Friday, October 31, 2008

Culture Shock

The two preceding posts were the preface and introduction to my memoirs. You have now turned to the title page of Part One: Culture Shock. On the page you see pictures of Taipei (well links to pictures), a short poem, and a prelude to the next few posts.

The Sounds of Taipei

Hello, Silence my old friend,
When will I be with you again?
Kids and dogs, a battle raging,
Ice cream trucks that pick up garbage.
Street vendors sell “Da Whey,”
“Fix your screens.” Oh, how they scream.
These are the sounds of Taipei.

--May be sung to the tune of "The Sounds of Silence" by Simon & Garfunkel

The first step of any cultural journey begins with culture shock. For me, a typical Westerner, arriving in Taipei meant that the differences in manners, food, technology, and lifestyles all sent jolts through my system. But the two things to which I had the most trouble adjusting were the population density and the constant background NOISE produced by the closely packed masses of bustling humanity.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I Decide to Learn Chinese

Our story begins with my addiction to foreign languages. For as long as I can remember, I have been in love with languages. When I was learning to talk, I had a Columbian babysitter, so I first began speaking in a mixture of Spanish and English. One of my earliest memories is visiting the cow farms at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Agriculture and asking my parents what “toro” was in Spanish. I was horrified to learn that I was already speaking Spanish, and I didn’t know the word in English. When I was four or five, I saw a program about translators at the UN on PBS and immediately decided that I was going to be a translator. I shocked my kindergarten teacher on the first day of our career unit by stating that I was going to be a translator at the UN instead of a nurse or a teacher or a mommy like the other little girls.
Justify Full

I kept the dream alive until I could study Spanish and German in secondary school. Then my mom found me opportunities to be an exchange student to Costa Rica and Germany. By the time I was 16 years old, I was fluent in English, Spanish, and German and had traveled around Europe and Central America. I studied French and Latin during my senior year of high school because I was beyond the school’s Spanish and German classes. French and Latin were so easy for me that the teacher eventually gave me blanket skip privileges as long as I turned in all homework and scored 98 or better on all tests.

For college, I went to Georgetown University, where I majored in Spanish, learned conversational Japanese, and studied German-English translation. Spring semester of my senior year, I had to decide what I was going to do with my life. Georgetown accepted me into its Spanish Master’s program. The NSA offered me a job listening in on Spanish-language phone calls. I was having fun helping a Puerto Rican friend do translation from English to Spanish, but I just wasn’t ready to settle down. In April some Chinese friends asked me to edit a document they had translated from Chinese into English. All the words were spelled right, there were no grammatical errors, but I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to say. My translation teacher had told us that the best translations come from collaboration between a native speaker of the original language and a native speaker of the target language who are fluent in both languages. When I could not help my Chinese friends, I knew what I was going to do!! I was going to learn Chinese.

I asked around and learned that Georgetown had a sister-school relationship with National Taiwan Normal University. I was given preferential enrollment to NTNU’s Mandarin Training Center. My Chinese friends helped me find a place to stay in a Chinese household. A friend graduating in TESL decided to come along to get experience teaching English abroad. So we set off blithely at the end of August, 1982. I thought it would be easy; after mastering Spanish and German, no language had been too much for me. Learning by immersion would make things go more easily. I estimated it would take me nine months to become fluent in Chinese. Then I could return to the US and begin my career in translation. If only I had known how hard it would be!!!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Welcome to My Blog

Welcome to My Blog

My friends and family keep telling me I should write a book about my experiences as a white Chinese daughter-in-law. But I have never been sure that there is a market for my story. I mean, does the world really want to hear about a typical middle-class, white American woman who went to Taiwan fresh out of college twenty-five years ago, learned the language, married into a traditional Chinese family, and proceeded to go native? Is there an interest in how she and her husband raised their three daughters to be bilingual and bi-cultural, even after they moved to the United States? Do people really want to know about Chinese culture from the inside out? I guess the only way to find out is to start writing a blog and see if I attract any readers.

I have several goals for this blog; many of them are quite lofty:

  • I hope to promote cultural understanding and to encourage Americans to open themselves to new ways of thinking.—Over the past 22 years of our marriage my husband and I have found that we like the Chinese way for some things and the American way for others. I would like to share our results with people of all races to broaden cultural horizons.
  • I plan to describe my personal journey from WASP to “other” on the ethnicity scale.
  • I want to give a voice to my parents-in-law’s stories of the traditional Chinese life-style that is rapidly disappearing.
  • I want to share our experiences parenting and homeschooling our daughters.
  • But most of all, I hope to chip away at the walls of prejudice between cultures and races that people of color face. As a white Chinese daughter-in-law, I am treated one way when I am alone or just with my daughters, and when we are with my husband and other Chinese friends, we are treated markedly worse. I believe one of the biggest reasons for prejudice and disrespect is a lack of understanding. I hope that by sharing my insights into Chinese culture, I will promote respect for all cultures.

In the weeks to come, I will discuss the trials and tribulations of learning Chinese, tell the story of how my husband won my heart by rescuing me from a poisonous snake, narrate how my husband was born at home without a midwife, discuss the merits of raising chickens on the roof as opposed to in the bathroom, describe surviving in a household of 9 with 3 generations under one roof, and explain my understanding of “screaming yellow hordes.” I welcome questions and comments, but I ask that you always show respect, even if you disagree with my views. I reserve the right to delete offensive comments.