LIVING IN TAIWAN
Michael A. Turton
trash to a recycler. Thousands of people pick up recyclables off the
or collect them from local factories, and make a little money
them to recycling companies.
scooters, bicycles and
pedestrians mingle on a crowded suburban lane.
Two major languages are in common use in Taiwan, Taiwanese and Chinese.
Chinese is the official language and for years it was forbidden to
Taiwanese in school, the legislature and other official settings, as
as on TV (outside of a couple of reserved time slots).
officers adjudicate an accident on a side street.
||The explosion of Taiwanese language since the end
law has revolutionized the language situation here. Now many
have learned Taiwanese and some businesses will not hire locals who
speak fluent Taiwanese. Taiwanese is common on the streets, especially
outside of Taipei. The new education reforms have mandated the teaching
of local languages in the schools as well.
sellers waiting for customers in a morning market.
||Further, new government language policies are
the use of Hakka and other minority languages. The long-term result
probably be the balkanization of the island, but in the short-term now
is a very exciting time linguistically and culturally on Taiwan.
on a supermarket shelf. If you can't read Chinese, labels are a mystery.
||Outside of northern Taiwan people largely speak
with each other, not Mandarin. Central and southern Taiwan are hotbeds
of Taiwanese nationalism, whereas the north is about one-third
You will probably learn Mandarin more rapidly in the north.
fruit vendor chats with a customer on a Taipei street.
||The major foreign languages are Japanese and
everyone speaks three or four languages now, some combination of
Chinese, Japanese, English and Hakka. Spanish and French are probably
other significant languages, but they are far, far behind the
large Seventh Day Adventist Church in Taichung.
||If you speak a Western language besides English,
probably make money tutoring in that as well. If you are a native
of an in-demand European language, and you have a masters degree, you
be able to obtain a university position teaching that language.
|Shoppers overwhelm a traditional morning market.
|Should I learn Chinese?
I used to recommend that all foreigners learn Chinese, but now I am
not so sure. If you are here for the short-term, a little Chinese
will be useful in getting around. But if you are here for the
term, there is some disagreement among long-termers on the utility of
Chinese. Many people live here happily for years, even marry, without
|Flooded fields and straight roads characterize much of the
south of Taichung.
|This is because there are two basic modes of
one for outsiders and one for insiders. If you don't speak
people will place you in your proper role of foreigner and
you with respect and deference.
group of men prepares to move a temple god into its niche in local
|If you speak Chinese,
however, you will often elicit the
with which most Chinese treat each other (and regard as normal).
Westerners often experience this as rude.
Hikers make their way up
a ridge on the east coast.
|Another problem with speaking excellent Chinese
you will be exposed to all sorts of interactions you might otherwise
avoided. If you have an accident and can't speak Chinese, nobody
can accuse you of anything. You might be made to do extra work at your
office if people know you can translate. If you can speak
you might be horrified to learn that the fishing trip your kind friend
took you on was actually to a protected nature reserve. And so
who are about to die salute you.
|However, there are numerous drawbacks to
Chinese. For one thing, it is insulting to live somewhere without
speaking a local language (Both foreigners and Taiwanese often express
contempt for foreigners
who live in Taiwan without speaking the language), and for another,
foreigners generally know very little about Taiwan. If you really want
to participate in the life of the island, Chinese is more or less
vendor prepares candied fruits for sale in a night market.
|Learning Chinese is endlessly useful in everyday
for everything from deciphering food packaging labels to reading street
signs. Many people find it extremely difficult to get around in
cities without some Chinese, especially outside of Taipei where the
is less likely to feature English.
await fans in a video and music store.
|Most importantly, Chinese is the ticket to any
high-paying teaching and translation jobs.
imagine if you could speak his language!
all, you can read Tang poetry in the original.
A street devoted to
furniture stores in Taipei.
small army of early risers exercises in front of a public auditorium in
Taichung. Many Taiwanese, especially the old, are enthusiastic
although they are often indifferent to participating in organized
typical mom-n-pop supermarket in a small Taiwanese town. Like many of
vanishing breed, it is strategically located next to two schools and
snacks and sweets.
||Is Chinese easy to learn?
