Welcome to this week’s installment of Taiwan Tuesday! This week, I’m talking about what languages people speak on the beautiful island.
As I headed to Taiwan, I wondered what language would be most helpful in getting around the island. Of course, Mandarin Chinese is the official tongue, and what most people — especially Gen X or younger — speak. Mandarin has been the dialect taught in schools and used for official business since the late 1940s. But it hasn’t always been that way. My grandparents were educated under Japanese rule in the early 1900s, and to them, Japanese comes more fluently than Mandarin. And of course, for many Taiwanese, the mother tongue is the Dai wan wei, also known as the Hokkien or Hoklo dialect in Southern China and among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia. That was my first language, spoken in our home by my immigrant parents. However, the Taiwanese language has never been the official dialect of the government and as a result, many people my age or younger don’t speak it.
During our first few days in Hualien on the eastern coast, Taiwanese was spoken often. It’s the language you use to talk to taxi drivers or to bargain with vendors at the night markets, and while they may or may not give you a better deal, the look in their eyes softens a little when they hear their native tones (however bad the accent). Our first night, we went to old-fashioned pajama vendor to buy some clothes. By the way, Taiwan has the best sleepwear. The floral patterns may be a bit frumpy, and the kids’ prints may have weird English phrases printed on them, but the cotton! It’s the softest, sheerest tropical material that you just can’t find in the States. I was trying to explain to the older woman selling clothes what I needed, and not only did she not laugh at my pidgin Taiwanese, she gently corrected me and taught me a few new words, too.
However, not everyone speaks Taiwanese. While HapaPapa and I were browsing around a night market vendor selling trendy men’s clothing, a twenty-something guy tried to help us. My broken Mandarin wasn’t doing a great job conveying what was wrong with the jeans he was trying on. I know that most Taiwanese students learn English in school, so I attempted to explain that the pants were the right size, but how shall we say, not the right fit? He didn’t want a bigger size, he wanted a less slim cut. From my last visit to Taiwan in 2001, I had a sneaking suspicion that many Taiwanese people can understand English pretty well, although they aren’t comfortable speaking it. But this particular conversation really was not going well, and after the clerk brought out numerous pairs of pants and then tried to sell us a belt, I had to just bid him zai jian.
Another horrifying example of English learning gone wrong was the prevalence of the F-bomb. One more than one occasion, I heard the f-ing this and f-ing that in pop music lyrics, and even saw it emblazoned across someone’s t-shirt. Please, English teachers of Taiwan, don’t let this trend spread.
But every once in a while people surprised me. At an amusement park near Hualien, a candy store clerk — a young woman, probably college-aged — overheard me asking Little Brother what flavor he wanted and asked in perfect English, “Where are you from?”
Back in Taipei, Mandarin is the prevalent language — on recorded subway announcements, in businesses and on television. The most nerve-wracking conversations I had were with younger sales clerks in the more department stores. One day, we wandered around this confusing globe-shaped shopping center called the Pacific Core Center in search of the Pokemon store, and ended up trapped among the flashing lights and blaring beeps and bells of a kiddie play area called Baby Boss. I tried to ask a young woman, “Pikachu-mon dian zai nali?” and she responded in painfully slow, smiling way usually reserved for the elderly, toddlers, or the mentally unstable, “Ni… yao… Baby… Boss… ma?
On another occasion, while I was inquiring about some boxes of biscuits at Taipei 101, the clerk snipped, “It’s okay to use English.”
I was so relieved when I visited my grandmothers, as I could lapse into the household Taiwanese that I comes most naturally to me. The biggest compliment came from my maternal grandmother, who exclaimed to my aunts in Taiwanese, “Grace nong tyah oo!”
The rest of my family mostly took a backseat in these conversations. The few conversations HapaPapa needed to have with hotel staff and taxi drivers, he managed to communicate in English, with lots of nodding and “xie xie“. The boys were largely quiet in public, although they spent several hours each night happily watching Sponge Bob and Adventure Time — completely in Mandarin. Many times, I felt like a linguistic failure. Being bilingual for myself, much less my children, would require more than a few classes or listening to some songs or stories. I questioned whether I have the commitment ,or even the internal motivation, to truly become fluent in a language besides English. And add to this the ambivalence over whether to pass down Taiwanese (which is more authentic to my heritage) or Mandarin (which is probably more useful in terms of Asia and the Chinese diaspora in general), and I have been stymied by the choices.
But everyone has to start somewhere, right? On our last day in Taipei, Little Brother sighed, “I think I’ll learn Mandarin.”