Hello everyone! Before I start my FIRST journal I could go endlessly on with excuses as to why I haven’t written one until now but I am afraid I would bore you to death. Instead of that, I will just say better late than never.
Anyway, the day before last marked an important event for me in my time as an exchange student. I, along with three other exchange students performed on stage in front of upwards of 3000 people. This wasn’t any old performance, it was a Chinese traditional 相聲（xiang sheng) performed completely in Chinese between the four of us. It is basically a comic between two to four people with one person cracking jokes and the other responding. After we finished the performance, I think it really appeared to us how much our skill in the Chinese language had improved. We’ve been on this beautiful island, Taiwan, for a little over 7 months already. I can’t speak for the other exchange students, but I can rest assured that my limited time as an exchange student has not been wasted.
In the beginning, I was dropped into a situation where I had the opportunity to speak Chinese every single day. I am VERY fortunate to have been placed in host families that, for the most part, could not speak english. I think this inability to communicate well was vital in my quest for skill in the illusive Mandarin Chinese language. I mean, one of the few sentences my first host family said to me was that they could not speak english very well, so I must learn Chinese quickly. Right there is where it all began for me. I was instantly given the drive to learn as much as I could, as fast I could, and in the CORRECT way. I put emphasis on the correct way because pronunciation is not a factor to be forgotten while speaking Mandarin Chinese, but I will dive deeper into this later. For now I will to touch on an extremely interesting factor in the background of chinese/ taiwanese culture.
“"NO ONE WHO CAN RISE BEFORE DAWN THREE HUNDRED SIXTY DAYS A YEAR FAILS TO MAKE HIS FAMILY RICH."(-Chinese proverb) I really love how anywhere you look you can see people exercising and flinging their arms in the air. I think it reflects the underlying nature of Taiwanese people: Always working to maintain the blood flow in their bodies, and their countries. Numerous amounts of research has been done to learn why the top asian countries, including Taiwan, has the highest scores in math and other subjects. Many studies find out that it can be traced all the way back to the times of ancient when rice, a seemingly worthless grain, was considered money and was the most important part of anyone’s daily life. It wasn’t just because they ate the rice, rather in the ways that the rice had to be farmed did the rock solid work ethic of Taiwanese and other East Asians develop. Although today China is a very different country compared to other East Asian natio ns such as Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and Korea; all the ancient cultivation techniques of rice stemmed out from there and spread throughout. In the words of Malcolm Gladwell in his fantastic book, Outliers, he elegantly sums summarizes some of the techniques used in rice farming. “Rice paddies are "built," not "opened up" the way a wheat field is. You don't just clear the trees, underbrush, and stones and then plow. Rice fields are carved into mountainsides in an elaborate series of terraces, or painstakingly constructed from marshland and river plains. A rice paddy has to be irrigated, so a complex system of dikes has to be built around the field. Channels must be dug from the nearest water source, and gates built into the dikes so the water flow can be adjusted precisely to cover the right amount of the plant. The paddy itself, meanwhile, has to have a hard clay floor; otherwise the water will simply seep into the ground. But of course, rice seedlings can't be planted in hard clay, so on top of the clay, there has to be a thick, soft layer of mud. And the claypan, as it's called, has to be carefully engineered so that it will drain properly and also keep the plants submerged at the optimum level. Rice has to be fertilized repeatedly, which is another art. Traditionally, farmers used "night soil" (human manure) and a combination of burned compost, river mud, bean cake, and hemp — and they had to be careful, because too much fertilizer, or the right amount applied at the wrong time, could be as bad as too little. When the time came to plant, a Chinese farmer would have hundreds of different varieties of rice from which to choose, each one of which offered a slightly different trade-off, say, between yield and how quickly it grew, or how well it did in times of drought, or how it fared in poor soil. A farmer might plant a dozen or more different varieties at one time, adjusting the mix fro m season to season in order to manage the risk of a crop failure. He or she (or, more accurately, the whole family, since rice agriculture was a family affair) would plant the seed in a specially prepared seedbed. After a few weeks, the seedlings would be transplanted into the field, in carefully spaced rows six inches apart, and then painstakingly nurtured. Weeding was done by hand, diligently and unceasingly, because the seedlings could easily be choked by other plant life. Sometimes each rice shoot would be individually groomed with a bamboo comb to clear away insects. All the while, farmers had to check and recheck water levels and make sure the water didn't get too hot in the summer sun. And when the rice ripened, farmers gathered all of their friends and relatives and, in one coordinated burst, harvested it as quickly as possible so they could get a second crop in before the winter dry season began” (Gladwell 225). When I read this excerpt in Gladwell’ s book, I suddenly understood what I had been seeing everyday on my bus ride to school. Despite the fact that this is thousands of years after the dominant period of rice farming, the painstakingly diligent processes of rice farming still appeared in their daily life. Every morning around 7:00 am, the scooters begin rambling down the narrow streets, the vendors begin to setup shop, the students start scrambling onto buses to get to school on time, and all of it comes together to bring the island to life. Meanwhile, I, a lone foreign exchange student, begin my day as well. My morning obviously isn’t as hectic as many others, but fortunately this lack of chaos gives me the opportunity to observe something beautiful. Every morning anywhere you look you can spot the older generation of Taiwanese beginning their day by doing some Taiqi. You can see numerous amounts of people swinging their arms in circles and making crazy movements for exercise. To the naked and ignorant ey e of a foreigner, such as I, this spectacle appeared absolutely comical. But, after several more seemingly mundane commutes to school, I realized this morning routine alluded to the country of Taiwan as a whole. While the older Taiwanese generation are simply waking up to get some exercise, the deeper meaning uncovers itself and shows us that the drive to keep that perfect rice paddy, has seeped down through the ages to now appear to us as a simple morning routine, but really they’re simultaneously maintaining the blood flow of their own country.
