Lingua franca

This past week’s lapse in updates was partly because I wanted to take a break to think about more things to write, and in part due to the fact that today was the birthday of NCKU. In honor of that, there were no classes held today, and instead I joined the Chinese Language Center for the shortest parade ever (we walked halfway around a small track) and when we passed by the stands we said “Happy birthday NCKU in Chinese”. Even though it was hot, it was kind of disappointing to for a parade to be so completely half-hearted. Having made the effort to gather people and bother with the activity, the parading should probably be at least the same amount of time that it took for everyone to line up and organize. In this case, that would probably be 20-30 minutes…)


After the “parade”, I hung around the campus and saw some of the other activities that were being held. Mostly a group of my classmates and I stayed near where student groups set up stands and were hawking food as well as offering carnival-type games. So yes, like a Taiwanese night market, just held during the day. And like proper night market style, we walked around the area multiple times, buying one or two items at a time and sharing them with everyone in the group. It’s not a particularly hygienic way to eat, but it’s a better way to satisfy the fact that everything looks/smells/tastes delicious. We played some of the ridiculous games, and then sat and chatted about nothing for a while.


Or, like what happens often with students at the Chinese Language Center, we taught each other fragments of different languages. This is something that I’m really enjoying about studying Chinese this time around that I did not experience with any of the other times that I have studied Chinese in a classroom. Most of my classmates aren’t native English speakers, and for that matter, most of them aren’t even from anywhere near North America. Mostly, they are Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese but there is also a variety of other nationalities mixed in. I doubt I would have thought of this as an advantage before coming here, so I want to elaborate a bit on why I’ve come to view it as such.


The first time I really made rapid progress with studying Chinese was when I studied abroad in Beijing. The main reason for the leaps and bounds that I made during those short 8 weeks was most likely the language pledge that we signed and adhered to (for the first half anyway). Although the immersion situation was also helpful, the language pledge guaranteed that I had to use the language in a practical way, every day, all the time. Up until that point, I hadn’t really ever learned Chinese separate from English, but suddenly class was taught entirely in Chinese, and there began to be some separation between the two languages: Instead of being able to choose the most clear and easy way of conveying a concept which would always mean using English, this crutch was entirely removed and there was no option to bail from attempting to make myself understood using Chinese. Unfortunately, that condition lifted when I returned to the US and remained that way until I moved to Taiwan. Still, I imagined that when I returned to taking classes, English would still be the basis of learning Chinese, and it’d become the usual stepping stone into the other language.


After arriving at the CLC at NCKU, I realized that this would not be he case: having classmates who aren’t fluent in English eliminates this as an option. Especially at the level that I’m at now, it is better that everything is taught in Chinese, anyway. And at NCKU, I only turn to my classmates and speak Chinese, no matter what we’re doing because we don’t share any other language by which we can really communicate – no language pledge involved! The temptation to just skip to fast and easy communication using English is eliminated. Of course, I often do hear English as a lingua franca between students when they’re out of class – especially for the lower level students, but in my classes there are no other native English speakers, so it just generally doesn’t happen.


Another bonus to taking classes with students who aren’t native English speakers is that I find myself less likely to adopt their mistakes. This is, again, something that I never would have thought a bonus until it happened. The pronunciation mistakes that I hear Japanese students are simply not errors that I find myself making with any systematic regularity (just for example: Japanese students seem to have problems with the initial sounds in Mandarin, and also mispronounce “i’ and “e” in ways that I am pretty sure I have never done). Conversely, despite the amount of hours that I have spent trying eliminate my American accent, if I hang around other American speakers of Chinese, I hear my accent slide towards theirs disappointingly quickly. Mistakes with things like grammar and word usage are harder to detect, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a similar kind of buffer.


And of course, the side benefit is that perhaps I’ll pick up a few random phrases in Vietnamese, Japanese, Cantonese, Thai, Korean, etc… before I leave.


This is not at all where I was really intending to go when I sat down to write this, but I’ll post it anyway, and hopefully get around to telling the other pieces that I want to talk about later – such as why I was busy last week.

Final note on my life: it’s been really humid and warm again in Tainan recently which has led to an epic boom in the mosquito population. Not cool. I may have even stayed up writing this in between I hunting a mosquito in my room.


