Something Super: Living, Learning and Teaching in Taiwan
Something Super: Living, Learning and Teaching in Taiwan
Copyright ÂŠ 2013 by Lynx Publishing Company All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic or mechanical without the written permission of the publisher. Lynx Publishing Company 18245 SE 313 Street Auburn WA 98092, USA Editorial Development by Lynx Publishing, USA Cover Photo of Taipei 101 in Taipei by David Pendery ISBN -10: 0-9845097-8-X ISBN-13: 978-0-9845097-8-2 Printed in Taiwan
Contents 1 Preface .............................................................................. 9 2 Stranger in a Strange Land ............................................. 14 3 The Lighting of a Fire: Teaching in Taiwan .................. 30 4 Hit the Books ................................................................. 53 5 A Door Opens ................................................................ 64 6 I Think I’m Turning Chinese, I Think I’m Turning Chinese, I Really Think So .............................. 72 7 News Junkie .................................................................... 87 8 What’s so Great About Taiwan? .................................. 107
For my wife Hope. And thanks to my friend George Liao.
National Concert Hall at night.
Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall.
Night scene, Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall Gate.
Temple at Miaokou (temple entrance), Keelung.
Temple ceiling near Taipei.
Qing Shui Zu Shi (清水祖師) temple art, near Kaohsiung.
Temple roof art
Preface I have wanted to write of my experiences in Taiwan over the last twelve years but, for various reasons, have not found the time to make the effort. For the most part, my life here—teaching and other academic responsibilities, studying languages and other subjects, family life (I am married with no children), travel, and various hobbies (including tennis, reading, biking, and guitar playing)—have kept me so busy that I have been unable to launch this project. A friend of mine in the US once commented that I should “spin all this new life in Asia into a tale,” and perhaps now I am ready to do that. Mine has been the vibrant, exciting, and ever-stimulating life of an expatriate in Asia in the twentyfirst century, chock-full of the unique, exhilarating, and illuminating challenges, rewards, and opportunities that this region offers. I will in the following relate my sometimes-agitated initiation into Taiwanese life and culture since I moved here in 2000, my rich teaching life and experiences with students, my assiduous studies and attainment of a Ph.D., my memorable wedding, my further-agitated studies of the Chinese language, and comments on the heated politics and other issues in Taiwan. In a concluding chapter, I will show in even more detail what has been great about Taiwan for me during the last twelve years. Ultimately, readers will see that although I have encountered my share of difficulties and trials since I moved here, I have as well experienced a veritable wealth of good fortune, growth, and change. Taiwan has been good to me. Before I reflect on my life, however, I ask for a few pages in this preface to reflect on certain elements and approaches to my own brand of storytelling and remembrance, my style as it were, so that readers will have a feeling for where I am coming from. I have a feeling that as I divulge my tale, some may ask why I would want to tell my story at all, given that my life in Taiwan has been
Stranger in a Strange Land I stepped with Hope, her mom, and sister into the “old Liu school,” an aged traditional Chinese construction in Miaoli that is such a classic that it has become a small tourist attraction and is even a county historical landmark, with visitors arriving to view the time-honored architectural structure and fine, fragile features of the edifice. There is even a special Chinese word for a building like this: 祠堂 (cí táng), which means “ancestral hall or temple.” Hanging in the front room is a list of Liu family names that goes back for generations and generations, a traditional Chinese custom. Such beliefs and inheritance, veritably reaching back into Chinese history, were moving, and the names seemed to gently pulsate beneath the display lights. We also traveled to another home that goes back for generations, where Hope’s grandparents lived. This home was abandoned and dilapidated, with piles of old belongings heaped around, some of which Hope recognized from her youth. I reflected on how this was where she used to play with her siblings and relatives when she was a child, walking across the rice paddies and fields of vegetables, to the river (a dry trickle now), and into the small town to buy candy. She often talks with a note of joy in her voice when she remembers these bucolic days of her youth. The visit was a consummation and blessing of our marriage, led by Hope’s mom. I wanted to say something more to her during our visit but managed only to eke out “劉媽, 謝謝” (Thank you, Mrs. Liu) and later a “謝謝你們，今天我很高興，很高興” (Thank you all, today I am very happy, very happy). I was moved by the activities and reflected on my new life and new home.
I had been living in Taiwan for three years when the above experience, written in my journal, took place. The woman Hope was my girlfriend from 1997 to 2003, and would soon be my wife. Though I felt comfortable this November day, I had experienced my share of culture shock and strange, sometimes unsettling new fare, languages, traditions, cultural practices, and manners since I had arrived in Taiwan. I was, I sometimes considered in my
journal, truly a “stranger in a strange land” (hats off to Robert A. Heinlein), and even in 2003 when I visited Hope’s family home, after three years in Taiwan, I still had feelings of dislocation, discomfort, and even disillusion. I can definitely say that I had not always comported myself easily within Taiwanese life and culture, and I had experienced some pain, frustration, touches of privation, and even loss. This said, however, even then I also realized that I had encountered opportunity, pleasure, good fortune, and happiness. My life in Taiwan had been an agglomeration, at best a cornucopia, but also something of a Pandora’s box that had released some discomfiting realities, but had left hope and sometimes even bliss to flit out and comfort me in the end. All of these ideas, experiences, expectations, senses, judgments, and reckonings I will comment on at length in this narrative. For now, as I think back to that day in the arcadian, hilly localities of Miaoli (苗栗) nine years ago, I realize that although this was not my first taste of Taiwanese culture and family life, it would become one of my most meaningful. On that day I joined a Taiwanese family as a member, and I knew that my life had entered a new phase, which opened onto new vistas, unlike any I had ever seen before. As a result of my marriage (and also as a result of my having virtually transplanted to Taiwan from my home country), I was truly entering into another culture, adopting something like a new home, a new language, new beliefs, and new aspirations. “Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back,” wrote Anaïs Nin (1903–1977), but you will likely find “a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country.” This could hardly describe my life in Taiwan since 2000 more accurately. I had visited Hope and her family for ten days in 1998, but after that taste, my arrival in Taiwan permanently in September 2000 made me that stranger in a strange land. I stepped off the plane into a swirl of Chinese words and phrases, and I felt like the disciple in Matthew, “cast into the sea” (Matthew 21:21). I boarded the car with Hope and her family members, and I was 15
The Lighting of a Fire: Teaching in Taiwan Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. William Butler Yeats Needless to say, I have a great deal of experience with students and education in Taiwan and have continually involved myself, taught countless classes, attended meetings in schools (the majority of which were held in Chinese), spoken in conferences at various universities, conducted research on student experience and attitudes, and observed the lives and development of students in ever more profound ways. The truth is that I had been looking forward to a teaching job even in the US in the years before I arrived in Taiwan. I was a writer, journalist, and analyst at that time, but somewhere along the line the teaching bug had bitten me. I had looked for a job in the California Community College System in 1999 and just about landed a job teaching journalism studies in Los Angeles as well as the Bay Area, but things did not work out and I was forced to decline both jobs. Even when I was living in Nashua, New Hampshire, in summer 2000 as I was preparing to move to Taiwan, a college called and offered me a job teaching English, but again the timing was not right and I could not accept it. In Taiwan, I have taught at numerous universities, language schools, various government institutions, local businesses, and with many one-on-one tutor jobs. I could relate any number of stories about my interaction with students here, and my experiences in schools (also good, bad, and ugly),
