Reflecting on our two-week journey to learn more about the rich history of Taiwan, I am thankful to be a part of the first International Educators Administrators (IEA) program for Fulbright Taiwan. I hope to give back by taking what I have gained and building upon it: I want more people to learn about the Fulbright Taiwan vision: “a world with a little more knowledge, and a little less conflict.”
I am a “Southern” girl. I was born in the South of the United States, in Burlington, North Carolina. Growing up, I also spent five years in southern China and Hong Kong, where I learned Mandarin Chinese. I would like to reflect on my first trip to Taiwan using the lens of language and language learning, and share about my experiences in Taiwan: the charms of Taiwan, speaking Chinese there, and some things I learnt about the challenges Taiwan face.
Charm of Taiwan
The island of Taiwan is the size of Maryland and Delaware but has 23 million people, giving it one of the highest population densities in the world. I could feel the “heartbeat of Asia” when I first arrived in Taipei, and began to understand its unique charm. Growing up in Hong Kong, I learned Mandarin Chinese (with simplified characters) and came to love Chinese food and culture— at least the mainland Chinese version of “Chinese”. I also have lived, worked and traveled in mainland China, so I was excited to experience Taiwan for the first time.
Taiwan is eclectic and brings together many different cultures. It boasts Chinese food from various regions, Japanese-style buildings, a rich aboriginal history, Dutch and Spanish colonial sites and a deep appreciation and love of the United States. Taiwanese people are friendly, open, and willing to engage and discuss differing opinions and political sensitivities.
Taiwan is not rich in natural resources, but they value and market their best asset: their talented people. Taiwan brings together people of many different origins living in harmony on a small island. There are aboriginals from 16 officially recognized tribes, there are Hokkien and Hakka Taiwanese who have been on the island for generations, there are descendants of mid-twentieth century mainland Chinese refugees and migrants, and there are people from all over the world that visit the night markets, conduct business and enjoy the charm of Taiwan on a regular basis.
Taiwan has learned to overcome adversity, enduring colonialization, the turmoil of the Second World War and the Cold War, earthquakes, and a controversial relationship with its large “neighbor”. Yet Taiwan has developed the fifth largest economy in Asia, the 19th largest economy as ranked by purchasing power parity, the 4th largest foreign currency reserves in the world and is the United States 10th largest trading partner.
I admire and respect Taiwan for all that it has overcome, the beauty and charm that it offers, and the place that it is trying to become on the world stage. If Taiwan were a person, I would be honored to be its friend and I would hope we could have more global citizens like Taiwan.
Chinese in Taiwan
Speaking Mandarin Chinese has opened many doors for me in my education, my career and my personal friendships. Speaking another language has helped to connect me to other people, to build bridges, to offer empathy to others in a new region and has challenged me to look outside my own sphere of knowledge. Taiwan also offers the charm of learning Chinese, and I learned that Chinese as spoken in Taiwan is different from that in Mainland China.
I learned that the term “Mandarin” actually comes from a Portuguese word meaning “the language of the officials”. As a speaker of Chinese, I enjoyed learning more about Taiwan through the charm of language. Taiwanese Mandarin 國語 Guóyǔ literally means “national language,” while the Mainland Chinese term for Mandarin is 普通話 , “the common language.” Use of the term huayu 華語 (“language of the ethnic Chinese”), which emphasizes ethnic culture identity rather than politics, is also growing.
Moreover, Taiwan uses traditional characters, which are harder for me to recognize since I studied simplified characters in Hong Kong. (Even though Hong Kong also uses traditional characters, my family, on the recommendation of local friends, advised me to learn Mandarin Chinese and simplified characters instead of Cantonese and traditional.) In addition to Mandarin, much of the Taiwanese population speaks other Chinese languages such as Hokkien and Hakka, not to mention the many aboriginal and immigrant languages.
Most schools in the U.S. teach “Mandarin Chinese” as it is spoken and written in Mainland China, probably because U.S. education systems do not understand the rich history of Chinese linguistic variation and the possibility of providing opportunities to learn Taiwanese Mandarin. Both varieties are equally legitimate, but it is wise to create more awareness that when someone says they speak “Chinese,” that statement does not just reference the language spoken in China and to consider the depth and wealth of the many languages spoken in Taiwan and elsewhere in the region.
My experiences during this trip showed me that Taiwan is a great place for our students at North Carolina State University to study abroad. I look forward to sharing this new knowledge with NC State’s Office of Global Engagement and Study Abroad Advisors for them to learn more about resources for studying abroad in Taiwan. When students want to study “Chinese” they usually look to Mainland China, yet Taiwan also offers a rich alternative experience to learn Mandarin and Chinese culture.
Challenges in Taiwan
Current challenges for Taiwan include the low birth rate and the brain drain, as many talented professionals leave Taiwan to seek employment elsewhere. The cross-strait relationship is a constant issue, but so is the relationship with the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan. I was fascinated to learn that the native peoples of Taiwan are more closely related to many Southeast Asian peoples and even Hawaiians and the Maori of New Zealand. Linguists have traced the spread of Austronesian languages throughout the Pacific Southeast from origins in Taiwan. The Taiwanese government currently recognizes 16 official aboriginal tribes, with more seeking official recognition. These people are not ethnically Chinese, but they live on an island dominated by Han Chinese culture and language. I connected this to how the United States once treated the Native Americans and forced them to wear Western dress and to speak English. As I toured the National Museum of Pre-history, especially the rich Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan exhibit I was struck by how the aboriginal tribes were fighting to survive in a place that is called Taiwan. Their own unique culture needs to be shared with the world. There are no doubt many layers of different people, cultures and languages in Taiwan still to discover. This revelation made me remember the quote by Winston Churchill that “history is told by the victors” and that the aboriginals in Taiwan are still fighting to share their story.
This journey around the island of Taiwan helped me to not just learn about the education, government and economy of Taiwan, it also helped me learn more about myself. I am so thankful to my parents for providing me the opportunity to learn a new language and I want to help others have this same opportunity. My heart was tender toward the aboriginal people as they are striving to survive in a modern world, while also preserving their tradition in a world that is trying to figure out “Who is Taiwanese?”, or “Who is Chinese?” I think this question of identity is something that Americans also struggle with as we ask, “Who is American”? and figure out a new American identity. Thank you, Fulbright Taiwan, for giving me the opportunity to learn more about the charm of Taiwan, to learn about Taiwan through speaking Chinese, and to observe and question some of the challenges Taiwan faces.