“You’re from Taiwan? How come you can’t speak Chinese?”
I get asked this question a lot in Kaohsiung, because I look like a local but speak and sound like a foreigner.
As an American born Chinese, do you need to learn Chinese?
The short answer is because I grew up in the US. The long answer is that I grew up in the US and didn’t really care to study Mandarin Chinese. I excelled at English in school, and my Taiwanese was good enough to ask my mom, “What's for dinner?” every night, so why bother? I already had school work, piano practice, and soccer every day after school, so trying to learn Chinese was just an extra choice. My parents made a few attempts to get me to learn guoyü，but it never quite worked.
For years, even my German was better than my Chinese. Three years of high-school and college Deutsch enabled me to have casual conversations with strangers in airports and to understand movie Nazis without subtitles. I spent many nights memorizing the genders of nouns and how to change definite articles depending on the case, but any time my dad said I should relearn my bopomofo, I scoffed. I was living in America, going to school in America, and working in America. Why should I bother?
Then last year, my circumstances changed, and I found myself back where I started. I'll be here for a while, I thought. I might as well make good use of the time. That's when I enrolled at TLI Kaohsiung for daily Chinese classes.
So here I am, a middle-aged man back in his native locale, trying to learn the official language of the land. It's an uphill climb. Middle-aged brains aren't as capable of soaking up language as young ones, and middle-aged schedules and obligations aren't as acc. But for all of these disadvantages, I've made more progress in the last nine months than I did in a cumulative 10 years of abortive and half-hearted attempts to learn Mandarin.
💡2.Why to learn Chinese?: To do business in Taiwan
But now that I live here, it's a necessity. For all of my Taiwanese “prowess,” it's extremely hard to get business done here in Taiwan if you don't speak Chinese. Plus, now that I'm older and have seen more of the world, the jobs located here seem more exciting than they did twenty years ago.
In addition, I also have the experience on my side. The rote memorization of Confucian pedagogy didn't work on me as a child, but active engagement with the language, daily chinese lessons, and lots of calligraphy practice have yielded much progress in adulthood. When you're a child, you have to figure out how to learn from how you're taught.
As an adult, you gain the knowledge of what does and doesn't work when it comes to how you learn. So here I am, getting through each day and chinese lesson and picking up new words, grammar, idioms, etc. I carry two sets of flashcards with me everywhere I go. At kung fu practice, I train my ears and mouth as much as I do kicks and throws.
“How come you don't speak Chinese?” Well, because I didn't learn it when I was younger. But maybe by this time next year, I can dodge this question altogether. Wouldn't that be nice?
Author: Jimmy Lin
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