Sunday, January 20, 2008

When a Second Language Isn't Enough

Some students throw themselves into Spanish while in college--classes, study abroad, Spanish community service learning, Spanish honor society, Spanish-speaking friends--but then after graduation find themselves only around Spanish when they go to a Mexican restaurant. It has changed their perspectives, helped them have a more "international" world-view, but the connection is lost after college ends.

Then there are students for whom language and cultures--or in some cases, languages--seems to be woven into the very fabric of their lives. (I was like that; I couldn't have imagined building a life for myself after undergrad that didn't include languages and international experiences. So I got a PhD in Spanish, married someone from Italy, and have to wrap my mind around three languages--English, Spanish and Italian--and one dialect--Bergamasco--sometimes on a daily basis.)

Ian Easton is definitely one of the latter. He was in my SPAN 232 course with a truly extraordinary group of students. All of them were special in their own way. Ian stood out for his intelligence, curiosity, openness, and world experiences. (Oh, yeah--and those eyes!) He was also studying Asian languages at the same time he studied Spanish.

Now he's a grad student in Taiwan. He sends occassional e-mails detailing his adventures (and misadventures) as a student, a teacher, and as an ethnic outsider. The stories are funny and insightful, with Ian always able to laugh at himself.

I've told Ian this before--I hope he's saving these e-mails so that he can publish a book with them!

I'm not sure if he knows how much I enjoy reading his e-mail updates. They open a window onto a totally new world for me. I learn a lot from his stories, especially his recounting of those little culture-shocks that happen to us all when we venture forth from our own communities. (Aha! That's the connection to Spanish community service learning in this post!)

Below you'll find his latest group e-mail. It's long, but it clearly shows why I enjoy them so much.

Good luck with everything, Ian. You're a real inspiration to UIUC students. :)


"Dear all,

"Happy New Year from Taipei! It’s been a long time since I've written and I just thought I'd write and catch up on a few stories.

"It’s been an interesting semester. It started with the sudden appearance of pigs in the streets of the city. It’s the year of the pig (for a few more weeks anyways) and so a number of shop owners bought pot-bellied pigs for good luck. A couple live in my neighborhood and I have made friends with them. Now that it’s colder they trot around with little hand-knitted sweaters like the dogs, and sometimes you even catch one cruising around on a moped with its owner. You would have to see it to believe it.

"In September there were a couple of earthquakes, nothing big, but the pipes at the home of one of the families I tutor burst and flooded the upstairs. Then there was a "super" typhoon which hit Taipei head-on with sustained winds of 115 m/hr. I was hunkered down inside most of the storm but eventually I got hungry and went out to look for something to eat. Everything was closed, of course, but I was fascinated by the scenes on the street: trees down everywhere, debris of all sorts, and a few daring kids blown right off their mopeds in front of me. I was soaking wet and my umbrella ripped apart by the wind, but I tucked in and kept walking the surreally empty streets. And then I heard a tremendous metallic groaning from the building above me and dodged out of the way just as a giant neon sign the size of a truck came down in a shower of sparks and twisted electric wires. That’s when I decided it might be a good idea to go back inside.

"Not a week after that there was a massive cold-war style military parade in front of the presidential office to celebrate the founding of the Republic of China with tanks and missile erectors driving through the city and wave after wave of fighter jets and helicopters flying overhead. I felt like I had gone back in time as I watched. There was another earthquake, but nothing serious.

"I was invited to a luxury hotel to be an international taste-tester, part of Taipei's culinary "food week" festival, and spent one whole afternoon in a banquet hall eating mud crab, stinky tofu, 'buddha's delight' (which also stank), pig entrails, and god-knows what else while reporters shoved cameras and microphones in our faces to catch every reaction. The other international "judges" and I decided stinky tofu and pig entrails (i.e. guts, stomach lining, liver, hoof and rectum) did not past mustard, and voted for the dumplings and spring rolls. Several of the reporters were devastated. It was an experience all around, and afterwards I very undiplomatically went straight to Cold Stone to have a banana split to get the taste out of my mouth.

