Case is a current scholar in the 2022 NSLI-Y Chinese program in Kaohsiung, Taiwan from Huntersville, North Carolina. Growing up with a father in the military, Case would often miss time with his father as he served several year-long deployments, and this paired with an interest in international relations led him to pursue a career in diplomacy and international law. Case believes that language can open up conversations once thought unlikely and hopes to learn Mandarin Chinese to gain this key that could help in promoting cooperation and avoiding conflict.
A singular flamingo with fading beauty entrapped by gates all around it. A town with countless shops selling the same thing made by the same vendor, walls enclosing it on every side, and not one place for people to live. This was my first time visiting another country, and I can’t even remember its name. In the past year alone I was lucky enough to leave the United States three separate times for travel, which may not seem like a lot for some but keep in mind that I had never been able to travel abroad prior to this. The first came when my family decided to go on a cruise for Christmas break, and although my head was still spinning over college applications, I was quite excited to go. However, instead of arriving at a country rich with countless stories and traditions, I was met with an artificial town that told nothing of what life was like there. I tried to learn more, but even after exploring every inch of this enclosed resort, I found nothing. That was until I found a way outside of the resort, and what I saw beyond those walls was a completely different world from what was within that artificial town. Although I was physically in another country, I was worlds away from it.
A very common misconception is that simply visiting another country will lead one to develop a greater understanding of the world at large and form more feelings of empathy. However, when we are closeted from the realities of another society or hyper-fixate on being of a different nationality, we are limited in growing these two qualities. Joseph M. Cheer, a professor in Tourism at Wakayama University in Japan pointed this phenomenon out in his 2019 study on empathy in tourism (See Note). In this study, he observed tourists on a bike tour in Cambodia to see what they were able to gain from this experience, helping them to visit local organizations and speak with the local population. After the tour, interviews of the bikers revealed that although they had been exposed to a large portion of Cambodians they spoke of them more as “others” rather than fellow humans. Rather than being normal people with their own faults and struggles, the locals were seen as either “happy, “lovely,” and “generous” or as service providers for them on their journey through Cambodia (Terry). Although travel can be extremely helpful, it will be hampered by the constant “othering” of another population. However, by remaining mindful of this pitfall, learning more about the history of a given country, and speaking with the local population on an equal level, not through transactional experiences, there is hope.
This was something shown to me during my second trip of the year during spring break 2022. Then, I was lucky enough to head off to Iceland with my teachers and classmates to learn about its natural beauty, inventive technology, and compelling history. Through learning at museums, speaking with experts, and visiting the key spots of Iceland, I was able to be quite immersed in the country of Iceland. This would be a far cry from the disconnected feelings I felt before on the cruise, as I still remember our exuberant tour guide who would talk for hours, even when the entire bus had passed out, cooking bread by burying it within hot spots in the ground, and almost missing the bus because I was so enthralled in Iceland’s history at one of the museums. However, as much as I was able to learn about Iceland, I still knew nothing of its people. Although I was able to see and experience a lot of what Iceland had to offer, I was still simply an observer.
When coming to Taiwan, I still hadn’t answered one extremely important question that related to my entire purpose of being there. Why do I want to learn Chinese? Of course, I had my answer that I was “interested in a career in international law and wanted to gain a skill necessary for this field,” but that was merely my justification for this decision. Although I knew why it was important for me to learn Chinese, I had no internal motivation for it, I was simply checking off a box on what I needed to pursue my passion. So, after finally getting out of the quarantine hotel and into the car of my host family for the next year, I felt lost. With no prior experience in Chinese and weak motivation, I was physically in the car with my host family but was locked away from any form of connection.
