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.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Suicides in Taiwan

Recently there have been two highly publicized suicide cases in Taiwan.

On Aug. 14, 23-year-old model Hsu Tzi-ting jumped from the top of a 15-story department store in Taipei after a quarrel with her boyfriend.

Just last week, on October 20, another young woman, 29-year-old Huang Hsin-yi hanged herself . She was an attractive young woman, the daughter of prominent politicians, and was engaged.

Both of these young women seemed to have it all. What drove them to such drastic measures? Is this society particularly hard on a young woman’s self image? Are suicides more prevalent among females than males?

These are interesting questions. Unfortunately, I don’t have any facts or statistics, to answer these questions, but I do have some of my own theories regarding the high incidence of suicide among Taiwan’s youth.

The evening news is full of reports of increasing cases of violence among the youth of Taiwan- who I will loosely define as those ranging from their teens to twenties. There are also disturbing stories of jilted ex-lovers taking revenge after a breakup by disfiguring or even murdering the object of their unreciprocated affections.

Many will point to the usual scapegoat and blame the media, in particular, the sensationalism of the media in Taiwan.

In Taiwan I think that the culture of materialism is killing the youth. I see it every day when I see my students at school, people younger than me on the street or in department stores- all toting around Louis Vuitton purses, shoulder bags and matching wallets. When a new Louis Vuitton store opens in Taiwan it is a major event. During the opening week the red ropes come out and people queue around the block to enter. It is a national obsession. The frequency with which I see people toting around these things (fake or genuine) makes Louis Vuitton seem like a commodity.

Through discussions in conversation class and compositions in writing class, I have gotten to know my students and to discover what their hopes and dreams are. Most of my students say they’d like to be a model, someone famous, acquire wealth and status and shop, shop, shop. Sadly, I haven’t heard of any aspirations to invent, create or revolutionize the world.

Certainly, many of us have had our own superficial dreams of grandeur in our youth. I myself have aspired to be a contestant in a beauty pageant, a singer, or model. But I’ve also aspired to be a teacher, scientist, reporter, lawyer and writer. It seems to me that the youth of Taiwan get so stuck grasping for shallow ideals, only to either fall short of obtaining them, or upon obtaining material goods or a glamorous, high-profile life- that they are still not happy- so then what’s left? As they keep grasping, they want more and more. Nothing seems to satisfy the void. There’s always something bigger, better, flashier, newer… followed by despondency, frustration, hopelessness, and dissatisfaction.

Not knowing how to else to be happy, they decide life is not worth living. That living is too painful.

Taiwan's suicide rate is 14.1 suicides per 100,000 people. Japan has the highest rate of suicide in Asia with 22 suicides per 100, 000 people.

Another disturbing fact about suicides in Taiwan, is that according to the Taipei Times- Taiwanese parents are three times more likely than Americans to to kill their children along with themselves when they commit suicide .

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Is Hoklo Taiwanese a dialect or a language?

This interesting little debate came up today in the office. I overheard one of the teachers (an Englishman) telling his student that Hoklo Taiwanese is a dialect, not a language. Upon overhearing this, just in the next cubicle, one of the other teachers (an American) corrected the Englishman, saying that he thought that Hoklo Taiwanese was a language in its own right.

I’ve debated this question more than once before, so I took a back seat at first and listened, and I actually learned something new.

It’s always been a bit of a touchy subject. Especially when people start arguing that Hoklo Taiwanese is a dialect of Mandarin Chinese- these are the two most commonly spoken languages in Taiwan today.

Hoklo Taiwanese, which is also called Minnan, and Southern Min, comes from Fujian, China and has since evolved into its present form. It was probably one of the most widely spoken languages in Taiwan until around 1947, when the authoritarian Kuo Ming Tang party fled from China to Taiwan and imposed Mandarin Chinese as the official language on the people of Taiwan.

Already, you can see that the whole debate of dialect or language is about much more than just semantics.

There never seems to be complete consensus on this. I know what my opinions on this are; this is not the first time I've been challenged on this.

