Monthly Archives: June 2014

Taiwan – Chapter 3

The University Experience

I had my appartment, I had met the family, I had stocked up with enough mooncakes to get me through the next three typhoons, and now the time had arrived for me to get down to work.

“You are late.”
“Excuse me?”
“Your group started class two weeks ago.”
“But how is that possible when the semester hasn’t even started yet?”
“That’s for the normal groups, but you are supposed to join the intensive class, because according to your scholarship in seven months from now you must sit the Level 3 Chinese competency test. But we sent you an e-mail, didn’t you receive it?”
“I guess I didn’t realise what’s going on. Have I missed much?”

I had missed two chapters, the instrution of PinYin and some basic vocab, but thankfully my friend in Strasbourg had taught me that the year before. So I could focus on meeting my teacher and classmates. If I say it like it’s a big thing that requires effort, that’s because for me it is and it does. I am not very sociable and the worst situation anyone can put me in is a room full of people all of whom I have to meet. But I guess I did well. After some time. Acouple of months maybe. Or trimesters. One or two people at a time I can do. More, weeeell…

National Cheng Kung University is one of the top Universities in Taiwan. Their Chinese Language Center did live up to my expectations. Good schedule, fairly nice facilities, satisfying extracurricular activities and the most important: Super-helpful staff. From day one, the office staff helped me immensely with all the mafan (麻煩 – irritating/troublesome – I know I’m cheating, I didn’t learn that until much later) procedures, like opening a bank account, applying for my arc etc – they even offered to go with me to the bank. And when it comes to talking about the teachers, I have no words that can describe how polite, friendly, patient, funny and hardworking they are. I studied for three trimesters and on every trimester we had a different teacher. Plus the two I met during my one-on-one classes, that’s five. Each of them was special in their own way and I’m glad I met them all. They made the strenuous and often tedious job of learnng Chinese much MUCH more bearable.

language center

CLASSES were never boring. We studied grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, and the various games the teachers came up with made the learning process both fun and effective. Elective classes included pronunciation, grammar, daily vocabulary, tai chi, Chinese calligraphy etc. There was an excursion twice every trimester. Those were the best. Well organized and interesting, they took us to all the famous sights of Tainan and further (the visit to the Taiwanese Indigenous Cultures Park was my personal favorite). Last but not least, every trimester the Language Center held a performance: a theater play, a singing competition, a poetry reading competition (all of it in Chinese, yes) plus several other activities if there was Chinese celebration coming up (making dumplings, writing Chinese couplets, participating in the city’s dragonboat competition etc.).

HOWEVER! Not everything was dreamy. Far from. Remember the scholarship part I mentioned above? A typical trimester for the normal group went like this: Two hours of class every day, plus at least five hours of elective classes every week, for eleven weeks. Between trimesters there was a two-week break, plus any holidays the Chinese calendar recognizes (Nope. Christmas ain’t in it. Neither is Easter.) Three hours of class every day for 13 weeks with a one-week break in between trimesters. Electives were optional since our obligatory three-hour class covered the fifteen hours of mandatory class per week the scholarship demanded. Any electives were for us charged extra. Another difference was that while a normal group had to finish approximately one book chapter each week, we had to finish two and a half, sometimes three. To sum up, by May we had begun book 4. That’s just plain crazy. Challenging yes, but crazy. I didn’t mind the workload, that was what I was there for, but in order to go through the predetermined coursework there wasn’t enough time for us to familiarize ourselves with the vocabulary we learned.

Of course that wasn’t up to the Unversity or the staff. They did all they could to make things easier for us. And I know for a fact that the normal groups work wonderfully and there were no disappointed students. So the bottomline is: studying in Cheng Kung Da Xue was an amazing experience, but if I were to do it again, I wouldn’t go with the aid of the scholarship. But, for those who do need it, I still recommend the experience. Just prepare yourselves for some hard work.

