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.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

At It Again

I'm taking yet another stab at learning Mandarin Chinese. Over the years, I've made several well-intentioned attempts but I was never able to stick with it.

When I first moved to Taiwan, I thought:

Don't ever let me be one of those people who's lived in Taiwan for 2 years and still can't speak Chinese fluently or at least read a menu!

Well, it's been over 3 years and the state of my Mandarin Chinese proficiency has become a personal sore point.

After living here for 2 years, insecurity set in as I started to question what I had accomplished by moving to Taiwan. One moment I thought I should stay, the next I felt resolved to leave. SARS paranoia had gotten to me and I missed my friends. I missed the opportunities and familiarity that life back in the U.S. seemed to promise. I felt that my life had always somehow been on hold all the while I had lived in Taiwan. During those first 2 years, I returned to the U.S. and Canada four times. My life seemed to revolve around the next visit.

Oddly, I had a nagging feeling that I needed to find my "purpose" or "calling" here, so I started concocting excuses to stay, but they were empty and false; aberrations enabling avoidance of fear and challenge. My thoughts would shift back and forth between the options and I'd play out the possible scenarios.

After the second year here, I got a glimpse of what it was, my reason for being here, but I didn't know it yet. I had been living like this- from year to year- in a kind of holding pattern and I felt absolutely resolved to return to Canada or the U.S. by the end of 2003 and no later than mid-2004. It's difficult to make plans and pursue long term goals when one's life is lived a year at a time!

Are you buying any of this as a reason for my poor track record where studying Chinese is concerned?

The other reason, which I have long known, is a deeply seated subconsciuos rejection of and refusal to learn Mandarin Chinese.

You think I'm kidding about this?!

Growing up, we spoke a mixture of English and Hoklo Taiwanese at home. Though I do have vague recollections of speaking Mandarin Chinese to my parents, in my preschool days, that all went out the window once I went to kindergarten.

I never went to weekend Chinese school classes; it wasn't until later that I understood the reason why my parents deemed those classes unacceptable.

One thing that I always knew was that I was Taiwanese, not Chinese. I remember watching a documentary with my family about the Chinese immigrants who built the US Transcontinental Railroad. I could see that my mother was very moved by the hardship and discrimination endured by the first Chinese in America, but she succintly explained to my sister and I that their immigration experience was not the same as ours. Though we were ethnically Chinese, my parents' personal experiences bore no resemblance to that of the Chinese from China.

I heard stories of how, as school children, my parents were fined and punished for speaking Hoklo Taiwanese at school. Mandarin Chinese was harshly enforced through tightly controlled media channels, education propaganda, and cultural censorship. It was declared the official language in Taiwan after the Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan in the late 1940's. Such practices in the schools continued until the late 1970s to 80s. When I was in college, a friend, not much older than me told me that as an elementary student in Taiwan, he had been asked by the teacher to report classmates who spoke Hoklo, Hakka or otherwise deviated from speaking Mandarin.

My parents chose not to send me to Chinese classes on the weekends to spare me from the Communist brainwashing that would have so surely have resulted after hours of repeating the phrase "Hello comrade" with a Beijing accent.

Speaking Hoklo Taiwanese has always been such an integral part of my personal identity. Knowing how past generations were suppressed and even shamed from speaking their mother language, has instilled in me a sense of pride and entitlement in speaking Hoklo over Mandarin Chinese. It will always be my preferred language over Mandarin Chinese.

Being able to speak Mandarin Chinese need not conflict with my personal concept of Taiwanese identity. After all, the facts and history remain; they are indisputable.

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