September 30, 2013

Language confusion - I said I wanted a challenge and I got one...

The confusing thing that is the Chinese language

Two, no, three weeks into the course, where three days were connected to the Mid Autumn (moon festival) and we didn't have any school, and I am finally starting to crack the code.

It's not easy. And it is not just because the four tones, plus the one that is neutral, but in my ears changes e to a. I can't always say what the difference is but I can normally identify that there is a difference and that is a start – because the tones really do change meaning, unlike in most European languages where the meaning remains the same, it may just change whether it is a question or not – in Chinese language you work a lot with tones. Still, that's not the most tricky part for me, I know I'll get there as long as I continue to work on it – it sure isn't easy, when I am tired I can not tell them apart and otherwise I am only able to really tell them apart if I hear both next to each other – and it is rare that you do...

And it is not because all the characters, once I started to get how the characters were built up it's not too bad; At least not getting the connection "these characters together means this" – the characters for certain foods, for bathroom, for fire exit, for mountains and so forth – not too difficult Well, if it wasn't for the fact that you have to connect it to as sound as well, as soon as you need to do that it gets a bit tricky. But no, it's not that that is the biggest challenge either.

Instead, for me it turns out to be the texts that are the most difficult and causes conflicts in my head. I keep losing track of where I am and I keep mixing sentences up. But why?

There are probably several reasons of course, but the biggest issue I have is that the texts we are working with are very chopped up and unstructured. Each text is written in pinyin, with the Chinese characters above, of underneath. To make it easy, the words are broken up in smaller building blocks. Here the pinyin is broken up so that each Chinese character is matched with the sound. It is not so strange – in theory.

Except when you talk you don't talk the way the texts are written... Certain sounds belong together and together helps forming the meaning – and when you try and just learn the sounds separately they don't make any sense. No, for them to make sense you need to connect them to something else – xihuan (like) needs to be xihuan – not xi huan. To make it extra confusing the verb is also supposed to be said with the noun – drink tea is he cha – but you say it heCha; And yet, in our texts it is separated, even if one of our teachers has been kind enough to put a separate colour in the background to at least indicate what belongs together. Doesn't really help for me though, every time I look up from the text I find myself struggling to find where we were again.

But then again we haven't started using the book yet. I have a feeling it will get better once we do.

And until then you will find me in the library every day, recreating all the texts we went through – because not having studied Chinese before, I sometimes feel really lost when I am sitting in class with all the others, who either know other Asian languages before, and/or studied Chinese, alternatively lived in China or Taiwan for a number of years. Stubborn as I am I am determined to crack the code though – and step by step, little by little, I do.

And when I feel too lost, I have a tongue twister in Swedish that I say to myself in my head, knowing that no one else in class could manage it even if they tried. At least some comfort...  

(Sex Laxar i en laxask. Beat that if you can... (Six salmons in a salmon tin).)

September 27, 2013

In Food Heaven there is unlimited supply of Soy Milk... And Luobogao - 蘿蔔糕

Food heaven is full of soy milk

Or: How I found my favourite breakfast

The wonderful staff making the food
And there, right around the corner, on the road that I was just strolling down, it is. Food heaven. It's a random day, and school hasn't really kicked off, so I am out exploring my new area, trying to get used to the sounds and the smells of the city, trying to get used to the humidity and more than anything, to explore and get to know my new home town.

I have no idea where I am going - I am just out and about, wandering aimlessly, like I often do in a new location, if I have time. And here in Taiwan that's something I have plenty of - time...  So I walk, up and down various street. Getting a little lost is always good, that's how I discover new places. A friend of mine always laughs at me for walking too fast, when I don't know where I am going – but he doesn't understand the charm of it, doesn't understand that I both like walking fast and getting lost (and for those who wonder, I DO have enough money on me to take a taxi home and I also have a little card with the address – in the local language. So no, I won't get completely lost. I am adventurous but not stupid...)

This time I am not too lost, I have wandered of on purpose and I am on Xitun road - but I just don't know what to expect. Xitun road is a good road to be on though, it's a street that goes all through central Taichung - a great place to get back to if I'd get completely confused among the Chinese roadsigns.