Chinese in some ways will be a relief. It has no tenses, conjugations
and so forth, word meanings are relatively restricted (there are no
in Chinese like "run" in English with its scores of meanings) and the
is child's play. There are only a couple of hundred thousand Chinese
unlike English with its million or three, and there is a dearth of
camera guards an intersection in a small town outside of Taichung. Many
of these cameras are for public security, not traffic control.
||The tones will cause problems for the first few
Most foreigners go through a difficult phase after they know some
in which they think they are speaking Chinese, but actually, because
tones are unclear, they are speaking gibberish which the locals
cannot understand. Frustrating, but this phase will pass. Just bull
it and keep reminding yourself that it is your problem, and not the
school students ham it up for the camera.
||You will know that your Chinese tones have
you hear another foreigner speaking during this phase of her learning,
and you discover that you can't understand a word they are saying.
|What is this colorful place that calls itself "Little
that its service involves men and women, and is clean and healthy? It says
it's a hair salon. Not many 24 hour hair salons....
||The hard part is the characters. I suggest you
a copy of McNaughton's Reading and Writing Chinese, and learn
characters to twenty-five characters a day, writing them over and over,
until you've memorized the book, then move on to more difficult
A concert on a college
|Only about three thousand
characters need be committed to
read a newspaper. The real key to learning is commitment to the
of memorizing all these characters.
kids at play with a cousin in the park area next to our house. My
is bilingual and reads, writes, and speaks both English and Mandarin.
son attends American school and is picking up Mandarin only slowly.
|How do I go about
How to learn it? You could sign up for classes, but that means you
have to spend time and money during prime hours when you could be
and making money (also, the Mandarin they teach is really stilted). Not
wise in my view, but then self-teaching is not for everybody.
The Mandarin Training Center at Shih Ta puts out a large
number of excellent
materials which you can use to teach yourself (many have).
store displays are a universal idiom.
|If you aren't willing to speak and sound stupid,
never get anywhere (many Taiwanese are unwilling to sound stupid and
face, thus they have difficulty learning English).
Language exchanges are common and a good way to make friends
members of the opposite sex.
weather overwhelms the suburbs of southern Taichung.
|Taiwanese is rather a more difficult case. The
a number of local accents and good self-teaching materials are hard to
come by. But many foreigners learn it and find it quite easy. A
will come in handy here as well. Locals really appreciate it when
take the trouble to learn Taiwanese.
||New construction eats up greenspace in Taiwan. The
government has made
no attempt to preserve public and park space in new construction. The
is urban environments that verge on unlivable. In the background one
get glimpses of the cool green mountains of central Taiwan.
vendors in a covered junk market reshuffle their wares.
|A taxi driver practices a common Taiwanese driving tactic:
left turn from the far-right hand lane through a red light. The result
of such stupidity is Taiwan's astronomical accident rates.
A couple of things to be aware of. First, people's perception
will change if you open your mouth and speak Chinese. Service is likely
to be less gracious if you appear to be someone who knows something
than a dumb, mute foreigner (Taiwanese treat foreigners much better
they treat each other).
10:00, the last students head home from a neighborhood English/cram
in a small town. Schools like this offer classes in many subjects.
||You may actually find it difficult to practice
since many will use you as an opportunity to practice English. Your
of Taiwan will change radically if you speak Chinese and you may come
understand Taiwan and its culture in a way that will disappoint you.
may assume you know more than you actually do if you speak Chinese. All
of these things will have to be weighed when communicating on
computer service business in a small town. An hour on the computers
||In many official circumstances I do not speak
but let my wife handle the affair, standing behind with a big dumb
the stupid foreigner who has to be helped (conversely, when my
wife needs something, she often drags me along, because she gets better
service if I, the foreigner, am present with my big dumb smile).
interior of a pizza parlor.
||Also it is important to understand that English
harder than Chinese. Its tense structure, grammar and vocabulary are
complex than Chinese. Much ordinary English language is highly
and must simply be memorized (for example, we say "on Sunday" but "at
a fact which drives second language learners insane.
is constant in Taiwan, where no place is so beautiful that it can't do
with more concrete.
||Its words have a riot of meanings and there are
of them. Many things which must be specified in English can be omitted
in Chinese. Of course, learning English is more difficult because the
do not hear it on a 24 hour basis the way you hear Chinese.
Remember, complimenting people on their English is a good
TEACHING ENGLISH IN TAIWAN