Even though I’m Taiwanese – both my mother and father were born on this island – figuring out I’m new to Taiwan doesn’t take much.
I walked into the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store in Taipei’s Xinyi district – famous for drawing foreign tourists – and before I said a Chinese word, the young lady knew I’m not from these parts. It’s pretty obvious to the locals. At least I think so. I believe so. It’s partly the way I dress. The way I walk. And the way I speak Chinese.
Yes, for most people, it’s the way I speak Chinese — the mother language around here. I can make my way around just fine (thank you very much), communicate needs, and feelings. It’s pretty good for someone who’s lived in the West their larger life. It’s good enough for an occasional visitor or a tourist. It’s not good for someone who looks like they might be Taiwanese and is living in Taiwan.
Sometimes, this is a positive. Sometimes, I run into someone who is genuinely curious about American Born Chinese (or Taiwanese). But I largely get the sense that when people see me, they don’t see a foreigner, they see, “There’s definitely something strange about that Taiwanese person.”
Looks matter. The tyranny of that statement demands I speak Chinese like a native.
If you’re a Taiwanese person living in Taiwan, knowing the Chinese language is an all-or-nothing kind of affair. If you’re not Asian, it’s another story. There’s little expectation that a Caucasian should know the language. But if you’re Asian, there’s every expectation. Looks matter. The tyranny of that statement demands I speak Chinese like a native when I’m in Taiwan.
Is that fair? Being white in America means people expect you to speak English. Being Taiwanese in Taiwan means people expect you to speak Chinese. Sucks for me, but yes, it’s fair.
To level up my Chinese skill, I spent two months at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) with other visitors and expats. People who are also new to Taiwan.
NTNU’s Mandarin Training Center is one of the better language learning programs in Taiwan. Maybe even the best. Primarily because it focuses on practical Chinese like speaking and reading. Writing is important also but it’s not the number one priority. What I most appreciated about NTNU is it’s a very supportive environment for foreigners. But when it comes to my own goals, being at NTNU gave me two months to learn how to teach myself Chinese.
I put the Chinese to use in more than my daily life. For instance, I came here for my MBA from National Taiwan University. I put a lot of thought into this decision and it makes sense for my outputs. More about why in another post.
Meanwhile, I’m making my way around Taipei, learning about and from Greater China while living here. There’s been a lot of frustrating moments. Still are. It’s equal parts “Why did I come” mixed with “Let’s do this.” The balance is shifting, but at the expense of the magic that comes with being in a foreign country.
A lot of frustrating moments. Still are.
It’s not like being an exchange student. Exchange students and those who look like foreigners are treated as guests and are given that leeway to figure Taiwan out. They should be, and they should have. I’m here and expected to be a local in more ways than several. People don’t know I’m new to Taiwan. Being an American Born Chinese with a language gimp means starting from behind. There’s not going to be a pillow behind every experience.
Adaptation is a survival skill and right now, everything is about adaptation. Either courageously or foolishly, I came here without a support network – against the advice of my peers – and have to build my own, person-by-person.
There’s so much I want to write about, though I promised myself it has to come from a place where I’ve developed a sense of the way things work around here. Very little comes easy to me in Taiwan, and I’m really having to effort my way out of a lot of things. But perhaps that means I’ll have something meaningful to share once I’m through Round 1 of my Asian-fication. For sure, I’ve got the American side of Asian-American locked in.
Until the next time, I’m the guy walking around Taipei like he’s got a deck of can’t lose cards in his pocket. Hello, I’m Philip Chang, and I’m new to Taiwan.