the meals I’ve had when I go out with Taiwanese people. This allows for more diversity in my diet. In general, though, people have been really patient with me (especially all the restaurant workers) when I can’t understand what they’re saying, and vice versa.

Now, on to Chinese Corner. The church I’ve been attending since the first week I came here hosts something called Chinese Corner, a chance for non-native speakers to practice Chinese. We chat for about 45 minutes, and then have a “lesson” from the teachers for another hour or so, on whatever topic they choose. It’s really casual and chill and a good chance to meet people, so I really enjoy it. Last week we went out to the night market after Chinese Corner, and people we’ve done things like go to the movies etc. throughout the week.

Chinese Corner is my “fun” class. But of course, I have real classes during the day, that are perhaps less fun. More accurately, I enjoy class and really like my teachers, but I dislike doing homework with a passion. Class started last Monday, so I have officially been in school one week. I want to cry every morning, when I get up no later than 6:50. This is because my first class starts at 8:10 am, and I have a 35-45 minute walk (depending on if I stop for something to eat) to get to the ICLP building.

I’ve been told that all across Taipei the Chinese language schools all use the same set of textbooks; I’m not sure of the validity of this statement, but I do know that Taida and Shida, the universities with the most prestigious programs, use the same books, created  by ICLP teachers (with some assistance from Shida teachers). I’m on book 3 of this system, which is considered intermediate level. I also have two other classes with two other textbooks, as well as an individual class using the main textbook. At first glance, much of each of these books seem to be review to me, and without a doubt if I was only taking one Chinese course the textbooks would be too easy. Since I’m in three courses, though, I’m finding myself working 7-8 hours each day on studying and homework. One thing these textbooks do well is in depth analysis of Chinese grammar.  It’s been a little disheartening to discover that grammar patterns I thought I understood have been completely wrong, even some simple structures I learned my first year studying Chinese. On the other hand, I do feel a lot better about my sentence comprehension skills in just one week. Chinese sentence structure can be very different from English, and I never had a firm grasp of what sentences mean when they begin to deviate from structures we use in English. Some of my confusion has definitely been cleared up in class this week.

Also, I love my teachers! They are really all great, really helpful and sweet. And my individual tutorial teacher is actually a Christian, so we’ve really bonded on that level. She actually works for a Taiwan Christian translating company, translating English Sunday school books and the like into Chinese. She brought in some of the books she has translated to show me, but alas I cannot understand the Chinese. I do understand her name on the front cover though! Taiwan also has a Christian television network, and she does the Chinese subtitles for the sermons of people like Joyce Meyers.

All in all, I think my Chinese skills will improve over time while here. For now, though, I find myself often feeling like the guys in this song:



  1. Andrew said,

    Haha, excellent post! Firstly, great job for getting onto the local news! +1,000 cool points for you. Secondly, wow- getting to watch the fireworks shooting from 101 live must have been jaw-dropping. The video is great, thanks for sharing… although it makes me cringe because it looks like the tower is actually blowing up, which would really be devastating. Lastly, I’m so glad that you found a good church and a fun way to learn Chinese and make new friends! I hope that you get to go to fun places and try new foods soon. Good luck with reading the menus! Here’s a trick- don’t be ashamed to find a small restaurant that has a menu in both English and Chinese, one of the ones you mark up to order, and then take a few extra home with you to study. Seriously, it’ll help you out a lot.

  2. Tiffany B said,

    Thanks Andrew! Hopefully I can get a post up this weekend about the election.

    I actually was a little unnerved the first few seconds of the fireworks, in real life it actually did look like the tower was blowing up. But it was definitely an incredible show, albeit a little short.

    As for the menus, there are so many of those mark up menus at restaurants, but they never seem to have English! If I can find one that has English and Chinese that would be convenient, but I may just have to snag a Chinese one and work through translating it. Thanks for the tip though!

  3. Calvin said,

    Glad to hear that ICLP hasn’t changed too much. As for ordering food, try browsing through photo-heavy Taiwanese food blogs. You’ll get good restaurant recommendations and you’ll be able to associate the name with the picture.

  4. Tiffany B said,

    Hey Calvin,

    I just checked out your blog, it’s great, enough blog posts to give me plenty of resources for procrastination 🙂
    I believe the study abroad office mentioned you went to ICLP in 2009? How was your experience?

  5. Calvin said,

    Are you a Swattie? Random! I LOVED ICLP and want to go back sometime in the near future. The workload was brutal even by Swat standards but I still managed to have a lot of fun (and gain tons of weight). If you meet Thomas Walton (王威智) tell him I said hi!

  6. Tiffany B said,

    Yes I’m a Swattie! That’s funny, I assumed you knew. Hmm I don’t know him but I’ll keep an eye out.

  7. Polygnostic said,

    You’re going to miss the Chinese 1 students singing 對不起! 😦

    Enjoyed the post though! Glad you’re having a good time!

    -柯敬年 (Jacob Collard)

  8. Tiffany B said,

    Jacob! I miss you, and the rest of Dana 2nd, so much already! How is the hall?? I know it isn’t the same this semester 😦

    Haha I wish I could see that. Last year my class did 對面的女孩看過來, did anyone sing that this year?

  9. Polygnostic said,

    The hall’s doing well. It’s not the same, but Dana 2nd is still managing to be social. Only occasionally do Jenise and I wander the halls for ten minutes looking for someone to talk to.

    I don’t know what the other classes are doing – only Chinese 1’s 對不起 and 恭喜恭喜.

  10. said,

    You’re ON THE NEWS!!

  11. Long Time No Write « China Thinking said,

    […] that band Transitions from my post on Chinese? I went to their farewell concert with some Chinese Corner friends and got to take pictures with […]

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