Tag Archives: Language

Taiwan: China, But Not China

If you’ve lived in China, going to Taiwan is a like going to an alternate universe. China, but not China.

It’s a place that invites comparison and analogy, and I found myself struggling to get a grip on the enormous familiarity of the place while enumerating its many differences from the Mainland.

It’s like China but without all the people!

It’s like China but without all the authoritarianism!

It’s like China but everyone in Taiwan stands in line and says please and thank you!

It’s like China but with freedom of the press and tropical beaches and absurdly delicious Southeast Asian-influenced food!

And when I put it like that, it kind of sounds like China…but paradise.

There were plenty of things about Taiwan that flummoxed me – for example, the fact that I could speak to people, but had a really hard time reading anything at all. Taiwan uses traditional Chinese characters, whereas the Mainland uses a system of simplified Chinese characters; a brief example of how complicated this can be is the name of Taiwan itself. In simplified characters it looks like this: 台湾. In traditional characters, it’s this: 臺灣 – i.e. so complicated that you can’t even see all the individual strokes on your computer screen.

It seems to me that the difference between Mainland Mandarin and Taiwanese Mandarin is about as big as the difference between British and American English. As an American, you probably wouldn’t have too much trouble understanding British English – but that’s because you’re a native English speaker. (Unless a Brit told you to do something like “Kindly put your counterpane on the car bonnet,” in which case you’d probably be mystified.) As a non-native Mandarin speaker, I was often left wondering what on earth people were talking about when they told me I could ride my 机车 to the 捷運 (ride my motorcycle to the subway), because I would have said that I was going to ride my 电动车 to the 地铁.

I know this is all a little abstract if you don’t speak Chinese, so let me get right to the point: political realities aside, for those of you who are wondering if Taiwan feels like it’s a part of China when you visit – no. It does not. It feels like a different country.

*****

In the end, our trip to Taiwan was slightly star-crossed. First, we missed our flight, which caused much anxiety and laying out of additional dollar bills. After spending our first few days exploring Taipei, it began to bucket down rain the night before heading to Hualien.

By the time we hit Hualien, we were in the throes of Tropical Storm Nalgae, meaning that we could barely leave our hotel room for two full days. Then I woke up with the worst head cold I’ve had in years, complete with giant, swollen glands and a croaky voice that I was hoping sounded seductive but I’m pretty sure just sounded tubercular.

After the rain finally cleared we were able to see Taroko Gorge and Taiwan’s dazzling East Coast, and had a blissful couple days on Green Island – and then RP’s grandfather passed away. We ditched plans for visiting the city of Tainan and headed straight back to Taipei so that RP could get the next flight out to New York via Tokyo.

I figure that if I loved Taiwan, even considering all that went wrong, it must be a highly lovable place. My affection for the place, however, was tinged with the familiar feeling that there was some pretty serious misdirection going on when I was educated about “Chinese culture” as an undergrad in East Asian Studies.

I’ve written before about the importance that was given to Mainland China when I was an undergraduate – Taiwan was never spoken of except in little staged debates to test your vocabulary (“cross-strait relations”, “political autonomy”, “difference of opinion”…). When, as a first year student, I expressed interest in East Asian Studies, I was immediately counseled to go study in China – meaning Beijing. This was where “real China” was, I was told – the only China. But I’ve discovered that that is a little like a Chinese student wanting to study English in “the West” simply being told to go to America – as if there were no Canada, England, or Australia.

Having spent so much time studying Mandarin and being focused on the Mainland, going to Taiwan made me do a double take. Wait- I could have studied here instead? In this place where they speak and write a beautiful Mandarin? Where they have an entirely alternate history, dominant culture, religious practices, minority languages, and view of the world?

Why didn’t anyone tell me?!

Again, it’s not that the Mainland isn’t fascinating – it’s that there are other fascinating places to experience Chinese culture, and these places are usually ignored in institutional settings like universities. I have to admit that it’s a little late – or, better, just bad timing – for me to start over in my engagement with “Chinese culture”. You all know that I’m a little weary of the whole business. I’m hoping that, when I return to the States and take a bit of a break from all things Chinese, I’ll be ready to re-engage and that Taiwan (and diaspora Chinese cultures) will be a part of that process. Taiwan inspired me to reassess my education about China and my level of Mandarin ability (ugh), and in return I ought to give it some serious attention.

For now, here are the places we went on our little trip to an alternate universe:

As everyone does, we began with several days in Taipei.

Longshan Temple

Danshui Night Market. (Apologies to squid rights activitists; there has been lots of squid violence on this blog.)

