Taipei to Tainan
Before I even have the chance to work up to “real annoyed now,” this chirpy little Taiwanese girl bops over from the other side of the gate and asks in near-flawless English – “need some help?” I don’t know what kind of look I gave her, but she responds by showing me the correct way to get the ticket to go in, and I gratefully but clunkily crash my way through the gate separating the subway station from the HSR station.
For the next 3 hours Sonia (Yi Chen) and I are inseparable and become fast friends. I instantly give up my more-expensive “reserved” seat for one in the non-reserved section so I can sit with Sonia and swap stories about language learning, families, friends, travel, Taipei and our destination, Tainan City.
On arrival, we briefly split so I can swing by my AirBnB and get settled in, and she can meet some friends for a late lunch. I make this sound simple, but actually it is a comedy of errors involving numerous miscommunications and difficulties, but whatever, I arrive, meet my absolutely wonderful host, get settled, and reunite with Sonia, and that’s all that matters.
When we meet up again, Sonia is just saying goodbye to her friends, who are headed off to the beach. Instead of splashing in the waves, Sonia and I meet up with her friend Alena (pronounced Ayona), who is a fluent-English-speaking Russian woman about to finish her Masters in linguistics at National Cheng Kung University (NCKU). The three of us have dinner together and eat on the ground at the huge Banyan tree park on campus.
Sonia has to rush off to attend a wedding, so Alena and I meet up with several other friends, these two from Kenya and the UK, to have supper. Even though I am still pretty full from my less-than-an-hour-ago meal, this new meal is equally scrumptious, and I leave with several more new friends. I end up on the back of Tommy the Englishman’s scooter and shortly thereafter we arrive at a foreigner bar near NCKU, where I proceed to meet and connect with a whole slew of people from at least 20 countries on 6 continents.
My mind is further blown by the fact that I meet someone who attended university in the small Wisconsin town where I grew up and also attended for my undergraduate degree. When I travel, no one has ever heard of my hometown, and few recognize Wisconsin. I usually have to say: “it’s near Chicago.” While this is technically true, saying it out loud makes most Wisconsinites mad at me. To have him whip out his UWSP Student ID was so strange… and oh-so wonderful.
Here I am with several dozen people from every populated continent on earth, and one of the people is a guy from another small city less than an hour away from where I grew up, waving a student ID from my very own alma mater university in front of my face. Wicked cool. Small world.
At the end of the night, one of my new Taiwanese friends carts me off on the back of his scooter and drops me off at my AirBnB apartment, and I go to sleep absolutely in awe of how lucky I am.
Folks, I think we have a winner.
Within 3 hours of landing in Tainan, I have at least five new local and international friends, several of whom I feel a strong connection with, a connection to a university, and feel more welcomed than I have in any other city in the world in my lifetime, including all those I paid good money to be welcomed to via a tour.
Exercise Fail and Win
I left the second feeling defeated, discouraged and frankly sad. I had showed up with a coupon that a friend had told me was good for a free month. However, it turned out to be good for only one day. But they wouldn’t even let me use the facilities that day, which was all I really wanted at that point. They said I had to call in advance and set a date at least two days in advance for when I would be using my free day.
Yeah, right. You treat me like crap in person because I don’t speak Chinese… and want me to call on the telephone? I don’t think so.
However, two major positives came out of that situation. #1) I found a Coldstone Creamery five minutes after leaving the Evil-People gym, and gladly and gratefully partook of my number one most comforting food in the universe. Though we couldn’t speak to each other, the employees could see I was sad about something, and sang a horribly out of tune and silly song in Mandarin to try to cheer me up.
It didn’t work, as I was working up to a deep funk at the time, but I appreciated the effort.
Positive outcome #2 was that on my way to the gym I saw a vegetarian restaurant with a huge sign in English advertising “Vegetarian Food.” This restaurant is a buffet, and I eat lunch there at least four days a week; it is excellent, cheap and plentiful. For less than USD$3 I can tank up on healthy veggies, 5-grain rice and tea. It was an incredibly valuable find, and since then I have eaten there once almost every day.
A few days later, I had a huge exercise win when I found and bought a bicycle. I asked a bunch of my new friends for help, and the quickest-to-the-plate ended up being my AirBnB host and all around great person Barclay. He took me down the street to a bike shop run by an acquaintance of his, and helped me maneuver explaining my needs, and I left the shop one bike, one helmet and one lock richer and USD$70 poorer with a HUGE smile on my face.
I have spent at least 30 minutes on that bike every single day since then, and gave up on my quest to find a gym.
Japanese (日本語) – OUT
Taiwan uses traditional Hanzi, and they are everywhere. About half of the simplified Kanji that I knew translated well into traditional Hanzi, but the other half didn’t. That wouldn’t be such a big deal, but there’s no easy way to tell which was which… so I had no idea when I correctly understood a sign, and when I was completely wrong.
This came to a head when it suddenly dawned on me that I had seen a particular Hanzi character (停) painted on the road hundreds of times and couldn’t figure out what it meant despite being in Taiwan for two weeks. When my dictionary pulled up the translation “stop” I felt like the biggest idiot in the world. I mean, they don’t have stop signs here, so you’d think I’d have figured it out earlier. But nope.
This experience showed me that not recognizing the traditional Hanzi was potentially putting me in physical danger, and I needed to start paying attention immediately to the world around me instead of the world in my head.
So I let go of the Japanese Kanji.
Chinese (中文) - IN
I have studied Mandarin at least 3 hours every day since figuring out that 「停 」meant “stop.” So I guess to me, 停 means “GO SAM GO!!!!!”
How Am I Doing This Whole Learning-Languages Thing?
It may not be sexy, but it works like gangbusters!
The next section includes a synopsis of my SMART goals for learning Mandarin. Whether I meet the goals or not is irrelevant; just having them motivates me to learn rapidly and efficiently, because I like to meet goals and achieve milestones. It gives me something to work towards, and feel successful at. It’s a linguistic and planning geek-out, so feel free to skip it if that isn’t your thing.
I chose 21 days for the short challenge because it is long enough to accomplish something tangible, but short enough that I have to start working on it immediately to meet the goals on time. I chose 10 weeks for the full challenge because that’s when my 90-day visa comes due and I have to leave the country, at least temporarily.
Sam’s 21-Day Mandarin Challenge
Started March 20th, 2015
To Be Completed By April 10th, 2015
2) Recognize 210 Traditional Hanzi (10 per day), including at least 42 (2 per day) from signs I see frequently in the streets, on safety warnings and on menus
3) Understand Survival Taiwanese Culture and Cuisine (try at least one new food every day, spend at least twelve hours (4 hours per week) discussing Taiwanese culture with local friends
Sam's Overall 10-Week Mandarin Challenge
STARTED MARCH 20TH, 2015
TO BE COMPLETED BY May 31st, 2015
2) Recognize 700 Traditional Hanzi, including at least 140 from signs I see frequently. Overlap with Japanese Simplified Kanji counts but only if I am confident that they are the same in both systems.
3) “Speak” pre-intermediate Taiwanese Culture and Cuisine (Recognize most items on restaurant menus and know whether I like the vegetarian options or not, recognize most major cultural differences between myself and Taiwanese people, enough to avoid the majority of foot-in-mouth experiences without direct prompting).
So that's it, folks. Will I meet all these goals? Probably not. Do I care? Not in the least. Am I going to bust my butt to get as far along this path as humanly possible? You can bet your bottom dollar I will.