A young politician puts Taiwan's multilingual policy to the test. Plus, reader responses to quarantine & Michelle's washing machine meltdown.
It was supposed to be a historic day. Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, had agreed to pilot a simultaneous translation program, decreeing that so long as they applied in advance legislators could speak in the language of their choice—Taiwanese, Hakka, Formosan or aboriginal languages, Taiwanese sign language—and be provided with simultaneous translators or interpreters to facilitate the dialogue.
On September 27, Chen Po-wei, a representative from Taichung, decided to put the pilot program to the test. At thirty-six, Chen is one of the youngest and most controversial members of parliament. Previously a producer in the movie industry, he joined the legislature in 2020 after scoring a major upset against a political scion through his media savvy and outspoken pro-independence stance. Chen has been one of the most energetic members—if not the most energetic—of parliament since entering it. He has had a flawless attendance record and sponsored numerous bills. (Think of him as a male Taiwanese AOC.)
Chen belongs to the Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP), formed in 2016 by radicals unhappy with what they perceived as a moderate turn of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In addition to Taiwanese independence, the TSP advocates a series of progressive views, from marijuana legalization to greater spending on public services, but linguistic diversity in public spaces is one of its main platforms. It has criticized the current administration of President Tsai Ing-wen for advancing plans of universal Mandarin–English bilingual education. While sympathetic to Tsai’s rationale that Taiwan needs to globalize, the TSP argues that prioritizing English will diminish resources for already marginalized languages.
The starting point for this argument is historical: Mandarin, the TSP charges, is a language of the colonizer. During its four decades of dictatorship, the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) imposed a monolingual policy mandating the use of Mandarin, which is still commonly referred to in Taiwan as Beijing speech. In the late 1940s, the KMT banned Taiwanese, the majority language spoken on the island, and other “dialects”; children were punished for failing to speak Mandarin in school, and teachers were fired if they spoke a “non-standard” version of it. By 1956, Taiwanese and other local languages were essentially eradicated from public institutions.
Multilingual resistance has long anchored pro-democracy activism. In the 1980s, activists representing the roughly 13 percent of Taiwanese citizens who speak Hakka launched a “mother tongue movement,” culminating in a 1988 protest where more than ten thousand people flooded the streets, holding pictures of Sun Yat-sen in a face mask. The message was clear: Sun, the “founding father” of the Republic of China, whose native language was Hakka, would have been forbidden to speak by his successors.
The protesters were successful, compelling the government to implement an official multilingualism policy, and in the three decades since then the legislature has passed a series of laws to ensure the teaching of languages formerly suppressed under martial law. In 2001, a law mandated that all schoolchildren learn at least one local language besides Mandarin. In 2017, a law authorized the use of indigenous languages in official and legal documents. The following year, the legislature passed a bill that gave national status to Taiwanese and Hakka and required the government to fund a Taiwanese-language channel. “All national languages shall be equal; nationals using a national language shall not be discriminated against or face restrictions,” that law states, going so far as to outline conservation measures by which “the government shall prioritize their transmission, revitalization, and development.”
The Legislative Yuan’s pilot program was thus part of a longstanding push to make multilingualism a practice, to institute it in the everyday affairs of state. When Chen applied for a translator during a session with the Minister of National Defense, Chiu Kuo-cheng, their testy exchange quickly became the topic of choice on all the nightly talk shows. (We recommend that Taiwanese and Mandarin speakers watch the entire exchange rather than the soundbites being circulated on social media.) Chiu broke protocol from the outset: he bypassed the interpreter provided by the parliament, instead using his own vice minister, who is fluent in Taiwanese but clearly has trouble translating on the fly. If nothing else, the exchange is an object lesson in the difficulty of simultaneous translation!
Questioned in Taiwanese, Chiu comes off as imperious, annoyed at the idea of having to wait for the simultaneous translation. He harangues Chen: “Stop the charade,” he says. “You’ve come and visited me multiple times and we’ve always spoken in Mandarin.” He accuses Chen of wasting time by conducting the conversation through a translator. “Language is just a tool,” he continues, as if to deny language its political and historical valence. “Why can’t you just speak to me in Mandarin?”
