If you already don’t know by now, I have learned Chinese back when I studied in China. But let’s get real here; At that time, my main goal wasn’t really to learn Chinese. I went there to get an experience and that’s exactly what I got. Yeah of course “I learned Chinese”, but it wasn’t till I got to Taiwan where I would say my Chinese has massively improved. I can speak sentences fluidly without stopping, give directions-ish, have conversations (to some extent), order food, open a bank account, communicate to delivery guys on the phone (while my mind goes blank), listen to stories-ish, all in Chinese. But how?
From Roommates to Close Friends
The first apartment I lived in was a sharehouse, with a mix of both foreigners and Taiwanese people. But let me just say, most of the people that lived there were weird and unsocial, which made no sense or purpose of living in a shared house but…
There were these two people I befriended that helped me improve and learn many everyday words and even the bad ones. One of them helped me learn how to properly order bubble tea, order breakfast, say sleazy words like 乾爹 (sugar daddy), set up a cheap phone acct, and even attempt to study with me.
They’re great and we are still quite close to each other to this day.
Language exchanges are a hit or miss. I feel like especially in Asian countries where language exchanges are common, a lot of times, it’s with absolute creeps or weird people and it doesn’t turn out how you want it to be. But I was fortunate enough to be paired with one back when I studied at MTC with someone who shares similar interests as I do.
Generally how we go about it is that we meet once a week for 2 hours. One hour is conducted in Chinese and another in English. Sometimes we help each other with writing assignments, presentations, emails, etc. But most of the time, we just chat with each other. I have learned so much about Taiwan along with more about herself and the culture from her and even she has learned a lot about myself and the things I do beyond work and school from me. And because of our goals and consistency, we have managed to be consistently doing it for over 2 years now. Real cray cray if you ask me.
Successful language exchanges require both parties to have similar goals, a high interest in learning the language, and just a general interest in one another. It should not just feel like an exchange, but friends who come together to have a good time. If there’s no chemistry, it simply won’t work out.
Fixed Gear Bike Group
Funny enough, I learned about this bike shop before I even came to Taiwan and it took me sooo long to make my way there. Not knowing a language and living in a new country, a lot of anxiety comes up when you try and go see new places knowing that the people may/may not speak your mother’s tongue.
But I desired to buy a bike badly and wasn’t trying to let my nerves get to me. Eventually, I made my way there and somehow communicated what kind of bike I wanted.
Beyond that, the shop itself is a family because the shop owner is very kind along with his employees and all his customers that come by. They all go out of the way to help everyone along and welcoming them to the fixed gear community. A social hierarchy does not exist in this space. It feels more like a group of friends who love to bike, buy new parts, and hang out.
I slowly began going to their weekly Saturday Night bike rides to short trips to eventually long biking trip adventures with them. It’s been almost 2 years now and I feel like I have somewhat gotten to know everyone.
Even though I may have trouble communicating with some of them from time to time, they still take me in and make me feel comfortable with them. Each moment with them has been timeless.
Hostel Work Exchange
Working in hostels has especially also helped me improve my speaking too! Particular at Meander. At the time, because I knew Chinese, staff members found every moment to speak with me as much as possible. And because I was speaking so much Chinese every day, I felt at this point, this is where my Chinese fully began to flow smoothly. Where it did not just sound like b r o k e n – u p words and more like full complete sentences.
From going to the store and ordering food, I try to use Chinese as much as possible. When I first started learning, going to places like 7/11, I would repeat the prices said to me so I can remember how much to give them. This helped me to master numbers in Chinese.
And in many cases, some shop owners love to talk to me asking the basics of where I am from to even my hair and whatever else they were curious about. Even though I found these repetitive questions a bit annoying at times, I used them as learning opportunities to practice speaking and sometimes even getting to know them.
More recently, I have spent a lot of time on the riverside so people loooveee to chat with me there. Especially if I have my drone and/or just if I am sitting down. These small interactions help me improve day by day
As an English Teacher, I am not supposed to speak with my kids in Chinese, but once my kindergarten kids soon realized that I was responding to them in English, they understood that I knew Chinese. As young as they are, I learned a lot from them.
The first stand out word I learned from them in Chinese was 尿尿 (to pee).
我要尿尿， 我想尿尿. I would repeat what they would say in English, “Oh, you want to pee? Ok, you may go.” This tactic was very beneficial to them. Some picked up on it very fast. For some others, it took a lot more time.
Through them, I also learned 流鼻涕 (runny nose), 流汗 (sweat), and 大便 (poop).
My Chinese teacher didn’t like what I was doing after a while, for many of them would take advantage of the fact that I knew Chinese and rarely spoke to me in English unless it was to repeat something I said during the lessons. But, I get it. They need to be reinforced to learn English otherwise they will never improve, but also they were only 3?! Straight out the womb into an ESL class. They have their whole lives to learn.
Very few were clever enough to only speak English to me and Chinese to the Chinese Teachers (CT). If they understood what I said in English but did not know how to respond, they would just look at me in fear afraid of the repercussions of my CT if Chinese was spoken. And I would ask them in English till they got the answer they needed.
I also enjoy eavesdropping on the CTs convos. Once my Chinese started improving, I noticed a lot of them would say some subtle, yet rude things about the English teachers to each other in Chinese around us.
I remember one day my CT told one of my kids to put on some socks (they wear slippers/indoor shoes inside the kindergarten classrooms) And he goes:
Boy: But teacher Nnedi never wears socks
CT: I know. Isn’t that dirty?
*boy nods head in agreement*
Excuse me? Have you forgotten that I understand what you are saying?
Another time, I was subbing at a different school and the CT came into the room after I wiped the tables down during the class time and she walked in so loudly *Speaks Chinese* “OMG, she’s so dirty. She didn’t wash her hands after she cleaned the tables.” *Speaks loudly and rolls eyes* and I just gave her a stern look and immediately, she regretted everything and ran out of the classroom. Y’all don’t even try to be discrete.
I still have some ways to go, but I am getting there.