but I may only be able to touch on a handful of these tales in the following. I have mentioned my job at a cram school in Taiwan, and although it was a good bit less than fully satisfying, it did introduce to me certain of the joys of teaching. I could pause here just to consider these pleasures. Without doubt, many a teacher asks, “What is it about this career?” It is by no means one endless bed of roses, and there are many frustrations and disappointments, hurts and bruises, conflicts and disagreements. I have not had a great many such problems during my teaching in Taiwan, but there have been a few dismaying low points, troublesome groups, and cantankerous students. The rapport between teachers and students can be sensitive, and some things we are called on to do, such as failing students, can be uncomfortable and cause some hard feelings. As well, the relationship at times can be brittle and based on a hierarchical worldview, which I avoid at all costs—but which sometimes creeps into relations with students. As I have often thought, students and teachers rarely if ever become friends (if they do, this is often suspicious), and although we can be outwardly amicable, it rarely goes beyond that into a deeper emotional connection, outside of the value of any good student/teacher connection. Even further—I seem to be starting with the low points in my examination of Taiwanese students and education, but I will turn to the high points soon—Taiwanese students often exhibit a disquieting lack of awareness about greater possibilities in their lives and education and seem to be living cloistered existences that ignore world affairs and genuinely modern lifestyles, trends, and developments—an inward looking nature possibly based on traditional/conservative cultural leanings. Sadly, sometimes these considerations are even worse, and I have seen many students embedded in a superficial pop anything / video game / latest gadget / smartphone world, earphones stuffed in their ears, veritably absenting themselves from authentic culture, the environment around them and any wider worldview, endlessly 31
playing this game and that, texting this message and that, and engaging on Facebook more than they engage with friends and family (this is hardly limited to Taiwanese students, and such wasteful dallying is becoming common worldwide). In a related, but even more disconcerting turn, I have encountered students who were coolly and selfishly manipulative within their educational environments and often unmindfully dismissive of any idea of higher aims and the hard road to a valuable education. In a word, too many Taiwanese students can be immature, too focused on the prize as opposed to the process, and always “too busy” to focus on constructive studies (though I can understand how Taiwanese students can be made to be too busy). In any event, and in spite of the above problems, I have treated all of my students equally and well. You win some, you lose some, I suppose, and teachers have to soldier on against certain difficulties and problems. But none of this detracts from the high points—and oh, the high points I have had. The truth is that a great many of my students have very nearly venerated me. In June 2003 when I was leaving NTUT my students gave me a rousing send-off with a big dinner and a card with the following sentiments: The legacy of heroes is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example. —Benjamin Disraeli
I have received hundreds of cards from students during my years in Taiwan, but none has touched me this deeply.7 7
This time, June 2003, was the height of the SARS epidemic that struck Taiwan. Though this disease did not seriously impact me, it was a pressure-packed time, and Hope was constantly vigilant for our safety. Although I simply had to wear a surgical mask during class (masks were also required when riding the subway), and I had a number of students not show up for the dinner noted just above, I was told that one student’s relative had died during the crisis, and there were hospital emergencies around Taiwan.
Another time, in the spring semester 2001, I conducted a Multimedia English course at NTUT, which featured some excellent final projects by the students (in fact, I made a project of my own in this course, an online poetry cycle entitled “San Francisco Journal,” and presented it to the students on the final day). I wrote of the final day of that course in my journal: Finished the Multimedia English course on Tuesday on a very high note, with a few of the projects real standouts, including Eugenia’s bound “comic book,” which was a masterpiece. We stayed late, until 7:00, because of long-running presentations. Only two students left, and with another student Shelley sitting in, it was like a full class when we finished up. Quite exciting, everyone seemed to really enjoy it.
A third fine experience was in June 2004, as I was leaving Shih Hsin University because of my acceptance into the doctoral English literature program at National Chengchi University (國 立政治大學). On my last day of work, a Friday morning, I walked into my Journalism English class—and not a soul was there. Two of my male students, Edward and Jason, walked in a few moments later and asked, seemingly sincerely, “Where is everyone?” “Who knows?” I answered, and in my mind I was imagining an entire class of negligent students taking a day off on the last day of the semester. “Hmm,” said the two students, “Maybe we should just take a look next door.” “Whatever for?” I asked, but they then escorted me to the next classroom, and when I opened the door, the entire class burst into a cheer, and stuffed a huge bouquet into my arms. I was in shock, and my heart overflowed with gratitude. It turns out these students had valued my teaching in the most brimming ways—and this was no easy class. I had taught them a truly collegelevel course in journalism practices, ethics, and history, and we 33
followed up this first semester with a course in which the students, working in groups, designed and published their own newspapers every four weeks. The class was a thrilling success, and the students absolutely loved the opportunity to write and publish their own newspapers. I have used this same course design a number of other times in Taiwan, almost always with great success. A course like this reverses any negative feelings one may have about student life in Taiwan, as pupils dive into the work with passion and produce truly excellent results (I still have all the papers they published, valued mementoes). Our last course together reassembled in the Shih Hsin plaza, and we all enjoyed the time together, drank coffee, said our good-byes, with the best feelings I have ever had in teaching. One of the last times I saw this same group of students was during their graduation play—and they surprised me again. It was a very successful production of The Taming of the Shrew, which impelled me to write the following praise in my journal: Last night was the senior play at Shih Hsin, The Taming of the Shrew. It was absolutely fabulous and they did a terrific job. All of the actors were great, the female leads (Ruby and Hannah) were beautiful, Ted was good, Victor and Luke were good, and Nancy was simply awesome, hilarious. Arial was also very good. They were all amazingly talented, and the play came off with an almost professional polish. Afterward, I hooked up with Ted and then was dragged onto the stage for dozens of photos. It was such a gas, and I’m proud of them. Too much fun.
With feelings like all of the above, any feelings of “What is it about this career?” yield one answer: It’s great. Experiences and feelings like this have been channeled into some of the most rewarding moments I think a person can encounter in any career, anywhere. Let me turn now to the actual chronology of my teaching career in Taiwan, which will incorporate the experiences noted above. I have to date taught a variety of English classes in Taiwan. 34
Hit the Books Without question, I have fostered a rich study life in Taiwan, probably deeper and more encompassing than I have ever had before. At the heart of this experience is my study of Chinese, but I will describe this in another chapter. The other important element of this facet of my life arose when I launched my doctoral studies in 2004. By this time, I had observed the glass ceiling that prevents the progress of many teachers in Taiwan without a Ph.D., and I had considered the possibility of breeching this barrier. But I knew there was only one way to do thisâ€”I had to get a Ph.D.! No easy task in Taiwan, and of course the bottom line was that I would need an English-taught program (my Chinese skills would not have been strong enough in 2004). Although there are a few such programs available here, it is by no means an easy or straightforward path. I began by inquiring into possible journalism programs, given that I had obtained my masterâ€™s degree in journalism at BU. I made a few phone calls and once again tested my Chinese to the limit as I asked around about this possibility, but it quickly became clear that this would not be doable. I briefly considered the idea of studying international relations (also impossible in Taiwan at that time, although there is now an English program in Asian studies at National Chengchi University). In the end, my way was clear: It would have to be an English program, studying English literature. You will find that there is truly a passion for the study of English literature in Taiwan, and many professors here have devoted their lives to it and studied in excellent universities overseas. This passion also consumes many students here. I would myself be taken by this ardor after I entered a program, and it added to my enthusiasm.
