Stupid Xenophobic Parrots: On Transitions and Transformation.
Michelle adjusts to a new life in Taiwan. Plus, photos of baby Jesus carrying a syringe.
I met a parrot in a park in Taipei one Sunday afternoon. It was gorgeous, resplendent, its plumage all the colors of the rainbow. It had great posture. Children circled around it, delighted. The parrot’s guardian—owner sounds wrong—noticed me admiring it too.
“Say hello,” he urged, proudly. “It will say hello back.”
Hello, I said, in Mandarin.
Hello! I repeated, more insistently. Hello!
The parrot looked at me, then looked away.
Then the parrot guy spoke again. “You’re not from Taiwan?”
I shook my head. He nodded, as if that explained it.
Not even parrots will talk to me, I thought to myself as I walked away, dejected.
I’ve been here long enough to be used to people’s confusion when they hear my accent. But a parrot? This was a new level of humiliation. Besides, of course I know the Chinese word for hello. I’ve known it since I was born, more or less. How could my pronunciation be wrong? Since the encounter I’ve been veering between hostility (“Stupid xenophobic parrot,” I mutter to myself) and repeating nihao, nihao out loud, trying to hear what the parrot heard, trying to say it the way the parrot would have understood. Learning a new language makes fools of us all, and there’s nothing quite as foolish as saying hello to yourself over and over.
Later, when I told a Taiwanese person this story, she said, consolingly, “I’m sure the parrot was just tired of saying hello to people.”
A few posts ago I told you I was starting to feel settled. Turns out that was premature. There have been episodes of eye-watering and tears and full-on ugly sobs, sometimes in private and sometimes, say, in the basement of Eslite, Taipei’s major bookstore–department store, in front of a kindly twenty-five-year-old who was just trying to sell me wine. (Hi Jenny! I swear I have friends besides you!)
The truth is I’ve been feeling dislocated, unmoored, uncertain about how to proceed. On some level that’s to be expected: there have been so many changes in our lives this year. We left our home on one continent, camped out on another for the summer—longer than anticipated, because of the continuing global health crisis—and finally made our way to a third. Plus this is the first time in about six years that Albert and I don’t work at the same institution, don’t share students or projects. At one point, we even shared an office. Now we’re individuating, as I keep saying, as if we’re adolescents getting their own rooms. Plus I’m turning forty in a couple of weeks, a universal occasion for fretting introspection. (People have been asking if I know Michelle Wu, the new mayor of Boston. “You both went to Harvard Law School and do social justice,” someone said. “You practically have the same name,” said another. Technically we did have the same name for a time, at least according to the vestigial patriarchy of the French health-care database, but I don’t mention this when I answer. I say dryly, “No, I don’t know her. She’s younger and more successful than me.”)
In short, it is a transitional time, to borrow a phrase people often use when they move, or change jobs, or lose a loved one. It occurs to me that we rarely speak of transition when something good happens. We use it as a euphemism for a painful time, a crossing of a threshold that can’t be uncrossed. Beneath the word’s surface I hear grief, and maybe a prayer: If what is lost is irretrievably lost, then may the severed and disappeared parts of my life be replaced with something new.
My cousin, who moved here three years ago and has done intensive Mandarin language study, told me recently, to my horror, “You’ll find that your English will regress.” With the lightning of revelation, I understood that my anxiety, my dislocation, is not so much about my poor Mandarin as it is about my very good English.
English has long been the best thing I’ve had going for me, proof I have something to offer the world. It gave me confidence as a shy kid, helped me create something out of myself. It made me virtuous, a woman of action. A word after a word after a word, as Margaret Atwood wrote, is power. English made me a teacher, encouraging students to find their own voice; it made me a lawyer, crafting legal briefs to sculpt fury and kill doubt. It made me a wife, crying as I wrote my marriage vows.
Did it make me a daughter? That’s more complicated. My parents were always proud of my love of books and my achievements as a writer, even though it meant losing something in the way I communicated with them. I think if a Faustian devil had said I will grant your child mastery of English, on the condition that she will be dumb to your mother tongue and never understand a word you say, they still would have agreed.
I used to attribute my parents’ lack of aggressiveness about my Mandarin and Taiwanese education to a sort of ’80s assimilationism—Be American, be American—but my life as an immigrant shows me their motives in another light. I never want my daughter to feel the way I do now, stupid and inarticulate, foiled and incomplete. At a children’s bookstore the other day, she gathered as many books as her arms could hold and carried them over to me. She wanted me to read them aloud. I tried, but I couldn’t. Nearby a family paused, watching me curiously. Stupid xenophobic parrots.
In this transitional time, I search for stories of transformation. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the ur-text of transformation, begins: “I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities.” We find gods turned into humans, humans turned into animals, inanimate objects turned into living ones, convulsions in nature itself. A girl changes into a tree, her blood sap and her skin rough bark. Callisto, changed into a bear, is nearly killed by her own fifteen-year-old, who does not recognize her. They are both rescued by Jupiter, who transforms their bodies into stars and places them in the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Actaeon, changed by the goddess Diana into a deer, leaps across a forest, amazed by his lightness—but he has lost the power of speech, so he cannot tell his hounds “I am your master!” and the hounds maul him to death.
