My New Groove (“B” Side)
The International Chinese Language Program
So what am I up to? I’m studying Mandarin. A lot. JET was like Shaq, and ICLP is like Kobe. Shaq is a lot of fun and full of surprises but could have been more focused. Kobe is more limited and more serious but no one is more focused. OK, I’m more fond of Shaq, but this is going to be a great year, too.
My program has been here at National Taiwan University since 1961, and if you want to learn Chinese, too, you should come! There are 70 students in the year-long program with me, almost 60% male, most of them recent college graduates; 50 exchange students from UC schools, majority female, coming for a quarter at a time and taking classes separately from us; a few dozen teachers, 90% of them female; and a very friendly ten-person staff, including the directors and the happiest janitor I have ever met.
My two biggest classes have four students and one teacher. That’s it. Another is three students and a teacher, and third period is one-on-one. So we get a lot of personal attention. My one-on-one teacher majored in Japanese, which is perfect: when I say something that doesn’t make sense, she stops for a moment to rearrange my grammar and recognize false cognates, then says, “OHH, okay. Don’t speak Japanese! Here’s how you say that.” She also gives me treats just like a Japanese person would.
We have to speak Chinese inside the building. We can’t open our books during class; instead our teachers ask us what the book says and then write it or say it if we get stuck. I have three textbooks, and we go through each chapter twice as quickly as we did lessons back at Duke Chinese, which was a demanding program itself. I write two or three 500-word papers a week and then give reports about them to my classmates. The teachers return our corrected papers one or two days later.
The most interesting difference is that we don’t have tests or grades. We don’t need them. Because the class sizes are so small, our teachers know perfectly well how we’re doing. I have almost the same classmates in each class, so we’re grouped in pods, and our teachers talk to each other about us. The teachers correct everything you say or write almost immediately, but because they ask so much of us, making mistakes isn’t a big deal. If you aren’t prepared, however, you make things more difficult for everyone else, so the word that best describes the ICLP method is not “immersion” but “pressure.” One night, I had to call a teacher I’d never met and interview her about her marriage. Fortunately, she was really friendly and loved her husband, so it worked out!
All my teachers are fun and encourage us. They often ask us how old or beautiful we think they are or come up with crazy hypothetical situations to keep us on our toes. Like, “If you realized on the bus to school that you were wearing mismatched shoes, what would you do?” One teacher wanted us to remember the word “dark” as in personalities, so she role-played a teacher who stands in the corner at school whispering to herself and stabbing voodoo dolls. Once my teacher said, “If you found out my boyfriend dumped me for another girl, what would you say to him?” Not understanding her question, I said I’d tell him, “What’s up?” Five minutes later she asked me what kind of people I look down upon, but I thought she was asking what kind of people I look up to, so I said, “People as polite as [the girl sitting next to me].” We were red like cherries. It’s easy to feel tired and stressed when I arrive at school (the common in-program response to “How are you?” is “Tired” on Tuesday and “TiReD” on Friday), but it’s also easy to enjoy class.
I’m in the low intermediate group, but my Chinese is going to surpass my Spanish and Japanese in months. It’s not a miracle – I’m putting in nine or ten hours a day, after all – but it is satisfying. If you’re a liberal arts major who wants an employable skill, one year here may be a better investment than three years of law school, especially if you get the government’s Huayu Enrichment Scholarship.
Sending in my Days
There’s a phrase in Japanese, 「忙しい毎日を送っています」, isogashii mainichi wo okutte imasu, “busily sending in your days,” for when you’re in the middle of something like a huge project or raising your children. That’s where I am now. Time is passing quickly, but it’s going somewhere because I’m being assertive. I’m in the middle of a capital city, and every Saturday I do something with that: right after I post this, I’m going to see the fireworks for the opening day of the 6-month Taipei International Flora Exhibition with about 800,000 people (*rain drove those numbers down). Everything else in my life happens inside a 1-mile radius.
I wake up at 6, commune with the Quaker Oat Man and the Sun-Maid Girl plus some fish & fruit for breakfast. 7:00 Mass is a seven minute walk away. Eventually I’ll know all 30 of the other regulars, but I’m a little shy right now, and besides that, I have to genuflect and depart fairly quickly for my 20-minute walk to school. I pass a streetful of shops that haven’t opened yet and couples riding double on bicycles to class. I hear a guy saying something on the radio and the drone of cars and motor scooters. Ten minutes after I make it to my building, which is just enough time to print off a paper, and then I roll through my four classes.
