On being a foreigner in Taiwan

By David Pendery 潘大為  / 

Wed, Jan 03, 2018 - Page 8

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.

However, in a larger view I might look at the National Symphony Orchestra, and its venue the National Concert Hall, and see this as world-class — and there is a cultural connection. Taiwanese folk music, always closest to the hearts of local people, seems not to have reached true global status and recognition, compared with US folk music. This might be a cultural disconnect with me.

Putting aside the likes of classical Chinese art in the National Palace Museum (a different category, and obviously venerated worldwide), local arts like Taiwanese opera and puppetry have never been to my taste, I find them too traditional. I am perhaps again disconnected from local culture in this way.

Further, I find that Taiwan has no real modern art movement of its own, and current works borrow heavily from Western styles, thus removing much in the way of “Taiwanese-ness.”

Looking at the local culture, night markets and temple affairs are pleasing in their ways, but tend toward the tawdry.

However, have you noticed the way aged Taiwanese rise at 4am and go to the parks to practice taichi, chant, cycle and exercise? I might not be there yet, but that looks good to me — there is a connection.

At a higher level, the somewhat nonchalant — many say careless — treatment of the environment here has been an ongoing problem. Business and vocational life have been quite successful, but have been accused of unscrupulous behavior.

Meanwhile, Taiwanese politics seems a bit less than genuinely skilled and practiced. Love or hate US President Donald Trump, he (and former US presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton) knows the game in ways that President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) could never match.

In these terms, although I have done my best to fit in, interact and function within the culture at large in Taiwan, at times things are still rather “foreign” to me.

However, despite this, some say I indeed seem to have transformed myself into a Taiwanese entity after being here as long as I have — and I too sometimes feel as much, if in a once-removed way. I am not sure that I have taken the final step, though, and gaps remain.

In the big picture, I am not truly there yet, certainly not in terms of possessing any true identity outside the one noted on my US passport. My Taiwanese resident certificate is nice, but it is less than the “real deal.”

I have discussed my pursuit of the “real deal” — Taiwanese citizenship — in another forum. I suspect just this might happen some day, when the government opens its eyes to the necessity and morality of dual citizenship. I will welcome that day.

Any disconnects aside, I try to conform and harmonize in my interface and collaboration with the good people of this nation. This is rewarding in its own right and on the whole my life here has been much better than my life in the US ever was.

I absolutely love it here. In this respect, I am the real deal, I am fully affianced and involved in life here. Is that all that is required? Very possibly yes, for to love a place is to adopt it, to receive it, to embrace it, to take it as one’s own, to “be” it — even to the point of possessing its identity.

You are not a “foreigner” any longer, you are one of the people, as best you can be. Such a feeling this nation and its populace have provided me.

Taiwanese have welcomed me, embraced me, accepted me. For that I give thanks — and in the future, my friends, I will “be Taiwanese” in every way that I can.

David Pendery is an associate professor at National Taipei University of Business.