September 20, 2013

Happy Moon Festival - Zhongqiu jie kuaile - 中秋節快樂

Zhongqiu jie kuaile  - Happy Moon Festival

How to celebrate the local festivities

This week has been a short week at university, and elsewhere as well. This week we are celebrating what in English is called the “Moon Festival” - but translated from Chinese actually is Mid Autumn festival - Zhongqui jié kuàilè (in pinyin, Chinese characters written with the western alphabet.) 

Moon Festival is celebrated across the Chinese speaking world, and it is a very important event. I have not been in Asia long enough to pick up all the history but regardless, it is a great opportunity to catch up with friends and family (you can read more about the Moon Festival in mainland China if you follow this link).

In Taiwan the Moon Festival traditionally means two things, at least (and I don't mean the obvious thing, the moon cake – that is a common treat for this time of year all over the Chinese speaking world):  

Pomelos, WenDan (or YouZi) in the market
First of all it means pomelos ( - youzi (柚子) - although in the shop you will also see "wendan"- 文旦. Pomelo is the big green citrus fruit that resembles grapefruit, just milder, sweeter. Fact is that the word youzi seems to be used for both grapefruit and pomelo in Mandarin, but it is indeed different fruits. The pomelo is less common though, at least in Europe, and I suspect that's why it's not always clear which name to use.  Pomelo season starts just about now and since the Taiwanese people are all about what's in season for the moment, it is a big celebration; You will see pomelos everywhere, and at university we even had a pomelo eating competition as well as a pomelo decoration event.

Hiking the Lake District, UK - the tour of Europe

What I did this summer - the European Tour

green fields and hills
Summer 2013 I returned to UK again. I've been coming to UK on a relatively regular basis since I was a teenager, and it always feels good to come back "home", as much as I love exploring it's nice to, from time to time, be in a region where everyone understands what you are saying and where you don't have to translate and can read the signs and participate in every discussion. 

No matter how many times I go to UK, I always feel that there is so much more to see; So much more to discover. To those who think UK is just London, or big busy cities, I have just got one thing to say. Think again!

For years I have been curious about the Lake District, after seeing pictures that friends took, and after hearing stories. I have been to York (but not spent enough time), I have been to Matlock, I have seen many sites, but I had not been to the Lake District in the north-west corner of England. Until now.

September 16, 2013

Taking the bus

Exploring Taichung, Taiwan - little by little

Taxis can be found everywhere - but I prefer other transport 

“Taxis are dirt cheap here in Taichung” someone said.

Although I am not so sure I agree...

It didn't take me very long until I started to compare prices in Taiwan to what you pay for other things - not the least for food - and then the taxis are definitely not dirt cheap anymore. Food is very inexpensive which means a taxi ride is worth several meals; When that's how you count it it is not as cheap anymore, is it?

September 13, 2013

One week into my studies

Learning Chinese

One week into my studies today. I arrived a week and a half ago, registered the second day, had introduction the same week but focused on getting to know the city, getting sorted where I am living, and so forth - and then this week Monday the studies started. And what can I say about them so far.


There seems to be a club for everything - no lack of activities!
Not the least that I am back on campus, and that I have a fixed schedule. I am not used to that. Going to a Swedish university you don't have a fixed schedule, instead you have a lot more freedom and can chose which lectures you go to, as only a few are mandatory. All will help you gain knowledge so you still go to as many as you can - but there is not a fixed schedule for a whole semester, like here. Being in Taiwan feels a bit like being in a college film from US except it is much warmer (I wonder how long it will take to get used to the heat by the way, or rather the humidity... More about that in a later post).

But Chinese; Well, there is no mercy here, we were thrown straight in the water on the deep side, and now we better learn how to swim! I said I wanted a challenge though, and I got one - I am very happy I came. It is rather odd though: I am an absolute beginner, and in my classes there are plenty of people who studied Chinese before, some that lived in Taiwan for a long time, others grew up with Chinese speaking families - but they are still in the beginner classes. Some needs to improve their pronunciation, some need to work on the writing. Others just - well, I am not sure what the others are doing there. And then there is me, who is completely clueless and doesn't speak any chinese. Yes, there are a lot of Chinese words that I recognise in written, but that is because I have a head for pictures. I know what they mean. How to say them is beyond me though. 

