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What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade

Part 1: before the blog
Part 2: meeting other bloggers (you are here)
Part 3: how blogging helped me as an entrepreneur
Part 4: The biggest drawback to blogging


Blogs were popping up everywhere in 2005

Soon after I started writing this blog, and sharing one post about teaching English as a foreign language in Taiwan, other bloggers started adding me to their blog lists. Notably, John of Sinosplice added me to his China Blog List and Michael Turton of The View from Taiwan added me to his massive blogroll.

From there, people started showing up and commenting. Even with only 300 visits per day, I often got 20 or more comments on a post. This seems to have been more common back before Facebook sucked up so much of people’s online writing time. It was an interesting time since nobody really knew what blogs were or were supposed to be, but it was very social.

Meeting the actual bloggers

It wasn’t long before, I started meeting this site’s commenters in real life. In Taiwan, there were a number of meetups. When I visited Shanghai, John put me up at his apartment for a week! In Beijing, I met David (then running Adsotrans), Brendan (a more fantastically talented foreign learner of Chinese than I’d imagined existed) and a number of other online friends. Other online friends, like Angelica actually moved to Taiwan from elsewhere and ended up in my offline social circle.

It was an odd world. In 2006, none of these people, except maybe John were making any money online and everyone’s focus was on the ideas they wrote about. Though some of us wrote about language learning or ourselves, others wrote mostly about politics, photography or travel. And we all put each other on each other’s blogrolls—lists of links to other bloggers on the side of our sites—just because we were foreigners with websites in Taiwan (or China). Sure there were some overlapping circles and others that didn’t. Some of the Taiwanese bloggers focused on politics weren’t adding a bunch of China bloggers to their blogrolls. They probably weren’t adding TEFL blogs from outside of Taiwan that I was following either.

People were almost always wonderful

It was really refreshing and eye-opening seeing how nice everybody was. I had originally created this blog with the goal of helping other teachers and students, but for some reason I hadn’t expected the internet to reciprocate.

Other than being offered a place to crash when I visited China, I got immeasurable help from people who had learned more Chinese than I had, people who knew more about getting around Taiwan, people who knew more about running a blog, people who knew more about programming and people who were just really friendly in general. People I met on this very site helped me find apartments, set up websites, set up a business in Taiwan (which was an entire story itself) and all kinds of other things. Even the people who constantly argued with me helped sharpen my ideas about language teaching and my understanding of cultural differences and local politics.

Arguing on the internet

duty calls

XKCD: Duty Calls

Given how many bloggers in Taiwan at that time were focused on politics, it’s inevitable that there were arguments. It wasn’t just politics, though. For me, the longest and most contentious arguments were about language teaching and search engines. I also argued about using standard Pinyin. Actually, my biggest comments on politics generally revolved around issues that related to foreigners in Taiwan, which included romanization. At the time, the DPP very much wanted to adopt or create a romanization system different from China. Due to squabbling and repeated attempts at this, the signs were really confusing for me before I knew enough Chinese to understand the characters and I hated that. “The locals don’t read romanized signs anyway!” I thought. At one point, I had a protracted debate about the merits of including tone marks on signs!

All in all, I feel the online arguing was worthwhile but that there were rapidly diminishing returns. It was fantastic for getting new ideas and seeing how others thought of my ideas. On the other hand, habitually digging in and making a third pass at an argument is very costly, not only socially but also in terms of personal growth. I certainly don’t agree with everything I’ve written here in the past, and in more than one case I’ve gone back and appologized to people I’d interpreted uncharitably in the midst of a disagreement.

The dark side of online visibility—safety concerns

Given how blogs and the internet in general make it easier to put oneself in an echo chamber filled with agreeing voices, online communities tend towards polarization. Paul Graham, a prominent essayist, believes the effect goes far beyond online communities and is a society-wide refragmentation. I think he’s probably right. People, at least within the US and the Anglosphere generally, have diverged into increasingly separated cultural camps. Nowhere is this more visible than in online mob behavior. Twitter has probably been a net positive, but it’s very possibly 45% destructive.

The absolutely most unpleasant experience I’ve had on this site was with a certain person from a country in the southern hemisphere who had an online presence in Taiwan. We had a disagreement which had originally seemed a hope trivially minor misunderstanding—I had corrected a couple of minor errors in what he’d written about me on his site—but his reaction was over the top. He left disturbing sexualized messages both in my email and voice machine, and contacted my business partners threatening to sue over a blog post. Years after I had moved away from Taiwan and I’d had no contact with him whatsoever, he emailed out of the blue swearing to follow me the rest of my life, to ruin it and that if he had half a chance he’d “pay somebody to knock me off”.

