making connections

In my last post, I scratched the surface of how I ended up in Taiwan. In this post, I’ll scratch the surface of what made me stay. It’s all part of the introduction to a paper I wrote last semester at UTK and a good reminder of this quote by Marcel Proust:

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

My first few months in Taiwan were rough, to say the least. Culture shock, homesickness, loneliness—these are common challenges every new teacher in a foreign country faces. There were many moments when I wanted to tuck my tail between my legs and, head down, head home. But something wouldn’t let me do it. I’d like to say that something was my pride—my “stick-to-it-ness”—but, really, it was twofold. Sure, pride played a part, but it was really my students and a group of Taiwanese “language exchange” friends who changed my perspective and opened my eyes to the beauty and depth of Taiwan.

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Playing the alphabet game

Anyone who’s ever taught children or young adults can relate to this image: A classroom full of squirming bodies. Chatter. Laughter. Enthusiasm. Smiles. Mischievous smiles. Cunning smiles. These were my students in Taiwan, with the added challenge that their chatter was in Mandarin. Generally the kids were well-behaved, though sometimes it was difficult to tell when they were not. Sometimes it took the crying of another child to learn that Pirate had called Rex a bad name, or that Lady Bug wasn’t sharing her crayons. (Taiwanese children often choose their own English names or are given one by their teachers.) Of course we encouraged the kids to speak English as much as possible, but about half of our students struggled with questions as simple as: “What is your name?” We were here to have fun, not torture our students.

The more engaged I became in my role as a teacher, however, the more I wondered about their chatter. Often at mealtimes our translators would talk with the students and laugh. When I’d ask what they were laughing about, though, the meaning was usually lost when the translator tried to explain. Some things just don’t translate—cultural traditions, idioms and metaphors, linguistic idiosyncrasies, etc.

This became further evident when I befriended a group of Taiwanese professionals who worked at a landscape architect company near my apartment complex in Sanzhi. Laura had introduced them to me shortly after I’d arrived. She’d been meeting with Wei-Ming, Yenhsuan, Sueching, and Rox regularly for what they called “Language Exchange” for the past year. Basically, they’d get together and help each other with their English and Mandarin, respectively, and would talk American and Taiwanese culture along the way. Laura had moved to a new school when I arrived, however, and thus I had the benefit of sneaking in and taking over where she left off. This proved to be one of the most satisfying experiences I had in Taiwan and established friendships that have lasted to this day.
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Out with my language-exchange friends

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“I’m so glad we’re meeting today,” I remember telling Wei-Ming one rainy evening as I shook out my umbrella on the doorstep of his office. Wei-Ming was a spunky gentleman in his late thirties with a round face and dark hair that was just starting to silver at his temple. His English speaking and comprehension were fairly good, though grammar and pronunciation were a struggle. He smiled. “Oh yeah? Why is that?”

Just then Yenhsuan and Sueching entered the room. They were both recent graduates from an architecture school in Taiwan and were a fantastic source of information about youth culture in Taiwan.

“What on earth was going on yesterday?” I asked as soon as everyone was settled.

The previous day I’d taken the bus into town and, along the winding way, noticed large slaughtered pigs on display in front of every home between Sanzhi and Danshui. What the…? I’d become used to seeing brown women in aprons plucking chickens on their doorsteps, and men napping in blue trucks with their feet stuck out the windows, and scantily-clad women selling betel nut from florescent-lit glass booths along the road. I was used to the brightly-colored temples, and the night markets, and the meat trucks speeding down the mountainside (with hanging carcasses swaying) early in the mornings. I was not used to seeing slaughtered animals on display outside of people’s homes.
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The harbor in Danshui

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Betel nut girls — a common sight in Taiwan

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Shilin Night Market — the biggest night market in Taiwan

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“I went to Danshui . . . there were all of these pigs . . . it was” — I wanted to say ‘horrifying’ but didn’t want to offend my friends — “crazy!” I said at last.

After blurting out these words, I think I expected an immediate, strong response from my friends, but to my surprise, they just sat there. “Umm,” said Wei-Ming after a moment, “I’m not sure,” and he looked at the girls for help.

“Oh, I knowww,” Yenhsuan ventured after a moment. “Wasn’t this weekend the Yimin Festival? It’s the Hakka tradition in honor of Shénzhū—the God Pig.”

