If you’d asked me where I thought I’d be spending summer at the start of this year, I can guarantee you that “Taiwan” would not have been the answer. So how on earth did this come to fruition? Well, with any good story I think it’s best to start at the beginning; which in this case is 18 year old Elise.
The year is 2014, permanently straightened hair is in, Calvin Harris’ “Summer” is being blasted from every available sound system, and I’m just about to finish my high school career and launch myself onto society as a real life WOMAN!!! Life is pretty great, oh, except for the fact that I have no idea what I want to do, I’m torn between studying law or attending broadcasting school, and almost every influence in my life is pushing me towards immediate tertiary study. As an NCEA overachiever, this would have been the obvious choice, however it just didn’t feel right. All I knew I was really passionate about was learning languages, and had thoroughly enjoyed a two month exchange to Germany the previous year; an experience which felt more “right” than all my 13 years of schooling. As a result, I threw caution to the wind and decided to forgo tertiary education right away, worked a multitude of part time jobs for 5 months before embarking on a flight to Germany for 9 months of work and travel.
Fast-forward to 2017 and the giant of tertiary education was calling for me once again. I wasn’t particularly willing, however two years of working low paid jobs across two different countries (including a stint of four months where I didn’t have a single day off and worked 60-80 hour weeks), had shown me that a qualification truly did open doors for progressing more rapidly in the career direction I was interested in. That being said, I had no idea of my ideal job title, but just knew that I wanted to have a job where I could utilise my German fluency, potentially learn other foreign languages, have travel opportunities and do something media related. I also realised that I was only going to be doing a law degree because I thought it would make other people think I was smart (which for me just wasn’t a good enough reason), and that broadcasting school was a little too specialised for my somewhat non-specific interests. Driven to leave Christchurch by a desire for greater opportunities, warmer weather and a fresh start, I chose to study a double major of Communications and Politics & International Relations at the University of Auckland.
Despite all of this, I’m incredibly embarrassed to admit that my attitude entering university could at best be described as “reluctant” and at worst be described as “arrogant and ungrateful”. After two years of living in the “real world”, entering university felt like I was putting my life on hold. I thought that my degree was essentially going to be three years spent swanning around just to get a piece of paper to prove to “the Man” that I was capable of doing jobs I was semi-already doing anyway. (Slight tangent: attending university has not only provided me with opportunities I otherwise wouldn’t have had access to, but has also greatly improved my writing and analytical skills and completely changed my understanding and view of the world #noregrets). Therefore, I decided that student life needed to be over as quickly as possible, so I undertook summer school, multiple 5 paper semesters as well as many internships and media-related jobs throughout my degree.
By the start of 2019, I had a lengthy CV of career-relevant experience (apologies for the humble brag, but girl’s got a story to tell), and was just one 5 paper semester away from finishing my Bachelor’s degree in two and a half years instead of three. I couldn’t believe it – I’d done it! So, of course, what better time for the irritating-but-usually-right voice from within to pop up? Throughout my rush to finish university, aside from one Spanish paper in first year, language courses hadn’t fitted within my timetable. I realised that I was only going to get more time-poor as time went on, and if I was serious of fulfilling my lifelong dream of becoming quadrilingual (for no other reason than the fact I thought the word had a ring to it), I needed to start my next foreign language as soon as possible. As much as I’d loved learning Spanish, a quick scour of many local international roles on job sites were increasingly calling for Chinese fluency. Additionally, between my knowledge of German and English, I knew I could pick up Spanish relatively quickly, however it was going to be now or never for learning an Asian language.