For more info on the scholarships visit the Taiwanese Ministry of Education Website. My scholarship was Huayu Enrichment Scholarship, while my classmate’s who were pursuing a degree were under a different sholarship which required from them to obtain a Chinese language diploma of lower level than mine. So make sure you do your homework before you make any decisions.

P.S. I have to admit: it is immensly gratifying to notice the progress you have every week, when after week one, when you can’t even get food with all the damned doodles they have for words, you gradually make out more and more of what goes on around you. And in the end, when I arrived at the airport of Athens and found myself between a group of Greeks and a group of Chinese tourists, I could understand them both. I felt tired but proud.

taichi

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Unsafe Containers – The Damp Squib Effect

I’m not sure Damp Squib Effect is the correct term for what I’m looking to explain, so to be sure, I will try to make it as clear as possible with an example. It’s that feeling when after you have been excited about something, and I mean REALLY excited, like hyped, something happens that puts you off. Let’s say there’s a typhoon outside, and you know you’ll have to stay put for at least 48 hours and just because you know you can’t go out you suddenly start craving all sorts of weird things. So you literaly rummage your fridge looking for some smoked jellyfish you KNOW you had saved, and then all of a sudden you find one of those seafood flavored pastes that come in a tube, that resemble a toothpaste. Yes, that pink stuff some people put on their bread and go mmmm. It doesn’t matter it normally makes you wanna throw up the milk you were breastfed and you have no idea how it got in your fridge in the first place, now, in the middle of the typhoon, you know it’s the only thing that can save you from going nuts in despair for you can’t have what you really need; smoked jellyfish. So you open the tube, turn it upside down over your gaping mouth and right before you start squeezing the hell out of it, it occurs to you: I didn’t check the expiration date! And you do, and it has expired. For over a year now. Then comes what the internet says is called the damp squib effect. It’s when you get so incredibly put off by something that everything else feels uncool and boring too, even irritating and no matter what you do you can’t shake it off. You just have to wait for it to go away. And it can get so bad you might end up with your back on the floor, staring at the ceiling, trying to find the meaning of your life again in those old cracks. It’s what we Greeks call “Kseneroma”.

For The Daily Post’s Daily Prompt Challenge and Writing 101: Day One: Unlock The Mind

Taiwan – Chapter 2

Meeting the Family

I arrived in Taiwan on a Friday, two days before the Mid-Autumn Festival. My friend Yi-Nan, rising up to the reputation of the Taiwanese hospitality, invited me to spend the festival with her family in her hometown. Naturally, I agreed without hesitation.

The Zhong Qiu Jie or Mid-Autumn Festival, is one of the most important celebrations of the Chinese Tradition. It is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the calculations of which are a mystery to every Taiwanese person I asked, every one of them answering “it has something to do with the moon”. I still don’t get how it is they have no curiosity about these things.

“So what do you do during the Mid-Autumn Festival?”

“We make barbeque and eat a lot!” Yi-Nan answered, her eyes widening in anticipation. That was all the information I needed.

It took us about 40 minutes on Yi-Nan’s scooter to get from Tainan to Alian. It was mid-September but the weather reminded me of Greece in August. With a little humidity added. And pollution. And I should mention that since it was a semi-formal occasion and I hadn’t met Yi-Nan’s family before I had to look decent, so I put on a pair of jeans. Yeah, I wasn’t very happy, but I had to survive until the evening barbeque.

We arrived a little after lunch time. Yi-Nan’s mother was waiting for us on the front yard, her Golden Retriever running around her, excited by the sound of our scooter. She greeted us and welcomed me in her home. The interior was as simple as the exterior, a few chairs, a tea-table and a desk being all the furniture in the living room. My eyes paused on the heavy wooden front door with the carved Chinese Ideograms. Yi-Nan translated it for me: “Be happy with what you have”. Before she sat next to me, she took a few incense sticks, lit them and offered her respects to a small altar on a wall that featured a man’s picture.

