Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Living in a Chinese Family

Big Sister

Big Brother

Baby Brother

Lai-fu the Dog

Although I was happy to have my own room, I had real problems with the top floor apartment because it got the late afternoon sun and didn’t cool down until the wee hours of the morning. I would go to sleep with a fan blowing directly at me, but I was still sweating buckets. Then in the middle of the night, it would turn cold and damp; I would get chilled and start coughing. My chronic bronchitis came back with a vengeance, and after about three weeks living in that place, I began running high fevers.

General Manager canvassed his employees and found a family who lived on the first floor two alleys away from the office. They had a four bedroom house with a small courtyard in the front. It was behind one of the brick walls topped with broken glass that lined the alleys. I had a room to myself. The son and daughter shared one of the other bedrooms, and there was a Burmese high school student in the fourth bedroom. Mama was six months pregnant, and soon there was a baby boy in the household.

Mama’s oldest sister was studying Chinese medicine, and she referred us to her teacher, who was one of the best Chinese medicine doctors in Taipei at the time. He agreed with the earlier diagnosis that my physical constitution was not suited to acupuncture, so he used a procedure called cupping on my back over my lungs. He took glass jars and dropped a lighted piece of wood in them to heat them. When the flame died out, he turned the jars upside down on my back over the special acupuncture points to cure bronchitis. Before doing any treatment, he spent quite a bit of time going over my medical history and taking my pulse. By the time I had finished lying there under the cups until I felt like my entire back was on fire, the doctor had figured out what combination of medicines I needed to take for the next six months to increase my natural immunities and help me acclimate better to Taiwan’s climate. He also gave me a list of foods that I could not eat while taking the medicine and another list of foods that would help me get better faster. General Manager gave Mama an allowance to be sure I had all the right foods for the next six months. I ate breakfast and dinner with the family while we lived together in that house.

My new schedule was somewhat easier than it had been during the pre-conference rush. We didn’t have to work until midnight any more. I got up early and studied every morning. Then I would walk to school through the back alleys where the car exhaust fumes were not so heavy. It was about a twenty to thirty minute walk one way, and it gave me a lot of time to myself to think. This was an important time for me to process the new concepts I was learning during my “Chinesification.”

I returned to my class from 10 to 12. Teacher Chin and all my classmates were very happy to see me again. Teacher Chin worked things out with the school to get me a scholarship from the Taiwan Ministry of Education that covered all my tuition costs. That meant that I would be able to live quite well on my pay from the publishing company. I was even able to put some money into savings every month.

I usually arrived at the publishing company around 12:30 after school. There was lunch in the basement cafeteria for all the workers at the company. After lunch, we had a rest time until 1:30 or 2 pm. The afternoon work period was from 2 to 5:30 or 6. Since we were not yet working on translation of new materials for another international conference, I was set to proofreading the translations of materials from earlier conferences so a complete revised set could be published later. I spent three and a half to four hours every day comparing English and Chinese texts and discussing with my co-workers the problems in meaning that I discovered. At first, I was usually wrong two thirds of the time, but I rapidly improved in my Chinese abilities until I was catching real mistakes more than eighty percent of the time.

I had been earning my spending money by babysitting or doing part-time jobs since the time I was eleven, so I found I had much more in common with my colleagues at the publishing company than I had had with the students. Most of my new friends were seven to twelve years older than I, but we tended to think along more similar lines. I made some very good life-long friends during my time with this company.

In the evening, I would go back home for dinner. If there was a church function at night I would go to it, but most evenings every week, I would play with the children. The older boy was just starting first grade; he and I would practice reading together. We would also watch the Chinese serial dramas from 8 to 9 at night. Our favorites were the kung fu shows in old-fashioned costumes. Many of these shows were dramatizations from Chinese history or of popular literature. The family had a dog that was chained in the yard, and every morning and evening I would take the dog for a long walk through the alleys. Mama had a strict policy of early bedtimes for all of the family. Unlike my days in the student house where we usually stayed up until after midnight, I was in bed by 11 almost every night that I lived as an integral part of the household.

