Written by Zoe Maalouf, (University of Puget Sound) Student Correspondent CET Taiwan, Fall 2018
Learning Chinese at ICLP and living in Taipei has simultaneously been incredibly wonderful, incredibly unordinary, and incredibly stressful. This might not sound like an enticing description of my daily life, considering I am thrilled to be here and very satisfied with my decision to study here. Despite the fact that “incredibly wonderful” is the only trait of my experience so far that seems outright positive, I can assure you the outstanding parts of language learning and studying abroad are not the only parts worth experiencing.
There are days in Taipei that end up being extraordinary, boring, and difficult all in the same breath. Sometimes I have a spectacularly wonderful day, and it’s because I spur of the moment decided to go on my own to a concert that ended up being one of the best I’ve ever seen. There are also days where I learned that unordinary and wonderful aren’t mutually exclusive. Some of my favorite moments of being here are when I order my dinner completely in Chinese and the worker completely understands me without having to use English. It’s not a moment of extreme awe, but it’s not insignificant either.
Despite having a basic handle on Chinese, it’s not easy to use it at first. I have taken two years of college Chinese prior to coming here, and it feels like all of it got flushed down the metaphoric toilet once I stepped off the plane. Sometimes I’ll be struggling to piece together a grammatically correct sentence and French will be the language that comes out. I haven’t taken a French class in two years. Sometimes when I’m speaking, I’ll forget how to use grammatical rules that I’ve been memorizing since I started college. I’ll forget vocabulary and how to say them, I’ll say something really nonsensical. My housemate will be speaking to me, and suddenly I don’t understand anything except pronouns, but she isn’t picking up on my deer-in-the-headlights body language. Don’t even get me started on reading characters, I’m barely literate over here. I’m going to be frank, I’ve had days where I got so stressed out by constant miscommunications that I went home and cried. These moments of frustration put my moments of small triumph into relief, and help me realize that just because I’m in an environment of immersion it doesn’t mean language proficiency is just going to happen at some point.
I’ve also been humbled a great deal while taking classes at ICLP. When I first looked at my textbooks, I thought that they weren’t taking my experience seriously. However once I got into class and realized just how much speaking Chinese proficiently required of me, I had to take myself down a couple notches. My reading and writing abilities weren’t as good as I wanted them to be, I found myself not understanding characters of words I had learned in my first semester Chinese class. The workload has forced me to get more serious about memorizing characters, especially since my ability to write characters is also subpar. Sometimes I get frustrated, because it feels like I’m studying my hardest but I still have work to do. Despite the frustration, I can feel myself improving and even remembering more vocabulary and grammar.
Even though my stress is real and valid, it’s simply a part of this complex process. While fantasizing about my trip here, it was easy to reduce Taiwan to a magical language machine that would spit out a me that was fluent in Chinese. It was important for me to realize that studying abroad is going to be the same as studying at home in many ways. There’s going to be late nights and procrastination, there’s going to be days that are just off for some reason. I have developed a sense of routine here, since everyday life bound to produce it. In the midst of ordinary things that aren’t incredible fabulous moments of cultural awakening, I can still appreciate Taiwan for its unique characteristics, and the experiences I get while living here.
I also have had so many moments of triumph, that sound so tiny and insignificant but can be enough to carry me through a difficult week. Sometimes customer service workers are genuinely curious about what I’m doing in Taiwan, even though they aren’t obligated to talk to me beyond the transaction. Sometimes the girl at the bubble tea store helps me learn how to say something new. It’s really fulfilling to have people be interested in who I am in such a new place. Connections can be stilted by my language ability, and I can’t express complex concepts at all. One of the few mornings I went to Starbucks, I struggled to tell the barista how to write the Chinese name my teacher back home gave me. Eventually I gave her my English name, but after they started on my coffee she seemed to genuinely want to know how to write my name and we figured out how to describe it together. Cities are big and crowded and life is busy, but there is potential everywhere for fulfilling experiences. While studying abroad, I really recommend looking for these points of connection in daily life. If you find yourself functioning well on a daily life basis, I’d say that’s a sign of success– that’s the kind of language that everyone else is using.
Learning a language and adapting to a different culture isn’t just one thing, it’s complicated and hard to define conclusively. It’s hard to gauge what native speakers actually think of my ability because they are either way too excited when I say basic sentences, or so unimpressed that they only use English. It’s also hard to say that everything always feels super great, because between my internship and my class work, I’m exhausted. However more importantly, as I pass the halfway mark on my program, I can’t help but feel that I can’t go home yet. The bad, the good, the dull, this experience still has so much more to offer.