Taipei 101, the 2nd tallest building in the world (Dubai is such a spoiler)

We then hopped on a train for the several hour ride to Hualien, generally viewed as a good base city for exploring the East Coast. When the tropical storm finally cleared, we managed to get out for a beautiful walk in classic RP fashion (RP walk = normal person walk duration [hours] x 4 + mud + bushwhacking).

Qixingtan

We finally decided to make a break for Taroko Gorge, our entire purpose for coming to Hualien. We rented a car in Hualien, drove to the parking lot of Taroko National Park, caught a public bus into the Gorge, and then walked the many kilometers back to the car. (Taroko National Park has a very good website here if you’re planning a trip.)

Even if you’ve just hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge, Taroko is totally worth it. Unfortunately, damage done by the storm meant that the normal crystal blue river flowing through the Gorge was mostly grey, and many of the small hiking trails were closed. It was glorious nonetheless.

After hiking out to the car, we drove down Taiwan’s East Coast Highway 11 as the sun set. We weren’t sure where we would be sleeping but, as if by magic, the world’s most perfect B&B appeared right on the coast. We were the only guests. We stepped out briefly for the freshest seafood dinner imaginable, being served up just down the road, and then sat on a deck overlooking the Philippine Sea, wondering how we might manage to convince the B&B owner to let us stay forever.

We awoke at 5:30am for the sunrise.

We ended our coastal drive at Taitung, where we returned the car and spent a night before getting on the ferry to Green Island, less than an hour’s ride away. (Note: Much is made of the fact that this is a very bumpy ride and people often get seasick. That’s all true, but if you just take a little sea sickness medicine in advance and have a few saltines, you’ll be totally fine. Seriously not worth paying double the price to take a puddle jumper flight…)

Green Island is a little gem off Taiwan’s southern east coast where you can snorkel, swim, and get yourself all wrinkly in the hot springs. Your motorcycling skills had better be up to snuff, since that’s how you get around the island. (I managed to motorcycle us all around and, unlike on Cat Bat in Vietnam, didn’t crash! Very pleased.)

Green Island is also a former penal colony for political prisoners during Taiwan’s martial law period; there is now a “Human Rights Memorial” to those prisoners. I was under the misapprehension that the island was only a former place of imprisonment, but in fact, you can walk right by the building that still incarcerates some of Taiwan’s (supposedly non-political) prisoners. Just in case you start to feel too good about your vacation.

Sleeping Beauty Rock

Human Rights Memorial

Perfect water for swimming

After finding out that we needed to get back to Taipei immediately, we took the ferry back to Taitung, took a train to Kaosiung, and managed to get the highspeed rail back to the capital. It’s amazing; you can get from Taiwan’s southern-most tip back to Taipei in just a few hours.

And the rest you know: after a couple days on my own in Taipei, I flew back to the Mainland for some solo adventuring.

More photos from our trip to Taiwan can be viewed here and here.

26 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Experience Overload Part 3: Miracles and Meltdowns

Miriam (Barbara’s foreign nurse friend) runs a free clinic out of her home one day a week, so Barbara and I were able to go a couple times when we were in the Valley. The clinic is a pure act of charity; Miriam’s resources to treat the many people who sit on her front porch each week are limited, and people are often seeking help for complex illnesses and injuries. Sometimes frustration runs high because people are clearly looking for a miracle cure – but in order to know why this is reasonable, you have to understand the mysterious circumstances under which healthcare is sometimes provided here.

As in many places in China, tuberculosis is endemic to the Valley. Cases here are often allowed to progress to a stage rarely seen elsewhere; permanent lung damage, disabilities from TB that has spread to and destroyed skeletal joints, and deaths are not uncommon. The government, however, does provide a certain amount of TB medication for free if you test positive, and Miriam is often able to arrange for a patient to receive this treatment. That can, indeed, seem miraculous – one day you have a cough and a fever, the next day you’re diagnosed with TB, and then this foreign lady makes sure that you get free medication and home visits so that you’re not going to die! From that perspective, why shouldn’t people turn up expecting to be cured of all manner of diseases?

Clinic days are long; the first patients have shown up by 8:30am, and we often weren’t finished until 5pm. At a desk job, that’s just a regular day – but when you’re seeing an endless stream of patients who often cannot be helped, you want to go home and go to bed without dinner at 6 o’clock.

What complicates matters is that many of the patients we saw had actually already been seen by a physician in one place or another – the Valley hospital or a village clinic – and simply did not like or did not understand the answers they received.

