Saturday, 24 March 2012

Apartment Hunting Again

I am once more in search of another apartment.

We can pretend that we're used to the nightly noises from the recycling depot.

We can pretend that we really don't mind our upstairs neighbours walking around in high-heeled shoes on tiled floors and having baths at two o'clock in the morning.

We can pretend that drilling and banging from local construction sites all day is like birdsong to our ears.

But we only have one air-conditioner in this apartment and summer is coming!

So, these last couple of weeks I've been seriously looking for apartments. As always, poor Chinese puts me at somewhat of a disadvantage, so local friends have kindly been helping me out by phoning up about likely prospects and coming along with me to viewings. Last week, however, I braved a real estate agent's office myself and managed a broken dialogue with an assistant there.

Luckily we both had mobile phones with which to talk to each other, each of us tapping in what we wanted to say when communication broke down entirely. He would type something, his phone would translate and I'd read it; then, because I still didn't understand, I'd type something that my phone would translate, then he'd say, no, that's not what I mean. We went on like this for some time.

He asked if I could come back at five to go and see an apartment. Okay, I said. Then he said, could I come back at three? Not really, I replied (I had to collect my son from school at four). Actually, five wasn't very convenient, so I said, can I come back tomorrow morning? That sparked a response. Let's go now, he said.

Then he went off to get his motorcycle helmet. This greatly alarmed me. Was I expected to ride shotgun? Was I expected to follow him? There is nothing like the prospect of having to negotiate Taipei traffic to strike terror into my heart. I long ago decided that it was in the best interests of public safety that I don't drive in Taiwan. No, no, no! I protested. I walk, I walk!

He gave up on the helmet and we marched off to the MRT. I felt a bit bad because by the time we got to the apartment he was limping. An old scooter injury, perhaps? On the way we had some interesting exchanges. The rent is xxxxxx, you pay us xxxxxxx. I understand, I said. You decide? You don't need your husband to see? No, my husband needs to see. (Are there any couples out there where one partner gets to choose the apartment without agreement from their other half?) I was beginning to have some suspicions.

The apartment was near the top of a block, so had great views, but it was very old and neglected, so definitely not an option. If he'd shown me photos before we left the office he could have saved us both some trouble. We had some more dubious exchanges. Don't tell the landlord I show to you, his phone told me. Mmmmm..... I said. Later, after checking with Andy, I texted the agent to tell him we didn't want it but to let us know if they had anything else. The reply came  - No. I think he misunderstood me.

So that was my foray into the Chinese-only world. Luckily for me, Google Chrome translates for me when I'm apartment hunting on the internet, though the translations are often hilarious. For example, I do not want to live in 'electrical apartments' and 'pet and cook fumes from cooking, Inconvenient, Oh!' sounds a little alarming.

I've seen some nice places so far, but location is another important consideration, especially noise levels! Ideally, we like to be up high where the air is better, and aesthetically-speaking I'd like to be near the mountains. But we also need to be within commuting distance of Conrad's school, and preferably near an MRT stop and good supermarket.

This week I hope to view these:

Wish me luck!

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Soap and Frogs

I woke up today to the sound of the wind whistling around the apartment and a view of a grey sky overhead. No matter. I have my memories of yesterday to sustain me. Yesterday summer breathed through Taipei and drew pleasure-seekers from their homes and out into such beautiful surroundings as the Zun Leisure Park.

Conrad and I were lucky enough to be included in the invitation to members of the Multicultural Parents Association of his school to go on a trip to this place and of course I jumped at the chance. The Zun Leisure Park is a nature centre where children can learn about the natural world, do craft activities, or simply play in the large grounds consisting of lawns, lakes, a waterfall and lots of interesting trails.

For me, the best part of the day was wandering these beautiful grounds.

There was an orchid area where the plants were growing in their natural habitat, in the clefts between the branches and trunks of trees. Unfortunately most of the orchids weren't flowering at the time. The irises were, though:

And some plants were fruiting!

