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In Competition with a Two Year Old: Learning a New Language in Asia

A Motorcycle Trip Around Taiwan

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In Competition with a Two Year Old: Learning a New Language in Asia

People say that the age of Asia is upon us.  Asians themselves quite proudly point this out to non-Asians as well, whether it is true or not.  Still, it's in all the newspapers, which may be the sign that it's already too late to get into the game.  But for anyone serious about going to Asia, they might also be wondering which Asian language to buy the Berlitz tapes for.

I suppose that most people will narrow their choice down to Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese?) and Japanese, with Korean or Thai runners up.  I faced this choice myself several years ago.  I decided somewhat arbitrarily that I wasn't that interested in things Japanese, so I picked Chinese and bought myself a ticket to Taiwan.  In Taiwan, I not only learned Chinese but I also found a Japanese wife who brought me to Japan to learn Japanese which is strangely ironic.  Perhaps this means that I have the best of both worlds, having cleverly been drawn into both Chinese and Japanese, and although it hasn't found me an amazing job yet it has fed my curiosity of many different matters.

Learning an Asian language is a little like going back to the womb, because the languages are so unlike anything that will fit into our database of cultural knowledge, understanding, and Chinese cannot be cross referenced to things we already know about, the way a language like French or Spanish could be.  If you begin to learn Chinese, you might feel like a bit of a freak, and if you ever go back to
visit the old neighborhood there is nothing better than telling the neighbors what you're doing out in Asia and see what happens.  Besides myself, nobody I grew up with that I know of ever went to Asia, not even Asian-Canadians that I knew.

In order to learn Chinese or Japanese, you need to spend at least 2 hours a day sitting in front of a textbook.  Then you need to go out and practice what you've learned and throw it on people, and you need to listen to how they talk and say things.  Slowly, you will learn a few tricks, develop a good ear, and learn how to ask people about the language.  I still remember hearaing a friend of mine asking a Taiwanese friend who spoke English "How do you say 'how do you say...'?"  This is the inevitable question that every language student must find out.  The problems with learning a new language are infinite, since language is our chief source of knowledge and not knowing the language hinders your ability to learn it: you may know how to ask the question but will you know the answer when you get it.
Conversely, you may understand the question, but have no idea how to answer it.  Still, you must keep in mind that the speed with which you learn the language will multiply proportionately by how much you know.

Chinese is probably made most difficult by the Chinese characters themselves, which are initially very difficult to remember and write.  As you get a basic understanding of the system used to coin Chinese words, and the logic of these words and their most basic forms, you will find it much easier.  Japanese uses many Chinese characters, plus 3 different alphabets (if you include our romanized  alphabet) thereby making it arguably the more difficult of the two.  Already knowing Chinese, however, is invaluable and when you learn the phonetic alphabets you can read out the words you
see in front of you.  Nothing could be easier, although it does still require that 2 hour a day commitment.  Do you have 2 hours a day to spare?  Chinese characters as a concept have been very interesting to me and have given my many things to think about with respects to their influence Asian mind, education, and the process of psychology and education altogether.  The nature of the Chinese character is that it is essentially a symbol for something, where the pronunciation of the word is implicit (there are signs to indicate how the words might be pronounced, but this is never spelled out).  Our words on the other hand sound more or less the way that they are spelled and the meanings are implicit.  Somewhere along the way I developed the theory that any language could be written in Chinese since you just need to know the symbol, you don't need to use it to spell out the word.  If you could imagine writing English in common symbols as much as possible, you could imagine what Chinese was like.  For example: "I went to a (restaurant symbol), parked my (car symbol) in the (P symbol for parking [lot]) and went to the (restroom symbol, or men's restroom symbol, or women's restroom symbol).  Now replace the entire language with symbols, even words like "the" and you have Chinese.  Actual Chinese symbols could be used just as well as the (very few) symbols that we have already.  Thus the "restroom" symbol could be pronounced "restroom", "bathroom", "washroom", "lew", "pisser", or whatever else our local dialect would favor, the point being that different people in different regions don't necessarily have to call that symbol what we do.  As long as we could read symbols, every language in the world could use the same symbols for their written language (why not... Chinese?) and we could all read the same books (sort of) and still keep our spoken languages intact.  Having studied Chinese has even led me to speculate how young children learning to read and write an ideogrammatic language such as Chinese would have people different mental psyches than of people who had learned to read and write a phonetic language such as ours.  Young Japanese have it good (or bad): they learn both ideogrammatic scripts (Chinese characters - called kanji) and phonetic (hiragana and katakana).

