Showing posts with label chinese_language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label chinese_language. Show all posts

Sunday, March 3, 2019

No, those MRT station codes are not useful

Screen Shot 2019-03-03 at 6.40.29 PM

An article ran in CommonWealth Magazine recently about the usefulness of Taipei MRT's use of Hanyu Pinyin, and the letter/number coding system for the stations, pointing out that some visitors were "still getting lost" in Taipei, because they didn't speak Chinese and therefore didn't know how to pronounce station names like Da'an, Qilian, Xindian etc etc.

Now, in the past 5 years or so I've encountered exactly one lost person. It's not that hard, the maps are quite clear (the exits in relation to where one wants to go above-ground are less clear, however). But CommonWealth says it's a thing:

Donna is a Canadian studying Chinese in Taiwan. She chose to live near the Da’an MRT station for its convenient location. Yet the first time she met with her landlord, she was an hour late because she was unable to find Da’an Station on an English-language map, which indicated the station name as “Daan”. They way she pronounced the name, it sounded like the single character da (“big” or “great” in Mandarin), rather than the compound name Da’an (da + an), the standard Romanization rendering.

Yeah, okay, I get that it can be difficult to pronounce the station names if you are not familiar with Pinyin, and I'm sympathetic to non-Mandarin speaking visitors who get confused. But as some folks have pointed out:

I'm not defending it, but part of life in Taiwan is understanding that the competing and often incorrectly-applied Romanization systems are pure chaos, and there can be no order arising from them. This is most likely because there is a lot less agreement on the trajectory of Taiwanese culture, and it shows in battles over Romanization, which often act as symbolic battlegrounds for the minority in Taiwan who want the country to remain as close to China as possible (if not integrate completely), and the majority who don't. Contrast this to, say, Seoul, where my husband lived just as the old Romanization system for Korean was on its way out as a new one was implemented, and the transition went much more smoothly, with far less chaos and overall entropy.

It would be better if we could standardize. It would be great if we didn't spell 中和 as Zhonghe, Chungho, Jhonghe, Jhongho, Zeüngho, Zongh1983q, Jh0ñg0, Zheungheau, JZH*YFEJK¯\_(ツ)_/¯@)(jfh!!!  or whatever.

I don't even care how we do it anymore, though I have a personal preference for Pinyin despite it being from China (hey even a broken clock is right twice a day). I would prefer that whichever system we use be implemented correctly - for Pinyin, that means apostrophes and perhaps even tone markers. If we use the deeply annoying and old-timey looking Wade-Giles, then the apostrophes are necessary. Otherwise, how am I supposed to know whether, say, someone named Cheng Chi-chong pronounces their name Zheng Ji-chong, Cheng Chi-zhong, Zheng Zhi-chong, Cheng Zhi-zhong, Zheng Qi-zhong or whatever combination of these it might be?

But I also daresay that a part of "studying Chinese", especially in Taiwan, is understanding that tHeRe CaN bE nO oRdEr FrOm ChAoS. Welcome to Taiwan, m'loves. Get used to it?

The CommonWealth article then goes on to talk about the coding system:

As for the station coding system embarked on this month, TRTC relates that it is responsible only for adding codes on this project, and not for revisions to the Romanization of metro system names.

With a sizable sum of NT$30 million having been spent on the project, domestic traveler Ms. Kuo remarked that the addition of station codes has absolutely no impact on her, except perhaps for making everything a little more complicated.

However, in the effort to gain more overseas visitors, rather than spending a lot of money to codify the metro system, the money would be better spent on an overall rectification of MRT station names, Hanyu Pinyin, and signage, as helping visitors understand and spell the words properly is the most user-friendly international practice.

On this I agree. The coding system is completely useless.

The reason why? Nobody local uses them, nobody local knows them, and that's probably not going to change.

So if you need to ask directions, you'll probably be asking someone local, and they won't know because they don't know the codes. They're not helpful at all for getting information from others. And if you are just trying to read a map, you don't need to know how a station's name is pronounced, you just need to match the letters of the station name on the LED scroll on the train or on the platform to the one on the map you are using.

With that in mind, let me tell you about that one lost person I met. I was with a friend (who happens to be Taiwanese and speaks excellent English, having gotten her PhD in the US) entering Da'an station, and a lost looking foreign woman approached my friend while I was adding money to my card. She asked my friend - who, again, is local - whether the station we were at was "R2".

My friend looked at her blankly, like, "huh?"

"R2? Is this R2? I was supposed to get off at R2 which is the terminus, but the train stopped here but this doesn't seem right. Is it R2? I think the map says it's R5? I'm so confused!"

My friend: "R....2? R...5?"

I walked up to them to see what the deal was just as my friend figured out what on earth she was talking about. We all walked over to a map and showed her that she'd boarded a train terminating at Da'an, not her destination of Xiangshan, so she needed to get back on the red line train in the same direction.

She kind of rushed off as I tried to advise her not to use the codes to ask directions, because nobody local knows them so they actually create confusion when trying to ask directions.

I really hope she figured it out on her own.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Deliberately Lost in Translation: How Language Is Used to Obfuscate Taiwan's Reality


Consume any mainstream English-language media about Taiwan, and you'll come across an abundant lexicon of terms that sound as though they help define the Taiwan-China situation: "renegade province", "split in 1949", "dialect", "Mainland", "reunification", Chinese", "One China Policy" and "status quo" are probably the most common. More recently, there's also the term "one family", though that doesn't seem to have made the leap to English quite yet, and there's the perennial "tensions", a term which has already been covered extensively for its problematic usage.

These terms are readily employed by writers wanting to appear knowledgeable about the region  - especially non-specialist journalists, though some specialists do it too.

The problem?

Many of these words phrases don't translate well into English, and the ambiguity created by imperfect translations is, in my opinion, being intentionally used to imprint an inaccurate narrative of Taiwan in the international media.

In other cases, the meanings of the terms are clear, but the most common translation is simply wrong, yet encouraged - by China that is - because it promotes their preferred perspective.

And in still others, the implications of the terms call to mind a state of affairs that simply does not exist.

All of these are invisible hurdles that Taiwan advocates must vault in order to make Taiwan's case to the world - every minute we spend arguing over the meaning or use of a term, we waste precious time of other people's attention span to actually make the arguments we want to make in the first place. We are literally held back by language. And I daresay this is not an accident. It is entirely deliberate.

There doesn't seem to be a comprehensive breakdown of this strategic use of language anywhere else and why it's a problem for Taiwan, so I've created one here. Let's have a look - starting with the biggest headache of them all.


The Mandarin term for Taiwan and China (ostensibly peacefully) uniting is 統一 (tǒng yī). It means "unify" or "unification". If you wanted to add the meaning of the "re-" prefix in English to that, it would be something like 再統一 (zài tǒng yī). I've also recently heard the term "回歸" (huíguī), and there's 光復 (guāngfù), which means 'retrocession' or 'recovery', but is rarely used outside of formal speech.

So here's the thing - nobody actually says these in Mandarin. They always use "tǒng yī". The Mandarin term for this concept is "unification". It doesn't mean -  and has never meant - "reunification", though I suspect many in China view it that way, because they've been taught to.

It's not a natural perspective arising from history: the Qing era - an imperial era, really - and the brief interlude between 1945-1949 are the only times in the history of both China and Taiwan that one could argue that the two were united. Both are open to interpretation, however. During their reign, the Qing were not considered Chinese (they were Manchu, which was considered a different group of people). Qing Dynasty China was arguably a Manchu colonial holding; Taiwan was too. And not even all of Taiwan - for most of their time 'claiming' Taiwan, the Qing only controlled the western part of the island, and for most of their reign it was not considered a 'province' in its own right. Before that, Taiwan was not considered 'Chinese', as the people living there were indigenous, and China's borders were considered to end at the sea

So was there one China under the Qing Empire or were there two colonial holdings - Taiwan and China? That's a discussion worth having for a clear historical perspective (though as far as I'm concerned it changes nothing about Taiwan's right to sovereignty now). The government which accepted Japan's surrender on behalf of the allies was not the same government that ceded Taiwan to Japan. Likewise, the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China were never united.