“Every house has a little altar in honor of the ancestors. This day, like every other traditional festival, is a day of honoring the dead, so we…” she stopped to think about the words “bai bai we say” she added, putting her hands together in prayer and taking a bow.

“Pay your respects?” I asked.

“Yes!” she answered excited and went on, “In the morning we take the food that we are going to cook for dinner, and place it on a table in front of our house, as an offering.”

“An offering to whom?”

“The gods or the ancestors, it depends on every person’s religion. But traditionally this festival is about the moon. Legend has it there was this woman Chang E who married King Hou Yi. The King loved her very dearly but towards his people he was not as loving. One day the King was given an elixir that would turn him into a God. The King gave the elixir to his wife, to guard it until he was ready. Chang E, seeing how unjust and cruel he was to his people, drank the elixir herself to prevent him from assuming infinite power. She became a Godess and flew to the moon to watch over her husband. The moon festival is a celebration in honor of that woman’s sacrifice. And that is why we eat moon cakes!” she finished and turned to smile to her mother who was now standing next to her holding a huge box of cakes, urging me to try one. I had to be polite and there were so many to choose from. So I tried them all. There we so many different flavors, pineapple filling – which is also the filling of the traditional Taiwanese pineapple cake – red bean paste, taro paste, lotus flower seed, black sesame and my personal favorite, the very unusual pork floss filling, which is the sweet and sour result of a fried pork and Chinese gourd custard combination.

boxofmooncakes

With my stomach satisfied I was now ready to go for a walk. That being a foreign concept to the young Taiwanese people, Yi-Nan suggested we ride her motorbike to the town center. Naturally, we had to stop for refreshments first, so she insisted I tried the dong gua ning meng, a sweet drink made of winter gourd and lemon juice, which turned out to be my sweet tooth’s all time favorite Taiwanese drink.

Our next stop was at the town’s temple. I have to say it looked a little bit out of place, like someone had accidentally dropped it among the rather depressing grey buildings. That was the first of many moments when I felt like I was in a movie. Among the foreign cultures of the world, where I come from the Chinese is probably considered the most distant and exotic of them all. Western Asia and Northern Africa have appeared throughout Greek history in many occasions, but China has only been part of myths and legends. So the only thought on my mind as I walked around the koi fish lake and into the pagoda was how surreal it all was – and , for a brief moment, what a great fishing spot that would make for my dad. But I didn’t say that out loud. Capital punishment is valid in Taiwan, so I didn’t want to take any risks.

Alian Pagoda

It was 5.30pm when we finished our tour of the temple. Yi-Nan suggested we headed home since the guests were expected at 6.00pm, but first she thought I should try another Taiwanese delicacy, dou hua she called it or bean jelly. Basically it’s a very light white curd made of tofu and garnished with different kinds of sweet sauces. I chose lemon sauce and some tapioca bubbles, just for the fun of it.

The guests arrived and the grilling begun. Pork, seafood and all kinds of vegetables went on the grill and in the mean time we had some delicious soup that had a little bit of everything in it. I tasted taro for the first time and fell absolutely in love with it, chewed on some raw sugarcane and then filled my plate several times with whatever came off the grill. The night’s highlight was the smoked chicken Yi-Nan’s uncle cooked using a method that only survived in few villages. He tied one whole chicken in a large tin box and turned it upside down so the box’s mouth would face the ground and the chicken would hang inside. Then, he stacked wood around the box and set it on fire.

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A couple of hours later the chicken was cooked all the way through, tender, juicy and smoky. We had a couple rounds of dong gua ning meng to wash everything down, and just when I thought I couldn’t take any more, Yi-Nan told me we had to go visit her best friend’s family. Of course they offered me more food there; of course I couldn’t refuse.

We ate, we drank, we sang, we laughed and even though I didn’t understand a lot of it I still didn’t feel left out because in its core every celebration of every tradition fulfills the same purpose. It brings families together to share their love for one another. And on my first week in Taiwan I felt like I was with family.