Though I had heard others speak of his behavior enough times that I knew I was far from the only person on the internet he’d unexpected flipped out, it was terrifying. I lived in a different country than he did, so there wasn’t a completely credible death threat or anything concrete that the police in the US could do. That one blog post that upset him is the only one I’ve ever taken down at someone else’s request.

I feel hesitant to write about the experience even without naming the individual. Hopefully this serves as an alert to my peers who might think that only huge or exceptionally contentious sites have real risk associated with them.

Also, FWIW, writing online has been a net positive despite this experience.

Lasting bonds

One really great thing about an online presence, or putting yourself out there in general, is that you can choose who you want to spend more time with and who you don’t. I didn’t like everyone I met. Guess what? I don’t follow them online or hang out with them now! Conversely, most of the people I got along with best in 2006 are still friends. Some are close friends, some are weak ties and others are just people I’ll follow online.

I many ways, this is the good side of the societal “refragmentation” mentioned above. In this past decade more than ever, people have been able to find kindred spirits and form like-minded communities.

Next is Part 3: 3 Comments Read more

What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade

Part 1: before the blog (you are here)
Part 2: meeting other bloggers
Part 3: how blogging helped me as an entrepreneur
Part 4: The biggest drawback to blogging


The first glimpse of a different life

When I was in college, blogging was new and exciting. As I was starting this site, other members of the Nintendo Generation were starting theirs, too. Some were like diaries, some were focused on personal interests many were mashups of both. I was enthralled by them. These blogs weren’t wooden news reports. They were often unfiltered and a closer look at what life was actually like for other people. One of the saddest parts of the growth of Facebook is that personal blogs have largely been subsumed by wall posts—nearly always a much less honest look at someone’s life.

I had become very interested in what it was like to live abroad. I couldn’t afford to and had actually chosen my school based on price. I desperately wanted to get out and experience life in a place different from where I’d grown up. It felt impossible at the time, but I knew that once I graduated I could go abroad to teach English. I’d heard that in some places, there was a tremendous demand for native English speakers and that with a language and literature degree I would definitely be able to find a job.

So I searched.

Google returned many links to blogs of Americans about my age who were studying or teaching abroad. I became a fan of one called A Better Tomorrow. It had Chow Yun Fat images in the banner and was written by a Swarthmore student studying in China. His Chinese was at a level I could only dream of and his stories of traveling around China were amazing! Another one called Sinosplice was written by an English teacher in China who had previously lived in Japan.

I read both with interest and started devouring everything I could find about language learning, language teaching and where to live. I decided to go to Japan if I were accepted into the JET program. After being rejected, I chose Taiwan.

redbeanyum

Moving to Taiwan

I had a really hard time when I first got to Taiwan. I wanted to learn Chinese, but everyone else wanted to practice English. Further complicating things, Mandarin was the second language in Chiayi (嘉義), the city where I was living. There wasn’t a language school for foreigners either.

Additionally, I was only the second American at the English school where I was teaching and the Canadian teachers completely shunned the other American… and me. It was during the 2nd Iraq War, anti-American sentiments were strong amongst many Europeans and especially Canadians and I was surrounded by young, ideologically motivated Canadians who literally believed discriminating against Americans (or at least those who pay taxes) was the morally correct position. Yikes.

I did manage to win over some of my coworkers after a month or so, but still it wasn’t the right environment for me. I didn’t believe the school was that effective. I loved the city and how I bicycle everywhere and I loved how friendly people were, but I just wasn’t learning any Chinese or advancing my career.

Moving to Taipei

Taipei was like a different world. Even then, the MRT was amazing and the city was incredibly walkable. Everything cost 20% than I was used to, except housing which was at least triple. There were tons of schools for learning Chinese. It was a stretch to afford tuition on part-time work but I did it.

The teaching methods and materials are the subject of another post, but in the end I was able to make some good progress despite them. I credit the many language learning blogs I was reading at the time for giving me both the inspiration and the know-how to succeed in such a difficult environment back in the days before language learning podcasts or apps had arrived and we were all looking up Chinese characters by radicals and stroke order in paper dictionaries.

