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.

Monday, June 03, 2002

I am an anomaly because I speak Taiwanese much more fluently than Mandarin Chinese. When people discover this, they never assume that I am Taiwanese. But why is this so? Indeed this seems to go against conventional wisdom. We are in Taiwan, after all- where one would expect that people speak what else but- Taiwanese? In Germany the Germans speak German, in Italy the Italians speak Italian, in France it’s French, in Japan it’s Japanese. It’s often disappointing to be reminded daily that the average Taiwanese person lacks the proficiency to speak Taiwanese fluently.

Just the other weekend I ventured over to Tainan for the day to meet up with some friends there to do some sight-seeing. I opted to take the bus since Tainan is less than an hour’s drive away. Tainan is a small city best known for its many historical edifices, unique local cuisine and night markets. At the bus station I approached the counter and said (in Taiwanese) to the woman working there: “I’d like to buy a bus ticket to Tainan.”

My Taiwanese is much more workable now that I’ve been in Taiwan for almost a year! But I guess I sometimes speak a little more slowly than the average person because I’m not perfectly fluent or that I come across sounding very formal since I haven’t picked up the local jargon.

A smart-ass bus driver who overheard me came over and playfully said back to me (in Taiwanese), “Of course you’re going to take the bus, are you going to walk there or something?” I ignored him (frankly, I didn’t know how to come back with a witty retort in Taiwanese) and asked the salesgirl again for a bus ticket and how much the ticket would be. She hesitated and then repeated what I said in Mandarin Chinese. Like I said, my command of Chinese is not that great, so I asked again her how much a ticket to Tainan would be. Then she said back to me in Taiwanese that she couldn’t really speak or understand Taiwanese. Other bus drivers chimed in saying (in Taiwanese), “If you speak Taiwanese we can’t understand you very well.” I was a little annoyed by all of this chiding. Obviously, most of the people around the bus station could actually speak Taiwanese, but preferred to speak Mandarin and/or found it strange that I was speaking Taiwanese. So I turned the attention back on the salesgirl and said very self-assuredly and pointedly (in Taiwanese), “Why can’t you speak Taiwanese? Aren’t you Taiwanese?” To that the salesgirl had no response. By this time the bus drivers’ curiosity had had been peaked. “Where are you from?” They persisted, even after I simply said: “My parents are Taiwanese. They are from Taiwan.” Finally I gave up. “I’m American. I was born in the U.S.” I told them. Of course all of this was said in Taiwanese. When they heard that I’m American, they said they’d speak to me in English. At this point, I felt quite exasperated and I said: “Just speak to me in Taiwanese. I can communicate in Taiwanese with you.”

As I waited for the bus, I overheard the drivers asking the salesgirl if she really couldn’t speak Taiwanese. No, she insisted.

I’m not entirely convinced that she really couldn’t speak Taiwanese. It was probably a case of not being accustomed to speaking entirely in Taiwanese. When I’ve asked salesgirls in department stores to speak to me in Taiwanese, at first they resist; they are able to speak Taiwanese, but it no longer comes naturally.

I often find myself pushing against the irony of situations- being a Taiwanese American insisting to be spoken to in Taiwanese and scolding local Taiwanese people for not being able to speak Taiwanese. How funny is that?!

For generations the Kuo-ming Tang has systematically enforced Mandarin as the official language and prohibited the use of Taiwanese and the other mother tongue languages. Their efforts have paid off- prohibiting the use of Taiwanese has had a profound effect on the psyche of the Taiwanese people who have been taught to view Holo Taiwanese as a second class language. Over the generations the general population’s proficiency in Holo Taiwanese has eroded.


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