Christian Eckel, an incoming student at the University of Virginia School of Law, is wrapping up a year of intensely studying Mandarin in Taiwan. He is attending National Taiwan University with the help of a Taiwan-sponsored scholarship.
His use of idioms — for example, to say one “hears the wind and thinks it’s rain,” to refer to believing a false rumor — has gotten advanced. Some of this year’s Mandarin-fluent LL.M. students in the UVA Law Graduate Studies Program, who participated in an online chat with him, thought he might have even mastered the language.
But the Maryland native said the learning process has been, at times, humbling. He recounted how he once accidentally asked a waiter to add trash to his meal. On another occasion, when attempting to split the bill with a fellow university student in his party, he asked a waiter (presumably not the same one) for his permission to split up with her.
That waiter, careful not to make him feel bad, said, “I’m not sure I can help you with that.”
Although Eckel is an avid sportsman with experience in whitewater rafting and alpine climbing, he doesn’t currently have much time for outdoor adventures. He spends four hours in class each day, then spends about six hours more on homework.
But he still finds time to get out and get to know people. He recently played host to some of the incoming LL.M.s, and he organizes a biweekly dinner for current classmates at a local restaurant, which serves as both a cultural exchange and to improve everyone’s conversational Mandarin.
“Usually I spend a good part of the meal at neighboring tables chatting with Taiwanese about politics and business, and fielding questions about the states,” Eckel said. “Often it is, as the Chengyu [a type of traditional Chinese idiomatic expression] says, ‘playing a lute to the cow.’
“I’m the cow and they are speaking over my head — but nonetheless an incredible experience.”
Eckel said he is fascinated by the differences among cultures, as well as the commonalities. He tries to stay attuned to the major human struggles throughout Asia, having lived for a portion of his childhood in India.
He recently joined sister protests in solidarity with the Hong Kong demonstrations over a bill that would have allowed the criminally accused to be extradited to mainland China, where rights are less protected. He called the political moment “incredibly sobering” and said the Taiwanese have an expression: “Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan.”
China claims Taiwan as part of its territory, but Taiwan is de facto independent.
Eckel was an international business major at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and studied for a semester as a visiting student at Shanghai University. He graduated magna cum laude. He has worked as a research assistant for a partner at a top law firm in Washington, D.C., and as an investments intern for the financial services company USAA.
He said he chose to attend UVA after meeting Cordel Faulk ’01, assistant dean and chief admissions officer, and talking to other graduates.
“I had heard from people who had gone to UVA — smart people who are really driven — that UVA Law would push you, but at the same time didn’t leave collegiality and compassion by the wayside,” he said. “That convinced me that UVA was my top choice.”
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