My Struggle with Mandarin

To start things off, I should apologize. I’m sure at some point in this blog I have rambled on about how much I just LOOVVVEEE languages and I’d be happy to learn any language in the world.

I must retract that sentiment.

I have been in Taiwan for 1.5 years now and have attempted to progress in Mandarin Chinese during 3 separate periods. I know the basics. I can’t say I can ‘get around well enough’ because I still can’t read the majority of foods that are on a menu, which makes eating difficult. But I can say what I want or where I am going and I’m great at ordering my daily coffee or tea.

But…I just cannot seem to get into it. Everyday I feel guilty for not learning more and taking advantage of being here while I can, but the desire is Just. Not. There. Some may attribute it to the difficulty of Chinese for English speakers. It ranks last in the categories provided by the US Foreign Service. HOWEVER, Korean is in the same category and I have a great desire to go back to learning Korean. I listen to Korean music (and Italian and Spanish for that matter) and they all give me the desire to keep learning. I’m filled with excitement and intrigue at the use of the language and its differences from other languages. I enjoy the sound of the lyrics and try to imitate them even if I haven’t learned that vocabulary yet. That doesn’t happen when I listen to Chinese music. So I just put my chin in my hands and sigh in frustration.

I do have one theory as to why. I have a feeling that it has to do with the ease of reading. I am a lover of languages because I am a lover of words and sounds, so if I cannot read the words, I feel as though something is missing. Like there is a hole in the process. The Korean alphabet I was able to learn to read in one night. Then I spent the following two years reading signs all over Seoul. It was fun to pronounce it in my head and count the words I knew. I prefer to read Korean words written in the Korean alphabet than to read them romanized. The sound comes out more naturally in my head.  When listening to another language, I sometimes automatically visualize the words that  I am hearing.  It helps me remember what I hear I suppose.  Being fluent in Spanish, I can also read French, Italian and Portuguese with much greater ease and I love the challenge of seeing how much I can understand.  But with Mandarin, the characters (traditional here in TW) have too many strokes for my brain to wrap its head around.

So it seems my love of languages may be limited to the ‘see – n – say’ sort.  The kind that doesn’t make me feel as though I need to be an artist to write it down.  This goes against the grain of the future polyglot in me, but I suppose other polyglots have languages that don’t speak to them as well.  I hope.  Please tell me I’m not alone here.

On a positive note, I will say that Chinese was easier to learn than I had initially expected, so if the appearance of difficulty is deterring you, don’t let it.  Give it a try.  Also, I like how some of the words just seem like two simpler words put together to explain something more complex.  I can’t think of an example at the moment, so if someone knows what I mean, please feel free to put an example in the comments.  It’s quite logical, that part of the language.

Has this happened to anyone else out there?  Have you ever had trouble getting into a language that you felt that you had to learn?  I don’t want to be one of THOSE people who lives in a country and doesn’t learn the local language.  I never thought I’d be one of THOSE people.  And the Taiwanese people are very lovely folk, so it would be nice to communicate with them in their own language.  I just need to drum up the desire to learn it first.  :-/

Prescription Please!

One of the biggest advantages for me as an American abroad is access to affordable healthcare. I actually get excited every time I have to go to the doctor! I’m finally able to get various medical issues looked at that were otherwise neglected in the US due to costs.
To give you an idea of the cost, I visited an ENT specialist here in Taiwan at a local hospital. He spoke perfect English which was helpful, listened to my symptoms, had some x-rays done and prescribed a month’s worth of two name brand prescriptions. The cost: approx. $14. I honestly don’t remember how much I pay monthly for the national health insurance out of my salary, but it’s not much in my opinion. To compare, I googled one of the prescriptions he gave me and in the US the same bottle would cost $38. Plus to see a specialist would cost anywhere from $25-$100 with some insurance plans. Needless to say, I greatly appreciate the presence of a national healthcare plan.
My only complaint so far is that some of the doctors here as well in Korea don’t actually examine you. They ask you questions about your symptoms and then just prescribe something based on whatever you say you have. Hypochondriacs would have a field day! There’s no one to tell you you don’t really have what you think you have. This has happened with 3-4 doctors, even when I say ‘I’m not sure, take a look,’ they don’t. Has anyone else experienced this in their host country? Seems strange to me since in my home country, doctors are reluctant to give you any diagnosis these days for fear of being sued for medical malpractice.
As always, I’m eager to hear your experiences. Happy travels!

