My father is Taiwanese and his first language is Tâi-gí (aka Taiwanese, Hokkien, Southern Min). When I was growing up, however, I didn't know there was a difference between Taiwanese and Mandarin. For the longest time, even into adulthood, I thought A-má and A-kong were the Mandarin words for grandmother and grandfather. I would get so confused when I heard Chinese Americans kids call their grandparents Ye Ye and Nai Nai. When my son was little and I tried to read him picture books about Chinese culture, I didn’t know how to explain to him why I had called my grandparents something different. I also didn’t know why I still called my oldest uncle Dwa-peh, a mysterious word that seemed to have come out of nowhere.
I have been studying Taiwan history pretty intensively over the last few years trying to fill in holes and things I never knew; piecing together our family’s story and the experiences of my predecessors in Taiwan before I became the first child in our lineage born in America with U.S. citizenship. I ran across a great post on TaiwaneseAmerican.org's Instagram recently that encapsulated my experience growing up overseas as a Taiwanese American in the 70s and 80s, when Taiwan was still under martial law and the concept of a “Taiwanese” identity was still being built and hotly contested:
When the KMT lost the mid-20th century Chinese Civil War and took over Taiwan beginning in 1947, the party forced a single “Chinese” Mandarin-speaking identity upon the people who were already living on the islands like my family. Local languages were framed as low-class or country whereas Mandarin was a high language of the sophisticated and intelligent. Local children like my father and his siblings were suddenly forbidden to speak Taiwanese in school. If they slipped up, they were fined and forced to wear a sign around their neck apologizing for the mistake they had made. I have also heard from elders that some children endured having humiliating things written on their faces or were even beaten for speaking Tâi-gí.
The KMT’s sinicization project and attempted erasure of Taiwanese history during their 40-year authoritarian rule, is a huge part of why it's taken me such a long time to grasp that Taiwanese is my father’s first language and why it remains his preferred language. The truth is for Taiwanese who lived on the islands pre-1949, insistence on speaking Tâi-gí at home, among relatives, friends, and comrades became an act of resistance. For many, my family included, speaking the language became (and often remains still) a critical component of claiming and defining our Taiwanese identity.
But it wasn’t until I moved here that I really appreciated the significance of Tâi-gí for my father, my family, and me as well. The minute I arrived it was undeniable how important the language has become to the formation of national Taiwanese identity. I hear it mixed into everyday conversations, on MRT and bus announcements, in the news and dedicated Tâi-gí television programming. I had not intended to study Taiwanese but ended up taking Tâi-gí classes once a week just as an introduction. And I’ve been surprised how much it has brought up for me. Certain words and sounds will trigger deep nostalgia and bring tears to my eyes. Meanwhile, my tutor has been surprised that my pronunciation is better than she expected.
Turns out I actually heard the language quite a bit when I was young, though I don’t have a distinct memory of it because I didn’t know the difference. “Are you kidding!?” My father said when I recently asked if I was exposed to Tâi-gí as a child on our yearly visits to Taipei. “We wouldn’t dare speak Chinese to your A-kong.” Taiwanese was also a language my father would speak with his Taiwanese American friends back in the U.S. where we lived, mixing his mother tongue in with Mandarin and English so that I could understand some of what he was saying, but other phrases would sound completely different.
Last January 2020, pre-pandemic, when I flew to Taipei to vote in my first Taiwan presidential election, I also brought a mobile rig to film my elders, interviewing them about their past and Taiwan’s complex colonial history. I wanted to help preserve our story for my son and the youngest generation of our family who now all live overseas. I also hoped the interviews could be a useful English-language resource for other Taiwanese and Taiwanese diaspora. I wanted my relatives to speak in the languages they were most comfortable and so the interviews ended up being a mixture of Tâi-gí, Mandarin, and English.
Then, this January 2021, I attended a virtual event The Present & Future of Taiwanese with Professor 李勤岸 Khîn-huānn, hosted by the Taiwan School of Taiwanese American Center (TAC) of Northern California. Professor Khîn-huānn has dedicated his life to rescuing and reviving the Taiwanese language. During the talk, he read one of his poems in Tâi-gí and I found myself again nostalgic and emotional. I woke up the next morning inspired and finally put together my first Taiwanese Daughter short film "Forbidden Tâi-gí 台語” (above) in which my father and auntie talk about growing up under one-party authoritarian rule after World War II and how they were suddenly forbidden to speak their mother tongue in school.
Today, it's true Tâi-gí is still spoken throughout Taiwan. But there's also a hard reality that less and less young people are fluent, conversational, or able to speak the language well, if at all. Successive generations are experiencing a continued, gradual loss of Tâi-gí skills so that the language is slowly being reduced to simple greetings and basic phrases. Certainly this has been true in my family where my father’s generation are all fluent in Tâi-gí but few in my generation are, and none in my son’s generation are at all.
Taiwanese is by far the most spoken language in Taiwan besides Mandarin, which is usually referred to in Taiwan as the national language, or guóyǔ (國語). According to Taiwan’s 2010 census, Taiwanese is spoken by 81.9% of the island’s population, compared to Mandarin’s 83.5%. These figures, however, are misleading. Although 81.9% of Taiwanese citizens can speak Taiwanese to some degree, they often cannot speak it well, as Taiwan’s education system and workplaces have long prioritized Mandarin. (source: Ketagalan Media)
What the future of Tâi-gí will be in Taiwan, I’m not sure. As a result, it's become important to me to teach my son the history I didn't know at his age and to be able to hear the difference between Taiwanese and Mandarin. Even just a basic foundation is integral to understand what being Taiwanese means in our family. And I'm happy to say my son has developed an affection for Tâi-gí, which I did not expect. He likes to study vocabulary with me and try to beat me at memorization (he wins a lot). But the best thing is that he likes to surprise Taiwanese elders with “to-siā” or other words he knows just to see their faces light up with joy. Because he now knows the significance and understands how much it means to them.
© 2021 Sharon Ho Chang 張曉倫