This is a long, long overdue post on dogs.


Taiwan has a large population of dogs, and I strong feelings about Taiwanese dogs. I find that dogs in Taiwan have surprisingly different manifestations than their US counterparts, and therefore, I’d like to share some things about Taiwanese dogs.


It is impossible to miss them in Taipei. After all, they are being toted around in purses, they are being pushed in strollers, they are being carried through fancy department stores. Even though Taiwan’s younger population is not into reproducing (it has one of the lowest per capita birth rates in the world), this hasn’t stopped young Taiwanese from having babies. It’s just that their “babies” are often dogs that are groomed to a T. Dog ownership is increasing in Taiwan, especially in urban areas, and owners are spending more on their pets to pamper them like part of the family.


But my strong feelings about dogs are not really about these dogs. I am happy that people can form bonds with these animals and am sure that both parties benefit.


I really want to talk about the stray dogs in Taiwan. What I would really like to communicate is how much I believe Taiwan’s stray dog population is a problem. And that is why you may notice that this post has a lack of adorable dog pictures, because I am actually writing this out of frustration and fear and I just don’t want to add cute dog pictures to the sentiment. For my dog-loving and non-dog-loving readers alike, hang tight, things are about to get serious.


What is a stray dog problem? For context, Detroit and Bucharest have both been in the news recently because of stray dog problems. Estimates for stray dogs in these regions are around 0.01 and 0.028 per capita, respectively. Taiwan’s stray dog population is at 0.0079 per capita as of a 2010 estimate (Peng et al. 2012). But before you laud that as “not bad”, remember that these are per human capita estimates. Therefore, it’s important to also consider the density of humans that we are talking about. This is also important because I am most concerned about the problems that arise when humans run into stray dogs (stray dogs also tend to have bad lives due to chronic disease and malnutrition, and also might interfere with local fauna, ex. Butler et al. 2004, so it’s a bad situation for everyone, but I’m going to mainly focus on problems with human-dog interactions), which is going to happen at a higher rate if there are both a lot of stray dogs and a lot of humans in a small area.  It turns out that Detroit’s human population density is 1,985/km2 and Bucharest’s is 8,260/km2 and Taipei’s is 9,800/km2 (source: Wikipedia). So Taiwan’s stray dog population may be lower per capita than Detroit’s, but the truth is that they are living unavoidably in the same space as people.


I am also positive – although this is a problem, I’m not alone in thinking about it. There have been huge improvements in the reduction of stray dogs per capita, which used to be 0.033 (higher than Bucharest is now). Apparently the great boom in Taiwan’s stray dog population occurred in the late 1980s to the early 1990’s, which is when numbers became truly unacceptable. Activists have been mobilized on this issue in Taiwan ever since (check out this recent example), and there have been some good improvements since then, including the signing of Taiwan’s Animal Protection Act in 1998. This increased public animal shelters across the island. It hasn’t been a smooth road of improvements: there were various media scandals about abuse at the shelters involving cruel executions and using the dogs for fighting (Peng et al. 2012). Furthermore, adoption rates from shelters is still quite low, and the vast majority of dogs in shelters are euthanized after a period of 7-12 holding days.


Unfortunately, a lack of proper education has turned this into a vicious cycle. Generally speaking, stray dogs only occur in high numbers due to human behaviors – they are often too malnourished to have high reproductive rates in the wild, a stray dog population is sustained largely by human abandonment. Alas, many Taiwanese know that if they turn a dog into a shelter, it will be likely be euthanized. Thus, out of what they think is compassion, they release the dog to the streets (Hsu et al. 2003). This is also more likely to occur because it could be that they got the animal for free, or nearly free, and therefore don’t see a great loss to removing the animal from their care if it is not behaving well. The source of low-cost or free- puppies is likely due to low spay and neutering rates, which Taiwanese dog owners do less frequently than American dog owners.  It also turns out that non-spayed or neutered animals are more likely to escape to get on their sexy times, which may then lead to them being lost, and ended up out on the street for good.