Although my language abilities weren’t great, I was still able to get across what I needed to with my host family through google translate and even had deep conversations with them despite using a different voice to speak with them. However, on a daily basis, whether it was with students I met around campus, at volleyball and kickboxing club practices, or during my Taiwanese copyright law class, I was constantly out of the loop. Although translation exists, it can be incredibly dissatisfying to constantly be talking through a phone and allows for no casual conversations to take place. For a while, it felt like I wasn’t really learning anything outside of my required classes, and I began to even ponder if coming here was a mistake, that maybe I wasn’t the right fit for this program. Yes I joined the student council, but to do so I had to have our program coordinator translate what I was saying to the teacher just to join it, so yes, I was able to take part in multiple classes and clubs outside of my language ones, but I was constantly forcing people to have to use their English because my Chinese wasn’t strong enough, and yes I was learning how to speak Chinese, but I wasn’t learning anything about what it meant to be Taiwanese. If this was going to be a worthwhile experience, something needed to change, and that change had to come from me.
Julius Tsai, head of the cultural news team of the Kaohsiung branch of the American Institute in Taiwan, was giving us our briefing on what to expect from Taiwan and what protocols we should follow while here. Although this was supposed to be a pretty routine meeting, there he was something that really struck a chord with me. Growing up in a multilingual house over the years and living in countless different countries because of his work with the US Department of State, he saw languages not as a skill necessary for his work, but as a key, a key to truly understanding the people of another country. For weeks I tried to grasp what he was getting at and was honestly confused as to whether that was any different from how I had seen it before. Of course, I continued on with my life in Taiwan for a while, but, for some reason, I couldn’t get his message out of my head. After a long day and a late-night workout session at the school’s gym, I boarded the 72a bus for my home, a bus I typically didn’t take. I didn’t have time to check if it was going to my home, but my home was pretty close, and being close to being late for curfew, I took a leap of faith and got onto the bus. I used my weak Chinese to ask the bus driver if we were passing by home and through a little struggle I was able to conclude that we were. However, after sorting that out, for some reason, I decided to ask the driver about himself. The conversation was rough switching between his weak English and my weak Chinese whenever we had to fill in the gaps in our literacy, but, since he was driving the bus we had no choice to make. At first, I didn’t think much of it outside of him just being a nice person, but, over the next few weeks I would end up taking this bus more and more simply because it would come out right around the time I was usually heading home, and over this period I began to form a real connection with him. Every day I’d learn more and more about his brief stint in the US as a truck driver, his thoughts and experiences living in Taiwan, and his family, while I would exchange stories about my life and experiences. Rather than seeing each other as “others” we were individuals on level ground. It was through these regular conversations that I finally understood what Mr. Tsai was saying. Through language, we can tear down the barrier that separates us from understanding each other. Language is the key that I was missing.
Ever since this realization, my passion for language was no longer from seeing it as a means to achieve my goals, learning was the key to understanding others in Taiwan. I studied more, used whatever language I had to speak with classmates and host family, and strengthened my bonds with my Taiwanese friends. Despite living in Taiwan for multiple weeks, even months at this point, I had only just begun to connect with my life here. This isn’t to say that I will ever understand what it’s like to grow up in Taiwan because I’ve never done that, and this isn’t to say that you won’t be able to connect with people if you don’t understand their language, however, to fully understand one another and speak on level ground, I believe that language is necessary. Although you can speak with someone on the other side of the door, you won’t be able to fully understand them if you can’t open it and see them eye to eye.
Terry, Ruth. “Travel Is Said to Increase Cultural Understanding. Does It?” Travel, National Geographic, 4 May 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/does-travel-really-lead-to-empathy.
Zamanillo Tamborrel, Lourdes L., and Joseph M. Cheer. “Harnessing Empathy in Hospitality and Tourism: Are Conversations the Answer?” Hospitality & Society, vol. 9, no. 1, 2019, pp. 53–70., https://doi.org/10.1386/hosp.9.1.53_1.
Note: Being unable to access Joseph M. Cheer’s piece in “Harnessing Empathy in Hospitality and Tourism: Are Conversations the Answer?” I used a secondary source to learn about this study which was an article by Ruth Terry.