In 2014 Taiwan entered the Australian Government’s New Colombo Scholarship program. Asia Options is delighted to invite Rose Vassel to shed light on her experience as the first Taiwan Fellow.
In June of this year, I escaped a bitterly cold winter in Sydney and ended up in the furnace-like heat of a Taiwanese summer. I had been lucky enough to be awarded a New Colombo Plan scholarship by the Australian Government, and I decided I would spend a year at the International Chinese Language Program studying Chinese. Despite preparing for the trip by watching countless documentaries about Taiwan, I still had no idea what to expect.
Now, with my first few days of exploring Taipei behind me, I have come to see and experience a lot more of Taiwan (although still not enough), and have become yet another of the many foreigners who take every opportunity to gush about the island.
The Mandarin Training Centre at NTNU
Before I commenced my current program at the ICLP, I completed a summer course at the Mandarin Training Centre in NTNU. During those two months of intensive language training I learnt more Chinese then I did during my two years of study in Australia. It really is true that nothing compares to an immersion experience, where not only do you speak Chinese in class for three hours a day but you also have the opportunity to apply newly acquired abilities outside of class. Most importantly, and mostly out of lack of other options, I very quickly overcame what can often be a debilitating fear of making mistakes when speaking a new language (it is surprising how convincing an empty stomach can be).
How important is speaking Chinese in Taiwan?
The ability to speak even a little Mandarin opened my eyes to so much of Taiwan that I otherwise never would have experienced. I am often told that it is possible to ‘get by’ without speaking a word of Mandarin, and to a degree that is true. Taipei is an extremely convenient, English-friendly and livable city. But I’ve found that just ‘getting by’ is no way to experience a new country. From conversations with the notoriously nosy cab drivers to being invited into a tea guru’s home for an impromptu tea ceremony, knowing how to speak even a little Mandarin has immeasurably enriched my experience here.
On the other hand, there are many cultural differences that can be noticed without knowing a word of Chinese. I have been most taken by the remarkable sense of social responsibility that pervades many aspects of people’s lives. This is most obvious on the extremely clean MRT system, where so much as taking a sip of water will be met with the disapproving stares of the young and old. Chewing gum, eating and drinking are not permitted and the locals uphold these standards with great fervour (and for good reason, riding on Taipei’s MRT is by far the most pleasant metro experience I have ever had).
Bracing a couple of typhoons
Taiwan experienced two of its worst typhoons in 30 years in the 3 months since I arrived. Typhoon Soudelor and Typhoon Dujuan ripped through Taipei with hours of strong wind and torrential rain. In the destruction left by those storms, I was astonished by the rapidity with which Taipei’s residents responded – even when the carnage was not in their own backyard. Just before the storm was over dutiful citizens were sweeping the leaves off the streets, determined to do their bit. For weeks afterwards, I saw groups of Taiwanese grandmas cleaning up the mud from around the sitting areas in the riverside park. All this lends to the feeling that there is a sense of real pride in the local Taiwanese – for their city, for their culture, and for the welcoming experience that they can provide to visitors.
After three months here I still can’t pretend to know nearly enough about the history, culture and language in Taiwan, but I am incredibly grateful that I have the next year and a bit to learn more.
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