Barbets and bedbugs and Beethoven, oh my!
Readers weigh in on reverse migration, accents, parrots, nativity scenes, and informers in Albania
We were so glad to receive your heartfelt replies to Michelle’s piece last week about adjusting to Taiwan. This week we collect some responses. Please keep writing in! You can reply to this email or write firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your last blog post was so beautiful. I remember what it was like living in China during fieldwork; I remember all the moments of humiliation and frustration in normal daily life. I don’t know if you consider it consolation to know that the difficulties of your reverse migration are also producing great writing.
I was moved by your insight that our poor Mandarin speaking skills as second-generation immigrants results from our parents wanting to spare us the humiliation of their own lives. My eyes watered a little thinking about that. I always attributed my own poor Mandarin to some dominant pedagogy in the 1980s that said that multilingual child-rearing leads to confusion. Now as a mom, I assume that we know “better”: everybody in our generation is “intensive parenting” by raising multilingual children. But your insight made me realize that our parents were doing their own version of intensive parenting by rearing their children in English—and letting their children humiliate them in a language not their own.
James notes that an American accent is indeed preferable to a mainland one:
During my first year living in Taiwan, I had a meal with my high school–aged cousin, who in the middle of a conversation in Chinese said, “James哥哥，你講中文有…大陸腔” (James, when you speak Chinese you have a… mainland Chinese accent).
As a high school male, my cousin was not the most cautious of individuals and tended to speak loudly in public, but if I recall correctly this one was in a hushed voice only I could hear. I think this echoes a point your uncle made!
I too came back to Taiwan to learn about my family. One of the most surprising revelations (so obvious in hindsight) was my lifelong assumption that I was American (and nothing else). I was born American, but it was only after living in Taiwan and meeting dozens of long-lost relatives that I realized that I was the oddity in my family—the tiny, non-Mandarin-speaking blip in dozens of unbroken Taiwanese generations.
Jennifer Holberg, a literary critic, writes:
Grateful for your vulnerability and humor, and for the way that profound things are examined in a deeply human and relatable way. And brilliant reading of those old stories. Please keep adding to this—this honest accounting of transition seems so needed. What a gift to chronicle this change, including all the difficult parts. You will laugh at my old-ladyness, but my response to your birthday was, “Wow, she has done SO much before she’s even 40!” Perspective, my dear!
The aforementioned “kindly twenty-five-year-old” who sold Michelle the wine responded via text:
Jamie Madden, a Bostonian in exile, writes:
It’s OK, Michelle Wu is younger and more successful than all of us.
CJ Sheu 許景順, a film critic, writes about moving from the U.S. to Taiwan at age twelve:
Your latest newsletter is beautiful, and it does reflect a mastery of English. =) Studies have shown that bilingual kids are slower to start, but gain comparatively higher general intelligence as they mature. Yet research also suggests that their highest level of mastery of either language will not be as great as the highest level of a native speaker—perhaps there’s another Faustian bargain there.
I was twelve when I returned from the States to Taiwan. My parents and I moved back the day after I graduated from elementary school. I was reluctant and trepidatious, but the selling point that won me over was the Taipei MRT, oddly enough. (Dallas public transportation is a joke.) Not to compare, but I think I had it worse off than you: my parents, who went to the States for graduate school, no longer had to speak English. So the only person who would speak English to me was a student teacher who was supposed to be helping me acclimate but was actually milking me for linguistic and cultural data.
Narrative is integral to memory, and language is integral to narrative. My first year back is very blurry. When in ninth grade I reread my seventh-grade textbooks to prep for the high school entrance exams, I saw pages of fragmented notes written in crooked and strangely constituted characters. To this day, I blame my weak grasp of Taiwanese history and geography on that tenuous first year.
Immersion brought me up to speed eventually, though sometimes when teaching I still blank on a Chinese term or two, especially if it’s technical or historical. But coming of age in Chinese means that my English is weakest when it comes to things like food, clothing, furniture, and plants. Not that I’m too great at those in Chinese. I’ll live.
You write that we rarely use “transition” to describe good things, but are any changes purely good? Your newsletter itself proves my point, laced as it is with both xenophobic parrots and unexpected parent-child bonding. I’m glad that my parents brought me back to Taiwan; I now feel a sense of belonging here that I never did in the States, and probably never would have. American patriotic propaganda still gets to me, though thankfully the effect grows weaker by the year. Good Chinese poetry, on the other hand, is forever.