We have an hour for lunch. Speakers come during lunch hour each Friday, and food is provided to us so we can eat and learn at the same time. Otherwise, I usually tag along with a group of people: I’m hoping to be friends with everyone by the end of the month. My classmates hail from a wide range of cities in California. Just kidding: there are people from Germany, New Zealand, and Japan among other places, and while most are my age, a few are capital-A Adults serving here at the request of their companies. Delicious as the food at nearby restaurants may be, I don’t like carbing like it’s the Sunday before the Indy 500 and most of them are stapled to big helpings of rice or noodles, so sometimes I slip out to the student cafeteria myself and graze the buffet.
I exercise every other day. Though the NTU gym isn’t far, I’ve settled into stretching, riding an exercise bike while saying a Rosary in Spanish (two birds with one holy rolling stone?), sprinting and skipping on the sidewalk next the parking lot (I don’t get in anyone’s way but I must be “that guy” for hundreds of people by now), walking up 15 flights of stairs to the roof of the dorm and lifting free weights there. This plus the walking makes up for all the time I spend sitting: there’s a big physiological difference between being a teacher and being a student, I’ve realized.
I study calligraphy from 3-5 on Tuesdays. All of you who have tried to read my handwriting can guess how that’s going, but it’s a fun challenge. In Chinese writing, every character represents a concept, so you have a lot of artistic possibilities. Mostly I appreciate other people’s ideas and practice patience.
The student Catholic fellowship meets from 7:30-10 on Thursdays. They have an English catchphrase: “Yaaay!” Six to twelve people, including the pastor and a working mother, meet and discuss something like future, friends, or family. I can’t understand most of people say, but I learn from how they speak. Some are storytellers; some are tense; all of them are nice. Which helps, because my contributions are collaborative efforts! Last week I said “I got engaged with her” when I meant to say “I broke up with her.” We had a laugh and then straightened it out. They have larger meetings on Saturday nights, but I can’t fit those in.
I practice the zither, or guzheng, (古箏) from 7-9 on Friday. It’s a long ancient 17-stringed instrument, very similar to a koto, played with 8 fingers all of which have picks on them. It sounds like this and looks like this. (“Red Cliffs” has a scene featuring a smaller version of the instrument, the guqin.) If I can’t make that Friday night time, I can go whenever I want during the day to practice. Typically we have ten people a meeting, and I’m one of the two guys. Sometimes a professional teacher tutors us and sometimes one of the advanced students in the club does. I’m not worried about becoming good at it; it’s just a nice way to keep music in my life.
Every other Thursday, we have karaoke lessons. A different teacher gives us three new songs. We learn what they mean and how to read them, then sing together. We’ve had some sweet ones, like 愛我別走 / Love Me, Don’t Leave Me and 對面的女孩看過來 / Hey Girl, Please Take a Look at Me.
I like all the students and teachers I’ve met. People at certain restaurants and food stands are starting to recognize me, and I’d like to talk to them more. I’m pretty close with the staff at the dormitory. A high school student on staff helps me with my papers, and I help her with her English, which is very good. I miss the daily interaction with kids and grandparents I had in Japan, and I loved helping kids grow up. My time in Japan was special. A month ago I saw a kid ride a two-wheeler for the first time, and then his parents struck up a long conversation with me in English. People at the church introduce themselves to me each week. So the more comfortable I become here, the more I can get some of that community feeling back.
I sleep six hours a night or less. That’s my biggest worry. But I’m sleeping one hour more each week, so I’m getting better at this! I’m always working ahead to stay afloat. The “hobbies that sound good in my head but don’t actually happen” are reading Don Quixote and watching Detective Conan. “Reading Spanish and Japanese newspapers” was in that category, too, but now I’m using those at times for my blog.
It’s interesting that blogs have changed from “a place to express your feelings” to “a place to display your work” over the last ten years. I put something up every day, often homework assignments and translations, sometimes other writing. I’m starting to unwind my huge photo backlog onto Facebook, but that’ll take time because I have to upload at school – my dorm connection is too slow – and I have to be selective because I take so many photos when I remember to carry a camera.
Thank you to everyone who’s written me this fall. I hope your days have been joyful ones.