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Xinzhu

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I thought that it would be a good idea to write about my progress with the Chinese language now and then. It must be difficult for you to know how good (or bad) my knowledge of the language is and thus of course even harder to understand what kind of challenges I am up against. So, therefore, let me begin this report by trying to explain how well I know Chinese.

At the end of last semester, I knew more than 1500 Chinese characters. As I have mentioned previously, these are simplified characters, which are different from the traditional characters used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and overseas. The simplified characters are only used in mainland China and are, as the name implies, simplifications of traditional characters. Of course, not all characters have been simplified, but it still means that I have to spend many, many hours to convert my reading and writing skills to traditional mode. This is how I spend my days now. I have heard that once you know the language well, it is not a problem to read the other set of characters (although writing will still be hard). Here are three examples with simplified characters on the left and traditional on the right. They mean “machine”, “listen” and “doctor; medicine; cure” respectively.


The spoken language in Taiwan is very similar to what I have been taught in Sweden. There are differences, but not many. However, this does not mean that I understand what people say. I understand occasional words and phrases, and sometimes I can even piece together whole sentences. If I am lucky, I can understand how much things cost or what people ask me. However, it does mean that people can understand what I say.

There are two main problems with listening: habit and speed. Firstly, I am not used to hearing Chinese, so even if I know perfectly well what a word means, I am not used to hearing it in context. This is extremely annoying: “Say that again please?” “Okay.” “What does it mean?” “It means this.” “Ah, of course. How stupid of me.” Secondly, people here talk very fast, which makes it impossible to understand. Some people can speak slowly and clearly when asked to, and then I stand a fairly good chance to understand what is said. True, I do not understand all the words, but I usually get the general idea of what they want to say .

So, what is my brilliant plan to become a Chinese language ninja? I see three paths opening up ahead. First, I will try to find people to talk to. Today, I met Lu Pei-ying, a very nice girl I found by posting an ad about language exchange. I hope to be able to establish a couple of exchanges like this one. I do enjoy teaching English after all, and having someone to talk to with the explicit goal to practice conversation is excellent. One problem is that I have classes in the evening, so it might be difficult to find people who are free during the day.

Second, I will study like a maniac at home. Primarily, I will focus on revising what I already know (or what I ought to know if I had revised properly during the summer). This involves writing and reading traditional characters for hours on end. Still, I enjoy it. It is a kind of monomania, I suppose. The traditional characters feel much nicer than the simplified, even though they are extremely challenging at the moment. Also, I have some difficulties discerning their various components, which might be a problem. Generally, once you know what a character looks like, it is easy to recognise even if you cannot see the individual lines it consists of. Before learning to do this, a magnifying glass is sometimes required.

Third, my classes start on Monday. Each weekday I will be busy from six to nine in the evening, and probably some extra hours for preparation and homework. Why classes in the evening? The idea is that exchange students studying other subjects shall have the chance of taking Chinese classes as well. This probably means that the course will not be extremely demanding (I highly doubt that I will have problems if this is the only course I am taking and others are supposed to take other parallel courses). I have no idea what the level will be like, but I will definitely tell you more about that later. Having some sort of text book to work with would be very good, however, as soon as I have revised everything I knew last semester.

Language ability can be said to consist of four areas (at least for the purpose of my reports) and I will try to assess my proficiency for each of these areas. Since a scale would be meaningless, I will try to explain where I stand at the moment. Hopefully, I will be able to browse through these reports and see how I progress over time.

Speaking: People seem to be able to understand most of what I say, and though my vocabulary is poorer than it once was, I can convey basic concepts, ask questions and so forth. Speaking does not feel like a problem compared to the other areas.

Listening: I can hear an occasional word or phrase, or understand how much things cost, but most of the time when natives talk to me, I am completely clueless. Listening is the problem at the moment.Practice, practice, practice and perhaps in time I will get it.

Writing: Traditional characters are really difficult, but I have come some way towards learing to write the characters I knew before. I have revised 15 out of 60 chapters so that I can write some of the characters and recognise most.

Reading: Again, because of the traditional characters, I understand parts of signs or headlines, but seldom entire sentences. It is said that you need around 2500 characters, but right now, it feels like there are several hundreds of thousands widely used.

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Settling in

As some of you have noticed, we managed to fix the internet connection yesterday. I have no idea what the problem was, because I know too little about Ubuntu and so does Ben. However, after manually copying the configuration (including parameters that should be set automatically by the ISP) from Ben’s computer, the connection suddenly came alive. I do not think I can explain how important this is. Even if I spend much time with other people right now, and even though I did not go to Taiwan only to speak with friends in Sweden, it is a great relief to be able to communicate properly with people I know. It is nice with new experiences, but overload is a danger, I think. Anyhow, I will probably be online around the clock, even though I obviously will not be available all the time.

