Floating in the gorge: Marking a year in Taiwan

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ANU Law student ambassador Cherish Tay at Taroko Gorge in Taiwan.

Thinking back on how this language became something I can do, the long and winding journey of my path to Chinese fluency, I realised how transformative it has been to become bilingual.

Ever wondered what it’s like to study abroad? ANU Law student ambassador Cherish Tay gives us the low-down on her adventures and experiences studying in Taiwan in her blog series.

By Cherish Tay (student ambassador)

Last month I reached one year in Taiwan.

Due to a combination of border controls that have made it difficult to go home and then re-enter Taiwan, I have ended up staying here for an entire year.

This slightly dizzying realisation came to me as I was emerging from a pedestrian tunnel into the Taipei evening. This made me think about what happened over the course of this year and how I have changed.

Remarkably, my most important achievement this year did not immediately occur to me.  

This year, I learnt Chinese.

Thinking back on how this language became something I can do, the long and winding journey of my path to Chinese fluency, I realised how transformative it has been to become bilingual.

It has felt like walking through a drab old door and finding on the other side an enormous gorge and that I am floating in mid-air high above a tree canopy, safe and surrounded by open space. I have a sense that I have learnt to think about things more creatively, and more confidently.

The confidence is in some ways contradictory. In many ways I think to successfully learn a language a certain level of confidence or self-assuredness is required.

However, as a friend recently said to me, it could equally be said that what is required is not self-assuredness, but a lack of self-defence. To let oneself be frail, fallible, possibly falling into the chasm at the bottom of the gorge, but knowing that failing is the route to floating.

When people comment that it’s impressive that I learnt Chinese in such a short time, I am prompted to assure them that it was longer than they think. In truth, I have been learning Chinese all my life.

I attended Chinese Saturday school throughout my childhood, a snooze-inducing and largely pointless waste of time and money.

At these classes I learnt how to imitate sounds without comprehending meaning, how to copy out characters without knowing how they were pronounced, and how to recognise characters but not know the meaning of the sentence.

Still, when I first visited Taiwan as an adult on a two-week holiday, I discovered there was a strange familiarity, moments of recognising the word for ‘bird’ or ‘dog’ and thinking, I’ve made it to the language ability of a two-year-old.

It was that trip though that prompted me to take up Chinese lessons again back in Australia, this time as an adult. It was after two years of Chinese study in Australia, at a point at which I was filled with vocabulary and grammatical knowledge, yet this language still sitting awkwardly in my mouth, that I moved to Taiwan.

In the weeks before my flight, there were multiple issues (passport lost in the mail, COVID-19 test result not returned, quarantine hotel booking possibly a pyramid scheme) that meant I wasn’t sure if I would make it. In addition, given the COVID-19 situation at the time, I wasn’t sure if I was going for six months or possibly up to two years. There was a certain summoning up of courage, setting forth with my eyes and ears open, to find something I didn’t yet know.

Still the leap of faith that started the adventure turned out to be a defining orientation of the year, and a guiding principle to gorge-floating.

In all those years of studying Chinese there was in fact the building blocks of a language being acquired. What was missing was the propulsion to reach outside of what you know and find a way, with all the resources at your disposal, to communicate.

Perhaps as an adolescent learning Chinese, I wasn’t capable of leaping out into the open space.

Or perhaps it’s a matter of perspective.

From the vantage point of the gorge, it seems like the leaping was what was transformative, but perhaps it is the space itself. Being here I find out every day how deep and far the chasm yawns, and this new linguistic ability feels like putting a chameleon suit on and seeing how long I can wear it before people notice.

My conversational fluency belies the incomprehensibility of formal writing, legal language or academic texts, and my abilities often fall short, and I continue on the language learning journey.

I still quiver in this open space; it can be drafty and I sometimes wonder if I’m actually not floating, but in freefall. Still, how better to see the tree canopy and the intricate rock face? And how better to marvel at how enormous the world one traverses is.

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Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team