Other earmarks of the two languages are that while Chinese is easier to pronounce, uses shorter words, and has less grammar than Japanese, it also makes use of an infuriating tonal systems: what may seem like one "word" to us, will also have up to 4 different tones, thereby giving it 4 or more potential meanings.  I personally believe that Chinese is still the easier of the two to learn, being a relatively stripped-down language, although I can't deny that the learning of Japanese is made easier by the fact that we already know many Japanese words like sushi and tsunami to name a few, and that Japanese makes use of many English, German and Portuguese words that we might be familiar with (although often in very distorted forms, hence Ma-ku-do-na-ru-do for McDonalds).

Learning another foreign tongue has given me the excuse to think a lot about the way that the mind works (one irony is the fact that at the moment I am reading An Anthropologist on Mars, by Oliver Sacks, who gives a lot of thought to why the mind doesn't work).  I've heard it said that after the age of nine years old, the mind loses it's plasticity with respect to language acquisition, and after nine it is difficult to learn a language.  I do find this strange because at age 27 I don't find it particularly difficult to learn a new language, although almost everyone I know seems frightened of learning new languages.  The house I live in is often visited by my wife's 3-year-old nephew who is also learning Japanese at the moment, his very first language.  I blush to admit that he has taught me a thing or 2 in Japanese, and even corrected me.  He is very good at memorizing things, and can count and recognize letters.  We sometimes train him in English words (I can't say "teach" since I don't feel we're really teaching him something he understands rather than training him to do something he can follow blindly) and he picks up slowly, but we wonder what he really comprehends.  Sometimes he hears me speaking English to my wife and he becomes very curious.  It seems that he doesn't recognize a language other than Japanese, and becomes confused when he can't understand even one word of our "nonsense language" and he'll repeat after us "blah, blah, blah" in his own nonsense.  He often mixes up the Japanese terms for "I'm home" and "you're home", something everybody calls out when they get home or see someone entering.  He'll see someone coming in and yell "I'm home" instead of "you're home."  Does he really understand what he's saying, or is he just imitating others.

Still, I can use a book as a crutch and learn from it.  I feel that I can learn faster than he can, since I don't have to learn what things are before (or after) I learn how to say them.  I also have the advantage of knowing how to read, something he will need many years to learn.  This somehow makes me feel very superior, but when I realize I'm feeling superior to a 3-year-old child, I feel a bit empty inside.

A Motorcycle Trip Around Taiwan

For 3 years of my life, Taiwan was the country that I chose to live in as I pursued work and study.  Taiwan is home to many foreigners - not nearly as many as Japan, of course, but they mostly live and study in similar conditions.  There are several marked differences between living in Taiwan and living in Japan (or living in Montreal for that matter), namely weather, language, and traffic, besides all of the other things that differ from country to country.

Taiwanese traffic vies with the worst of them, with respect to it's chaos quotient.  In spite of this, however, most foreigners living in Taiwan get around by motorcycle, and become quite wily in avoiding all sorts of sticky situations.  And while most people generally despise living and driving in the cities, having that motorcycle is invaluable for the times when you can get away from the city and get into the mountains.  One trip that most foreigners do as often as they get a chance, or at least once before they leave the country, is the trip around the island.  I myself made a trip like this in September of 1996, at the end of my 2-year stay when I had honed my motorcycling skills to a fine edge, the result of an insane teaching schedule that took me from student to student in Tainan city and country (where I was living), sometimes driving 100 km. a day.

Taiwan is a relataively small (though higly populated) island that can easily be driven around during a week's vacation any time of the year, although summer is optimal.  Since Taiwanese law prohits anyone from driving a motorcycle with more than a 150 cc engine, I did my particular journey last September on a 125 cc. Honda.  That little bike carried 2 people and a light pack 2000 km along winding roads, up and down mountains, and didn't give us one spot of trouble.

