Case Study – Isabel Wassermann: Taipei, Taiwan 2022-2023
My year in Taiwan has been a meaningful experience in my life and propelled my Mandarin Chinese skills from the bare minimum at the start, to being able to navigate all aspects of daily life in Chinese by the end.
I would like to start by thanking the John Speak Trust for their support and for making my time in Taiwan one full of rich experience.
I arrived in Taipei, Taiwan in September 2022 to take language classes for the academic year as part of my degree in East Asian Studies. The classes were intensive, and at the start, somewhat of a shock as my teachers did not speak English and my Mandarin was minimal. This proved beneficial as I immediately had to start using Mandarin every day to make myself heard, and I learned quickly. My teachers were all passionate and supportive, making the learning process so enjoyable. When I was not in class, such as for public holidays, I used the time to travel outside of Taipei to other places, such as Hualien and Tainan. These trips offered me another perspective of Taiwan and I was able to experience culture such as the temples, food, and a memorable conversation with a man of Indigenous Taiwanese background.
There were a few lows, such as the time I caught COVID, but even this became a precious learning experience for me: How do I navigate the healthcare system here? How should I explain my symptoms in Chinese? How do I go and find out the current rules surrounding COVID? I soon figured these things out and had new tools to navigate any future issues. Of course, there were many more highlights during my time abroad.
One of the main highlights was the first time I was praised for my Chinese skills by a stranger. My parents had come to visit me, and it was my job to be tour guide and communicator. I was in a restaurant with my father and had used my recently learned Chinese to order our drinks and what we wanted to put on the barbecue, when the waitress complemented me saying that my Chinese was very good and precise. As I had only been in Taiwan for 3 months at that point, it felt wonderful that not only I was able to converse with not too much struggle but also be told I was doing well. Furthermore, at that point in time I was worried about speaking in Chinese in front of my parents as I didn’t want to disappoint them after all the support they had given me in my studies so far, so it really meant a lot. In the end, they actually expressed to me that they were very proud, and that their enjoyable trip to Taiwan was enabled by my speaking Chinese to book restaurants and chat with taxi drivers.
Another great memory from the time was my visit to Hualien with some classmates. We saw some beautiful historic architecture and visited the most amazing (and enormous!) night market. It was wonderful to get out into a smaller city, as they are often culturally different to capitals such as Taipei. One evening, when walking down a street we stumbled across two very cute dogs. We exclaimed how adorable they were, and to our surprise the owner plopped them in our laps and we had a lovely conversation about where we are from and what we were up to. It was one of the first times we experienced how friendly the people of Taiwan can be.
As anyone would expect, moving to the other side of the world can be quite daunting.
However, this is also the most enriching, fun, and enjoyable experiences one could ever have. I have learned so much about both another culture and language and also myself. I would tell anyone considering doing something similar to jump in head first – yes, there are challenges, but because of those challenges you really grow and gain a new perspective of the world.
I would like to thank the John Speak Trust once again for their support, it really made all the difference.