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It’s been too long since I’ve been actively learning a language and I’ve decided to take on a new challenge! I’m going to learn Spanish. It should be good fun. Since learning how to learn a language, I haven’t studied anything so similar to English. It’s going to be great having so many cognates with English and not needing to learn thousands of characters!

I have a lot of skills from my experiences learning Japanese and then Mandarin that will help me. On the other hand, now that I’m a software engineer at a tech start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I don’t have nearly the time I had in my 20s while I was learning those languages. Here is my plan:

I’m going to spend some time on vocabulary flashcards in an SRS, but no more than three hours a week. I’ve also got some textbooks and I’m doing an hour of private tutoring each week.

While I’m not a complete beginner, my Spanish is very, very bad at the moment. I’ve often wished I could see the version of Mark from many years ago who struggled to speak Chinese, so I’m recording videos of my Spanish right from the beginning level.

Next time will be better! At the very least, I’ll know how to say 500.

😀

Growing up, I was an avid reader and English was always one of my stronger subjects. But, I never expected that one result of going to Taiwan to teach english would be unintentionally becoming a grammar nazi! I suppose my grammar was relatively strong before I left, but teaching English to non-native speakers has greatly strengthened it.

I taught children. It was wonderful. They were, for the most part, cheerful, eager to please and fun. But they also had this annoying habit of asking “why?”

Why is it, “I haven’t swum this year,” instead of, “I haven’t swam?”

Why is it, “I like eating,” and not, “I like eat?”

“Why is it a big, brown dog and not a brown, big dog?

“Why, why, why…”

Being a student of foreign languages myself, I told them I’d always done better by focusing on how to express a given idea than why it had to be expressed that way. A lot of children were satisfied with that. A few children weren’t. Most of their parents weren’t. They really wanted to know why. And after my first year or two, so did I.

So I ended up learning about when to use past participles, the similarities between gerunds and infinitives, subjunctives and many, many other things about the wonderful complexities of my native tongue. It wasn’t half bad for my abilities to talk about grammar in Chinese, either!

Somewhere along the way, I started to forget what it was like not having an explicit knowledge of various grammatical points. Then I came back to the US and almost immediately started noticing everyone else’s grammatical errors. “There’s a lot of busses to the Embarcadero from here,” I’d hear someone say. And I’d be thinking, “There are a lot of busses because they are countable and plural!” in my head. “I’ve ran a lot of intervals this week,” I’d hear some guy say at a park. “NO!!! You’ve run them because it’s a completed action and therefore is a perfect tense and requires a past participle!” an evil voice would scream. Once in a while it was almost like being a character in The Oatmeal comic.

Now that it’s been two years, my inner grammar nazi is just now finally starting to subside and allowing me to let the distinctions between less and fewer slide. I still haven’t relaxed my stance on English “names” I can’t stand, though!

😀

Since my arrival in San Francisco last summer, I’ve become aware of the new “hacker schools” popping up around the city. Their stated purpose is to take smart, motivated people who may or may not have a strong technical background and turn them into world-class junior developers in a short time.

The Starter League

The first school of this type that I ever heard of was Code Academy in Chicago (renamed as The Starter League due to name confusion after the online school Codecademy launched). Their system was pretty unique– students spend 8 to 10 hours per day for 2 months, working in pairs as they learn a stunning amount of ruby, HTML/CSS/JS and Ruby on Rails. At the end of this time, they have an interview day in which they demo their projects to various tech companies, including some of the hottest local startups. The school has only been running since 2011, but results have been excellent and even DHH, the creator of Ruby on Rails, is a fan of the program.

SF Hacker Schools

With that kind of success, it wasn’t long before similar schools started popping up in the Bay Area. The demand for top notch developers is extreme here, but very few companies are willing to train and they take only a tiny fraction of their applicants. A program to quickly bring students up to speed in the technologies that local start-ups are using is the perfect solution. It’s an incredible learning experience for the students that opens doors, the companies can hire solid programmers to join their teams and schools can earn money from either or both of the former two groups. From what I understand, Dev Bootcamp‘s first class was hugely successful–Over 90 percent of the students landed jobs shortly after graduation (at nearly double the average US salary) and of those who didn’t one opened a similar school called App Academy that focused on iOS development and the other opened Hack Reactor, an even more intense school with a stronger focus on JavaScript and front-end technologies. There is also another school, which I know less about since it doesn’t accept men.

