Friday, August 19, 2011

Taiwan: 2011 Summer Fellows – Taking Stock at the End of the Summer

It’s 3 o’clock in the morning as I sit down to write the first draft of my last post, and the jetlag from the twelve hour time difference in New Jersey has had me wide awake for awhile already. At this time of night, and with sentimental Taiwanese singer-songwriter music playing on my iTunes, I really miss being in Taipei.
From a Chinese-learning perspective, the past couple of months have been a success. I learned a lot from the program at National Taiwan University (NTU), and I can feel in my day-to-day conversation how much I have improved. I nailed my end-of-term presentation and did pretty well on last week’s exit examination. My last night in the country was also one of my prouder nights, when I met up with a local friend who I hadn’t seen since my first few nights in Taipei at the end of May. It was crazy how much more smoothly we could chat together compared to when I first arrived. I find myself thinking back to Peter Hessler’s account of experiencing mainland China for the first time, and how learning Chinese was like a photograph becoming more and more in focus over time. I can gradually feel my hold on Chinese getting stronger and stronger.
Language learning aside, the past month in particular has been pretty special. I came to Taiwan with the intention of throwing myself more-or-less entirely into language studies, and I had fewer expectations of developing particular affections for my program, colleagues, or the city. I spent my first few weeks in Taipei doing Chinese pretty much all of the time before I started to realize that my time in the country was running out and that half of the purpose of flying to Taipei was to experience as much of the culture and city as possible. In the end it felt really good to get on a schedule of waking up at 6am every morning, spending a solid day studying Chinese, and then trying to make something different of my evening, like doing a language exchange, checking out a local music performance, or just taking a long walk in a different direction. I filled up more pages in my journal these past three months than I’d written in nearly the past two years.
For me the key to language learning has always been about having the passion to actually want to use the language. I’m convinced that the main reason I washed out of French, despite studying it in high school and college, was because I never came to see it as much more than a required course. I wasn’t so enthusiastic about beginning to learn Chinese either when I first moved to the mainland a few years ago. It wasn’t until I started to make connections with the people and the place that putting in the effort to improve my communication skills became personally important.
A similar thing happened in Taiwan this summer. I feel reenergized for learning Chinese thanks to the experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have. I hope that I can find the opportunity to return to NTU to continue my studies or at least visit the people I’ve met. I’m even surprised at myself that I intend on continuing to study traditional Chinese characters even after I’ve returned to the US. It’s a goal that I honestly never thought I would take up before I left for Taiwan, since all of my previous experience was with simplified characters, but it’s something that I want to continue with because of the relationships that I’ve developed. I even purchased a hefty traditional character textbook on my last day of class that I’ll use to study with independently. It's made for a fulfilling summer knowing that my experience in Taipei is something that I want to remember and build upon for a long time.

Christopher Wong
MA International Affairs, 2012
Sigur Center 2011 Chinese Language Fellow
National Taiwan University, Taiwan

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