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TAIPEI, Taiwan—For nine months beginning last September, I spent three hours each weekday in a cramped classroom with seven other students, striving to conquer one of the most difficult languages in the world—traditional Chinese. We painstakingly shaped characters, perfected tones, worked out grammar structures, and learned cultural faux pas through experience. After class, students of the Mandarin Training Center at National Taiwan Normal University were expected to spend an additional four hours studying and doing homework (I spent closer to an hour or two). It was a tiring journey, but I grasped my goal to read—or guess—my way through Chinese articles, communicate online through written Chinese, and conduct more coherent interviews in the world’s most-spoken language.
As an “ABC” (American-born Chinese), Chinese was my first language. But by the time I reached school age, English had taken its place. At home in California, my parents would speak to me in Chinese as I responded in English. I rarely spoke Chinese except to communicate with my grandparents, or during Saturday morning Chinese school, a dreaded ritual for any ABC child who just wants to watch Saturday morning cartoons. Besides one summer study abroad in Beijing, I never studied Chinese—to the chagrin of my parents—because it frankly never crossed my mind that I’d one day need it.
Fast-forward to 2015, when I moved to my parents’ homeland of Taiwan, conversational but functionally illiterate in Chinese, the island’s official language. Tasks I easily accomplished in the United States suddenly became impossibly difficult: I couldn’t fill out the deposit form at the bank without asking the teller for help. I signed contracts I couldn’t read. One day a notice appeared on my apartment elevator, but I couldn’t tell what I was being warned about. At local restaurants, an owner would often hand me a menu filled with words I couldn’t read: A few times I played “menu roulette” and picked a dish at random, pretending not to look surprised at whatever arrived in front of me.
For the first time, understanding Chinese became a necessity for my everyday life. (Admittedly, certain areas of Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, are so international that some expats survive without learning a word of it.) I signed up for one-on-one tutoring for four hours a week, asking the tutor only to teach me to read, since that was my most pressing need. Nine months after moving to Taiwan, I realized that in order to do my job well here, I needed more advanced study. I committed myself to a school year of intensive Mandarin learning.
As classes began, I was excited to learn new words and see my vocabulary quickly increase—every three days we’d finish one textbook chapter, each containing around 40 new words. Once I learned the basic characters, I started to notice how they acted as components in more complex words. Often, the left side of a character gave a clue to the word’s meaning, while the right side revealed the word’s sound. For instance, the character for lamp is 燈 (deng): The left side is 火 (huo), the word for fire, while the right side is 登 (deng), which has the same sound as lamp.
Many characters, though, have no reason or rhyme. Sometimes that’s because the character has changed over time, and no longer resembles its original shape. Yet traditional Chinese characters, used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, still contain more meaning and patterns than the simplified characters used in China and Singapore. A common example is the word for love: The traditional character is 愛 (ai), with the character for heart, 心 (xin), in the middle. In its simplified form, the character is 爱, which has no heart. The mantra of traditional Chinese proponents: “Simplified Chinese has taken the heart out of love.”
Outside of repetitive writing practice, studying character components, and thousands upon thousands of flashcards, the teachers made the biggest difference in motivating us students to keep learning. Every three-month term, the school gave us a new teacher, and each was very different. One teacher made class interesting and engaging with the use of games and discussions. Another helped us hone our writing skills by assigning one essay each weekend. Another had a repetitive and stoic teaching style that led some to skip class.
Conversing with classmates from all over the world, I also learned about the gritty corruption in Indonesia, the differences between Australian and American English, the lifestyle of a Tibetan Buddhist monk, and how to use Snapchat (thanks to students younger than I). For a class project I ate snake meat, interviewed a man who regularly wears traditional Chinese clothing, and attended a convention for Taiwanese puppet enthusiasts. A few of us classmates bonded and went camping and shrimp fishing together, renting poles and bait for $15 and together grilling our meager catch.
After nine months of Chinese class, people often ask, “So your Chinese must be really good now, right?” If I’ve learned anything, it’s that the correct Chinese response to that question is one of false modesty: “哪裡哪裡，我還在學。” (No, no, I’m still learning.)