Christmas in Taipei is a Commercial Affair (but there are so many ways to be happy)

Holidays in Taipei - Gift Exchange at EPL Steakhouse

“How to Talk to Girls.” Thanks, coz.

Taiwan’s biodiversity really stands out. An active volcano lives next door to Taipei. There are evergreen forests up and down the central spine, and tropical beaches in the south. Almost everything is represented here, including real pine trees, but there are no real Christmas trees. Nearly all of the Christmas trees you’ll see in Taipei are artificial.

Holidays in Taipei - Christmas tree in National Taiwan University's social sciences library

Christmas tree in National Taiwan University’s social sciences library. (The Swedish flag is a nice touch)

Is this surprising? When you spend the holidays in Taipei, fragments of Christmas are everywhere. A sure sign this holiday means something different to Taiwanese people than Westerners.

Western products are everywhere in Taiwan. But as expats know, this is different than having Western ideas. In other words — Western things isn’t the same as Western culture.

No one is putting a Santa hat on Confucius. Also, Christmas and Boxing Day aren’t national holidays. Taiwan is open for business on Christmas Day, and so are the schools.

This means there are no days off, like you might get in Hong Kong. Last year, I gave a final presentation for a MBA class on Christmas Eve day. As one of my classmates calls it, “Fake Christmas!” Yes, and not exactly.

At least there’s no pretending. Christmas in Taipei is a commercial affair. Treat yourself to something 88 折 (12% off).

Taiwanese Christmas Spirit

Disney's Frozen Carnival with Elsa at Taipei 101

A winter carnival in Xinyi for Disney’s ‘Frozen’ with Elsa (Credit: TripAdvisor)

Where’s all the Christmas spirit? Most people know what it looks like. New Taipei City annually transforms Banqiao into a winter wonderland. Taiwanese people generally aren’t as familiar with the customs because it’s not linked with Chinese culture — other than red being a lucky color. Locals don’t go around saying “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” to each other, because people generally keep to themselves. This doesn’t change during the holidays.

Map of Religions in Taiwan

Religions in Taiwan (Courtesy: Taiwanball)

Christmas in a lot of non-Judeo-Christian countries is already about the shopping. And Taiwan, as a nation, is mostly devoted to Buddhist and Daoist temples.

There’s a clear line between Santa Baby and Baby Buddha. Christmas just hasn’t been integrated into the folklore or the educational system, in spiritual ways. The people miss out on certain aspects of the western version. This means Christmas gets respect, but not the same respect. It’s accepted, differently.

Christmas Tree Singing GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

For example, most Taiwanese don’t know stories like the ‘Gift of the Magi‘, or, ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas‘ — seen above. No one knows Cindy Lou Who but everyone’s heard of Elsa. You know. Elsa, from Disney’s Frozen. Partly, it’s generational. Mostly, ideas about Christmas are passed along through pop culture and commercialization.

This statement isn’t totally fair. Western companies like Coca-Cola set the example by commercializing Christmas a long time ago. The biggest difference is Christmas in Taiwan doesn’t come with the history or traditions that don’t have to do with buying things. And for a holiday that’s so deeply rooted in both, the rituals become more important than the expectations. Getting thru Christmas in Taipei is finding something you recognize from home, and holding onto it for a couple hours.

Surviving Christmas in Taipei as an Expat

Holidays in Taipei - One could also go to church for Christmas spirit

Grace Baptist Church in Taipei

The big adjustments for this American Christmas refugee were the sub-tropical weather (no snow) — but even more, the smells, and sounds.

Mulled wine. The roasts. Yes, even fruitcake, to some extent. You find that Starbucks plays a lot of Christmas music and that’s about it.

There are no volunteers ringing red kettles for the Salvation Army. Which ironically, is also a form of commercialism. Charity drives is an industry of its own in America (Taiwan is catching on, though).

But I’m not the spokesperson for America, or Christmas. People have their own ideas of what that is, and there are so many ways to celebrate Christmas in Taipei. These are a few of the rituals that became valuable to me.

