A while back I dropped into a bar for a beer, by myself, hoping to strike up a conversation with locals to improve my Chinese. On this one occasion I struck up a great conversation with a retired university professor. We hit it off, the beers flowed as you might expect. At some some point we're pretty merry and he teaches me the Chinese word 緣分 (yuánfèn) which occasionally means fate, but I'm fond of one dictionary definition: Predestined affinity or relationship. There's a point to this honest...
Typhoon Soudelor was the big news this last Friday and Saturday. It was a big one by all accounts and seemed to get a lot of coverage in the international press. The Taiwanese were pretty relaxed about it since it's a fairly regular occurrence at this time of year. In fact they seemed rather more concerned about whether the government would declare a public holiday (公假) on the Friday. A guy in a bar told me about a funny cartoon that satirizes the local view and after some searching I tracked it down (see above). Four people are grilling a group of typhoons, translations below:
1. You lot had better be strong enough to give us a holiday, please don't change course.
2. You will gain in strength, wont arrive on a holiday?
3. Boss says: Really don't want to let staff have a holiday!
4. I don't want to brave the rain to go to work, can you get stronger afterwards?
It' even more funny because it's true. I sat in a cafe with a class mate and all of the locals were staring intently at the television, speculating about when the official holiday would begin. Personally, I wasn't that worried since I come from a city with similar levels of preparation. That said most are showing some empathy for the people outside of Taipei. All that rain on Taiwan's backbone of mountains can have dreadful consequences for those living below.
My flatmates are politically involved students. Last night they decided to drop into the student protest at the Taiwanese educational ministry and I went along to see what's up. A bit of background here. The educational ministry controls what's in school textbooks. The ruling KMT is making a number of changes which appear to highlight the importance of Chinese culture above other events in Taiwan's history. A little while ago a number of students occupied the minister's office. Word is that one of those students, after being charged, killed themselves on Thursday. This triggered a wave of protest on Friday. Students scaled the fortified fences and occupied the ministry compound. Several rows of police with riot shields were sitting on the steps, settling in for a long night as the stand off continues.
The key student slogan is 自己的課綱，自己救。This is a total bugger to translate which also gives me great joy. The root causes of difficult translations is probably my favourite thing in linguistics. My stab was "to guide ourselves we must save ourselves" but my flat mates weren't so keen on this. They were adamant that the essence is to save the country and the slogan should sound like a call to arms, so he suggested "Do your part to save your country" which I like lots more. Incidentally the causes of translation difficulty include the 課綱, which is educational guidelines, not a curriculum but rather how one designs a curriculum. Then there's the lack of subjects and objects with a reliance on 自己 which means 'self'.
The Chinese on the the plastic fan (how practical!) is less compact and more straight forward: "This summer our fight is to oppose the brainwashing of the educational guidelines". Back side, Using action to open the black box, Using thought to resist brainwashing." Small text: Aside from marks, did you know that children are taking to the streets?
A couple of weird personal events: I was chatting to my friends and some white guy walks up and asks of I'm a Taiwanese citizen, and then tells me there is some risk to being there. Then proceeds to ram home the point by talking to my friends in very good Chinese (warning them about something that happened to a German guy during the day - talking pointedly to them rather than me) before walking off. Seemed like a performance to me. Then later I'm in a deep conversation with another student and some guy in his 50s (out of place in a student protest) walks up and brazen stands right next to us as if he's participating in the discussion, stands there for five minutes (we ignore him) and then he walks off. It was all very "this is my job" sort of thing. Maybe that was some sort of assessment by someone from the government? I doubt he had much to report given that I was talking about how it would be interesting to correlate survey results of feelings of "feeling Taiwanese" with political poll results of support for the two parties.
Tuckered out with talking and having much to think about, I walked home through the beautiful but empty streets of Taipei's government precinct, collapsing into bed with flip-flop induced blisters.