Today, I spent a fair amount of time on my own. I needed a day of rest and I needed to settle in, establishing some of my old habits from home. This included studying, reading, hand walking and stretching. There is a fairly large track and field area on the campus, which is excellent for all sorts of exercise; I even found a nice staircase ideal for practicing hand walking! I noted two things, however. First, the running track gives off its colour, something I only noticed when my white t-shirt looked like it was soaked in blood (although it is pretty cool to have gloves that look like that). Second, exercising is best done after eight o’clock. The temperature dropped below thirty and a cool breeze made the evening pleasant. Possibly, the weather is even better before sunrise, but I will see about that later.

After stretching and showering, I set out on a new food adventure (I assume there will be at least one every day for quite a while). I found a place close by and after ten minutes or so, I managed to get something to eat. The proprietor knew one word in English (“okay”), but he was very kind and eager to talk anyway. My Chinese vocabulary is fairly limited, so I spent most of the time searching for the right word or trying to understand what he said. Still, we managed to speak a little bit about Sweden, Taiwan, China, names, where I live and what I do in Taiwan. This was excellent practice, because the option of using English to cheat simply was not there. I spent around two hours in the restaurant and I will definitely go there again. Apparently, they close at two in the morning, so it will be an excellent place to go when everything else is closed down.

I am still either a little bit anxious to make some mistake or just too shy, because I feel uneasy approaching a group of stranger, none of whom speaks English, and try to make myself understood in Chinese. Everybody will listen and even if I know that nobody will mind my taking my time, I still do not like it. This time it went better than last time, and my chat with the old man was great. In a few weeks, perhaps I will be able to do this without feeling uneasy at all, which would be a big step indeed.

Walking home, I noticed that it had rained while I ate; the air was fragrant and pleasantly cool. Climbing the steep street leading up to the university gates, I felt very happy. The chat with the proprietor boosted my confidence enormously. Writing and reading will of course be very hard, but since there are so many opportunities to speak with Chinese people, I think I will learn to that fairly quickly. Also, I assume that it will be even easier once I have raised my level a little bit, because then I will not have to rely on the patience of strangers. This evening has been very good indeed, a sweet mixture of old habits and new experiences. Assuming that I will enjoy my language studies, I think I will like it here.

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Yesterday evening, my neighboir Ben lent me an adapter which would allow me to run my laptop on AC. I still have no transformer, but since the equipment I got with my computer is able to transform 110-240V to the correct voltage, I am happy to announce that computer usage is no longer limited. Not only does this mean that I can study, write things and so forth, it also means that I can spend time on my own more easily.

That, of course, was only in theory, because after we had struggled for a while, failing to connect to the internet, Ben and his friends invited me to drink some beer in town (downtown Xinzhu is about 30 minutes away with car). Even though Ben and I took a taxi home fairly early, I had a nice time. However, I do not like the notion of alcohol being mandatory in a culture like this. There is probably a way around it, but I would like to find it pretty soon. Of course, drinking occasionally is great, but it is not something I would like to do as the default option for the evening. I would also like to be able to spend time with friends without drinking at all.

Having regained access to my computer, I spent this morning studying. To start with, I need to learn three things to survive here: Zhuyin, food vocabulary and traditional characters. I will tell you a little bit about these and why they are so important.

Zhuyin (commonly known as Bopomofo) is the phonetic system used in Taiwan to transcribe the sounds of the Mandarin Chinese. Previously in my education, I have used Pinyin, which is another way of romanising Mandarin sounds. The transition between the two seems pretty easy, but it is necessary to learn Zhuyin, not only because it is required when I study at the university, but also because text messaging and computers use it.

Even though it is not essential, knowing some characters used in restaurants is neat. In most places around here, it works like this: There is a list of dishes, drinks and whatever else is served in the restaurant. One is then supposed to mark which dishes one desires and hand in the list. Easy? Yes, because it is possible to check any dish and see what happens. I just arrived home from my first dinner entirely on my own, which was an experience in itself. Learning more characters will guarantee that I do not get soy milk for dinner or a steak for breakfast.

Normally, I like having things comfortable, so I feel a bit uneasy entering a restaurant I know nothing about, which is full of chatting Chinese people and where I see no obvious way of ordering anything, Fortunately, I was helped out by a little girl, probably the owner’s daughter. This was awesome, because it was obvious that she understood what I said when I asked questions about the menu. Unfortunately, I missed most of what she said, but obviously I understood enough, because five minutes later I was served a steaming bowl containing vegetables, pork dumplings of some sort and noodles. Very tasty. This adventure might not sound like much, but for me it was. Doing things like this without being uncomfortable is partly the reason why I think a year abroad would be good for me. A nice start, anyway.