Am I a Bad Expat?

Subway. Starbucks. Coldstone. It’s names like these that set my heart aflutter. I walk inside and I feel instant comfort like a hug from a long lost cousin.
Hanging round an area of the city on the hunt for food, I should, as a traveler, seek out something local and exotic. Instead, I whip out my iPhone, bring up Google Maps and search for a nearby Subway sandwiches. I hideout in my little Americanized heaven for a quick lunch before heading back out to the scooter-filled chaos of Taiwan’s streets. And I am happier.
Why?! What has happened to the girl locked in the cubicle who couldn’t wait to get out and try new food and see new places, new cultures? Have I been abroad too long? Am I more homesick than I admit? I have no plan to return to the US any time soon though. I like living abroad.
OR…
Am I still more of a germophobe than I thought? The ‘Western’ franchises tend to keep their shops up to their country’s health standards unlike some of their local counterparts. So, perhaps I am merely seeking a familiar level of cleanliness.
OR…
perhaps I have not found enough local food that appeals to my taste buds. I eventually grew quite attached to Korean food while there, but cravings for Taiwanese food have yet to arise (except for the teas!)
OR…
Maybe it is that I have acclimated so much to East Asian culture that I too am accepting the Western ways as the new, young, trendy way. Haha.
I think I am finally understanding the ways of immigrants in the US and why they frequent authentic restaurants from their country and hang out in the same neighborhoods. So perhaps what I feel is normal.
Fellow expats, do you think this desire to try to live your country’s lifestyle in your foreign country is normal? Do you find yourself wanting to enjoy familiar franchises, environments and foods? If you have felt this urge before, is it merely a phase that subsides after awhile? I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences.

Hello New Life!

Has it really been that long since I have written? It’s amazing how quickly time can pass. Since then my life has changed in a variety of ways…
…I finished my teaching contract in Korea, visited the fam in the US, spent a month in Chiang Mai, Thailand obtaining my CELTA certificate to increase my hire-ability, moved to Taichung, Taiwan, moved in with my boyfriend, started learning traditional Mandarin, got a new job, and started working out.
…It’s been crazy hectic and I’ve had my emotional ups and downs along the way, but all in all I’m quite happy and still loving expat life. Over time I’ll post about each of these new changes as the reflections occur to me, but for now:
GREETINGS FROM TAICHUNG, TAIWAN! ^^

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The Comfort of Safety in Korea

Night Street Light

Night Street Light (Photo credit: Sheffield Tiger)

I remember several years back, when I was living in the US, walking home one night after university.  I was only walking from the bus stop, which was less than a 10 minute walk.  It was later, maybe 10 or 11pm.  I came to a darker street of the walk and one of the street lamps was out, making it darker.  I stopped, hating the idea of walking down the dark street at night, alone.  I just imagined being one of those news stories you read where the girl gets attacked and everyone asks ‘why was she walking alone at night on a dark street?!’  I looked up at the street lamp and just wished for it to come back on.  Much to my surprise, it did.  It didn’t light the street up very much, but I suppose it was more of a symbol of safety for me.  So I proceeded, walking quickly as I usually did after dark and keeping my eyes alert for any suspicious noises or people.  I made it safely, thankfully, but that night reminds me of the fear that I always felt having to walk alone at night.

I don’t know if others in the US feel this fear as well.  I know that those with OCD like me tend to be on the more paranoid side to begin with.  Some people say the US isn’t as bad as I think it is for crime, but how can I help but think that way when night after night the news stories involve random people being attacked on streets, in parks, in their own homes.  Assaults, robberies, shootings and stabbings of guilty and innocent people alike.  There are also hundreds of stories of people snapping and going on killing sprees.  The fact that ‘going postal‘ is now a well-known phrase in American English vocabulary is an indication of how often this type of thing happens.  Everywhere I went I never felt truly safe.  I hated that feeling.  I live an average life.  I am a good person.  I shouldn’t need to feel like I’m walking on egg shells everywhere I go.   It was stressful.  My body and mind felt tense.  I love to walk at night, but as a woman living alone, I didn’t always have the luxury of someone to go with me, so I felt trapped in my own home when I’d rather be out enjoying the moon and the cool air.

