Shanti: First Impressions of Taiwan and National Cheng Kung University

大家好!My name is Shanti and I am currently on a study abroad in Tainan, Taiwan, all thanks to the Prime Ministers Scholarship for Asia and the University of Auckland! I am currently in my second year of learning Mandarin Chinese and I am super excited to be here to practice my Chinese, not only in the classroom but in daily life.

IMG_8767
The morning sun on the pond outside the National Cheng Kung University Chinese Language Centre.

 

A week has passed since I landed in Taipei, and so far I have already seen some sites, learnt about Taiwanese culture, ate lots of food, and had my first week of Chinese classes. It has been quite difficult with the lack of English spoken by the locals, but everyone is super friendly and have all been patient with me while I struggle to figure out what I want to say. Coming to the end of the first week I’ve memorised a few set phrases to use when buying food and already my vocabulary has grown; not only with Mandarin but a couple of Taiwanese words as well.

Unfortunately, the first two days in Taipei and two days in Tainan were all raining. The temperature was a cool 17℃, coming from a warmer 20℃ in New Zealand and a hot 30℃ (!!!) stopover in Singapore. I was not prepared for the cold so I had to pile on all of the thin jumpers I had brought along with me. Luckily now, the rain has stopped and the temperature is a nice 25℃. 李老師, my Chinese teacher says the temperature “還是很冷” – It’s still cold.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset
Rain outside the Taiwan National Museum in Taipei

 

Taipei: Landing in Taiwan by myself was a little daunting, but luckily the express train from Taoyuan airport was super easy to get on and ride to Taipei. While walking from the train station to my accommodation I fell in love with all the alleyways and small streets that sprouted off the main roads.  In my one and a half days in Taipei, I managed to eat some 牛肉麵 (Beef noodles), a Taiwanese specialty. I also tried some 小籠包 (Soup Dumplings) at Din Tai Fung and visited the Taiwan National Museum that is situated in the 2/28 Peace Park. Some of the exhibits were closed but I was able to see a range of Taiwanese flora and fauna that had been collected by Japanese naturalists. 

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset
One of the many small lanes in Taipei
IMG_8488
牛肉麵 – Beef noodles, in Taipei on my first day.

 

Tainan: After travelling on the highspeed rail for 3 hours to Tainan  (very smooth), other UoA students and I were met by our language buddies, who took us on a bus to our dormitory. Tainan is known as the food capital of Taiwan, so I’ve been trying lots of new food and I aim to try at least one new food every day for the rest of the month. So far in Tainan, I’ve tried stinky tofu, soup dumpings, 牛肉麵 (beef noodle soup),  鱔魚意麵 (fried eel with noodles) and 地瓜球 (fried sweet potato balls). In the future, I will have a post dedicated to all my food adventures so stay tuned!

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset
大东夜市 – Da Dong Night Market, the place to try stinky tofu and other Taiwanese streetfood.

 

Classes: Cheng Kung University is made up of nine different campuses, separated by several roads. In the morning along these roads, you can see small makeshift breakfast stands out of trucks, which sell egg pancakes, toast and of course milk tea. For the first week, we were split into three classes of only University of Auckland students. These classes allowed us to familiarise ourselves with traditional characters which we don’t learn at UoA. In addition to this, we had individual tutoring and hangouts with our language buddies that allowed us to further revise the class content and practice speaking.  Next week we will be joining the 10-week winter language program and will be in the same classes as other international students. As part of our program, we have cultural classes and excursions which I will dedicate a whole blog post to. 

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset
National Cheng Kung University’s Chinese Language Center
IMG_8752
Doing homework at our dorm with classmates Elise and Molly.
First week
My University of Auckland classmates and I with our teacher 李老師 after our first week.

 

Thank you for reading all this way, I am excited to share more with you!

– Shanti Truong-George, 張湘婷。

 

Elise – PMSA Taiwan

elise_1.jpg

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.

Elise_2
18 year old me at graduation – ready to take on the world but with absolutely no clue how

 

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.

Elise_3
Me in Germany circa age 17, feeling very sophisticated in my “big girl” coat

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.

Elise_4
Pictured here at just one of my many pre-uni jobs. Sadly the face paint was just a one-off

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.

Elise_7
One week’s worth of new vocab

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.

Elise_8
At my internship in India with the PMSA group scholarship at the beginning of 2019

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.

Elise_9
classic candid shot at one of Taipei’s many free (!!!!!) tourist attractions

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)

  1. You don’t have to go to university straight out of high school
  2. Study something because it feels right and because you want to, not because society tells you you should
  3. University/other tertiary education is not everyone but it does open doors
  4. 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
  5. 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!
  6. 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
  7. Chinese is really really hard, but also immensely rewarding