This week was my first trip under my volunteering program ICL(International Companions for Learning), and I was fortunate enough to be chosen for an island trip to Liu Qiu Island. On the island, a group of us from NTU (comprising Taiwanese and other nationalities) participated in several activities with the students from Liu Qiu Elementary School as well as Liu Qiu Secondary School.

Instead of talking about my experience, I would like to share some of the interesting conversations I had with the people on Liu Qiu Island.

First was with the teacher during our canoeing activity. I noticed that children in the elementary school tend to default to using 台语, the Taiwanese dialect, instead of Chinese when speaking to each other, especially when they are excited. I asked the teacher if they are taught 台语 in school, and it turns out, as one of my Taiwanese companions clarified, that they do learn 台语/Hakka(客家话)/Southern Min (闽南语) during a class called 乡土语言. Other than that class, the other classes are carried out in Chinese. This is similar to Singapore’s situation where we take our Mother Tongue as a subject but our classes are carried out in English. However, most of the children owe their ability to speak fluent dialect to their environment, as many of their grandparents and the elderly on the island speak in dialect. Rather unsurprisingly, some of the children who did not live on the island when they were younger are unable to speak the language.

The interesting part about the conservation however, was that the teacher said that she uses dialect to speak to the kids during outings like these because it is to her the most comfortable medium for the moment. In her words, she is able to deliver with more excitement when she is using dialect to give the instructions.

Indeed, this confirms a special trait I realised about languages this exchange. Sometimes it seems like even when what we want to express can be conveyed in a different language, people are more likely to establish a closer relationship or connection when speaking in their mother tongue. Above communication, what being able to converse in another language might provide is a sense of familiarity and/or nostalgia.

Next, during dinner, I unknowingly engaged the principal of the school in a long conversation on various topics. I had previously missed his self-introduction as I had to Skype my assigned ICL students while the welcome session for this school was on-going.

Hopefully that didn’t cause any misunderstanding when I expressed my surprise at the end of the hour, but it was good I did not know the principal’s identity, since I would probably have been less comfortable speaking to him if I knew.

When I started talking to the principal, he began by recounting his experience in Singapore. He was particularly amazed by the flower domes at Gardens by the Bay. He explains that he thinks it is a feat for a tropical country to be able to breed such a large variety of flower species originating from different climates.

The principal’s interest in nature was apparent, and that spills over to the curriculum he arranges for the students in his primary school. He shared that his students have already been to a few wetlands around Taiwan, and if the parents are willing to bear some of the cost, he was considering bringing them to Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. I was surprised at how much exposure the school’s children were getting to things outside their academic curriculum, such as having international companions (us) and going on trips to wetlands.

During the conversation, the principal’s admiration for Taiwan could be seen as well. When he was talking about Gardens by the Bay, I agreed with him, but also pointed out that Taiwan has the natural nature’s beauty (mountains and seas) and that is something we can’t really experience in Singapore. He added that Taiwan is even more unique than that. He claims no other place has different temperatures across different parts of the island. I find that quite interesting as well. While we were experiencing cold weather of about 15 degrees Celsius in Taipei, a 5 hour bus ride southwest and we were having sunny weather again at about 26 degrees.

One last point I would like to mention about our conversation was the conflicting feelings he had about Liu Qiu Island’s transformation. In the past few years, many hostels and snorkeling shops popped up to serve the growing number of tourists coming to the island. I asked if he prefers having Liu Qiu become a popular tourist destination, but he avoided the question, answering that he does miss the times he had as a child on this island. In my conversation with the teacher, I could feel the same nostalgia. He said life was much more simple, and everything is moving so fast now. I’m sure many of the older generation feel the same way about the pace of the world and how things have changed, even those in Singapore.

Unfortunately, these changes are for the most part, inevitable. The good thing is that Liu Qiu became popular only in the past few years, where the notion of environmental protection is already pretty strong in Taiwan. Policies have been set in place to restrict fishing near this island and with more awareness on the environmental protection, deserted fish nets which were threatening the coral reefs and sea turtles a few years back have been cleared up by volunteers. These actions will hopefully allow Liu Qiu to stay as the charming island it is, moving along with the times but still preserving its natural beauty.

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