next town west i’ma find my tribe, part 3: impossible speaker

I went to college, but I started learning Hoklo.

At first I thought Hoklo would be easy for me since it was supposedly a “Chinese” language, and so was Mandarin. As urban legend had it, all Chinese languages do is recycle the same words and the same sentence structures, with slightly different pronunciations and expressions. This was part of why, even though I believed that Anglophones like me couldn’t learn languages, somehow I still felt I could handle Hoklo.

But I’d underestimated. Truth was, Hoklo and Mandarin were two different languages all along, maybe a little closer together than Mandarin and Japanese, but, still, something along the lines of an English and a French.

The differences didn’t turn me away, though. They reeled me in and pushed me forward. They made Hoklo exciting and fresh.

But I was living in América and materials were hard to come by. Back then the internet was still unreliable. I was so hard up I even milked academic papers for vocab and sentence examples. I signed up for the Tâigúbāng (台語网) listserve and learned Hoklo from reading their letters. Most of the letters were about Taiwanese politics and the fight for linguistic equality.

At this time I was taking a hard look at the attitudes I grew up with. I felt that much of my default Republic Chinese worldview was unjustified, so I cast it aside along with my lukewarm Christian faith. I didn’t question my default estadounidense programming just yet, though.

The hardest part of learning Hoklo was the attitudes of speakers on Taiwan. Once I was ready to get out there and talk to people, I found that most people would show disgust and switch me to Mandarin as soon as they realized my Hoklo wasn’t fluent. But how would I ever get fluent if they kept switching me to Mandarin?

Even when I was able to get my words out smoothly, most people would say, “Hey, you have an accent.”

No shit!

Then they would switch to Mandarin.

I became afraid to bust out the Hoklo. I was getting gun-shy. I knew I was just gon’ get shot down again.

Six years in, I went and stayed on Taiwan for almost half a year. Two things happened, Hoklo-wise.

First, I made a new friend who was a native speaker of Hoklo and proud of it. She was surprised to find that I was learning Hoklo, but she decided to help me learn. She was like a midwife for the Hoklo speaker in me.

Second, I flew to Bangkok one week and took a bus down to Phi Phi and Penang. Half of Penang spoke Hoklo. Same language, different attitude.

Even though I spoke a different dialect of Hoklo, nobody showed impatience or pretended not to understand. Nobody tried to switch me to another language. Somebody even switched me from English to Hoklo.

I realized maybe I wasn’t such a fuck-up after all. I realized I was already speaking Hoklo for real. I was already vanquishing the Anglophone superstition that learning a language is impossible.

Not long after, one day my midwife said to me, “You know, lately you’ve started speaking Hoklo for real!

Right around then, there was an explosion of Hoklo resources on the internet. I had moved, to Hollywood. With an introduction from Tâigúbāng stalwart LATaibun, I started sitting in on Hoklo Toastmasters meetings with bougie Creole Taiwanese expats way out in a valley east of town. I built more fluency.

One fall, I was hired to translate between Hoklo and Spanish at a trade show in Vegas. Not bad for an English-Mandarin bilingual who thought he’d never learn another language again.

Meanwhile, I’d reached a conversational level in Cantonese at roughly the same time as Hoklo despite having spent much less time on it. This had its reasons. Cantonese is closer to Mandarin, my mother tongue, than Hoklo is. Yet, knowing Hoklo makes Cantonese much easier. Also, Cali was a decent environment for practicing Cantonese, and Cantophones really take new learners in stride. Last but not least, there were more materials to choose from. This made my methods more efficient.

When I was a kid, we were the stereotypical Republic Chinese family that would go to Chinatown for dimsum on weekends and wind up getting the cold shoulder from the waitstaff for trying to foist Mandarin on them. My aunt had a fiancé, though. That man was a game-changer. He spoke Cantonese, and when he went to dimsum with us, the dishes came clattering and food would cover the table in seconds. I didn’t know it then, but he wasn’t even Cantonese. He was down-island Creole Taiwanese.

I took it easy learning Cantonese. After the initial Mantonese stage, I learned it gradual and slow, but I recall I started speaking it almost overnight. Now I find it’s such a part of me. The stranger archetype is well developed in the Cantophone psyche. It just feels good and right to breeze along the tropical coast of Deep South China, or hit up towns like Saigon, K.L. and K.K., dropping in as the perfect stranger and mingling in a random fashion.

During the Hollywood daze, I started making more runs to Southeast Asia. In 2008, I pulled up stakes and moved out here. I’ll never forget the day I rented a motorbike for the first time and slipped into that Southern Thailand small-town traffic. I was Asian in Asia, a fish in water.

I’m a port city guy, and Hoklo has been a port city language for hundreds of years, so I run into it everywhere I go, country after country, port after port. But the language is starting to go down the drain. In Taiwan, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, and the South of Thailand — everywhere but the Philippines — young people in the cities are switching from Hoklo to Mandarin or English. A lot of the young kids don’t learn Hoklo at all. Meanwhile, the old folks are passing on, and country people keep turning into city people.

Last year in Đàoviên (桃園), Taiwan, where Hoklo was the lingua franca for two or three centuries, I was at a tea stand waiting for my tea. The lady right after me in line told the barista to hold the sugar and put in exactly one ice cube, in Hoklo. The teenager didn’t have a clue what she was saying. The kid had to rely on a translation from a bystander, the Américan-raised son of bougie Republic 49er parents, practically a foreigner.

So what? some say, like the young wife in the building behind us on a hot day 20 years ago, back when there were still young wives speaking Hoklo in that neighborhood. Ánnuá?! Ánnuá?!

Well, I’ll tell you ánnuá. Coughing up your language is like draining an ocean. All the fish that lived in that sea — stories, histories, standpoints, points of view, nuances, cultural antibodies, rhymes, reasons, and rhythms — will wash up and die … except to the extent that they can swim into your adopted ocean — your adopted language — and survive and thrive there. This is possible to the extent that the adopted language is very similar or very versatile.

Coughing up your language also puts your people at risk of becoming sibboleths in a shibboleth world. Your identity fades. Y’all become a half-assed version of something else. Other people become gatekeepers to your future for a generation or two, or a dozen generations. They’ll have something over you, and if they have something against you as well, then y’all in big trouble. You’ll be damned if you rise up and damned if you take it lying down. Have fun waiting for your messiah.

Use it or lose it.

Read more —

part 1: speaker in the storm
part 2: comeback speaker
part 3: impossible speaker
part 4: honorary speaker
part 5: madaspeaker
part 6: romance speaker
part 7: born-again speaker
part 8: gateway speaker
part 9: touchable speaker
part 10: everyspeaker

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