Some of these patients face deeply serious problems: one young mother brought her 2-month old baby girl to the clinic for intractable chest congestion. I have never seen a baby that looked like this before – she cried endlessly in a way that seemed to choke her every five minutes. She was clearly unable to breathe properly, and turned blue several times. At the Valley hospital the mother had been told that the baby did not have pneumonia, and they didn’t know what to do for her.

Fearing that perhaps the baby had cystic fibrosis, which would be tantamount to a quick death sentence in a place like the Valley, Barbara and Miriam advised the mother to take the baby immediately to the city hospital four hours away for further tests. Unfortunately, the young mother was living alone with the baby at home for the next few days, with her husband off working and in possession of all of the money. There was a discussion of scraping together enough money to lend her so that she could get to the city, but someone who spoke Azu and Mandarin would have to accompany her, since she did not speak Mandarin and the city hospital staff do not speak Azu. No such person could be found on such short notice.

Then there are other patients who have been told what to do to fix their health problems and are simply being stubborn about it. One amazingly wizened Azu woman presented herself on Miriam’s front porch complaining of eye troubles, eventually revealing that she had been diagnosed at the hospital with cataracts in both eyes. The woman was a serious character: at 75 years old, she stood perhaps two and half feet tall, a consequence of her dwarfism. She was dressed as if she had been plucked from her village and drafted into the Cultural Revolution-era military; she wore the traditional Azu women’s patterned skirt and embroidered vest, strung from neck to knees in beads and large shells, and had paired them with a camouflage green Mao hat and combat boots of the kind favored by the People’s Liberation Army.

Despite the fact that she had been correctly diagnosed, and that her problem was fixable with a very simple surgery that would be provided for free by a hospital right down the road, she refused to go, claiming that the doctors there would kill her. She quickly announced that she would only have her eyes operated on by a foreigner, and demanded to be sent to Kunming for said mythical foreigner to schedule her surgery.

We explained to her, in the nicest possible terms, that she was being a huge pain in the ass, and that if she wanted her sight back she should go get her free surgery down the road, where they were not going to kill her.

“You people aren’t helping me!” she companied, adding, “Plus my knees and hips are sore.”

Lady, you are a 75-year old with dwarfism who has done manual labor in the fields her whole life. My joints would hurt too.

*****

One of the strangest problems we’ve encountered at the clinic is infertility. Barbara and I were meant to be focusing on any OB/GYN patients, and apart from a few women with minor infections, they all seemed to be having trouble getting pregnant.

Infertility can be difficult to cure even if you have lots of money and all of the latest technology available to you. So what do you do when women show up at a free clinic halfway up a mountain side, with no lab technology, no samples of or understanding of any medications they’ve previously been given, and tell you that they can’t seem to get pregnant?

These are not 40-year old women who put off having children because they were busy with their careers or because they couldn’t find a suitable mate. Azu girls often start marrying by age 16, and everyone seems to be married by age 20. Marriage and childbearing and extremely culturally important, and therefore nearly universal. So again: what do you say to a 26-year old in seemingly good health, who had one still birth when she was 8 months pregnant seven years ago, who has been trying to get pregnant ever since, but who doesn’t quite understand the mechanics of how pregnancy actually happens?

Pesticide use on crops in the Valley is ubiquitous, and women often apply it with their bare hands – perhaps that’s the problem? Perhaps it’s their husbands who are infertile, having contracted sexually transmitted infections? Perhaps this incidence of infertility is no higher than normal in a population of this size, but because it’s so embarrassing for Azu women to discuss it they will only come to this free clinic, making it seem like we’re seeing unreasonably large numbers of infertile women? Who knows.

We drew lots of pictures, and explained in simple terms about the ovum traveling down the fallopian tube. We went over the possible causes of infertility, and even tried to explain how to monitor your temperature and other symptoms daily to determine whether or not ovulation is occurring. Even as I was explaining these things, I could see how hopeless the situation probably was for most of these women. They seemed to understand what we were saying, but were quiet; perhaps they knew how hopeless it was as well.

If we could help everyone who came to the clinic, the days would simply have been exhausting. But because we couldn’t help many of them, the days were not only physically tiring but full of anguish. Azu people are often happy to explain their health problems in front of other Azu, presumably because they are used to the very public nature of village life – so when one 36-year old woman approached me speaking so quietly that she was almost inaudible, I knew her problem must be very serious. Barbara and I took her into an inside room, where she presented us with a CT scan of her uterus. I don’t have any training in reading CT films, but even I could see that her uterus had some sort of mass in it, and what looked like only one fallopian tube. She said she had been trying to get pregnant for six years, and then dissolved into sobbing. She lifted her shirt to show the thick, dark scars lacing her abdomen from previous gynecological surgeries.