September 06, 2013

雞排 -Ji Pan fan (chicken rice bowl? Or, to be correct. Fried Chicken over rice in a bowl)

Chicken Rice Bowl

Ji pan fan. Something like that, that's how they told me you say it in Chinese. Ji Pan Fan - the special fried chicken over rice, served in a bowl, the way I had it today, from a place just around the corner from where I live right now.

It's beautiful, especially with the cabbage and green beans that comes with it. I don't know how the Taiwanese do it, preparing veggies in a way that is perfect: Not overcooked, not raw, but just perfect and still with a bit of crunch - and the chicken breasts are perfect too, none of the dry and boring ones you sometimes find in Europe. I know there will be certain European style food (Hello cheese!) I'll begin to miss eventually but at the moment I am embracing being in Asia and trying to learn the names and exploring the different flavours and the different places that cook them. I adore Taiwanese food!

Many of the little places along the roads only have one type of food - on the other hand, what they do they do really well. Look and see where the locals go; If the locals go it is going to be good. 

September 05, 2013

刨冰- Bao Bing (if I'm getting my Chinese right, that is)

Cool down with a great dessert

This may not look much for the world - but it may be one of the best food inventions in Asia.  I don't know if it was Taiwan that came up with originally, but this is the only place where I have eaten it, for for me it is a Taiwanese treat. Bao bing (if I get my Chinese right - there could be another name for it as well) - 刨冰 -  is shaved ice. As close to heaven you can get on a warm and sweaty day (the humidity here is high so don't try and compare 30 degrees c in Europe with 30 degrees c in South East Asia.)

Basically it's crushed ice with various toppings. Sweet toppings. It's like ice cream only better on a hot day. Had it the first time in Taipei in December and now found a local place serving it, and what can I say? It's the perfect way to cool down on a hot day so I will definitely be having more of this. 

Try the red beans on top! It may not sound fancy, but red beans have a nice sweet flavour and work well in desserts. On mine I had five different toppings and a sauce, don't be afraid to point and try different combinations. If it wasn't tasty it wouldn't be there - the Taiwanese are picky about their food and only want good quality.

September 04, 2013

September 2013 - Hello Taiwan, I have arrived!

Taiwan, I am here

And so I have finally arrived. There is still a lot more to be written about the adventures during the summer but I will get to that later – now I want to take a moment to summarise my first days in Taiwan.  

I returned to Düsseldorf a few days before heading out to Taiwan, flew in from Birmingham International Airport, after having spent the last part of the summer in UK. I saw no reason to drag all my things to UK as I anyhow was going to move on to Asia, and it gave me an opportunity to come back and say goodbye to the friends who have become my extended family.

I left Düsseldorf in a daze on Saturday, having been up late the evening before, and not being able to stay asleep – I guess I was more stressed about the move than I would let on, even to myself. I was staying with very dear friends but I did sneak out early in the morning, went for a walk, had a coffee, and when I returned to their place it wasn't much time left - I just showered, repacked a few things and then I got a lift to the airport. 

The flight went from Düsseldorf, over to Amsterdam, from Amsterdam to Shanghai and from Shanghai to Taipei. Once in Taipei I caught the bus from Taipei Airport to Taichung, in the middle of the country, where I will have my base. Normally it's about two hours bus ride from the airport to Taichung don't go into town first, you can go to most places in Taiwan straight from the airport, it seems), but because of the time there was very little traffic and the whole trip took about 1.5 hours. 

Already Monday afternoon I was at the university where I will be studying, to register, get the first introduction and start to orient myself. I believe that's when I first got that yes, I am ACTUALLY really here, I am actually going to start learning Chinese – and I am going to start it now. And started I have! I haven't had any classes, but to my joy I realise I have already picked up more of the written language than I thought. It's not enough to even put sentences together, but I have to start somewhere, and at least I can feel that no, you know what, it is not that difficult, I'll be able to do this, if I just put some effort into it - at least the reading. Pronunciation is what will be tricky. Chinese has four tones, and yes, I can hear the differences,  but getting the tongue to do what I ask it? I don't know, it will take some practise...  I am happy that I can hear the differences, many non-Chinese speakers can apparently not even do that.