I inquired about programs at various universities and received a rude reply from National Taiwan University (NTU), a more-or-less confused response from Fu Jen University, and did not really hear from any other schools. In the end, I settled on National Chengchi University, and it quickly became clear that this was my best possible choice. I had landed that part-time job at the school I have referred to, and this job was connected to the English department. In this way I met Chen Chao-ming (陳超明), the chairman of the English department at the time and a very well-known academic in Taiwan. This relationship would prove to be momentous for me. Dr. Chen took a liking to me and was soon inquiring if I might be interested in entering the Chengchi doctoral English literature program—I think he liked the idea of a native-English-speaking foreigner in the program. Dr. Chen was aware that I had never studied English, but he noted I was well read and knowledgeable about English and American literature and culture, and so he felt I could enter the program. This I duly did, with all of the necessary requirements, including letters of recommendation, an entrance examination, and other submissions (I submitted my master’s thesis from BU as one of my writing samples, an online work of literary journalism that covered the Boston subway music scene). I was notified in July 2004 that I had been accepted, and I began that fall. I had in fact already begun to dabble in the program, auditing three courses in fall 2003 and spring 2004, getting a feel for this level of study. Even at this time, however, I often expressed doubts about the possibility of entering a doctoral program. At one point in 2003, I wrote in my journal, “If I’m going to go for this Ph.D. (and there are all sorts of variables: considering what to do, what to focus on, whether I can even do it, to do it in the US or Taiwan, etc.), I’m going to have to start thinking about it seriously.” As I began to gear up for the possibility, I briefly considered TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) but decided against it. I began to think about various study aims associated with English literature and related topics, 54
including document design/publishing; purposes and methods of communication, including cultural parameters and philosophy of communication; creative writing and composition; and media, culture, and journalism. Only later did I consider “Acts of memory and memoir in fiction, realism and how it is ‘fictionalized.’ Is there such a thing as ‘fiction’?”—which did roughly become one of the topics of my dissertation. With my acceptance into the program, I plunged into the densely theoretical studies of English literature. This changed my life, and on the whole, this was a wonderful, if at times discomfiting, learning experience. Although I was in a field that was almost over my head, I dove into the theoretical, literary, aesthetic, and historical studies with abandon. Oh, the enjoyable times spent studying during those years! I read book after book after book (sometimes 150–200 pages a day), including Bleak House by Dickens, Moby Dick by Melville (this masterpiece I had first read when I was about fifteen), The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Fielding, A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul, Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Hardy, and To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf—all read two or more times each. I spent hours studying in parks (often reading as I walked along my favorite paths), in libraries, or in Starbucks (Hope and I would search out quieter outlets and “park” for three hours sipping coffee, both of us reading voraciously, she doing research for her job as a translator and business writer). All of this study in turn led to homework writing assignments, which was my true passion. I mean here not only writing skills but also the planning and execution required to complete complex compositions. I think it must trace to my meticulous personality, for I have a way of completing pages and divisions and sections of assignments in ordered ways that invariably lead to completion at exactly the right time. Nevertheless, my real joy was artful composition itself—all the right words, disciplined sentences, and connected paragraphs, organized into controlled beginnings, middles and ends (ends that usually featured a “kicker,” as I like to say)—all the 55
best methods as I indicated above in my quotes from Sheridan Baker. I wrestled with the veritably byzantine theoretical constructs and paradigms that torture students of English literature worldwide—anyone who has had to plod through the dense, convoluted, and mostly badly written works of Julia Kristeva, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, or Jacques Lacan will tell you what a painful process this is. This was exacerbated by the fact that most of the professors at Chengchi were slavishly reverential of these authors, and they made every effort they could to emulate their silly constructs, with complete disregard for constructive, pragmatic theory and historically mediated literary studies (approaches endorsed by the likes of Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty, Wolfgang Iser, J. L. Austin or Erich Auerbach, I might suggest). It is very much a theoretical program at Chengchi, I feel impelled to warn any students interested in going there. In spite of a bit of frustration with this obtuse approach, and the occasional conflict (I never hesitated to speak my mind in class, and there were a few dustups), I continued. I had good success, graduating with an average over 90 and publishing my first academic paper only four months into the program—a piece written about the Chinese diaspora to the US from 1850 to 2000, and other cultural topics. I landed my first international conference presentation a few months later, at the University of Turku in Finland (the travel to which, in a generous turn, was funded by Chengchi; the school also funded my conference trip to the UK in 2006, and I was fortunate to receive several substantial scholarships from the university and the Taiwan government). My efforts continued, and by the end of the program (during which I took three courses at National Taiwan Normal University), I had published about fifteen papers and presented my research in Finland, England, and the US. (This I had done 56
A Door Opens At the end of 2003, I once again did something in Taiwan that I had never done in the US—I got married, twice (yes, twice). In early 2003, in a park along a river in Taipei, I proposed to Hope and gave her a ring (I had spent a few weeks before searching for this jewelry with a translating acquaintance). It may not have been the most romantic location or scene, but it remains a pleasant memory. Hope may have balked slightly (it was certainly a first for her), but she was devoted to me, so her answer was a definite yes. Our minds leaped with the possibilities, but something important had to happen first, earlier in the year. I will relate this, but let’s cut back in time even further, to how I met Hope just after I graduated from Boston University (BU) in June 1997. I met Hope at BU, when she arrived as one of a group of international students studying in the College of Communication. I was the teaching assistant in this program, helping the two professors and aiding the students with whatever they needed. These students hailed from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Brazil, and other nations, and it was a true cross-cultural educational experience. I remember meeting them all in our first get-together early in July, in a common room in the College of Communication. Even then I noticed Hope, but I had no idea what was in store. This woman was an excellent, hardworking student with exceptional English skills she had polished for years in Taiwan and the US. We befriended each other and had a great time that summer during which, I must say, I outdid myself by treating the students to numerous enjoyable leisure and educational activities in and around Boston (a high point was a tour of the Boston Globe newspaper). One day, I stood in for the professor in their American history class, and I lectured them on the Civil War, telling them of the Battle of Gettysburg, Burnside’s sideburns, Hooker’s hookers, and Robert E. Lee’s