In the morning there was a talk on herbs where we got to taste and sniff various pleasant and not so pleasant herbs, and the children made soap. Here's a breakdown of the steps and the finished product we took home. The herb is lemongrass and Conrad made the soap a hasty gift for me when he found out it was Mother's Day in the UK.

In the afternoon the children had a talk on frogs and toads in Taiwan, with an opportunity to get up close to one or two.

Then they were free to play (the children, not the frogs) and have a generally very good time, which of course they did.

We took along a packed lunch. There are lots of picnic tables onsite, but we could have eaten at the restaurant there. I've been checking the bus timetables and routes to the park, which is on the other side of Taipei to us, because we'll definitely be going back soon.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The UK in Taiwan

There are very few British people in Taiwan. In fact, I haven't yet spoken face-to-face with a fellow Brit (other than my son and husband, of course) since arriving six months ago. So I was intrigued to see what would be happening at an event I saw advertised as The UK in Taiwan.

The website was an early opportunity to see what Britain is most famous for here. According to the homepage this is old castles, The Beatles, fish and chips, punks, the Queen, Aberdeen Angus cattle and haughty women eating tea cakes. No doubt British individuals will identify more strongly with some of those images than others, and some may even bemuse us, but there is no denying that they are all British to one extent or another.

I have to say that at the event itself, I did sometimes struggle to see the British connection at times. For example, there was a Watson's stall. Yes, that famous British pharmacy chain:

And the well-known British brand Hello Kitty was on display:

The food on offer also included that famous British staple, pizza:

But I am being cheeky with that last one. As I recall, Chicken Tikka Masala was once voted the nation's favourite dish, and pizza is more frequently seen on British dinner plates than Aberdeen Angus beef, I'm sure.

There were one or two offerings that were absolutely authentic, though. There was, for instance, a well-used dartboard that someone had managed to find somewhere. And some menu items included tattie scones, shortbread, hot cross buns and pasties, although the Cornish would probably be concerned to find the pasties contained fillings such as cheese and onions. Beer figured highly throughout the day. Those real ale aficionados are clearly widely travelled.

The other stalls were comprised largely of British language schools and colleges touting for business, sensibly enough in this context, though not of great use or interest to us personally. The British reputation as a nation of animal lovers was represented by the presence of animal charity stalls. These were a heartening site, given the huge numbers of stray animals here.

There was British music playing throughout the day, a mixture of the old and the new. I'm too old to know much about the new, but I did recognise Queen's track Killer Queen playing at one point (or rather, Conrad heard it and alerted me). There was also a fashion show that unfortunately we missed but apparently figured the work of fashion students from the UK and Taiwan's Shijian University. More details here.

A British New Age offering was present in the form of a nature-inspired climbing frame (I say this because children were clambering all over it, my own child included, so I sincerely hope this was its purpose), a tunnel of twigs and branches, a music-festival style food tent, and green living statues. The latter were busking, but I doubt they earned very much as this is a tradition I'd never witnessed here until today.

The site of the event was the Huashan Culture Park, also known as the Huashan Creative Park. This is a reclaimed brown land site in the heart of Taipei that is used to host regular exhibitions and shows. Conrad and I entered the one that seemed the most intriguing and had another of those 'I don't really know what's going on but it's quite enjoyable so let's just have fun' experiences.

There is clearly a very popular series or film based on Japanese manga that is high in public consciousness at the moment, as that appeared to be the basis of the exhibition we visited. That's all I can tell you. Here are some pictures. If anyone knows what this is, please feel free to spill the beans.

It was very popular and very interesting. The theme seemed to be based on a forest where whatever entered it was altered into a monster version of the original. This included little girls and slices of bread. Yes, there was a massive slice of bread with eyes. Surprisingly scary. They also had audio of monsters breathing throughout the exhibition.

So all in all, while we didn't feel particularly transported to the land of our ancestors, it was a fun day. And we'll definitely be returning to Huashan Culture Park for further events.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Learning Chinese

As I've been unable to get around much for a little while I thought I would write about my experiences of learning Mandarin while living here in Taipei.

