Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Friday, May 31, 2002

It’s pretty hilarious how one’s perceptions of the same thing can be so different. We all have biases in our perceptions which have been influenced by our personal experiences. Why is it that we feel an inexplicable affinity with certain people, places or things? Or that we more readily identify with certain people or places? Or that each of us sees different patterns in the same thing? In large part it may be related to what is familiar to each of us. What is one’s natural frame of reference?

These thoughts came to mind because of a funny little incident today. Lately I’ve been watching a Taiwanese T.V. mini series set in Taiwan during the 1940’s-50’s. It gives me insight and perspective on the Taiwan that my Mother knew growing up and it’s a great way to brush up on my Taiwanese and Mandarin listening skills.

Today as I was watching the T.V. mini-series with my Mom, I was getting confused over what was happening to who- in part because it’s sometimes hard for me to commit the Taiwanese and Chinese names of the characters to memory and in part because at times I don’t completely understand parts of the dialogue… As my Mom clarified details of the storyline in today’s episode, I realized that I was simply confusing two of the characters, and in exasperation I blurted, “how should I know who’s who, they all look the same!”

What I meant was that two of the male characters looked so alike because they wore the same school uniform, and were about the same age, size and height- so I couldn’t keep straight who was who.

Then my Mom blurted back, “So now you know how I feel”… meaning when she’s said, “they all look the same” of certain non-Asian actors. Recently we were watching some movie on T.V. and she told me that she thought Ed Norton looked like Russell Crowe! I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s the same thing! LOL! In my own defense- it’s just an undeniable fact that Asian people look more similar by virtue of the fact that we have the same hair color and eye color. Now, I certainly wouldn’t say that I’m a white-washed Asian American, ignorant of the diversity among various Asian groups and I usually don’t take nicely to non-Asian people who say of Asians, “they all look the same”, so it was particularly hilarious that the tables had turned on me today.

Thursday, May 30, 2002

A quote befitting my absence of blogging from May 8-30, 2002:

"Drawing on my fine command of language, I said nothing."

Wednesday, May 08, 2002

Always an adventure, my usual ride home on the bus at 12:30pm-1:00pm after teaching my morning class is anything but relaxing. Surprising, because you’d think it would be a peaceful ride back since it’s the lunch hour and that there would be few passengers since the college is in a relatively remote area (past the Kaohsiung International Airport). It often does start off that way; when I get on the bus there will be only of 5 or so passengers total on the bus, but I don’t get too comfortable because it won’t last for long.

At the next stop my ears are first assaulted by screaming, howling voices, then bus is crowed by an imposing mass of school children who are like a bunch of heathens released from captivity into the light of day. The bus is immediately transformed from lifeless to an unruly sideshow act. They raise the noise level on the bus from 0 to 1000, run up and down the aisle of the bus, and push and smack each other continuously. It’s as if they are trying to see who can get in the last smack just before hopping off the bus. It really is quite a spectacular site.

Oblivious to what’s happening, the bus driver drives as madly as ever. It’s an accident waiting to happen. I’m surprised that I haven’t seen more bus related casualties. On several occasions, I have seen children slammed into the stairwell of the side rear door when the bus comes to an abrupt halt. The violence of this act always jars me.

And then there’s always some old woman who boards at the same stop or shortly there after- who takes to yelling at these children to take a seat for the sake of their safety. It really is quite the scene. Don’t get me wrong, despite my “charming” description of these children, I don’t feel the need to discipline them. I usually just sit there in sheer amazement and amusement at their unruliness watch how this scene plays out weekly.

Tuesday, May 07, 2002

To follow up on my tales of the legendary inquisitiveness of the Taiwanese (posted April 18)...

What I’ve realized, most importantly from these experiences is that you cannot always evaluate the appropriateness of a social custom out of context or from a different cultural perspective that has different assumptions. Of course at times there may be exceptions such as in cases which the practice of certain social customs harm an individual’s dignity, or physical well being (as in extreme cases such as institutionalized social classifications, or female genital mutilation).