horse, Traveler, which I noted they were fascinated by. When the program came to a close in August, the students gave me a card— indeed, that was the first card I ever received from students— which I have kept. Hope wrote, “I have already thanked you many times, but I still want to say thank you again.” That fall, Hope and I began dating, and by the end of the year, we had fallen in love. (The first Chinese word she ever taught me was 月, yuè, moon, on an evening ride back to Boston from Cape Cod.) A gap appeared in our relationship, however, when I moved back to San Francisco that December. If I may share, on my last day in Boston, we waited at the airport for hours as a heavy snow blanketed Boston, playing games and drinking coffee. When I was finally set to leave, as we said good-bye at the gate, Hope burst into tears and wept pitifully, which moved me deeply. I called her only thirty minutes later after takeoff, to assure her, “It’s not over.” We kept in touch for the next two years until she finished her master’s program in journalism (I traveled to her graduation in June 1999). Hope actually moved back to Taiwan after that (it was a necessary move for her family’s sake), but then she realized she did not want to be without me, and she moved back to the US. At that time, I took a job in Nashua, New Hampshire, which became the above-mentioned disaster, leading to the abovementioned fruitless search, and in turn leading to my journey to Taiwan. Now cut to the beginning of 2003. I have noted that I did not really have relations with Hope’s parents after I moved to Taiwan, and in fact, they were unaware of my presence here. Her mother, with a strong traditional strain, was essentially against the idea of her marrying a foreigner. The idea of bringing a non-Chinese-speaking American into the family must have seemed just a bit too peculiar or even disruptive to her (she was also worried that Hope might relocate to the US with me). For some time, I felt that this would not change, and I felt some frustration from 2000 to 2003, as if I were being treated as a troublemaking interloper (Hope’s sisters and other relations treated me well). Surprisingly, my frustration was relieved in one 65
fell swoop in February 2003. At that time, my mother came to Taiwan for her first visit to the country. Hope and I planned a nice visit full of fun activities, and as we were doing this, word got out in her family and her father and mother picked up on what was happening. They began to appreciate the import of my mother’s visit, and then they discovered that a dinner was planned at my apartment near Shih Hsin University—with Hope’s family invited. When Hope’s father realized this, he announced, “If the family is invited, then I as head of the family must go.” And so he did, and met my mother in what turned out to be a delightful evening of affable interaction spent with hilariously broken English and Chinese tossed back and forth (my mother was in a daze the whole night). In the end, Hope’s father overwhelmingly approved of my mother and essentially welcomed me into the family. This was an amazing and gratifying success that paved the way into my future, for only the very next week, Hope’s mother announced that a truce was in effect and that I was welcome into the family (at this time, she realized I would be staying in Taiwan, and she approved of this). At the drop of this hat, she became a fine friend and has treated me with the utmost cordiality and respect ever since. I can’t tell you the many delicious dinners she has cooked, tailoring them to my vegetarian diet, and often delivering them to our door in Yong He (where my wife and I began purchasing a house in 2006). I’ve practiced my Chinese with her to the hilt—but she rarely understands my less-than-perfect pronunciation and lack of native skill. She herself studies English fairly diligently, but I have to say she has never been able to speak a single sentence to me. The exactitudes of second language acquisition go on . . . After my proposal in the park, we began to plan—with Hope doing most of the work. I put together a little wedding website that was little used, and I designed and created the table cards we used, which featured scenes and quotes from major romantic films, including Titanic, Sense and Sensibility, Romeo and Juliet, Natural Born Killers, West Side Story, Out of Africa, Chungking 66
Express, A Streetcar Named Desire, Roman Holiday, and others. (The table cards were so popular at the wedding that one Audrey Hepburn fan filched the Roman Holiday card!) We also had a friend create a montage video with scenes from these movies, which was shown to some acclaim at the reception (he really did an excellent job). Our plans came to a head in November 2003, when we were married (結婚, jié hūn) in a Taipei courthouse by a presiding magistrate who spoke English, Chinese, and Japanese to three couples he married that day. We married this first time for certain legal reasons but also planned a second ceremony in a local park. Hope had a veritable army of friends who participated and helped with everything, and our wedding was a joy, held in a bowl area of the park, such that our families, flower girls, ring bearers, and then we could walk down a winding path to the bottom. I had ordered a custom-made vest and bow tie in the Russell family tartan (plaid), chosen to match my middle name. (Movie lovers will remember that Mel Gibson wore such a vest made of the Gibson family tartan, to the Academy Awards when he won best director in 1995.) At the bottom of the bowl, we had a violin player, and in a secular ceremony, we read to each other and took our vows. It was a small ceremony, only thirty people, although the reception in the luxurious Regent Hotel nearby was much larger. In a nod to local Taiwanese culture, we consulted a fortune-telling writer, and were told that it was a good day to be married. I later wrote the following account of the day: The day began with Hope’s brother-in-law picking me up at 9:00 (Hope and I had been up since 4:30). We went through some rituals, such as his lighting three firecrackers outside the apartment before driving me over to her parents’ house. At Hope’s house, we performed some small rituals, with Hope’s brother-in-law readying a Mercedes to take us to the photographer, Hope’s sisters buzzing around, Hope’s nephew handing me a lucky apple, and me giving him a red envelope with a small amount of money inside. I ate some 67
I Think I’m Turning Chinese, I Think I’m Turning Chinese, I Really Think So9 Aside from developing a career as a teacher and studying for a Ph.D., studying Chinese has no doubt had the most significant intellectual influence on my life since moving to Taiwan, and provided me endless hours of both pleasure and pain. My first encounter with Chinese occurred in the spring semester 1999 at San Francisco City College, during which I took a Chinese course ( I did this for Hope). Although City College is a fine institution set on the beautiful hills of south San Francisco, with excellent teachers and good facilities, this was not a very successful venture. I remember looking on perplexedly as the teacher (a Taiwanese woman, I believe) spoke to us entirely in Chinese from the first day, and I was always somewhat lost, even when she voiced the simple phrase “懂不懂?” (dǒng bù dǒng, Do you understand?).10 When she gave the class a test, speaking sentences in Chinese, which we had to transcribe, I felt no more comfortable. In a word, although I passed the course and managed to give a short speech in the language on the final day of class, I never seemed to really get it (however, my fondness for writing in Chinese may stem from this time). As to my life in Taipei, I have noted that when I arrived in Taipei, I did not have much of any intention of studying Chinese. In any case, I quickly realized that it would be necessary. One of my earliest experiences was a language exchange pairing with a 9
Thanks to The Vapors and their “Turning Japanese.” Readers may be interested to know that the teacher’s phrasing employs a standard Chinese question structure, in which the word for no/not (不, bù) is inserted between two verbs in a “verb-not-verb” structure. This is a very common way of voicing a question, as in “Do you or do you not” in English. 10