  • Friends volunteer at The PACK Sanctuary, a shelter for rescue dogs, on Christmas Eve
  • My first-year MBA students put together a gift exchange through They’re awesome.
  • Every year, I come up with a new holiday drink. 2017 featured a different take on the White Russian, with gin and almond milk.
  • To kick off the holiday season, we had a pot-luck supper at a friend’s bar
  • Some expats put on a Christmas cabaret production every year
  • Outdoor holiday bazaars, like Banqiao in New Taipei City. Taiwan definitely gets the shopping part right.
  • My friend does a Google Form to exchange real Christmas cards
  • Hosting a Christmas Eve get-together so no expat has to be alone
  • Saying thank you to people who are kind to you. Sometimes people are so practical that they forget gestures don’t have to have a value.
  • I’d like to rent a commercial kitchen – which there are a lot of – host an outing, and bake a few dozen kinds of Christmas cookies.

Next year, you’re invited.

Holiday Season 2017

Holidays in Taipei - “Drink Raki with flaming hot Cheetos, or else it’ll burn a hole in your stomach.” A night with new friends from National Chengchi University's IMBA program.

“Drink Raki with flaming hot Cheetos, or else it’ll burn a hole in your stomach.” A night with new friends from National Chengchi University’s IMBA program.

Holidays in Taipei - The Christmas tree in National Taiwan University's Student Activity Center

The Christmas tree in National Taiwan University’s Student Activity Center

Holidays in Taipei - My local "American" diner gets dressed up for the holidays

My local “American” diner dressing up for the holidays

Holidays in Taipei - Chocolate vodka - hot chocolate with vodka - being served at National Chengchi University's holiday bazaar

Chocolate vodka – hot chocolate with vodka – at National Chengchi University’s holiday bazaar

Holidays in Taipei - The new VP of Events for the MBA student council delivering pizzas to hardworking students in the lounge during the holiday season

The new VP of Events for the MBA student council delivering pizzas to hardworking students in the lounge during the holiday season

Holidays in Taipei - The Taipei 101 Christmas tree

The Taipei 101 Christmas tree

A Commercial Christmas in Taipei

Holidays in Taipei - How Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) does Christmas

How Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) does Christmas

Holidays in Taipei - Pose with Santa in a snow globe at Leeco Outlets

Pose with Santa in a snow globe at Leeco Outlets

Holidays in Taipei - Nothing says Christmas spirit like Microsoft Office for the holidays

Nothing says Christmas spirit like Microsoft Office for the holidays

Holidays in Taipei - McDonald's decorated their Christmas tree with empty apple pie boxes

McDonald’s decorates their Christmas tree with empty apple pie boxes

Holidays in Taipei - Wooloomooloo Cafe hangs ornaments from the ceiling to make a "tree"

Wooloomooloo Cafe hangs ornaments from the ceiling to make a “tree”

Holidays in Taipei - Heineken built a Christmas tree at 7-11 using neon light strips and Heineken bottles

Heineken’s Christmas tree at 7-11 using neon light strips and bottles

MBA Resolutions and New Years Goals for 2018. Or Is It The Other Way Around?

Beef Noodle Soup from Yongkang Street in Taipei

I hadn’t been thinking about New Years Resolutions when I sat for lunch with my Uncle Tom on New Years Day. But, I had been thinking about adjusting my MBA goals as I start my final semester. Let’s call them MBA resolutions.

Uncle Tom is who I go to for insight and practical advice, because he has a lot of international business experience in pharmaceuticals, a very complex industry. What he said to me was, “Phil, I’ve opened a hundred companies and hired thousands of people.”

“The most important thing is motivation, communication, and interpersonal relationships. Especially for MBA.”

I couldn’t tell if he was consoling me because my semester wasn’t going to end well. One of my goals was presenting a strong academic record in Asia to Asians. My semester was mostly a case of dmned if you do, fcked if you don’t. Some opportunities also fell through.