The problem with "reunification", then, is not only that it's not an accurate translation of the Chinese. It also assumes a particular historical interpretation - that Taiwan and China were once clearly unified and that the change in government from 'empire' to 'republic' doesn't matter. "Unification" is a less politically marked word; regardless of one's interpretation of history, it provides the linguistic room the conversation to happen. For that reason alone, it is the more appropriate term when discussing peaceful integration (non-peaceful integration would be "annexation").

So what to make of news outlets using "reunification" as though it's the correct term? I can only assume the editors don't know what they're talking about. Reuters, especially, has just put out some hilarious junk on this point:

China translates the word “tong yi” as “reunification”, but it can also be translated as “unification”, a term in English preferred by supporters of Taiwan independence who point out that Beijing’s Communist government has never ruled Taiwan and so it cannot be “reunified”.

The CCP does promote the use of "reunification" over "unification" to describe 統一, but the rest of this is laughable. It subtly gives credence to the CCP's preferred term by referring to it as "China's" choice of translation, not that of a political party with a particular objective regarding Taiwan, and marks the less problematic and more accurate/directly translated term as political by saying that it is used by "supporters of Taiwan independence" - as though to use it is to make a political statement. When, in fact, the opposite is true: "reunification" is an inherently more politicized word, as it is promoted by a particular political group (pro-China/CCP supporters) and is not a direct translation of the Mandarin term.

"Renegade Province"

This one is interesting, because it doesn't seem to appear in Mandarin-language media regarding Taiwan. A friend of mine asked about this recently, and the answer he got was that media from China discussing Taiwan never use "renegade province", because that would imply that the majority of the people in that province wanted to be "renegades", and that they'd elected a government that represented that wish. China can never admit to its own people that this is in fact the case (and it is!) - it has to refer to those who support Taiwanese independence as "splittists" and make them seem like a loud minority.

This view that Taiwanese national identity is a minority separatist movement is underlined by the recent comments of a Chinese general, who warned that "Taiwanese independence supporters" would be considered "war criminals" if China "were forced" to invade. That would only be possible to carry out if it were a minority of Taiwanese - otherwise, the implication of that statement is that the majority of Taiwanese (so, somewhere between 11 and 23 million people) would be war criminals. But that's exactly what would happen! This general - and China as a whole - cannot admit openly that the majority of Taiwanese favor independence (more on that under "status quo").

The phrase "renegade province" in Mandarin would - to the best of my knowledge - be 叛變的省份 (pànbiàn de shěngfèn). That phrase pops up in Internet searches, but doesn't seem to make any appearances in any major Chinese-language media.

So where did "renegade province" come from?

The best I can puzzle out is that it was picked up by foreign-language media, first appearing in 1982. Prior to that, China had used it to describe northern Vietnam, and the foreign-language media started using it to describe Taiwan out of a desire to summarize the CCP position succinctly (apparently Lee Teng-hui used it too? I have no evidence for this but someone I trust said he did).

The unfortunate side effect is that it gives the international media an easy way to avoid clarifying that China calls pro-independence support in Taiwan the work of "splittists", but that in fact, such a category would include most Taiwanese.

I assume some good faith from the international media - I don't believe they are intentionally trying to distort the narrative. They just don't know better. The CCP, on the other hand, tacitly encourages it, as it keeps Taiwan's perspective from being fully included. It frames the Taiwan issue as being similar to 'separatist movements' that Westerners, at least, seem to think of as destabilizing, overly ethno-nationalist or not their business (how many Westerners do you know who actively support a Kurdish state?), rather than accurately portraying the desire of most Taiwanese to merely maintain the sovereignty they already enjoy.


In Mandarin, there are two ways to refer to a person as "Chinese". The hypernym for this is "華人" (huá rén), and it means a person of Chinese ethnic heritage - whatever that means. Not everyone from China is similar genetically - the Uighurs and Tibetans certainly aren't - and plenty of people who are certainly not from China are Chinese, and not all Chinese speak the same language or are Han, so it's really a reified sociopolitical construct rather than a real definable thing.

But, anyway, let's say you had ancestors from China whom most people would consider "Chinese". It is quite possible in Mandarin to call oneself huá rén the same way I call myself "Armenian" even though I'm a US citizen: without making any statement about one's nationality. You can be Singaporean, Malaysian, Taiwanese, American, Australian or whatever and also huá rén. 

The other term is more of a hyponym: 中國人 (Zhōngguórén), and it specifically means "from China, the country" - as in, a citizen of the People's Republic of China.

Taiwanese who also claim Chinese ethnic identity overwhelmingly refer to themselves as huá rén - only a unificationist or someone actually born in China would call themselves Zhōngguórén.

And yet, in English, both of these terms are translated as "Chinese". It's very confusing, and the Chinese government benefits from the ambiguity - and wants to keep it that way. So much so that it considers all Chinese regardless of citizenship to be primarily Chinese.

This bleeds over into another confusing term: "overseas Chinese". "Overseas Chinese" can be citizens of China who happen to live abroad, or citizens of other countries who emigrated from China, or from other countries with ancestral heritage from China. The Chinese government also benefits from this ambiguity because it makes it easier to defend not only their harassment of Chinese citizens abroad, but their interference in the actions of citizens of other countries (many members of the Chinese Australian community referenced in the pieces above are citizens of Australia, not China).

So, when some know-it-all Dunning-Kruger type says "but the Taiwanese are Chinese!" as though that is a good argument for Taiwan being part of China, he's confusing huá rén (a person of Chinese ancestry, the same way most Americans have ancestry outside the US) and Zhōngguórén (a person from China). Or he's deliberately equivocating: deliberately using the 
huá rén meaning of "Chinese" to convince listeners that Taiwanese are the Zhōngguórén kind of Chinese.

If you're wondering whether this quirk of English translation is intentionally exploited by the Chinese government, well, they equivocate in the exact same way. So yes, it is.

Bring this up, and you might well get some version of "yeah but to be Chinese is a different notion, because of...uh, cultural differences, so the two terms connote more closeness than when Westerners talk about their ethnic backgrounds!"

Except it's not and never has been. First, if it were, there wouldn't be two clearly separate terms for it. Second, ask any Taiwanese what they think of the term 
huá rén and you won't hear that it's similar in meaning to Zhōngguórén. If anything, they'll tell you the opposite. And in order for this "but they are the same" nonsense to have any purchase, the Taiwanese would have to agree with it - and most don't. Otherwise you're just telling people what they should think of their own language and identity. Don't be that person. 

This makes it difficult not only to talk about the parts of Taiwan's cultural heritage which come from China, but for Taiwanese to talk about their ancestry without it being politicized. I'm sympathetic to Taiwanese who don't want to cut off their connection to their Chinese ancestral heritage, and how difficult it is to express that clearly in English without implying that one wants to be a citizen of China, when the two words are the same in English.

And if you're wondering why Singaporeans, Malaysians, Americans and others of Chinese heritage refer to themselves as "Chinese" without hesitation, it's because China's not trying to take over Singapore, Malaysia or the US. They are trying to take over Taiwan. The political implications are simply more dire, and that is not an accident.


As someone who studies Applied Linguistics, this one has me clawing at the air with rage.

First, forget the stupid adage that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, or however it goes. That was an off-the-cuff joke by a non-linguist. It explains the political reasons why we have separate "language" names for dialects (e.g. Hindi and Urdu), but linguistically it means nothing.

The labels "language" and "dialect" can only be applied in relation to other languages/dialects. In relation to Urdu, Hindi is a dialect, but in relation to Tamil (which is entirely unrelated), it's a language. American English and Australian English are dialects in relation to each other; in relation to German, each is a language.

Languages are mutually unintelligible. Dialects may sound different and have some different features, but are mutually intelligible.

By that rubric, Minnan (Southern Fujianese) and Taiwanese are dialects of each other. In relation to Mandarin, they are languages. Cantonese is a language in relation to Mandarin. Taiwanese, Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible.