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IF possible to take one thing from this escapade into Taiwanese work ethic, looking past the facade that some things may be bad or dull remains an important skill that all exchange students must master to be able to understand and accept exactly what their host country has to offer.
My Chinese learning continues to be an absolute pleasure for me and, hopefully, the people teaching me along the way. In the beginning, I learned how hard this conquest of the language would be for me to get through. The first few days I was the most tired I had ever been. This wasn’t because of the “jet lag”. I’ve been on long plane rides before, and this wasn’t the same type of weariness. I discovered I had used my brain more than I ever had in the past. I was mentally exhausted. My mettle was put to the test. But, luckily my spirits weren’t dampened. I rested up well and began the work of listening, attempting to speak, and processing all of this new information in my head. After a while, maybe two to three months, it all became automatic, and I began to realize that all the work that I had put in during the beginning truly paid off. Chinese is a complex language, but it is not hard. Many people have asked me “Do you feel Chinese i s hard to learn?” and my reply eventually turned out always to be “If you decide that Chinese is hard, then it is hard. If you decide that the language is easy, then it is easy.” I believe this mindset is vital in the learning process of a secondary language because many people can and will find it very challenging. But, in the end, it’s all up to the person learning the language. It’s what you decide and how much work you put in that will determine what you can do on your exchange year, and in your lifetime.
For the benefit of future inbounds to Taiwan, I will give some insight into the learning process of my language. I will outline what I have done to learn Chinese in the past, and what I do today. Out of the entire 60+ exchange students in my district, I tested first on the written exam, and won the speech contest hosted by our district as well. So, I don’t mean to be a braggart, but as a sixteen year old boy in a foreign country learning Mandarin Chinese I think I know what I’m talking about. Although, I am nowhere near “fluent”, I still feel I have done a decent job of learning Chinese. But in the end I still know nothing and I hope to continue learning every single day. Anyway, in the beginning I focused on listening as I wanted to learn the most useful phrases and I wanted speak exactly like the natives did. So, whenever I checked the dictionary, which I did a lot, I would see which word the Taiwanese would use because they use different words for t he same meanings in different Chinese-speaking countries. I began to imitate the way the natives spoke. When school began, I started my Chinese classes: three hours a week. Obviously these classes weren’t nearly enough to reach where I am now in the language, so I hope you can see how important individual dedication and work in the your target language is. No one is going spoon feed you Chinese, or german, or french or portuguese. If when you arrive in your host country expect a teacher to “teach” you a secondary language, then you will not go far, or you will not have enough time to do as much as you want. I have seen it first hand with many of the students here in Taichung, my city. I began class with the other person in my school and after about three months she felt the classes weren’t enough. So she paid lots of money to begin schooling at a local university's language program. My classmate still cannot hold a basic conversation with me in C hinese, but oh, she can write some characters. This is the “I want to be taught” mentality. I believe it’s wrong and should be avoided during anyone’s time as an exchange student or during other escapades in life.
I’m finally editing this on the last day of my exchange and I’d like to apologize to every Rotarian in Florida who participates and works in RYE because I basically failed them. I signed a contract at the beginning of the year promising that I would write journals and look how it turns out! I’ve ended up with one posted all the year. I could go on and on about Chinese but it looks like it must be left for another day. Anyway, I hope I can be forgiven and I hope I can make it up in some way. Maybe...it just proves I was having TOO much fun in Taiwan……..Thank you Rotary and all the Rotarians who made this year possible. I failed this portion of exchange but I can assure you the other factors of my exchange were extremely successful.