Each time I’ve been asked all these questions I invariably find myself striking up a conversation and making a new acquaintance and some cases, swaping phone numbers. My conclusion is that this line of questioning is a form of social greeting.

Most Taiwanese think nothing of their questioning; they view it as a form of greeting and a way to demonstrate their helpfulness and interest in another person. Likewise, the average Taiwanese person would actually wonder if their conversation counterpart did NOT ask him or her 20 questions; as a result, they would more likely wonder why their conversation counterpart has been so unfriendly or disinterested. So I suppose that what I’ve described is a sort of social custom or mechanism which creates familiarity or to shows concern for someone else. It’s a type of conversation opener. And with friends it demonstrates that you’re paying attention, that you’ve noticed a change however for the worse or better.

Matters of cross cultural exchange simply require mutual respect on the part of all parties involved. In this case, the foreigner should recognize the well intentioned motivations behind all the questions and the Taiwanese should be more astute to the reactions of the person to whom the questions are being directed.

NOTE to any family members who may be reading this: Guess what we thought was perhaps a familial quirk turns out to be much more widespread. Maybe we can now have a better tolerance and understanding of the motivations of our dear relatives.

Thursday, May 02, 2002

I’ve certainly come a long way since my first bus ride in Taipei. If you don’t own a scooter or car, Kaohsiung’s mass transit basically consists of buses and taxis. They have just started to break ground for the MRT (mass rapid transit i.e. subway) here in Kaohsiung. I take the bus everywhere.

Taking the bus is an interesting experience for me. Most people would beg to differ though because the buses are not the most efficient means of transportation. They are often slow (taking round about routes), old (the interiors are not very well maintained) and bumpy (bus drivers drive without regard for the safety comfort of their passengers standing in the aisle and frequently slam on the brakes). The only people who take the bus are either young students (high school aged and younger) or senior citizens- because they are either too young or old to ride around on scooters or drive cars… and then there’s me.

Taking the bus is definitely not luxurious or convenient, but it’s a learning experience. Bus drivers often prefer listening to Hoklo Taiwanese speaking radio stations, so it’s strangely comforting for me to hear Taiwanese songs and radio DJ’s speaking Taiwanese during my bus rides. Two days a week I take two buses and ride a little over one hour total each way to get to my English teaching job at the college. On other days I take the bus to my Chinese lessons. This morning on my way to the college I was listening to the Taiwanese radio station that blared on the bus and realized that I was listening to what sounded like yodeling. Yes, I was hearing yodeling in Taiwanese over the radio- how odd… only in Taiwan.

In the southern part of Taiwan, the people here are much more casual. Anything goes. I’ve seen bus drivers and taxi drivers who’ve truly made themselves at home in their vehicles… Some taxi drivers drive barefoot and I’ve seen cabs fully equipped with mini-beverage bars, curtains on the windows, a mini karaoke station-yes, there are small LCD screens installed in the cabs complete with a mike to keep passengers amused during their ride, other cabs have mini LCD screens installed in the back of the front seats so that passengers can enjoy a DVD or T.V. during their ride. Amazing, how some of these cabs look like they could be lived and then again, some of them smell like they’ve been lived in. This is not the norm but I have had the unpleasant experience of being in a cab that was so foul that I had to hold my breath. Thankfully it was a short ride.

I’ve seen bus drivers with an array of potted plants all arranged cozily in the front of their bus- it’s a mini jungle up there. Just by looking at the plants you can get a sense of how long a driver has been driving the bus.

Some bus drivers are quite characters-striking up conversations with anyone who will listen. Others sternly keep their passengers in line telling them to quickly take a seat as soon as they board the bus because he’s not breaking for anyone, in fact, as soon as a passenger is picked up bus drivers usually step right on the gas back up to speed regardless of whether passengers have found a seat or stabilized themselves.

