Taiwan: No Land for English?

Today after going to the Taiwan Lantern Festival, my house mates and I went to the nearby Macdonalds’ to have supper. My house mates are German, and they know little Chinese. But I know they’ve ordered Macs before, so while we were all queuing up to order, I had one of my German housemates order first.

The cashier was a Taiwanese girl, probably in her early twenties. She knew that we were speaking English, as I was talking to them the instant before my friend ordered. When it came to him, the Taiwanese cashier looked at home and spoke a chain of Mandarin. Then, seeing that he didn’t understand, she immediately darted her eyes to me.

Of course I know she wants me to be some sort of interpreter.

But my friend knew how to order. But it was clear that she wanted the easy way out. Asian? Check. Maybe he can speak Chinese. Even if that dude who’s my customer is standing in front of me is trying his best to tell me what he wants in elementary school grade English.

Sometimes the unwillingness to speak English can be very baffling. I kid you not. That cashier clearly knows how to speak. She is simply UNWILLING to speak.

After I did a quick few translations for my German friend, the other German housemate (I have two German housemates) then came along next in line to order from the same girl. This time, however, I stood a good distance away from them. I told my other German housemate who was then a little intimidated (of course, who wouldn’t, when the local aren’t even willing to engage you with some respect), to try ordering with English.

“Big Mac…”

“…Huh?” The girl glanced at me again, awaiting my google translation. I didn’t give her any help this time.

“…eight (the menu number of the Big Mac…”

“…Okay! Fries, medium or large?”

“…Normal”, said my friend.

See, that was easy enough. I didn’t help. I didn’t have to help actually. But it’s so sad to see these local Taiwanese staff look for a clutch like a linguistically handicap person. It’s sad not because they cannot speak perfect English; it’s sad because they are too afraid or unwilling to try.

It’s a cultural thing, I told my friends. Many of them will not even speak English unless they are forced into speaking it when the teacher calls them to. They generally think that their English isn’t up to scratch, and as a result they rather not even try.

It’s about face. About saving face. I am not sure if what happened can be taken as representational of the wider Taiwanese youth population, but such a mentality of not being able to speak and being completely fine with it, can be really poisonous to the country’s future. Especially when their Mainland counterparts are learning ferociously  Never mind the tones of weird Chinglish, the bad grammar and the strange intonations. I feel that Mainlanders try much harder.

It’s funny because Taiwan has always been the more liberal, more exposed country to the outside world. There’re quite a significant foreigner population in Taiwan, meaning plenty of chances to practise. There’s English everywhere; the metro signages  the powerpoint slides at school, the media even. But no, it’s still as uncommon to hear some English sentences among Taiwanese youth.

I fear it will become like Chinese in Singapore; that one day it will finally be uncool to speak English, because people who speak good English are so few and far in between; people who CAN speak are labelled as show-offs, and everyone revels in their collective disaffection of that language. All these happening while the world around them is changing, globalising, learning.

This cannot be the case. Things need to change. From the individual. 修身齊家治國平天下.

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A lesson in perseverance.

Today I went to school to attend my Japanese class. It was my first Japanese lesson in a few months, with the exception that I didn’t get to register it. Because for some unknown reason, it didn’t appear inside the NCTU course selection system, and so I thought I could just come for the first lesson and have the lecturer add it in for me.

When I arrived, it has almost a class full of people. The lecturer mentioned that there were 45 slots for that class. I looked around and did a quite mental calculation of all the people in the room. Easily more than 60. My heart skipped a bit for a moment. She started to call out names for attendance and slowly, one by one, all the 45 names were called, and 44 hands raised with a “hai”. One of the registered students didn’t come. I’m was thankful to that absentee who increased the availble slots by 6.

Then, she told the audience of students that there on top of the maxed out class registration (of which I could never know since I can’t see the lesson on the system for my own ID), there were space for FIVE more in-class registrants. They call this 加簽. 

So, I was like, how is she going to choose? By giving us a quick test? Or?

