October 31, 2013

A key to learn Chinese

Got to understand the context

To me a key to learn Chinese (Mandarin) is understanding the context, knowing the background, understand why we say/write this and that, understand where things come from. It's the way I have always been - I (thankfully) never grew out of the "WHY" questions that you ask as a kid; I continue to do it. 

It's not the learning style of everybody, but it is indeed the learning style for me, and this is part of the reason why I am so happy to be in Taiwan to learn mandarin: The written language is the traditional Chinese written language, which means more lines but on the other hand a stronger connection to the history, not the least the history behind each character. When I allow myself the time to analyse each character and break it down to smaller pieces I get to something that sticks rather than just doing repetitions. For me, this is a must - it is the only way I can learn properly. On the other hand, when I do get my "why:s" answered I am a very fast learner. 

Most people I met outside school are extremely helpful and happy to answer questions. Still you need to use other resources as well.

That's why I am happy that there are so many other resources out there. The written language is the key to my learning - I wrote about it here - so I am very grateful to the man I study with who gave the the link to Zhongwen.com.  It is an excellent website that allows you to research the radicals that are common and helps forming the written language. Via ZhongWen.com I am able to track the meaning of the different words and when I know the meaning, they make sense, and when they make sense, I can learn.

(A radical is a building block and this is also where the characters are listed in a dictionary - there has to be some way of sorting even the chinese characters... Many characters can be broken down into radicals. Radicals are rarely used on their own but in the combination they mean something. )

A sign advertising peanut ice cream 

Peanut ice cream anyone? Peanut - huasheng - 花生. The first character, hua, which means flower. You can see the radical for grass - the top bit, the horisontal line with two cross lines. Grass. Most characters that have this little thing on the top has to do with something that is growing. Clever, isn't it?

When it comes to the ice, “bing" - 冰 is is the character for water (shue - 水 )but the two side lines, on the very left, shows that it is something frosen - and then you get bing. The radical for water is by the way the three lines you see on the character next to "bing" - water on it's own looks like "水" - three streems of water or a river coming together - shue. Water is however one of those things that can stand on its own but also is reflected in many other characters, especially characters that have something to do with some liquid - the three lines on the character after SHUI is the radical for water. When you see these three lines, two pointing up and one down, you can suspect it has to do with some sort of liquid.

See, once you start getting all these little keys it gets easier and easier.

October 30, 2013

The advantages with volcanoes...

The pros and cons with a volcanic area

or  There is a hot spring bath in the bathroom! 

Being on a volcanic island has its pros and cons, it's ups and downs, it's good sides and bad sides.

Of course there is a real risk of earthquakes, even big ones - like the one September 1999, that I learnt more about at the Taiwan Earthquake museum 921. It is a very real thing that one has to be aware of and prepared for. And there are earthquakes from time to time, and we have them every week, more or less, even if most of them can't be felt except for in the very area where they occur. That's obviously the downside of being in a volcanic area, where there are volcanoes one can expect earthquakes from time to time. 
Scallions, "green onion"
But there are plenty of not so bad things about volcanic areas. And I am not referring to plenty of brime stone, that can be used to get baby smooth feet. I am thinking about other things! The minerals in the water, for example; Who needs mineral water in a bottle when you can just get a water filter and use the mineral water from the tap. It's also easier to get home, no carrying of heavy bottles (not to mention your water isn't transported on a truck around the world first, win win for the nature as well... 

The very fertile soil is another big pro - although it is not just the soil that makes it possible to grow almost anything in Taiwan, the tropical climate also helps.

Green and hilly Yilan county, North-East Taiwan
The amazing vegetables – not the least the spring onion (also called "green onion") that grow so well in the very fertile soil. It seems almost anything grows here, and is very full of flavour - even if you can only find some vegetables and fruits certain times of year, when they are in season. Thankfully as that ensures vegetables and fruits very rich in flavour, I might add.  

The fascinating landscape, to a great degree formed by the volcanoes and the earthquakes, another plus. It's also incredibly green here in Taiwan, I blame the tropical climate with lots of water and sun to some degree, but the hills and valleys would not be half as interesting if nature didn't keep changing due to the activities under the surface. 