Then, I moved to Korea.

I heard it was safe before I got here, but you never really believe it until you experience it.  It’s funny, you can always tell who the recently arrived Americans are because they are the ones clutching to their bags and wary of those around them.  I was one of them.  Now, two years later, I am noticing the effects that the lack of crime here has on me.

Just the other night I was walking home from dinner, my friends headed in another direction, so I was off to walk home by myself down a few dark, seedy looking streets.  I wasn’t sure exactly which streets to take so there was a chance I’d get lost.  It was about 11pm or so and there weren’t many people around.  I got to a dark part of the street and it reminded me of the night I described above where I felt so much fear.  I kept walking (still alert, but relaxed) and took the time to reflect on what it feels like now to feel the comfort of safety.  My body is so much less tense now.  I am relaxed and can actually enjoy a nightly walk without having to walk fast and hope I don’t run into any unsavory characters.  I passed groups of men and plenty of drunks, none of whom bothered me.  As a woman, I cannot tell you how liberating that feels.

It’s not just walking alone at night.  It’s not just the fears that women normally fear.  This comfort of safety can also be felt in other areas too, such as being able to leave your iPhone or bag on a table, walk away and know it will still be there when you get back.  You can break out every fancy electronic device you own on the subway and not fear getting mugged.

I’m not sure of the exact reason that it’s so much safer here.  Some say it’s the idea of family vs. individual because doing a wrong here affects the family name and the respect of your whole family.  Others say it’s the presence of CCTV and knowing you could easily be caught.  Or perhaps it’s simply the lack of guns and drugs roaming the streets.  And for those in America who blame violent video games for their children’s violent behavior, I say, think again, because Korean children play the same video games with much more intensity than the American children do and I do not see the same types of juvenile crimes here.  My students may be able to draw AK47s with frightening accuracy, but they don’t intend to use them to harm their friends or classmates.

I know that crime still happens here.  I’m not ignorant of that.  I still maintain the level of alertness and ‘street smarts’ I learned throughout my childhood, as should everyone to be on the safe side, but the possibility of experiencing crime first hand is much lower than what I am used to.  So when people ask me why I don’t wish to move back to the US, I tell them the lack of paranoia and stress is worth the small sacrifices I make by living outside of my home country, outside of my supposed ‘comfort zone.’

The Northern Winds of Change…

Deutsch: Macchu Picchu, ein UNESCO-Weltkulture...

Image via Wikipedia

There are many times when I feel like Juliet Binoche’s character in Chocolat.  The pull of the winds tells me when it is time to move on.  One day I am amusing myself with thoughts of staying in the current city/state/country for a few years, and the next day I’m itching for a change and ready to take flight instantly.  It is so easy to get into a routine and forget that there is better out there for you.  So I am thankful for these demanding winds that remind me of all the places I have yet to see.

At times my desire to travel and see the sights is so strong that it is akin to the longing that can be felt for a distant love.  Today, for example, I was teaching a lesson on vacations (standard chapter in many ESL books) and looking at the pictures of Easter Island, Taj Mahal, Macchu Picchu, Grand Canyon, etc., I actually felt an ache in my body.  I felt sadness because there are so many places I have yet to see and my current job does not offer enough vacation time to accommodate them all.

However, I am hopeful, optimistic and quite determined to make my traveling desires become a reality.  I just need to find the right combination of income vs. travel opportunity in my next job to make it happen.  That is my priority.  I have always said that I do not care to climb the corporate ladder nor be rich.  It’s not about money for me.  It’s not about status either.  If I become a well-known magazine writer, awesome.  If I become a little-known waitress or barista, equally as awesome.  It’s about happiness.  I only want enough money to travel comfortably without worrying about the budget.  I spent too long daydreaming; now it’s time to MAKE IT HAPPEN.

