Archive for the 'Taiwanese Language' Category


Tainan Temples

This is a public building where my cousin told me as a child their school used to come here for exercises and special events . You can definitely see the Japanese architecture here.

These shots are from our visit to the 5 Concubines temple which is devoted to the memory of the five concubines that hung themselves out of devotion to their prince when he committed suicide at the fall of the dynasty.  Um… Okay, so they probably wouldn’t have lasted in the new regime either, but eeks!

A clock with its own weathervane outside the Museum of Literature‘s coffee shop.  We did stop in at the Museum of Literature, but were all a bit dazed by that point.  I remember walking past photographs of authors and wishing that I was actually a good Chinese student who was literate.  There were a couple of neat quotes in English though.

Notice the wedding couple getting their photos taken in the hollow of the modern statue’s embrace?

Another wedding couple at the Confucius Temple.

This link has more info on temples in Tainan.



I really meant to be posting more and completing the backlog.  I did.  However, I did other things like the happy brownie dance (inspired by feeling the smooth soft chocolate fill up my tongue, sweet and grainy from my enthusiastic pecan slicing) upon baking them for the first time in a year.  I highly recommend the back-of-the-box recipe from the Baker’s chocolate box.

Saw lots of family and friends, cuddled a couple of tots, sat in the park, walked on the beach, oohed at Chihuly glass, and fireworks and was waking up early for the first time I didn’t have anywhere to go in the morning.

I unsuccessfully tried to shock my father with cursing in Taiwanese.  Instead he giggled like a school girl and tutored me on my pronunciation.  I tried to refrain from the English version of salty words whilst sweating through my overdue taxes, and moving lots of stuff around.

Took lots of pictures out of the airplane window.  Missed some beautiful ones this morning– when landing with the dawn, mist shadowing the mountains.

Digital cameras count as electronic devices not to be used during takeoff and landing, right?

I will catch up on promised bloggage and link pimpage.  Really.



My great-grandmother on my mother’s side was a short woman, round, keen, and street-smart. She had a boisterous laugh, and came from the countryside. She’d always wear loose flowered print button-up shirts and shorts or a skirt that would inevitably reveal the tell-tale roll of her knee-highs around her calves when she sat down.

One afternoon, she and I sat around the round dining room table eating long-yen (dragon eye)– a round fruit with a brown shell that cracks to reveal translucent white flesh wrapped around a smooth black pit. My grandfather would bring bunches of them, like huge bunches of grapes on stiff brown branches in from his walks. We had a long-yen tree in the garden as well.

She was cracking the shells (you kind of have to press the top together until it cracks open to release the fruit), and talking to me in Taiwanese. She didn’t understand Mandarin– though she used to read the Chinese subtitles of the television shows. She’d always be nudging someone around that round table to translate into Taiwanese what was being bandied about in Mandarin.

Of course, my understanding of Taiwanese was limited to words like “hurry” hakin! (often said by my father as we were flying out of the house to careen late somewhere in his Toyota), or potty-training baby words from when I was being potty trained (not useful at all in polite conversation).

Anyway, the usual practice of smiling and nodding didn’t wash with my great-grandmother, who was very kind to me. She gave us use of her tatami room, which had the smell of grass when we slept on the rectangles of tatami edged with embroidered ribbon, though I was never tempted to try her ceramic tile pillow (it was a wire frame with tiles strung across the top to form a flat cool surface with a slight give from the strings). She offered me a jeweled butterfly hairpin once, but I had the uncomfortable feeling that something that lovely, obviously old, and precious would be broken or lost by me (I’ve always been a bit of a stumbling disaster).

It was late summer, hot, and yet the cool (was it stone?) floors of the kitchen and blue-green walls made it a rather peaceful afternoon. I think the grown-ups had gone out. My mother was probably meeting childhood friends. I remember sitting with my great-grandmother and popping fresh, cool, long-yen into my mouth.

Jok dinh she said with her high, slightly shrill voice. (forgive my personal romanization). I smiled and nodded. And she repeated herself Jok dinh! She gestured to me with her wrinkled hand. So I repeated dinh! She shook her head, grinning, and for the rest of the afternoon, she patiently said dinh! to me, shaking her head when I murdered the word– not nasal enough this time, not the right tone that time. We did this the entire afternoon as the considerable bunch of long yen dwindled.

By evening, I could say it correctly. When I asked my mother what it meant, she laughed and said “sweet.” Jok dinh means “very sweet.”

And now, dinh is one of the only Taiwanese words that I have confidence in saying correctly. Out of all the gifts my great-grandmother could have given me, I think that word is pretty cool.


At last–

One of my goals for coming to Taiwan has come to pass… I swore in Taiwanese in the middle of an English conversation!