local I had met. This was largely a disaster. I remember how he became angry with me because I had trouble differentiating between the words 出 (chū, to go out) and 去 (qù, to go). (Both of these words have a number of other definitions.) I am pretty sure that all beginners have this trouble, but my teacher that night was seething with frustration over my difficulties. That was our last lesson. At this same time, I also remember going to a class offered by the cram school I worked at, and being flummoxed by their use of the Bopomofo system of pronunciation (a set of thirty-seven phonetic pronunciation symbols with the tone marks I have discussed, also called Mandarin Phonetic Symbols), which I had no experience with; this was one misstep on my Chinese journey that left me nonplussed, but I soon learned the system expertly. To learn Chinese well, Westerners must master this system, which is commonly used to train children in Taiwan. It was not until December of 2000 when I began to appreciate that a language gap was present in my life (it was my interview at ICDF that made me realize this), and that I would have to get serious. I poked around a few no-name schools in Taipei, found a little school, and started going to classes after teaching at NTUT. At this time I dove into the standard audiovisual Chinese textbook by Zhong Zheng Publishing, used by all foreigners in Taiwan (Hope notes that this is the very book used for Chinese study at Harvard University). This book has proved largely useful, if at times rather sloppily constructed. It gives an endless list of functions and usages in Chinese, some grammatical, some simply convention, a reasonably good list of vocabulary, character reading, and writing practice, some smallscale listening, and a few in-class practice exercises for students. To be sure, there is largely a dearth of other Chinese-language learning materials, and this is the go-to book for almost all students in Taiwan (the vast amount of English materials and books is of course one of the strengths of English learning). I have used books 1, 2, and 3 for endless hours of study—mostly 73
memorizing vocabulary (one of the big challenges of secondlanguage learning, as my students often tell me), and practicing reading and writing. My lifelong wrestle with this bear of a language was now under way. And ah, the stories I could tell about studying this trying, enervating but ever fascinating vernacular! There have been more blood, sweat, and tears shed during this endeavor than in any other in my life, and my relationship with Chinese sometimes straddles love and hate. Oh, the byzantine world of Chinese’s frayed grammar and usages (rather than a grammar, per se, the language seems largely to be a mass of usages and conventions that one must simply memorize and adapt to); its seemingly useless tone pronunciation system (which even Chinese speakers often largely ignore, but oh the dumbstruck stares if you say two words in Chinese and vaguely mispronounce the necessary tones! At times, I have considered that some Taiwanese people cannot understand their native language unless it is spoken by a native speaker); the written language’s essential disconnect from pronunciation (this is not entirely true, but it seems as much to Westerners); the pronunciation of individual phonemes, many of which have no parallels in English and sound peculiar to our ears—ㄑ (q, ch in the Wade-Giles system), ㄩ (yu or yü in Wade-Giles), ㄕ (shi, with its vexing requirement to push the sound into the back of the throat), ㄗ (zi, tzu in Wade-Giles), ㄘ (ci or tz`u in Wade-Giles), ㄒ (x or hs in Wade-Giles), ㄖ (a purring r, j in Wade-Giles), ㄦ (er), ㄛ (o), ㄜ (e), and ㄝ (ê, eh in Wade-Giles); and note that some of phonemes, such as ㄗ and ㄘ, or ㄔ (ch), ㄐ (j), ㄓ (zh) and ㄑ, and even ㄕ and ㄒ can sound in many respects identical to the non-native speaker (by no means absolutely true, and anyway, can’t a native English speaker tell the difference between “cherry” and “Jerry,” “can” and “cane,” “desert” and “dessert,” so say nothing of “right” and “rite,” “for” and “four,” or “to” and “too”?); the baffling and frustrating repetition of identical phonemes—I once looked under the four 74
tones of the phoneme ㄕ and found something like 250 different possible definitions (I am told that Chinese people can hear a sentence that says “ma ma mà mǎ màn ma” (媽媽罵馬慢嗎？) and it can be understood as a meaningful sentence—and my friend Charles Chen tells me the sentence means “Because the horse was slow, did the mother scold the horse?”); and finally, the often-incomprehensible experience of actually hearing a native speaker speak the language (often lightning fast—the language can make Spanish look positively languid), which is as often as not mixed with one or another language or dialect related to Chinese, to say nothing of the sounds of those phonemes examined above, which seem to purr and squeak and chortle and hiss and gurgle out of Chinese speakers’ mouths. As an acquaintance of mine (who spoke the language with some competence) once said, “It’s as close as you can come to gibberish while still actually being a language.” Some analysts (such as Professor Albert Borgmann) have explained that the reduction of language to alphabet systems, as opposed to logographic, pictographic, or ideographic methods, was a major development in human culture, and that it represented a huge step forward in efficiency. The English alphabet, with twenty-six characters, is a good example, and the ultimate efficient conversion is the reduction of all human data and/or communication to digital systems—with two symbols, 1 and 0. The Chinese language compared to these systems can appear veritably labyrinthine and inordinately complex—”the most complex writing system the world has ever known,” as the scholar Walter Ong (1912–2003) wrote in Orality and Literacy (86). It does seem nearly unfathomable that anyone could memorize the thousands of characters needed to communicate at the highest level in Chinese, although we know that Chinese people, from youth, do exactly this. It’s a big job, and I think that it does take Chinese children somewhat longer to master than English does an English-speaking child—Ong says, “To become significantly learned in the Chinese writing system normally takes 75
some twenty years” (Orality and Literacy, 87). But even here, people would disagree. Charles Chen tells me, “Most Chinese people wouldn’t agree with that observation. Although Chinese spend time on studying the words, we have other ways of facilitating language expression.” Chen notes that common fourword idioms, which are an essential part of Chinese communication and culture, are a type of information capsule that economically includes not only literal meaning but also historical and connotative significance, and these make learning the language more efficient, as it were (however, others tell me that in fact learning these idioms is difficult).11 I am speaking from a Westerner’s point of view, and I mean no disrespect, but I know that since youth, my friends and I always marveled at Chinese and Chinese students’ ability to learn the language. To us it was the most foreign language of all, and we were dumbfounded by the system and its seemingly impenetrable structure. Even now, the many foreigners who have studied the language and the very few who have ended up being able to speak it competently, let alone fluently, indicate that there is something about this language (research has shown it is among the most difficult languages to learn). I know of many foreigners who 11
Any Chinese dictionary will provide long lists of these idioms, which are called 成
語 , (chéng yǔ). I am told they are more common in writing than everyday conversation. I recall the first one I learned, the essentially simple 人山人海, (rén shān rén hǎi), which means “people mountain people ocean” and is understood as “a big crowd.” A similar phrase, which also has four characters, but is not a chéng yǔ, is 好久不見 (hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn), which we have exactly translated into English as “long time no see.” Readers may also be interested to learn that Chinese vocabulary stems from six compound (two-character) methods/descriptions used to create and identify characters. These include: 象形 (xiàng xíng, pictogram), 指示 (zhǐ shì, instruction, to direct / ideogram), 會意 (huì yì, to understand / phonogram), 形聲 (xíng shēng, pictophonetic / combined ideograph), 轉注 (zhuǎn zhù, transcription / transfer characters), 假借 (jiǎ jiè, to borrow / phonetic loans). A Wikipedia page written in Chinese describes these methodologies in detail, but I could find very little about them in English on the Internet!
