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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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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.

IMG_0375

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.

Taiwan – Chapter 1

Arriving

It wasn’t until I heard the flight attendant have a rather vivid conversation in Chinese with the guy sitting next to me on the plane about something that involved the seatbelt, when I realized exactly where I was. I looked up over the seat in front of me, only to have this realization sink even deeper into my gut. I was on a stopover in Abu Dhabi, traveling from Greece to Taiwan, amidst a sea of Asian people. For the first time in my life I had no idea what I was doing.

It all started about a year earlier, when I was in Strasbourg as an exchange student, where I met this girl from Taiwan. I had never considered Taiwan as a travel destination before, let alone a study destination. But when she told me about the scholarship, I couldn’t resist the temptation. It was the perfect opportunity: I was finally going to travel to Asia, study Chinese and get paid for it! Who in their right mind would say no to that? Everyone else apparently. Greek families have a habit of overprotecting their children and going out of their way to keep them close. For the rest of the world it’s not acceptable for a guy to be 35 years old and live alone in the apartment right next to his parents. For a Greek family that’s common sense. So when I told my family about me going to Taiwan to study for 9 months, it was only normal that they would all think I was mad to even consider going to a country on the other side of the world, where I didn’t speak the language and which wasn’t even recognized as an independent country by my own. But since in my mind none of the above constituted a decent argument, I applied for the scholarship. And, as with all life-altering/karmic things, I got it without much effort. And that is how I got myself on that plane. Well, the very short version.

But now I was beginning to feel the reality of my decision. It wasn’t exactly fear that I felt, only a bit of unrest, like something inside me knew how changed I was going to return. But the excitement of it all coupled with the stubborn need to prove I was doing the right thing for me, helped me dismiss any unsettling thoughts and return to reading my backpacker’s guide to Taiwan.

A few hours later I was pushing my cart to the airport exit where my Taiwanese friend’s family was waiting for me. I had never met them before, but they were more than happy to pick me up and drop me to my apartment – which they had kindly helped me find and rent. I didn’t know them and already I was grateful to them. I saw their smiling faces and recognized them from the pictures. My friend’s sister, Yi-Nan, and her best friend were waiting for me. My first thought was that I must have looked terrible. I was wearing a pair of old shorts and a white tank top that had a huge oil stain, which I had gotten during the last flight but hadn’t managed to clean off. My curly hair was a mess and, let’s face it, 24 hours of traveling doesn’t do any good to your body odor either. But I really don’t give much thought into how I look, especially when I am this tired, so by the time I got near them the only thought in my mind was to try to remember their names. Yes, I am not good in remembering Chinese names. Never was, never will be. Nobody is perfect.

The two girls spoke very good English, which proved to be very useful, for although we were at the airport of Kaohsiung – the second largest city of Taiwan, not many people spoke English. I exchanged some Taiwanese Dollars and we made our way to the parking lot where my friend’s mother was waiting in the car. She didn’t speak English, but tried to start a conversation with her daughter’s help. She told me she thought we should stop by a store for me to buy some basic things for the first night. As we were driving and talking, I looked outside the window and tried to make out the scenery through the night. It was already dark, although it was only 6pm on a September. To me, being used to the long days of my country and with the tiredness catching up, it felt like it was 10pm.

Kaohsiung at night looked really lively and colorful. The roads were filled with cars and motorbikes and no matter where we turned all the streets – along with my already tired eyes – were overwhelmed by numerous little colorful stores and their neon signs. Soon we stopped outside the store we had been looking for. We were greeted by the owner, a tall and thin man who was a friend of the family, as they explained to me later. His store was very simple. The only spot that looked like it carried his personal decorative intervention was the area around the desk where he kept the cashier. On the desk I saw several little jade statues of Buddha. In an indent on the wall behind the desk was a very large piece of raw amethyst and around it hang dozens of semi-precious stone necklaces. I wanted to ask him so many questions about the stones and what they meant, about the amethyst and what it did in the energy of the room, but I wasn’t sure if my questions fell under the category “religion” and whether asking about religion was insulting or not, so I remained silent. The time would come when I would find what I was looking for.

As I was going through his wares, he went out and returned with a bag of drinks. He offered me a huge plastic cup of fresh brewed ice-cold green tea. Following the girls’ lead, I used the straw to open a hole on the plastic cover of the cup. I took the first sip and felt the sugar hit my palate. “Wow! This is very sweet!” I exclaimed and the girls laughed. “In south Taiwan people love sugar. They add it everywhere!” she said with a smile. She looked too skinny for me to fully grasp the meaning of what she was saying, but I would soon understand. The sugar helped wake me up so I kept drinking. I chose a pillow and a set of sheets, paid – with the help of my friends to make sense of the banknotes, thanked the man and we left.

Tainan was a forty-minute drive from Kaohsiung. It was noticeably smaller, although the traffic was as bad. The building we were looking for was only two blocks away from National Cheng Kung University, where I was going to study, and one block away from the National Cheng Kung University Hospital. I don’t think you can get a safer neighborhood than that. My apartment was right above Yi-Nan’s. It was more like a room with a bathroom. I met the landlord who – naturally – didn’t speak any English and signed the contract with Yi-Nan’s help. He was a really sweet guy, very calm and polite. In the end I offered him my hand to shake. He took it but his hesitation showed me it wasn’t something he did often. I wasn’t sure whether it was disrespectful because he was older than me or simply unusual, but I made a mental note to find out. He left and so did Yi-Nan after asking me for the 47th time if I needed anything else.

I took a deep breath and allowed myself to indulge in the first silence I had in more than 24 hours. I was finally there, in my little room with a bathroom that had no window. I looked at the bucket and mop that waited for me in the corner and smiled. Let’s begin.