There’s more to this, but I’m insanely exhausted right now, so I’ll fill it in later…


So, I don’t really seriously swear at all in English. It’s kind of just a habit and a distaste for bad language, though honestly, I think American swearing, where there is only a variety of maybe 4 or 5 naughty words that get combined, swapped, and modified to fit into every possible part of speech is really quite silly, often misogynistic, certainly overused, and somewhat insipid. British swearing seems to have a good more variety, but I really have very little idea of what most of the slangy words mean and their level of badness (shocked my British cousin by accident once).

So why swear in Taiwanese or Chinese?

Well, my parents, as most married couples seem to, do squabble on occasion, and it is generally in Taiwanese when they get their dander up. However, in the past maybe ten or less years, they’ve taken to sprinkling their arguments with swear words in English (generally addressing the topic and not each other personally).

(sidenote: I found an ancient copy of Love Story in the basement once with unknown words underlined in red.  Alongside words that were multisyllabic and obviously challenging for the ESL reader my father was, were all the swear words, which he never found in the dictionary.  Thirty years later, and it’s interesting how language changes…)

So anyway, I’d hear a bunch of what was barely intelligible and then some swearing in English. Being the uptight Victorian priss than I am, I’d scold them for swearing in English and tell them to swear in Taiwanese if they were going to argue in Taiwanese, which would be an effective means of diffusing said arguments with laughter. My parents would tell me that no one really swears in Taiwanese, because Taiwanese curses are actually wishing bad upon the person, and Taiwanese swears are soooo bad no one ever says them…. My mother told me that Taiwanese swearing is reserved for the low class. Being an American egalitarian, I suspect this to be very unfair.

So, I figure, if I swear in Taiwanese in an American conversation, it’s not really an assault on anyone’s sensibilities, while providing the emotional outlet that naughty words seem to provide people.

Finding people to teach me to swear in Taiwanese was initially difficult. My parents outright refused (it’s interesting to think about language that everyone understands but a certain contingent never utters). A friend who went to Taiwan and worked briefly with construction workers refused (see what kind of friends I have??? sniff.).

So I had to wait to get to Taiwan myself, then in the middle of a quiet conversation I couldn’t understand (this happens quite a bit hanging out with Taiwanese people who are fairly proficient in English but naturally get into the flow of chatting in Chinese or Taiwanese with each other and I just sit by try to figure it out), I asked for a definition of a somewhat commonly used word in it. Laughter and initial hesitation showed me I was on the right track. After some cajoling and persuasion, I was able to get some instruction. So I now I have a mini-catalogue of naughty Taiwanese and Chinese curses that will probably not qualify me to be a construction worker or sailor anytime soon, but will successfully shock and amuse my parents.

Honestly, it does seem that Taiwanese and Chinese swearing is much less common than American swearing, which I think probably preserves its oomph. According to my instructors, said swearing is so bad that it’s not in popular mass media, the way that American swearing has infiltrated movies and television.

The little off-color vocabulary I have now though, actually turned into quite good prior knowledge when my children, whom I’ve recruited to teach me Chinese in odd moments during breaks, offered to teach me Chinese and tried to teach me naughty words without telling me what they meant, I was able to give them the shocked scolding they richly deserved.

The words I’ve learnt have meanings like “cry” or “cry because your father’s dead” or “cry from hunger” which I imagine originates from a time and group where things like mortality of fathers and hunger were much more present concerns. I’ve also learned the corollary for the f-word. Of course, my instructors have been amused at my proficiency and now whenever I’m introduced to new acquaintances and my language ability (or rather inability) comes up, I’m often asked to display my swearing abilities.

I’ve also learned the sort of insults applicable to children (these are generally picked up while hanging out with my friends who are boyfriend/girlfriend and being silly with each other), and I mangle these slightly occasionally.

Unfortunately, I’m much better at learning the really bad words than I am at learning ordinary ones. However, this seems to be somewhat universal. I’ve hung out with students who couldn’t say “How are you?” but would come up to me and shout an English swear word they learned from the movies. My friend will swear in English, though she’s much more comfortable in Chinese/Taiwanese.

Besides, truly bad words are easy to remember the tone for– they’re all 4th tone.



My computer and camera seem to have reconciled– so here are shots from tonight:

The 228 Memorial in Taipei this evening.


The scent of the lilies was fragrant and the sound of running water was everywhere– it drips all around the circle enclosing the open pyramid of sorts, and within the pyramid it falls down into a well.

The inside circle of the open pyramid has handprints around the middle– they’re adults, mostly bigger than mine.

The water falling down the center well almost looks solid in this photo.

The water streaming under the edge of the pool.