News Junkie This chapter may be a bit more objective and detached than my prior personal narrative, but the media, news, and politics I will examine fascinate me and are very much a part of my core personality. As well, if in a once-removed way, they are important in my life in Taiwan. I am a news junkie, and I consider being up on the news a vital part of one’s life wherever one lives. Even further, I have a serious passion for knowledge about nations’ decision-making capacities and methods, their commitments and views in terms of freedom, order, and equality, their constitutional laws and canons, their courts and legalist structures, and their federalist theories and philosophies (this traces to my education in international relations at SFSU and also my graduate study at BU). Taiwan, as a veritably new democracy in world affairs, has much to offer in these respects. Although the following discussion and issues may be a bit more clinical than the other experiences I have related, they are of continuing interest to me, and in any case, given Taiwan’s highly politicized media environment (particularly), and not a little ardent flagwaving here, it’s hard to fully exclude yourself from these issues. In spite of these interests and my efforts to keep up on the news, I should at the outset say that in part because I cannot vote in Taiwan (and also due to my language skills), I have not been truly connected to political issues here. Indeed, some might ask why I feel inclined to comment on Taiwanese politics at all, given my essential disconnect from many issues. I am a bit embarrassed to say that I have not participated in any citizen events or protests in Taiwan, although it’s probably not altogether common for foreigners to be involved in such issues and activities here (Hope and I have gone to the local park and picked up trash one day per month, which is our community service). At a higher level, I am
politically neutral, neither KMT nor DPP.14 The KMT has a troublesome, dark historical legacy hanging over its head, and the DPP to me appears to be a feckless and ineffective party with weak leadership. Both parties seem to indulge more in combustible party politics, name-calling, and not a little dirty dealing, as opposed to operative policy making in Taiwan. I have had no interest in involving myself in the fiery anger and enmity you see across these party lines, although I have had a few sharp discussions with acquaintances in Taiwan as I have faced off against either a KMT or DPP partisan. As to the issues, I read the news and keep up, such as on a large media merger that is currently being proposed here (with hints of Chinese influence in the deal, which always raises the intensity of an issue); a recent controversy over the construction of new housing and urban development in Taipei; financial turmoil in both the national pension funding and national health care systems; elections and occasional referendum issues (I remember particularly the 2004 election pitting the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian and the KMT’s Lien Chan, complete with an assassination attempt against Chen, and a tearful claim by Lien at 14
I refer here to the two major political parties in Taiwan, the Kuomintang (KMT, 國
民黨) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨). I will not go into the details of the platforms of these two parties except to say that the somewhat conservative KMT (transferred from China after the Nationalists lost the civil war) ruled Taiwan as an authoritarian one-party state until the lifting of martial law and first democratic elections in the 1980s and 1990s. The DPP, nominally a more “liberal,” perhaps “center-left” party, was founded in 1986 in this free era. The two parties engage in fierce antagonism surrounding issues of the economy, various social welfare plans, Taiwan’s status and relations vis-à-vis China, and to some extent the issue of Taiwan independence (of which more below). After the authoritarian period, the KMT ruled Taiwan under President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) from 1986-2000, when the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian (陳水 ) won the presidential election, winning again in 2004 and ruling until 2008. The 2000 election marked Taiwan’s first peaceful transition of power between parties, a major historical event in the country. The KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) retook the presidency in 2008, and he won again in 2012.
the close that the razor-thin vote had been tainted by political machinations); aboriginal peoplesâ€™ issues; occasional news involving Taiwanâ€™s twenty-three diplomatic allies (I had more contact with this news when I was a writer at ICDF); news of Taiwanese citizens and activism in the US; a fair number of animal rights and welfare cases in the country; the ever-present economic news, including that of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement signed with China in 2010 and updated since then; the environmental and traffic issues I have referred to; various fishing and farming issues; and larger incidents such as natural or manmade disasters, or major crimes such as a campaign shooting in Taipei that killed a man in 2010. I have also followed the imprisonment of Chen since his conviction on corruption charges after his last term ended in 2008 and would have to say that I agree with the liberal view that he should be released on a medical parole or even pardoned by President Ma Ying-jeou. Another issue in the news is foreign spouses, which could have some impact on me, but this tends to focus on wives from other countries and their children in Taiwan. I also keep up with a good bit of cultural and softer Taiwan news (the Taipei Times provides a fairly good selection of these stories). One key larger issue in Taiwan is a focus on Taiwanese identity and cultural/national sovereignty, colored by the several colonial eras that have impacted Taiwan (European, Chinese, and in many ways most importantly, Japanese, from 1895 to 1945), as well as the influence of Taiwanese aboriginal affairs, and that of other nationalities and ethnicities that currently reside in Taiwan. I will refrain from going into more detail here, but those interested will find this to be one of the most important, emotional and interesting issues in Taiwan today, studded with ethnicity, nationality, culture, language, indigenous consciousness, and good old-fashioned national rivalry. Related to this (and most directly related to relations with China), a heated nationalism/jingoism often percolates to the surface in Taiwan, 89
which is often seen in less-than-savory journalistic practices and professionalism (in both English and Chinese publications). In terms of news, the truth is that except for several news English and international affairs classes I have taught, I have found that students are generally not terribly interested in the daily news, and thus I haven’t found myself speaking about these issues a lot in my everyday life. I do however discuss political and social issues with my wife, friends and colleagues, and I have made some public comments about issues in the Taipei Times, which I will share below. Though I find the politics in Taiwan to be messy (those famous pictures of Taiwanese legislators fist-fighting in their assemblies and hurling chairs at one another are rather unpalatable, but this has been known to happen in other countries as well), there are to be sure commendable assets here. At the highest level, no doubt that Taiwan transitioned into a free democratic polity after its years of suppressive rule under the former KMT government is a major achievement that deserves the highest acclaim. Though I cannot vote in Taiwan, I am proud to live in such a free democratic nation. However, the fact that I cannot vote is bothersome and is related to essentially Cold War– era limits on how foreigners can obtain citizenship and voting rights in Taiwan. One has to give up one’s home citizenship in order to do this. This limit is a shame in a free democracy like Taiwan and, to be sure, has limited my ability to participate in civic affairs. I will not exceed this limitation, as I have no intention of ever giving up my US citizenship (I have continued to vote by absentee ballot in the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 US elections; note that DPP legislator Hsiao Bi-khim [ 蕭 美 琴 ] proposed in December 2012 relaxing Taiwanese naturalization requirements). This limitation points to another critique I would have of Taiwan’s politics (I will return to the praise soon!), which is the nation’s constitution. Without question, there are good points in this document, such as that it promises to “safeguard the rights of 90
the people, ensure social tranquility, and promote the welfare of the people,” that the nation is “a democratic republic of the people, to be governed by the people and for the people,” and that “all citizens of the Republic of China, irrespective of sex, religion, race, class, or party affiliation, shall be equal before the law.” So far so good, but in a bizarre and essentially hostile turn, the document claims Tibet, Mongolia, and even mainland China as its own territory (something of Taiwan’s own “one China” principle—but Taiwan is not truly culpable, as this document was mostly created in China in a different age; note that in my reading, rather than China proper, the ROC constitution refers to the voting rights and interests of “Chinese citizens residing abroad”). These are completely impossible claims, and I (with quite a few others in Taiwan, I believe) feel they should be eradicated. This points to the possibility of amending or rewriting the constitution, an option endorsed by a number of liberals here, as well as (as far as I know) Taiwan independence advocates. In any event, it is necessary if Taiwan ever hopes to enter the modern world as anything resembling an independent nation. And here we are faced with another issue: Taiwanese independence. I am probably in no position to truly advocate or deny the possibility of Taiwan’s independence, but I have a few thoughts. At a high level, Taiwanese citizens have to face the fact that this country is not independent, whatever sorts of status quo, de jure claims one wants to make that the island is de facto independent. Claims like these have zero credibility in international relations circles. The United States in 1776 did not just tell Britain and the world, “We just are independent now. It’s a status quo fact.” A solid claim had to be made; a written document had to be issued. Though admittedly the DPP’s 1999 “Resolution Regarding Taiwan’s Future” claims that “Taiwan is a sovereign, independent country,” this is by no means a declaration, and even this text is watered down when it states that this status is “a historical fact and a reflection of the status quo.” I have already rejected the idea of status quo independence, and 91