My learning was <a=”http://www.fluentinmandarin.com/content/the-7-chinese-learning-mistakes-that-cost-me-a-year-of-my-life/”>incredibly slow and I couldn’t afford to study every semester. I also wasn’t making any forward progress on the work front. I was doing a marginally better job of teaching my students, but at its core it was unskilled work and the structure of the curriculum and business prevented me or any foreign teachers from making significant improvements.

Choosing to invest in new skills

I realized my work was essentially a commodity. I might get a slightly better wage through negotiation or becoming a popular teacher, but I was a very easily replaceable cog in a huge machine. There wasn’t much possibility of advancement either—to best of my knowledge the company didn’t tend to promote non-ethnically Chinese people.

The best opportunity I saw was to gain more skills that would make it possible for me to land a much better paying teaching job. There was also the option to pursue credentials, such as a TEFL certificate, but TEFL teachers are also largely commoditized and as I had learned even back then the TEFL training is highly opinionated but poorly backed by research. Some ideas, such as not using the students’ native language at all are clearly driven more by market prices of employing bilingual teachers than they are by what’s best for the students. Unsurprisingly, a TEFL certification is worth almost nothing in terms of increased earnings.

The climb

I worked hard at learning classroom-related language and started coming in to work early and watching my local co-teachers when they taught their half of classes. Within a few months I was able to get a job at 750NT an hour as opposed to my original 550NT. I had to prepare some materials for class and grade homework but there was a lot of latitude in terms of creating supplementary materials and learning how to be a better teacher when not following a very structured system from a large chain.

About six months after that, I got a job at a larger school with even more stringent requirements at 900NT/hr. I left that job months later due to a stupid contract they wanted me to sign that would have given them broad ownership of things I created on my own time. Their top teacher from the previous hired me at 1100NT/hr with a 50NT raise every 6 months and profit sharing if I stayed long-term. I moved out to his new school that week.

My blog

At this point, I had been living in Taiwan for two and a half years and was earning more than double the average foreign English teacher. I was 26 years old and I could speak two foreign languages very different from my native one.

I’d read dozens of books about language teaching and language acquisition and was teaching well over a hundred kids and doing it vastly more effectively than I’d seen at any other school. As my life situation improved, I became increasingly focused on helping others—my students, language students in general and other language teachers.

I’ll be honest. I felt I had something worth sharing.

So that’s what I did. I wrote about what I’d seen in the job market for foreign English teachers, I wrote reviews of my Chinese text books. I spent an entire day using my virtually non-existent programming abilities to hack together a tool for adding tone marks to pinyin. I even shared my investment ideas and every single trade I made.

Looking back on it, it kind of amazes me how enthusiastically I wrote about everything and how much time I spent on it even back when it was such a tiny group of people reading.

Part 2: meeting other bloggers

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!


Teach in Taiwan or Teach in China?

Probably the second most common question I get emailed from readers of this site is this:

“I’m from the US/Canada, I’ve just graduated and I want to teach English abroad and I want to learn some Chinese. Should I teach in Taiwan or teach in China?”

With my experience of having grown up in North America and then spent most of my adult life in Taiwan and then China, teaching in and later running an EFL school, I definitely have some opinions. But there are a lot of factors involved in making a decision about where to live for a year or more of your life and Taiwan and China both have their pluses. Also remember that the situation for foreign teachers has been changing fairly quickly, especially in mainland China.

What are your goals?

The best place for you depends on what you’re looking for…

Learning Chinese

If your main goal is learning Chinese, then I can unequivocally recommend China, preferably the northeast.

Why? Well there are several factors that make learning Chinese in Taiwan harder. First of all, people there speak more English and they expect to speak more English with you if you’re white, black or anyone who doesn’t look like a Chinese speaker. Secondly, it’s not even clear if Mandarin is the primary language of Taiwan yet. A lot of people speak Hokkien (also known as Taiwanese or Minnanhua) as a first language. Finally, a lot of the people who speak very little English are older and also more comfortable speaking Taiwanese instead of Mandarin. The issue or regional dialects also comes up in southern China, but in the northeast, pretty much everybody is a native Mandarin speaker.

A related issue is the accent. I know from personal experience that the accent and dialect considered “standard” in Taiwan is hard for a lot of mainland Chinese to understand. This is problem since the vast, vast majority of Mandarin speakers are from mainland China. On the other hand, if you speak in an accent similarly to what’s on TV in China, you’ll be understood on both sides of the strait. Finally, the Chinese characters used in Taiwan are traditional characters, or fántǐzì (繁體字), whereas China and Singapore use simplified characters, or jiāntǐzì (简体字). This means that even if your Chinese study in Taiwan is successful, you may find yourself unable to understand simple words like “car” or “from” when you go to China.