It was certainly not my place to give this woman a possibly faulty reading of her CT films, nor to pretend to understand how much pressure she must be receiving from her family to have a child at age 36. What was clear was that no one had ever sat with her for half an hour and allowed her to say how scared and upset she was about her infertility. We gave her advice as best we could, and she cried, “It’s hopeless, isn’t it? Isn’t it hopeless?”

It’s at times like these that I find myself wishing away the next few years, so that I can be done with my nurse-midwifery training and actually help a woman like this. Did we do anything to help any of these women in the Valley? Did we offer them hope, simply with our presence, that we then dashed by being unable to fix their problems?

How do you know when you’ve done a good enough job?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Out of Asia – Part I: New Zealand

Let’s face it: my life is bound up with Asia. Between my birth and first few years spent in Singapore, my years spent living in China, and all of my travel in South and Southeast Asia (I’ve now been to every SE Asian country except Brunei), I will have spent more than a quarter of my life in Asia by the time RP and I make our real exit from China next spring.

So I think it’s understandable that Asia and I need a little time away from each other sometimes. Often I haven’t been able to pinpoint this as the exact source of my weariness, but then when we landed in New Zealand for our honeymoon it was as if a huge weight had been lifted from my chest; I breathed easily for the first time in what seemed like months. And when I flew into Beirut a couple weeks ago, sailing over the snow-covered peaks of the Mount Lebanon range and descending towards the sparkling embrace of the Mediterranean, all I could think was Oh yes – the rest of the world. I remember you.

The different cultural reference points, staple ingredients, language families, religions – the impression these things make is immediate and profound. The Chinese sphere of cultural influence is wide and deep; you can get on a plane and travels for many hours in several directions, and still be within it.

Because China is such a deeply foreign place to live as an American, and because I have lived here for a little while, it can be tempting to think that I know about “the world”. That’s not the case, of course – I know about China. And a few other places in Asia. But there is so much more to see, so much that I don’t understand, so many peoples of whom I know almost nothing.

(Case in point: it took most of the flight from Kunming to Dubai, en route to Lebanon, to put my finger on where the 35 boisterous and brightly dressed women with Central Asian features who refused to sit down on my flight were from. Not Arabic speaking, and able to speak only broken Mandarin…anyone know? They were Uighur, of course.)

I’ve been coming to China for the past seven and a half years, and while I’m not done with this place – we’re not planning on moving back to the States until next year – I am ready for a little diversity. Next up, later this summer: Russia, by way of Berlin. Oh yes! I’m talkin St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, my friends.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, a photo catch-up. First, the greatest honeymoon in history (biased, whatever): Kunming –> Singapore –> New Zealand –> Melbourne –> Kunming.

It’s already taken me FOUR DAYS to try to put up this post, so enough gabbing…Each pic below links to the full gallery of photos we took in that place.

There’s no way to fly straight from Kunming to New Zealand, so we stopped over in Singapore:

Here’s the apartment building I lived in when I was a baby…

Then on to Christchurch (after the September 2010 earthquake that disturbed people severely and damaged buildings, but before the mid-February 2011 earthquake that killed over 160 people and destroyed buildings. A tragedy for this lovely place…).

Then a bus to the city of Dunedin, and the Otago Peninsula, where we biked, rode horses, and saw the most beautiful animals – yellow-eyed penguins, sea lions, albatrosses – all living in the wild.

Another bus brought us to Te Anau, to the epic Fiordlands of the south island and an unforgettable four days walking the Milford Track.

A bus to Queenstown, home of the world’s most picturesque airport, where we took a staggeringly beautiful flight to the Auckland, on the north island. (It was on this flight that I actually got upset with how stunning the world looks from that vantage point, so close to the Arctic Circle, the Pacific stretching out toward the horizon. It was almost heartbreaking.)

A ferry to Waiheke Island, nearby Auckland, with its rolling green hills, beaches and vineyards – where I learned to love white wine.

And an early flight to Melbourne, where we were lucky to spend a day before heading back to Kunming. (I know – no one’s told you how cool Melbourne is. Trust me when I say that it’s hipster central.)

Best trip ever.

A zisn Peysakh, everybody!

9 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Who Cares About the “Real” China?

And then in December, RP and I went on what we’re calling our “Overseas Chinese Tour”: We met my Dad in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, and basically ate our way through the city (including the seafood of Lamma Island), dousing ourselves in champagne. Dad, you can come back to Asia any time!..