Margaret Ng, a historian of China, suggests that perhaps the parrot is a southerner and not a Mandarin-speaker. She also reflects on her relationship to Teochew, her strong Singaporean accent, and her profane childhood parrot:
In many parts of Southeast Asia, especially in areas where southern Min dialects are spoken, ni hao or how are you are seldom said. Instead we always ask, Have you eaten? My parents, for instance, greet my friends, my siblings or our spouses with Jia ba buah? That’s Chifan le ma? (吃飽了嗎) in Hokkien and Teochew, and is perhaps the insider greeting. But I have never grown up asking anyone how they are or saying ni hao. Only in the north, in Beijing, does that happen. And in Shanghai, no one greets anyone. Taiwan, especially Taipei, might be a little different because of the mix of northerners and southerns after 1949. Perhaps "zao (早)" or "zaoan (早安)" or the min'nan "za 早" might be useful? (Someone working on linguistics might be able to advise us on this!)
My grandmother was born in Swatow (Shantou) and went to Singapore at the turn of the 20th century. She didn't speak a word of Mandarin and spoke only Teochew (and perhaps also some Malay, as Singapore was a part of Malaysia). I recall speaking only Teochew to her, and this was during a time when we were told that we had to speak English and Mandarin due to various governmental campaigns. They didn't want us to speak dialects because it made Singaporeans look "backwards." Today I am very proud of the fact that I speak Teochew, as well as some other dialects. I hope that my son will learn it, and so I have started with the crasser and less refined vocabulary. (This isn’t the best way to start, but it’s way more interesting than the language textbooks we used at the college!) I told my husband that when I am old and senile, I will probably speak only Teochew and so he better learn some so that he will know when I am cursing him out!
I write also to console you about language. Your English will not regress but will become more colourful and interesting. You will create new vocabulary and maybe invent new words. Why stay in the mold when you can make your own? Language is contentious, political, fluid and alive.
In graduate school, a well-meaning professor pulled me aside to tell me that in order to do well in academia, I might need to adjust my accent and cadence. I didn't sound like the rest of my cohort because of my accent, which was a strong Singaporean one. I didn't know how to respond—I was too young, as well as embarrassed and angry. I had used English all my life and it was my first working language. Now, older and content with myself, I recount this story often, and I am proud of my accent. In fact, I work to keep my Singaporean accent. It is one of very few aspects of my identity and life connected to my childhood and where I come from.
On a lighter note, my family had a pet parrot who only swore and cursed! Jimmy, our parrot, would mimic my mother's yelling or the characters cursing others out in the Cantonese dramas that we used to watch on VHS. It was amazing to hear the parrot yell xiao zha bo ("crazy woman”) every time I went near. So perhaps it was a parrot-thing—they live to enrage.
We also received a wealth of commentary about birds and parrots. A selection:
Taiwan Birds observes, via Twitter:
This parrot is not native to Taiwan, maybe that adds a new level of understanding/complexity. =)
They offer a photo of the parrot-like Taiwan Barbet (the five-color bird 五色鳥):
Wenpei Lin (林紋沛), a Taipei-based translator and active birder, sends along a picture of her pet parrot:
This is called a monk parrot (和尚鸚鵡). I don’t quite know why it gets that name; some say it’s because the head and neck colors look like a monk’s hood. I call him/her 晴晴（Sunny). It flew out from its original home and was picked up by a nice lady who is devoted to pet parrot rescue. (There are several organizations here formed by parrot-loving volunteers.)
The rescue never located the owner, and I was lucky enough to find Sunny and bring him/her home. I’m still not sure about Sunny’s sex and age, but I think it’s a girl—she’s very quiet and smells good.
James Lee, the father of friends Ken and Slin, lives in Taiwan and is the mastermind behind a famous Taipei flash mob involving nostalgic Taiwanese songs. The incident has nine million views on YouTube and was a huge tearjerker for the elderly people in the audience, who grew up with the songs. Michelle’s mom, who used to sing her that first song when she was a baby and later again at her own mother’s funeral, wept when she watched it. No, none of this has anything to do with James’s reply.
