Q&A: Leadership Network member weathers turbulent 2020 in Taiwan

As Covid-19 battered the world, Leadership Network member Amanda Cundy weathered 2020 studying Mandarin in one of the few countries less impacted by the virus than New Zealand. We chat to her about life in Taiwan, studying Chinese and her plans for the future.
Amanda Cundy with traditional Chinese building behind her

Amanda: "What struck me most [about Taiwan] is how progressive the government is and how vibrant and participatory society is, especially among students and young people."

Where were you living in Taiwan?

I was based in Taipei, Taiwan’s high-energy capital, famous for its lantern-stringed night markets, modern skyscrapers, student activism, and incomparable public transport!

What were you most struck by about Taiwan when you first moved there?

Taiwan is truly one of a kind and unlike any other country I’ve visited in Asia. What struck me most is how progressive the government is and how vibrant and participatory society is, especially among students and young people.

With a pragmatic female leader, legalised same-sex marriage, universal health care, and a recent push for renewable energy, Taiwan’s political initiatives have the younger generation’s stamp all over them.

You can tell straight away how much the Taiwanese value their democracy, and how well they make use of a government eager to listen. A highlight of my time there was definitely joining in the celebrations at the Taipei Pride Festival last year, which was – due to the pandemic - the world’s largest! 

Why did you want to study Mandarin and why did you chose Taiwan as the place to study it?

I’d spent some time studying in Mainland China during my time at University and had an amazing experience. I wanted to do something similar again and try to strengthen my language skills before I became too settled in my career.

Taiwan attracted my attention because I’d never visited the island before and wanted to experience a different environment. Friends had described Taiwan as a fabulous alternative for learning Chinese, as long as you don’t mind the complicated traditional characters!  

What course did you do and what did it involve?

My course was an intensive Mandarin programme offered by the Mandarin Training Centre at National Taiwan Normal University. The course offers a largely practical approach to language learning, which is perfect for people who value interpersonal communication and exchange over a more academic focus.

The programme covered topics like freedom of speech in the digital world, the societal effects of aging populations and dropping birth rates, Asia’s start-up culture, and the evolution of democracy in Taiwan. Teachers encouraged us to voice our opinions and the classroom was always highly engaged in lively debates!        

Amanda sitting on a large rock with a group of friends

Amanda: "Finding a career path that integrates my language skills is non-negotiable..."

How does living in a Mandarin-speaking country help the language-learning process?

Anyone who has done a similar course would agree that nothing compares to total emersion. Admittedly, language learning doesn’t come naturally to me, so being forced to live and breathe Mandarin day in and day out is really the only way to go! It can be a little daunting of course, but the results are so worth it and, if you’re in Taiwan, there is never a shortage of friendly locals who are more than happy to help you out.

What was it like weathering the storm that was 2020 in Taiwan?

I got the call I had been dreading in early March, from my parents telling me it was time to come home before the situation in Asia got any worse. At the time, the Corona Virus hadn’t yet made it into New Zealand but was already being dealt with decisively and effectively by President Tsai Ing-Wen’s administration.

The decision to stay was certainly not one I took lightly, but the mitigation policies that had already been introduced, along with the conviction and compliance of the Taiwanese people, had already told me everything I needed to know about how the pandemic was going to play out there.   

How do you plan to use the Mandarin-language skills you acquired?

Finding a career path that integrates my language skills is non-negotiable, if not because I love working across cultures then because I’m afraid I’ll lose it all if I don’t practice every day!

I’d love to be able to pick up where I left off in the international relations field and I see bilingual people as key brokers of those connections and partnerships. To that end, I believe there will always be room for people who are passionate about language and culture in that space.

When did you return to New Zealand and why?

I completed my scholarship in November and was home in time for Christmas. Before the pandemic, I had briefly entertained the idea of staying in Asia and trying my luck in the job market there, but for now I’m happy to be back in Wellington and keen to get stuck into building a career here.

Do you plan on moving back to Taiwan or elsewhere in China?

My mind will always be open to the possibility of living and working in Asia! I tend not to plan too far ahead in life, as there could always be an unmissable opportunity waiting to redirect you somewhere you never thought you’d end up. For now I’m committed to life in New Zealand, though I’d be far from surprised if I found myself back in Taipei, or even Shanghai or Seoul in the near future!