Fall 2017 Didn’t Go As Planned

I was admitted to Kyoto University’s dual-degree program, and then I wasn’t. The plan. Learn Japanese, take advanced electives, get my American CPA — Japan is the only place I can test for it in Asia. To be fair, my paperwork was late, but I had very short notice and was told it’d be okay. A lot of other people also want this opportunity, and I hope whoever goes has a great time!

Elsewhere, I ran out of resources, didn’t have time to process what was going on, and pushed through. I pushed myself and felt pushed to meet standards  beyond what we should do, and I knew it. Good things, and some firsts started, though. We learned what we’d need to do to make positive change happen.

Why is all this so challenging?

  • Busy people don’t have time to process, of course. But, they generally have jobs, which means money to make their lives run smoother.
  • Students have neither time or money. They have classwork.
  • Student council presidents aren’t really considered students. The stakeholder management is challenging.
    • If the school wants you to do something, you’re expected to. When you aren’t able to, some understand. Some say you’re uncooperative. The difference between can’t and won’t isn’t always understood. Maybe this is partly why I couldn’t go to Kyoto. Such is life! Balancing the breaks is part of the job.
    • When students need (or expect) you to do something and no one else is around to help, that’s just your duty.

Stress is a mental and physical condition. But the business world doesn’t like excuses. Fortunately, I’m back to being a student soon. Will being student council president help me get hired? In Uncle Tom’s words,

“Bring it up at the right time right place.”

MBA Resolutions: Motivation, Communication, Relationships

Taking the rest of Uncle Tom’s suggestions to heart, I came up with a few “MBA Resolutions” for 2018.

How MBAs Get Hired. Personal MBA Resolutions by Philip Chang.

I’m a MBA student. Of course I draw diagrams.

MBA Resolutions: Motivation

The Motivation to go deeper into the subjects I need to learn to be more competitive. MBA programs go broad. But to be useful, we need to be good at something so that we’re good for something. As far as MBA Resolutions go, this is a really good one for everybody.

Personally? I will strengthen my quantitative business science (QBS) skills, and continue studying Chinese. Our new QBS professor says, “I believe that if you have heart, you can learn most of it in a month.” We’re going to find out how much heart I have in 2018. And really, if you can reach native levels of 中文(Chinese), everything else is easy in comparison.

MBA Resolutions: Communication

Adjusting my English so people understand more than 80% of the words coming out of my mouth. People love American pop culture, and American English is taught here. But, during higher education, most people in Taiwan and Asia (Singapore, Hong Kong) end up with a form of Commonwealth English that’s spoken and interpreted differently. It creates a language soup that’s not clearly defined — outside of basic greetings and simple conversation.

This is a cultural tick people don’t pick up on until they move here. The phenomenon also isn’t well-represented on maps.

Global Map of Where Commonwealth and American English is Taught

An unscientific look at where Commonwealth and American English is taught. Blue is for British. Americans, we’re outnumbered. (Credit: MoverDB)

Some things I try to promote around this MBA program is empathy, understanding, and forgiveness. In part because of the translation involved when people speak with 1) different accents (native vs. foreign Chinese), or 2) different meanings (Commonwealth vs. American English).

People either just want to be heard, want the straightforward solution that’s hard to come by in a bureaucracy, or don’t want to change (like most adults). Understanding which of the three options are in play, is recognizing the culture and mental model — this might be more important than listening skills.

My senior is very careful not to weaponize his English with his Taiwanese girlfriend. Another tells me it’s a lot about code-switching. I agree. One person’s meaning vs. another’s understanding of that word or phrase.

Weaponizing a language means using words, on purpose, that non-native speakers won’t understand.”

Can’t vs. won’t, for example. What a difference a few words make!

MBA Resolutions: Interpersonal Relationships

Investing in getting to know the people who intrigue me. Now that I have fewer responsibilities flying around. Things minor or urgent emerging here and there. Wicked problems to contend with. I’ve actually met a lot of people. I just haven’t given myself the time to sit down and have a beer with them.

