I first visited China in March of 2003 during the between semester break of Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan where I was studying at the time. I never wrote much about that trip, but my fellow traveler Chris Gunson, who was also studying at Ritsumeikan as an exchange student from Rutgers, has a good account of the entire journey (illustrated with my photographs and his maps) on his website at www.cgunson.com/china/. At the time I know no Chinese at all, and although Chris had taken a little Chinese in high school he couldn’t actually speak it to any degree, just understand a few words and read or write simple sentences. Since we were both students of Japanese, which has a writing system largely based on that of Chinese, we could read a decent number of words in much the same way that a reader of English can make out some Spanish or German words on a page, and traveling all the way across a country as large as China with only these limited communication skills to rely upon was part of the fun.
Still, after spending about three weeks in China without the ability to communicate with a single taxi or bus driver, the servers in any but the best restaurants, the ticket sellers at the train station, or any other local people aside from the rare college student, unable to watch tv, read the newspaper, and so on I thought that it might be fun to learn Chinese and someday return with the ability to do all of those things and more. Ordinarily this would seem like a mildly nutty decision, but since I was already living in Japan studying that language it hardly seemed unreasonable. During the following semester in Japan, my second, I made arrangements to stay for a second year so when I returned home to the States that July it was only for summer vacation and not for good. When during the summer I stopped by my home university, Rutgers to see some people and take care of some things, I dropped by the university bookstore and bought the textbook used there for elementary Chinese.
When I went back to Ritsumeikan I started to study the book with the help of a girl from Shanghai that I was friends with, but just doing a little bit every week I didn’t really get very far, and she was impressed enough that my pronounciation was less awful than that of Japanese people that she knew studying Chinese that she didn’t worry much about my general slow progress, and when we both ran out of time to study together I set aside Chinese study for a while.
About a year after my first trip to China I went again. This time I was traveling alone much of the time, instead of wandering aimlessly I was visiting friends that had studied with my in Japan, and the trip was capped by a journey from China into Kazakhstan. I originally created the first version of this site to document that trip, and part of those journals are preserved in early entries on this blog. Here are some of them.
2004 travel journal
HK part 1
HK part 2
HK part 3, etc.
Yonghe Gong (Former palace in Beijing converted into Tibetan Buddhist temple)
The Summer Palace and lost on the way there.
I never actually wrote an adequate account of the trip out west and to Kazkahstan, but there are a number of photographs in my gallery section, as well as of all sections of China that I visited.
On this trip to China I actually brought my textbook with me and tried to study a bit while I was traveling, but time was short and my level was so low that I gave up quickly and just enjoyed myself, and resolved to actually register in Chinese class when I returned to Rutgers in the fall. I had also been studying a little bit of Korean on the side at Ritsumeikan, with the help of a Korean girl that I was dating at the time and actually ended up registering for both Chinese and Korean 101 for the fall semester. (Sidenote, I stopped in Seoul for a few days on the way home from Japan. My travelogue from that time is located here and here)
I had assumed that because Japanese and Korean have such similar grammar and use Chinese loanwords in such a similar way, and because it uses a fairly easy phonetic writing system instead of thousands of characters that it would be easier than the tonal Chinese language to learn, but over the course of the semester I was surprised to find that while I had to study mindlessly for hours to memorize Korean vocabulary, after having already spent years memorizing Chinese characters for reading Japanese, Chinese class was by far the easier of the two. Studying two languages at elementary level at the same time was kind of inconvenient, so next semester I just stuck with Chinese so I could properly concentrate.
Around the middle of that final semester, one day in class my Chinese teacher handed me an application for a Taiwan government scholarship to study Chinese in Taiwan. “Do you have any plans for the summer yet?” she asked, adding “the application is due tomorrow.” Not even remotely having and fixed plans for after graduation I brought the application back the following day, and a couple of weeks found out that I had got the scholarship, which is $25,000 New Taiwanese Dollars (about 30 to one $US) per month, which will be placed in the care of the school in Taiwan at which I study for me to get when I arrive. What’s that? Although I was assured money to study in Taiwan, I hadn’t actually registered for an actual course of study yet, so I scrambled to get together the application forms for that, which in addition to the standard teacher recommendations also required a physical and HIV test (negative of course). The people in the scholarship office made it clear that scholarship recipients were guaranteed admission to the program of their choice, of course phrased a bit subtly. After looking over the various options I opted for the Mandarin Training Center at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei.
My flight leaves tonight (technically tomorrow’s calendar date) at thirty minutes past midnight. It flies first to Seattle, then I transfer for another twelve hour flight to Chiang Kai Shek international airport in Taipei. The scholarship provides me money that is expected to be used for tuition, rent and other expenses, but it actually only lasts for three months while I’m going to be staying for at least six, so I need to make up for the shortfall out of my own pocket, partly through some money saved and partly through the freelance Japanese to English translation that I have been doing part time for about three quarters of a year, and can carry on doing anyplace where I have a decently stable internet connection. Because the school dorm is for some arcane reason not avaliable to recipients of this particular scholarship program (incidentally, a rule that I also saw in Japan, which caused great inconvenience for at least two international students that I knew), I will be staying in a youth hostel (conveniently located across from the main Taipei train station) for the first few days while I try and find some accomodations on my own. Since the campus is located extremely downtown, as you can see if you look at this map of the area (warning, very large image!). The NTNU campus, also known by its abbreviated Chinese name ShiDa(師大) is located just a couple of blocks northeast of Guting Station, which is one of the largest in the city. Since the school is located in such a downtown area I may or may not be able to afford a room within walking distance, but I’m sure that going a couple of subway stops away would not be much of a hardship at all.
So this is it, I’m about to have some dinner, pack up my stuff, and head to the airport. I would like to remind everyone that there are a number of galleries of photos from some of my previous trips, and to look out for more of both writing and photographs here regularly and hopefully soon.