The Englishman’s first argument was that Hoklo Taiwanese isn’t a language because it can’t be written.

This argument is questionable. The question here is really: Which writing system should be used for Hoklo? Some say that Taiwanese can be written in Han (i.e. Chinese) characters, but since Hoklo has 8 tones, while Mandarin has 4, to write Hoklo accurately requires the use of traditional Han characters that are no longer commonly used.

But if Hoklo Taiwanese uses the same written character system as Mandarin, then it must be a dialect of Mandarin, right?

This is something that non-Chinese speakers presume about Sinitic languages, explained the American. Just because speakers of Hoklo, Cantonese and Mandarin can read the same newspaper written in Han characters, does not mean that Hoklo and Cantonese are dialects of Mandarin.

Well, there are also several romanized writing systems for Hoklo. And just because two languages use the same symbol systems does not mean that they are in the same dialect family.

But does a language have to exist in a written form? There are probably many languages that have existed throughout history which did or do not necessarily have a strict, written form. One definition of language that I found online states:

Language is communication through signs, symbols and gestures in spoken or unspoken (written or other non-verbal) forms. Language is often used to express ideas.

Sign language is considered a language in its own right even though it doesn’t conform to what most of us have been conditioned to think is a language.

People often incorrectly assume or argue that Cantonese and Hoklo are dialects of Mandarin. This faulty conclusion is probably based on the fact that the Chinese government that has designated Mandarin its official language and referred to anything else as dialects of Chinese . But perhaps confusion over the terms of dialect and language are in part due something that gets lost in translation, since the Chinese character that translates as “dialect” in English does not have as precise a meaning as the English word dialect.

Continuing to support his argument, the American added:
For something to be considered a language, it doesn't have to have a written form. What distinguishes if something is a language or dialect is if two people speak to each other and what they are saying to each other is mutually intelligible, i.e. the two people can understand each other’s speech, then we have two dialects. If the two people are unable to understand each other’s speech, then we have two languages.

From my personal experience, I know that it is possible to be able to speak and understand Hoklo Taiwanese, and at the same time to NOT be able to speak or understand Mandarin Chinese. That has always been the case for me and my grandparents who only spoke Japanese and Hoklo Taiwanese. Of course the opposite is also true. A non-Asian friend of mine who lived in Taiwan, learned how to speak Mandarin Chinese quite proficiently, but still could never understand when his Taiwanese friends spoke Hoklo. Would this not make Hoklo and Mandarin separate languages?

So where do we draw the line? What makes a communication system a language or dialect?

Hoklo Taiwanese is without a doubt distinctive from Mandarin Chinese- in my opinion. The Hoklo/Minnan/South Min spoken in Taiwan reflects Taiwan’s unique historical and cultural influences. The etmology of Hoklo Taiwanese can be derived from the Fujian Min language, Japanese, Dutch, Mandarin Chinese, locally developed terms, aboriginal languages (of aborigines indigenous to Taiwan).

As I pondered this question and searched deeper for answers, so I went to the almighty www.about.com . I love this website! Time and time again it has yielded useful information. It’s led to me to answers on matters trivial, important and involved. It brought me to this invaluable website that I highly recommend to anyone interested in reading up on Chinese languages and dialects: http://www.glossika.com/en/dict/faq.htm

This site even has pages with online Taiwanese language lessons at: www.glossika.com/en/dict !

Upon examining the classification system used by James Campbell on glossika.com, we see that the word language is used as an umbrella term or name that applies to a group of dialects. According to glossika.com, Hoklo Taiwanese (aka Minnan, Southern Min) is in the Min family of dialects, which is clearly a different category than the Mandarin language, with its own dialects. This is where the confusion comes in, if Mandarin is a language and Hoklo is a dialect, this creates some hierarchical bias and faulty conclusions about the relationship between Hoklo and Mandarin. It must be clarified, that Taiwanese is not a dialect of Mandarin, it is in its own family of dialects. Mandarin is a separate language with its own dialects.

But these ways of speaking (whether called language or dialect) are live, constantly evolving systems. How do we really draw the line between language and dialect?

