When in Taipei ...
It's hard to convince many Americans of the merits of studying a foreign language - particularly a difficult one. They are notoriously confident that the rest of the world really does speak English, or at least understand it, especially if it's spoken slowly and loudly.
What many don't know is how quickly you can get passionate about something that demands so much of you - and sets you apart from the crowd.
When I decided to study Japanese in college in the late 1970s, a number of people thought it was downright weird. Friends who saw the time involved exchanged "How are you?" for "How's Japanese going?" knowing that my state of mind could rise or fall with the difficulty of that day's assignment.
But the language gave me a perspective I wouldn't have traded, even for fewer hours in the language lab. Perhaps it was the window I gained on a completely different world. Perhaps it had something to do with the pleasure my father, a World War II veteran, took in the fact that his daughter was studying the language of a former adversary - a sign that the world could change.
Or maybe it was just the history lessons that hit home. One night after graduation, while visiting Taipei from my then-home in Tokyo, I became hopelessly lost. English and sign language weren't helping. Finally, gingerly, I approached some elderly people and asked if they spoke the language of their one-time occupiers.
I got my directions. But I also received an earful from a woman who yelled at me that she would never again speak Japanese. Fortunately, she did - just long enough for me to understand. And suddenly those history texts took on a whole new dimension.
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