Helping the children with their homework was another big aid to my progress in Chinese. They were learning the bo, po, mo, fo phonetic system and the simple characters that I had learned the previous year. The girl from Burma was also learning to read and speak Mandarin Chinese in addition to her regular curriculum, so we all helped each other with our language lessons. Living as part of a family gave me deeper insights into Chinese culture that I had not been able to glean from a house full of students.

Friday, February 20, 2009

PART THREE: Going Native, 1983-1985

I brought a number of items back for the publishing company from the California office. General Manager somehow managed to get a VIP pass to meet me at the airplane door and make sure everything safely cleared customs. I learned later that some of the items were contraband under Taiwan’s draconian martial law provisions. I tried to argue with the manager that perhaps they should just wait until the laws changed and things opened up, but he seemed to feel that laws were made for breaking, and it really was “no problem.”

Instead of taking me back to my apartment near school, I was taken to a place in the alley next to the publishing company. I was to live with my nemesis, the assistant editor-in-chief, and his wife on the top floor of a four-story apartment complex. I would have my own room, and my friends from the publishing company, the proofreaders and copy editors, had been so kind as to go to my room in the old apartment and move whatever I had left. They had moved Lynne’s leftover things, too, in the hopes that she would eventually come back. I was astounded at the high-handed manner in which things were handled and started to argue, but I was told that my former host had been transferred by the military to the South of Taiwan, and he was only given two weeks to vacate the apartment for its new occupants. All my things were neatly arranged in exactly the way I had had them in my old room. The only difference was that now I got to sleep on the bottom bunk.

It soon became very clear to me that by signing on to return alone and to accept employment with a Chinese company, I was going to be treated as if I were Chinese. In the student center, Lynne and I were always a little bit different, and we were able to hang onto a large amount of our American identity. Now I was the only American; and I was going to live like all the Chinese, whether I liked it or not. I had thought that the first year was hard, but as time went on, I realized that I did not even know what “hard” meant. My teacher gave me many gifts of “perseverance” over the next few months. She was sympathetic, and she was able to explain where many of my difficulties lay, but she also told me that if I wanted to be truly fluent in Chinese, I had to become well-versed in the culture and the life-style.

For the first six months after I returned that year, I lived in a state of total immersion. Although I had two Western classmates, our only common language was Chinese. At home, at work, and among my friends, I spoke no English at all for an entire six-month period. I was only twenty-two years old, and this was the time period when I was developing my adult personality. Between my living environment and my schooling, a good portion of the Chinese mindset insinuated itself into my psyche. As my daughter Elizabeth once said, “Mom is more Chinese than we know.”

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Reverse Culture Shock

Blog Follower Barrie Summy ( asked me to show the changes I made in dress and deportment due to the pestering of my well-meaning Chinese friends. I thought this post would be a good place to start with my photo essay "The Transformation of Teresa" before I talk about the reverse culture shock we experienced on our first trip home after a year in Taiwan.

I had two problems in the eyes of my Chinese friends: I dressed like a slob, and I was wild and crazy. Here I am actually lying down on the dirty grass at a park. (Notice the pretty heeled sandals and skirt on the woman standing properly behind me.)

This is dressed up for me in the early days in Taiwan. I have 3/4 sleeves on a clean t-shirt, khaki pants, and a belt. Notice how my Taiwanese friend is in a frilly blouse and skirt.

Here I have made some progress in that I am wearing a skirt on the bottom with a t-shirt on top, but the wild and crazy gene just will not quit.

But now they have me in a real dress with a proper straw sun hat to protect my complexion in the hot sun. (This dress was one that my roommates forced me to buy. It was pretty comfortable, though, and I liked the colors.)

Even though I can look nice and behave properly in the presence of an elderly grandmother, the wild and crazy comes out as soon as I'm alone with my friends.

Finally, they have me growing my hair long, wearing skirts and sweaters and posing like a lady. What has become of me?
One thing Lynne and I had not expected to experience when we arrived in America was reverse culture shock. We had been living for a year in an entirely Chinese setting. The Chinese culture at the time was much more conservative than the American culture, especially in the matter of dress. Women did not wear shorts out on the street unless they were baggy culottes that went below the knees. Especially in Taipei, people dressed up to go out of the home. Men wore white shirts, slacks and ties. Women wore skirts, blouses, hose, and heels. They all buttoned the top buttons on their shirts.

