English in today’s world

Much to Chris’s initial disgust, we took a cheap but very timely and clean bus from Taichung to Sun Moon Lake this morning. What I didn’t realize about these buses is that they are not necessarily public transportation buses, but have specific destinations that people go to, such as the local university, an aboriginal Taiwanese village, and Sun Moon Lake. So the trip to get there was quite efficient and far shorter than the quoted time. The lake was quite spectacular and had a bright blue color in a similar shade to what we saw in the south island of New Zealand and Banff. It kind of looks fake, but you obviously know it’s real.

One highlight of the day was when we were walking to lunch, and I found a tea shop that didn’t have all those annoying hawkers yelling at us. So I poked in to look at what the offerings and prices were like. A friendly worker approached me and asked if I’d like to do a tasting, and so I agreed. She ushered me to their small seating area and had the two of us sit down. A much younger worker who couldn’t have been older than 25 came out and started the tea preparation. This was not a ready setup where the tea was already prepared in hot vats; she was literally starting from the beginning, brewing tea the old fashioned and traditional way by first pouring hot water onto the tea leaves in a traditional baowan, pouring out the first water, then pouring water a second time, steeping, then pouring, then steeping again for a richer flavor. She’d initially pour the tea into small, tall cups, then pour them into shorter, rounder cups, have us smell the fragrance of the tea in the original tall cups, then sip the tea from the shorter cups. It was so intensive and thorough, and the way she was describing the teas and the methods made it obvious that she’d studied tea for a while. She poured us four different teas, each time following the same traditional method and describing the methods, flavors, and intensities for us. And she even told us the cold brewing methods (and warned me to never, ever cold brew an oolong, which I was dumb enough to try a few months ago and realized how revolting it ended up being). This is probably the most thorough tea tasting I’ve ever experienced, all in a simple little shop on a random street in Sun Moon Lake.

I asked her how she got into the tea business, and she told me that it was a family business started by her paternal grandfather. She and her siblings were expected to continue the business, and she works long and hard, never having more than two to three days of rest. She doesn’t get much money doing this, so she doesn’t have enough money to travel abroad. That’s her future, though — running this tea shop to continue the family name and business. It was clear she didn’t really want that path, though, and felt locked into it. When she has traveled, she’s stayed within the country but loves the east coast the most (seems to be a reoccurring theme). I told her I thought the Sun Moon Lake area was beautiful and so much fun, and she laughed and said she was born and raised here, and after a while, the beauty gets boring and you just want something else. Once upon a time, there was no internet, no smart phones, so it was especially boring and isolating, she said. Now, it’s a bit more interesting with smart phones because you can learn new things and see other parts of the world that way, but it’s also sad because it exposes you to what is not tangible to you, whether it’s due to distance, time, or money.

“I’d love to go to America,” she said after I told her that’s where we were traveling from, “but I have no money and not enough days to go.” She also didn’t speak any English and said she didn’t understand anything I was saying to Chris, but figured I was just translating what she was saying.

The conversation made me feel a little sad. It’s not as though I’m unaware that these situations exist where people feel trapped, whether it’s due to political situations, family ties, or lack of money, but hearing it first hand from someone who is clearly looking right at me and amazed that I’ve come so far just to visit her little town at this lake she finds boring just made me feel a little guilty of my privilege. As much as it infuriates and embarrasses me that so many Americans pride themselves on speaking English and only English, I am fully cognizant of how important a language it is, and how learning it and mastering it could completely change a person’s life and future in today’s world. Putting aside financial or birthplace reasons, I’m privileged just because of the fact that I speak English. English can set you free, and could potentially set this girl free if she knew it because it would open doors of opportunity for her.

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