Sunday, July 3, 2011

Taiwan: 2011 Summer Fellows - Traditional Characters

After reading Chris's post I'll definitely second how frustrating it is to arrive here and be unable to read simple things I could understand very well on the mainland. The worst is when I want breakfast; I don't live at a university so there's no cafeteria and I'm dependent on street vendors. When looking for something remotely breakfast-like I often cannot read the menu in front of the cart. I definitely love traveling and trying new things, but no, I would not like a hot dog or a fried chicken sandwich before 9am, thank you. Yesterday I ventured pretty far from my apartment to see if there were some better options but I couldn't find anything and ended up eating at McDonald's. My ultimate solution was to find a vendor who sells 2 or 3 palatable things and just remember what they are so I don't get stuck with junk food. When it comes to lunch and dinner I'm a bit more willing to be adventurous.

In a lot of other situations though, like reading street signs, figuring out the name of a building or looking at the captions on the bottom of the TV screen, comprehension is surprisingly easy. I could not write most of these characters if you put a gun to my head but reading them is much easier if you have a strong base in mainland Chinese characters. This level of confusion works in reverse as well; one of my teachers could not read the simplified character for "leaf" and I had to tell her what it was. I then joked, "Don't worry, I'm very happy to teach you Chinese."

In the classroom, however, I rarely use traditional characters; even though my school is based in Taipei most books have simplified characters and a lot of the dialogues take place in mainland cities like Beijing or Guangzhou. This may be because several of their branch offices are on the mainland and it would be hard to market books there with traditional characters, but I'm not sure this is the reason. Of course, this makes class much easier but has failed to prove any help in ordering breakfast.

Another little difference that proves annoying now and then is how every once in a while you encounter a word that means something slightly different in Taiwan than it does on the mainland but it changes the entire meaning of your statement. For example, some friends asked me why I like South Park and I told them because I think it's funny. However, the mainland word for "funny," kexiao, holds a meaning closer to the word "pathetic" when you say it in Taiwan. So I basically told my friends "I like it because it's pathetic." No matter how good you are at Chinese on the mainland, you're bound to make a similar mistake every once in a while in Taiwan.

Overall, though, I came here to be challenged and so far I'm not disappointed. Enough aspects are similar to mainland China that I have no problem getting by but at the same time the subtle differences keep me on my toes. If you've lived on the mainland for a while and then choose to visit Taiwan keep this in mind; don't get frustrated but try to recognize it as part of the experience. In some ways it's like starting over but you should be able to sidestep the more substantial difficulties.

Shawn Lynott
MA International Affairs 2012
Sigur Center 2011 Chinese Language Fellow
Taipei Language Institute, Taiwan

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