Category: My Experiences

The Generalissimo

generalissimoThis is one of the most difficult book reviews I have done – this book was literally one of the most difficult, slowest books I have read in recent memory and yet was also incredibly compelling. Chiang Kai Shek is someone who is fascinating and yet is as a major World War 2 personality I  know the least about. What does his famous title “Generalissimo” even mean!?

Given these fundamental questions almost everyone in America has about the second world war, The Generalissimo by Jay Taylor answers these questions (in passing), showing how amazing this book really is. Chiang Kai Shek, aka Chaing Jie Shi, aka Chiang ZhongZheng (thanks Chinese) is one of the most important, influential, and interesting figures of the 20th century, and it’s therefore amazing how little most histories give to him.

China in the early 20th century was weak country with gigantic potential. The story of the person who came to “lead” the country is fascinating, it involves internal and international politics. The requirements of the position almost invariably lead to a person who could handle the shame of international inconsequentialism while also having a broad view of the Chinese potential. Chiang Kai Shek was someone who embodied this ethos 100%. His person is a fascinating view of classical Chinese themes – stoic fortitude, boundless cultural avarice.

This book covers the history of the Republic of China from the beginning of Chiang Kai Shek’s career in the 1910s through the warlord era, through world war 1, then the interwar civil war era, the Japanese invasion, the Allied victory, then the inevitable failure of the civil war, the retreat to Taiwan, and finallly the decades long wait on the island.

The Generalissimo is a fasciatning, complete view of the most overlooked important figure of the 20th century and the shape of the modern world.

The most interesting take away of this book is Chiang’s (and his son’s) view that Taiwan is not separate from China, it is in their view just a province of China which supports an alternate government. This is very distinct from my own natural view of the two China’s, yet is compelling. Does the current president of Taiwan Tsai Ying Wen also hold this view?

Chiang KaiShek is someone who everyone on earth who speaks about the 20th century should know and yet is normally cast to a sideline. This book is an important step to correct this misconception and so is a great book to read.

Kevin Rudd on The Rise of China

Kevin Rudd

The previous Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd recently gave a speech on his view of China and it’s interactions with the world which I found fascinating. Rudd is an expert on China and has an open minded approach I found refreshing.

Rudd’s main argument is that China is a powerful country in many ways and should be treated as such. He thinks the CCP is inward focused and doesn’t deserve much of the vitriol that is directed to it. Rudd does point out many of their flaws but attempts to keep them in perspective – something most everyone fails to do.

It’s a fascinating speech delivered by a very well spoken and intelligent person and well worth your time.

PodCast Link

Studying Abroad: Taiwan

Beautiful IslandBeautiful IslandBeautiful Island

Why Study Abroad?

Studying abroad is a great adventure with many concrete benefits. Living in another country, being emerged in another language, and meeting a whole new crowd of people all at the same time forces you to expand your comfort zone. The mental challenge of being forced to continuously think in another language is by itself worth the experience. Being in another city for months lets you tour a lot more of the country than you would be able to do in a normal vacation, and getting away from work or school for a few months is a freebie.

The best part of all of this is that studying abroad is available to anyone with the interest and resolve to see it through! You don’t need special skills. Learning another language isn’t just for smart people or those who already know how to speak the local language, being abroad 24/7 will enable you to learn more quickly than you’d guess.  Studying abroad also doesn’t require a lot of money. Living expenses can be very reasonable in other parts of the world and grants could even be available to help fund the trip. Anyone who wants to find a way to study abroad can make it happen.

Choosing Taiwan

There are many countries to chose from for studying abroad and even many places for studying Chinese abroad, but I chose to study abroad in Taiwan and loved it! The biggest benefits of Taiwan which helped me decide were affordability, cleanliness, safety, and the amount of study options.

The people of Taiwan are perfect for people interested in studying abroad. They are universally friendly and outgoing, I never had any trouble meeting new people or making myself understood. Many of the younger generation speak some English and many are eager to practice speaking with native English speakers. I found several language exchange partners which was some of the best practice I’ve had ever! An added bonus is that Taiwanese people are very civic, it’s a very safe place – violent crime is almost unheard and even theft is rare.

