Taipei, April 19 (CNA) Foreign students who are learning Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan found the annual Dajia Matsu pilgrimage to be a special and helpful experience as they joined the ranks of hundreds of thousands of local pilgrims earlier this month.
This kind of rare opportunity to get up close and personal with Taiwanese culture allowed them to learn more about the local religious activity and its importance to the people of the island, they told CNA in an interview.
"I was really shocked when I saw many people participate in the pilgrimage," said Hayato Wong, a 30-year-old student from the United States.
"It was a special experience," said Wong, who is learning Mandarin at Feng Chia University in the central city of Taichung. It was not only a cultural experience but also offered an opportunity to improve his Chinese skills, he added.
Wong was among the more than 100 foreign students from 24 countries who participated in an activity dubbed joining the "Matsu frenzy while learning Chinese," which was co-organized by the Ministry of Education and Feng Chia University.
The students first went to Yonghe Palace in the city's Dadu district, where teachers from the Chinese Language Center of Feng Chia University gave briefings on the architecture of Taiwan's temples, the legend of Matsu, and the Matsu religious ceremony and its cultural implications.
As part of the activity, the students had to learn some simple words or sentences in Chinese and Taiwanese so that they could interact with the other followers in the Matsu procession, which they joined on April 9 and marched in for about four kilometers.
Some of the students also got the opportunity to experience the ritual of "crouching under Matsu's palanquin." Followers believe that they will receive a blessing from the goddess if they do so.
"It was the most impressive experience of the activity," Wong said of his experience of crouching under the palanquin of the popular Taoist goddess, who is said to protect fisherman and sailors.
Also participating in the activity was Wong's fiancee, Ikuyo Sugimoto, who is also learning Chinese at Feng Chia University.
"I was very happy to have joined this activity," Sugimoto said, adding that it helped her learn more about Taiwanese culture.
The briefings helped her understand the relationship between the goddess and Taiwan, said the 32-year-old.
During the cultural activity, Sugimoto also learned some words in Taiwanese dialect such as "poe," meaning a pair of half-moon-shaped wooden blocks. They are used for divination at temples in Taiwan by throwing them on the floor to see whether they land rounded-side-up or flat-side-up.
Followers will pose questions and then phrase an answer, before throwing a pair of "poe" to receive confirmation or negation of the answer.
An Indian student learning Chinese at Feng Chia University also found it to be a special cultural experience.
Through the activity, he learned a lot about how Taiwanese people worship the goddess, said Sadnam Singh, 32.
To get up close and personal with Taiwanese culture, he also followed local devotees to lie down on the road to let Matsu pass over, a move to get a blessing, he said.
Seeing so many people join the pilgrimage, he felt that "Matsu is the god of Taiwan."
Marine Abodi, a 31-year-old from France, said participating in the activity was not only fun but also educational.
During the activity, she said, she got to know more about the traditional religion in Taiwan and its importance for the local people.
She was impressed to see so many followers, including elderly people, run to touch the statue of Matsu to receive a blessing, she recalled.
Meanwhile, she got to learn some useful words in Taiwanese for daily conversation to help her interact with other pilgrims along the way.
Abodi, a student at Feng Chia University, was also impressed by the Taiwanese people's warmth and kindness. Some Taiwanese people gave them free drinks, she said.
This year was the first time the Ministry of Education provided foreign students the opportunity to join in part of the Matsu pilgrimage that takes followers from Dajia Jenn Lann Temple in Taichung to Fengtian Temple in Chiayi and back over a nine-day period.
"It was designed to help foreign students learn the language while experiencing the local culture firsthand," the ministry said.
It is part of the ministry's initiative called "learning Chinese from everyday life," which encourages foreign students in Taiwan to take part in local cultural, festive activities while learning the language.
As part of the effort, the ministry has been cooperating with local universities and organizations to organize cultural activities to promote Taiwan as the top choice among foreigners seeking to learn Mandarin Chinese.
(By Elaine Hou)