Alice Slevison from Asia Options recently had a chat with Aidan Dullard about his time spent studying at the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, and about his tips for scoring a scholarship to study in Taiwan.
Aidan is a Chinese language student at the National Taiwan Normal University. He is a recent graduate from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Arts (Majors in International Relations and Chinese) and a Diploma in Japanese. Aidan is a 2014 recipient of the Taiwan Ministry of Education Huayu Enrichment Scholarship, and the Walter Mangold Scholarship. He is a co-founder of the Taiwan Alumni Association at the University of Melbourne.
Where did your interest in the Chinese language come from?
I studied a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne Uni with a Diploma in Japanese. My majors were Chinese language and International Relations – I’ve always been interested in the world and global affairs, and I thought IR was a perfect way to combine my interests in history and politics with some theory. In my second year, I was able to pick up Chinese, and it quickly became one of my favourite subjects. When starting uni I was very much one of those students who had no idea what they wanted to do beyond their degree, but I’m glad I made those subject choices now!
Why did you choose to study Chinese in Taiwan rather than Mainland China?
Taiwan is an incredible place, and I fell in love with it almost immediately – well, after we’d survived about two weeks of non-stop rain right after we arrived. I had enjoyed my study abroad experience at Fudan University, Shanghai, and I had also travelled around China, but living in Taiwan is dramatically different – from the food, to the people, to the atmosphere and culture. Taiwan has its own fascinating take on modernity within a Chinese cultural context, and I found a lot of that made a nice contrast to the “China” I was already pretty familiar with. After I’d spent three months here in early 2013 I definitely wanted to come back if I could, and as it turns out I was fortunate enough to get some scholarships which enabled me to do just that. The system for teaching Chinese here, including learning traditional Chinese characters, are also not nearly as daunting as many think. For students that might want to specialise in ancient Chinese history or that want to read anything written before the 1950s, at least some knowledge of traditional characters is going to come in handy. I also can’t ignore the incredible food – Taiwanese cuisine is a mix of dishes and influences from all over China. Taipei has heaps of quality Western-style food, and the Japanese restaurants here are some of the best outside Japan. The night market culture was such a big contrast to Beijing and Shanghai, and I really loved exploring new food and finding out the best places to eat.
How did you prepare for your studies in Taiwan?
The University of Melbourne has a reasonably close relationship with the Victorian branch of the Taiwanese Economic and Cultural Office (TECO), which acts as a de-facto consulate and handles things like exchanges and scholarships to Taiwan. I applied for the Ministry of Education Huayu Scholarship again and was lucky enough to be successful, and from there TECO were excellent in sorting out visas and everything else. Student visa requirements in Taiwan seem rather less onerous than ones to China – there’s no medical checkup needed, for example. As for other scholarships, I mostly relied on my university’s scholarships website, which had a great list of resources, timeframes, application deadlines and other information.
What scholarships did you receive?
I applied for and received the Taiwan Ministry of Education’s Huayu Enrichment Scholarship and the Walter Mangold Foundation’s Study Abroad Scholarship. The Huayu Scholarship is theoretically for as long as one year, but almost all of the Australians I’ve met have only received three-month ones. You apply through your university and local TECO, and there are roughly one or two dozen places a year. The scholarship stipend is $25,000 NTD monthly (about $900 AUD), which is more than enough to pay for rent, food, entertainment and probably part of your tuition. The selection process is fairly opaque, but I’d recommend including as much information about yourself (and your Chinese study) as possible and making sure that your written application is as good as it can be.
The Walter Mangold Foundation Scholarship is only available to Victorian students, and generally only undergraduates. It’s a much more open-ended scholarship, in that students create a budget for themselves (as well as providing their own destination, program, length of time, and study plan) which is then approved by a committee. Grant amounts range from $5000 to $20,000 depending on student requirements, and I’d recommend that students create a realistic budget then do their best to show how study abroad would benefit their language skills. This scholarship seems relatively less well-known in Victoria, but it’s an absolutely fantastic opportunity.
How has your experience at the NTNU been?
NTNU’s Mandarin Training Center has a long history, and it’s certainly familiar with teaching foreigners – Kevin Rudd was here about thirty years ago! MTC is absolutely enormous, and at times it feels almost chaotic – but the sheer range of nationalities and types of students makes it an incredibly interesting place to learn Chinese. The textbooks and study materials are decent, and a focus on small classes with fairly intense schedules means it’s pretty easy to make good progress. The only downside is a lack of student numbers at the advanced level, which makes it difficult for the university to run most of their high-level subjects on culture, philosophy, politics, etc. NTNU really is dominated by beginner and intermediate students, and so from that perspective, it’s great to come here if you’re learning Chinese at first or second-year level at university.
Are there many Australians studying at the NTNU?
It varies, really, but certainly not many – I’ve only seen a handful in my time here, and numbers seem to spike during the winter semester (which is Australia’s summer break). It’s possible I might just be missing them – NTNU has over one thousand foreign students at one any time, and many of them only stay for three or six months before heading home again. Unfortunately, though, not many Australian students seem to be aware of Taiwan as a possible destination for studying Chinese, and even Australian universities tend to establish relationships with big Mainland counterparts before looking across the strait. The students I have met here tend to be ones with an existing interest in Taiwan or those who were persuaded to come by their teachers or TECO itself. I think some are put off by the assumption that Mandarin learned in China will be “more useful” than the same language learned in Taiwan, but in my experience, I haven’t found that to be true at all – in some ways it’s probably beneficial to lack the 東北 accent!
What are your thoughts on the Taiwan equivalent of the HSK?
The “Taiwanese HSK” is called the TOCFL (“Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language”, or 華語文能力測驗), and it’s mostly similar to the HSK, even down to the same number of levels. Obviously, there are differences in vocab and question types, but it wasn’t too hard to switch over. It appears that the test was designed specifically to compete with the HSK as the international standard for Mandarin Chinese, but so far I haven’t seen or heard much about it catching on outside Taiwan. The TOCFL is vital for students applying for scholarships or degree programs in Taiwan, and it might prove useful for securing employment here. One big difference is that the reading and listening sections of TOCFL are done almost entirely on a computer, which wasn’t the case for HSK when I did it back in 2012. (Editor’s note: computer-based HSK tests currently are available depending on the testing location you choose)
How has your time in Taiwan assisted with your future career aspirations?
Chinese will definitely be a part of my future career, and so far my time in Taiwan has proven enormously useful in boosting my language skills. I’ve also developed a much deeper appreciation for the differences between Taiwan and China, and the ways in which these manifest themselves in culture and politics. I’m still not quite sure where I’ll end up in my career – a lot will depend on study plans for next year and beyond – but studying abroad has been an absolutely fantastic experience. I’m now even more determined to get my Chinese to as high a level as possible.
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