This said, you can learn Chinese in Taiwan (or even back home) if you’re willing to work hard. Another minor plus in Taiwan is that there’s more interesting media to learn from. China has been catching up in that regard, though.

Quality of Life

Here, once again it’s no contest. Taiwan is amongst the best places to live on the entire planet. Life in general is convenient. The island is covered with 7–11s, and you can not only pay your bills there but you can pick up stuff you buy on the internet, too! The government has done an excellent job in terms of public transportation. Taxes are low. There’s universal health care that’s both top-notch and affordable! People are nice. I don’t just say that. I actually lost my wallet on a bus once and the driver found my student ID, called my school, got my number and returned it to me! I can’t even imagine that happening in China. The air quality in Taiwan may not thrill some of us used to pristine Rocky Mountain air, but it’s not too bad.

In China, there are also a lot of people that will be nice to foreigners they befriend. Unfortunately there are a lot more who will see you as an opportunity. I was never scammed in 7 years in Taiwan, but I got ripped off several times in my first week living in China! A lot of restaurants have 2 sets of menus… regular ones, and bilingual ones with higher prices! Racism and nationalism are also significant issues.

While there’s a lot of ignorant stereotyping in Taiwan of the “Can you use chopsticks?” variety, I’ve seen more cases of outright hatred here in China… especially towards the Japanese. Sometimes it works out in the foreigner’s favor, and sometimes it doesn’t. Since the concepts of race and nationality are often conflated, it can also make for some unpleasant situations for foreigners of Chinese decent (i.e. “ABCs”, “CBCs”, etc..). I don’t want to make it sound all bad, though. I really do like living in China. It’s just that it requires a thick skin. I’d say that you also need to have a bit more social awareness. You can do just about anything and do okay in Taiwan. In China, it’s easier to piss people off.

One plus for China is prices. As long as you don’t get ripped off, a lot of things can be had for half the price they would cost in Taiwan. Things that usually get all kinds of sin taxes, such as beer or cigarettes are insanely cheap in China! Less than half a US dollar for a beer at a local restaurant is common. A pack of smokes can be bought for about $1.20.

Salaries

This is a factor that has changed a lot in the last few years. When I got to Taiwan, English teaching salaries were two or three times as high as in China. Now, though… you can probably earn more in first-tier Chinese cities. In Taiwan, the salary for new teachers seems to stay around 600NT/hour, which is about 20USD/hour. In Beijing or Shanghai, the average is about 150RBM/hour which is about 24USD. Private classes usually start around 200RMB or 32USD per hour. I have friends making over 300RMB/hour. Housing prices have risen to about the same levels as Taipei, but everything else is cheaper. Purely in terms of money, China is now a far, far better choice. That’s not how it was a few years ago.

If you’re planning on a long term stay, it’s possible Taiwan is still better, though. In Taiwan, foreigners can start businesses such as foreign restaurants, clubs or even software companies relatively easily. In China, the only way to avoid having a Chinese partner with 51% control is to set up an extremely expensive Wholly Owned Foreign Enterprise. That’s a reasonable solution if you’re IKEA, but not if you’re starting your own business.

The Internet

This really belongs above under “Quality of Life”, but the internet in China is so fucked up that it deserves its own section. Everything cool since 2004 is blocked. Unless you pony up the money for a VPN, you can’t use Facebook. You can’t use Twitter. You can’t use Blogspot or WordPress. You can’t use YouTube. You can’t even access Google Docs or Dropbox. You can have Gmail, but it’s a bit unreliable (Update: nope, you don’t even get Gmail… hope your hotel reservation wasn’t sent there!) Basically, you’re back in 2003.

The bottom line

  • If you want to learn Chinese, go to China
  • If you want to live the good life, go to Taiwan
  • If you want to make money, go to China
  • If you the best of both worlds, go to China, learn Chinese well and then go to Taiwan to settle down!

If you want a more detailed comparison that also includes Korea and Japan, then check out my mini-guide: A Comparison of English Teaching Markets in Asia

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.

I’ve just recently arrived in Hong Kong for the first time. It’s not at all what I’d expected from all of the HK movies I’ve seen, or even from what my friends have told me.