But oh look, here comes Dunning-Kruger Guy again, and he took Chinese 101 as an elective in college. "But the Chinese [he means Mandarin] word for them translates to 'dialect'! Hah! I explained it!" 

That's true - in Mandarin, the word 方言 (fāngyán) - as in 地方的語言 or "language of a place" - is translated to “dialect", but the underlying implication is more like 'tongue spoken by people of a nearby [in China] place'. This is entirely a sociopolitical construct: in defining what "is" and "is not" China, the tongues spoken "in" China are more conveniently referred to as "dialects" so as to promote a sense of political unity that helps the leaders of China to maintain control and discourages the formation of unique cultural/national identities within China.

It is very convenient for the Chinese government to refer to Taiwanese, which is intelligible by people from southern Fujian, but nowhere else in China - as a "dialect". It implies that Mandarin speakers can understand Taiwanese...but they can't. It promotes a sense of unity where there is otherwise none. It makes it more difficult to talk about this aspect of Taiwanese identity in English, especially as Mandarin was essentially forced on Taiwan by the KMT's language policies, so that the vast majority of Taiwanese now speak it.

Dunning-Kruger Guy: "But they can understand each other through writing because the writing systems are the same! Nyah!"

Sort of, but no. It's more that Taiwanese doesn't have its own writing system, so Chinese ideographs were adopted in order to write it. In that sense, someone who can read Mandarin can puzzle out some Taiwanese writing, but that doesn't mean they are mutually intelligible, any more than Japanese and Mandarin (two different language families) are mutually intelligible just because one can write Japanese in Chinese ideographs (kanji). What's more, with underlying differences in how the characters are used and how the grammar works, it's not as intelligible as you think.

Don't believe me? Ask a Mandarin-speaking/reading friend who is not from Taiwan and doesn't speak Taiwanese or Minnan what this says:

哩講三小! 恁祖媽係大員郎。

Go ahead, I'll wait.

"...split in 1949"

I'll try to keep this one short - the issue here isn't that it's completely wrong, it's that it leaves out key details that change the entire story.

First, I'm not so sure that the ROC (Republic of China) and the PRC (People's Republic of China) "split" in 1949 so much as the ROC fought a civil war with the Communists; the Communists won, drove out the Nationalists and their ROC government, and formed the PRC. To split, two sides must have once been united, and the ROC and PRC were never united.

It also implies, through omitting the history immediately prior to 1949, that before that date Taiwan and China had been united. For how long? Who knows! The media never says!

It's true that from 1945-1949 the ROC controlled both Taiwan and China after a fashion (I mean for most of that they were in the process of taking over for the Japanese on Taiwan while fighting a progressively more dire civil war in China so they would not have actually controlled both places at the same time for even that long, but let's not nitpick).

But before that, Taiwan was a colony of Japan, and before that, a colonial holding of the Qing. To boil that complicated history down to "split in 1949" makes it easier to write succinctly, but also implants in readers' minds this idea that for a significant period of time before 1949, Taiwan and China were part of the same country. And that is simply not the case. To the point that many people who consider themselves well-versed in international affairs likely don't even know that Taiwan was Japanese, not Chinese, before it became part of the ROC. Why? Because the media rarely mentions it!

And why doesn't the media mention it? In part because it takes up valuable word count, but in part because the "China experts" that the media talk to never bother to emphasize this point. And why would they? It helps China's case that Taiwan is Chinese if the rest of the world conveniently forgets that Taiwan used to be Japanese. 


I hate to be one of those people, but let's take a quick look at the first dictionary results for the term "mainland":

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 2.45.50 AM

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 2.46.01 AM

The clear connotation of "mainland" just going by these definitions is that it is the main/continental part of a territory, and that outlying islands which are referred to in relation to it are also part of said territory.

By that metric, the only reason to use the phrase "Mainland China" in relation to Taiwan is if you want to imply that China and Taiwan have some sort of territorial relationship, or that Taiwan is a part of China. If you believe they are two sovereign or at least self-ruled entities, it makes no sense at all. In that sense, Taiwan doesn't have a mainland, unless you want to refer to "mainland Asia" (as Taiwan is a part of Asia, but not a part of China - you can also refer to "mainland Asia" in relation to, say, Japan).

So why do people keep saying it? I think partly force of habit - because former president and slightly deformed voodoo doll Ma Ying-jeou was pro-unification (yes he was, and is) and his administration used it, or if one is a journalist, perhaps because everybody else still does for some reason. I'm not sure how people came to believe the word was neutral or apolitical. It's not.

If you are wondering just how political "mainland" is, remember that it is required as a corresponding term to "Taiwan" in Xinhua's style guide, which is a reflection of Chinese government policy (seeing as Xinhua is state-run news, as basically all news in China is).

And yet it's become so ingrained in English discussions about Taiwan that people I know have asked what other option there is to refer to China (like, oh, "China"), and then resist, saying that just calling it "China" is political, but "Mainland" is not, when the opposite is true. That's frankly tiring. 

So if you want to talk about Taiwan exactly the way the Chinese government prefers, by all means use "mainland". I don't know about you, though, but I prefer not to be a useful idiot.

"Status Quo"

The thing about the term "status quo" is that it's not wrong - it describes the situation of Taiwan being de facto independent but not de jure independent.

That said, the status quo as it exists today does allow Taiwan to rule itself. It has sovereignty. From the Taiwanese perspective, it may be said that Taiwan is already independent (if we leave aside the compelling argument that the ROC is a colonial entity and true independence will come the day we formally change to a government of Taiwan).

Yet, when people who don't know Taiwan that well refer to the "status quo", they seem to think it means that Taiwan is in a much more precarious state of limbo - I've met people who genuinely think that Taiwan's current status is "a part of China but wanting independence" (like Xinjiang), or that China has some official say in how things are run here (they don't), or that Taiwan simply doesn't have a government (how would that even work on an island of 23.5 million people?). In any case they don't realize that the 'status quo' effectively renders Taiwan as de facto sovereign.

So if you are wondering why I would say that the Taiwanese favor independence when polls show they favor the status quo, it's because the status quo basically is independence. Considered alongside the fact that there is almost no support for unification, the public will is clear.

I do believe this is somewhat purposeful: while the Chinese media refer to Taiwan as a part of China in their own media, internationally they are quite happy to encourage the misconception that "status quo" means Taiwan does not currently have sovereignty in any form, when in fact it does. 

"One China Policy" 

Last but not least, we have the most misunderstood policy in...quite possibly the history of modern international relations.

A frightening number of laypeople and writers confuse the US's "One China Policy" with China's "One China Principle".

The American "One China policy" (which is not so much a single, formal policy as a set of confusing and ambiguous policy decisions, acts, communiques and official documents) stipulates that there is one government of China. Somewhere in this dizzying array of papers, there's an acknowledgement that people on "both sides" agree that there is "one China" and Taiwan is a part of it (wording that was penned back when the government of Taiwan felt that way, but was a military dictatorship and therefore not representative of the will of the people).

These documents, however, are more of a recognition or acknowledgement of the situation rather than a formal statement about what the US believes vis-a-vis China. That is to say, the US government acknowledges China's position that their territory includes Taiwan, but does not say that the US necessarily agrees (or disagrees) - only that the issue should be settled bilaterally.

Leaving aside the fact that a bilateral solution is not possible, the clearest interpretation of the "One China policy" is that the US takes no formal stance other than that there should be no unilateral moves. That means Taiwan can't unilaterally declare independence, but also that China can't take Taiwan by force.

So why do so many people seem to think that it means "the US believes Taiwan is a part of China"?

First, because China's own "One China Principle" (which does say that Taiwan is Chinese) sounds so similar to the "One China policy" - and there's no way that's unintentional. Of course they want it to be confusing.

Second, because every time someone points out that Taiwan is already self-ruled, and that the US maintains close (unofficial) ties with Taiwan which include arms sales and trade as well as unofficial consulates, a bunch of yahoos butt into the conversation with "but One China Policy! The US says Taiwan is Chinese!"