Alibaba founder Jack Ma speaking at a conference

I really just want to have a chance to meet this guy. (Courtesy: WSJ)

Also, my MBA program is going on its first study trip, to China, in April. We’re visiting Alibaba Group, Geely Automotive — which owns Volvo, and Zhejiang University’s Innovation Institute.

But the best part of this is going to be spending time with this crew in Hangzhou (locals, you’ve been warned).

“We’re going to find out how much heart I have in 2018.”

These people connect my MBA resolutions together and make this experience valuable! But now that I’m concluding my term as student council president, I’m looking forward to having more flexibility to fulfill my own goals in just one semester with what I value most — time.

Adjusting to Life in Taiwan. After a Year in Asia, It’s Great to be Home in Indiana

The other side of the road at my country home in Indiana

The other side of the road at my country home in Indiana

Where I’m from, strangers say Hello, Good Afternoon, Thank You, and Take Care Now to each other. It was great to be home in Indiana. We have our own problems in the United States. But after living in Taiwan, charms of other countries I’ve been withstanding, it’s still pretty damn good to be American.

KFC Chizza

KFC Chizza

I missed little things. Chipotle, Jimmy John’s, non-watery avocados. Hugs. Pizza without corn (10 Crazy Asian Pizzas). Bread with texture.

There are some things I dig most in Asia. Bubble tea is best in Taiwan. KFC has this mutation called the Chizza which is a pizza with a fried chicken crust. But these are just things. Things change and they change as fast as the arrival of the next entrepreneur on either side of the ocean. For example, Costco is now a big thing in Taiwan, China finally started getting American beef (but then banned soft cheese imports), and bubble tea is all over American colleges. Culture, is way more difficult.

I missed big things. America’s “Have A Nice Day” culture. A sense of people taking care of one another. Just because. Our flights delayed, I sat in SEA amongst southerners, some Chinese, some not. Chatting it up, watching each other’s luggage, enjoying being humans in the same situation. (By the way, watch this video if you want to learn more about Chinese from the American South)

Helping strangers generally isn’t a thing other Asians in Asia do for each other. People wish each other well in Taiwan, but your problems are your own. For example, if you’re Asian and lost, good luck getting directions from people on the street. It’s not mean — just how people socialize. Conversely, if you’re white, people often go out of their way to help (it’s that obvious you need help).

Asian Fusion cuisine started taking off. Asian stuff started becoming cool. And then you started witnessing Asian Fusion in other areas, like interior design, babies, etc.

In my generation, Americans are more accepting of people who are different than themselves. Learning about world cultures, civil rights and debating that was a big thing in primary school. When Asians fly into the U.S. for college, there’s usually a Christian or Chinese students group ready to give you a ride home, help you find your way around, or be your new friends.

I also grew up in an era where Asian Fusion cuisine started taking off. Asian stuff started becoming cool. Sony. Nintendo. Stir-fry. Sriracha. Oriental Pearl Cream. And then you started witnessing Asian Fusion in other areas, like interior design, babies, etc. Americans started embracing Asia. My parents were pioneers who were a little too early, and so I felt more love from the community than they did.

Asian stereotypes were and are still a thing, but it’s not the issue it was. Instead, Asians in America tend to have a more difficult time with self-identity — especially those who are the children of immigrants. Thankfully, I got over these a long, long time ago. But now, I have to face them from the other side, in Taiwan.

Living in Taiwan is Difficult for American-Born Chinese

Philip Chang Hiking in Taiwan and Climbing the Spine of Wuliaojian

“Every next level of your life will demand a different you.” – Leonardo DiCaprio

Adjusting to Taiwan wasn’t easy. I’m not a tourist, I’m living there. There’s no help from a company because I’m not working here. I didn’t know anybody. Well, I have some family but they’re more well-wishers than team-mates. I had a crew of people that I studied intensive Chinese over the summer with, but they went home. Starting over a second time, I learned a few things about myself. As Leonardo DiCaprio says, “Every next level of your life will demand a different you.”

Sometimes you’ve got to be more resilient, you don’t have to be so tough, but you may have to be tough on local Taiwanese to get them to do what they’re supposed to.