Which brings me to a point that is different from most dog owners that I know in the States: sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between stray dogs and dogs that are being kept. It’s seems that it’s a pretty common practice for people to sort of keep dogs around, which may be former strays that they feed out of pity. Or it can simply be a dog that they keep outside the house. These somewhat more laissez-faire methods of keeping dogs are more common in less urban areas with more space. They are also likely responsible for the response rate of nearly 30% of dog owners reporting that they had “lost” a dog in the past. An irresponsibly-raised free-roaming dog is but a few steps away from stray.


I wanted to talk about this partially because the university where I am studying right now, NCKU, also feels very strongly about dogs. This is an entire page about the status of stray dogs on the campus.  Unfortunately, some of the pages there don’t work, but there are actually multiple videos that the student animal rights group has made about these stray dogs. This one provides pretty thorough interviews with the leaders of the volunteer group, and introduces some of the work that they do. According to the interviews in the video, there are most likely nearly 30 stray dogs on campus, possibly up to 40.  “Most of them are friendly and you can pet them. There are only a few that don’t like people very much… if you come by they will just avoid you by themselves.” Essentially, the group does the best that they can to take care of the animals, seeing that they are fed and get the proper veterinary care, and of course that they get spayed and neutered. “Taiwan has a lot of stray dogs. So if there are strays constantly entering and leaving the campus, then we can’t tell if newly entered dogs will chase people. But if we have a stable population of dogs in the campus, then we can understand their situation. We can train them so they won’t chase people, they won’t bite people. Then we can use their territorial nature to keep too many other strays from wandering into the campus. That way, really, the campus…is more stable.” [translations by me, sorry if they’re a bit awkward]


Why does NCKU care so much about the campus stray dog population? In part, it’s because in 2008, an elderly French teacher on campus was startled when the dogs started chasing her on her bike. She fell over and hit her head, knocking her unconscious. The teacher who told me this story also said that she thought this French woman suffered some permanent brain damage due to the incident. It certainly inspired action on the part of the university.


A sign on the NCKU campus from the animal protection group about how to handle the stray dogs on the campus. ("Please read the dog's body language before you decide to pet it.")
A sign on the NCKU campus from the animal protection group about how to handle the stray dogs on the campus. (“Please read the dog’s body language before you decide to pet it.”)

To add my personal experiences: nothing makes your heart and your bike race faster than being chased by a pack of 10+ stray dogs on a dark empty road. As far as I’m concerned, this is a scary problem.


On a lighter note, there was this time that New Taipei City traded gold for dog poop.



And with that… Blogathon officially completed! That was tiring, but also inspiring. Not only do I have a lot of ideas for new posts, I feel more willing to try some more complicated formats that I’ve thought about using but have been too scared to try before. Also, thanks for those who provided some encouragement along the way.


Of course, while I write this blog for myself, I also put this out on the Internet for a reason. I sure could save a lot of time if didn’t try to make this something that I think other people wanted to read, so I always welcome your opinions. I think I covered a good breadth of topics and had some different types of posts this week. If you want to tell me your preferences for what you’d like to read more of while they’re fresh in your mind (ex: “more vignettes and please don’t ramble about your personal issues like with your name cuz that’s boring” or “please post more collections of pictures on a theme” or “your secondary research / collected data and observation posts tend to be old knowledge and are therefore kind of blah” or “tell me more about how much you love your bike”), I’ll definitely listen and maybe even pay attention…but no guarantees.


Cited works

Butler, J.R.A,  J.T du Toit, J. Bingham. (2004). Free-ranging domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) as predators and prey in rural Zimbabwe: threats of competition and disease to large wild carnivores. Biological Conservation. 115(3), 369-378. doi:10.1016/S0006-3207(03)00152-6.


Hsu, Y., Severinghaus, L. L., & James, A. (2003). Dog Keeping in Taiwan : Its Contribution to the Problem of Free-Roaming Dogs. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 6(1), 1–23. doi:10.1207/S15327604JAWS0601


Peng, S. J.-L., Lee, L. Y.-T., & Fei, A. C.-Y. (2012). Shelter animal management and trends in Taiwan. Journal of applied animal welfare science : JAAWS, 15(4), 346–57. doi:10.1080/10888705.2012.709143