When I moved to Kinmen in August, I had never taken a class in Mandarin. Knowledge of Chinese was not a requirement of my teaching grant, but I expected to encounter language barriers during my stay here. What I had not anticipated was the magnitude of these barriers.
I quickly found that knowing Chinese was a very important tool for ordering food, getting directions, buying movie tickets, and most other interpersonal interactions. The simplest every day tasks required me to know some Chinese. As such,language--and the awareness that I did not share a common one with most of the people around me--has become a topic that is important for most of my day-to-day interactions. When I consider dinner, I not only have to think about what I want to eat, but also which restaurant may have an English menu or meals that I am already familiar with and can easily identify.
My job as an English teacher has also put language at the forefront of my mind. I love working with students and trying to find ways for English to make sense. Explaining English grammar, however, is harder when the teacher does not share a language with the students. One of the reasons why I love teaching is because of this challenge of trying to help students understand a concept in an unfamiliar language. This is difficult work, but once they do understand, it is very rewarding.
Understandably, language occupies my mind during school whether I am planning English lessons, trying to convey those lessons to my Chinese-speaking students, or attempting to learn Chinese words on breaks. On breaks between classes, the teacher-student roles are sometimes reversed. Students, try to teach me useful Chinese words such as "water," "eraser," or "pen." There is never a moment during my workday where language does not occupy my thoughts, whether it is Chinese or English.
I started taking ukulele classes at the community college a few weeks ago. I am not good at the instrument, but the classes have become one of my favorite parts of living on Kinmen. I love learning the ukulele. Unlike learning Chinese, if I do not master it, it will not affect my ability to talk to people, order food, or get a taxi. There is no pressure behind learning. Additionally, it does not matter that I do not speak Chinese when I learn ukulele. Music is the same in every language, and learning ukulele is the first thing I have done in Kinmen that is not affected by English or Chinese.
In a way, the ukulele makes me feel even more connected to the community. I think there is something very relaxing about being immersed in the Kinmen community with no pressure to converse in Chinese or teach English. Instead,we all get to struggle learning something as simple as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star", in the shared language of music.