AIT Kaohsiung chief lauds benefits of learning Taiwanese

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Matthew O'Connor, chief of the American Institute in Taiwan's Kaohsiung branch office(CNA)

Matthew O'Connor, chief of the American Institute in Taiwan's Kaohsiung branch office(CNA)

Even among polyglot foreign diplomats, Matthew O'Connor, chief of the American Institute in Taiwan's (AIT) Kaohsiung branch office, may be one of the few able to greet an interviewer in fluent Taiwanese.

A 47-year-old Maryland native and alumnus of Georgetown University's Graduate School of Foreign Service, O'Connor has spent a total of eight years in Taiwan since arriving in 1994 to study Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU).

In addition to his two years at NTNU, O'Connor worked in the Economic Section of AIT Taipei from 2006 to 2010, and assumed his current position in Kaohsiung in August 2017.

During a recent interview with CNA, O'Connor described the changes he has witnessed in Taiwan over the past quarter century, which he said included impressive strides in everything from public transport to air quality.

However, he said, his tenure in Kaohsiung has been special, for having introduced him to a totally new side of Taiwan -- something aided in no small measure by his knowledge of the Taiwanese language, which is widely spoken in the south.

O'Connor said he began learning the language back in 2006, simply because "many people's mother tongue is Taiwanese."

After learning the basics at the AIT language school on Yangmingshan, O'Connor said he made up for the relative lack of Taiwanese-language learning materials by developing study habits which he has continued up to the present, such as listening to Taiwanese-language news broadcasts, making conversation with taxi drivers and bus passengers, and working with a tutor.

More recently, O'Connor has marshaled these skills for AIT's Kaohsiung branch office by releasing Taiwanese-language holiday greetings, including videos for Lunar New Year and American Thanksgiving.

Studying Taiwanese, O'Connor said, has allowed him to "overcome the linguistic and cultural gaps" he might otherwise face in his work, and experience the "warmth" and "hospitality" of Kaohsiung residents, which he described as one of the highlights of a two-decade career that has taken him from Australia to Japan and Iraq.

Asked about his enthusiasm for southern Taiwan, O'Connor recalled accompanying Taiwanese Major League Baseball star Lin Tzu-wei (林子偉) on a visit to his elementary school in Namasia District, a mountain indigenous district located in rural Kaohsiung.

"The natural scenery and cultural sites there felt a world away from urban Taiwan, and made a really deep impression on me," he said.

As he approaches the end of his term next summer, and with his wife and five children waiting for him in Michigan, O'Connor said there are still several things he would like to do before leaving Taiwan, including visiting Meinong District, a famous center of Hakka culture in Kaohsiung, and climbing Yushan, Taiwan's highest mountain peak.

That, and continuing to improve his Taiwanese. So if you see O'Connor on the streets of Kaohsiung, don't be afraid to say "Li ho!"