"A week or so later I was preparing to do some Christmas shopping. It was a sunny warm Saturday and I had just finished a tutoring class up in the wealthy suburbs north of the city. I got on the 285 bus and settled in for the 45 minute drive to downtown Taipei where I had plans to meet some friends at the concert hall. They were competing for cash prizes in a Chinese singing competition and I thought I would see what its like to hear foreign students from around the world sing in Chinese before doing my shopping. The bus pulled up to a light and another bus from the 285 bus line pulled up next to us and the two drivers rolled down their windows and started chatting as they sometimes do. Well these two drivers seemed to be best buddies and before I knew it they were laughing and hollering and slapping their knees. I was in the back of the bus and since they were jabbering in Taiwanese dialect I couldn’t be sure what they were talking so happily about, but it soon became clear that they had made a bet. They were going to drag race. And so off we went squealing through narrow lanes and over highway bridges, around mopeds and bicycles and carts hauling sugar cane and trucks of all description. Two massive city buses at full speed, with the two psycho drivers egging each other on, and me sitting in the back holding on for the ride (all the other passengers got off the first chance they got). Now it should be noted that I ride the Taipei buses almost every day and had never seen anything like it before. And even though the drivers were idiots, and despite bus racing being dangerous and reckless, I have to admit it was pretty fun and I was at the concert hall in record time. As I jumped off the bus, which never really came to a stop, rather just drifted though the stop in neutral before speeding off again, I imagined tomorrows Taipei Times headline: City Bus Drag Race Results in massive pile-up, Dozens Injured.

"Then came the massive global warming protest march mob. They had gathered at the square in front of the concert hall and as I was headed in they were noisily making their way out. Next I knew, I was swimming against the current in a stream of Asian hippies and school kids dressed in dinosaur costumes and hundreds of people beating on drums and yelling in loudspeakers about how unlivable the globe was becoming. I smiled and grabbed a poster or two and made my way through the throng as best as I could. And once inside the massive concert hall (which also features a movie theatre, and library, a calligraphy gallery, an art gallery, several small museums, shops and cafes) I promptly got lost and ended up in the darkened main hall watching the dress rehearsal for Arabian Nights Belly Dancing. Looked to be a good show (though the girls had to shake out a few kinks yet), but I couldn't stay for too long as my friends were calling me and so finally I found the side hall they were in.

"The singing contest was a mixture of extreme talent and tonal dare deviling. The highlight was a 300 pound African girl named Sha Sha with the energy to match her size, who rapped spit-fire in Chinese and danced so hard her wig fell off. The whole room was dancing and laughing and she won the 300 US dollar prize. After the show I went for a big Sushi dinner with friends and then shopping. On the way we walked across the square past teenagers break dancing, cheerleading dance teams practicing routines, old men flying kites, kung fu classed swinging swords, kids chasing balloons and couples walking their dogs (most unleashed and running wildly and happily and causing a couple of the old men to get their kite strings tangled and to start bickering). It was a good day.

"Christmas was good, and I fought homesickness the best I could with a combination of Christmas parties, ribs, steak, salmon and rum punch. My Christmas tree and lights are still up and I plan to keep them that way until at least St. Patricks Day.

"Now its time to buckle down, finish all my term papers and prepare my thesis proposal defense.

"Miss you all and hope this finds you in all the best of health and New Year's Happiness!


"P.S. I reached a Mandarin milestone this semester, my first novel: Hemingways 'The old Man and the Sea' in Chinese. Now I'm reading a lighter novel about a student doctor in residency in Taipei's Medical University Hospital. Its full of funny stories about the warring egos of doctors and the students caught in the middle. Thus my Chinese vocabulary set now includes not only words like "harpoon" "fish bait" and "shark dorsal fin," but also "ass-kissing" "organ transplant" "blood transfusion"...and of course "Buddha's Delight!"


  1. . Pienso que es muy importante y muy interesante saber y hablar español. Amaría aprender y entender otras lenguas y otros dialectos pero aprender solamente español ha sido muy difícil para mí. Para mí, la capacidad hablar con la gente con otra lengua es una experiencia muy bueno. Es como un mundo totalmente Nuevo! Cuando hablas una otra lengua puedes aprender mucho sobre la cultura y puedes hacer amigos más fáciles porque no existe una barrera lingüística. Los cuentos de Ian Easton son muy, muy interesante! El tenía experiencias que sueño con, a excepción de los inundaciones y familia que falta. Quiero viajar como él un día, y deseo que la gente pensara tenga una vida interesante. Pienso que aprende otra lengua es muy difícil y toma mucha tiempo, admiro toda la gente que conoce más entonces dos.