Some of these are surely Dunning-Kruger Guys, but I suspect a fair number of them are PRC trolls who deliberately muddy the issue and crap all over these conversations, so that we Taiwan advocates spend time fighting with them rather than getting our message out to people who might listen.

Let me repeat: China wants you to think that the US agrees that Taiwan is a part of China, and so it (probably) deliberately gave its own policy a similar name in the hope of confusing you, and is all too happy to let Internet trolls (who may be on its payroll) further obfuscate the truth. 

* * *

It's quite late now and I've just spent my whole evening writing about the deliberate use of language to confuse non-experts into believing half-truths and untruths about Taiwan. Sometimes this is done through exploiting ambiguous translations into English, sometimes through promoting certain word choices and unhitching them, through repeated use, from their political origins. And sometimes through deliberate style choices and other means.

I can only hope the international media will wise up and start reporting on Taiwan and China with more accurate terminology and clearer explanations, but I've got to be honest. Most of the folks writing for said media don't know the region well enough, and I'm not holding my breath.

In the meantime, everyone reading this should take a long look at the language they use to talk about these issues, and start using accurate terms that make Taiwan's case to the world, rather than holding ourselves back with terminology deliberately put in place to make it more difficult for us to do so. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

If you think Taiwanese have no sense of humor, perhaps that's because you don't get it.

Screen Shot 2018-10-12 at 2.06.18 AM

I hear it a lot: some expat dude (it's usually, though not always, a dude) who decides to hold forth and grace us with his deep knowledge of and wisdom about Taiwan, and proffers what he feels is a gem of intercultural knowledge: that Taiwanese have no sense of humor. 

There's even a blog post out there mentioning this, but I'll do the author a favor and not link to it. Obviously, I don't agree

This is often accompanied by the oft-repeated nugget (what kind of nugget I'm not sure) that Taiwanese don't understand sarcasm. 

It seems to be a common double standard - that it's okay for us to stumble around like idiots in the local language (and it is okay, by the way, as long as you try), but if someone isn't William freakin' Shakespeare in English, it must be some issue in "their culture" or their DNA which makes them "incapable" of sarcasm, jokes, being engaging, making a clear point, saying no, or whatever. Hmm, so you don't think that maybe it's just that they, like you, aren't perfectly fluent in the foreign language they are using and so they struggle with some higher-order language competencies which they are quite capable of in their native tongue? We don't think we "lack a sense of humor" if we can't properly crack jokes in Mandarin or Hoklo, so why do we apply this standard to Taiwanese learning English?

Personally, I find some of my Taiwanese friends, acquaintances and students deeply hilarious, some darkly funny, some basically normal (not particularly funny but able to enjoy a good joke) and some cold and humorless - just like I do any other people.

With that in mind, please enjoy this unintentionally hilarious "rap" from campaign staffers for Taipei mayoral candidate Ting Shou-jung (丁守中). I'm sure they'll get all the Kool Youngsterz to vote for them with this jammin' tune!


This isn't even the first time a KMT candidate has come out with a completely ridiculous song to try to appeal to the Cool'n'Hip Kidz, although it's more polished and overall less wholly inexplicable than this total head-scratcher from KMT chair Wu Dun-yih.

And, from a friend, there's, song? From former Taichung mayor Jason Hu (胡自強).

Ting - or rather, his staffers, as I don't think Ting himself could loosen up enough even to sing this zipped-up family-friendly extended jingle - are basically singing "Taipei's future is in your hands, Taipei's future is in my hands, Taipei's future is with Ting Shou-jung! He's keeping watch for you, he's defending your dreams, Taipei's future is with Ting Shou-jung!"

Wow, inspiring.

Now, to get the taste out of your mouth, check out the wonderfully sarcastic parody rap from EyeCTV, which is well-known for its sarcastic mockery of old ROC diehards and has come out with some trenchant Daily Show-like political satire in the past. 

They're taking the original catchy, dorky, deeply annoying tune, stealing some of the language choices, and turning it into what sounds like another stupid rap, but actually hides a pro-ROC, pro-unification, Chinese chauvinist old-school KMT style propaganda message. Most notably, it replaces "Taipei" with "China", with an old ROC map of China in the background.

It has all the old lingo, including "counter-offensive" (反攻)which is associated with old Nationalist slogans, includes the phrase "unification is not a dream" (another common propaganda message) and then goes on to say that it - that is, unification - is the "bright, sunny dream" (青天白日夢) of all "Chinese sons and daughters" (中華兒女). "Chinese sons and daughters" is propagandistic term which calls to mind the New China Youth (a wing of creepy, New Party-affiliated/China-supported-and-paid-for astroturfing unificationists) and the words for "bright and sunny" alluding strongly to the "white sun on a blue field" of the KMT party symbol (which is also on that blasted ROC flag).

Making this sort of joke even more culturally-specific is the wordplay at the end. Remove the "bright" (青天) part of "bright, sunny dream" and you get "白日夢", another way to say a daydream. A fantasy, an illusion. Which is exactly what "unification" is to these guys, no matter how much they try to dress it up in a dweeby hip-hop song pretending to be 'fresh'. 

Of course this isn't pro-unificationist ROC claptrap, it's sarcasm - satire, after a fashion - that thing so many foreigners in Taiwan think Taiwanese lack. It mocks the "trying to be hip" and "overly earnest" vibe of the original (something no late-middle-age uptight political candidate should attempt), while laying bare the KMT's actual beliefs as per its own symbols and past rhetoric: that Taiwan is ultimately Chinese, and that their actual goal is unification with China on their terms, not an independent future for Taiwan. No catchy tune can erase that.

The Facebook post even says that the ROC map pin he's wearing was sent by fans for the "rap" and can not be bought, with a ton of "crying" emojis.

I highly doubt any of those people reacting with the "crying" face actually wanted to seriously, unironically, own that pin.

This also shows how culture-specific some humor can be. Sure, Chad, I know you think you're so hilarious that it translates across cultures, but in fact, the reason your Taiwanese students don't laugh at your jokes isn't because they don't have a sense of humor, it's because your jokes just aren't that funny in Taiwan. Similarly, you might not find this video particularly funny. That's not because it isn't (I laughed a few times), but to really get it, you have to have be familiar enough with a culture that was just starting to shake off the enforced adherence to Chinese-style propaganda that has always sounded quietly ridiculous to Taiwanese whose ancestors have been here for hundreds or thousands of years, and who never had any intention of or desire to "take back the Mainland". 

So yeah, I'd say that Taiwanese understand sarcasm just fine, and their sense of humor is doing A-OK. If you don't see that, maybe you're the one who doesn't get it. 

Friday, September 21, 2018

Yes, Ko is using Xi's language on "one family"

Screen Shot 2018-09-21 at 9.29.56 AM
from ETToday

A piece by former Sunflower leader Lin Fei-fan came out today, warning of Ko's embrace of Xi Jinping's and China's oft-repeated phrase, "the two sides of the Strait are one family", essentially calling Ko's seeming doublespeak on China a strategy out of the Ma Ying-jeou playbook: insisting he's not pro-unification and then acting the opposite.

I'm already anticipating the criticism that'll flow in over such a prominent figure in Taiwanese Third Force politics essentially taking a shot at Ko as the Taipei mayoral election nears and no better pro-Taiwan candidates are running (or arguably, none who could actually win Taipei exist).

One thing in particular I expect to hear, which I'd like to dismantle right now, is the idea that Ko's and Xi's exact wording don't match: that Xi uses "兩岸一家人" (a translation of "one family" that implies a single household or very immediate relatives) and Ko uses "兩岸一家親" which implies a more distant familial relation, like cousins: the idea being that you can share ancestors or be related, but not be under the same household.