“Oh yes, yes,” Wei-Ming’s brow began to brighten. “People raise pigs to be very fat, then kill them as an offering. It is a very special day for the God Pig. The farmer with the biggest pig will receive many blessings from the god in the following year.”
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View of the Pacific from the top of my apartment complex… (I’m not posting pics of the pigs — too gross!)

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.Yenhsuan nodded, her shoulder-length locks bouncing as she leaned in. She loved sharing things about her culture. “There’s a big gathering in Sanxia, in New Taipei City, every year.” She paused. “Many people do not like it, though. They say it is cruel to make the pigs so fat.”

“Ohhh,” I said. “But these pigs were not that big. And I wasn’t in Sanxia. Are you sure it’s the same thing?”

Yenhsuan nodded. “Many people participate even if they do not go to Sanxia. They sacrifice the pigs to their city god or local deity for good luck.” She smiled, looking amused. “Weird, huh?”

I nodded and realized I must have a mixture of horror and shock written all over my face. I attempted to wipe it off.

Sueching, who’d been listening quietly to the conversation, piped up then in Mandarin. Her English was not as good as the others, and she was timid because of it. Yenhsuan laughed when Sueching had finished. She translated, “Sueching says she thinks they are crazy, too. Our families have never participated. It is an old tradition.”

“I see…”

“But maybe your families will regret it!” Wei-Ming laughed. He spoke first in Mandarin to the girls and then translated in English for me. “They will embrace Buddha’s feet in their hour of need—it is their destiny!”

Uhh? I laughed heartily along with the others, but truthfully I was still perplexed. There were inside jokes I was missing, cultural connections I just couldn’t see. (Wei-Ming’s joke hadn’t been that funny!)

I wondered, too, how these linguistic and cultural variations impacted my students’ ability to understand English, to understand me.

(Stay tuned…)
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*Images mine or borrowed from the World Wide Web

17 thoughts

    • Yes, definitely! And the ins and outs of foreign languages are tough, too! It is still weird to me that Mandarin uses no tenses and does not differentiate between genders. Quite different from Latin-based languages! I very much wish I had mastered a second language in my youth. I know it’s never too late to start, but it’s much easier to pick up when you are younger.

  1. In the theme park lands, a great source of labor is hiring college students. So we started off easy, and later we were hosting kids from the Philippines, Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Poland, Chile, Peru, Taiwan, and Singapore.

    I have to say the relationships I developed were great. I am still friends with a lot of them and we know talk about kids and other subjects when we used to just talk about our countries. I also played tour guide and helped them out in binds.

    It is a big world out there and you learn a lot about your own country as much as you learn about theirs. I also learned that our country has a lot to learn about being sociable compared to other cultures.

    And by the way, we had a few Beetle nut chewers from Micronesia. Wonderful stuff and also does wonders for your teeth as well!

    • Lol, yes, betel nut is a great way to catch the ladies!

      That’s really cool that you got to work with kids from all over. You’re right — those friendships and memories are ones that last forever. You’re also dead on when you say that you learn a lot about your own country when talking to people from others. I went to Taiwan thinking the United States was “better” than many other countries. I left thinking that “better” doesn’t apply when you’re talking about countries; instead, “different” is a much more appropriate word.

      Thanks for reading! :)

  2. Love this post! There is sooo much fun in learning the jokes, slang, and nuances of new cultures & languages. My mother in law used to call my sister in law a “dai tow ha” in Cantonese, which translates to “big shrimp head,” implying she was an airhead. At the surface it seems offensive but it’s actually really funny and silly :)

    • Aww, thanks Sophia! Yeah, language is surely interesting. I read on your blog that you’re working towards being trilingual. I’m jealous! I wish I’d mastered a second language at an early age. Kudos to you!!

      • actually i’m already trilingual but trying to be quadrilingual. i am lazy at it though… language learning is some serious hard work! without real effort, immersion, and practice, there is no progress. how is your mandarin? i think chinese is so challenging!

      • Sorry, just saws this! My Mandarin is nonexistent. I really only speak English, though I’ve studied several other languages. You’re right — learning a language is hard work! I think it takes total immersion for an older student like myself to be successful. That said, some languages are more similar than others. I’ve heard Italian and Spanish are quite similar. Tonal languages are especially challenging to me.

  3. The cultural differences are within our country, states, county’s, communities. Language is only a small part of our tribalism. I appreciate you giving my thoughts some footing Jessica. (:)!

    • Lol, thanks Terri! You’re very right that there are BIG cultural differences within our communities and within this country. It’s part of the nature of living in a melting pot… Have you seen my latest post, by the way? I think you’ll like it!

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