What’s So Great About Taiwan? I have criticized elements of Taiwan’s life and culture, sometimes strongly, in this narrative. Some people will resent this—for these people, there could not be a better land than Taiwan, and to critique it is absolutely off limits. But as I have discussed, this is not the way I think, and I hope, needless to say, my aim has never been to heap blame on Taiwan. I have simply felt the need to point out some problems in this nation that I hope can be solved. I should not have to repeat that I like living in Taiwan, and as much as or more than any other foreigner in this nation, I am here for the long haul. Without question, in spite of my complaints and criticisms, there is much to love about life in Taiwan. I mean particularly life in Taipei, but I have had great times all around Taiwan. In the following, my aim is to look at some of the real pleasures of living here. Readers from other lands are going to discover some details about a miracle called Taiwan, a miracle that has given pleasure to people of all ages, nationalities, and ethnicities for years and years, and has offered up a world of at once joy and gratification, liberty and opportunity, majesty and revelation, and achievement and prosperity. Such successes may be hardly matched by many others nations around the world. I have described exactly these advantages and assets in this narrative thus far—but let’s take a further look at all Taiwan has to offer! In some ways, first and foremost, the outdoor locations in Taiwan have provided some of the best times for me here. The north coast and city of Keelung (基隆, actual pronunciation, jī lóng), down the east coast to Yilan (宜蘭), where my wife and I were cycling one fine evening several years ago, and at one point we emerged from the darkling woods, and the Pacific Ocean stretched out grandly before us, with a full moon spilling misty light down onto the water, Hualien (花蓮), and Taidong (台東,
also spelled Taitung) are all enjoyable, bucolic regions with nice cultural activities. Taiwan has very nice national and local park systems, with locations such as Yangmingshan, Ali Shan (a mountain with famed sunrises lighting banks of clouds, which Hope and I observed early one morning in 2001, in a near-mystical setting), Guandu Nature Park, the Xitou Nature Education Area (where my wife and I were treated to gorgeous forest canopy scenery as we strolled along a highly-elevated walkway), the Northeast Coast National Scenic Area, Puli Mountain Town, the waterfalls at Shi Fen, the Xin Beitou Hot Springs, Sun Moon Lake, and Taroko Gorge. Taroko Gorge is one of the major natural landmarks in Taiwan, replete with mystical, cultural, and spiritual significance. Unfortunately, I have never fully explored this mecca, and the closest we came was a scooter ride a kilometer or two into the main mouth, where we debarked and took a rigorous hike straight uphill (you find these sorts of trails in Taiwan’s steep terrain, “ladder trails” I call them), where we entered a Buddhist temple, aglow with candles, incense smoking, perched high on an overlook with a magnificent view of the area. But there is yet more, and in another natural turn, my good friend George Liao and I began a series of hiking and biking excursions in the north part of Taiwan in summer 2011, which developed into a wonderful succession of vigorous outdoor activities and expeditions to some of the finest natural locales on this island. These journeys included biking trips to Fushan, during which we biked along the old highway that goes along the Nanshih Stream; the bikeway near Fulong, on which we traveled through an archaic railway tunnel, emerging to see Turtle Island from the distance and then walking along the golden sands of Fulong Beach; a journey to Pinglin District, where we heard a cacophonous symphony of ringing cicadas high in the trees; and along the Tunho Creek forest road, at the end of which we dipped our feet into the cool, crystal clear water of the stream, and spilled the refreshing water onto our faces. Our hikes have 108
included the well-known Wuliaojian trail, at the end of which we encountered a desiccated lake, evaporated in the summer heat; a muddy hike to Sunluo Lake in Datong Township, during which I slipped and fell more than once (the slick, mossy trails in Taiwan can be treacherous); and a hike to the Wufengqi Falls, with their beautiful plummeting curtains of water (even more astounding after a recent rain, George told me). After some of these hikes and rides, we soaked in the phenomenal Jiaoxi hot springs, stocked with mineral baths, bubbling and pouring water massages, a delightful children’s water slide, the standard ice pool (dip in there if you dare; my friend George, the nut, spends tens of minutes at a time lolling in them), and baths so hot they leave you gasping (nothing better in the world for sore legs and back). The natural wonders that Hope and George have treated me to so many times have themselves left me gasping in Taiwan and provided a spiritual fulfillment that touches that which is most essential in me. If readers will allow me room for a bit of reverie, upon retiring to his Walden Pond cottage, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”16 I of course have not lived the life that Thoreau did—one would hardly expect that from this city boy in Taipei, with a population of over 2.5 million people—but in small ways, if only on weekend trips to the country, I have reached for something deliberate and essential, and, in Thoreau’s view, I have tried to live. Hiking high in forested hills in Taiwan, ambling along warm, sunlit beachfronts, biking on moonlit evenings through wooded areas, viewing the many wild rivers that incise this land, meditating on the plunging waterfalls and sultry hot springs, glorying in the unbounded selection of flora (and not a few fauna, such as the Formosan rock macaques that eyed Hope 16
The quote is from Thoreau’s Walden.
and me warily from nearby trees on a hike near Ali Shan, or the six-foot king rat snake I saw two men wrestling from under a footbridge on one of my hikes), or reveling in the wondrous butterfly population here (Taiwan is justly known as a land of butterflies, with as many as four hundred species fluttering colorfully through the air)—all of this does more than just provide welcome relief from the chaotic, crowded conditions in Taipei; it has given me deep satisfaction and insight into a spectacular Asian environment that has opened my eyes and provided new appreciation for our interconnected world with its shared natural wonders, which eclipse all that is national—the earth, mother of all peoples. Citizens in Taiwan are fortunate that the government is doing a fairly good job of providing sanctuaries for feelings and experiences like this. Certain historical landmarks and locations that have been enjoyable and enlightening include the nineteenth-century Lin family mansion, a beautiful historical/architectural spectacle in Taipei; Jiufen, with its historic prisoner of war district and camps (Taiwan has a fascinating history as a Japanese prisoner of war holding area in WWII, and a new POW memorial was established in Hualien in November 2012); the idyllic campus of Academia Sinica; the Wulai hot springs and aboriginal culture villages; the Lin Yutang house (Lin, who lived and was partially educated in the US, wrote the first thorough cultural histories of China in English; his My Country and My People was a major bestseller in the US in the 1930s); the Erluanbi lighthouse and many other pleasures in Kenting National Park (I’ll never forget seeing this little gem on my first trip to Taiwan in 1998; it reminded me of New England all over again); certain of the Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石 or 蔣中正, jiǎng jiè shí or jiǎng zhōng zhèng) historical buildings and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (modeled on the Lincoln Memorial); the Bu-Cheng-Shih-SzYamen building (布政使司衙門) inside the Taipei Botanical Garden (itself a beautiful park with a lovely lily pond) is an 110
My life is nothing if not somewhat interesting, and full of unusual experiences. Move to an alien culture and language and that is going to happen. Finding myself playing two songs at a Taiwanese wedding, well, I wondered more than once how I had gotten myself into such a position. In addition to one of my songs, we settled on “The Moon Represents My Heart,” a monster hit in Taiwan for years and years. Trying to take that on and please an audience that has worshipped the song for decades was more than a little nerve-wracking. I practiced the song for weeks in advance trying one new interpretation after another. By Friday night, after practicing for six more hours, I was ready—more or less. The moment arrived and I took the stage with my beloved Takamine. I had decided to play the acoustic guitar, as I was pretty sure an audience with many older Taiwanese people would be stunned to see a foreigner step onto the stage with an electric guitar. It was all over in ten minutes or so, and although there were a smattering of “encores” sounded,” I ended there. The husband gave me a “red envelope,” the traditional money gift in Taiwanese culture. It contained NT$1,200, which to be sure, is the most I have ever been paid for a gig and was quite generous of him. I am pretty sure they were happy, and the bride, groom, and bride’s father were effusive as we left. It was all fun in the end, and in any case, another little notch of playing experience that makes all the difference—and another of those unusual experiences in Taiwan.