Interestingly, in his discussion of the terms language and dialect, Mr. Campbell states that “Traditionally, languages have been identified with countries and nations, and dialects with local varieties.” He also points out that speakers of Danish and Norwegian can understand each other but that we call Danish and Norwegian languages, not dialects. So this is an example of how national identity and sovereignty come into play when calling something a language. A close parallel can be drawn between this example and the issue of calling Taiwanese a dialect or language. Would the debate end if Taiwanese were designated as a standard or official language in Taiwan?

This stuff excites me- really!- the discussion and nuances of language. I stumbled onto some other interesting web pages about Taiwanese languages with bilingual links:

(a bilingual English/Chinese website with links to interesting articles about the desinification of language, discussion of Hoklo people of Taiwan and the Austro-Tai (a branch of Austronesian culture) connection between the Hoklo, Hakka, and Taiwanese aborigines.)

(offers an explanation of the term Hoklo)

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The heaviness of old familiar autumn blues is impervious, fading gradually as it runs its course... I wait.

On Saturday my folks and I visited Yunlin for the day. Yunlin is one of Taiwan's poorest counties. Yulin is known for its agriculture, especially coffee and tea. Everywhere we went there were plots of land growing various vegetables and fruits. We were fortunate enough to have a friend from Yunlin take us around for to see the local sights. Looking at the hilly areas and dense trees, I imagined what Taiwan must have been like a century ago, before the land was opened up and tamed by its early pioneering immigrants.

Life seems so much simpler in these parts. It was beautiful. By the end of the day I did feel a little lighter in heart.

Rows of tea planted in step-like fashion

Tea as far as the eye can see

Mountains in the distance

Path leading to the back entrance of the "Wind Forest Restaurant" where we had Taiwan coffee porkchops for lunch

View from the "Wind Forest Restaurant"

It was truly a beautiful day with sights like this everywhere

Monday, October 18, 2004

Recently many of my single girlfriends and I have been complaining about the lack of quality single men here in Taiwan. This problem of course is nothing new, but ever so frustrating. The general consensus is that it’s especially challenging for North American raised and educated women to find suitable interesting men to date. Lately, I’ve been thinking that it’s been so long that I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to be asked out on a date. But I guess I can’t say that anymore…

It was Monday morning and only the second week of classes. As I neared the classroom I saw that the instructor had gone a little over time and was trying to wrap up his class. It was already 5-10 minutes into my class time, so I promptly entered to give him “a not so subtle hint” and started chatting with a few of the students before starting class.

After class the instructor passed by the classroom and as a friendly gesture, introduced himself as “P”. Apparently having heard my perfect North American English accent, his curiosity had gotten the better of him and he just had to ask me where I was from. I told him that I was born in the U.S.- that I was raised in Canada up until high school and that I went to the U.S. for my college degrees.

He was Taiwanese, in fact very “Taiwanese looking.” He was thin, had longish wavy hair with orange-red highlights, and as he introduced himself I just couldn’t help notice the bolo tie he was wearing over his tie and magenta purple shirt. I don’t know when was the last time I’ve seen a man wear a bolo tie- it was just so quirky. He had studied at a university in California.

A few Mondays later, as I was closing the door to the classroom, “P” walked by; that day he had on a cobalt blue shirt and a different bolo tie. We exchanged some friendly banter and then came the innocent, innocuous, inquisitive questions. He asked me what I had planned for the mid-autumn moon festival. I told him that I’d probably just spend time with my family and that we didn’t have anything special planned. He asked me how well I spoke and read Chinese. So I told him that I can speak Chinese okay although I speak Taiwanese better, and that I was still working on learning how to read Chinese characters.

When he asked me how long I’ve been in Taiwan and I answered, "Three years." I felt a twinge of insecurity and guilt. It is a little bit of a sore point for me personally because I often feel a little inadequate in that department. All I could feel was his incredulity and disbelief, but that of course is my own issue to deal with.

“I never went to Chinese school or studied Chinese full time,” I explained.