The trip itself took us seven days, and although Taiwan is a mere 360 km. from tip to tail, that's a darn wind-about 360 km., up and over and through mountains, along shores, through megalopoles, etc.  Boiled down to it's main points, our 7-day route took us along mountains, coast, mountains, coast and city, mountains, mountains, and mountains.  We went from sea level to 3 600 m. above sea level on one of those days.  The cities in Taiwan are an ugly blotch of concrete, a blotch that I barely ever left in 2 years since I was working 7 days a week trying to get myself back on my feet financially.  This was my first time around the island and it was a trip I'd been planning for most of the 2 years.  I'm glad that I had an opportunity to do it and got to know the real Taiwan, a Taiwan that many of the local people I know in the cities never even take a look at for themselves.  Many of them think Taiwan is a lost cause environmentally, but I don't think that this is true.  There are jungles on top of jungles there, filled I'm sure with just about every kind of wild beast my feeble urban mind can imagine (cleverly hidden from view as we sped by).  Even though it's hot in September in Taiwan, the fresh air got pretty nippy.  It was always above 10 degrees, even at 3600 meters, but as we foreigners in Taiwan say - that's a darn cold 10+ degrees; Taiwan is an amazing land of contrasts, and this is just one of them.

On the first day we drove across the middle of Taiwan from Tainan, where we've been living.  If you can imagine Taiwan as a papaya sliced lengthwise, Tainan is near the bottom left (west) edge/coast.  From there we  headed for the other coast.  We took one of the main roads in Tainan called Dong Men Rd, a road we had driven up and down many times, and took it straight out of town and kept going straight, straight, straight.  The buildings began to thin out, and we began to see more betel nut trees, forests, palm trees, bamboo groves, and fewer and fewer of the markers of Taiwanese industrual society like mid-size factories, motorcycle shops, Taoist temples, car dealers, and apartment buildings.  The road wound up and up, and took us across wild rivers.  We passed a twisted bridge that was not open for car traffic, since it had been warped during the last major typhoon, which had caused great damage in rural Taiwan.  We aight.  The buildings began to thin out, and we began to see more betel nut trees, forests, palm trees, bamboo groves, and fewer and fewer of the markers of Taiwanese industrual society like mid-size factories, motorcycle shops, Taoist temples, car dealers, and apartment buildings.  The road wound up and up, and took us across wild rivers.  We passed a twisted bridge that was not open for car traffic, since it had been warped during the last major typhoon, which had caused great damage in rural Taiwan.  We aight.  The buildings began to thin out, and we began to see more betel nut trees, forests from the back of their truck.  They had come from Ping Dong city, which was about a 5 hour drive away at least, just to sell stuff.  We stayed for the night in a lodge there where we were, on the center of the spine of Taiwan.  Everybody staying in the lodge went to sleep at 8:00 since there was nothing to do at night anyway.  I was reading _Poison_, a well-written (although loathsome) book about everything that's cruel and disgusting and pitiful in this world.  Bad choice, perhaps I should have taken some Whitman, Frost, or even Kerouac to pass the time.

One the second day, we woke up at six, although it was still too cold to leave, although we finally embarked around 7:30.  One the way downhill, I noticed as I looked around that at that high altitude, the mountain terrain began to appear Canadian, sprouting cedars, firs, maples, and lichens.  There's snow in the winter there.  There were very few temples or betel-nut stands in those areas, and their absence struck us as vaguely un-Taiwanese.   I began to get into the bad habit of putting the engine in neutral and gliding downhill, and in the spots where the roads were fogged in, I sometimes felt like I was going along a ski-trail, not a road.  In some places, the roads were carved out of the mountain, and we went through some scary tight corners where we were glad that we were on a motorcycle otherwise we would have been wiped out by cement mixers and fruit trucks.  Conversely, there were also some narrow spots under construction that we could slither through on the bike, leaving motorists lined up behind us.  In another spot, a tunnel under construction was dynamited seconds after we made it through - boy was that loud!  We passed through native villages where we saw the native Taiwanese Christian churches, statues, etc.  Cedar forests became bamboo forests, and finally we were at the western sea board.