The Airport

The airport in Hong Kong was fantastic. It was very clean and new-looking. I found the immigration and security processes quicker and freer of hassle than those when I visited LA International Airport last year, and there was a lot of help for a newly arrived foreigner such as myself. The tourist information desk was great. Not only were they familiar with the hostel where I planned to stay, but they were able to give me directions to get there cheaply by bus instead of taking another train. A++!

Transportation

Actually, I found the public transportation very much the same as it is in Taiwan. There’s an MRT, but they call it an MTR. There’s an Easy Card (悠遊卡) for the subway and buses, but in Hong Kong, it’s called an Octopus Card (八達通). As in Taiwan, the card can also be used at convenience stores. In short, the transportation is excellent albeit a bit pricier than in Taiwan.

Prices

I didn’t find prices anywhere near as bad as I’d been lead to expect. From what people had told me, I’d had the impression that everything in HK would cost huge sums of money and I’d burn through my entire savings in a single week. The reality was much more mundane. The subway, buses and taxis were all a bit more expensive than Taiwan, but by less than a factor of two.

Food was the same for local stuff, cheaper for Chinese food of varieties hard to find in Taiwan, the same for fast food and ridiculously expensive in western style restaurants and pubs. 7-11 seemed about the same, but had more expensive options (e.g. Starbucks coffee for sale right next to the Mr. Brown). Beer in HK was cheaper.

Housing was definitely a bit more, but it was hard for me to judge since I was staying in a youth hostel. I paid about $150HKD (~$19US) for a small room and my own small bathroom. That in Kowloon, but less than a 5 minute walk from the subway.

All in all, I’d say that HK is a bit more expensive than Taipei, but you could spend far more if you love western-style pubs.

English and Mandarin

Unlike what I’d been told, most people in Hong Kong actually speak pretty bad English. There are more westerners there than in Taiwan, but of the locals I’d say that less than one in fifty really spoke good English. The travel agent’s English was far worse than that of those in Taiwan in areas with similar numbers of foreigners. The clerks at a lot of western stores and restaurants knew the English they needed to sell their specific wares or food, but it wasn’t universal and that was usually about it. On the whole, I’d say a higher percentage of people in HK are capable of the bare-minimum levels of English than in Taiwan, but it’s certainly not like you won’t be isolated from the society if you’re a mono-lingual English speaker.

Mandarin on the other hand, is pretty widespread. About three quarters or so of the people I met in HK spoke much better Mandarin than English. It was still heavily accented, and mixing in Cantonese words here and there wasn’t uncommon, but communication wasn’t a big problem for short conversations. I even met some westerners there who studied Mandarin, but not Cantonese! I’m not sure I’d have made that choice though. Cantonese is clearly the language of the land.

Haggling!

I was kind of surprised to find that haggling is so common in such a rich, well developed territory! I bought some hair clippers at a pretty nice looking electronics store. Originally, after seeing the price of $285HKD, I decided to wait until getting to Guangzhou to buy them. I told the clerk I’d have to think about it and started heading for the door. At that point, he chased me down and said I could buy them for $250. My movement towards the door hadn’t even been a negotiating tactic, but I guess he took it as one. I’d never ever try bargaining at that sort of store in TW, but after realizing the price was negotiable, I came back with a lower offer and the game was on!

Annoying Salespeople

On my way home to my hostel, a charming Indian man came walking up to me with a gigantic face-splitting smile. “This shahrt!”, pointing to his admittedly slick-looking button-up dress shirt. I was a little shocked and didn’t react. “These trousahs! I can make a suit for you!”, he continued with the same grin.

I pointed to my shorts and T-shirt and said, “I’m not a suit guy!”

“Come on! Just let me show you something…”, he continued. I have to say the salesman exuded charm and somehow made a tailor’s shop sound like the most exciting, wonderful place in the world. I smiled to myself and continued on walking. It wasn’t so easy to continue smiling after the third or fourth Indian guy stepped out in my path with the same offer, after a differently accented guy tried to get me to buy a watch, or especially after the streets filled with self-promotional prostitutes.

I don’t remember where I read it, but I once read an English writer who claimed that the fastest, simplest measure of the civility of a place was whether you had to hail a taxi or if the taxi drivers all hailed you. Hong Kong doesn’t do well by that measure.

For Mandarin speakers, 尖沙咀 is a terrible name!