An uncomfortable silence… and then as if to diffuse the uncomfortable situation… “P” said in Taiwanese:

“Li jin sui (you are very beautiful).”

And then he was out of sight, before I could even respond, leaving me stunned and standing there.

Today as I was picking up my things and getting ready to leave the classroom, “P” walked in sporting yet another requisite bolo tie and asked me if I had any plans for lunch.

“Oh. No, but I brought my lunch today. I usually bring my lunch to school. It’s just easier and heathier.”


“Yes, it’s just easier, I don’t have to go anywhere, it saves time…” I explained

“Oh, well I was going to ask you to go to McDonald’s for lunch.”

Just as I was thinking that that last piece of information actually made the offer even less tempting than it already was… I found myself saying “Oh thank you, maybe if you gave me some advance notice or something, then we could have lunch together or something some other time.” It was an involuntary reaction- perhaps to hide my disapproval. I was baffled, but sensed his sincerity and I felt so embarrassed and caught off guard that I overcompensated.

I rarely eat fast food, unless I have no choice, like when I’m road tripping … so I actually felt relieved that I had refused when I heard that he wanted to take me to McDonald’s.

I think that we are definitely on a different page here. I really don’t get Taiwanese men and dating in Taiwan. This was my strangest experience yet. Perhaps I’m missing something?

When I told one of my friends in Taipei- she said, “Oh McDonald’s is such a date place.”

Oh great, and I thought that maybe it was just an inept attempt to ask me on a date. Turns out that intention _was_ quite sincere.

At what age would McDonald’s ever be considered a “date place?” Perhaps in our single digits, when a happy meal was all it took to make our day, eating there was a novelty and the closest thing to a date was when boys pulled girls’ pigtails and called them names.

Okay, perhaps for most Taiwanese (especially those below the age of 20-25), being invited to go to McDonald’s for lunch wouldn’t be met with such distain.

I feel like I’ve stumbled into some alternate reality. Somebody please explain this to me!

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Taiwan already has its share of "international" challenges in becoming a normal country- with its lack of recognition as an independent nation and its impending efforts to write a new constitution .

Taiwan also has its share of domestic issues. I am beyond frustration and comment after reading about the "March 19 Shooting Truth Investigation Committee" today.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Consumerism at its Best

It’s no wonder that people in Taiwan love to shop. I’m not sure which came first- the love of shopping or the ingenious incentives to spend. But as far back as I can remember, people from Taiwan have always loved to shop and it’s only recently that I’ve begun to understand the shopping culture of Taiwan.

Practically every type of store (from cosmetic to electronics) has its own free membership card which entitles customers to: 1) membership prices, i.e. the lower of two prices stamped on all products, 2) automatic discounts of 10% off all purchases at the store, and 3) points which are accumulated and can be applied toward future purchases. Who doesn’t love a bargain or sale?

Department stores have teamed up with major banks to issue VISA and Master card credit cards. So each time the credit card is used, the points accumulated can be used towards future purchases at the department store. If the credit card is used at the same department store that issued the card, the customer earns double points on his or her purchase.

Department stores also seem to have daily, if not weekly giveaways. For a minimum amount spent that day/week, customers can collect a free gift. The free gifts are often quite useful and practical such as canvas tote bags, Tupperware, kitchenware (mugs, bowls, dishes). But how many mismatched mugs and tote bags does one really need?

Well, who doesn’t like a free gift? It’s the excitement and novelty of it- in our frenzy to collect our gift we forget that we already have three mini salad spinners at home or that you don’t like coffee, you don’t drink coffee, that no one in your family drinks coffee- but the coffee grinder was free! Getting something for nothing is always fun. While shoppers converge on the top floor of the department store, lining up to present their receipts and collect their gifts, there’s anticipation, chattering, buzzing of activity. There are drawings for extravagant prizes like a diamond ring, a new car… There’s a sense of entitlement and satisfaction, an affirmation that your money was more than well spent as you go home with you little “extras” and wonder what next week’s giveaway will be.