However, CRNTT/China Review News/台灣中評, essentially Chinese state-sponsored media in Taiwan and Hong Kong, published a lengthy article on the 19th Party Congress in 2017, in which the latter phrase - the one used by Ko - is explicitly quoted as being used by Xi:


My rough translation: "The two sides of the strait are one family" is a new concept for the peaceful development of cross-strait relations actively promoted by General Secretary Xi Jinping. This new concept is extremely rich in content. The basis of the phrase "two sides of the strait are one family" is that both sides of the strait belong to one nation. This policy towards Taiwan is to use "family" rhetoric and logic to "reconcile hearts" and deal more flexibly with the Taiwan issue, cross-strait differences, and benefit Taiwan. The "cross-strait family" concept requires compatriots on both sides of the strait to trust each other, support each other, continuously expand cross-strait exchanges, smooth the scars of history in the development of integration, and jointly advance the historic process of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.


Anyway, that's what Chinese media in Taiwan is saying. It's useful to get a sense of what the Chinese government thinks, and they are explicitly using the exact same phrase as Ko: not 一家人, but 一家親. Here's another source from ETToday and another from China Times (pan-blue/pro-China media in Taiwan) which contains extensive quotes from Xi. Here's an English translation of Xi's words in 2017. You have to dig, as this wasn't one of the top points of his address, but it's there.

Basically, it seems as though Xi used the old phrasing  (一家人) up through about 2013, then switched to the newer one echoed by Ko after that (一家親), while occasionally switching back to the more 'immediate family' (一家人) translation. However, both retain the same translation in English.

I am sure that China does this sort of thing intentionally - taking words that have subtle, hard to parse translations in other languages  and twisting them to suit their own ends. Because it's hard to explain these things in English, those who don't know Mandarin buy too easily into CCP-approved ways of thinking about these concepts.  Another key example is the way they allow confusion to blossom over the concept of 華人 (Chinese, as in, something from Chinese culture) and 中國人 (from the nation called 'China'): essentially trying to control the debate about what it means to be 'Chinese' by equating it linguistically with anything 'Chinese' being 'a part of China'. Both words, however, translate as 'Chinese' and it's difficult to explain the difference unless you learn the language. It's also difficult for people who don't want to be lumped in under the CCP's idea of what it means to be 'Chinese' to use these words.

"一家親" in its "extended family (not necessarily of one household)" context might have been embraced by many Taiwanese, just as having Chinese cultural heritage (華人) might have been. Now, you can't say those things - you can't express an opinion that you are proud of your Chinese ancestry but don't want to be a part of China - without sounding like a unificationist. That suits some people very well indeed.

Note, in fact, that these points on the Chinese renderings of the phrase "two sides of the strait are one family" are not included in Lin's article: there's just too much you'd have to say to make it clear, and you'd lose readers' interest. It takes up valuable digital real estate - but the fact that it is so hard to discuss in other languages is exactly the point.

Some might ask whether Ko really means to echo Xi and China in his choice of words. I don't know - he's the kind of person who would stumble into this sort of thing unintentionally, having a tendency, not think too much about how he comes across when he talks. He tends to stumble around answers to questions he really should see coming and have rehearsed, polished answers to, but apparently doesn't - not that I generally find Taiwanese politics very polished, mind you.

There's also the terrifying fact that Ko's milquetoast KMT opponent Ting Shou-chung uses the old, even more pro-unification "兩岸一家人" - a sign that Ting, not Ko, is the one in China's pocket? That both are useful idiots, blathering pro-China rhetoric that may sound different to Taiwanese voters but is seen in exactly the same way as China - and that this is intentional on China's part? That Ting is using the phrase in a bid to get the KMT back into the CCP's good graces - they miss their Daddy it seems - but the CCP has decided Ko is a better bet? I don't know.

But Lin puts forward a convincing case that we should at least keep our eye on Ko, and hold him accountable for his words: that CCTV seems to endorse him, and that China certainly is looking to co-opt Third Force and third-party politicians in Taiwan as it sees its inability to push its agenda forward through the KMT, and that his city-level exchanges with Shanghai are problematic. While he doesn't say so explicitly, the CCP's use of specific terminology is very deliberate. These exact phrases - like 兩岸一家人/一家親, or 中華民族偉大復興的歷史進程 ("the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation") - are significant to them and are generally deployed using exactly the same language each time. They are signals, to some extent dog whistles to those they've co-opted. If Xi has changed his wording, Ko is using it too (and defending that use), the phrase seems to have been given prominence above the language of the so-called "1992 Consensus, and CCTV is happy about all of this, it could very well mean something.

This isn't to say that I think Ko is a unificationist. He strikes me as more of a too-smart-for-his-own-good catspaw or useful idiot. It wouldn't be the first time a seeming pan-green loyalist was manipulated into doing the CCP's bidding, but I don't know what motivates Ko. All I can do is point out that, when it comes down to the very specific terminology put out by the CCP, Ko's words do in fact match up.

I certainly don't think Taiwanese voters will embrace this "one family" doctrine either: when it comes to actual sentiments of most Taiwanese people, Ko's words are not as divisive as some may believe. Just because he's selling potentially problematic ideas doesn't mean the electorate is buying them.

Some will probably say Lin is trying to tank Ko's re-election. If you read between the lines of what Lin is saying, however, it's not that we should not elect Ko. I would bet CA$H money that he fully expects Ko to win, and that he's fully aware that Yao's a joke who doesn't stand a chance and Ting is far worse a choice than Ko. Ting's clearly anti-independence stance is a huge problem, and Yao's off partying like it's 1999, naming Chen Shui-bian (yes, that Chen Shui-bian) his "supreme advisor". LOL.

I'd bet a full case of wine that Lin's goal is to get the world to look more closely at Ko and hold him to account for his words, but not necessarily to refuse to vote for him. He's someone who pokes holes in establishment narratives and criticizes where criticism is due, regardless of the consequences. That's often (though perhaps not always) a good thing.

I am sure he doesn't believe that Taiwanese voters will suddenly go pro-China either: several times in the piece it points out that the KMT is not likely to regain its lost popularity, and that Ko's words on China do not echo the sentiments of the Taiwanese people. His concern is that the Taiwanese people are deliberately ignoring his words out of convenience, for lack of a better candidate, and that's a dangerous path to follow (see: Ma Ying-jeou).

I'm not sure this is the best way to make the case for Taiwan in English in international media, as it's really something for Taiwanese voters to think about and Taiwan gets limited screen time on any media outlet. The rest of the world is confused enough by China's consistently winning the rhetoric war on the China-Taiwan debate (though less so these days), and needs to hear a clear, clarion-bright call bringing the case for Taiwan: not muddy, difficult, unclear domestic political situations that Taiwan is trying to hash out itself. I'd like to see more 'clear cases for Taiwan' and less 'domestic Taiwanese politics' for global readers.

But that doesn't mean Lin is wrong.

And every time the 1992 Consensus is called out for the pro-China garbage it is in English-language media, the better. I am only sad that the word "fabrication" was not used, because that's what it is. More of that, please.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Crazy, Rich Nations

Original photo from Wikimedia Commons
(to be fair this movie has actually made me want to return to Singapore, but mostly for the food)

You probably think I'm writing in to comment on Crazy Rich Asians because it's a cultural moment and it'll be good traffic for Lao Ren Cha. I'm not - I don't expect this will even be one of the more popular posts. I just have some thoughts on the movie and I'd like to share them.

It took me a few hours, because my mind was completely cleaned out by Henry Golding's golden washboard abs, but I'm over it now* so here we are.

Let me get one thing out of the way first: I really liked the movie, so let's talk about that first. If you don't care, scroll through a few paragraphs to get to my concerns. 

Why did I like it? Because despite some Chinese viewers thinking it "presents a stereotypical view of Asians" to Western audiences, I actually think it smashes these stereotypical views.

I can assure you, of my friends and family who have never been to Asia, very few of them think that Asians live like the Crazy Rich Asians. Most of them think "Asian" and they think "poor and full of gongs" or something. You know, like:

from Wikimedia Commons

Maybe with a dragon or some "ancient Chinese art of kung fu" thrown in. But definitely poor. To many Westerners, only the West is rich.

I am also reasonably sure a large percentage of people I know back home think that the only reason I don't live in a straw hut in a rice paddy and wear a conical hat to work is because I live in a city, which they might well imagine as some cement buildings scattered among the straw huts.