When we arrived in LAX in the middle of summer, we were not prepared for the shock of seeing so much skin. Tourists were pouring through the LAX terminals in shorts, flip-flops, and tank tops. It was a jolt to our systems.

After a day or two of American food, we discovered that we were having trouble digesting all the meat and raw foods which make up the bulk of the American diet. Just as we had had trouble adjusting to a diet of mainly rice and vegetables the year before, so now we couldn’t stomach large portions of meat or large plates of salad.

Many of our friends from DC signed up for the conference just to have the chance of welcoming us home. They wanted to hear all about our adventures, but there was a lot that we could not express in words. At least Lynne had been speaking English with her students for the entire year; I had not spoken English since quitting my tutoring jobs in May. I kept trying to tell people what I thought, but the words just would not come out. I also found that traditional American mannerisms made me feel uncomfortable. It had taken me so long to get accustomed to the Chinese way of relating to people, but now I didn’t know how to be American any more.

Of course, I was busy doing Spanish interpretation and helping with the Taiwan contingent, so I did not have as much free time as my friends from DC wished. But they understood that I needed to work, and they were glad that I would be able to continue my Chinese studies now that I had a job with the publishing company.

After the conference, the Chinese head of the company told me I needed to spend time with my parents to be sure they approved of my going back to Taiwan. I didn’t know how to tell him that I hadn’t had any income for the past two months, and I didn’t have money for a plane ticket to Seattle. The only reason I had the money to return to Taiwan was because the publishing company was paying for my ticket back.

In the end, I called my brother, who was going to vet school at UC Davis. My parents agreed to come down to Tom’s place, and we all met in northern California. All I could afford was Greyhound bus fare from LA to Sacramento. My brother picked me up at the bus depot, and we went to San Francisco for a day before my parents arrived. We had a good time walking along the waterfront and watching the break dancers. I was really out of the loop in Taiwan, and I had never heard of the break dancing phenomenon. America had changed a lot in the year that I was gone, too, but in a different direction from me.

The time with my family was nice, but it was hard. I no longer felt comfortable speaking in English, and I think my views about what a family should be and how people should act had changed, too. I guess some of the Chinese attitude about young twenty-somethings being just kids until they got married had rubbed off on me. My parents seemed to think I was acting irrationally at a time in my life when I should have been going out to get a real job and starting a career. In the end, we agreed to disagree. I took the bus back to LA, did some training at the publishing company headquarters, and headed back for Taipei as the lone American in my sphere of existence.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Teresa Translator

Teresa Translator interpreting at an international conference in Taipei

Proofreaders, translators, and copy editors

Shipping Department
In May of 1983, the assistant editor-in-chief of the church publishing company paid Lynne and me a visit. He invited us to sit in on their translation discussions regarding the outlines and other material for an international church conference in California in July. Lynne and I had planned from the outset that we would end our year in Taiwan with a trip to that conference. We were both very interested in helping out because the translated materials for the Chinese New Year seminar had had egregious errors in the Chinese. The discussions began at 1:30 pm and went on late into every night. Lynne was not able to get out of her teaching duties from Monday through Friday, so I went by myself on the week days, and Lynne just came on Saturdays (which was a work day in Taiwan).

I am not sure how much I was able to contribute during my first few months as a translator, but I certainly noticed that my progress in Chinese increased rapidly. Many times I came across what I perceived as errors in translation because the text did not slavishly follow the original text word for word, but then I would learn that this was a more literate way of saying what I was trying to say. I learned that there is a huge difference between formal, written Chinese and the colloquial, spoken language. The assistant editor-in-chief and I would have horrendous arguments about a phrase or even a word. Sometimes we would go around in circles for an entire afternoon. In the end, we would take our problem to the editor-in-chief, an elderly gentleman with impeccable English and Chinese. He would first tell me that my Chinese was not up to understanding what had been written and that the Chinese did convey the meaning as it stood; then, more often than not, he would next turn to the assistant editor-in-chief and tell him that his Chinese was awkward and ambiguous and come up with a simple, elegant rendering which captured the meaning of the English while adhering to standards of good Chinese writing.

