By Dr. Matthew Wappett
In October of 1992 I found myself standing on a street corner to the entrance of a morning market in Taipei, Taiwan. It was a strange place for me to find myself. I was raised in Alaska and hadn’t ever traveled outside of North America; I was overwhelmed by the foreign smells, the crowds, the language, to be honest I was overwhelmed by everything. It was the height of election season and herds of little blue Mitsubishi trucks outfitted with oversized megaphones and picture of the candidates patrolled the streets day and night, blaring each candidate’s qualifications and promises. It was an exciting time to be in Taiwan, but it was also very apparent to me that I had to learn Chinese to survive. I couldn’t understand a thing people said to me, I couldn’t read anything, I couldn’t say anything intelligible in Chinese…I was lost and illiterate.
In those days there were very few people who could speak English in Taiwan, and so I set about the task of learning Chinese through immersion. Every day I talked to as many people as I could, I purchased books and flash cards, I would wake up early to study and practice, and eventually the language came. By the time I left Taiwan in 1994 I was relatively fluent and felt quite at ease with the language and culture. After I returned to America and had few opportunities to practice or study Chinese, and slowly my ability to speak and then understand Chinese regressed. I tried to keep it up by watching Chinese movies, and by listening to Chinese popular music, but there really was no substitute for daily practice. Nevertheless, learning Chinese at a relatively young age had shaped my thinking and perception of the world in ways that I would have never expected.
Experiencing a foreign culture in my formative years has made me a better person. It tempered my nationalist pride (which all young males felt in 1991 at the outset of the first Gulf War), and taught me that even though I came from the U.S. that didn’t entitle me to any privileges or special treatment. I quickly learned humility. Learning Chinese required me to learn from everyone: taxi drivers, night market vendors, homeless garbage pickers, shopkeepers, elementary school students, retired Kuomintang soldiers, craftsmen of all types were all more accomplished and literate than I was, and I relied upon them all to teach me and to correct my linguistic missteps. I learned to be patient with myself and others as I tried to communicate and find my way in this new place.
I learned to be flexible. The only Western food in Taiwan the early ‘90’s was McDonalds and Pizza Hut…but even these were tailored to Taiwanese tastes and were not what I was used to. I had to learn to eat things (and parts of things) that I had never eaten before. I learned that there were many ways to do things, not just the way I was taught. For example, as an Alaskan I prided myself on being a consummate fisherman, but I learned that there were many other ways to fish in Taiwan. I also slowly gained an awareness of elements of deep culture like perceptions of time, nonverbal body language, social relationships in various contexts, notions of logic, patterns of belief, and the arrangement of physical space. All of these things made me a more flexible and open person, capable of understanding and adapting to cultural and linguistic differences. In general my time in Taiwan made me a better person.
As one of the co-Directors of the UI Confucius Institute I am often asked why I gave up my former faculty position and career in special education and disability studies to guide the development of the Confucius Institute. The main reason is that I believe in the work of the Confucius Institute. I believe that by providing opportunities for people in Idaho and the inland northwest to experience Chinese culture and learn the Chinese language we are helping to make the world a better place. As we help facilitate collaborations and exchanges we are providing opportunities for people to learn, grow, and become better world citizens. As people learn the Chinese language they are opening up opportunities for understanding and growth; they are making themselves better intellectually and they are making a better world by taking time to understand a culture that is rich, different, and exciting. As Confucius said almost 2500 years ago: “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.”