In contrast with computer science degrees at universities, these schools have less of a focus on CS theory and more of a focus on building things. Students write a lot of code, and they use newer languages and frameworks. Another feature is heavy use of cutting edge tools and various automated testing frameworks that are commonly used in bay area start-ups, but not so common yet at larger, more traditional companies. Most striking to me is the intense nature of the study. No college I’ve ever seen puts students through 8 class hours of computing classes per day.

The bay area hacker schools remind me more of high-end intense language schools! There are a number of 6 hour per day intense language learning programs in which students work in pairs or small groups, work hard, and acquire a great deal of vocabulary, speaking skills and reading skills in a short time. In my experience learning mathematics as a teenager and then later learning Japanese and Chinese in my 20s, working at something 4 hours a day isn’t just 4 times as good as 1 hour a day. It’s closer to 10 times as good.

All in all, I see a lot of positives of this type of education. So much so, that I’m considering the possibility of running a school of this type someday… possibly even in Taiwan again! Entrance is very competitive to the existing schools, so it took a lot of hustling, but I’ve gotten into Hack Reactor class. I’ll be in class from 9am to 8pm six days a week, starting tomorrow. If you’re interested in the full story, I’ve put it up on my programming blog.

I may or may not be able to continue posting phonics lessons in my Phonics Friday Youtube channel, but I’ll try!

Happy holidays, those of you reading from the US! I’ve just had my first Thanksgiving in years, and also my first experience with a weird holiday called Black Friday. I actually didn’t know what that was until last year when my Swedish co-worker told me about it, surprised I didn’t know the holidays of my own country. I guess that’s what I get for moving abroad for a decade! It must have existed when I left, but it was much smaller then and I’m sure my home state of Colorado was far from the epicenter of the tradition.

One more thing about language learning

Speaking of focus, I hope some of you have already started to benefit from the language learning experiences and strategies I shared in the last newsletter. Language learning was one of my biggest hobbies in my twenties and definitely a major focus. One thing I didn’t mention was how important it was to believe that I could learn a foreign language.

All through high school, I took French classes. Even though I passed them, I didn’t really acquire any useful skills. I couldn’t understand French movies, I couldn’t understand Le Petit Prince, I couldn’t understand French people, and for that matter I didn’t even know any French people. Had I gone to Taiwan directly from that experience, I wouldn’t have gotten very far with my Chinese. What made all the difference in the world for me, was one of my girlfriends in college. She was a good language learner who had already learned Spanish well, and the two of us took an intensive Japanese course together. We studied together every day, and I had a chance to see first hand the kinds of strategies she used. With the moral support and extra motivation from working on it together, I ended up being the most successful student in the class except for her, and then making numerous Japanese friends at school and eventually completing a whole B.A. in Japanese in only two years. That win under my belt was invaluable when I got to Taiwan. I had all kinds of frustrations trying to differentiate Chinese tones, learning traditional Chinese characters and even just getting people to talk to me in Chinese instead of just practicing English with me. But I also knew I was capable of learning a foreign language… because I’d done it before.

Seeing great career opportunities

Thinking you can do something isn’t always a guarantee, but thinking you can’t reduces your odds of success sharply. I saw one of the saddest comments on my blog this month. It was off on my article titled The Lowdown on Teaching English in Taiwan. This is what he said:

“I can tell you the current situation in Taiwan is not good at all for Teaching jobs. I have 5 years teaching experience here. I have all the qualifications and speak Chinese at a conversation level. The bottom line is you will never save money here. I have seen people flying here expecting jobs leaving with nothing. Those jobs mentioned in the article are a fable legend or they have changed because of the economic and student situation. Coming off the plane your first year you will be lucky to get a job. Never, never expect to make over 1000nt its never going to happen probably ever. If you are lucky enough to get a job it will probably be 8-14 hours a week at the most 600nt per hour. YOu might as well work at mcdonalds. This article is out of date, do not read on the internet about teaching here its not a good place to teach at all. Good luck the truth even if its hard to swallow”
-David