And then there’s one bus driver who I’ll never forget. When I first relocated to Kaohsiung last summer, my bus commute to the college was an unbearably long- lasting about one and a half to two hours each way, but by car it would have taken 40-50 minutes. The only bus to the college took an extremely round about route, circling around and around all about town. It certainly wasn’t the most efficient route- but probably necessary because, as I mentioned, it was the only bus that went that far out. This meant that I would have to be on the bus by 7:00-7:30am to get to my 9:00am classes on time.

That was excruciatingly tough for me. I am so NOT a morning person. Those who are close to me have witnessed this incredible talent I have for sleeping through almost every possible annoying sounding alarm clock. You name it I’ve tried it- talking alarm clocks that announce the time incessantly every 10 minutes after the alarm has gone off, cock-a-doodle do clocks, ringing, buzzing, earth shattering loud clocks… Yes, I am legendary for having a deep sleeping disorder. It’s difficult enough for me to get up early in the mornings and when I do wake up, I’m not capable of fully participating in a conversation until 9:00 or 10:00am. Anyone who is sing songingly perky before this hour seems like a nuisance to me because I can’t entirely process or respond to them in a likewise fashion. I’ve been known to receive calls at 6:00am- awoken from a deep sleep- only to fall asleep again immediately after the conversation. And later on that day I wouldn’t quite be able to recall if I had dreamed the phone call or not and couldn’t even remember what the phone conversation had been about.

Back to the point…. My first week in Kaohsiung (August of 2001) seemed like one big, long, overcast, dreadful bus ride. Having relocated from Taipei, I missed my friends and the conveniences of Taipei- in Kaohsiung I felt isolated and uncertain. Most mornings I took the lonely, dreary bus ride out to the college where I began teaching English. There were only a handful of people on the bus at that hour (sometimes there were only two or three passengers including me) and the sun hadn’t risen yet or it was raining. The somber mood of the bus ride echoed my inner mood but on one particular morning the bus driver cheerily greeted all of his three passengers. He seemed to genuinely enjoy his job. Then as he drove, he began singing at the top of his lungs with great fervor- to the Taiwanese songs that blared over the radio- as if he were having is own private karaoke session, oblivious to his unwitting audience. It put a smile on my face seeing how animated he became; it was entertaining and inspiring. I strained to understand the words. I could only make out something about getting together with friends and enjoying their company; basically I think I could paraphrase the meaning of the song to be something to the effect of “Don’t worry be happy.” His enthusiasm was simply contagious. I snapped out of my blues after that. That bus driver will never know how he made my day. I realized that there was a new day ahead full of promise and that I should feel lucky to know and be able to experience it. I was also reminded that we can always find pleasure in the simpler things in life.

Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Before coming to Taiwan, I didn’t even really have a working knowledge of Mandarin Chinese and my Hoklo Taiwanese was barely passable. I’m working on becoming more fluent in these languages during my time here- among other things. Seems like a no brainer, but there are plenty of people who have lived in Taiwan for several years, yet haven’t picked up any of these languages.

Taiwan is a great place. In general it’s very urban and convenient. Many people who have lived in different Asian cities have told me that they think it has the best quality of living overall- in terms of convenience (you can get almost anything you need- American style toiletries, cosmetics, food stalls are everywhere at any time of the day, shops are open late, and then of course there are the night markets), the society is very open to foreign media influences so there’s plenty of entertainment (there aren’t many restrictions on Hollywood films- they’ll often hit Taiwan first, whereas China still tightly controls what it allows in and some films will never make it to audiences in Japan).

It’s become increasingly easy for foreigners to live in Taiwan in the past 5 years. I’ve met many foreigners who have told me that they don’t speak any of the local languages and still manage to get around comfortably. On the other hand, I’ve met foreigners whose language skills have put me to shame. It’s great that foreigners are able to survive easily without having to speak any Chinese or Taiwanese. But I think that after living in Taiwan for about 2 years, it’s a shame if foreigners still haven’t mastered one of these languages. You know how the saying goes, when in Rome... Not knowing a local language means that you will miss out a lot on learning the nuances of the local culture and will less able to actively participate in the society.