Taiwan itself is a beautiful place. It’s a large island situated on the tropic of cancer with a warm, wet climate. The island has big cities on the west of the island, a spine of tall mountains in the middle, and lots of jungle everywhere else. It’s one of the most densely populated countries in the world so there are people everywhere, but perhaps since it’s a wealthy country similar to South Korea or Japan it doesn’t feel too cramped.

The history of Taiwan is really interesting. Taiwan is a Chinese country having de facto split off from China after World War 2 after a civil war between the Communists (now “China”) and the Nationalists now (now “Taiwan”). There is a lot of interesting historical and current drama because of this (for example see here, here, or here), but the upshot is that Taiwan is a democracy, a wealthy country, and that people in Taiwan speak Chinese (in addition to Taiwanese).

What better place to have an adventure than a safe, interesting country packed with friendly people who speak an important language on a beautiful island in the pacific?

Study Time

ShiDa University

You have many options for studying while abroad. In Taiwan the best options are generally University courses, a private tutor, or individual study without a formal teacher.

Most people studying abroad do so at Universities because they are large institutions with support for international students and have experienced, professional teachers. This is the option I chose and for me it worked ok. Being able to meet other students and having a formal schedule provided motivation to study each day, both of which helped. On the other hand the class moved slowly and was very generic. I wanted to focus as much as possible on learning to speak but much of the class was focused on reading and writing.

Private classes as another popular option. Usually they are more expensive per class hour but they might be actually more cost effective because you can have your class time more focused on you and your interests. In Taiwan these private tutors are quite popular and reasonably priced, if I were to go back I would chose this option.

Another aspect of studying is day to day life. I met several friends while waiting for a bus or at a coffee shop studying. It’s important to get out and talk with people outside of a classroom as much as possible. My favorite way to practice Chinese was language exchanges. Getting together for an hour or two and speaking both Chinese and English makes friends and is one of the absolute best ways to gain fluency and expand your vocabulary. I loved these meetings so much that I’m still chatting with a friend from Taiwan every week over the internet!

Enjoy Yourself!

Spicy blood cake, mm!Atlas Hill with the family

Living in Taiwan isn’t just about studying of course. Taipei is an amazing city larger than New York City and so it has more to do than you can imagine. Shopping choices include high end shopping malls and crowded night markets. Tasty street food and restaurants will compete for your money everywhere you go (a game who’s winner is you!), or you can go to sports games and beautiful parks for exercise. One of my favorite activities was to stop off at a coffee shop, order a random drink, and just have conversations with whoever was there. You can constantly meet new friends in the city.

Taipei is encroached on all sides by jungles and mountains. Hiking trails in the city itself are easy to get to via metro, bus, or taxi and have amazing views of the city and the coast, it’s always fun to see the Taipei 101 towering over the city off in the distance. Being an island Taiwan also has beautiful beaches and costal areas, often just an easy train ride away. The trains are constantly crowded on the weekend but that really just means there are more people to chat with and get directions from if you get lost!

Studying abroad in Taiwan was one of the highlights of my life. I learned a lot, saw another city in a way a regular tourist wouldn’t get the chance to, met many great people, and pushed myself to do something scary! I easily recommend anyone with the interest go to Taiwan, you wont regret it.

A video after the trip: My Favorite Things

I made a short video in Chinese discussing my favorite things in Taiwan, it’s a very general list but if I were a new tourist in Taiwan I would start with these three things:

  1. Eat the food! They have amazing and cheap food, my favorite way to get lunch was go near any university and find a person selling lunch boxes. They’re cheap ($2-3 US) but really tasty and can’t be beaten in convenience.
  2. Walk around the city! Taipei presses into the surrounding mountains and it makes for great hiking. My favorite hike was a short one – Elephant Mountain near Taipei 101. It has the greatest view of the Taipei 101 itself and is really pretty.
  3. Go to a night market! They have tons of food, shopping, and people and it makes for tons of fun.