This commenter clearly felt frustrated by his 5 years of essentially working an entry-level job. None of his friends had ever worked at a school like mine or like those I’d worked at, and hadn’t ever had contact with that sort of English teaching environment. He didn’t believe it was possible to get that kind of job and figured that they had all been destroyed by changes in the market.

And that belief BLINDED him!

Since I’ve only been gone from Taiwan for 2 years and still have a ton of friends there, I knew things weren’t nearly that grim. In a cursory 2 minute search of a single classifieds board (Tealit.com), I found a job opening offering 900-1200NT/hr. Not only that, but it was Modawei, where I had worked before and written about on my blog! Literally all this guy would have had to do to find the opening was to take one look at the biggest English Teacher job board in Taiwan before sending me his depressing comment. He probably could have found the job just by googling what I read in the very blog he was on!

Of course I empathize with David. The better offers don’t stay open that long, but the truth is there are great opportunities showing up regularly, even on classified boards. (And sorry, that position I saw that day isn’t open anymore!) It’s hard to care. It’s hard to believe something you want is possible because that opens you up to rejection. I know from personal experience when I first got back to the US, the job hunt was driving me absolutely crazy. But the last thing you want to do is auto-disqualify yourself. If you believe the thing you want is only a myth, then you’ll be blind to the things you’d have to notice to make it your reality.

Of course the “apex teaching jobs” as I call them are all more work to find, harder to get into and take more training than the jobs anyone can get right off the plane. Other, bigger, opportunities such as opening your own school have even higher barriers to entry. But unless they’re recruiters for a school, people who are telling you about the better EFL careers are generally doing it out of a genuine desire to be helpful. I wanted to at least.

Why I started blogging about teaching way back when

When I first started my blog, in 2005, I’d just emerged from two years of work similar to David’s and I was thrilled to find so much better of an option for longer-term teachers! Not only that, but I hoped that as more foreigners got drawn to the better schools, they’d be building the skills to make those schools successful and gain market-share against the incumbent English schools in Taiwan. I also wanted to promote extensive reading. I’d read a ton research about its benefits for language learners and hadn’t seen a single schooling using it. It was just this side of heartbreaking to see so many Taiwanese parents spend so much money and so many kids to spend so much time for so little in terms of tangible benefits. I wanted to see the market change and for hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese kids to be learning better English as a result. I know it sounds a bit far fetched, but that was my dream when I started blogging.

And rigorous foreign-run schools like my old one have been proliferating all over northern Taiwan in the past few years… and nearly all of them have started incorporating extensive reading into their curriculums. When I was an employee at Modawei, my ideas didn’t get very far. I was a trainee, and they had a conservative culture. But I won over some of my old co-workers with my passion, my blogging and a steady stream of research papers and TEFL journals. After I left to go to the next school some of my old co-workers started becoming managers and started using extensive reading materials! After I was co-owner of a school, even more people started paying attention. I think it’s fair to say that my blog and my work changed the conversation for foreign English teachers in Taiwan, especially in Taipei. And yes, I did profit from my work. But that was hardly the main motivation. At no point did I earn what someone putting in a similar level of effort would have in the US… or in a lot of other fields. I only had a fraction of the impact I’d aimed for. But NONE of it would have happened if I’d just said, “Well I’m just a trainee and I can’t really prove my ideas about language teaching to management and the market can’t be changed anyway.”

If you’re really passionate about something, that intensity can take you a long way. Even if you’re not truly passionate about something, but you feel stuck and you really just want to make progress, you owe it to yourself to believe what you want is more than a “myth”.