Once we were at the bottom,we began to drive along the eastern sea board.  Our destination was Hua-Lien, a good-sized city built at the foot of the mountains.  The drive there was very beautiful, with lilting hills on the left, and a raging coast on the right as we headed north.  It somehow reminded us of Hawaii, or perhaps Bali... but not of Taiwan!  The roads were wide, which is unusual for Taiwan, although there was a lot of rebuilding in areas that had been wiped out by waves during the last typhoon.  We passed a famous temple where there were hundreds of Guan-Yin statues, and we went into a cave where a group of nuns were lounging around drinking water.  The cave water is considered holy, although I suppose it could just be as average as any old mineral water, rain water that had come filtering through the ground and into the cave and into our mouthes.  As the sun went down our twisting path began to get a little scary, as we could just make out how high above the water we were getting, winding along the lip of a cliff that hovered above the rocky coast and it's foamy waters and crashing waves.

We arrived in Hua-Lyan at night and began to look for reasonable accomodation.  We found an area with several hostels.  A few of them let us look at their rooms reluctantly, asking us to please not "have a quick go" without taking the room.  This wasn't our style, so we were lucky to find a place run by a beautiful elder woman who spoke very good Japanese.

The third day we looked around Hua-Lyan, but it's parks and beaches were relatively uninteresting compared to what we saw on the fourth day when we drove up and down the Taroko Gorge, the mouth of which is located just 50 kilmeters up the coast from Hua-Lyan.  The Taroko Gorge takes about an hour to drive up, but it is a breath-taking display the whole of it's distance.  The gorge is a cavern cut out of the rock by a river, the gorge is often more than 100 meters high, but only 10 meters wide in some spaces.  You feel almost like you can lean out and touch the other side, just mind the raging river below.  Again, being on a motorcycle had it's advantages in those tight corners of the road going along the gorge, and we _weren't_ creamed by tour buses that came barreling down the narrow roads.  Another advantage of being on a motorcycle was the openness of the sky above the bike and being able to get a full panorama view of the beautiful surroundings.  In many places the road has been chipped out of the cliff wall which affords a spectacular view of the narrowest parts of the gorge.  It's good to go there at mid-day, since earlier or later in the day these narrow parts can become quite dark.  We found a part where the gorge widened a bit and there was easy access to the river, so we jumped among the boulders that were strewn about haphazardly until we were next to the raging torrent.  It was a beautiful, private place.  The road is actually a highway that cuts across the island of Taiwan, but the gorge itself eventually peters out higher into the mountains. At the upper end of the gorge there is a rest area which is one of the few places in Taiwan where you can really mingle among foreigners who are obviously tourists, and there was a large busload of middle-aged German tourists there at the time.  There was also a large Buddhist temple that had many interesting towers and gardens to climb around, all free of charge of course, and a large gilded Buddha statue in the courtyard outside of the simple temple.  After that we glided down the hill and returned to Hua-Lyan, where we lounged around on the beach with some friends, and went to a wildly elegant cafe that served goat milk tea.  It was almost deserted because of it's scenic locations, but was still one of the most comfortable cafe's I've ever been to.

On the fourth day, we headed up and rounded the northern tip of the island and drove along another road that had been blasted out of the cliffs that rise above the Pacific coast of Taiwan.  People had told us that this section of road is haunted, because so many people are killed on it's treacherous curves, but we didn't sense anything paranormal.  There were sections where a tunnel had been blasted into the mountain, and next to it was the old abandoned road that had been built into the side of the hill.  It was crumbling and rubble-strewn, but still interesting to clamber along as far as could be safely done.  A short section of the coast next to the highway was covered with strange mossy rock formations, and we also found a mossy fortress that looked like it was abandoned.  It resembled an old World War I era European fortress, which made it look especially out of place.