Why not have a foot bath while waiting for the train... 
And then there are the hot springs. Natural hot springs spread out over the island but especially common on the East coast. Which, I know, is rather far from where I live from a Taiwanese perspective but next door for a Swede who is used to long distances. There are no buses - as far as I know - that crosses the island West to East, the high mountains are in the way for that, and all the trains are going north-south or south-north.  It doesn't really matter though, it is very easy to take a couch, the train or even the high speed train to Taipei and from there take the bus down to for example Ilan (Yilan) county (see link for the official county website). It's what I did last weekend; Because how can you resist a place that have so many hot springs that many of the flats have hot spring water directly in to their flat? In this area there are also said to be something as unusual as saltwater hot springs in this area. I have yet to try them, but it sounds fascinating. And I WILL come back, again and again, to this area; The food, the nature, the hot springs and the wonderful people, there is no doubt it is worth it. 

Because of course you would want to return to a place where even the waiting area outside the train station has a hot spring that you can bathe your feet in while waiting... The fact that there are flats with water from the hot springs directly into the bathroom makes it tempting to even move here, eventually.

Why not check it out?

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October 25, 2013

Exploring Taiwan, fruit by fruit - first challenge

Exploring Taiwan, fruit by fruit, vegetable by vegetable

Part one – the sour little ones called – yes, called what?

One of the great pleasures with travelling and with living in new places is discovering the fruits and vegetables as well as other foods. For a foodie like myself Taiwan is the perfect country, there is so much fruits and vegetables here. Some I have seen before, some I have eaten before – but not all. And even the ones I HAVE eaten taste different here, where they were allowed to ripen in the sun. 

This little one is one, see the picture, is unknown to me. No no, not the pineapple  cut in pieces in the background, that was part of my night time snack as well, but the one in the centre, the It reminds me of a little fruit we had on some trees when I was growing up, but we wouldn't eat them (except for the occasional bite now and then) because they were very sour and would just make your face crinkle up in a strange way, and make your tongue feel weird for a while, instead we would throw them at each other, and have them as "pretend-food" when we were playing, the way children do. 

The to me unknown fruit. 
Here the fruit that looks similar to the one we had in Sweden are sold at the night market with other fruits. They are rather expensive compared to many of the other fruits so I imagine there must be something special about them. I bought some last night, because I had to try. They are indeed sour, with a consistency that reminds me about apples, they feel like little apples when you bite into them. except as I said, they are far more sour. It's not unripe apples, they just look like they could be. 

The seeds are different, they are almost like the seeds from figs, but gathered in the middle of the fruit, unlike figs that have seeds in the whole fruit. I was thinking that maybe it could be a variant of quince (quitten in German and Swedish) but when I look at quince online they look different, and the quince I used to have in my garden was indeed VERY different. 

I believe this specific type may have been pickled somehow because they felt more sour than I would otherwise expect. It's hard to describe – and I don't know if I like them or not. They are not unpleasant to eat, but also not very exiting, to be completely honest. I think I could get used to them though.  What is very strange to someone like me who is never lost for food references; I don't even get a feel for what I could use them with? Maybe it is because how they are pickled but I don't get any associations when I taste it, no inspiration; The way they taste and feel I can't think of anything else to do with them but to eat them as they are? Not in salad, no to make jam, not in a side dish, not sweet, not sour. I am just confused. 

I probably have to try a few times, because as I normally say; You should try everything at least twice. The first time you have to get over the surprise and the second you may start to figure it out. Very true at least with food.. Never give up on food after just one trial.

And in the meantime, if anyone know the English name of this fruit I'd be happy to learn it. I will return to the night market and try and find the Chinese one myself. 

October 24, 2013

Expecting that quake...

Shaken, not stirred – any time soon? 

or: 921, the museum - and the date Taiwan won't forget

A friend of mine who lived in Taiwan in the middle of the 1990:ies once said to me, after he learnt that I was moving to Taiwan: "Ann-Katrin, never live in a high-rise in a high-rise there." I didn't understand what he meant, but thought maybe he was talking about potential power cuts, that would disable the lifts, another friend who was working in Ghana for a special project a few years ago had exactly that problem, the frequent power cuts in the afternoon made taking the lift a not so clever idea. When the power was cut the lift would stop, and you don't want to get stuck in a lift (elevator) without air condition on a hot summer day in Africa - so my friend and his colleagues would take the stairs.  But potential power cuts was not at all what my friend who used to live here had in mind...