Dealing with mold issues in my campus apartment, I spent the beginning of the school year in the emergency room. I ended it with a respiratory infection, coughing up blood in the morning. Sorting this out was difficult. Sometimes you’ve got to be more resilient, you don’t have to be angry, but you may have to be tough on local Taiwanese to get them to do what they’re supposed to. You’ll otherwise never sort out what can’t be done, vs. when a person in Taiwan’s super set of Chinese + island culture doesn’t want to be bothered. You can’t necessarily take people at their word, even though word is bond in Asian cultures.

Oh, and being a nice guy when you have a real issue doesn’t help a lot. You’ll probably just be ignored. But apologizing for the inconvenience goes a long way when getting anything done.

I’m a foreigner, but Taiwan classifies me a dual-national. Although locals know I’m definitely not from around here, I’m expected to fall in line and know what’s up, which requires adjusting.

Lots of cool people in Taiwan. Truly. I’m blessed to have met some awesome Taiwanese. But generally speaking, the idea of “cool” in Taiwan has more to do with looking the part and who you know, than being cool to other people. This is true in the U.S., but it’s differently balanced in Taiwan. People often avoid, instead of include or deal with it, partly because a big piece of Confucianism is taking care of your immediate group. Getting off to a fast start means BYO connections, since random people don’t just talk to each other. Sure, there’s ways I can avoid dealing with reality, but then, what am I learning from being here? I have to gut it out and keep building.

I’m expected to be a language native, though I’m not allowed to take the Chinese classes for foreigners at National Taiwan University. Because, I’m not technically considered a foreigner. That dual-national thing. No excuses. If you look Chinese, you must speak Chinese. That girl at the counter who giggles when your Caucasian pal speaks Chinese to her? She’s the same one who will look at you like an idiot if your Chinese isn’t at her level, even if it’s way above your friend’s. It’s cool, though. Like I’ve said, if you’re Caucasian in America and can’t speak English like the person on the receiving end, you don’t have to wait long for the funny looks. On the flip side, because my English is tip-top and I look Chinese, I get some great opportunities. I’ve had the honor of representing Taiwan to foreigners and foreign countries several times. Thank you.

There’s a bigger lesson to this story. Americans and American-Born Chinese (and foreign-born Chinese) will have a totally different experience. For those who aren’t Caucasian, learning Chinese beyond a functional day-to-day level will make life considerably easier. Trust me.

Finally, I didn’t make things easier. As student council president, I found myself dealing with complaints from all sides. Complaints are normal, but people were addressing them in totally ineffective and immature ways. We used systems thinking, which, unfortunately, is like a Robert Mueller special investigation — it reveals baskets of issues that were hiding in the bushes. Do I have experience solving cross-cultural issues? I definitely do, now.

Making Taiwan Work

What life’s about. Spending time doing things you like with people you love.

At a certain point, the stardust wears off. The most important thing is managing your perspective as your beliefs and assumptions are challenged. If you know how to live with yourself, you’re already a leg up on most people who decide they’re going to live in a culture that’s opposite their own. I’m a little heavy with the inspirational quotes today, but this one is really true for expats.

“People who believe they’ll be happy if they go and live somewhere else learn it doesn’t work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” – author Neil Galman

Philip Chang Hiking in Taiwan and Climbing Side of Cliff at Wuliaojian

“Managing my perspective” at Wuliaojian

It’s on you to find ways to be happy and ways to deal.

I made time to get outdoors and away from the city. It’s so easy to do in Taiwan. And instead of embracing people who won’t accept me anyway, I accept them anyway, while looking out for like-minded people who are enthusiastic about being human.

Like moving anywhere else, you need to:

  1. Double down on the core of what makes you, you
  2. Make room in your mental space to learn the way other people see things. Maybe you’re both trying to speak the same language, but you’re not really speaking the same language, 朋友
  3. Bring some of what you’ve learned into your own life

My advice? Make a habit of what you enjoy, and spend time with people you care about who care about you. Life gets much better. And to me, that’s what life’s about. Spending time doing things you like with people you love.