On that note, I have posted my list of places I want to see (which grows every time I glance at it).  I posted this a few months ago elsewhere, but thought it was a good list to put on here as well so we can all share our traveling dreams together.

I ask you, where do YOU want to go and how are YOU going to make it happen?

Here are the Countries/Cities/Sights I want to visit, by region:

SOUTH/CENTRAL AMERICA/CARIBBEAN:

  1. Argentina – tango classes, the southernmost tip of the continent
  2. Brazil – rainforest
  3. Bolivia – suggestions?
  4. Chile – las montanas, el hielo
  5. Colombia – Santa Marta, Cali, Andres Cepeda concert/restaurant and perhaps volunteer with one of the Pies Descalzos schools for awhile
  6. Costa Rica
  7. Cuba – a country without American influence for 50 years!, the music
  8. Dominican Republic – beaches
  9. Guatemala
  10. Mexico – saw Cancun, want to see the ruins and the less touristy beaches
  11. Panama
  12. Peru – obviously Macchu Picchu amongst other things
  13. Puerto Rico – el Yunque
  14. Venezuela – Angel Falls

AFRICA/MIDDLE EAST

  1. Egypt
  2. Israel – Dead Sea
  3. Jordan
  4. Madagascar – biodiversity
  5. Morocco
  6. Turkey – saw Izmir, want to see Istanbul
  7. UAE – Dubai – architecture and salsa

EUROPE

  1. Austria
  2. Croatia – AGAIN!
  3. Czech Republic – Prague
  4. France – southern France
  5. Greece – Santorini
  6. Iceland – beautiful geology
  7. Ireland – castles
  8. Italy – AGAIN!  Florence, Tuscany, Roma, Milano
  9. Monaco – to see what the big deal is
  10. Poland
  11. Portugal
  12. Russia – St Petersburg, Moscow, Siberia and maybe Trans-Siberian railroad trip
  13. Spain – AGAIN!  Miss it immensely and have yet to see Barcelona or Malaga, and visit my Aunt/Uncle
  14. Scotland – highlands and castles
  15. England/Wales – AGAIN!  more castles and visit family

ASIA

  1. China – pandas, great wall, architecture
  2. India – Goa
  3. Indonesia – Bali
  4. Japan – salsa, style and food
  5. Macau
  6. Malaysia
  7. Philippines – swimming with whale sharks!
  8. Singapore – the zoo, the cleanliness
  9. Sri Lanka – resort vaca
  10. Taiwan – waterfalls and hot springs
  11. Thailand – elephants
  12. Vietnam – culture

ANTARCTICA – For the penguins of course, and to see a continent of ice

OCEANIA (AUSTRALIA FOR THE AMERICAN FOLK)

  1. Australia – salsa, animals
  2. Fiji
  3. New Zealand

NORTH AMERICA

  1. Alaska – animals, cruise
  2. Quebec – for the French influence
  3. US – 4 corners – more red rock, Grand Canyon
  4. US – SF – hills, bridges and liberal culture

P.S.  Got my renewed passport today (which btw is processed sooo much faster when outside the US) and they are actually much nicer and more interesting than those from the last decade.  I’m determined to need more pages added to my passport before this one expires!

Dear Korea

(this is my attempt to stay balanced in life by discussing the good and bad evenly via imaginary letters tp various entities.)

Dear Korea,

Bad:
1. Garlic bread should not be sweet. Neither should pizza sauce. Ever.

2. Wallpaper is not the answer to every interior design question.

3. Your valiant, albeit overly categorized, effort at a recycling system is thwarted on a daily basis by every snack maker who individually packs their snacks, creating more waste…and by Lotteria take out.

4. You embraced Swiffers, now embrace Mr. Clean. Your floors will thank you for it.

Good:
1. Thank you on behalf of us women for providing such well dressed young men. We appreciate the eye candy.

2. Thank you for providing what my own government was incapable of – inexpensive medical and dental care.

3. 호두 rocks!!

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