Eventually we could feel that we were nearing urban areas, with the increase of traffic.  Taipei and Keelung (a port city), 2 of the largest cities of Taiwan, are built right at the northern tip of the island.  We were going to have to drive through at least one of them.  Before we did that, though, we went away from the coast and up into the mountains to visit Jiu Fen, an old mining town that has been the site for many of the films of Hou Shao-shien, a famous Taiwanese director.  The city had been developed into a tourist attraction, so among it's scenic alleys and old houses were many snack shops, immaculate tea-houses, rooftop beer-gardens, art-gallerys, and pottery studios.  You could still clambor around the houses that were all somehow interbuilt as they sprawled up the hill, meaning that you could go up several flights of stairs in one house and arrive at the first floor of another house.

Later we went through the port city of Keelung.  It was a terrible place, very crowded and not what we were used to any more after 4 days in the wilds.  It was gross and crappy and we got lost several times and stuck in dingy traffic-ridden areas that looked like they were carved out of huge blocks of grimy concrete.  We passed all these areas and more coast until we finally arrived in Dan Shui, the city at the source of the Dan Shui river that flows through Taipei.  It was supposed to be a scenic town, but we couldn't find much to enjoy there.  Nobody smiled or was friendly to anybody, it was just business, work, business, work.

On the fifth day we drove through more of the city-sprawl that surrounds Taipei and made a break for the mountains.  The road rose and rose and eventually we were getting into colder regions.  The mountains were steep and forested until a plateau area developped and there was high-elevation farming.  On that day we had travelled from sea level to nearly 3500 meters above sea level on our little bike.  There was one mountain area that was a totally developed fruit colong: millions of miles from anywhere else, there were orchards and armies of fruit pickers and trucks and boxes and packes and heavy equipment all perched along those narrow roads.  Some apples were being picked across a chasm and were coming back on a pulley.

We spent the night on that mountain, which was called Li Shun, or pear mountain.  It was a tourist area that had the feel of a John Steinbeck novel due to the many migrant fruit pickers milling about eating, getting supplies, or driving fruit around.  The next morning we had to buy socks, since it was just too cold riding  on the bike in the mountains, even though it is usually very hot in tropical Taiwan in September.  Luckily they had a general store that sold wam clothing the sock merchant was this gloomy guy who, after he interrogated us with all the usual questions (where we had come from, how we had learned such good Chinese, established that we spoke no Taiwanese... everyone we met did this), began talking about nuclear war and how we'll all be wiped out some day soon, and it's all a matter of time.  I pointed out that he'll probably be okay on his mountain where everybody can eat fruit and nobody will get scurvy, but he wasn't in tune with my logic.

On the sixth day, we drove along another mountain highway, through the geographic center of Taiwan, and to the coast again where we visited an old city before going back up into the mountians to stay with friends.  We were noticing that, as the trip got on, our butts would get sorer and sorer every day, eventually getting to a point where they would start to get sore 15 minutes after we'd taken a break.  I was sure mine was getting blisters, but I looked - no blisters.

Now on the seventh day of our trip, we really needed to get back to a stable environment, and the beautiful hilly areas and forested regions we were travelling through didn't make as deep an impression any more.  We took a route past Alishan, which is a favored tourist destination for Taiwanese looking for something to do on the weekend, or a short vacation.  Part of the mystique of the place is that seeing a sunrise on Alishan is supposed to be particularly beautiful, so every morning people flock there in the very early hours (or camp, or stay over night in a hotel) and climb the last way up the hill and watch the sunrise.  For the rest of the early morning hours they stroll around the area, and then head home around lunch time.  We passed it in the fog in the late afternoon, so there was no reason to enter the park.  There, at the side of the road, we saw a family of monkeys.  I'd seen monkeys on the side of the road before, like in Bali (where they chased us) so I knew better than to approach them. Monkeys may look funny and cute, but they really don't have a sense of humor.   The route continued downhill, and eventually we were back in Tainan where we had started our vacation.  A week later, I sold my faithful motorcycle, and flew to Japan with nothing of that trip save some great memories and an album full of stuning pictures.

Motorcycle tours are a part of being a tourist, and I have done light motorcycle trips in Thailand, Bali and Thailand so far.  I've always found this way of travelling relatively safe, but perhaps I've just been lucky.  I would recommend it to anyone who has an opportunity take a tour like this one and ride a motorcycle into the great unknown.

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email: Peter Höflich
All original writings copyright Peter Hoflich, 2000