It seems almost pointless for stores to have free membership cards, I wonder what they are doing giving out all of these free membership cards- it’s not very difficult to obtain one, they are usually given right on the spot with minimum requirements to join- it’s a marketer’s dream, but as far as I can see, I haven’t been bombarded by any direct mail marketing. I wonder just how much of a markup there is already on items.

I’ve discovered the best “free” membership cards are the ones issued by cosmetics companies- if you make a minimum purchase. Women’s cosmetics are luxury items, which are perceived as necessities, they are notoriously expensive- no expense is spared for a 5 oz. bottle of the latest youth serum. Cosmetics never go on sale, and without a doubt they are the single highest grossing type of product per square foot of floor space in a department store. Ever wonder why women’s cosmetics are located on the ground floor of department stores? Well, now you know why. I’m really getting sucked into the buying culture of Taiwan- can you tell? Now that I’ve “graduated” from using drugstore cosmetics, I think I’m hooked on luxury cosmetics, especially the ones from Paris. I’ve tried cosmetics from- Chanel, Lancome, Guerlerain, Clarins, Elizabeth Arden, Estee Lauder, Shisedo…

In fact, I think I’ll be heading over to the Hanshin Department store later on to use my Hanshin VISA card to purchase some luxury cosmetics in order to accumulate double Hanshin points, not to mention points towards future cosmetics purchases, oh and just for making this purchase- I get to pick up this week’s free gift at Hanshin.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

It's that time of year again... for some reason, I always seem to have lower motivation levels at this time of year. The fall always makes me feel rather wistful. Another year is coming to pass, the season is changing... much of nature is falling dormant (at least in North America- the seasonal patterns to which I am more accustomed).

I've been having a hard time moving forward with a few projects that I've been working on. I feel stuck. The nuisance of daily responsibilities seems more weighty than usual. At this time, life seems like a struggle and I'm having difficulty finding creative inspiration. I wish I could just snap out of it.

Sometimes I just feel so insignificant in the whole realm of things, but then I try to remind myself that each of us has a uniqueness and a contribution to make in his or her own way in this world and universe.

I know that this too (this state of mind) will pass...

Friday, October 01, 2004

Today I got up bright and early, at 6:30am, so that I could be up and ready to head out at 7:30am to participate in the Kaohsiung Terry Fox Run which officially began at 8:00am. Since I'm a night owl (and have a tendency to go to bed after midnight), that means I probably had less than five hours of sleep.

By 8:20am- after the hip hop-ish dance moves of student performers (in typical Taiwanese pep rally fashion), introductory comments from supporters of the Kaohsiung Terry Fox Run (the Kaohsiung Medical University, the Canadian Trade Office, Kaohsiung American School), I was still not quite awake, and I reluctantly joined in the opening warm up and stretching exercises.

It took me back to those awkward junior high and high school days... the rapid physical and emotional changes being experienced all happening with record speed that we didn't quite know how to handle them... when the girls would start wondering what the boys were thinking or if they were even taking notice, when the boys were starting to notice, but didn't know what to... trying to fit in, be cool, trying to be yourself before even knowing who you really were, trying not to make too many waves or be too different, but wanting to be acknowledged and liked by your peers... the school assemblies, pep rallies, gym classes.

Today was the fourth annual Terry Fox Run in Kaohsiung. This year there were over 3500 participants in the non-competitive marathon for cancer research.

My family was involved in the first Kaoshiung Terry Fox run in 2001 and at that time there were less than 1000 participants. I haven't participated in 2002 or 2003 marathons, so it is truly with great pride that I witnessed the success of this year's Terry Fox run.

It was impressive to see all of the enthusiastic, energetic young faces, the efficient organization of the event, support of the community, the cooperation of the city; the police managed the traffic as participants ran, jogged and walked along the 5km route that passed through part of Kaohsiung city and volunteers cheered participants along the way, up until the finish line.

It is always so energizing to see the power of numbers... the sight of people running, jogging or walking together, the waves of thousands reaching the finish line. The visual impact gives hope that there is power in people working together towards a common goal. The last time I felt such tremendous goodwill was during the 2-28 Hand-in-Hand Rally.

What a way to start the day!