Ovid was not naïve. Not all change is good in his poems, in his vision of the world; not everything moves in a linear progression. Changes can be ambiguous, reversed, progress lost. And when people lose their human form, the mind remains.
In so many of Ovid’s stories the losers are the hubristic ones, the proud who are humbled. Apollo struck down by lowly Cupid’s arrow; Arachne destroyed for boasting that she wasn’t taught by Minerva, the goddess of weaving. Reading these stories, I think about the hubris of belonging, the hubris that diminishes in all travelers, all migrants forced to stumble in a new tongue.
As things go, I am the luckiest of travelers. I have the privilege of American prestige: my uncle, who lives in Taipei, has told me to tell people as quickly as possible that I am from America. “Then they won’t look down on you,” he said. And I have the privilege of agency: I am an immigrant by choice, and on terms to which I consent.
Still, this dislocation, I find, opens me up to new kinds of empathy. I’ve long worked in immigrants’ rights, but never before have I spoken like an immigrant, fumbling to find the words. I’ve taught literacy to adults, but only now do I sense the embarrassment they might have felt in asking a stranger to read a simple street sign. I’m a feminist, but until now I’ve never identified with generations of women who move away from their own families to join their husband’s. (More than one taxi driver in his seventies, upon hearing why I came to Taiwan, has quoted old Chinese proverbs and Taiwanese sayings about wives—suggesting that recognition of my sacrifices is relegated to idioms.)
And: I’m a daughter, but now a mother too. From this vantage point, I can newly appreciate how my journey and my parents’ are symmetrical, circular, alike. They left their parents behind in Taiwan, just as I left them in the U.S. My daughter will speak Mandarin, just as theirs speaks English, and neither will have been without cost.
But here’s the irony: in taking the journey I have—learning a new language, leaving behind friends and family, giving up the ambition of a native in her native country—and coming to their birthplace, I am living in solidarity with my mother and father more than I ever have before. This is something I never, in my forty years on Earth, could have imagined: in leaving them, I come closer to understanding who they are.
In September, my parents took us to the airport in Los Angeles, came inside pushing the stroller while I followed with our luggage and diaper bag. I knew how much they would miss my two-year-old especially; they had made no secret of their jealousy of friends who saw their grandchildren regularly. They had wanted me to stay in California and find a job near them. When we parted ways, they waved until we disappeared from view.
How unexpected, how strange, that I would gain proximity to them by declining the life they envisioned for me. On walks now I see banyan trees, their branches so low you can touch them. My father loves these trees. Watching half a dozen children climb on them at once, I picture him as a child, doing the same. I eat fruits my mother adores, and they taste sweeter because I know she ate them. And I study Mandarin, and I glimpse its intricacy and artistry, and I think about how children of immigrants so often don’t know, can’t know, what their parents mastered.
For the immigrant parent, those were the terms of the Faustian bargain. It’s not just language that is sacrificed but mutual recognition too. If you want your child to flourish in their native land, give up the hope that they will ever really know yours.
I have rejected the bargain my parents crossed an ocean to accept. But to do so I had to cross an ocean myself.
You can read Michelle’s initial piece about moving to Taiwan here and Albert’s reply here. The Chinese versions, translated by Lisung Hsu, are here and here. We always love hearing from readers; please do write in!
(And a note from the future: you can read readers’ responses here.)
“An Inoculated Manger is Spiritual Vaccine”
On a walk with a friend, we came across a nativity scene at the Holy Family Catholic Church, next to Da-an Park. It is embedded within a Covid-19 vaccine syringe.
This welcome banner reads, “An inoculated manger is a spiritual vaccine.” It encourages visitors to take photos with the nativity scene and post them to Facebook and Instagram.
Approach the manger and you see Mary and Joseph wearing masks, while the infant Jesus holds a syringe and a mask.
These photos are a sneak peak of a series about religion and spirituality in Taiwan. We’ve been attending church services, and a friend is taking us to the annual “When Buddha Meets the Gods” event, where thousands of deities and their representatives gather at Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum in Kaohsiung. We’ll let you know what we learn!
Book Club Update: The Brothers Karamazov
For our January book club, we’ll read the first hundred pages or so. We were persuaded by Cyrus Habib, a dear friend studying to be a Jesuit priest, to read this book. Neither of us has read it for years, but here we go! We’ve both been in dire need of some spiritual rebirth via intellectual pain.
And finally, here’s the offending parrot, technically a macaw:
Parrots are naughty! Mine says nihao (though not very clearly) but responds to me only 1 time or 2 out of 10 times i say nihao to her.
My English and Mandarin fluctuates, better when I have slept well. My bilingual friend said that we who speak more than one language will never achieve the best level of fluency in any of the languages… but probably it’s just because we don’t focus so much on keep improving. I don’t think you have to worry about your English as you use it so constantly.
Happy to be here. I was compelled by the piece here: https://international.thenewslens.com/amparticle/161655
I’m in Taiwan and interested in becoming active in something positive and meaningful.
Subscribing feels like a great start.