Lamma Island

Seafood on Lamma Island

About to board the Star Ferry

From there we flew to Penang, took a train to Kuala Lumpur, a bus to Melaka (or Malacca, if you prefer), and then a bus over the border to Singapore, my hometown!

Khoo Kongsi Temple in Penang

The old train station in Kuala Lumpur

Melaka from Bukit China (China Hill)

Last night of a tiring, happy trip: Singapore's Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre

Click here to see all photos from the trip.

I realized a stupidly obvious thing on the Overseas Chinese Tour: my impression of Chinese culture growing up was, like most people living outside the mainland, based on experiences with Chinese immigrants. Most of these immigrants came from a very small number of places in southern China (like Fujian and Guangzhou); they were mostly speakers of Cantonese or Hakka, they served food particular to those regions in restaurants, built neighborhoods using regional architectural styles, took feng shui really seriously and practiced regional versions of Buddhism and Daoism.

Fastforward to my college years: I become interested in studying “Chinese” and “Chinese culture” – and, because this is 2001, what I study is Mandarin. The geographic focus of my classes is mainland China. Being taught by professors who, given their ages, were often studying at a time when foreigners were not allowed into the mainland, forcing them instead to study in Taiwan, I am given the impression that the mainland is where “real” Chinese culture is happening, where the “real” Chinese language is being spoken. No one told me that this might not be the Chinese culture I was interested in – no one told me that there was the option to study anything else.

Now, I get why it’s important to study the culture and history of mainland China, and why Mandarin is a critically important language in the modern world. But it honestly never occurred to me, during my college years and after, that my real cultural interest might lie with the Chinese diaspora. That Cantonese is a more fun and fiery language than Mandarin. That the food from the regions where immigrants tend to originate is, to me, tastier. That the religions practiced are wild and lively and full of ritual and superstition. That what’s going on, culturally, on the mainland might just be a paler version of what’s going on in the diaspora – not the other way around.

RP compared this aptly to Jews in the world (by the way, I swear we talk about stuff other than Jewishness): if you wanted to learn what Jews are about, you could go to Israel. You could learn Hebrew, could become wrapped up in Arab-Israeli conflict, could…I don’t know. Eat hummus. Or you could go to Brooklyn, learn Yiddish, and eat pastrami. In both cases you would be learning about Jews, but the cultural experiences couldn’t be more different. (And for the record, I love me some hummus. And some Brooklyn.)

I need some healing with China. I’m in a frustrated period. I should maybe stop traveling to southeast Asian countries and start traveling within the mainland, to remind myself that there’s a big Chinese world out there – but I should maybe also remember that China itself doesn’t have to be the Chinese world that I inhabit or relate to. I could learn some Cantonese, I could get involved with public health in Chinese-American communities in the US and elsewhere.

I’m convinced that the ability of diaspora cultures to thrive and be vibrant isn’t just related to their often being representative of a small group of determined, gutsy people from a “home country” – it’s also because those cultures can be allowed to develop without the constraints of things like domestic government manipulation, coercive majority languages and destructive calls for nationalism. As long as a cultural group can keep from total assimilation in their new adopted country, it makes sense to me that they could thrive to an even greater extent than possible in their home country.

Why didn’t anybody teach me that in college?

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Yid in Khine: Where Is there No Jewish History?

The Himalayas, that’s where.

Also, I bet you’ve never seen footage of an old Trung lady with a tattooed face performing divination – which is only one of the many reasons you should watch the most recent installment of A Yid In Khine:

I would like to point out that this is the last time I will be listening to RP when he says I don’t need to bring the tripod on one of our little filming adventures. Stupid shaky hand!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Yid in Khine Strikes Again!

Greetings from Bangkok, chickens! I’ve been shuttling back and forth between a hotel room and a conference room for the past week, concerning myself with grand strategizing and teaming agreements, throwing around vast sums of money on spreadsheets and generally feeling extremely important, all on my organization’s dime.

Ah, the joys of the first expat business trip.

While I’m siting here consuming pad thai from room service, enjoy the most recent installment of everyone’s favorite Yiddish internet content, A Yid in Khine! To those of who are convinced that RP is actually is a spy – and there are quite a few of you out there – I submit this as (shaky) evidence that he is actually getting up to something legitimate in northwest Yunnan.

Originally posted on the Forverts website’s video channel.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Yid in Khine!

Is this awesome or WHAT?!

We’re totally the new stars of the online Yiddish world…er…

Take it viral!!

EDITED TO ADD: This is a first of a few of these videos requested by the Forverts, and is on their homepage at the moment at yiddish.forward.com.

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized