Friday, July 28, 2017

Studying Mandarin in Taiwan: A lesson in cultural and historical perspective.

Having a neighbor like China (The People's Republic of China) it is easy to overlook the thriving island state of Taiwan (The Republic of China). It is only recently, after living abroad in China, that I have come to understand the subtle yet significant differences between political and cultural identities between Taiwan and China. Oddly enough, this epiphany was brought about from attempting to understand my father’s fixation on the Civil War. Yeah, I am not talking about the civil war that took place in China...
Since I was little, I can remember my father’s fascination with the American Civil War. Given the opportunity, my dad would drag me to as many reenactments as he could. While there, my father would tell me about the gallantry of the Confederate soldier and take countless pictures with them. My father’s interest in the Confederates and the American Civil War was always a bit curious and bizarre. Not only because we lived in Southern California, far from any meaningful Civil War history, but also because my father is Chinese.
I grew up associating the Confederate South with ignorance and racial intolerance. So why was my father, a first generation Chinese immigrant, romanticizing their cause and defeat? I finally understood why when my father told me the story of his family’s arduous escape from Mainland China to Taiwan in 1949. He told me about his grandfather’s attempt to relocate his entire university student body from China, and of the number of casualties they endured during their journey. From then on, I had a better understanding of why my father held such an interest in the Confederate South. During my years of berating my father about his “Southern sympathies,” I had failed to consider how identity could play a part in my father’s historical perspective. I had failed to consider that my father’s romanticized views of a defeated group of people were a product of being a boy born into a family of refugees who had supported the losing side of a bloody civil war.  Since this revelation, I have endeavored to understand and experience the different cultural, historical and political perspective of China and Taiwan.
Most notably, I have found that language has been a great way of analyzing these differences.
In my second year living and working in the China I had naively thought that my understanding of Chinese culture and Mandarin would equally translate while traveling to Taiwan for a short Lunar New Year excursion. However, upon arriving in Taipei and meeting my distant family members, I had quickly realized that the language, the culture, and the people were far different from what I have seen and experienced in China. It was then that I came to the understanding that despite having a grasp of the language that both nations shared, I was naive to the fact that simply knowing Chinese Mandarin did not make me fluent in Taiwanese Mandarin, or the linguistic system shared by the Taiwanese people. After my short time in Taiwan, I had become fascinated by how the people’s use of traditional Chinese characters, their colloquialisms, the culinary culture, popular media and film, and their politics were all characteristics that helped encompass a unique Taiwanese identity.

So far my time here in Taipei, Taiwan has allowed me to really immerse myself in the lifestyle and history of the island. In my next posts, I hope to highlight the main aspects of Taiwan's distinctive political, historical and cultural perspective!

Tracie M. Yang M.A Asian Studies, Class of 2018
Sigur Center 2017, Asian Language Fellow
National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei, Taiwan (ROC)
President, Organization of Asian Studies (OAS)

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