A lot of people are happy to help

If you’re one of those readers still stuck at the 600NT/hr in Taiwan (or 100RBM/hr in China or 240,000yen/month in Japan) and you don’t know how to get something better, ask people! Unfortunately, I get a pretty crushing amount of email due to my blog and can’t help everyone, but there are many, many others who are more than willing to share advice. Your network of friends’ friends is probably the most trusted source, but even asking people on a forum, such as Forumosa or Dave’s ESL Cafe is easy and often pays off.

Probably the number one thing I was thankful for on Thanksgiving is all of kindness I’ve received from strangers over the years. Sometimes those strangers have even become good friends!

As both a language teacher and as a language student, I’ve been in to extensive reading for a long time. Back in 2004, when I first experienced the benefits for my students, there weren’t that many people talking about extensive reading online. I wrote about it on this blog and later used graded readers from Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press as a cornerstone of the curriculum I wrote for Pagewood.

All things considered, it was no great surprise when Cambridge UP reached out to me about work on an EFL reader. The shock was what they wanted. What they wanted for their graded reader was me.

Cheque from Cambridge University Press
They somehow found an old blog post I’d written. In it, I told how my ex-girlfriend from college had nudged me into taking an intensive Japanese course over a summer. In the past I had had no success with language learning, but she had already learned Spanish pretty fluently. During that summer, I was practically living in her apartment and I saw her using a much wider variety of language learning techniques than I’d ever considered.

I ended up with an A, the second highest grade in the course after her. I ended up going back to school, getting fluent enough in Japanese to largely understand TV and earning an entire BA in Japanese Language in only 2 years. After that, I ended up moving to Taiwan and learning Chinese. That was a long time ago, and I’ve since forgotten most the Japanese I knew and only maintained very occasional online contact with her. Still, I’m grateful. If you’re reading this, Diana, thank you! You changed the direction of my life and it’s been a lot more interesting as a result!

Sadly, Cambridge changed us into Australians and made us brother and sister in the retelling of my story. I don’t know if I’m at liberty to share the passage, but I got a good laugh out of hearing my own words leaping off the page at me with the diction of an Englishman! CUP offered me £100 and my name in the acknowledgments in exchange for using my story, so I figured why not?

I’ll definitely buy my grandmother a copy once I know which one it is. She loves that kind of thing.

In my last week or two in Beijing, one question I heard over and over was, “What will you miss the most?”

Most my Chinese friends seemed to think it would be the food or the attention of being a foreigner. Most my foreign friends figured it would be the “culture”, whatever that means after spending most my adult life in Taiwan and then Beijing.

I had the feeling that I wouldn’t miss anything really, except for some people. That’s natural I suppose, since I had already decided to leave. I was really looking forward to a better job market (for tech, at least), cleaner air, a healthier environment in general, and most of all a big opportunity for personal growth.

Now that it’s been a month, I have a different perspective. I really don’t miss the things that made me want to leave. But I do miss some other things.

A safety net

In all fairness, there is no real safety net in Beijing. There’s no public health insurance like there is in Taiwan and worse still, there’s the possibility of actually getting ripped off for being a foreigner, even at a hospital! Similarly, if you have any major sorts of problems, you just get kicked out of the country. One of my best friends was in China for grad school back during the SARS crisis and just got booted out… and he wasn’t even sick.

There is a different sort of safety net in China for a foreigner, though. That’s the EFL industry. Even without my background teaching, managing and then owning an EFL school in Taiwan, teaching always would have been an option. Unlike Taiwan, in Beijing the demand is so great that even the normally undesirable teachers can generally all get placed. In the US, there is no Taiwanese health insurance system and there’s no auto-job. It’s sink or swim.

Nightmarkets and Hutongs

Shilin Nightmarket
Okay, maybe I do miss some of the food. It’s not really the food, though. I’m living in Chinatown and I can get pretty much any Chinese food I want. What I miss is how I could get the food! There’s something about a Taiwanese nightmarket or a Beijing hutong that’s supremely full-filling in the way that going to a single restaurant for a whole meal isn’t. Even Chinatown doesn’t have that kind of environment, probably due to pesky enforcement of food safety laws. I suppose I could find some strip mall here in California, go to the food court and buy a drink at one store and an order of chicken at another and then ice cream at a 3rd… but it wouldn’t be the same at all.

