Relearning a language

Today was our first full day in Taipei. It wasn’t exactly as how I imagined it. The buildings aren’t as tall as I thought (they look especially small of course when standing around Taipei 101), and it’s really nowhere as crowded as the streets of Tokyo and Seoul were. I guess it’s an unfair comparison given the population sizes of both Tokyo and Seoul are massive next to Taipei, which sits on the little island of Taiwan.

One thing I did expect, though, was the friendliness and willingness to help from the Taiwanese. Twice, when we were looking at maps or waiting for a car, people offered to help. A couple times in an Uber, the drivers made small talk and gave helpful suggestions about where we were going. For the electronics plaza, the driver told us that the two buildings were connected on a higher floor, so there would be no need to exit the building to enter the other, and that the building he’d drop us off at would be a better starting point. At Shilin night market, the driver pointed out where the food was vs. the shopping vs. the games, and also told us that there was more food in the basement level. I never actually asked any questions, but they volunteered all this information to me. I’ve never had that experience anywhere before, whether it’s been in the U.S. on work travel or abroad. I’m sure it’s partly because I can speak the language here, but the proactivity was so kind and thoughtful.

That’s the other thing. I only know basic Mandarin Chinese after studying 3.5 years in college, and because I don’t speak it every day, it took some time to adjust to listen properly and understand what people were saying to me. What has been fun about this trip so far is that as I’m listening to more (and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations so I can remember vocabulary again), I’m realizing even more so that it just takes changing the environment to understand the language better and speak better. I still get annoyed with myself when I can’t always understand what should be a simple question or response (e.g. “are you traveling anywhere other than Taipei?”), but it is what it is, and many basic things will get lost based on accents and speed of speech. It’s actually been a little thrilling when I hear something, think for a few seconds, and recognize what people are saying. Given that the last time I took a Chinese class was in 2007, I think I’m doing fairly well so far.

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