Welcome to West Lafayette, Indiana

The local watering hole. Harry's Chocolate Shop was a basement speakeasy in the 1920s. I'll tell you the password another time.

The local watering hole. Harry’s Chocolate Shop was a basement speakeasy in the 1920s. I’ll tell you the password another time.

Across the street from Purdue University's business school

Across the street from Purdue University’s business school, where some new lucky goofus gets crowned “Asshole of the Week” every 7 days

The Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering at Purdue University. The first man on the moon!

Steak and eggs. Breakfast at the Triple XXX diner is a local tradition.

Steak and eggs. Breakfast at the Triple XXX diner is a local tradition.

Country barn at sunset, on my typical run in Tippecanoe County, Indiana

Soybeans ready for harvesting


Indiana wildflowers

Indiana wildflowers

People living in Indiana's rural areas have to be more self-dependent, so we're quicker to embrace technology like solar panels

People living in Indiana’s rural areas have to be more self-dependent, so we’re quicker to embrace technology like solar panels

Running thru corn fields is still one of my favorite things to do

Running thru corn fields is still one of my favorite things to do

Sunrise on a neighbor's farm

Sunrise on a neighbor’s farm

Learning Mandarin Chinese Is Hard

Have I mentioned Chinese is hard to learn? Tens of thousands of words made up from thousands of characters. Once you know how to say the characters, now form complete thoughts with them. Otherwise, Chinese sounds like this:

If English Were Written Like Chinese

I formally began last year and did it, formally, for two months at National Taiwan Normal University. I’ve been self-learning, since then. Why? My uni has free classes for foreigners. But I’m a dual national, so I can’t enroll. Bogus, since anyone knows my country-music-listening-self understands I’m American > Asian.

Learning Chinese is hard, but it pays off. Here's me, surviving an hour-long radio interview in Chinese, about sustainability trends amongst corporates. Thankfully, it was pre-recorded.

Survived an hour-long interview in Chinese about corporate sustainability trends. Learning Chinese is hard, but speaking is easier if the program is pre-recorded.

Anyway, nine months in, I’ve come to realize a few things about how people learn Chinese. I have, to varying degrees, personal experience with all of the below.

1. Many foreign guys studying Chinese in Taiwan develop a quasi-feminine accent. A) Taiwan Chinese is softer and lighter on tones than mainland Chinese, and B) Most teachers are women, so you pick up feminine speech patterns — just another reason learning Chinese is hard.

2. If you learn Chinese in China, you’ll pick up the feminine speech patterns, anyway, from your female Chinese teacher. And if you have a Chinese girlfriend, you might inadvertently double down on these ladyboy habits. You need to learn Chinese outside the classroom.

3. Learning Chinese outside Asia might be toughest. There are great advantages to being here. Even if you earn a masters degree in the U.S. and learn 3,000 characters, you might not know the correct pronunciation or use case. Vocabulary is only the beginning! Comprehension is the goal.

3,000 Pictograms, I Mean, Characters

Why 3,000 characters? There’s actually many more. “An educated Chinese person will know about 8,000 characters,” says the BBC.  Just a subset of the 80,000+ that are out there, if you ask Stanford University. Hang on while I delete some files from my brain to make room for more Chinese.

3,000 just puts you at the middle school level. So after you learn 3,000 Chinese wingdings, congratulate yourself for finishing 8th grade. Here’s the first 100.

100 Chinese Characters Every Beginner Needs to Remember

100 Simplified Chinese Characters Every Beginner Needs to Remember

Then, you smash them together to form terms and learn how that changes context. Each character is just a building block for a word you want to say. So the combinations are, well… According to research by Ashwin Purohit, there are 41,513 common words made up from 3,848 unique characters. Skeptical or need a data project for a statistics class? Here are Ashwin’s data files.

41,513 common words made up from 3,848 unique characters.

These evaluations are just for simplified Chinese, the kind that mainland China uses. Some of the people I’ve spoken to, and myself, believe 6,000 words should be the target for traditional Chinese speakers.

