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, July 11, 2003

Here’s an email that I received recently from a friend of mine, Antonio, who’s lived in Taiwan for over a year and is now in China. I wanted to share it because it raised some issues that I’ve thought about and wanted to write about in my blog… so here is Antonio’s email followed by my response:

i told a bunch of my chinese counterparts today that i will start taking guandong hwa classes next week. they actually said to me. "Why do you want to study guandong hwa?"

i have to ask you. and please don't get offended, but are chinese people retarded? is this like the romans who used lead pipes for their drinking water so they were all insane?

i mean what don't they get? i live in guandong. the language of guangdong is guangdongt hwa. am i way out of line for wanting to be able to talk to people. and here it isn't like taiwan where if you were lazy you could get by with english. here no one speaks english. i am lucky to find people who speak mandarin.

you have been reading my shaolin diaries. you see the stupid crap people say and believe. why are chinese people so strange?

today, I was teaching a group of chinese teachers. after establishing that I spoke chinese better than any of them spoke english, and after establishing that i had been living in greater china for nearly two years, the teachers asked me if i had ever eaten chinese food.

again i have to ask. are they all retarded? are they stupid?

please help me to understand. if you have equally as offensive remarks about italian people for me to explain i won't be offended.

they asked me if i could eat with chopsticks.

keep in mind they knew that i had been here for two years including time spent at shaolin. in jiangmen there is no western food and no one speaks english. in hunan there is no western food and no one speaks english. And there are neither forks nor knives in either place. i couldn't have eaten western food or used a knife and fork if i had wanted to.

again. what the hell is up with these people? what don't they understand?

they asked how long i would be here in jiangmen. i said "about a year. then i am going to Xinjiang." "why are you going to xinjiang?"
"to learn their language."
"but you can't possibly speak their language!"
This idiot woman then went on to say of herself. "I can't even speak
Their langauge, and I'm chinese."

what kind of logic is that?

Xinjiang language is a turkish language. it has no relation to chinese At all. since it is just another language, with just another script the probability is that i could learn it faster than any chinese person, because i have been studying languages my whole life, and they have only studied english.

another teacher told me she had been to xinjiang. this was during a class break where they absolutely begged me to speak english with them. i hate speaking english with them because they don't understand me and their english hurts my ears.

i asked her in english "where did you go in xinjiang?'
"It is in the north west of china." She anmswered, with much
stuttering and hesitation.

"I know where Xinjiang is. My question was where did you go in
"It is between tibet and mongolia."

Now i got angry. "I know where xinjiang is! I want to know what city You went to."

"Xinjiang is not a city. it is a province."I started yelling. i switched to chinese. "Ni chu gwo xinjiang de na li."

that de na li is exactly how you ask which place you went to in a country or province. it was exactly right., but she ingnored me and said.
"It is a big province. many people are muslim there."

Now i yelled again. "I know more about xinjiang than anyone here. i
want to know where in xinjian you went."

i really am becoming an expert on xinjiang now. i have read a number of non-fiction books, cover to cover on the subject. i am also in contact with several of the world experts on the region, and we are exchanging email regularly. this woman knew nothing about xinjiang. why was she being such a moron on the subject.

this is my life. it is full of daily frustrations.

Dear Antonio,

The reactions that many Chinese people have said to you are most certainly not in reaction to you simply because you so obviously look foreign. I too have “suffered” or experienced many ridiculous responses when people find out that I have been born and raised in both the U.S. and Canada.

I’ve had students concocting stories that I was born to Taiwanese parents then adopted or abducted (?!) and taken to America as a child. Guess that’s an explanation that serves to explain the confusing seemingly contradictory phenomena that I represent. It accounts for why I look Taiwanese on the outside but think and speak completely differently. I think and speak fluently in English and secondarily in Taiwanese though not fluent as a native speaker and struggling with my Mandarin Chinese.

Then there are the students who look as me incredulously in the cafeteria during lunch and ask if I know how to use chopsticks or imply that I don’t know how to use my chopsticks very well and then they go on to ask if I like Chinese/Taiwanese food and if I ate it in the U.S. or Canada. Not only did I eat it (that was Mom’s home cooking), I prefer eating Chinese/Taiwanese food over American food (I’ve never missed American food here in Taiwan- but then that’s also me, some ABCs and ABTs would beg to differ) and I usually cook Chinese/Taiwanese style food.

Better yet, one day I tried to stimulate conversation among my students through an impromptu speaking exercise. I thought that it would be fun for them to think about hilarious or embarrassing moments that have happened to themselves and to try to retell them in English to their friends and classmates. As an example, I told them of some of the funny experiences and misunderstandings that I’ve encountered since I’ve moved to Taiwan, and quite a few of them involved difficulties with the Chinese language. Later as the students worked in their groups sharing their stories, one of my students seemed puzzled and asked why I couldn’t speak Taiwanese or Chinese fluently.

“But your parents are both Taiwanese, they are from Taiwan right? They grew up here, went to school here, they speak perfect Taiwanese and Chinese right? Why can’t you?”

Then it dawned on me. I think that she was confusing the whole nature vs. nurture debate that is discussed in Psych 101. People don’t seem have a clear concept of innate ability (biological development, e.g. motor skills) and environmental factors or learned ability. Now language is a difficult one, true babies have first words or sounds, but all of us learn how to use the system of language in one way or another- even if it is self-taught or mimicked- it usually comes from an established system of language. Most people are not born able to speak a particular language; additionally there’s a timeframe in which it is optimal for humans to acquire language skills. Anyhow, I’m certain I don’t need to go into this with someone who has studied linguistics. You could probably add a few points to what I’ve said or correct me on some points.

Then I also realized that people’s reactions are because they just can’t relate to a society in which there is so much ethnic diversity, pluralism and multiculturalism. It surprised me recently to hear a Frenchman say that he didn’t REALLY understand what America was about until he visited the Statue of Liberty and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. People don’t realize the foundations of this great country and how that drives this country.

The Chinese and Taiwanese tend to think in boxes. If you are not Chinese or Taiwanese like them then you are so Americanized that you are totally detached from Chinese culture- don’t eat the food, use chopsticks or speak the language. They can’t seem to see the shades of gray.

I also started thinking: who do people (outside of America) look to as the role models and representatives of America?. All of our presidents have been white males; we haven’t even had a female president. Most American celebrities are also white. The international image being projected of America is not indicative of its multiculturalism or immigrant population.

It is difficult to realize that Americans come in all different shapes and sizes, or that they even speak English with a variety of accents. I have difficulty with people accepting me as an American; I don’t fit the mould.

Regarding their comments about language, they don’t understand the
value or purpose in learning a foreign language unless there’s some lifelong use or practical use- like some widely used language like English. They don’t understand why you would like to learn a local language or dialect because it- in their minds- would be of little use to you when you leave. I’ve had mixed reactions to my study of Taiwanese and preference for Taiwanese over Chinese. Some people think that it’s a cute quirk, others say it’s still useful in the Southern part of Taiwan and others say that ultimately, I must be more proficient in Mandarin to have access to more opportunities.

P.S. Would you mind if I posted your email and my response to it on my
blog. Your email stimulated some thought that I’ve wanted to write
about on my blog, but never got around to.

P.P.S. It’s too bad that I’ve never lived in Italy, nor do I have a
lot of Italian friends, so I don’t have any likewise comments or questions about Italians.


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