I was staying near the Tsim Sha Chui (尖沙咀) MTR station. As an aside doesn’t that name look terrible to a Mandarin speaker!!? 尖沙 is pronounced jiānshā, which is 姦殺 or “rape and murder”. I don’t know what’s going on at that station, but it sure sounds bad!

World Cup Madness

What a difference from Taiwan! There probably aren’t many places more crowded and less conducive playing a game that requires lots of space and well-conditioned runners, but these guys love it here! I was in a huge mall called iSquare in the 尖沙咀 area, and they had a big screen up for people to watch for free and it looked like about a thousand people were crowded in the area watching a game! I could hear their moans of agony on missed goals from the street outside!

Aggressive, but friendly people

I’ve definitely seen more aggressiveness in general in Hong Kong than I’m accustomed to, but people were still pretty friendly. It may be a by-product of not working, but I found it surprisingly easy to meet people. I liked HK, except for the harassment from salespeople and I’m sure I’ll come back in the future.

When I moved out of my my apartment in Taipei, I gave away all my things I couldn’t fit into either my suitcase or backpack. Several of my friends, even the beneficiaries, asked why I’d do such a thing. I could have sold them on an online classifieds board and maybe made a couple of hundred dollars.

Here’s why I didn’t:

  1. It worked out terribly for a good friend of mine who did exactly that. It was frustrating and more of a hassle than it was worth.
  2. A lot of my stuff wouldn’t bring in anything near what I paid for it– people are generally hesitant to buy certain things (such as rice cookers, or bread makers) second hand.
  3. The value to my friends of the various things I was getting rid of was more than the value I’d get from selling them.
  4. I really wanted to get rid of everything. By setting up a free give away, adding certain game mechanics to determine who got what and establishing a ground rule that people take what they ask for, I was able to get rid of far, far more stuff than I could have by putting up an add on a classified board. That would have just gotten rid of a few choice items.

In the end, I got rid of my stuff, my friends benefited and it was a fun party. What more could I ask for?

Taiwanese Study Resources

The very first difficulty I had after deciding to learn some Taiwanese a few months ago was finding appropriate materials.  Despite being surrounded by Taiwanese as a second language in Taipei, very little of what I heard was useful.  With almost no foundation to start from, local radio wasn’t much help.  I tried watching some Taiyu youtube clips with Chinese subtitles repeatedly, but it wasn’t very productive.

Next, I picked up a book+4 CD set, titled 台語真簡單 for under 1000NT at the local bookstore. It was extremely straight-forward. It consisted of a word or a phrase in Mandarin and then the exact same term again two more times in Taiwanese, repeated for enough words and phrases to fill 4 CDs. I ripped them to my iPod and listened during my 10 minute commute to work and whenever I went out for a walk. The results after a week weren’t very inspiring. I’d gotten through each CD a couple of times, and I thought I knew how to say some of the words that came up frequently, but people couldn’t really understand what I was saying. I didn’t really have any handle on the phonics, either. I suspect the problem was that the CDs were intended for people who had grown up hearing if not speaking the language.

1st grade Taiyu

One nice thing after having started my studies is that help started coming from all directions. A mother of one of my students gave me a book for elementary school students here who are learning Taiwanese. One of my 2nd grade students even made me some flashcards and started quizzing me a word or two whenever she saw me after class! Her Taiwanese isn’t that good, but she had studied since first grade and was absolutely thrilled with the idea of being more knowledgeable about a school subject than a teacher.

The elementary school book was interesting. I found modified zhùyīn symbols in it, which I hadn’t seen before. Text was rendered in triplicate– characters, modified zhuyin and romanized. The Chinese characters were sometimes comprehensible to me, but in some cases they just don’t make sense to a Mandarin speaker. Below is an image of the glossary from one of the pages:
Taiwanese to Mandarin
As expected, the book was full of situational language to use at school, classroom objects, family members and animals. The CD had a dialogue and a crazy song in each chapter. I don’t think I learned very much at all, but it was fun and it motivated me to continue looking for a way to actually learn to speak a bit of Taiwanese.

In the end, I did find a very good resource, the Maryknoll textbooks. They are written primarily for Catholic missionaries, which means that a lot of religious vocabulary appears early in the text. However, there’s nothing else I’ve seen that even remotely compares. There are three primary books in the series, and each is accompanied by a lot of audio. I purchased the level one book, and the MP3 CD that came with it contained 32 tracks of about half an hour each. I strongly suspect that in the past, it was a “book and a crate of tapes” method much like FSI. I still haven’t completed the book (or even half of it), but it’s been enough to allow me to have five minute conversations with a cab driver, or to say a few polite words when visiting Taiwanese speakers.

