Every country is considered to have their own culture that is composed by their beliefs, society, and ethnic group. With the opportunity to travel to four different countries in my life (Mexico, Thailand, China, and Canada), I have been able to firsthand experienced many different and unique cultures. I believe Taiwan, however, has been the most unique culture I have experienced so far.
For the last four weeks I have been studying Chinese at 國立成功大學(National Cheng Kung University) in Tainan through the Taiwan United-States Sister Alliance (TUSA) Global Ambassadors Scholarship program. I arrived in Taiwan on June 7th, a few days before the program began, and will depart on August 8th. The two-month Chinese learning program includes many cultural excursions and a very intensive workload. Every day I wake up at 8:00am to attend my two hour Chinese class and then attend a one-on-one drill session from 11:00-12:00pm where I speak solely in Mandarin. Also twice a week, I meet up with my language partner for two hours to practice speaking and listening to Chinese. While the language partner helps me improve my Chinese, I help her improve her English. Along with nightly homework, I have two quizzes a week along with a 報告（presentation） at the end of every lesson. Each week we cover approximately one lesson, which consists of two dialogues, 4-5 sentence structures, and 30-40 new characters. Over the past four weeks, this program has allowed me to increase my ability to speak, listen, read, and write Chinese.
Even though the Chinese coursework is intensive, the TUSA program also takes us on three culture excursions. Besides arranged trips, I also had the opportunity to live with a host family for a weekend in Kaohsiung. I have also taken several different trips with my classmates. Each trip I have taken so far has been filled with new experiences and has opened my eyes to different ways of thinking or doing things.
The first weekend in July, the TUSA program took us to Pingtung to visit a rural area school where Taiwan indigenous people live. These indigenous people used to live on top of a mountain, but in 2009 typhoon Morakot, the deadliest typhoon to hit Taiwan, destroyed the villagers’ homes and forced them to move down the mountain and build a new life. Three tribes were displaced due to the typhoon and built their new homes at the bottom of the mountain in the same community as each other. This new sanctuary with multiple cultures meshed together created a charming village in the hills.
Our project in 屏東（Pingtung） was to teach English to middle-school students. My group, which had 5 people, was in charge of 12 kids from age 8 to 12. All but one of the kids we taught already had English names. The first time we met the kids we decided the best way to get to know them was to play games. Due to the language barrier, we played simple games that could easily be explained and played; we played multiple name games, including my personal favorite, the blanket game. Seeing the kids having fun and getting closer to us as time went by is something that motivates me to talk to more Taiwanese people. If I can connect with little kids through broken Chinese, I believe I should be able to express myself enough to hold a meaningful conversation with adults back in Tainan.
Reading and writing English did not seem to present a problem to the kids; however, speaking seemed to be a challenged for everyone. I was very surprised to learn that most of the kids could write clear, fluent, and correct sentences. Just like a middle school student in America, these kids could write easy English sentences without any help, aside from the occasional questions on how to spell a word or two.
After the kids wrote down their self introductions, we began teaching them how to say the sentences they had written down. My first student Kevin (intro pictures above) was the best English speaker of the entire class. He only struggled with some words such as volleyball, steak, and brother. Other than these few words, he was more confident in his speaking than in his spelling. For the other students, it was the opposite. They could write really well, but when it came time to speak, especially in front of a camera, they struggled. This is is not only understandable; it’s also expected. If you put me in front of a camera and told me to recite everything I just wrote in Chinese, I would become a deer in a headlight that doesn’t know a speck of Chinese. Only having a day and a half to learn, write, and speak a different language is very impressive and brave.
One of the most rewarding thing from this whole 屏東 （pingtung） trip was teaching the indigenous kids how to speak English and one of the most fulfilling parts was the chance to learn traditional Taiwanese culture through the eyes of a 8-12 year old. The experience I had wouldn’t have been possible without the TUSA program arranging the trip for us.
To be able to understand a culture better you can do many things such as travel that country, taking classes, and living there. However, I think that in order to understand a culture in depth you need to have some contact with children. Children are still mostly influenced by their parents and the schools they attend. They haven’t had the chance to explore the world and be influenced by other cultures, just like the kids in Evergreen Lilly Elementary school. These kids are in the mountains miles away from any big city so they are reliant on learning things from the people in their tribe. Also because the school is passionate about preserving the culture, they teach the kids about their tribe’s traditions in class. In addition, they provide projects (like the one pictured above) to teach them about their culture.
As I reflect on the beginning of the first three weeks in Taiwan, I realize that I have experienced and want to share more than I thought I would. Through the TUSA scholarship I was able to experience a elementary school attended by indigenous Taiwanese people. Through playing and teaching the kids, I also learned a lot about their culture. So far, I have experienced many new things, which has made this trip to Taiwan very unique.