When the proofreaders and copy editors saw that I was not afraid to take on the assistant editor-in-chief, they would bring me what they perceived to be problems in the translation on the sly. I became their foil to improve the overall quality of the translation. I did not realize what they were doing until much later, but such a move was very typical of Chinese culture at the time. If a person had the title of assistant editor-in-chief, no one dared contradict him to his face. The proofreaders were afraid to take things directly to the editor-in-chief, too, because he was extremely busy with all of his projects. The result was that many of the company’s translated publications were unintelligible to the average Chinese reader.

By adding my objections to the mix, our production slowed down considerably. This meant that we worked past midnight most days of the week. Eventually, I had to cancel my tutoring classes. I was not being paid by the publishing company, but I was learning so much through the translation discussions that I thought my time was better spent at the publishing company. I also thought this was going to be a temporary project. By that time, I was pretty sure I would need at least another year to get completely fluent in Chinese, and I was considering returning for another year of classes if I could work out the logistics of financing tuition and living expenses.

By the middle of June, it became obvious to the general manager of the publishing company that none of his staff was going to be issued a US visa to attend the conference. He asked Lynne and me to lead Taiwan’s group of participants to the conference and to be sure that the boxes of translated materials made it to conference headquarters. We agreed to do these two things, but we did not know that he had also listed our names as workers from his company to help run the conference. Before leaving the US in 1982, we had made arrangements with friends in DC to enroll us in the conference and find us a private home-stay. When we arrived at the airport, we got the books and all the members of the Taiwanese contingent through customs, and then we left with a woman named Sue, who was our home-stay hostess for the week. No one noticed that we had gone.

It was such a relief to us to be in an American home. The shower was fixed to the wall over our heads, and we had all the cheese and sweet snacks we wanted. We immediately went to sleep on clean sheets for the next 15 hours. We had the Chinese publications safely in the trunk of Sue’s car and were planning to take them to conference headquarters first thing the next morning. The head of the Taiwan publishing house had neglected to tell us that he was arranging for his American counterpart to pick us up, give us lodging and put us to work. I guess he was afraid that we would say no, and then he would be in trouble for not contributing manpower to help run the conference. We were blissfully unaware that the publishing companies on both sides of the Pacific were frantically trying to locate the missing books and workers. We had a refreshing sleep, a great American breakfast, another shower with full water pressure, and then we took the books to the California office.

When we got the cartons inside the door, we were besieged by frantic secretaries wanting to know where the Chinese women Lynne and Teresa were. We had a hard time figuring things out, until the manager came out and told us that we had been signed up to work during the conference. There was a moment of total confusion, and then we met with the manager in private. He spoke with the owner of the two publishing companies, who was also the author of the publications. The author was quite pleased with the improvements in the accuracy of the Chinese translation. In the end, we were both offered jobs translating at the branch office in Taiwan if we wanted to return to Taipei to continue our Chinese studies. Lynne was unable to go back because she had to begin repaying student loans, and she needed to start her career as an ESL teacher. She went back home with Sue and returned to DC to teach English at the end of the conference. I accepted the translation position and moved into the company dorm at the conference facility.

When the management learned I spoke Spanish and that I had taken courses in interpretation and translation at Georgetown, I was immediately put to work as the assistant Spanish interpreter for the conference. I had not spoken Spanish in a year, but after the first session, it all came back to me. People from the Taiwan contingent would seek me out during break times to help them buy things or to handle communication problems. Eventually, I did not know what language I was speaking. I found myself speaking Spanish when I thought I was speaking Chinese and Chinese when I thought I was speaking English. Sometimes it seemed as though my entire brain was frozen.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Student Life in Taiwan

Tsai Hsia and me on a student trip to a park near Taipei

Friends from the Student Center on a holiday hike (some girls hiked in heels)

Teresa and her junior high ESL tutees

Teresa, Biying, and Peiling: Students at home (in uniform, no less)

Student Center holiday bike ride

Winter break was a watershed in our Chinese learning. I think the biggest breakthrough was that we had gained confidence in what we had learned and began using more and more Chinese to communicate. After all, we had spent three whole days wandering around Guangzhou by ourselves without a guide or interpreter, and we had managed to find our way home to tell the tale.