So, y'know, I'm actually happy to see a representation of Asia that doesn't look like the only people who live there are rice farmers or monks and their only purpose outside Asia is to run Asian restaurants and dispense religious wisdom to white protagonists. I live in a pretty developed country in a continent that, for much (but not all) of its breadth, is developed. It's about time the West woke up and realized that. Asians are not all still-suffering victims of Western imperialism (in Taiwan and elsewhere, there are currently-suffering victims of Chinese imperialism, but I'll get to that.) Much of Asia really is criss-crossed by ultra-wealthy families, many of whom claim Chinese ancestry, and all of whom know each other.

To imply otherwise is to say "what? but don't you like gongs and monks? Why are you wearing Versace? Don't you have some traditional robes? Don't let the white man force you out of the rice paddy!"


It's also about time they woke up and realized that Asia can't be described with a single word (like "collectivist" or "Confucian" or "ancient") - there are good, decent, down-to-earth people (like Astrid and Colin) and selfish jerks (like Eddie and Amanda), and people who think they are good and decent and self-sacrificing who are in fact kind of selfish (like Eleanor, in a way). You know, like everywhere else in the world.

I also liked it because, while people are writing about how it pits Western and Asian values (does it, though? I'll get to that too), I find it plays with the fundamental rightness of feminist values, and how they can exist in any cultural setting, adjusted to the needs and goals of women in any given culture. When I think "family values", even in an Asian context, I think "values that lift up everyone in the family, with everyone negotiating, cooperating, giving and receiving for the benefit of all, including women", not "women must always sacrifice for the family". That's a feminist value that can exist in Asia - Rachel even references those words in reference to a game of mahjong!

And I'm fine with it being called Crazy Rich Asians even though it's really only about "ethnic Chinese" - a good book needs a snappy title and Crazy Rich Overseas Chinese in Singapore...isn't. It's not a National Geographic documentary, after all. (Anyway those seem to skew toward the poverty and gongs, too - all the stuff Westerners like to feel both guilty over and enchanted by. Not a real place full of real, mostly normal people.) It's not about "Singapore" or "diverse Asia". It's about a group of crazy, rich and crazy rich people. Can't it just be that? Can't something be set in Asia and feature an Asian cast and be about something other than social justice?

I liked it despite the criticisms I've heard from some media and my social-justice oriented friends: that it only shows one kind of Asian (the only dark-skinned or even non-Chinese Asians we see are working in service positions), that despite it not being scheduled to open in China, that it presents a problematic pro-China orientation and presents a view of Chineseness that is frighteningly close to Communist Party ideology - an idea I'll quote from liberally in a moment - that of course it ignores deeper issues of inequality in Singapore.

Or, as my husband joked on the way home, "I'm happy now that we know what the inside of a typical Singaporean home looks like, since we have always stayed in hotels on our trips there!"

All of these things are true, and I can't wholly ignore them. They are very real:

From Kirsten Han writing for the Hong Kong Free Press (linked above and again here):

The Young family, for example, sit around and make jiaozi, a dumpling from northern China that’s unlikely to be part of the traditions of a long-established Chinese Singaporean family, since most of the Chinese who came to Singapore came from the southeastern coast.

It’s also odd that Nick Young’s grandmother, the elderly matriarch of the family, speaks perfect Mandarin, while the women one generation below her speak Cantonese—in real life, it’s far more likely to be the other way around, especially given the Singapore government’s efforts to restrict the use of dialects and promote Mandarin.


On her trip, Rachel Chu learns the difference between the Asian American and Asian experience. But there isn’t an “Asian experience”, per se. It’s not as simple as East versus West, as the symbolism of the film’s mahjong game suggests. Even within tiny Singapore, we see diverging Chinese experiences every day. If anything, it’s the Chinese Communist Party in the People’s Republic of China that seeks to obscure these differences in their efforts to engender feelings of sympathy or even loyalty to the party through the idea of racial unity.

YUP. Hey Westerners - did you know that was a thing? It totally is.

This is echoed in Catherine Chou's piece in The News Lens (also linked above and here):

Repressive government initiatives to solidify Mandarin as the region’s common tongue have been so successful in Singapore, Taiwan, and China that Hokkien and Cantonese are now routinely mistaken in popular culture as mere dialects of Mandarin.

Mandarin thus functions in the movie just as it does in government policies: as an artificial marker of class and sophistication. Cantonese, and especially Hokkien, are used as signifiers of marginality and lower status.

Holy fishguts, this is spot on.

This isn't only a problem in Singapore - it's also a deep social divide in Taiwan. For a few generations now, the KMT colonizers (yes, colonizers) have promoted Mandarin as the lingua franca of Taiwan, a country they believe is "a part of China" but which a.) isn't, b.) fuck you, KMT and c.) was never a place where Mandarin was a native tongue, before it was forced on the Taiwanese. To do this, they not only made it punishable in some circumstances to speak Taiwanese Hokkien (and caused one to be 'under suspicion' in others), but made it so that Mandarin was the language of the upper classes, with Hokkien being the language of "ignorant farmers" (無知農夫). The language of the gauche. The language of the excluded.

And believe me, the point has always been to explicitly exclude. How do you get people who speak a totally different language, and who might rebel, to accept you as their sovereign masters? Make 'em think their language is merely a coarse dialect of the common tongue you share, and you are the learned scholars who have come to educate them in your common tongue's purer, better form. 

In the film, the good-hearted, nouveau riche Gohs (who, in their kindness, though perhaps not in their campier qualities, remind me of Taiwan a little) speak Hokkien, and are excluded from "society". The posh, old money Youngs should speak Cantonese, but instead speak Mandarin. Peik Lin points out the 'class' differences explicitly, but Western audiences aren't likely to notice the linguistic ones.

This leads to another concern I have: Taiwan is mentioned in Crazy Rich Asians, but it's always a sidebar. China gets a not-quite-appropriate quote at the beginning of the film (a point that Kirsten Han made in HKFP), Singapore gets the "Lives of the Rich and Famous" treatment: Taiwan, on the other hand, is portrayed as just another place where rich Chinese might live and do business with other Chinese - despite it being qualitatively different not just culturally, but economically. Taiwan isn't Singapore or Hong Kong - it's not rich and shiny. It's not a waking dragon like China. It is remarkably unpretentious and down-to-earth. Even its shiniest district - Xinyi - is only a little shiny, and not really at all glitzy.

I like it that way, but it does spell out for me the differences between "countries that cooperate with Chinese cultural imperialism" and "countries that tell China to eat it". And, as a smart friend of mine recently wrote in a paper you will almost certainly never read, a key difference between who can have a close relationship with the PRC and who must be suspicious of them and look for other options is whether or not China respects that country's borders. China and Singapore can be close, because China isn't threatening to invade it. Taiwan must be wary, and so Taiwan is shoved eternally, unfairly to the sidelines.

So, Singapore can sign on to this movie that promotes a certain ideal of "Chineseness" within its borders if it wants to. Singaporeans of Chinese heritage can call themselves Chinese, if they want, and claim common cultural roots with Chinese people in China. The movie clearly portrays those roots inaccurately, but Singapore isn't going to lose its sovereignty over it.

But there is no room for Taiwan as it is in the Chinese world of Crazy Rich Asians: it can try to claim its place as part of the "family", which many in Taiwan would like to do given their ancestral roots in China. But that means being eaten alive by the Communist Party's insistence that being Chinese means you are a part of China, are loyal to China the CCP and follow certain cultural prescriptions decided by China the CCP. Or, it can deny its links to China and Chinese cultural heritage, but always feel a sense of exclusion.

The CCP has, like Eleanor Young, made it so there is no winning hand for Taiwan: it can't turn away from the "Chinese" cultural roots that many would like to claim without being kicked out of the "family", but it can't claim its place at the table without being subsumed by China.

It's also worth noting that the values touted as "Asian" in the film were common in the West just a few generations ago - they're not "Asian", they're..."traditional". Therefore, the values that eventually stand up to "traditional" ones in the film aren't "Western", they're "modern". 

