‘Sorry, I Can’t Speak Chinese Very Well’

When I first started looking at programs for my semester abroad, I never thought that I would end up in Asia. In fact, I had my heart set on either Spain or Australia for a while. However, when I stumbled across a program at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, I just had to look into it.

At the time, Taiwan was quite mysterious to me. I had had layovers in the country, but had never stepped out of the airport. My extent of what I knew about the little island was that there was constant argument over whether Taiwan was a part of China or not, and that the main language spoken there was Mandarin Chinese. I’m not quite sure what it was about the program that won me over, but a little voice inside my head told me that this was the perfect place for me.

So, taking a huge leap of faith, I applied for the university, and started packing my things.

“When I get frustrated about the language barrier, I just remind myself that I came here with the goal of strengthening my Mandarin and that the frustration is just a part of the journey.”

The first thing I noticed about Taiwan was how nice the people are. They are usually more than willing to help you out when it is obvious that you have no idea what to do. I’ve had natives step up to help me buy things or even navigate public transportation. We had someone chase us down the street once after we had left their store because we had asked about buying concert tickets and she had an answer for us. The generally nice nature of the Taiwanese people has definitely made adjusting to life in Taiwan much easier.

I had been to Asia before, but I had always been with my parents. This was the first time I was going to be in a foreign country completely by myself without much help from my parents with the language. For the most part, the language barrier isn’t really a problem. I will either use broken Chinese to order food or a Taiwanese person will be willing to help out our ragtag group of foreigners.

However, the awkwardness comes when I have to explain that I can’t speak Chinese very well.

I minor in Chinese, but my working conversation skills are very limited. For the most part, I can get my point across okay. However, Taiwanese people will often automatically start speaking to me in Chinese — even when I’m with my friends and speaking to them in English. For example, I was at a movie theater with a few friends buying tickets to see “Tomb Raider” and, even though one of my non Asian-looking friends was speaking Chinese to the cashier, the cashier kept looking at me expecting me to be able to translate what we wanted to buy. This has happened multiple times since coming to Taiwan, and each time I have to explain in broken Chinese that I cannot understand a lot of what they are saying.

It can get a little annoying having to explain that I can’t understand a lot of what people are saying to me due to my subpar Chinese skills. I have gotten quite a wide range of reactions after I explain that I can’t speak Chinese very well — everything from surprise, confusion, sympathy and even frustration. Sometimes it even feels like the natives look down on me since I look Asian, but can’t speak an Asian language (thanks, America).

I wouldn’t say that my specific situation has made my experience here in Taiwan terrible. Rather, it’s more of a reality check.

However, I have been having a lot of fun within the month that I have been here. I have been able to meet a lot of people from all over the world and have been able to take small trips here and there. Just last week we took a day trip to a small island just right off the coast and were able to snorkel with sea turtles. I’m also taking my first big trip to Vietnam soon.

When I get frustrated about the language barrier, I just remind myself that I came here with the goal of strengthening my Mandarin and that the frustration is just a part of the journey. I still have the rest of the semester ahead of me and I am surrounded by wonderful people. Sure, I get homesick sometimes, but I know I would regret everything if I just packed up and left. I’m going to stick this semester out, travel as much as I can, and just enjoy myself.

Because, hey, that’s what study abroad is all about, right?

Dana Pineda is an International Security and Conflict Resolution senior. She is studying abroad at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan in spring semester 2018.

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