I still do not know quite how difficult it will be to change to traditional characters. As some of you might now, on the mainland (i.e. China), they have simplified many characters to facilitate the process of learning to write. In Taiwan this is not the case. The problem is that I only know simplified characters and shall have to relearn much. Fortunately, this is not as bad as it sounds, because the simplifications are consistent. It does, however, mean a whole lot of extra strokes in many characters. It also means that I constantly run into characters I know in their simplified form, but not in their traditional. Here is an example from a washing machine, with the simplified version in brackets: 洗衣機 (洗衣机). As you can see, only the last characters differ, but if one knows only the simplified version, the traditional is confusing. I have heard the opposite is not true.

It is surprisingly easy to get used to the heat and the humidity. Fairly soon, I realised that it does not matter what I do; I will be sweating ten minutes after taking a shower anyway. This made me relax somewhat and now the heat does not bother me that much. I even spent four hours playing football today, which might have been the most water-draining physical activity I have ever tried. Even though I have not played football for ages, it went alright, especially considering the heat. On my way there, I also took the opportunity to take some more pictures of the neighbourhood (the picture quality is annoyingly bad, but this will have to do for now)::


This is behind the apartment building.


So is this picture.


This is the street below. My window is somewhere high on the right.


This street leads up to the university gates, approximately ten minutes from my door.


This is the way from the university.


And this is where the entrance is from that direction.


From halfway up the stairs.


Corridor.


And my room, which you have already seen.

So, having spent most of the day running after a ball and most of the evening trying to get something to eat, I almost feel ready to go to bed. However, it is not much later than eight o’clock, so I shall have to occupy myself for another couple of hours before callapsing time. I think I will spend that time studying the menues I brought from the restaurants. Perhaps I can even choose what to eat next time.

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I do not know what constitutes a neatly handled jet lag, but I think I am alright. I went to bed around eleven o’clock, fell asleep immediately… and woke up what felt like eight hours later, only the clock showed just after midnight. Yay. I listened to audio books and spent the time until sometime around three o’clock in some sort of semi-consciousness.

At around nine thirty, I had breakfast with Jerry and Ato, which was pleasant enough. It seems like it is at least possible to eat roughly the same things as at home (today, I had a chicken and egg sandwich with some soy milk), even though eating out seems to be much more common. Breakfast cost roughly 40 TWD (10 SEK), even though Jerry as usual insisted on paying (this is just one example of the hospitality I have experienced thus far). It seems like lunch and dinner is somewhat more expensive, but not much.

Afterwards, he took me on a tour of the campus, introducing me to computers, library, office for exchange students, gym, swimming pool, book shop, cafeteria, etc. Again, everybody has been extremely polite and helpful, and not in a forced or strained way, but relaxed and genuine. This is what the university looks like:


This is what the urban area looks like just outside the gates of Chung Hua University.


And these are the gates. Please note the nice horse.


The main entry to the campus.


Main entrance close-up.


There is a nice lake...


…surrounded by trees.


I like the colours.


Random building.


This is what the campus looks like in general, although most building are taller.


Random buildings.


The interior of the campus.


More walkways close to the centre.


Still more.


The lake again, now with fountains!


More fancy buildings.


Statues like these crowd the campus. They are quite cool.


Or are they?


More water and more walkways.


Again, I really like the colours.

I have a couple of things I have declared to be urgent, and purchasing a mobile phone was one of those things. At first, I thought I would take my time and buy something fairly expensive. However, I realised I needed a phone rather badly and since phones do not seem to be extremely cheap compared to Sweden, I decided to buy something less expensive. I settled a Sony Ericsson W910i, which I got for about 70 % of the price is Sweden. My number is +886 983103482, should anyone feel like sending a message or calling (please note that Taiwan is eight hours ahead of GMT, which means that I am six hours ahead of Sweden because of daylight saving time in Sweden). Here are the first three pictures I took:


This is Jerry.


This is Ato.


And this is the girl who sold me the phone.

After having lunch, Jerry and Ato had other things on their hands, so I spent a couple of hours walking around campus, finding my way to and from the dormitory and also shopping some water and food.

I do not know yet what if there is anything planned for this evening, although I doubt it. Tomorrow, I have been invited to play football at two o’clock, which will be extremely hot indeed; I find it pretty exhausting just existing in this heat. For your information, it is around 30 degrees right now and the humidity is above 80 %. Tomorrow, I hope to be able to complete the two other urgent tasks, namely finding a voltage and plug converter to my laptop, and gaining access to the internet.