Considering this, even if there were a way for Taiwan to win this game, in the version of "Asia" that Eleanor (though not necessarily the movie as a whole) puts forward where "Asian" is (falsely) conflated with "traditional", there is no room to be both Asian and liberal/progressive. If "Asian values" include self-sacrifice, choosing family and duty over love and a whole pallet of misogyny, where the gay cousin is accepted - but not entirely (the actor who plays Oliver Tsien says of the character, "he knows he’s an outsider in his own family just by being queer") - 
where is the space for an Asian country like Taiwan that has, say, decided to enshrine marriage equality into law, has a strong social movement culture and actually attempts (though not always with success) to enforce gender equality laws in the workplace?

In short, in the version of Asia that Crazy Rich Asians puts forward, where traditional values are accepted unanimously by all, where does a country like Taiwan fit in? It's almost as if certain other, larger, crazier, richer nations don't want that country to exist at all...

So...I liked the movie. It was fun. It was well-made and well-acted. It was more thoughtful than a romantic comedy needs to be. It's a breakthrough moment for portrayals of Asian characters in film.

But I also...didn't. Because the portrayals of what it means to be "Chinese" in it are entirely the brainchild of a crazy, rich nation. And even if it wanted into this 'family' of Chineseness, Taiwan would always be rebellious, gay cousin Oliver. Though far less accepted for who she is.

Western academics and commentators love to point out that overarching cultural narratives are usually promulgated by the most powerful members of a group, and exclude the least powerful. We've become good at spotting this in our own cultural contexts: what it means to be American is projected as a white person's view of Americanness, what it means to be a businessperson is a male view of business culture, the notion of what "romance" means is a straight one, etc.

It's about time they realized that this happens in Asia too, and what it means to be "Chinese" or even "Asian" is a narrative that the Chinese government is actively trying to control - and of course, they are the ones with power. And money. Also, they (the government) are freakin' insane.

*not really over it, but I'm still fundamentally a Freddy Lim girl

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Just a little light news commentary

Greetings from San Francisco!

Lao Ren Cha has been silent these past two weeks because I've been traveling in the US visiting family and friends, and frankly just haven't had the time. I wasn't even supposed to be in California, but I missed my flight and as a result I'm going to miss Taipei Pride 2017. I had had a rainbow skirt made for the occasion and everything.

But, with a bit of time to kill before my flight, I'd add a little commentary to two stories that caught my eye.

First, a petition to ban the Chinese flag in public places has passed the 5000-signature threshold for a government response. 

I've made the case before that pro-unification demonstrators should be banned (and also made the case that they shouldn't), but I hope it's clear that I don't necessarily buy my own devil's advocate argument.

It's true that China bans the ROC flag, and this would be tit for tat. It's true that pro-China protesters have a track record of violence, it's true that the Chinese government is an existential threat to Taiwan and must therefore be treated differently from other foreign governments, and of course we all ought to know by now that few of these pro-unificationists are sincerely expressing an ideal. They're either gangsters, associated with gangsters, or as I suspect in many cases paid by the CCP as "fake civil society" agitators. Many protest not to convince Taiwanese - a lost cause if there ever was one - but to create appropriate photo ops in China of "pro-unification Taiwanese".

All of these are reasons, I suppose, to prohibit them from demonstrating.

But you know what? I don't think it matters. Yes, China bans the ROC flag, but we are better than them. It is a stronger example to show that we can allow the flag of a threatening country to be shown in public without fearing that its very image could destabilize Taiwan than to ban it out of fear. Treating China as an existential threat is important, but also a separate issue from allowing Taiwanese citizens and legal residents to exercise their rights of speech and assembly. Pointing out the irony that they are demonstrating in favor of a country that would take away their right to demonstrate is another way to handle this without putting an unnecessary gag on free speech.

And yes, we need to do something about the violence, but using "they are violent!" as an excuse to disallow certain kinds of protests is a path we really ought not to be going down. It could theoretically be used on anyone. Keeping an eye on certain individuals known to be violent and a law enforcement presence similar to that seen in other, peaceful protests is the way to deal with it - as well as finally locking up gangsters known to be pro-violence, pro-China agitators who have committed crimes (that is to say, White Wolf).

Certainly, we could ban them because they are disingenuous, but this is very hard to prove, and also a problematic approach. Do we also ban anyone from protesting who has received money in any capacity or is employed by an organization that advocates for the issue behind the demonstration? Do we ban paid political party staff from marching in support of an issue their party also supports? We can and should put more restrictions on foreign funding in Taiwan, but I suspect a lot of these payments are personal - think "red envelope full of cash" - and difficult if not impossible to trace.

As for the point that these demonstrations are more to generate visuals in China than to impact anything in Taiwan - who cares?

In short, there is just no way to reasonably ban these guys in a free society, although they should be held more fully legally accountable for any violence they incite. The best we can do is make sure the general public is educated about who they are and why they are doing this.

As for the second story, in this article on indigenous Taiwanese reclaiming their names, this line caught my eye:

First of all, many people could not pronounce his [Neqou Sokluman's] name because he chose a rare character. And whenever he went to a hospital or to a government agency, the staff would ask him in English, “Are you Taiwanese? Can you speak Chinese?” and treat him as a migrant worker from Southeast Asia. [emphasis mine]. 

It goes without saying that indigenous Taiwanese, and everyone, frankly - should be able to have and use their real name. I'd only add that it is also necessary to educate the general public on not only the existence of such names in Taiwan, but also the need to respect them. I'll also point out that the rule that one must adopt a Chinese-character name is not limited to indigenous people - if a foreigner registers a marriage in Taiwan with a Taiwanese citizen, they are also required to adopt a "Chinese name". In addition, it's not at all fair that I can have both my English and Chinese names and nobody whose opinion matters raises a fuss about it. And, of course, I have more than one Taiwanese friend who has been forced to choose and use an "English name" that they don't want. That's not right.

Although these situations are not the same as what indigenous people face, one can draw a few comparisons.

But...what really bothers me is this: I don't want indigenous Taiwanese to be treated better than Southeast Asian migrant workers. I don't want anyone to be treated better than Southeast Asian migrant workers, because these workers ought to be treated with just as much respect as anyone else, as equal human beings. I don't want the phrase to even have a reason to exist, because you can't equate poor treatment to the experience of a group if no group is treated poorly.

This goes way beyond elevating one group and right to the heart of treating all people with respect regardless of socioeconomic status, visa status or national or racial origin (or gender, or orientation, or creed, or weight, or age).

People deserve respect because they are people, not because they are "indigenous" or "Taiwanese" or the right kind of foreigner (so says the Garbage Foreigner), and everyone should be able to have the name that they want - their name - and just be who they are.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Not Fluent, Stop Asking

Photo from this site

It's been 5 1/2 years. 5 1/2 years of learning Chinese - with some extended breaks, but make no mistake, I learned on those breaks, too. I suppose you could count that tortured year in China in 2002 when I taught myself basic survival Chinese, but looking back, I have to wonder. I feel now as though I knew nothing then. At this point, especially as it's clear that I do speak Chinese, although not perfectly, I get a lot of people asking me "You must be fluent, huh. What's that like?" or "So, are you fluent?"

I never know how to answer them. Am I fluent? I personally would say "no", but I don't really know because I don't know what "fluent" means in real terms. Am I fluent in that I can go an entire day and speak/read/write/hear nothing but Chinese with no problem? Yes. Am I fluent in that I can read, I dunno, Confucius? Hell to the NO. Am I fluent in that I don't make mistakes? Of course not.

After five years of mostly self-study, should I be? I don't know. I'd certainly speak at a "higher level" if I'd continued to study hard and attend Shi-da, but I met plenty of people at Shi-da at my level or above who were too nervous or just not, ahem, "fluent" enough to get sentences out that come easily to me, so I don't know.

So, let's explore this whole "fluency" thing.

The idea that "fluency" in a foreign language isn't something that can be measured easily, nor are the metrics to determine it agreed on by any stretch has been pretty well covered online and in the many conversations serious language learners have with each other.

