Monday, September 6, 2010

First Day of Classes!

Alas, I am sorry to disappoint some of you.  My camera does not have the necessary USB cable to connect with the computer, and my camera's memory card is not compatible with my laptop.  So you all will have to make do with my descriptive powers until I can upload pictures.  Sorry!

As the title of this post suggests, today was the first day of classes at the Chinese Language Center at National Chengchi University.  One of the main reasons I studied abroad was to learn in a classroom with people who were completely different from me, and my wish was certainly granted.  I was the only American, and the youngest person in the class.  My classmates include: a middle-aged Canadian woman currently living in Taiwan with her husband and two children; a recent university graduate from London; a half Taiwanese, half Italian model; a Korean woman; and two Japanese women.  Both of the Japanese girls are graduates from vocational school and have worked for several years.  One of the girls is learning Chinese in hopes of communicating with future clientèle at a clothing store she wishes to open one day; the other is learning for the heck of it.  In her words, "why not?"

My professor, Teacher Zhang, is lovely.  She is extremely attractive, with eyelashes that curl as delicately as butterfly antennae over a pair of mahogany eyes.  She told us she always wanted to be a teacher, though she added parenthetically she had not anticipated teaching foreigners Chinese.  She had married at twenty-eight and had had two children, a daughter of six and a son of two and a half.  The daughter has just enrolled at the elementary school next to my dormitory. Teacher Zhang is thirty-five years old this year.  I was shocked when she told us her age.  Her smooth, well-defined cheekbones, easy smile and youthful style would have suggested her to be in her mid- to late twenties.

Even more surprising to me was the general relaxed nature of the class.  I anticipated drills on characters I was supposed to have known but long forgotten; reading aloud a soporific text followed by an equally mind-numbing question-and-answer session; and a pile of homework that would have taken me two and half hours to complete when I got home.  None of these things happened.  Instead, Teacher Zhang prepared questions we had to answer on dry-erase boards in Chinese.  Some of the questions were a little bland, like "My friend has good grades but no money for college, what should he do?" but everyone came up with creative answers and a lively discussion ensued.

The model, Dani, and I agreed on a few points.  The best way to learn a language quickly and well is to acquire a significant other who is a native speaker of that language.  A good method to cure shallow men is to provide them with a girlfriend as beautiful as the moon but is otherwise useless.  She seemed rather worldly, too: she knew by looking at my face that I was of Latin descent, which impressed me greatly, because to most people here I am just a foreigner.  Dani is from Rome and speaks six languages, flashes a beaming smile and has a terrific sense of humor.  She's far from the high strung, self-absorbed dimwit I had made most models out to be.  Nor is she stick thin.  I'll make a point of asking her where her favorite places are to eat.

After class was a brief welcoming reception for all the international students.  I met people from Hungary, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Swaziland.  There are also quite a few students from Central and South America here as well.  It's very interesting to be in Taiwan and to hear so much Spanish spoken.

Scott, the British university graduate, accompanied me to the bookstore after the welcome party to the bookstore and walked me back to my dorm.  He is quite British, quite gay, and quite chummy.  He teased me good-naturedly  about my being the baby of the class.  He was equally surprised as I was at how friendly our teacher is, because we're both accustomed to Beijing teachers who only reveal a drop or two of personal information after months of acquaintance and all but shriek if you get one word wrong in a sentence.  Could it be that this kind of guanxi (relationship) between teacher and student is not the best way to learn a language?   Whatever the answer is, I know that I am not in China anymore.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Rain, Rain, Rain

First of all, I'd like to congratulate Andrea and Taharqa Patterson on the birth of their twin daughters this morning.  You guys are awesome.  My trip to Taiwan has officially been one-upped.  You can go abroad anytime, but you only procreate, on average, 2.6 times (if you're American).  I'm a little bit overwhelmed by the fact that when I get back, they'll almost be a year old.

So, my first week in Taiwan has been hot and humid, but for the last three days it has rained almost constantly because of a typhoon passing by on the southwest coast of the island.  It wouldn't be so bad if it were not for the fact that for the last two days we've been on a field trip in the center of Taiwan, so it's been a pain.  Yesterday we toured a stunningly beautiful Buddhist monastery--it would be more accurate to call it a palace.  One of the most memorable parts was on the ninth floor where there was a large marble white Buddha in a white hall made out of white ceramic tiles.  The ceramic tiles had a highly reflective surface, causing the statue to appear as if it were floating on a white pool of water.  There were two other Buddhas in the flanking halls, but I forget what they represented.  There were a lot of Buddhas:  there was a hall of ten thousand Buddhas on copper plates, there was a gold-plated "magnificent" Buddha flanked by two white marble "healing" Buddhas on the fifth floor, and lots of bodhisattvas and dharmas.  I'm glad I got a good introduction to Buddhism at Wesleyan, so I wasn't totally lost when the nun was explaining the tenents and history of Buddhism.  Even so, there were a lot of Buddhas and gods to keep track of.  I don't know how some people do it.  I have a hard enough time maintaining a relationship with One.

After the temple we toured a brand-new multi-lingual school connected with the monastery, and then went to a "paper church"--which turned out to disappoint everyone.  We all thought we were going to a church made of paper.  Instead, we found ourselves at a random glass-plated building in the middle of nowhere.  Maybe the paper was inside the glass walls?  Lame.

Today, we went do I even phrase this?  An aborignial-themed amusement park.  It was a bit like  Disneyland: you take cable cars over the mountain to get there, there are fast food restaurants all over the place, and almost all the employees are wearing aboriginal-style costumes.  I didn't really have a good time.  I didn't want to go on the roller coasters (speed+height=do not want) and it was raining the whole day, so I walked around with a couple of the students from the program and cultural ambassadors.  I wore an absurd yellow poncho that made me look like a giant soggy duck, and I still got wet.  I went to a aboriginal culture show, but I didn't understand any of the Mandarin spoken, and I don't know any of the   aboriginal history, so to me it just looked like a bunch of people dancing in brightly-colored costumes.  There were some model houses with some fake people inside to show what life was like.  At that point, I didn't really care.  I just went inside them to get out of the rain.

Later on, we went to a carnival warehouse with some small roller coasters and other little rides.  I'm pretty sure it had absolutely nothing to do with Taiwanese culture, but going on the rides was fun after a long, bothersome, wet day.

I've been here for a week and a half now, and I'm realizing one thing is for certain:  I'm not in China.  When I told family and friends I was going to Taiwan, many of them replied, "Oh!  You're going to China!  How wonderful!"  Even then I knew that there was some differences,  after coming here, I can say for certain that Taiwan is NOT China.  First of all, it is CLEAN.  Even though there are squat toilets, almost all of the public bathrooms are clean and are supplied with toilet paper, sinks with running water, and soap.  The people are much friendlier and polite.  No one has stared at me, called out to me, or solicited me.  There is much greater freedom of expression and religious practice, and an atmosphere much more conducive to discussion.  And did I mention it rains a lot here?

Tomorrow we're going to look at some more stuff (train station?  Earthquake site?  Pagoda?) and then we're going back to Taipei.  I can't wait.  I don't like being in a place without a subway for more than a couple of days.  Pictures to come, promise.