What my dear friend was referring to was instead the risk of a major earthquake. Taiwan IS after all on the edge of the so called Ring of Fire - there is a lot of movement going on here. Earthquakes happen, they happen all the time, even if they most of the time are very small. I came here September 1 and I have lost count of the number of earthquakes we have had, even if I only know them through the Earthquake Report website (see link). I haven't felt a single shake myself, not yet, but at a recent event in town someone said to me "After you have been here for one year, you will have experienced an earthquake". 


October 22, 2013

The mysterious Chinese language

Chinese language - it IS definitely a challenge... 

Or "The mystery - the Chinese Language" 

I should be completely honest. Had studying Chinese been a side activity, I would have given up already. However it isn't. Chinese studies is my main activity, this is what I gave up working for. This is what I do. So I go on. I want to learn. I want to be able to speak Chinese. Chinese is a mysterious and fascinating language and Taiwan has an amazing story to be told, and yet my interest almost died. Why?
The doors to Chinese seemed locked
I felt stupid. After two weeks I still couldn't say anything. Nor could I make out the few words we got in school except for when someone other than some foreigners said them. Not very useful. It wasn't really better three weeks into my course. 

And then I realised one of the issues. There was nothing that I felt challenged me, nothing I could work with. Sure, in our "conversation class" we practised "Wo Shi" (我 是 - I am)(followed by country and by name), and we practised things like "Ta xing Wang" (他 姓 王 - "He is (his family name is)  Wang"), but not much more. And what we practised isn't enough to even go do some of the first step you need to do in a new country. A conversation that can't go beyond "My name is Ann-Katrin, what is your name" is kind of dead. Besides, one of the first things you need to do in a new country is to eat, it will take a while until you introduce yourself to someone "in real life" - most of the time the interactions start with people you won't ever meet again: The bus driver, the ticket office, the waiter in the restaurant, the tourist office. Rarely do you tell them your name. And yet we didn't get past that. I found it difficult - and yet I know this is a common place to start when you study languages, not just Chinese, and not just here.
Furthermore the first weeks, or even the first month, all we did in our normal class, our 101, was really  to practise sounds and BPMF, the "simplified" written language that is supposed to help you with pronunciation. It didn't really do it for me (I first mentioned BPMF here, a week into my studies). 

October 10, 2013

What's in season in Taiwan?

We have so much to learn from the Taiwanese

Or "How to eat well"


Taiwan – 臺灣 (or 台灣) – the island in the middle of the Chinese sea – East Chinese Sea above us, South Chinese sea below. Many people in Europe told me that they didn't realise Taiwan is a whole country, not just a city when I told them I was moving here.   Many of them were also surprised when they looked up my new location on the map and realised that Taiwan is bigger than they thought. It still isn't big the way you would think of Germany, France, Spain, Sweden and other countries with huge landmass, but there are a lot of people living on the island, this mountain in the sea. Still, you can get from the north to the south very fast if you just take the high speed train that cuts through the country - or even with the normal train, but Taiwan is definitely not just a city, it is so much more than just the capital, Taipei ( 臺北 or 台北 depending on what character you use for "Tai").

Hiking in the hills in the norht of Taiwan
Taiwan as so much to offer, not the least when it comes to nature! It is a beautiful country with beaches as well as high mountains, with natural hot springs (it is after all a volcanic area, the whole of South East Asia is full of them – something I became aware of not at least when I was in Indonesia a few years back and Mount Merapi, a volcano in the middle of Java erupted when I was in town...), with fantastic hiking areas and with beautiful little (and big) parks. Almost everything grows in Taiwan; The island may be small, and it is a tropical island, but with the higher altitudes the temperatures goes down and it is possible to grow also things that aren't normally found in tropical climate. Furthermore there are definitely different seasons here, as well as differences between north and south of Taiwan; Taipei, the capital, gets twice as much rain as Taichung City, if the numbers I saw somewhere a while back are correct, and still it's only two hours apart (less than one with the high speed train).