Thursday, July 21, 2005

The language that dare not be named

To my great surprise (and, even more surprising, to my delight), I have begun, very gradually, to learn Taiwanese. This decision -- which violates the solid advice I received only weeks ago from a realible source -- rather made itself for me, and in fact, more interestingly, came about despite me. I never intended to learn Taiwanese; in fact, I always intended to avoid learning it. That is why, now, learning Taiwanese, to any extent, is an act of humble contrition on my part. Let me explain.

Taiwanese is a little beast of a language, with something like 8 tones, almost no good study materials, and only a roughly standardized phonetic system. In Taiwan, once my ears could differentiate the "meaningless Asian noise" into the much neater categories of "meaningless Mandarin noise" and "meaningless Taiwanese noise" -- since that watershed development I have loathed hearing Taiwanese. "Ah, so, that's Mandarin -- and that's Taiwanese! 天啊!" It literally hurt my ears the better I got at catching Taiwanese -- like an unseen posion dart -- from among the general chatter. The same goes for Vietnamese, which, if spoken by women in particular, I find annoying and somehow always gossipy or nagging. I find both Taiwanese and Vietnamese nasally, unmelodious and overly complex. It's the complete opposite, though, with Tagalog, which I LOVE hearing. It's a chipper, fluid language with lots of amusing assonance and alliteration.[1]

At any rate, I love almost every thing about Taiwan -- the food, the weather, the scenery, the people -- but I have always found Taiwanese about as pleasant as biting foil while hiking in a pair of wet, sand-laden bathing shorts (beach people know what Ah'm talkin' 'bout!). The language is sometimes enough, in fact, literally to make me curl my lips in distaste.[2] If men, especially drunk men, speak it, it invariably sounds like a fight is about to break out. If women, especially older women in a market, speak it, it sounds like a nagfest already has broken out. I always feel somehow at fault, wordlessly guilty, whenever I hear Taiwanese. I'm sure this is insulting to some of my countless (?!) Taiwanese readers, and I truly wish it weren't so, but it's the truth: Taiwanese is often enough in itself to make me regret living here (well, that and the traffic).

And yet -- yet I know how dear to the Taiwanese their nasally, erratic little language is. I know how electrifying it is for them if a foreigner can speak even a few tattered words of it with them. I also know, for my own linguophilic purposes, how plain rad it would be to be able to speak a basically esoteric Asian language that a good share of the locals don't even know. In short, I know I need to get off my high horse, bear with the foil flakes, and bite into their language for the sake of my lvoe for the Taiwanese peoeple. And I do love these people.

So, primarily with the help of the tea vendor family across the street from me (which in fact used to be my neighbors from my previous apartment, and with whom I've spoken more in the past two months than in those two first years!) -- with their help, I have begun scribbling down, flash-carding and sporadically murmuring small phrases of the language that once dare not be named: Taiwanese. As I said, this is not just a grab for one more small cultural feather in my cap. It's an act of humility. Building bridges is worth it. Becoming all things to all people, particularly for now these people, the Taiwanese, mu neighbors, it is worth the hassle of learning that ear-piercing, tongue-twisting language: Taiwanese.

Of course, I'm not getting ahead of myself. The tones are a minor concern for now, since the basic phrases I'm working with now are so common as to be instantly and flawlessly recognizable. By all means, keeping up with German and ploughing deeper and deeper into Chinese are my greater priorities. Even so, much to my chagrin, I have to admit -- dare I admit it? -- I'm actually starting to get a taste for Taiwanese. It was always growing one me; only now, it's growing as an enjoyable appendage rather than before as a smelly fungus. I just kep laughing this afternoon as I wrote down a few notes from my tea-vending teahers. "Am I, of all people, after al this time, really and freely learning this nutty language?! Am I actually finding it, finding it winsome!? It just may be--! Who the--? How the--?"

Why the--?

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam!

[1] To be fair, I know American English is not the most breathtaking language on earth, as Peter Sellars showed so hysterically in his impression of an American in "After the Fox". And, yes, I also know my second language, German, is considered by many to be harsh and vulgar. Quatsch! Reiner Unsinn!

[2] I confess part of my distaste for Taiwanese could be, at a subconscious level, my resentment for the barrier it places between me and a culture I have tried for two years, with some admirable success, to work my way into. More times than I can recall I have seen Taiwanese, once they realize I can speak Mandarin, slip into Taiwanese just to be sure I remain firmly on the outside, confused, mute and trilingual in the wrong constellation. I'd resent this tactic even if Taiwanese were as beautiful to me as Russian or Haitian Creole. Such is culture shock.

1 comment:

Chandler said...

Holy Moly................
You r out of ur darn mind
Consider it fun instead taking it serious!
I can envision you ask a waiter to summon the manager at a restautrant in Taiwanese, because you are enjoying a bowl of dumpling soup with soup in it................hehehee