We continued our routine of Chinese class, homework, English teaching and church activities, but we also began doing more of the shopping for dinners at home, and I began to teach English to more and more of the junior high students from church. It was a fun, carefree existence. Chinese students are not expected to do much more than study hard and get good grades. The church leaders and old grandmother-types from church made sure that all the inhabitants of the student center had plenty to eat, medical care if it was needed, and plenty of opportunity for recreation on holidays.

Every time there was a national holiday, the whole student center would go out to play. We took bike rides, went to parks, ate catered potluck dinners put on by the ladies at church, and had a great time in general. Most of the college students were older than I was because they had had to take so many entrance exams to advance beyond ninth grade. But almost none of them had ever had to work for their spending money, even if their families were not so well off. In typical Chinese families, the adults consider a young person to be a child until he or she gets married. As a rule, the entire family will scrimp and save so that its students do not have to work while they are studying.

It was sometimes hard for Lynne and me to relate to the students. They could not believe that I had been earning most of my spending money by babysitting from the time I was eleven years old. Chinese families in those days rarely hired outside babysitters because several generations all lived in one house, and the grandparents cared for the grandchildren. This also meant that most of our friends at the student center did not really understand how to manage money. They had never worried about utility bills, buying groceries, or other necessities of life. When they ran out of spending money, they took a trip home and came back with a purse full of money and a basket full of food to be sure they didn’t waste away without Mom’s down-home cooking.

Because I was younger than they were, I was able to make a few friends. Poor Lynne was older and a university lecturer besides, so many of our roommates were too much in awe of her to be friends. They were never rude or anything, but since our backgrounds were so different it was hard to find a common ground even after we could speak the language better.

Being younger than everyone was not that easy, either. Chinese people are very age conscious and do not usually call people by name (unless they use an English nickname). They call friends “Elder Brother” and “Elder Sister” or “Younger Brother” and “Younger Sister.” I did not like to wear skirts, and I did not act like a proper girl, so my nickname was “Younger Brother.” All my “Elder Sisters” took it upon themselves to train me in proper behavior and to get me to act like a lady. Sometimes I had to change my clothes several times before my well-meaning roommates would let me out the door because they did not think I was properly dressed. Since Lynne was usually in the faculty lounge, I was the only person holding to my opinion. It was me against the house, and the house always won. Eventually, they even took me out to buy “proper shoes” and “proper clothes” that I couldn’t really afford. (They didn’t have the money to pay for them, either, but that didn’t stop them from making me buy the items.) My friends didn’t understand long-term budgeting, and my Chinese was not at a level where I could successfully explain my concerns, so it was me against eight plus the shopkeepers. I usually bought at least part of what they wanted me to get.

I complained to my teacher, and all she did was congratulate me on making true Chinese friends. She told me that when Chinese people compliment you, they are keeping you at a distance with politeness. They don’t really mean half of what they say. When they start to correct everything about you, it means that you have gotten into their hearts, and they are correcting you because they care. There are a number of Chinese proverbs about this phenomenon: “The deeper they love you, the harder they scold you;” and “Scolding is affection, spanking is love. If you don’t spank or scold, you will harm the child.” Teacher gave me a “gift” that she gave me over and over during my years in her class. She wrote the word “perseverance” on my copy book and told me to learn to enjoy my friends’ love. I was totally frustrated. My own parents hadn’t tried to control what I wore since my first year of junior high. I was used to American freedom and individuality, and now I had to learn to “enjoy their ‘love’” by letting them make me wear uncomfortable clothing. In the end, however, it was easier to roll with it than to be constantly fighting with all my roommates. And when the weather turned hot again, I discovered that skirts were much cooler than pants, so it wasn’t all bad.