I think you need to hold some peanuts in your hand and show it to the parrot, then it will speak Hello in any language.
I’m so mad at this parrot!
I think that parrot looks like an asshole btw
On Catholicism and science, Kaya Oakes, author of The Defiant Middle, praises the Taiwan Catholic Church’s nativity scene on Twitter:
Transitional Justice in Albania
We asked Alen Bejko, a translator and former student from Albania, about transitional justice and informers in his native country. We were delighted to get this detailed reply:
In answer to your question, it’s a fairly broad subject. The terminology is one of its issues, as there were never “informers” as such. The official papers speak of bashkëpunëtorë vullnetarë (voluntary collaborators) who would come to the authorities and offer information in exchange for goodwill, favors, and occasionally money—privileged informants, so to speak. The same term was also used to stand in for people who were blackmailed or pressured into signing prepared accusations against colleagues, friends, or relatives—the charges were already decided at a higher level (Politburo or Central Committee), which meant that the investigators only needed to provide (read: extract) the relevant evidence, in the Stalinist tradition.
The people at large spoke of hafije (from the Ottoman/Turkish hafiye, a colloquial term for a spy), sigurims (after the name of the Directorate-General for State Security, Sigurimi i Shtetit), or fuks, which is slang for cop, but could be etymologically related to a version of the word for moth. It is also worth noting that, much like in English, surveillance microphones are called çimka, or bedbugs.
Lustration is a word I believe we borrowed from the Italian and that is related to a Roman Catholic purificatory offering of sorts. It was applied throughout Central and Eastern Europe in the nineties and early noughties, to try and pry the old politically connected players from lucrative public and private positions—which they unavoidably held, as they were the only people to travel abroad beforehand and establish the required relationships for business. Albanian lustration, at least, was a political tool for both major parties, to try and keep some popular and potentially dangerous figures with regime ties from getting elected—i.e., total failure for the project.
To wit, just recently, the ninety-seven-year-old Aranit Çela, former President of the Supreme Court of Albania for about thirty-seven years (1955–1958 and 1966–1990), died at home, feted by quite a few Communist sympathizers, after a grand total of three years’ incarceration. This was a man who, late into his life, would boast to the younger associate judges serving with him that he’d had people found guilty of treason in the first instance and shot the same day, a full two weeks before their cases were even sent to the Court of Appeals.
If you’d like to keep going down the rabbit hole (which is among my favorite ways of doing research), I’d recommend the following:
We love hearing from readers. We’re collecting another batch of responses; please write in. You can reply to this email or write email@example.com.
Beethoven’s Ninth, Succession, and an uplifting story
We attended a glorious performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, “Ode to Joy,” a piece we used to play on repeat for the baby when she was born because we were feeling joyous. =) Michelle, who admittedly cries like a tap these days, wept when the double basses first emerged with the melody, hushed and low, nearly inaudible. It was “a sacred moment,” as our friend Jeffrey Weng (翁哲瑞) said. He sang baritone in the national choir and did a brilliant job. Also on the program was a riveting rendition of Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden.
Yes, we’ve been watching Succession obsessively. Sometimes Michelle wakes up with the theme song stuck in her head. If you’re curious about Jeremy Strong, who plays Kendall, check out this New Yorker profile. (It quotes Kieran Culkin: “After the first season, [Strong] said something to me like, ‘I’m worried that people might think that the show is a comedy.’ Culkin replied, ‘I think it is a comedy.’”)
Probably our favorite story of the week, and the opposite of Succession, is an uplifting report about a 104-year-old woman in India who learned to read. “I didn’t have time to study because I had to do household chores,” she says. “I always wanted to become a teacher but couldn’t because I never went to school.” Last month she passed a literacy exam with flying colors.
A shout-out to the newsletter Proximities for alerting us to this story; it publishes beautifully concise summaries of three non-Western news stories each day.
For Chinese-language readers, last Thursday we published our interview with restorative justice activist Val Kalei Kanuha, translated by Dawn Shih. (The original English version is here.) This Thursday we published Michelle’s piece on motherhood and Miyazaki, translated by Lisung Hsu. (The original English version is here.) We’d be so grateful if you shared with friends and family.
Happy December, and we send much peace and joy.