There are some who believe that you're only fluent if you can communicate flawlessly - think on the level of interpreters or native speakers of more than one language. There are others who feel that if you can converse and basically communicate what you need to and get by in day-to-day life vis-a-vis spoken and written communication, even if you make mistakes, then that means you're fluent. Still others have what I view as a warped idea that if you're able to read, write, analyze, do research in and know the classical background of a language, than regardless of how well your speaking of that language flows, then that means you're fluent. A teacher at Shi-da's Mandarin Training Center once told me that if you complete all five books in their series and do fairly well, then you count as "fluent".

Well, let me tell you, I'm on the last book - Book 5 (I never took the class for it, but I own it and have flipped through it and there is a lot that I already know, plus a few things I need to learn) - and I don't feel as close to this "fluency" thing as this teacher confidently asserted I should.

By the first definition, I will never be fluent in Chinese. I can study and study, but I'm never going to reach a point where I speak it, ahem, flawlessly - but then, what does "flawlessly" even mean? Some snob in Beijing might listen to a perfectly fluent native speaker of Chinese from Taipei and proclaim that her Chinese is not "flawless". I might be able someday to interpret Chinese into English, but probably never the other way around. I'll always have a "different", non-native sounding way of speaking it. 

But then, by this definition students of mine who speak far better English than I do Chinese - who have done Master's and even PhD degrees abroad - are not "fluent" because they still make mistakes. I have a friend who got an Master's in the USA and still forgets to put verbs in the past tense occasionally. I have a student - a psychiatrist - who got her PhD at Cambridge and who still makes occasional mistakes or says things in a clearly non-native way or  using awkward grammar, and who doesn't always know just the right adjective or noun for specialized words ("incomprehensible" was on her vocabulary review list recently). With the grammar mistakes she makes - never big, always at a high level, but still noticeable - many language assessment ratings wouldn't put her at an advanced level; she's currently placed in high intermediate (although I teach her as though she's advanced).

But dude, she got her PhD at Cambridge. Can you really say she's "not fluent"?

I have plenty of students who score, in terms of vocabulary range and grammar knowledge, in the mid-intermediates. I'd say it's the biggest group of learners I encounter, and that there are barriers in language learning that keep many language learners at that level. Here's the thing - they make mistakes. They use prepositions of time all wrong, and forget all sorts of tenses and other bits of speech - like conditionals and reported speech - come out a bit wonky (although generally their point is clear). But they can get by just fine. They can handle - and often have handled - life in an English speaking country just fine (although they all claim it's a struggle - well, duh. Sometimes communicating in Chinese in Taipei is a struggle for me. I don't think that ever goes away). They can converse, they can make themselves clear, they can understand spoken English face-to-face. At times it's hard for me to judge how much their understanding is based on grading of my speech, because I now grade my speech almost subconsciously. I would guess that rapid English from one native speaker to another, if it were two people conversing, would be generally understandable but more challenging, with some missed meaning in idioms and nuance. They can generally read just about anything at a higher level than I can read Chinese, but that's hardly surprising. Anyone learning Chinese as a second language feels my pain, my beautiful torment! Other than in obvious spoken mistakes - which rarely obscure meaning - the only time one might question the fluency of these students of mine is in watching television or movies or trying to discern song lyrics.

Which, you know, is just about where I'm at. There are some differences: I tend to know a lot more Chinese slang and idiomatic speech than my students know in English (although they constantly surprise me: once I was discussing "charisma" in political leaders with a student and mentioned Bill Clinton. "Even after the Republicans tried to push him out of office..." Student: "Oh, I know! Because of a blowjob!" I produce a fountain of spurting coffee from my nose). I can understand bits of casual conversation between native speakers more easily. I can produce Chinese without having to translate from English in my head. If someone speaks to me in Chinese, Chinese comes out of my mouth in reply without a second thought. This isn't surprising, given that I'm learning on my own in an immersion environment and pick up most of my Chinese from friends. 

They tend to know higher level / business / professional language and read far better than I can - again, not surprising as English is, I believe, easier to read than Chinese and they use their English skills for work, not socializing. It still stuns me how few of my Taiwanese friends have other foreign friends besides me - although some certainly do, and how rarely I come across a student who answers in the affirmative when I ask if they have foreign friends. Colleagues, business partners, acquaintances, yes - friends? Not really.

So, I need to work on more formal Chinese and business Chinese (and reading/writing!) and they need to work on more casual, quick, no-head-translations-please English with a wider range of vocabulary.

But, generally speaking, I can live my life in Chinese without much problem. I can call repairmen, go to B&Q, order food (even foreign food), talk about all sorts of topics from economics to geography to religion to media to history to basic office matters and more (I remain weak in sports, but even in English I don't care about sports). I haven't tried yet but I suspect I could pull off a job interview in Chinese, albeit with mistakes. I can more or less follow the news, although I know I miss a great deal of nuance and pick up a lot from the accompanying visuals. I can do an informal business presentation in Chinese (and have) and can follow other presentations. I can participate in and head a Q&A session in Chinese (and have). I can't read that well when it comes to newspapers or books but I can and do interact with friends on Facebook in Chinese - including fairly meaty posts and messages. I can type just fine but my writing is...well, I can fill out forms and write short notes and postcards by hand, but not much more. I'd feel bad about this, but I have plenty of students who routinely forget how to write even basic characters by hand. I feel ever so vanquished when one student turns to another and asks, "how do you write putao (grape) in Chinese?") THANK YOU.

I know where this places me, and my various students, on the scale of typical "levels" in any given language, but where does it put us in terms of fluency - which I have come to believe is a separate thing?

I don't know. I know that, no matter what Shi-da says, I'm not as close to my ideal of fluent as their system implies. I know that, while my students make intermediate-level mistakes, that while they may not believe it's true, I know that they can get along in an English-speaking environment. 

I personally believe that I'll feel "fluent" when I can turn on the news, move away from the TV and do something else, and still understand in a fair amount of detail what's going on without having to look at the visuals. The other day I had to get a knife refurbished as it had developed a bit of rust (and it was a very expensive knife) -  I could explain that my knife had a problem - here, take a look! - and could you please fix it, but the word "rust" eluded me. When I came to this cafe earlier, I told them that I did not want a particular seat as my backpack would  jut out into the hallway and people could trip over it. I managed to make myself clear, but fairly awkwardly and certainly with a few mistakes. When I can get through exchanges like these with total confidence - even if there are a few mistakes - I'll feel fluent. When I can look at a menu of foreign food and read off my selection perfectly - not nearly perfectly except for that one character I don't know, dammit! What IS that? Oh but they know what I mean - I'll feel fluent. When I can read a blog post clearly or get the gist of a newspaper article in greater detail (I can get the gist now, but basically detail-free), I'll feel fluent. When the number of workarounds I need to make a point clear are diminished considerably - and it becomes a tool I employ rarely rather than fairly often - I'll feel fluent.

When will that be? I don't know. I work towards it, but I do it in my own rambling way.

Do I ever aspire to speak flawlessly? No. I have no aspirations toward interpreting English into Chinese for official purposes, and I have no aspirations to academia in Chinese. Cool as it would sound - yeah, well, I'm totally a professor of Chinese, so there! - I know that's not the path for me. My relationship with the language has always been more street-level, more everyday, less academic. I *heart* academia, but as an abstract, not as a career goal. At heart I'm a traveler and a networker, an adventure-seeker and an organic learner. I am not a researcher and not someone who believes you can put the strictures on language that so many academics would like to put on it. 
Do I aspire to speak more comfortably? Yes. I'm not sure if, after five and a half years, I've missed some benchmark that I could have hit if I'd only studied harder, or if my organic "it happens when it happens and I am learning" approach has done me more good.

I just don't know, but it's all worth thinking about.

So if you, too, are not fluent and wish people would stop asking as though fluent were a concept whose metrics everyone agreed on or as though there was a benchmark, rather than a scale, of fluency -  don't beat yourself up. You're not alone. I'm here, too!