Pragmatic Law Enforcement

In some ways living in China is freer than living in the US. With the exception of a trip to inner Mongolia, I’ve never once felt like I was in physical danger. The police do a pretty good job with the available resources to keep society in line. But day to day life is very laissez faire in China, especially compared to the US! If you want to drive home drunk and get in an accident, you’ll go to prison. But if you want to have dinner with your coworkers and drink beer as you walk back to the office or the subway, nobody cares! The US has the most extreme open container laws I’ve seen anywhere in my life! Huge amounts of effort and money are spent trying to keep anybody 20 years-old or younger from drinking. Ditto for smoking. I’m not a big smoker, but the zealousness with which anti-smoking rules have been enacted since I left a decade ago just shocks me. One would think that soft drinks and junk food placed everywhere kids spend their time are the larger health risk… not that there’s any kind of sin tax for junk food in Beijing! Eat! Drink! Be merry! Play majiang loudly at 2 in the morning! Just don’t organized against the government or hurt people and they’ll mostly leave you alone.

Friends

Having moved so many times, this is a constant. Of what I leave behind, it’s always my friends I miss the most. I wasn’t even there for two years, but I will definitely miss hanging out with Wilson, his roommates, Simon, his Dashilar crowd, Martina, all the people she introduced to me from her tour guiding job, including Paul who encouraged me to move to the bay area, and so many others… I’m going to miss my co-workers, too. I would say that both the bosses were awesome to hang with and talk to in different ways, and some how I ended up getting along with all the Singaporean interns so well that I made a trip to Singapore to visit them after leaving! One fun guy there, Jim, is from the bay area, so I’ll probably see him here in the future after he returns to continue his work of bringing the singularity near. There’s also a really cute girl I met in the elevator of my apartment building the day I was leaving to move across town and take my job at SmarTots. I miss her too.

Work

Sounds strange, huh? SmarTots really was a cool place to be. It was the first time I was directly able to use technology to help lots of kids instead just a single class at a time. As mentioned above, it was a great crowd of people and after the first couple of months I was able to contribute and learn quite a bit. It was also likely the closest peek into Chinese corporate life I’ll have in a long time.

On the whole

When all is said and done, I don’t really miss Beijing that much. I miss it a bit, but I’m really enjoying San Francisco!

Since moving back to the US, I’ve been living in the San Francisco Chinatown. It’s been interesting in a lot of ways. In some ways it’s very familiar to me both from my US and my Chinese experiences, but in others it’s still a little bit alien.

Traditional Characters

One welcome feature is that everything is in traditional Chinese characters, and sometimes English, too. Even after my 20 months or so in Beijing, I still read traditional characters with more ease than the PRC simplified forms. After all, I did live in Taiwan for most my 20’s.

Cantonese

Unfortunately for me, “Chinese” doesn’t mean Mandarin here. It means Cantonese. Every single one of my neighbors speaks Cantonese fluently and, as far as I know, natively. That isn’t to say that Mandarin isn’t useful. It is! None of my neighbors has ever said anything more than, “yeah”, “hello”, or “okay” to me in English. About 1/3 of them can speak enough Mandarin to chat with a bit. Shopkeepers are a bit better. I’d say half can speak at least so-so English, and probably 90% can also speak Mandarin.

Sadly I’ve spent only a total of 10 days in HK, and I only know about 50-100 words. Basically I can tell people, “Hi, my name’s 小馬. Can you speak Mandarin? No? Uh ah, uh where’s Waverly street? Thanks. bye-bye!”. It was useful once or twice when I first showed up, but I’m not learning any more and I don’t think this is a good place to learn since it’s such it’s in America and I’m not Chinese-looking. I may get a subscription for Pop-up Cantonese and listen to podcasts at some point, but it’s not a priority.

…Hong Kong?

Based on the prevalence of the odd combination of Traditional Characters and Cantonese, I kept asking myself, “Why doesn’t this feel like Hong Kong?”