What’s the difference? Well, the Chinese speaking world outside mainland China, including Hong Kong, uses traditional Chinese. The Simplified creation was a Chinese government initiative to improve literacy rates, because well, Chinese is hard. Simplified Chinese uses fewer strokes to write characters, merging many that sound similar. Traditional Chinese forms are more numerous, require more strokes, and easier to recognize.

Rote Memorization

Growing up, I wondered why the emphasis on rote memorization in all forms of learning. Then I realized, this is exactly how people learn Chinese. One. Character. At. A. Time. And since language is one of the first high functioning tasks you learn how to do — it just catches on.

Sadly, I didn’t learn enough Chinese as a kid to pick up the magic ability of memorizing facts just so I can repeat them on tests. Which, by the way, isn’t really magic at all. Just habits. Because it’s the same way everyone else learns. Chinese, and tests, is difficult for everybody.

Placing memorization in perspective, many Western adults know somewhere between “20,000 and 35,000 words,” according to The Economist. Memorizing 3,000 characters doesn’t so sound bad. Still…

System Learning

Is there a better way to learn Chinese? Yes, and all of them suck. David Moser at the Beijing Capital Normal University tells a joke: “One of the first signs of senility in a China scholar is the compulsion to come up with a new romanization method.”

Bopomofo (also known as Zhuyin). Local school children use bopomofo, a phonetic system, to learn words, but you still have to learn the 37 symbols and 4 tones. Also, you won’t see these symbols in public. Courtesy of Omniglot:

Chinese Bopomofo Pronunciation Chart

Radicals. Most systems incorporate learning a few of the 214 radicals. These are parts of characters that give you a clue what the word is about. These diagrams do a good job of explaining the concept. On top, you see how these radicals form characters.

Chinese Radicals Construction

The downside of radicals is that they won’t help you remember how to pronounce characters, but they help you recognize them. That’s a good start. Below, the radical for fire at the left, 火, is used to indicate fry (8), blast (9), grill (10), roast (16), and I haven’t learned 19 yet.

Chinese Radicals Example

Phonetics Are Hard

When you start to recognize characters, you need to learn how to pronounce them correctly. It’s what to say, vs. how to say it.

Pinyin. Most Westerners use pinyin to learn Chinese (the alternative is The Wade-Giles Romanization Atrocity), because it uses the Western alphabet. A fantastic learning tool. But again, you won’t see learning aides in public – just Chinese characters.

Also, learners tend to read off pinyin like they’re English words. Even after learning the four different accent sounds, or tones, people naturally go back to what they usually do. So, it kind of lulls you into a false sense of learning the language, because you end up remembering everything except the tones. You need a bit of a musical ear to sort it out. The Hutong School explains.

Four Tones, Four Words — Mother, Marijuana, Horse, Insult

1.”mā”  usually means “mother”, but in spoken language the Chinese will usually say “māma” or “wŏ mā” (My mother) or “nĭ mā” (your mother)

2. “má”  could mean “hemp” (plant), but the only common usage in spoken language would be  “dàmá”, literally “big-hemp” referring to marihuana

3. “mă”  usually means horse

4. “mà”  usually means “to scold, to insult” and is a verb, meaning it will be preceded by a subject and followed by an object.

You probably get the point. Here’s where it gets tricky. Because Chinese joins characters to form words, if you screw up the pronunciations of one character, you quickly end up saying something you didn’t intend to. Exhibit A assumes you pronounced the first character correctly, but not the second:

Chinese Pronunciation Mistake

On the left, what you meant to say. On the right, what she heard.

Lord help you if you manage to screw up the pronunciations of both characters. The pronunciations can also change, depending on what characters are put next to each other. The reason Why, most of the time, is because it sounds more pleasing.

As if it weren’t difficult enough for most Westerners to think about what they say before they speak. How you speak is even more important when you’re in Greater China. In English, grammar matters. In Chinese, tones count.

You need a bit of a musical ear to sort it out.

