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.”

8 comments:

Barrie said...

That sounds incredibly, well, many things: intense, difficult, rewarding, frustrating. I love your daughter's take!

Teresa said...

It was all those and more. I couldn't really think about what I was doing; I just had to plunge in and go with it or give up and go home. I'm glad I stuck with it or I would never have had my darling daughters!

Joannalynne said...

oops. you slipped up, mother dear. you called us "darling" to the public. How very un-Chinese of you. this is not customary of you at all...

Teresa said...

I thought I always taught you: when speaking in English, act American, when speaking in Chinese act Chinese. In Chinese I would call you 犬女 or "dog-faced daughter" so you wouldn't get a swelled head, but in America speaking English if I call you names, it might get me reported for child abuse, so I have to call you "darling". You know my heart is always skewed towards you <3

Linda McLaughlin said...

I've heard total immersion is the best way to learn a language, but I never thought of the cultural implications or how it would change your mindset. Fascinating story. Keep the posts coming. :)

Teresa said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Linda. I found that there are things I can only conceptualize in English and others I can only conceptualize in Chinese. The difference was not so pronounced when I was learning Spanish and German in school, probably because they are culturally similar to English.

murat11 said...

Ah, the plot thickens! And living with the nemesis, how wonderful is that! I'm thinking this works better as an extended PBS series (a Chinese Ballykissangel, say), to really let everyone develop, and enjoy all the lovely escapades.

On another level, this reminds me of stories of Americans who went to Japan to study Zen. Gary Snyder, for example: the complete immersion, just a whisper of old self still whispering, and then re-emergence...

Teresa said...

Hi Murat,

Glad to know the screen play is coming along so nicely. I love Ballykissangel! I wouldn't mind having the story of my life treated as such... That would be really fun!

Teresa