  2. Es interesante leer sobre las experiencias de un chico que vive en otro país y no sabe la lengua perfectamente. Para mi, siempre pensar desde entonces no hablo español perfectamente, es embarazoso hablar con hablantes nativos. Pero, Ian dice que su vocabulario es limitado, todavía, él vive en este lugar. Este dato es informativo para mí porque refuta todas mis creencias. Dice al principio del "Artículo" que muchas personas sumergen en Español durante la universidad, y una manera de esto es estudiar en España o otra país donde hablas español. Mientras que es triste que muchas personas olvidan sus experiencias, todavía pienso que este experiencia es único, y por el momento es un experiencia importante, a pesar de personas lo olvida. En general, algún experiencia con cultura en un situación auténtico, es mejor que una clase.

  3. Creo que sabiendo otro idioma es una experiencia y lección buena para gente. Pienso si yo no hablaba otro idioma (especialmente español) yo me sentiría incompleta. He sido suficiente afortunado para poder utilizar mi idioma de otra manera que con mi familia y aunque yo no sea una habladora perfecta yo continúo aprender el idioma para que yo finalmente lo pueda perfeccionar. Pienso que el principio del artículo hace un punto bueno acerca de personas que olvidan el idioma después de graduar. Pienso que esto empieza desde la secundaría. Yo no puedo imaginarme que esto me pase a mí, no simplemente porque mi familia habla español pero porque yo un día quisiera servir las comunidades latinas en forma de ser una maestra Bilingüe o "Dual Language". Pienso que personas se olvidan porque ellos escogen a olvidarse. Creo que si personas no quisieron olvidarse que ellos se esforzarían a ponerlo en uso o hacerlo una parte grande de su vida. Próximo, me interesaba leer acerca de la experiencia de un estudiante en otro idioma y el país. El parece ser tan cómodo con donde él está en el país, con las personas, y con el idioma (aunque él parezca todavía tener un problema). La carta que él escribe me interesa y es relatable.

  4. Para mi es difícil empezar una vida sin español. Abre oportunidades para progresar en la escuela y de ser una persona mejor. Me encanto hablar con gente y este idioma ofrece esta posibilidad porque está integrando en la vida.
    El semestre pasada volanteó por los olímpicos especiales en una escuela secundario. Cuando el jefe de la organización divide los trabajos, me dio la responsabilidad de organizar el almuerzo. Todo fue fácil; Subway trajo sus sándwiches, el gimnasio estaba abierto, pero no teníamos suficiente agua para hacer la limonada. Las fuentes para beber no podrían llenar las dos jarras grandes y por eso fuimos a la cocina de maestros para usar un fregadero. Solo podría llenar media jarra y cuando lo saco del fregadero, todo el agua voltio. Fue un desastre. Tratemos de limpiar todo pero fue imposible y todavía no tuvimos la limonada. Pero un bedel he oído el ruido y fue a investigar. El hombre era latino y cuando lo vi hable en español y describió el problema. Fue muy agradable y nos ayudo a encontrar un cubo para verter el agua en las jarras y limpio toda el agua. La otra gente del grupo se fue cuando términos llenado las botellas de agua, pero quedo para hablar con él.
    Hablemos de la importancia de saber español en la comunidad y aprender de entender ultras culturas. También hablemos sobre su familia. Fue muy orgulloso de sus tres niños que hablen los dos idiomas. Dije que pone importancia en educación y quiere que sus niños tengan la posibilidad de ir a la universidad. Me encanto de hablar con él porque me dio un aspecto nuevo de los difíciles de ser emigrante en los Estados Unidos. El español da otra conexión para gente de aprender uno al otro y no es que cuando salimos de escuela no lo usamos, solo necesitamos buscar para usarlo.

  5. Siendo mexicana, siempre sabía que el español sería una parte de mi vida. La razón me concentre tanto en los cursos españoles era porque queria mejorar mi capacidad de leer y de escribir en español. Era importantepara mi porque queria presentarme en una conversación la manera que intentaba. Desde la continuación de los curso en español estoy considerando en el futuro estudiar otros idiomas y culturas. Deseo entrar derecho internacional y quiero vivir en otros países differentes. Con el estudio de la lengua y de la cultura española me he abierto los ojos a el resto del mundo.