Towards the end of this Chinese New Year, I started studying Taiwanese[1]. Though most people in Taiwan speak Mandarin Chinese now, it wasn’t always the case. Even now, there are a lot of people who prefer to speak Taiwanese and I think almost everyone here can understand at least a bit. That said, Taipei city is definitely not the best place in Taiwan to be learning Taiwanese. Mandarin is very dominant here. I probably hear less than a third of the Taiwanese I heard in my previous home in Taoyuan county.

What is Taiwanese?

By “Taiwanese”, I mean the Chinese language brought from Fújiàn (福建) province during the mass immigration to Taiwan of centuries past. It’s a variant or a dialect of Mǐnnánhuà (閩南話), also known as Hoklo or Hokkien. It’s unintelligible to speakers of Mandarin. The Amoy language, is mutually intelligible with Taiwanese, as I recently discovered with delight!

Why learn?

Pretty much the first thing any of my friends asks when I tell them I’m learning Taiwanese is “why?” I suppose it is a reasonable question. I’ve met some foreigners who barely even speak Mandarin after living in Taiwan for a decade. And unlike Mandarin, Taiwanese will almost certainly never benefit my career or get me into an academic program. Worse still, a lot of younger people seem to look down on the language.

So, why learn? For me, it was a realization that I’d been in Taiwan for seven years and still couldn’t really understand a language that I hear every single day. It’s true that I never have to speak it at work, and that clerks in any store will greet customers in Mandarin, not Taiwanese. But there are still people speaking Taiwanese all around me. A lot of my neighbors in my apartment building speak Taiwanese, the people at the traditional temple nearby speak Taiwanese, the fruit-sellers at the market speak Taiwanese and so do a number of passerby on the street. It seems like a waste to ignore the language completely.

People who do speak Taiwanese really appreciate my efforts. Unlike when I was learning Mandarin and had the distinct impression that people wanted me to just give up and speak English, a number of people have taken it as a point of pride that I would learn their language. It is probably just as Barry Farber said in his book, How to Learn Any Language. The languages which are least necessary to learn for work or schooling are the ones that can earn you the most goodwill for learning.

Progress to date

I’ve made some decent progress, especially in terms of listening comprehension. In fact, it’s the fastest start I’ve gotten learning a language since I studied Japanese 10 years ago!

This isn’t to say there aren’t some serious hurdles to overcome. So far, it’s been difficult on a number of fronts– there aren’t many study materials, there isn’t a standardized romanization system, there are seven tones with complex rules, there are both literary and colloquial readings for each hanzi character, and the phonetics is just brutal. The proverbial back-breaking straw has got to be the huge schism in the Minnan dialect spoken here in Taiwan. Unfortunately for the foreign student such as myself, the Minnanhua speaking immigrants to Taiwan came from both the cities of Quánzhōu and Zhāngzhōu, bringing two different, but pretty much mutually intelligible dialects of the language with them. In most of Taiwan there are regional variations in the Taiwanese spoken, but here in the capital city you hear them all. I’m sure I’ll love when and if I get to a high level of communicative ability, but for now it’s really confusing.

Each time I successfully buy anything at the traditional market without having to fall back on Mandarin, it’s a victory.


[1] I had learned a few words here and there before, but never really made a concerted effort.

I came across this study this morning, and it boggles the mind.

Chronic radiation is defined as the radiation received slowly or in a low-dose-rate from various sources. It is completely different in nature to the acute gamma or neutron radiation generated from the atomic bomb explosions that occurred in Japan at the end of World War II. Tantalizing insights from people living in higher-than-normal background radiation areas in the world and from nuclear energy workers receiving excess radiation over long years have suggested that chronic radiation might paradoxically be beneficial to humans. However, in the absence of an epidemiological study, it has been impossible to conclude whether chronic radiation is harmless or indeed beneficial to human beings. Fortuitously, an incredible Co-60 contamination incident occurred in Taiwan 21 years ago, which provided the data necessary to demonstrate that chronic radiation is beneficial to human beings.

Chronic Radiation Is Beneficial to Human Beings by Yuan-Chi Luan

luan.chart

I hope I’ve been exposed to similarly beneficial radiation and or contaminants during my time here in Taiwan.