And then she told us to hand her our student ID, and she placed them all into a small green bag, and shook it around comically, to the quiet but audible giggles of the students, quiet because they knew they had to be sensitive to their friends whose IDs were in that green bag, many of them sitting among them, the luckier ones who got the course via the system. (Well at least those rejected by the system had a chance at it!) 

Then, like release toto results, she called 6 ID cards’ names.

I wasn’t one of them.

But I didn’t let my heart sink. I came all the way here, bantered with my NTU’s Japanese lecturer and another NCTU teacher here, not to just give it up. So I tried to make a quick plea to this teacher today, but wasn’t unsuccessful. She pointed me to the office for foreign languages.

I went there, and basically learnt a bit more about the course matching system and how they do their work, but I still badly wanted that course. I was pretty sure every course could only have 5 additional registrants. And it was already maxed out at 50 for now.

For now. That was what I thought.

It was too silly to just give up without a fight. Sometimes I feel I am dogged enough to do what most students won’t. The remaining 10 odd students left the classroom and the building, immediately after they knew they weren’t in the 6 selected students. 

So, I stayed in the opposite classroom and waited till her lesson ended, and came back. And I presented my case to her again. I explained slowly why the system didn’t show me and hence I was disadvantaged, and I really wanted to take Japanese here so I can continue when I go back. And I asked if she could make an exception. 

And in the end, I became that extra 1 person. 51. 

And with that, and 4 other mods. I got my 3 day week. Hehe.

Those who walk away on the first count will not know this could happen. Those who stay on to wait, to ask, and to ask properly, may stand a chance. Never give up! Just like how I got to WKWSCI. How I passed 2 IPPTs. How the impossible can be remade into possibilities. Just try. Just. Try.

Stockcheck.

It has been a while since I set foot (again) into Taiwan. In fact time has really past so quickly, it’s almost three weeks now. I guess many things have happened, and I can only afford that much time every night to document them down in a decent level of detail. Throughout my last 18 odd days in Taiwan, I’ve spoken to many people, young & old. Taxi cabbies, the roadside sweeper, telecom salespeople, hostel owners, landladies, university students, people from the happening Taipei to the scenic Kaohsiung. It’s only been a while, but it feels like so much as happened.

And now, as I’m finally, about to start school, again, it’s apt to just slow down, pause for a moment, and take stock of what has happened, and also to think a little about the future ahead. I guess I cannot not think about these things, somehow I know that if I don’t put these down in words at some point, everything I do will seem meaningless.

I can start by stating the changes to myself. I dare say that most people who come to a different country will have some changes in their accent. But I believe most changes are quite involuntary and rub off without any conscious thought. For me, I guess I just become more sure that the Mandarin I’ve been speaking all these while is more like the locals than I actually thought. It’s the ironic situation where speaking garbled Chinese actually makes it easier to understand as a whole.

Perhaps its because Chinese is used almost exclusively (apart from Hokkien), and extensively, exhaustively, unlike in Singapore where we have quite a good mix of English, and other languages put into our verbal mix.

In other words, on the contrary, Taiwanese (I am refering to the lay person here) in general don’t really pronounce words that distinctly. Like glutinous rice, most words stick together and are pronounced really quickly, and as a whole. I guess most languages work the same way in their home countries as well. Just that in Singapore, we are just used to being more ‘sharp’ on which word; and also, unconsciously feel a need to be even ‘clearer’ in a Chinese-speaking country to as to be more effectively heard.

I really had the fear of not being able to speak fluent Chinese. I actually felt worried that I may become ‘tired’ of speaking such ‘pure’ Chinese after a week or so, but it turns out that it’s okay. In fact it felt quite natural. Part of it came when I knew I was just going to be myself and not pretend to be a local.

Then of course came the surprise when people who knew I wasn’t local told me they couldn’t tell I was a Singaporean. And those who didn’t know beforehand simply treated me as a local. Well, to be fair, so long as you didn’t sound like a Mainlander, you will naturally be assumed to be a local. It’s not that I have a Taiwanese accent, I just simply do not have an accent when it comes to speaking Mandarin.