It is annoying and disturbing to know that every minutes I spend typing now is decreasing the time I have left on my laptop battery. This keeps me from studying properly, as well as being able to do anything useful except reading and studying Zhuyin. I really hope I can get hold of that converter tomorrow; internet is not as important. Of course it comes as now surprise, but I am very dependent on my laptop, especially when I have free time on my hands. I have now survived for an entire day in Taiwan, not bad.

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Hello Taiwan

It is now almost ten in the evening and I have finally arrived safely in Taiwan. I have been travelling since half past seven Tuesday morning, although much of the intervening time was spent on waiting or is due to change of time zone. Taiwan is eight hours ahead of Greenwich, so that means six hours ahead of Sweden at present, because of daylight saving time. If I have planned my sleeping correctly, I will hopefully be able to sleep in a short while, just as soon as I have finished writing this.

There is not much to say about the trip, actually, because everything went smoothly and exactly according to plan. I refer to my previous post about what the plan was and perhaps I can add some comments. First, I did not feel either nervous or anxious at any time, which of course is good. This is partly because of the friendly contact with people here in Taiwan prior to my departure; I felt I would be taken care of once I arrived, but more on that later. Other than that, I suppose I might me a little bit anxious at times, but seldom nervous.

The long flight from London to Hong Kong was not as bad as I thought. In fact, I did not even watch a single film, although I had the battery time to do so. Instead, I spent the time listening to audio books and reading, which was just fine. Sleeping some five hours helped, of course. Cathay Pacific, which managed all three legs of the journey, was very nice and there was much I brought along that it turned out they provided for free on the flights (toothbrush, for instance).

Unfortunately, I had no real opportunity to see Hong Kong. I spent an hour on the airport and such a small amount of time vanishes quickly with transport from one gate to another, security checks, boarding and so forth. I did notice it was pretty hot, though, around thirty degrees centigrade.

The flight from Hong Kong to Taiwan was more comfortable than that from London to Hongkong, which is somewhat odd. I guess the aircraft was newer or something, but this one-and-a-half hour flight vanished quick as a wink. Once in Taipei, I found my luggage after two minutes and was able to pass immigration in thirty seconds. Amazing.

Outside the customs, it turned out that not only one person was there to pick me up, but five of them! They guided me outside and I got my first impression of Taiwan apart from the airport: humid, warm, dark. The drive to the university to a little less than an hour. Once here, I was shown my room and could leave my bags before they took me shopping: a mattress, a pillow, water, toilet paper and some other essentials.

Everybody has been extraordinary nice so far, chatting mostly in English and offering to help at every possible instance. The first few hours here could hardly have been more welcoming and friendly. I have been in the very capable hands of a student called Jerry (unfortunately, I do not yet know his Chinese name; remembering a lot of new names is difficult in the first place, but learning names in Chinese is just too hard).

I now know a lot more about practical matters than when I left Sweden. This apartment is much larger than I thought it would be (I think it is actually somewhat larger that my corridor room in Sweden). Please see the photographs provided below, although they are actually taken on Friday, which explains why I have already unppacked. The room is on the fourth floor and in the same corridor as Jerry (he has also been kind enough to introduce me to a lot of people). I am not fully clear about the rent, but I am told that it should be around 5000 TWD, which is roughly equal to 1200 SEK. Do you not find it a bit strange that an apartment in Taiwan is bigger and cheaper than in Linköping? I do. Perhaps there is a university subsidy I am unaware of. I have access to toilet, shower, sink, fridge and a microwave oven of dubious status. I might be able to cook some food, but not something advanced.


I apologise for the bad image quality. Either I have not yet figured out how the camera on my cellular works or it is just too lousy to take good pictures with.


As you can see, I brought some things from Sweden just to feel at home. I am glad I did; this room would feel much emptier without the pictures.

Regrettably, I have no impression of the neighbourhood yet, because it was dark when I got here around seven. Tomorrow, Jerry has promside to meet me for breakfast at nine thirty and take me on a campus tour. Perhaps, he will also help me buy a new cellular, and he has already investigated the possibility to access the internet from here. It seems possible, even convenient, which is very nice indeed.

My brain is now overloaded with new impressions, but perhaps more importantly of heat (the air conditioning is not working properly, but Jerry has lent me an electric fan). Thus, it is time to take a shower and go to bed. Tomorrow will probably be even richer in new experiences than today, which considered mostly of airports or aircraft. Good-night, everybody, and hello Taiwan.

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Safe and sound

This is just a notice to let you know that I have arrived in Taiwan safe and sound. The trip went as planned and everything is here is nice so far. I am currently borrowing a computer, so you will have to wait a couple of days before I post anything more detailed here. See you soon.

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