Chen’s Taiwanese is rapid-fire and hyper-fluent, quickening when he gets agitated. Chiu’s Mandarin is deliberate and plodding, like a haughty schoolmaster reprimanding an unruly child. Both seem to be playing, likely unconsciously, on stereotypes about their language. The educated Mandarin-speaking elite tend to view Taiwanese, which has no unified written form, as uncouth and fiery vernacular (non-native speakers often joke that the only time they speak Taiwanese is when they cuss). Meanwhile, many Taiwanese speakers view Mandarin as the language of the colonizer. At one point, after another one of Chiu’s lectures, Chen’s voice breaks. “I want to speak in my mother tongue,” he says. “Why are you oppressing me?” In another moment, widely circulated on social media, he challenges, “Would you ask a French person to speak in Mandarin and not have a translator present?”
This reference to French, that high-status shorthand for civilized society, puts a fine point on it: Taiwanese speakers bristle at state contempt for their language, and Chiu certainly didn’t hide his. He was also likely aiming to undercut Chen’s attempt to normalize the use of Taiwanese at the highest levels of official policy—a move further demonstrated in the ensuing media circus, which mobilized all the tropes traditionally used to demonize Taiwanese speakers by portraying Chen as irrational, divisive, and histrionic.
All the same, Chen was no innocent here either. He is facing a recall vote next month and needs to energize his base; using something so fraught as simultaneous translation during an interrogation of the Minister of National Defense was clearly a ploy to make it a media event. Recent Chinese military aggression has everybody on edge here. Chiu, the face of Taiwanese national defense since his appointment in February, has been broadly praised for being both gutsy and diplomatic. (When asked in March how long Taiwan could withstand an attack from China, he replied that Taiwan would fight off an invasion for as long as it takes.) His reports and press conferences have become high-profile affairs. Chen knew he could use the forum to attract wider attention to linguistic policy.
The Legislative Yuan is hardly known as a polite space—the other exciting event this week was a staged brawl between KMT and DPP “Valkyries,” around which one legislator posted a video of herself working out to prepare her body for battle—but this conflict over protocol illustrates the fascinating cleavages that continue to operate in Taiwanese society.
It’s tempting to see the clash as evidence of the country’s polarization: young versus old, Taiwanese identity versus Chinese. To some extent that’s true. But this misses the nuances of Taiwanese politics: Chiu is also highly respected across both parties, recognized for his no-nonsense, candid demeanor, as well as his indisputable record in advancing the country’s military interests. And even those who agree with Chen wonder whether he targeted the wrong person. For what it’s worth, both men—perhaps recognizing the need for unity—apologized to one another the next day and stated that the conflict was all a big misunderstanding. Thanks, guys!
It’s also worth thinking about the relationship between official policy and social consensus. In this case—as in the case of same-sex marriage—the laws are leading the way, and popular attitudes are playing catchup. On paper, Taiwan’s multilingual language act is extremely progressive, on par with countries such as Switzerland and Ireland, which have enshrined the principle of multilingualism into their constitutions. But the episode reminds us that in practice Mandarin retains a cultural and political cachet that will be hard to dislodge; social and linguistic inequalities between it and other languages remain formidable. Whether laws will be able to reverse this effect is an open question. But normalizing multilingualism in all public spaces, as Chen Po-wei is attempting to do, is surely a step in the right direction.
For more on issues of Taiwanese and cultural colonization, two great Twitter threads:
Catherine Chou writes about how the KMT’s monolingual policy shaped her experience as a Taiwanese-American in the diaspora, and the reactions that she gets—ranging from suspicion to hostility—when she speaks Taiwanese in northern Taiwan.
Joshua Yang writes movingly about how the same policy “robbed [his] grandma of meaningful connections with her own Mandarin-speaking grandkids.”Language loss is not only a loss of cultural autonomy, but a loss in connections. The past ROC language policy has robbed my grandma of meaningful connections w/ her own Mandarin-speaking grandkids. She sits at the dining table but she doesn't understand their conversations. 1/
Catie Lilly @catielilaI wanted to write a thread documenting my experiences as a millennial Taiwanese-American woman speaking Taiwanese 台語 in northern Taiwan - outside the family, with a foreign accent - and why I am adamant the ROC is a colonial state for robbing people of their mother languages 1/
There have also been several great articles meditating on multilingualism in Taiwan. We recommend in particular this one from 2014, which confirms the numerous language stereotypes against Taiwanese speakers.
Reader responses to quarantine and washing machine meltdowns
We received so many lovely messages following last week’s post about quarantine and language woes. Here are a few:
From a Taiwan native:
If it’s any consolation, the poem on the truck was probably just an advertising slogan—drink this health drink every day, live and dance for a hundred years—or something like that. Chinese print media make heavy use of matched couplets.