I digress. On the whole I learnt to ‘catch’ their bullet train speed of speaking and understand them. I also learn to read much quicker since almost everything is in Chinese.

And I also learnt that I may one day die by looking on the wrong side of the road. It’s crazy scary, but in Taiwan everything is flipped. But crossing the road you just have to be that careful, or risk being knocked by oncoming traffic. I need to learn to look LEFT first, then the RIGHT side. It’s scary, I have actually wondered halfway across the road and then realise I looked the wrong way when a motorbike whizzed inches behind me. That was scary.

And another thing about being assumed to be a local is that you don’t really get all the ‘whoa taiwanese are so polite’ kind of treatment. What you get are more direct, more honest interpretations of daily life. But don’t get me wrong; they are all kinds of warm and passionate people, just that you really get to see their ‘truer’ side. I mean, how often you get a salesgirl complaining about her company’s system is stupid to a foreigner? Or a bemused uncle puzzled about your level of English proficiency?

And after a while, all that hype and fog goes away, and what you get is just life itself. Being here as a tourist and being here as a student showed me this difference. Being a tourist means you’re 24/7 surrounded by people trained to smile like angels, and treat you like treasured guests. But when you’re that neighbour, that unpolished university boy, that unknown stranger on that street, that’s when you get to experience life as what it truly is here. No filters, they say. Just pure living.

Another thing that precluded my mind these days is the fact that some of my NTU friends are in the hostel. Having stayed in one in NTU before, I know myself. I definitely need that extra breathing space, it more of a necessity than a preference.

Last time when I came to Taiwan with my army mates, I experienced that need firsthand. I became quite melancholic for the 2nd part of the trip (after leaving Kaohsiung), and became very quiet and unresponsive. My friends were shocked and kept asking me if I were fine, but I only became worse. And like a condition left undiagnosed, it only festered as the days went. It was then that I realised, I needed extra time and space compared to others, especially when it comes to travelling.

So this time, with Eileen and Yinkuan, two awesome friends from WKW, I made it a point to have my own private space and set aside separate R&Rs for certain days.

I guess, as time passes and as I experience things and get to know more about myself and what irks me, I tend to now give myself plenty of concessions. By building a moat around myself to foolproof the what-ifs. But I’m also just a little afraid that I may be giving up on those possibilities, when what was feared might be inexistent.

So I may also think about the kinds of camaraderie and hapz moments I could have had if I were in hostel now. But having known myself for so long, I know that I will eventually still need that space to function.

I think, more importantly, is to have a clear overall objective of what I intend to do here. I won’t list them down here, cos it’s even more crucial to have God at the center of it all. Because I find myself asking the same questions just as before I entered WKWSCI. I asked myself if I would have friends. If I would genuinely enjoy school. If I would, you know, ‘fit in’.

I am not so self-delusional to think that I can drop into school and be a crowd-pleaser. Or that I can ‘work’ myself up that popularity ladder. How glad I was that I realised all of that weren’t important, and I had to accept myself first before others could accept me. My not very successful hall life taught me that. Back then in Hall 12, I was striving to be more connected, more involved, and every attempt shot back at me. I was dissapointed that all of that hinged on the fact that I didn’t attend hall camp, and even held it against my roommate for a while. Back then he had problems with the hall application and was almost denied the space. I worked the phones and somehow it worked out for him, he went for hall camp but I wasn’t given the chance due to my tuition, and that decided my trajectory.

Of course there will be people who will say, ‘well, IF you tried to open up and yadayada… <insert happy ending story here>’. But I did try what I could muster, but it didn’t work.

In short, these past years have taught me that in life, it’s good to strive, but don’t yearn for things beyond your grasp. It’s a interesting thought for someone like me. I am idealistic in many ways, but at the same time, also quite a realist when it comes to relationships with people. I don’t overdo it. And I’m humbled to have the fortune of foresight of letting them go much earlier, before it comes a reenactment of past misadventures.