People of all ages were there. These people were looking at this:

The translated text is at

We had off work today to commemorate the 228 (er er ba) incident, which was the spark that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Taiwanese people at the hands of the Kuomintang (KMT) government, headed by Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek. It was the beginning of martial law, when people would be taken to police stations never to return, and was the sort of incident that is remembered in whispers, for fear of reprisals.

My mother tells me politics in Taiwan was always shunned in conversation, because it was such a dangerous topic. My grandfather (her father) was brought to the police station, and for one tense evening, my family didn’t know if he would become one of those who “disappeared” in those days. He was a surgeon, and a KMT soldier he was trying to save died. There were questions as to whether he had provided adequate care, and thanks to the testimony of other observers, he was released. Reading about the “White Terror” as it seems to be called, when many educated men were rounded up and executed, I feel so very lucky that he was able to watch his children grow up and that I was able to know his voice, the clack of his wooden slippers on the floor, and the feel of his old hand in mine as we walked to the park.

I got my history from tenth grade “World Cultures” with Mr. D. The only mention of Taiwan in the history book was when the KMT fled the mainland and came to Taiwan in 1949. The only knowledge I had of my own family history was that we were “Han people”– from China, so for a while, I had the mistaken idea that my family had come over with the smiling Chiang Kai Shek. (He’s always smiling. On the coins, in most of his statues that I’ve seen, he has a sort of benign grin that belies the order to kill thousands of people. Mao tends to have a grin on his posters, too. Lenin tends to look stern. Hitler always looks scary or deranged. Stalin’s moustache hides his mouth, but he generally looks stern or slightly squinty too. One Google image search of Saddam Hussein and propaganda shows a propaganda poster of him grinning too. The facial expressions worn by tyrants in propaganda to the oppressed and the rest of the world is probably fodder for a blogpost in itself, but I resent that smile. I don’t know what my paternal grandfather looked like when he smiled, but I know what Chiang Kai Shek’s smile looks like– this seems wrong, when my paternal grandfather also was someone who cared for people, while CKS was ordering the deaths of thousands.) This article in the Taipei Times talks about CKS and the fate of some of his smiling statues.

“Kill them all, keep it secret.” was CKS’s reported telegram to the then-governor of Taiwan, when asked what to do about the protests by the native Taiwanese. My family was native Taiwanese. My mother’s side has been in Taiwan for eleven generations (with my cousin’s children, I think), having come over in the 1700s (Check me on this, Mom). My father’s side has been in Taiwan since the 1800s. So in 1945, when the Republic of China regained control of Taiwan from the Japanese, my family actually had been in Taiwan for a very long time already.

“We were Japanese.” My aunt told me. Japan had run Taiwan as a colony for fifty years, building railroads, planning urban areas (some of those plans are still used as guidance for development), and banning spoken Taiwanese in schools. However, my grandparents’ first language was Japanese. My grandfathers and several of my uncles received medical training in Japan. To this day, my dad is more commonly referred to in the family by his Japanese name. My aunt tells me they didn’t have to lock their doors when Japan ruled the island. Japan allowed them to be educated as long as they stayed out of politics (Taiwan had no representation in the Japanese government, in spite of petitioning for it). Taiwanese men were drafted to fight with Japan in WWII and some of their remains are in veterans memorials in Japan. My grandfather was an officer in the Japanese army in Taiwan. Food got short as supplies went to the WWII soldiers in China. My mother tells me that my grandfather refused to eat sweet potato with his rice after those times.  It was the only option since the rice was so scarce.  The sweet potato in the rice was dried in the sun and tasted moldy.  Although I have heard that Japan was also brutal in putting down the resistance to their rule in the early stage of colonization, and resentment that they forbade Taiwanese language in schools, their rule seems to have been indisputably organized and ordered.

The soldiers who came from China in 1945 reportedly dug up the paved roads for latrines and used chamber pots for their rice (this is hearsay, which may or may not be true).

Frustration with the KMT rule bubbled out in protests sparked when KMT soldiers beat a woman for selling contraband cigarettes on February 27th, 1947. The following day, protesters were killed by the KMT. Protests arose all over the country, and many more people died. There is a 228 Museum, close to the memorial, which chronicles all of this. I haven’t been inside yet, but its existence is significant in and of itself.

The KMT ruled Taiwan undisputed until martial ended and democracy came with Lee Teng-Hui in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Until then, 228 was a forbidden topic. Though the KMT is still a very powerful political party, the change to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has opened discussion about the role of the KMT in Taiwanese history and 228 and its White Terror aftermath.

The CKS Memorial is down the street from the 228 Memorial, and tonight it was filled with people and light for the lantern festival, which was kind of incongruous, but uplifting. When I was sitting by the 228 Memorial, I thought about it and all the other memorials and museums there are for the massacres of innocents– the Holocaust, Khmer Rouge’s massacre in Cambodia, and so forth. And these are just government-instituted massacres. The numbers of the dead are often disputed or incomprehensible. Even if they’re not, each number is a person enmeshed in a place, connected to friends and family.