All too often people ask me where I’m from because of: 1) my limited language skills, 2) my preference to communicate exclusively in Hoklo Taiwanese- which is quite a rarity and 3) they’ve overheard me speaking English or being spoken to in English. I’m so obviously out of place. Sometimes it gets to me because I don’t want to draw attention to myself or to be treated differently because I’m perceived as a foreigner. When people are well intentioned and try to speak English to me, it’s a reminder of my lacking language ability. I can’t read any Chinese characters, i.e. I can’t read a lot of signage, or notices, and I can’t order off a standard menu- I don’t always want to be dependent on my friends or family translate for me… I can get by and I do at least know how to order a few basic dishes, but that’s not enough. What kind of existence is this? Likewise I’m critical of people who’ve immigrated to North America for years but still haven’t mastered the English language.

I hope to one day be fluent enough so that I can function more or less effortlessly in this society. I don’t want to be treated any differently whether it might work to my advantage or against me. I want to be able to communicate easily with others. Maybe I’m being too idealistic, because no matter what, I will always have some distinct advantage or benefit from being a “foreign” native English speaker. After all, I’m able to teach English at the college level because I’m a native English speaker and English is HOT in Taiwan. There’s been talk of possibly making it an official language in Taiwan.

This semester I’m studying both Hoklo Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese. My Mandarin classes often seem very rudimentary, but necessary… gotta start with the basics… Recently, I’ve been having a little fun learning Chinese thanks to my language exchange sessions. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement between myself and another student who helps me with my Mandarin and in turn, I help them with their English. It’s given me more opportunities to learn practical Chinese phrases and to experiment with my spoken Chinese.

I think this story is pretty hilarious, given how little Mandarin I actually speak. I’ll try to my best to retell what happened. Just the other day I was in a department store with my Mom at a cosmetics counter discussing the merits of various cosmetic products and although we try to speak Taiwanese, out of habit, English sometimes inadvertently slips in there. Upon overhearing our conversation, the salesgirl immediately asked me where we were from.

(I’ve been given away again I thought! Here we go again …
And then I don’t know what it was, maybe I was feeling a little playful, maybe I was feeling a little defiant…. I thought I’d play a little game and see how far it would go…)

So with a very earnest look on my face and in a confident voice I told her in Mandarin Chinese, “Wo she Taiwan ren. Wo zhu zai zhe li. Wo zhu zai Kao Shiung.”
(I’m Taiwanese. I live here. I live in Kaohsiung.)

Her eyes grew wider.

“Wo de yin wen hen hao, en wei wo she yin wen lao shu. Zhe she wo de mama”
(My English is so good because I’m an English teacher. This is my mother). At this point I was speaking to her in such light hearted way- I almost laughed in her face because I knew that the joke was on her and I just couldn’t keep a straight face. I’m just not a good “faker”.

The salesgirl seemed confused. Stumped by my response, she turned her line of questioning to my mother and asked in Mandarin Chinese:
“So where are you from? Are you the one who taught her such good English? I thought I heard you speaking perfect English to her. Are you an English teacher?”

Clearly my mom was getting a kick out of this but thought better of it and decided to put and end to the charade. She said:
“This is my daughter. Did you understand or believe what she said to you? Actually, she was just joking with you. She was born and raised in North America. She’s American born. Recently she’s moved here, now she lives here. She is an English teacher, but I’m not an English teacher, but I lived in North America for over 20 years.”

Mystery solved. The salesgirl understood and said:
“Oh, so that explains your great English ability… because you immigrated to the states and lived there for so long.”

My mom and I had a good laugh over the incident.

“I think the salesgirl did actually believe you because she stopped pressing you for answers and started in on me,” my Mom said.

I’d like to believe that I had the salesgirl going for a little while. Guess my language classes are starting to pay off and to provide a little harmless amusement.