高雄、台獨、與22k的經濟陷阱。Kaohsiung, Taiwan Independence, Death Trap of 22k ($1,000) salaries

#01 Kaohsiung

Such a beautiful city, Kaohsiung. After 1.5 years, I finally return to the place I once missed so much.

I went back, spent 6 wonderful days there. I wonder why Kaohsiung has such a special place in my heart. It’s as though that city was the reason why I went to Taiwan in the first place. I mean, Taipei is awesome, full of activities and very happening. Very convenient. But somehow the stillness, the vastness of space, the lack of activity and honestly, the charm of the entire city speaks to me in a way like no other city. Kaohsiung is special. It is.

Kaohsiung is a place that was supposed to be the Taipei today. When Formosa (now known as Taiwan) was formed in the early days, the people who fled mainland entered Taiwan and settled at Kaohsiung. It was the centre of activity then, until in recent years where Taipei was chosen by the Kuomintang as the city and there congregated commerce and trade. Believe it or not, Taipei was once a sleepy city, but due to political reasons, it became the focal point of contact between Taiwan and the outside world. Even the Olympic team is known as Chinese Taipei.

By definition Kaohsiung is much better equipped to be the capital, because the climate is better (nearer to the equator, more consistent weather all year round), and has much bigger space than Taipei. But because of political happenings, Taipei eventually became much more developed and now its almost impossible for Kaohsiung to catch up, as long as the Taiwanese government remains. Many Taiwanese would rather not travel up north to Taipei if not for the fact that the employment opportunities are simply better there. Of course everything in Taipei is more expensive as well.

To me, personally, I will make a point to return to Kaohsiung as often as I financially can. Because that place means so much to me. I just love everything there. The people, the space, the lack of people, the vastness of space. And there is always someone, something there that means something to me. I can’t really articulate properly why Kaohsiung is so special. There’re too many intangibles involved, but I guess above mentioned are the main reasons for now.

#02: Taiwanese Independence.

To give you a primer, basically Taiwan was original part of the older China, until two political parties, Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) fought for the allegiance of the Chinese people. The KMT is much like the PAP of today, where they were seen as high handed and far away from the daily struggles of the common people then. The CCP on the other hand, advocated ideals like communal struggles and equality, which resounded with the people. Among other factors, the CCP had the upper hand and the KMT government was forced to exile to Formosa.

As a result, two Chinas were form and have been in existence till today. Mainland China, known as the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) 中華人民共和國 and the Republic of China (R.O.C.) 中華民主共和國 (中華民國).

The older generation of Taiwanese have a very starkly different view of Taiwan as compared with the younger generation.

I was speaking to an elder Taxi driver who briefly shared his view with me on this. They feel that Taiwan and Mainland China should reunite and form back the greater China. Whichever China wasn’t his concern. He envisaged a democratic China with two political parties, the CCP and the KMT taking the political reins of the country, just like how Taiwan is now. The uncle also aptly pointed out that China was once, although briefly, democratic with those two parties competing for governance, as any democracy should.

Personally, when I heard all that he said, I felt that that uncle was sorely naïve to think this way. The realities are so far away, and just the way he put it, was as thought reunification was a couple of decades away.

“With the technological intellect of Taiwan and the resources of Mainland, we will have been prosperous 30 years earlier. What would be the United States be anyway?” He quipped.

It dawned on me that the older generation still has the link to the ‘Greater China’, and remain stubbornly hopeful for that one day Taiwan and Mainland China will form the Greater China (大中國). It’s a noble dream, but it’s more of a pipe dream to be honest.

And yet, the other extreme is equally heart-tugging. Younger generation do not see their roots in the Mainland. Most, if not all, of the younger people I spoke to, see Taiwan as a sovereign city state. Many were outraged when the word ‘Taiwan’ had to be replaced with ‘Chinese Taipei’. The Taiwanese flag cannot be brought into all Olympic venues. The national anthem of Taiwan was replaced by another song. Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations.