It’s kind of hard for me to explain, but it really doesn’t feel like Hong Kong. It’s super hilly and it’s full of tourists, but it feels less free-wheeling. There are a lot of restaurants, but no alleys full of food stands. Also, people in Hong Kong struck me as very short and very fashionable. I haven’t really seen either of those trends here. Not that many people seem to smoke or drink here, either.

Also it’s way cheaper to live here! This area has the cheapest rents I’ve seen in any safe area of SF.

The weather

It’s really not what I had in mind when thinking of “Summer in California”. It’s fairly warm in the day, though not as warm as anywhere else I’ve ever lived, and it’s cold at night. Even wearing long pants and a fleece jacket, it’s a bit chilly when walking home from tech events.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve written anything here. Part of the reason is that I’ve made some fairly big changes. I moved away from Taiwan, where I’ve spent half my adult life, and I’ve moved on from EFL. When I first started this blog back in 2005, one motivation was to keep in touch with friends and family back home, but it also served as an outlet for my interests of learning Chinese and teaching English to others.

Why I stopped

I’m not teaching English anymore. My former students meant very much to me and I’d love to hear of their progress from time to time, but I don’t have the same passion for teaching that I did 3 years ago. Similarly, I’m not so as interested in studying Mandarin as I was before. I’m still interested in languages in general, but it’s way more exciting for me to learn a few phrases in a language I don’t speak everyday, like Swedish or Cantonese, than it is to study more Mandarin. I’m not in Taiwan anymore either, and a large chunk of this blog has been about living in Taiwan. I miss a lot of things and a lot of people in Taiwan, but it’s not home anymore.

Another reason I stopped blogging is that I’ve been weighing the upsides and downsides of having an online presence. On one hand, the vast majority of the contact I’ve had with others through the internet has been good. I’ve even made some good friends through this blog. On the other hand, there are a few truly nasty people and it only takes one to ruin my mood! Beyond them, there are a lot of people with various axes to grind that just get tiring to deal with. Worst of all, I noticed that arguing with people online has a tendency of locking me into whatever views I hold at that time, potentially retarding my personal growth.

I never made a conscious decision not to blog… I just started writing more an more in my paper journal. This was good in some ways. I’ve been more comfortable writing things I wouldn’t necessarily want on a fairly high-traffic website. One example was a dream journal. I’ve been fascinated in Lucid Dreaming ever since high school. Keeping a daily log of dreams is a basic tool in lucid dreaming, but it’s not necessarily the sort of thing that others would get much value out of reading. As I wrote more and more that wasn’t appropriate for toshuo.com and got busy with other things, weeks became months and now it’s been nearly an entire year.

Why I’m resuming

Despite its drawbacks, writing online is worth it for me. I organize my thoughts more clearly when other people will be reading them than I do in my paper journal. People drawn to what I write are self-selected and often have something to offer me in return. Some of the most interesting ideas I’ve encountered for language learning (and learning in general) were due to John‘s various now defunct blogs. In personal terms and even in professional terms, the good has far outweighed the bad.

Also, while I’m not in Taiwan and I’m not teaching EFL anymore… I am still me. I’m living in Beijing and I’m working at a tech start-up which has built the largest platform for educational iPhone/iPad apps. So there is some continuity. Even if I were to move to California or enter an entirely different career, I expect that an interest in technology and a love of education will still be a very important part of me.

Posting older journal pieces

I may post some of my paper journal entries here. My initial struggles adapting to standard PRC Mandarin, my visa run to Mongolia, my thoughts about Taiwan after leaving and a bunch of other entries fit the site well. If I do that, I’ll probably post them, and then after a week or so, update the date of the entries to the true date of when I wrote them.

Over the years, I’ve offered an extra bed or at least a couch to a number of online friends who have stopped by Taipei or wherever I happened to be living. I’m not sure my grandmother would approve, but I think the conventional wisdom about is wrong on this topic. The risks are mostly over-stated and the benefits are often overlooked. People are mostly good and on the whole and as far as I can tell, helping travelers out is a net gain for both the traveler and the host.

