Ahma was never too good at English. Hearing my grandmother’s broken adulations over the phone is still something I take comfort in. Her Taiwanese is a different story. I can’t understand her tales, spoken in her native tongue, but the fervor and passion which she packs into her voice, her high and low tones, make it sound like she’s trying to illustrate the mountains of Taiwan, the craggy shoreline, the Taipei skyline. I’ve always thought that if I could speak her language that I’d see the same beauty that she sees.
Learning Taiwanese is complicated by the fact that it’s an oral language, and writing systems for it either are purely academic or recycle Chinese characters, both with a steep learning curve. Additionally, it’s a language that’s in decline in Taiwan, and practically non-existent in the United States. Because of this, I’ve always felt disconnected from my Taiwanese heritage, my only glimpses into the culture through Ahma and my mother.
My mother, though born in Taiwan, was raised in the United States. She has never returned to Taiwan since her departure almost 50 years ago. I have never been there. I’ve always wanted to visit Taiwan, since I’ve heard about it my entire life and since it makes up one half of my culture. My other half, Louisiana Cajun, has been explored through visits to Louisiana, conversations with my highly fluent paternal side. Taiwan, on the other hand, is a literal ocean away, and seems even further through my language deficiency. In Taipei, I want to learn about Taiwanese history, more than can be gleaned from a couple websites and a decade-old book. More than that, I want to learn about the Taiwanese present, the attitudes and perspective that can only be gained by going there.
One of the places that I want to visit most is the Zhongzheng District of Taipei. It is basically the center of the national government of Taiwan since four of the five Yuans that make up the central government are located there. Ever since I started taking AP Government, and started watching the news, I’ve realized how important the government is in quotidien matters. The transparency of the Taiwanese government is impressive and visiting their centers is an important step to understanding current Taiwanese culture.
Additionally, in the Zhongzheng District, I want to visit National Taiwan University, one of the most prestigious colleges in Taiwan. My grandfather went there, and in fact, was an architect who designed government buildings (though in Tainan and not Taipei)! Still in this area, I’m hoping to visit some of the parks, like 2/28 Peace Memorial Park, or the Taipei Botanical Garden (both of which are supposed to be free and beautiful).
If possible, I want to go to Tainan as well. Through the Taiwan High Speed Rail, one can travel from Taipei to Tainan in about 2 hours, and though there is a lot to do in Taipei, my family originally comes from the Tainan area. Ahma told me how fondly she remembered the churches in Tainan, such as the church in which she got married, and how many of them there were. And of course, if I get to see the government buildings in Tainan, then I’ll see something designed by my grandfather (or his brother, or his father…). By seeing other large cities in Taiwan besides Taipei I can learn more about Taiwanese culture on the whole and even potentially meet some of my relatives and learn about my family.
Another aspect of Taiwan that I want to explore is its many forts. Due to the island’s long history of occupation, first under European powers, then Asian powers, there are many of these military relics throughout Taiwan. In Tainan there is (among others) Anping Fort, now a museum, that used to be Dutch trading post. In New Taipei, there is Fort San Domingo, which used to belong to the Spanish, and in Keelung, there is Gangzilao Fort, of Japanese origin. I think it would be interesting to see how these buildings differ from those that one sees in America.
I think if there’s one thing that my Ahma emphasized about Taiwan, it was its natural beauty. She told me about Sun Moon Lake, in central Taiwan, and about the aboriginal Taiwanese that live in the mountains nearby. Near Taipei, there is a natural park, Yangmingshan National Park, which has hot springs and a reportedly beautiful view from the top of Qixing Mountain (which is also a dormant volcano, which is really cool). Especially in Taiwan, further south than California and therefore more tropical. I’m interested in seeing the island’s characteristic scenery.
Thinking about the power of speech, and how the oral stories of both Ahma and my mother inspired me to enter this contest, I want to document my travel orally, or at least through audio. That would manifest in some sort of audio or video log that I would keep and record my thoughts, observations, and discoveries. It’s exciting for me to thing of going to Taiwan, both as an opportunity to educate myself, but also to use what I learn to educate others. I think that storytelling as a craft is so much more powerful when, in addition to the content, it becomes about the performance and the way the words are spoken.
Beyond exploring a half of myself that I’ve never completely understood, I want to bring my mother back to Taiwan and for us to experience it together. Since she left as a child, she doesn’t remember what it’s like, and nearly five decades later, it has changed immensely. Taiwan has modernized, they’ve elected their first female president, I believe that I can turn my experience into something useful, through which I can understand myself better, my family better, and my culture better, and so that others can understand too.