Practical Audio Visual Chinese

In preparation for our move here, I bought the beginner books of the standard teaching texts used for foreign learners of Mandarin in Taiwan: The Practical Audio Visual Chinese (PAVC) series. (Please note the link is to an older version of the book. There is a later edition, but these books are very difficult to buy outside of Taiwan). While there are lots of materials available in the West for self-studying Mandarin, nearly everything is based on the Mandarin used in mainland China. There are some differences in pronunciation and vocabulary, but, more importantly, mainland China uses simplified characters, whereas Taiwan has retained the use of traditional characters.

As a former English language teacher, I have a wide experience of language textbooks, and am probably overly-critical as a result. The PAVC books are okay. They have an accompanying CD and translate characters into all three of the common scripts used to aid learning. Problems with English translation, while they exist, are minimal. The characters are introduced at a manageable pace and there is plenty of repetition.

On the downside, the vocabulary item choices are sometimes questionable. For example, in the first book in the series, the words for snow and ski-ing are taught. Opportunities for using the word 'snow' are scarce in Taiwan. The word for address, meanwhile, is not taught until halfway through the second book. That is not to say that there isn't some effort made to teach useful language, but the language is very outdated, such as when teaching how to buy things dollars and cents are used, while nowadays it is only dollars. It's also quite academic language, with tortuous sentences formed in order to give an example of a grammar point (even my language exchange partner said that no one would ever say one of the sentences I showed her).

Another disadvantage of the series is that the language used, both written and spoken (in the accompanying CDs), often doesn't reflect how it is actually pronounced by Taiwanese people. I was quite confused when I first arrived when hearing shop assistants telling me the cost of my shopping, and the 'sh' I was expecting to hear was actually pronounced more like 's'. The books also add a mainland Chinese 'r' at the end of words that isn't pronounced in Taiwan. There are probably more inaccuracies that I'm currently unaware of.


So, I did some preparation before arriving, including listening to Chinesepod mp3s and taking some Skype lessons from a teacher in the US, both of which were helpful in gaining some familiarity. It's hard to compare with something that didn't happen, but I would say that the greatest advantage from doing this preparatory work was that I wasn't entirely freaked out by living in a Chinese speaking country when I arrived. I was not able to hold any meaningful conversations in Chinese.

If you come from a markedly different language background (e.g. not Japanese) then Chinese is a very hard language to learn, or, to put it more accurately, it's a very time-consuming language to learn. I've read that for the average native English-speaker it takes two years' full-time study to become fluent in one of the Romance languages, such as French or Spanish, while it takes five years to become fluent in Mandarin. As I'm not fluent in anything other than English, it's hard for me to vouch for the accuracy of this, but I do know that Mandarin requires, purely and simply, a large amount knowledge just to use it functionally.

Chinese Literacy

I am talking of course about literacy in Mandarin.

I made the decision quite a while ago that I would not bother to learn to write Chinese. There is simply no need for it other than to be able to write your name and address, which I can do. Anything else can be written on a computer, which, as long as you know how a word is pronounced, will bring up a list of characters that, if you can read them, you can choose from. So I have only been focusing on reading. This is the time-consuming activity.

There are various tricks and mnemonics for remembering the meaning and pronunciation of characters. The only thing I've found that really works is simple practice. Reading the characters over and over again is the only thing that enables me to recognise them without thinking. This is what takes time. But it is important to understand that reading Mandarin is not just recognising characters. Most words are actually composed of two or more characters, so you need to remember what particular juxtapositions of characters mean. Another factor is that Chinese is highly idiomatic. There are many phrases that do not make sense if translated literally, so the meanings of whole groups of characters need to be learned as well.