I am currently working with a young Malaysian bass player, a Malaysian drummer, and a female Taiwanese singer. We play popular songs, as well as my instrumental compositions, which comprise an experimental/progressive amalgam, complex and cerebral, with densely layered chords that I try to elevate onto a different plane. I call these chord structures open-ended “articulations” that transact within overall themes. Rediscovering this lost love has provided yet more richness to my life in Taipei— a blast from the past as it were and a new road into the future. I will now endeavor to conclude my story about my life in Taiwan. Readers have seen that my life here has opened new 123
doors and offered unexpected new opportunities, which have given me endless satisfaction and gratification. I have continued to enjoy the incongruity and continuing unfamiliarity of this all, at one point writing that “it is nice to think that there is still time to just be a foreigner here, a stranger in a strange land.” I have literally grown older in Taipei—and I may be looking at growing older still (but beware, “the second half goes faster,” as the father Nathaniel Fisher said to his son in an installment of HBO’s Six Feet Under). Reflective as always, one day, in my journal I wrote: If anyone has “multiple identities,” it’s me. It does make life interesting. Yet it’s not just having the different hats, it’s coming up with something interesting surrounding all the different experiences. I would like to have a story to write, an adventure tale of sorts, conveying what I have learned. Not a groundbreaking story, but the story of a move and a lot of changes that occur in life—changes in location, culture, language, friendships, family relations, work/career, and environment. What lessons can I pass on? Life is full of change and challenge? People always either underestimate or overestimate you? Keep your eyes on the prize, and always keep learning? Enjoy life, take it easy, one day at a time? Work hard, play hard, and maintain high standards? Kick back, relax, and meditate daily? Trust yourself, be confident? It seems I have learned it all in Taiwan.
I continued: My story would need a conflict, something to make life less than a pleasure cruise full of coffee chats, conversation, culture, and creation. This struggle would have to intrude on the protagonist, to test and change him (or her), to bring a measure of suffering, with the protagonist traveling to new places, meeting new people, forging new friendships based on artistic and intellectual exploration, and growing and developing in meaningful ways.
It seems I have encountered something like this in Taiwan. I have found conflict, been tested and changed—no endless coffee klatches or boozing in pubs for me—felt a bit of suffering, sought and found adventure, traveled to new places, met new people, forged new friendships, experimented artistically and intellectually, and through it all grown and developed in meaningful ways. In sum, it seems that I did find something like inspiration for a new life and history in Taiwan—or so I hope this book has indicated. I concluded the above explorations in my journal, interrogating the most personal aspects of my story, and I found that after some challenging problems and losses, “boy meets girl,” and then Boy and girl decide to relocate to her strange, distant, Asian home. I guess this is where the excitement starts, adjusting to a cluttered new culture and drifting along, hoping that boy and girl can find the spark that will enable them to get married and do something meaningful.
“Where the excitement starts,” indeed. After something of a bumpy beginning, the excitement started for this “boy” in Taipei, and it has amplified and flourished and expanded and diffused and increased. That boy and that girl did find that spark, and got married and did something meaningful. As to the future, I hope I enjoy it as much as I have the recent years. I never saw this coming back in 2000! It’s almost like some magical Chinese tale— maybe a Monkey King (孫悟空, sūn wù kōng) emerging from a mythical stone!—with transformation, something of a pilgrimage, travels to new worlds, and experiences with new languages and cultures. I may not have acquired supernatural powers, but something super has occurred to me in this land. Here in Taiwan, I have learned so much about others and myself, and I thank the people who have helped me, befriended me, and loved me. And for all of you, the best friends a man could have, I hope that the
feelings of 大有可為 (to say nothing of 加油!)18 lead you to the best and most prosperous futures you can find.
Jiā yóu, You go!
Sources Cited Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso, 2006. Baker, Sheridan. The Practical Stylist, with Readings and Handbook. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley, 1989. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988, 1971, 1963. Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge, 1982. Smith, Anthony. National Identity. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1991. Wickberg, Daniel. “What Is the History of Sensibilities? On Cultural Histories, Old and New.” The American Historical Review 112 (3) (2007): 661–684.
Drawing on notes from his personal journal and other of his own writings, personal communication, numerous published writings, and references to other writers and scholars, Pendery crafts a collage that tells his story of life and travel in Taiwan, teaching and student life, satisfying friendships, his new family life, his educational path, studying Chinese, and his employment in schools and other locations. The prose in the work is sophisticated, but at times hard-hitting, as Pendery does not shy from criticizing what he feels are problems in Taiwan, while suggesting improvements. In spite of the criticisms, the book concludes with a heartfelt affirmation of the nation’s outdoor grandeur, the rich aesthetic life to be found in Taiwan, and the rewards and surprises he has found in his work, education, and new relationships during the last 12 years. In the end he finds his journey has been like some magical Chinese tale, and he has found “something super” in Taiwan.
David Pendery was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He moved to San Francisco, California in his early 20s. He completed his B.A. in International Relations at San Francisco State University, and his M.S. in Journalism at Boston University. After working in journalism for several years in the United States, he relocated to Taipei, Taiwan in 2000. In Taiwan he has worked as an editor and teacher. He obtained his Ph.D. in English Literature from National Chengchi University in Taipei in 2010. He is currently an assistant professor at National Taipei College of Business in Taipei. He is married with no children.
Something Super: One American Lives, Learns and Teaches in Taiwan
“Something Super: One American Lives, Learns and Teaches in Taiwan” is a personal memoir about American David Pendery’s life in Taiwan since he moved there in 2000. His story examines political and educational issues in Taiwan, the many unique elements of Taiwanese life and culture, and his personal experience in the Asian country.
Something Super: One American Lives, Learns and Teaches in Taiwan
Published on Sep 15, 2013
My memoir of my life in Taiwan since I moved here in 2000. In the book I relate my sometimes-agitated initiation into Taiwanese life and cul...