I've completed the first of four weeks of an intensive course in Chinese at the Taiwan Mandarin Institute (TMI). It's been a couple of years since I've studied Chinese formally and three years since I sat in a classroom doing typical language teaching tasks. The reason I'm doing this course is because I will be doing fieldwork in a region where very few people will have proficiency with English. I need to be able to explain my research and recruit participants which is a bit further along than casual chit chat. Critically, I'm the product of a fairly poor Chinese-teaching system in Australia which featured large classes and very limited contact hours. I was pretty self-motivated but I guess I'm not naturally an extrovert so I didn't try super hard to continue to find ways to converse with Chinese speakers. I did, however, continue my Chinese literacy studies since that's something that one can easily do by oneself. So realistically, I have a pretty good vocabulary, a pretty good ability to read Chinese, a passable ability to write Chinese, passable listening comprehension (I can still lose people if they speak quickly) and actually pretty rubbish speaking ability with some unusual hold outs like a fair smattering of entire phrases.
I started my Chinese intensive refresher this week. In today's class I talked about my visit to a real authentic local Taiwanese restaurant that I went to with my Taiwanese housemates. It was memorable for lots of reasons not the least that the place (阿才的店) has some historical significance. Where we ate the arrangements don't appear to have changed since the Japanese colonization. Anyway... out of the many interesting dishes, two are relevant here because they came up in my classes and an interesting follow up chat with a housemate I had tonight. The first is a dish which is basically a yummy omelette. It was called 混蛋 (hun dan), literally mixed egg. I thought he was pulling my leg because he does like to mess with me and hun dan basically means bad dude, a scoundrel. Omelette is usually 煎蛋 (jian dan). It turns out that the scoundrel hun dan can be written either as 混蛋 or 渾蛋, both being perfect homophones (tonally as well), where as one hun means to mix (so this is used for the dish) and the other means stupid or unsophisticated. Curious.
I went on to probe my flatmate about my favourite dish of the evening, a curiously Southern Chinese style (lots of chilli) dish with pickled eggs that had become a sort of dark translucent jelly. I might not be selling this well but believe me when I say it was incredibly delicious. It turns out this was 宮保皮蛋 (gong bao pi dan). Now the whole pi dan thing is basically preserved or thousand year eggs. The gong bao is a style of cooking better known rendered in the anglicized Cantonese as Kung Po as in Kung Po Chicken. My flatmate is quite a well read young lad and went on to tell me that gong bao, as dish, was renamed in mainland China during the cultural revolution owing to the fact that the dish was named after the Qing-era governor of the Sichuan province, Ding Baozhen, as gong bao would have been his official title.
So it turns out that I sit at a seemingly ancient Japanese style low-table setting from their colonial era, eating a dish that is a mish-mash of a couple of key cannons out of mainland Chinese cooking, then later have a conversation with the current Taiwanese student generation on the etymology of the dish name. I think all linguistic work should be so nourishing.
The weekend has arrived. I start my Chinese intensive on Monday. It'd be nice to get out and about and take in some more Taipei but long term work commitments, of the paid variety, take precedence. It's funny really, I'm working on setting up online eLearning materials for students about to begin their Chinese studies back in Australia. A Canadian guy at my AirBnB is doing something simililar. He normally works in Jakarta and nipped off to Taipei where he is also remote working without his boss even knowing. At the end of the day we pool intelligence on the best noodle shops we've found.
My first week in Taiwan was mostly taken up with the 13-ICAL austronesian linguistics conference. I wasn't presenting or anything like that since the sort of nitty-gritty descriptive linguistics is not really my area. That said it was a great opportunity to meet some interesting people and find out what else is going on in Taiwanese linguistics. There was a satellite event following ICAL proper which was all about Formosan languages, including Saisiyat. This was my first meeting with people from the community. It was friendly, helpful, but far more challenging communicatively than I expected. I'll have more to say about that later.
Other than that I've been mostly hiding from the heat, acclimatising hopefully, and discovering the immense joy of wandering the laneways of Taipei and sampling the frankly indescribably fantastic food.
Mat in Taiwan
Field testing tools and methods to document endangered Formosan languages in Taiwan