Some things that you might expect would be difficult include the use of tones and Chinese grammar. There are four main tones in spoken Mandarin (and one neutral tone). Personally, I haven't found this very problematic. I try to learn the tone as well each time that I learn a new word, and they seem to stick quite well in my head. Plus, I imagine it helps that I'm surrounded by accurate reproductions all the time. Grammar is also comparatively simple, I think. I haven't yet encountered any inflections. To express time, plurals etc. more words are used.

Now, six months after arriving in Taiwan, I don't have as much Chinese as I hoped I would when I first arrived. I came with brave ambitions of tackling the language head-on, talking to lots of people, and studying both formally and informally as much as I could. My intentions to study formally were the first to be scuppered by having the devote so much time to settling in and coping with Conrad's problems at school. Informally, I found it hard to focus when I had so much else on my mind.

There are a few difficulties with talking to other people too. I'm not too shy to chat to strangers or try to use Mandarin in shops, but when I do, I often can't understand the reply that I get. The problem is that if you begin a conversation in Mandarin, the other person assumes you are fluent and replies at normal speed. I have got better at understanding over time, but this still quite often puts an end to my Mandarin practice right there.

My reading is better, probably, than my speaking, but the critical mass of knowledge that you need to be functionally literate in Mandarin is so great that I still have quite a way to go. (I have a feeling I'm not learning the particularly useful characters through PAVC either.)

I think another factor in my slower than expected progression is that there is little pressure to learn Mandarin living in Taipei. Despite the fact that there are fewer expats here than in many other Asian capitals, the city is quite friendly to English speakers, both in signage and the number of Taiwanese people who speak English. It's perfectly possible to exist quite comfortably here without speaking Mandarin, and in fact there are a number of foreigners who do just that, despite having lived here for decades.

The Future

This is not to say that I have, or intend to, give up on learning Mandarin. I still make an effort to speak it when the opportunity arises and have increased my listening practice to help with understanding the other half of the conversation. As well as listening to my CDs, I also watch TV and listen in on conversations, go to meetings etc. So far, I can usually only understand individual words, but the frequency of my understanding entire sentences, or the gist, is increasing. As with reading, it is simply a matter of putting in enough work to get a result.

I also meet with a language exchange partner once a week when we can both manage it. These conversations begin in Chinese, then revert to English when I can't cope any longer (quite early on!). My partner is getting better at slowing down a little for me, but such is the nature of Chinese, I think, that often just one unfamiliar word will lose the entire meaning for me.

As far as textbooks go, I have decided to abandon PAVC after I finish the second book, and instead I'm going on to these books by DeFrancis, which cover the 400 most common characters in the first book. They are very old books but still come highly recommended.

As well as all of this, I am of course helping Conrad as he learns Chinese at school, or, rather, we help each other. He gets a big kick out of teaching me something, which helps greatly with his motivation. A lot of his Chinese is to do with how to play tag or 'ghosts' though, or classroom instructions, so is not always of the greatest use to me at the end of the day!

Conrad's schoolwork is as much as I'm going to do for the time being as far as formal study of Chinese goes. I now know two people who have dropped out of university courses because the teaching style is so academic and not particularly useful or effective. I may embark on conversation classes if time allows in future.

The Fun in Chinese

I'm aware that I've probably made learning Chinese to sound like a long, boring slog. It really isn't. If you're interested in languages, it's actually often fascinating, mostly due to the insight in gives into different ways of seeing things.

For example, 上 'shang' means up and 下 'xia' means down (amongst other things). These words are also used to talk about time, as in, for example, last week and next week. So which word is used for 'next' and 'last', do you think?

Also, part of the word to express 'behind' is 'hou' and part of the word to express  'in front' is 'qian'. These words are also used to express time, as in the day after tomorrow, or the day before yesterday. So, does Chinese use 'hou' or 'qian' to talk about the past and the future?

If you're like me, you assumed that the future, is 'up' or 'shang', and the past is 'down' or 'xia'. Wrong!
Also, you assumed that the future is 'in front' and the past is 'behind'. Not in Chinese!

In short, Chinese bends your head a little sometimes but if you like having your head bent, as I do, then it's quite enjoyable.