Updated: Apr 1
“吃.. 吃.. 吃..”
“Why do you come to Taiwan to learn chinese?” Fingers greased up in sesame oil, I can barely fit an answer around mouth full of everything new. I had (have) no idea. First weekend, first night market. First time posed, this question, unanswerable. Had I just come along for the ride?
Two weeks later I bike my way through motor chaos into the heart of old Tainan. “Why do you come to Taiwan to learn chinese?” A new friend and traditional Taiwanese puppet artist, Li Jun-Yang, now asks. “Why do you come here to learn?” His familiar question is swallowed by song, as he trumpets a tune in the indigenous Amis language from his home province.
“吃.. 吃.. 吃..”
His (their) question has continued to ferment in my thoughts. Why do you come here? here! Taiwan, a linguistic melting pot. Tossed and tumbled about a turbulent colonial past, doused in the comings, goings and displacements of peoples and their words. Some scholars cite Taiwan as the birthplace of Austronesian-Formosan languages. But the arrival, or import under Dutch colonial rule, of Han Chinese from the Fujian province of China, sparked the pulling and tugging of Taiwan’s knotted vernacular. Chinese dialects of Taiwanese (Hoklo and Hokkien), Minnanhua, Hakka, and Mainland Mandarin continued to travel cross-strait during the occupation of Taiwan under the Ming and Qing dynasties, only to later be outlawed by the Japanese in 1895, whose own anachronistic colonial projects, premised on false promises of equality that Taiwanese people could fully assimilate into Japaneseness, meant all Taiwanese were to be enrolled in Japanese education and taught in the likes. In 1945 the KMT government swarmed Taiwan, bringing with them 1.2 million Mandarin Chinese speaking mainlanders and laws that criminalized Japanese overnight. Teachers trained according to one colonial project, now struggled to teach in a language they could not voice themselves. In 2019 it is Mandarin Chinese that zips through Taiwan’s streets, that marks the ink of Taiwanese novels, that conducts government officialities, that teases study abroad students at chinese language schools. And that obscures the important colonial past (and present?) of this country, not-quite-country.
Some indigenous languages (of which there were originally around 26) are still spoken by tribes across Taiwan (official stats say only by around 2% of the population). Taiwanese, Minnanhua and Hakka are still casually woven into many people's daily conversations. But Mandarin Chinese is the official lingua-franca, with all other languages squeezed to the periphery as colloquialisms, most people not knowing/needing to know how to write them but only how to speak sounds learned through intergenerational utterances.
So why come to Taiwan to learn Chinese? A non-western language yes, but still an imperial one. I unpack this question every day, as I fumble through hours of pronunciation marathons and wiggle around character workbooks. I don’t know why I’m here exactly, other than to do just this, toss and turn through questions posed by the amazing people I stumble into. Art and artists are, as they have always been, a source of provocation and solace in linguistic, intercultural chaos.