Wed, Jan 03, 2018 - Page 8 News List

On being a foreigner in Taiwan

By David Pendery 潘大為

As a foreigner in Taiwan — we the waiguoren (外國人) — I face a host of challenging contingencies, complications and conundrums every day. No doubt language use is at the top of my concerns, and the trial and effort of studying and attempting to use Chinese is a daily concern.

After years of study — I have been nothing if not diligent in my industry — my Chinese is passable. I have sweated over my books and other materials for hours at a time, struggled to speak the language, and labored over reading and writing this devilishly intricate language — writing, in spite of the difficulty, has always been my strong point.

I communicate in the language every day now, and often construct complete sentences and dialogues, which pleases me immensely.

However, despite my progress, I have to admit that I am less than fluent — which, alas, is usually the sine qua non for actually being able to steer your way in a new culture using a new language.

The differences separating Chinese from English are a true gulf. The language’s parsing, calligraphy, nuance, orthography and syntax are at times mystifying. I simply do not think in terms of characters that carry entire chunks of meaning (I like little slips of writing — letters — to formulate meaning in an essentially linear fashion); the constant repetition in Chinese is cumbersome; the identical sounds are confounding (foreigners studying here probably know that Chinese people can hear a sentence that says ma ma ma ma ma (麻媽罵馬嗎) and it can be understood as a coherent sentence; there is no corresponding “I, I, I, aye, I, I, eye, I” in English); tonal differentiation is a major struggle (we have “stress” in English, but it is a far cry from the four or five tones in Chinese); and I ponder what looks to me like a veritable lack of any grammar (it all seems to be a mass of usages, apothegms and habitudes).

Any foreigner studying Chinese in Taiwan knows exactly what I am talking about.

Additionally, there is the task of accommodating oneself to a new culture, in this case a very Chinese and/or Confucian culture. Again the differences loom.

Many observers have commented on this in the past, often lobbing criticisms at Confucian culture, which is considered outmoded, archaic, limiting of free thought and critical inquiry, and politically disingenuous.

Chinese Confucius Institutes worldwide, seemingly innocuous cultural institutions and a “soft power” move by China, represent “a serious threat to freedom of thought and speech in education” the BBC wrote on Dec. 22, 2014.

Yutang Jin, a master’s student at Hertford College, wrote in 2016 of the “discrimination and injustice that women face in Confucian societies today.”

Herbert Hanreich, an assistant professor in Taiwan, called Confucian filial piety downright “immoral” in the Taipei Times (“Filial piety is an immoral concept,” Oct. 25, 2017, page 8).

I might not come down this hard, but the vagaries and dissimilarities between Taiwanese and Western arts and culture are at times a bit awkward.

In terms of art, it is up and down. Local photography and cinematography have shown promise, with artists like Chi Po-lin (齊柏林), Ang Lee (李安) and a number of other directors having had a significant impact in film.

In terms of music, due to the art form’s universal values and skill sets, I will not comment at length — there are plenty of good Taiwanese musicians.

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