With Just One Action - Learning Chinese through the arts

Written by  Friday, 05 September 2014 10:51


     Coming to Taiwan, I knew that not only would I be able to conduct advanced cancer therapy research, but also I would have many opportunities to improve my Chinese. I didn’t realize how hard performing both of these tasks simultaneously was going to be. During my graduate studies, I took a break from studying Chinese so it was a little rusty upon my arrival, and I was relatively shy when prompted to speak. After a few weeks in Taiwan, my Chinese quickly rose to the level of comfortable conversation and problem solving, mostly as a result of the classes I was taking a few times a week. Everyone in my lab is required to speak English – and because finding time to do homework isn’t easy when I could be out enjoying Taipei’s rich culture, I’ve relied on some of my other interactions instead. Everyday life has afforded me plenty of practice; before long I could order coffee like a pro and crack jokes with the locals, but I was still looking for ways to improve my level. Luckily, I stumbled across some great opportunities that have transformed my stay in Taiwan, and given me the time to study Chinese with less pressure.
     Over a month had gone by before I realized that I had an email account through my host institution, the Institute of Biomedical Sciences (IBMS) at the Academia Sinica. When I finally logged in, I had hundreds of unread emails, nearly all of them in Chinese. Most of the emails were about construction notices and seminars going on near the institute, but after mass-translating the emails online, I was surprised to find some that contained information about activities available to Academia Sinica students and employees. From movie nights to English improvement seminars, there were many options. After chatting with the secretary in charge of graduate students in my building, I found out that she often takes classes with the drawing club, a group that I had received emails about. Her artistic abilities impressed me, and to my delight, she invited me to join one of the classes. She said the instructor was a very talented artist who teaches a variety of art styles in a friendly, laid-back environment. Following our conversation, she showed me some pictures produced by students of the different art classes. Although initially intimidated by the club members’ skill, I decided to join the watercolor group, since a new friend of mine was also planning to take it. This was very exciting as I’ve always liked arts and crafts, but haven't been able to pursue them as much as I've wanted because of a rigorous academic schedule. 
     The first day of class was much different than I expected. Everyone began setting up their watercolor boards and started to sketch. When I was finally ready to draw, the teacher introduced the image we would all be copying using the “block overlap” method. With step-by-step pictures of each layer of paint to be applied, he described (in Chinese of course) which colors were mixed with which. After the first class I had an entirely new perspective on water color, so I felt less apprehensive and more confident that I possessed the skills necessary to create something beautiful. Every two weeks, we completed a painting, allowing us to comprehensively study different art styles over the course of the semester. When the first painting set ended, I was not nearly finished. To catch up with my fellow members, I had to take my painting home. By the time I submitted my first piece to the instructor, I was very pleased with my work, but then realized I had made a mistake in the coloration. When coloring the mountains I had missed the important instruction to mix the colors with a little gray, because at the time I was so excited I had remembered the word for purple! Nevertheless, I was extremely proud of my first watercolor painting, and even more thrilled with how relaxing the process turned out to be and how much I could achieve with such little struggle. Every week since then, I have been able to talk and listen with others at Academia Sinica while we relax, listen to great music, and joke about the complex scenes our teacher always seems to pick for us to paint. 
     After informing my Chinese teacher of my new interest in watercolor, she told me about other Chinese-taught classes the school offers as cultural supplements for foreign students. Curious, I looked into the available courses. As the new semester was about to begin, I decided I could drop one day of basic Chinese class and join a cultural class. To my surprise, the only class that fit my schedule was the advanced Chinese tea ceremony class. Again, I was intimidated – sure I have a strong interest in tea, and have enjoyed traditional tea in both China and Taiwan, but advanced methods taught in Chinese? I didn’t know what to expect, but I signed up for the class along with another Fulbright Fellow. Between the two of us, we were confident that we knew enough about tea and enough Chinese to get by. On the first day of class, I walked in a few minutes late and right away I had to start talking about myself in Chinese. The woman who spoke after me had her Chinese corrected immediately by the teacher. I started to worry what I had gotten myself into. 
     This first impression couldn’t have been more wrong! Since neither of us Fulbrighters had ever brewed traditional Chinese-style tea, the teacher gave us a quick overview and our classmates helped us place our tea sets. The teacher started to joke with the students and kept the class light-hearted. As we brewed the second and third pots of tea, one of the students helped the teacher serve snacks to each student. She told us about the teas we were brewing, which we let our classmates sample. We drank tea throughout the class and enjoyed traditional five elements music. At the end of the class, we had to describe which teas we liked best and suggest the differences between them. One by one, the students shared their opinions in Chinese, taking care to say something different than those before them. Even without the vocabulary to articulate the different nuances a tea might have, I tried my best to describe my thoughts simply. The teacher was very impressed with how we all had such interesting, and apparently accurate, comments about the tea. While we were cleaning out our tea instruments, I realized I would not be able to attend the following week’s class. The instructor suggested that I try to attend the basic tea class that she also taught. After altering my schedule to fit the basic tea class, I discovered that the first basic class I attended was the very first class of the semester. I had already planned to create a vocabulary list for learning all of the tea instruments and some descriptive words that might be useful during the class discussions, so that first class served as the primer that I needed. 
     Now that I have started both of these classes, I feel much closer to the people I live and work with in Taipei. I have been able to listen to and participate in many discussions, including urban development and its possible effects on tea availability, societal perspectives on dating and marriage, cross-strait relations, the rise and fall of milk prices, and local night markets’ most famous eats. Of course, I have had many similar conversations with my lab mates, but only ever in English. Conveying my thoughts and opinions in Chinese has definitely improved my conversational skills. After a long week of researching, nothing sounds better than drinking tea and mixing colors on my watercolor pallet. I have already learned an incredible amount during my stay in Taiwan;  about my research, about who I am as a person, and about the people who live here. When the year is over I expect that this knowledge will be more than I could have imagined. The diversity of my everyday life in Taiwan has been relaxing and mentally-stimulating. My time here truly embodies the chengyu “一舉數得,” a single action that brings about many benefits. 
Teagan Adamson received her M.S. in Biomedical Engineering in 2013 from Arizona State University with a focus in biosensors for disease applications. She completed her Fulbright-Whitaker Fellowship at Academia Sinica in Taipei on new molecules capable of improving breast cancer treatment. As an avid traveler, she enjoys hiking and vegetarian cuisine. Currently, she is living in Phoenix, Arizona.
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