The online friends I’ve invited over fit into three groups. Some, such as Brian, keep mostly to themselves, spend a lot of time on their laptops blogging or doing whatever it is they do and don’t really impact my routine one way or the other. Without exception, they’re always good for an interesting conversation or two. Hosting them is definitely a net positive. The second group are people like Darin. They make plans to come and I offer them a place to stay, but then they end up canceling the trip. Nothing is lost and nothing is gained… except maybe an increased chance of them offering me a place to stay when I visit the country where they live. The third group is those like my friend Wayne who end up becoming great friends and hanging out with me regularly for months or even years. That’s not only worth it, but it’s enough to upset the risk of a really bad guest (which I haven’t experienced yet).

One other thing that has been absolutely wonderful is that an unusually large number of people have let me crash at their places. John, when I visited Shanghai, PR when moving in Taipei, Matt before I left Colorado and now Ben in Kunming. I can’t really draw any connection between me having other guests at my place and them inviting me to stay at theirs, but if I did believe in earthly karma this experience would certainly reinforce that belief.

Now that I’ve been in Kunming for a couple of weeks, I think I’ve got a decent idea of what the city would be like to live in for six months to a year. I’m still not sure whether if I want to stay here that long or go somewhere else, but here are my thoughts so far.

Costs

Kunming is cheap. My friend and his roommate are staying in an awesome apartment, far better than any I ever lived in in Taiwan and they’re in the middle of the city in about the most expensive part of town. They only pay 1400RMB (about 200USD) each. They also have a maid come by to clean each week, a water jug delivery service, reasonably fast internet and all the other amenities that go with a nice place in China.

Kunming is deep in the interior of China, though, and any imported goods have to be shipped across thousands of kilometers of poor roads to get there. Things like imported fruits or cereal are really expensive. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a lot of locals eat more noodles and fewer vegetables for monetary reasons. It’s not that poor in the city at least, but the incentives are definitely set up in a way that encourages a poor diet. Electronics prices don’t seem to be affected.

Language

This is a bummer for me. Mandarin is less dominant of a language here than it was even in Taipei. I’ve met well off, well-educated college students and found them really happy to talk to me in Mandarin… but they still talk to each other in Kunminghua. I don’t mean to be a language elitist, but it’s juts not a language I feel like dealing with my whole time here. Yes, I was interested in learning Hokkien and Cantonese, but both those language have 50+ million speakers and Taiwan and Hong Kong each have all kinds of TV shows, songs and movies to learn from. Kunminghua would be much harder to learn and it just doesn’t do much for me.

Transportation

Busses are uncomfortably crammed full of people, but they’re really cheap– like 1 or 2 RMB. All in all, the small size of the city is a big help. Cabs are ridiculously hard to get here. I’ve actually had to wait 30 minutes to find an open one on a few occasions.

It’s nowhere near as crazy as Taiwan was, but a lot of people here own scooters. They’re in their own traffic lanes which are physically divided from the cars! It’s a wonderful system that could probably save thousands of lives if implemented in Taipei. The scooters are all electric, too, which is very cool. They’re not the noisy, smelly beasts I’m used to. On the down-side, though, they can approach very rapidly and quietly. Pedestrians beware!

Another consideration is that I were to live in the center of the city like my friend, I could walk to a lot of places.

Environment

Kunming is not the relatively city I had expected. Pollution is seriously bad. The sky may look blue compared to Beijing’s, but I get a headache walking by the street. Busses smell foul. Things might get better once the subway opens in a year or two, but that doesn’t really help my decision for this year.

Conclusions

It’s kind of hard to decide. I think Kunming would be a great place to get a lot of programming done. I could live on very, very little, even splurging a bit on good food. On the other hand I do want to take my Chinese to the next level, too. It’s not my main goal, but if I were to ever use it professionally back in the US, I’m sure I’d be better served by a standard mainland accent and the ability to read simplified characters comfortably than by my current Taiwan-style Mandarin.