Cognates Are Hard

Cognates, in Chinese, are words that mean and sound like the English translation. Typhoon, for instance, is 颱風 – tái fēng. You mostly encounter these with brand names, like McDonald’s (麥當勞). Mài dāng láo. Exactly how it sounds.

McDonald's in Taiwan

麥當勞 in 臺灣 (Courtesy: Pinterest)

Cognates are exceptions, but many made their way into modern Chinese. Some fully, some in part. For example, England is 英國 – yīng guó.

  • The first character, 英, is chosen because it sounds like the Eng in England, ˈiNG(g).
  • 國, the second character, means nation.

Chinese is hard, for me, because of this. During my one-hour radio interview, I was trying to figure out what the interviewer was asking us. One half of my brain is trying to recall the Chinese terms being used. The other half is listening to the sounds to see if they resemble an English word.

Moser has a better example which you’ve already seen. Imagine if English was written like this:

If English Were Written Like Chinese

What’s going on in my mind when I hear next-level Chinese (apparently, there’s a look on my face that makes it very clear when this is going on)

Chinese is Hard

In defense of foreigners, locals require 13 years of living and practicing Chinese on a full-time basis to get to understanding 3,000 characters and the words they form. But, visitors can definitely be more structured about learning. Work on writing — not just speaking. Oh, and tones.

Learning Chinese means having reasonable expectations, and treating it both as a process and a journey. I do think the amount of Chinese a foreigner learns here is proof they’ve learned a few lessons in resilience. And humility.

Coming up with a personal system, I’ve found, is helpful. But there are limits.

One of the first signs of senility in a China scholar is the compulsion to come up with a new romanization method.

The learning environment you create for yourself is probably more important. So much of that depends. Do you already know some Chinese? Do you have a Chinese girlfriend? The physical location is ideal, if not forgiving. What you surround yourself with makes it a plus or a negative.

If you’re Caucasian, people are most likely to compliment you on the Chinese you’ve learned so far, and then practice their own English with you. It’s the kind of compliment that isn’t kind, because your own Chinese isn’t going anywhere. You’re going to have to work harder at creating opportunities to practice.

If you’re an American-Born Chinese like me, locals generally won’t simplify or slow down their speech. If you look like you speak Chinese, locals will speak Chinese to you. Even though to them, you’re practically another species. The advantage I have is this isn’t the first time I’ve heard many phrases. But, I’m forced to learn Chinese more quickly.

National Taiwan Normal University

If you want to learn Chinese in Taiwan, I highly recommend National Taiwan Normal University’s (NTNU) Mandarin Training Center.

Learning Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University Mandarin Training Center

NTNU’s Mandarin Training Center is the site of its old library. They kept the entrance, but put up a new building in the 1980s. (Courtesy: NTNU)

Yes, there are outstanding teachers at other language academies and universities. Many of them are like free agents — they actually work at several schools, and I’ve met some who freelance as translators for businesses.

There’s also National Taiwan University (my uni), which is internationally recognized for scholarly Chinese. But classical Chinese probably isn’t your goal, and NTNU has the local reputation for practical Chinese. It’s a trust mark.

National Taiwan Normal is also known for training primary and secondary school language teachers in its College of Education, and it’s considered a top 5 university in Taiwan. They know how to teach. I personally think there are more quality opportunities for language exchange and tutoring at NTNU.

Also, without getting into so many details, my personal experience (and of others I know) is that NTNU is way better equipped to help foreigners. This is important when it comes to legal paperwork like the forms you need in order to stay in Taiwan, who you need to talk to, and where you need to go. I’ve met the friendliest people in Taiwan at NTNU’s Mandarin Training Center.

And as a stranger in a strange land, having people who will help you is everything. Learning Chinese is hard enough.

I’m very lucky to have gotten to study at several of the top universities in Taiwan. Don’t hesitate to Contact Me if there are any questions I can answer for you.


I’m New to Taiwan. Can You Tell?

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.

Where Is Taiwan

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.

Intense Training

"Begin Anywhere" - John Cage

“Begin Anywhere” – John Cage

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.