I don’t know exactly how much the baby has changed in those quarantine weeks, but two is right about the time they transition from “What makes me happy is doing whatever makes my parents happy” to “I want to do what I want to do, even with the full knowledge that it will displease my parents.” So yes, this is all very normal.
From Yahan Chang, who edited the Taiwan translation of Michelle’s book at Locus 大塊文化:
It’s true that it’s the washing machine, not you. I only manage to remember three buttons of my own washing machine (“on,” “wash,” and “speed wash”), and almost only use those three.
Can't help thinking of my exchange student days in Paris—I had to shop in Carrefour with an electronic dictionary... Don’t worry, you will “shine” soon enough!
(Michelle: It’s okay, being dull builds character, lol.)
From Shen-yi Liao who just quarantined with two kids:
I agree with the tips for quarantine but would offer two modifications.
1. Go even farther south than Taoyuan: there will be even bigger space for the same price, and even cheaper food for ordering in.
2. Instead of bringing toys in the luggage, just order toys (or books or whatever) online: most shopping sites can deliver within a couple of days at most.
I read your post and was brought back to just a few months I spent in Beijing in 2006. The sense of dislocation and alienation was intense, even more so because I look like I “should” be able to speak and read Mandarin, and always had to explain why I couldn’t. I remember that I bought some weird preserved duck eggs at the grocery store because I thought, from the picture, that I would be getting yummy tea eggs. On the upside, I gained empathy for the illiterate in our country, as well as respect and empathy for the experiences of my mom as an immigrant to the U.S. […] Anyway, all this is to say, hang in there/jia you, Michelle. I can’t wait to learn about all the things you will discover.
Serena Puang writes:
I resonated with your comments about how people understand that you're “good” at English in Taiwan. When I moved there for my gap year, I felt that so viscerally. People thought I was a Taiwanese kid who had gone to the US to study abroad and come back, so they were particularly confused why I was so incompetent at being a Taiwanese human. I don't know that I have any helpful things to say; I don't know that it got better with time or that I got over it. For me, I really missed being able to quote snippets of things I'd read or podcasts I'd listened to in conversation, and I hated not being able to say things the way I wanted to in Mandarin. And like you, I called my mom more often and we commiserated. It was in those times that I realized how wise my mom was, how she didn't put her value in how she was perceived by others, and how far I was from doing that.
Nomi Stolzenberg (interview here) pointed us to this lovely piece by Zito Madu, in which he remembers the “wonder of the laundromat” when he first immigrated to the United States as a child from his native Nigeria.
Annie Moose writes:
I relate to so much of this. When I lived in France, my level of conversation was at about a three-year-old level. At best. Also, I washed our clothes in fabric softener for about the first two years because I was unable to read the label. I also had to take a driving test in Paris rush hour traffic with a maniac “instructor” and I was eight months pregnant. I could go on. Hang in there, things will get easier.
From Daniel Medin, with a quote that Michelle has already put on the fridge:
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your last postings. The last one had me in stitches. Classic Beckett: “There’s nothing funnier than unhappiness, I’ll grant you that.”
Book club: An Ideal Presence in October and Girl, Woman, Other in November
We’ve been so delighted to hear from people interested in the October and November book clubs! Hooray. Please write us if at email@example.com (or just reply to this message) if you’d like to come. All are welcome. This coming week we will close our doodle poll for October’s meeting and send out another one for our November club.
October’s pick is An Ideal Presence, written by Argentinian author Eduardo Berti, translated from French by the brilliant Daniel Levin Becker, and published by our favorite independent press, Fern Books. The book is structured as a series of brief accounts from people who work or volunteer in a palliative care unit in Rouen, France. This includes nurses and doctors, as well as aides, porters, a volunteer musician, a volunteer reader, and custodial staff. I know the material might sound depressing—it’s about those who care for the dying, after all—but the straightforward dignity of these caretakers (who also happen to be mostly women) is mesmerizing.
Thank you for subscribing, dear readers!
As we mentioned before, we’re excited to expand Broad and Ample Road. Later this month you’ll receive options involving other new parts of the newsletter: Mandarin translations of select pieces, bilingual Taipei-based news on arts and music, and a broad collection of observations from Asia. After pausing payments since July 4th, we’re unpausing them this week. Thank you so much for reading and subscribing! It means a great deal to us.