To treat life as if it were worthless, without regret –
those in power are letting this happen.
  from “Zhan Zuo-zhou’s Complete Works” by Zhang Rui-he

After writing these two poems, the elderly doctor was imprisoned for over 90 days in 1950 on falsified charges. After he was released, Dr. Zhan spent most of his leisurely time growing chrysanthemums.

— from the 228 Museum website.

Buckets of chrysanthemums surround the 228 monument. They also happen to be one of my grandmother’s favorite flowers, and her namesake.

Being in Taiwan now, I really miss members of my family that have died and are no longer around to explain a photograph or answer my questions. It’s like a part of the world is missing and now there’s a hole with no one alive to explain what went there in some cases. There’s also possibilities lost– to learn how to cook from my grandmother, or hear about my grandfather’s experience as a soldier, or even know if my paternal grandfather would actually smile off-camera. They all died of natural causes, and I can’t quite imagine the feelings of the survivors of someone murdered by the government, which is theoretically supposed to protect you. I want to see this film, Taiwan’s Love about the survivors and their experiences, though I’ll need to wait for an English subbed version at some point (or the drastic improvement in my Chinese skills).

Anyway, I know it’s just another day off of work, but I share the hope that remembering 228 will somehow help people remember that a peaceful democracy isn’t easy to achieve and maintain. I was so amazed at the amount of involvement in the protests of this past fall against President Chen Shui Bian, but considering the history of protest in Taiwan and the human cost of the democracy he has been honored with the responsibility to guide, it isn’t as surprising.

I hope that Taiwan will be able to keep peace, and I am humbled by those who have suffered and died for that peace.

More on 228, etc.: talks about the museum, and more. talks more about the 228 incident and White Terror.

Formosa Betrayed is the eyewitness account of American about 228.

Island in the Stream: A Quick Case Study of Taiwan’s Complex History by April C.J. Lin and Jerome F. Keating is my quick and dirty start into learning about the book-version of Taiwanese history.


Matrimonial, yet scatalogical… Amongst other things

I visited my zhongwen lao se (Chinese teacher) for dinner and to chat and crochet last night.  We had dinner at her in-laws, who have a lovely house and served gwa bao (at least, that’s what I think it was kind of called), cuttlefish, chicken, and chicken pineapple bitter melon soup (really neat, tasty bunch of flavors).  The gwa bao is kind of a wrap that is made out of manto– a steamed white bun, except the gwa bao is flatter and folded over.  You open it up and fill it with something like parsley, salty pickled vegetables, powdered peanuts, and pork.  It’s delectable.  Apparently, it’s a special dinner and only served once a year (though I was rather stymied as to what exactly the special occasion was supposed to be about, other than the upcoming new year).

After a nice supper, we headed over to her place and sipped fruit tea.  We’re both Anne of Green Gables fans and I need to get her and her husband to watch The Princess Bride (he likes swashbuckling).

We got on the subject of her wedding, and she told me that when Chinese people get married, their parents need to agree on the things they should buy.  The bride is supposed to buy her groom twelve particular things  (a suit, etc.), and he’s supposed to buy her six.

One of the things the bride is supposed to have to start their lives together is a chamber pot.  It’s a new red plastic pot with a symbolic sugar stick inside it, a handle, and a removable top with the double happiness characters stuck to it.  It’s supposed to ensure that her husband will have wealth.  The Chinese word for what goes into a chamber pot is hwang jin, which also means “yellow gold.”  Therefore, if they have a chamber pot, which the bride brings to the groom’s house, they will have wealth.  My zhongwen lao se isn’t really sure what to do with some of the things they had to get when they  were married– like the chamber pot, wash basins, etc., which people don’t really use anymore.  I suppose a chamber pot is easier to carry over to the groom’s house than a modern toilet, though…

On her wedding day, my zhongwen lao se had to step over fire– not an open fire– a little pot with holes in it and a cover.  In her long, flowing white dress and high heels, she had to step over the fire to keep bad spirits from following her.

Also, people are supposed to keep and feed chickens for a few months when they get a new house.  The Taiwanese word for “chicken,” “ge,” is a homonym for the word for “house” (if I recall correctly).  Therefore, people are supposed to have a pair of chickens when they get a new house for good luck.  A rooster and a hen, which would be rather difficult to accommodate in a modern apartment.  Therefore, my zhongwen lao se has a lovely little basket with tiny rooster and hen dolls.  They do have a lovely home, so the rooster and hen dolls must be working.

Free Rice

September 2019
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