“What does ‘Chinese Taipei’ even mean? So if I am an athlete from Kaohsiung, I do not belong to the team?”, a friend of my groused.

The younger Taiwanese see themselves as distinct from the Mainlanders as we Singaporeans see ourselves as distinct from them. Their quiet, discreet but definitely evident disdain of the Mainlanders can be seen in their (slightly) different attitudes to the PRCs, to their disparaging nicknames for them. In short, Taiwanese do not like PRCs. Like how many Singaporeans and HongKongers do not like them.

The key difference is that Taiwan needs the Mainland much more than Singaporeans. That is for another day, but without the financial backing and ‘agreements’ between Mainland China and Taiwan, it would have been much worse for the Taiwanese people. So while they directly benefit from the inflow of Chinese tourists, they also lose out as many jobs eventually leak to the Mainland.

The main idea is that the Taiwanese are divided on their views on reunification. It’s not as uniform as we think, that Taiwan ‘wants’ to be independent  There are major factions of people who think differently, and have very strong reasons for them as well.

#03: Politely, Ineffective.

This links very strongly with their immigration policy. Walk the streets in Taiwan and find me a Mainlander working those ‘low-class’ jobs we Singaporeans will not do. As a cleaner? No. He’s Taiwanese. As a dishwasher? No. She’s also a Taiwanese. You get the idea. The Taiwanese government is protective of her own people. So much so that it actually starts to hurt in a way.

One major benefit of immigrant workforce is that it brings in direct competition. Without which there will be no incentive to innovate, to improve, to become better to keep yourself alive. In a darwinistic manner, competition for survival betters the entire hoards of industries.

Let me give you a simple example.

When I first came to Taiwan, I had to set up my local Taiwan SIM card. I went to Chunghwa Telecom as recommended by my friend. I went to this customer service center in Zhongshan district, and I was served by this very nice and polite lady. She greeted me in the usual elaborate Taiwanese fashion that made me feel like a king.

But during the short period of time I realised several weird points about the experience: the receptionist knows very little about what she is doing.

She was very polite, able to tell me what is common knowledge, but when I asked her about another plan not on the list, she told me that she had to check it out, and asked me to wait, with a thousand apologies and ‘thank you for waiting’.

Throughout the 20 minutes I spent there, she walked to and fro from the counter, like, 10 plus times, find this and that out. And no, she wasn’t a newbie or trainee. Every time she walked back she would say the SAME, IDENTICAL phrase “不要意思讓您久等了 (I’m very sorry I let you wait)”, even if she was gone for 20 seconds. After a while didn’t sound sincere, it sounded robotic, and ultimately, ineffective.

This scenario can be extrapolated to nearly every faction of Taiwanese companies. The employers will rather save money and employ a polite employee at a cheap salary than a knowledgable or experienced one. This is known as the 22k trap ($1,000) of many Taiwanese workers. Their salaries can hardly rise because there is such a flood of university graduates in the market, and if one becomes too expensive, he / she can easily be removed for a cheaper (and even more polite) sales person.

This may seem very strange to a Singaporean, when we are always complaining of ‘bad customer service’. But while in Taiwan, there salespersons are almost too polite, but yet when it comes to getting real work done, it simply isn’t effective or fast enough. Imagine this on an industrial scale. The effects and repercussions of a greatly customer-oriented, but ineffective workforce is what greatly limits Taiwan on global competitiveness.

ONE NIGHT IN TAIPEI 一夜台北。

Going to Taiwan was only a 4 hour ride away from Singapore. It was quite a smooth experience, and I’ve been to Taiwan before. What’s different this time is that I’m heading there alone. And I can say that being by myself makes me think more. In a sense when you head out in groups, there are tasks that can be shared by the group; being alone means having to read (and decode) maps yourself, depending on your own wit and luck to get to once place to another. It’s a part frightening, a part thrilling and ten parts educational. From the airport to the Taipei Bus Interchange requires a coach ride, but I didn’t know I had to hand the ticket over to the bus driver beforehand. And the list goes.

