This will hopefully be the first of weekly posts on Sundays, assuming there is something worth posting about, of course.
The Chinese language class I signed up for this summer began in earnest this past week. I am studying at National Taiwan Normal University’s Mandarin Training Center. (I’m not sure why the university is called “Normal” university; in Chinese it is 師範大學 shī fàn dà xué.) This is Taiwan’s largest and oldest Mandarin program, with somewhere around 1,200 students at the moment. I didn’t know it was that large when I applied, but the teachers seem to be excellent, and they have definitely honed their methods over years of experience.
The class has a fairly intensive workload, with three hours of class Monday-Friday, and between 2-4 hours of homework each evening. When I arrived in Taiwan, the original thought was to stay at 天南寺 (Tian Nan temple, see the first post), which is closer to Taipei, rather than here at DDM. I have chosen to try and stay here at the main monastery, as it is more conducive for study and for learning Chinese Buddhist monastic customs. However, this also means that it takes about 4 1/2 to 5 hours of travel each day to get to and from class. Most if that time (about one hour and 45 minutes one way) is spent on a bus from DDM to Taipei’s main bus/rail/subway station. I am able to use the time on the bus for study at the moment, and it isn’t too exhausting.
At the beginning of every two out of three classes at school, we are given a 聽寫 (tīngxiě), which is basically a dictation test: the teacher reads something in Chinese (a number of times, fortunately), and we write out the characters. For someone, like myself, who has relied heavily on computer input when writing Chinese characters (which only needs recognition) rather than actually writing characters (which requires memorization), this has been a bit of a challenge. Much of my efforts outside of class has been in memorizing characters, so far with some measure of success. (However, I’m suspicious of my long-term retention abilities.)
In addition to the near daily 聽寫, we are tested every third day as we complete a chapter. This test includes dictation, writing, reading, and speaking. So, with the pace of the class moving through one chapter every three days, one’s brain is given an extra workout.
At the moment, there are just four people in my particular class, which meets in the afternoon from 2:20-5:10pm. However, one of the other students is going to try and move to an easier section, which would leave just three of us; something that the university doesn’t allow. So, I’m not sure what will happen to our class this week.
There are a number of other monks taking classes at the Mandarin Training Center. I have met some of them, though their English is much worse than their Chinese, and I my Chinese is much worse than theirs. There seems to be monks from Thailand, Sri Lanka (maybe), and Korea. I’m the only western monk I’ve seen.
I have been leaving DDM on the first bus, around 7:50am, and going directly to DDM’s Taipei office building I mentioned in the second post, via the subway and a short walk. This is a 10-floor office building that houses many of the non-profit off-shoots from DDM: their foundation, a youth organization, their University (temporary quarters while the actual university is built at DDM itself; this is different university from the ones I’ve mentioned already), and other activities. They have a very nice library on the 10th floor where I go and study for class for a couple of hours. At 12pm, they offer lunch to all the workers and volunteers in the building, and kindly extend the offer to me. So, I tend to eat with the monastics and staff of their Youth Society, located on the 3rd floor. They have been very kind and helpful with encouraging my studies, as well as practicing their English. There are a couple of staff and volunteers to do speak English quite well. Once lunch is finished, I head to the university and bide my time in their library reviewing before class.
Once class if finished, I try to head straight to the Taipei main bus/train/subway station again, as I can catch the 6:15pm bus back to DDM. Most days, this takes about two hours, because of the traffic. On Friday evenings, however, it is closer to three. For some reason, there are many extra cars on the road. Regardless, each day is about 12 hours. It is long, but it isn’t hectic or full of stress, for which I am grateful.
I was going to include a bit in this post about running into a Buddhist teacher and monk at DDM’s downtown office I knew from California, but I think I’ll start a new one, as this is already long enough, and not all that interesting.
Taipei is full of myriad sights, sounds, and smells, and it is an interesting practice as one traverses through the city to watch the senses rise and fall with each new contact. Being a monk in Taiwan, fortunately, gives me the permission to just keep to myself and quietly walk through everything. That being said, I have met a few interesting and kind people just coming and going, some monks and some who are not Buddhist. People are generally very kind here, and Taiwan is known to be a fairly safe place.