So how has it been learning Chinese? Well, I can honestly say it is the most challenging thing I have ever done. Although the grammar (so far at least) is relatively simple compared to German, the sheer amount of learning and study required is incredibly difficult, especially when trying to balance it with other uni work, seven jobs, the gym, maintaining a social life and of course the general life admin involved in adulthood when you don’t live at home. When learning European languages, you can read the word and have a vague idea of how to say it, or hear the word and have a vague idea of how to write it, and you just have to remember what it means. With Chinese, you read a character, and not only have to remember what it means, but also have to remember what sound it makes and how to write the character itself and its phonetic equivalent in pinyin (English alphabet) with the tone marks in the correct places. The first semester my A-grade accustomed ego took a heavy (but probably much needed) humbling blow. I couldn’t believe what I had gotten myself into and spent many sleepless nights stressing that this might actually be the first paper I fail in my life. I was too stressed with all my other commitments to dedicate the time to revising vocabulary that I had the luxury of doing so with German, and as a result consistently felt like the bottom of the class. About half way through the semester I decided to pull it together and establish a bit of a routine. This was successful some weeks, other weeks less so, but I managed to restore some of my shattered confidence and drag my grade up to being slightly more satisfactory.
As tempting as it was to say goodbye to my Chinese career, my parents didn’t raise a quitter, they raised a masochist, so naturally I decided to throw myself into a second semester of learning this impossible language. Whilst still incredibly stressful, frustrating and littered with many occasions of imposter syndrome, my brain appeared to have gotten into the swing of things, and was slowly wrapping itself around the concept of characters. It was during this semester that the opportunity arose for a language course in Taiwan over summer, which seemed an excellent opportunity to more rapidly progress my Chinese. The total course fee, which was the same price as a usual course fee, included cultural outings, a local student language buddy, course books, two one on one tutorials per week plus five small group courses, a specific language based elective and unlimited cultural classes in things as as Chinese painting, calligraphy and Tai Chi. In addition, I realised that this course was eligible to be funded by the Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Asia. I had been fortunate enough to have an incredible experience in Mumbai at the start of the year with the PMSA group scholarship, interning at an NGO, so decided it was definitely worthwhile applying for the PMSA individual scholarship for this trip, which I was fortunate enough to receive.
It’s only taken me 1,338 words to get here (but who’s counting?) but that’s essentially how I came to be in Taiwan. Which, by the way, is one of the most underrated places I’ve ever visited. It’s incredibly clean, safe and efficient, pretty much all of the tourist attractions are completely free and the people are unbelievably helpful and friendly. Everything is really cheap, the food is delicious, and people don’t hassle you on the streets or at the markets. In Taipei, the metro (MRT) is wildly efficient and the intercity high speed rail (HSR) is incredible. Admittedly the city where I’m taking the language course, Tainan, has less efficient local public transport, but a lot of stuff is within walking distance and every Taiwanese city has rental bike stations where the first 30 minutes are usually free. As far as language goes, it’s definitely been a challenge. When I first went to Germany on exchange, I had been learning the language for around three years, so had a pretty solid proficiency under my belt. As I’ve only been learning Chinese for less than a year, I’m finding I’m lacking a frustrating amount of vocabulary and struggle to understand when people talk really fast, which is always. In addition to this, everything in Taiwan (including our course material) is written in traditional characters which are worlds apart from the simplified characters used in mainland China, that we learn in NZ. That being said, I’ve made a real effort to refrain from speaking English whilst being here, and although I certainly have made plenty of mistakes, I definitely feel myself slowly improving. In fact, starting next week, I’ve been moved up a class at the intensive course. To be completely honest, I think it might be a bit advanced for me, but I’m going to give it my best shot and if I get moved back down, it’s no big deal. I’m just happy to be here.
TLDR? (too long, didn’t read)
- You don’t have to go to university straight out of high school
- Study something because it feels right and because you want to, not because society tells you you should
- University/other tertiary education is not everyone but it does open doors
- Take up as many opportunities to travel whilst studying as you can – you’re killing two birds with one stone, and apply for the PMSA to fund it – it’s such a rare and generous opportunity
- The best way to improve at a language is to be confident and not overthink. People are not judging your mistakes, they are generally just thrilled to hear you trying to speak their language!
- Don’t get sucked into speaking English – many people across the world speak some English and naturally want to practice it, but you will only improve if you commit to speaking the language itself, plus you will be able to immerse and understand the culture far far better
- Chinese is really really hard, but also immensely rewarding