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  • Taiwan’s MRT is much less crowded. At 12pm.

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  • The informational panel is much more descriptive, and succinct in relaying information. They are quite tourist friendly, with all instructions and station names in English as well. 

But I guess in Taiwan, where the culture is more similar to Singapore, it’s actually quite a good place to travel alone. Wandering around actually allowed me to meet many people, most of the interaction unintentional but very fulfilling and they allowed me to get to know the Taiwanese people at a close proximity. And as long as I don’t speak (which I technically have no one to speak with when I walk around), no one will suspect that I’m not a foreigner. So they’ll treat me as they would a local.

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  • Taiwan’s 7-11. Amazing. It sells food, food, and more food. And that’s the best thing about 7-11 in Taiwan. They also know how to capitalise on the buyers’ wish to have a fuller meal. Promotions such as free drink with a purchase of a bento is not uncommon.

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  • Guan Dong Zhu 關東煮, a Japanese-style of hot finger food such as corn, minced pork,  fish cake, fish balls, etc in piping hot broth. Around $2 for 4-5 items. Available at all 7-11 stores. Makes you wonder in vain why Singapore’s 7-11 isn’t like that.

Exchange and holiday is different in that for exchange, the first few days (and things) we need to do involve quite a bit of admin work. Like finding a house, opening a bank account, getting a phone card and such. But it’s far from mundane cos in a foreign country, everything can be done differently. I had quite a challenging time trying to understand the terms of a phone contract plan. Chinese words of ‘account transfer’, ‘initial deposit’, ‘overseas account’, all proved to be testing my ability to quickly match what I hear to what I think is correct. It’s quite fun, it’s okay to ask for clarification so I can learn; and really satisfying to function like a local even when I’m not.

Taiwanese culture takes a very customer-centric approach. Almost everyone is polite, and to the extent that I find slightly robotic. Like there was a counter staff at the Chunghwa Telecom in Zhongshan District of Taipei, where I went to apply for a SIM data plan. She kept walking away from the counter to check things out for me, and every time she returned to attend to me she will say “不好意思讓您就等了。” which means “I’m sorry I let you wait so long”. Mostly she left for like 10 seconds, and I wasn’t even in a hurry. And she repeated this sentence so fluidly I couldn’t say anything but gasp in awe of such persistence.

Taiwanese people are also very proud of their country. When I was at Hsinchu to look for a rental apartment, I was given a ride by the housing agent who brought me around to look at houses (another benefit of being alone in Taiwan; able to be brought around by people with motorcycles. And A LOT of Taiwanese have motorcycles). I was curious why the plates of vehicles have 台灣省 (Province of Taiwan) inscribed on them.

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And he answered matter of factly, that it 「就是台灣省啊, 中華民國的台灣省。」. (A province of the Republic of China). 「大陸也是中華民國的啊,但是管不了。」(Mainland China is also part of the Republic of China, just that we cannot govern it.)

If you’re not aware, there are two Chinas in existence. One is what Taiwan called the Republic of China 中華民國 (ROC), and the People’s Republic of China 中華人民國和國 (PRC). And the Taiwanese housing agent was proudly staking claim to the China he knows, even if in reality Taiwan isn’t even recognised as a sovereign country in the United Nations. This, to me, represents the resolve of a people who are not only the polite, nice people you know; they are also proud of their country and identity.

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  • Quirky advertising such as these above are common in Taiwan where the creative culture allows people to be more controversial in their promotion.

I guess being in Taiwan allows me a window to get to know them beyond their surface. And being in a foreign country for a few months will definitely be immeasurably valuable and also necessary to get to know the Taiwanese people for who are they, for what they stand for, for how they live their lives.

Exchange, with its long time frame and with the sincerity and a little pro-activeness on my part, beautiful things are everywhere and compelling stories of the Taiwan people are simply yelling to be written.

– Jiro

這就是我 me

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