next town west i’ma find my tribe, part 2: comeback speaker

We’d been a minority in América, but we were a minority on Taiwan too. We were Republic 49er Chinese. Our people had fled China with the Chiangs after losing the Civil War in 1949. We were outnumbered 4:1 or 9:2 by the Hoklo-speaking creole tribe of Taiwan, otherwise known as “the Taiwanese”.

There were other tribes on Taiwan too, such as the Hakka, the Amis, the Paiwan, the Atayal, the Puyuma, and the Seediq of bigscreen fame. This was before the Vietnamese started moving in.

My mother’s family disapproved of the Creoles, “the Taiwanese”. My father and his father felt vaguely threatened by the politically active ones.

One year, on the first day of Tet at our elementary school in East Coast suburbia, the principal’s office had a student get on the intercom and wish everybody kionghí huattsâi (恭喜發財) — “congratulations and may you get rich” in Hoklo. This is the language also known as Hokkien or Taiwanese.

We told our parents when we got home. My father felt disturbed. “Why did they have to use Hoklo?” he muttered. This could never have happened on Taiwan, where the head-49ers-in-charge had banned Hoklo from the public sphere for decades.

I had a crush on the Creole Taiwanese girl in my class that year. My parents would’ve been glad if they knew: at least she was some kind of “Chinese”.

Later I crushed on Gujaratis. I figured out what it was I liked about some Creole Taiwanese chicks: they had a tropical look.

When we got back to the green hills and hot streets, we were surrounded by Creoles speaking wild Hoklo. The day we moved into our flat, a young married couple was duking it out in a building behind us. The wife kept saying, “Ánnuá! Ánnuá!” meaning So what, but I wouldn’t know that for many years. I didn’t know any Hoklo, and this I took for granted.

My parents had somehow spent the first 20-some years of their lives on Taiwan without learning much Hoklo. My father could speak it at a pidgin level. My mother only knew some common phrases.

We were bougie Republic 49ers. Subconsciously, we were too good to learn or speak Hoklo.

The Creole moving guys that came over to unload our boxes from América… One of them spat a river of betelnut juice on our front door as they were leaving. It was like a sign of bad blood.

During our time on Taiwan, island of the stars and the diehards, I did some serious fooling around with a new language for the first time … but I picked Cantonese for that, not Hoklo. It was a no-brainer at the time, both the picking and the learning. Soon I could speak Mantonese, the language of Cantopop, with ease.

After two years, we moved back to Américan suburbia. It was a time of baggy pants and gangsta hip-hop. We lived in a rich district, in the one neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks. The White kids on the bus were wiggers who wore baggy pants and acted Black. The White girls wore hoop earrings.

We lived at a crossroads. Both roads led to the shores of a bay. New York City loomed large across that water. I was changing, as a person. I became more extroverted. I wanted to know all about the things around me. I wanted to go far, but, wherever I went, I wanted to be local. I wanted to be a random person.

After high school, I visited the green hills and hot streets again. My uncle on my dad’s side met me in the concrete jungle and took me on a two-day excursion down the wild east shore. He was a man of the world. He had lived in Hawai’i and Aotearoa (a.k.a. New Zealand) and roamed across China in the 80s. He used to smuggle goods on a river between Brazil and some other land back in the 70s.

My uncle was Shanghai-born, but spoke fluent Hoklo. Random people interacted warmly with us. That didn’t happen if you spoke all Mandarin all the time like most of my kin.

We cruised past where the giant mountains plunged straight into the ocean without warning. I wondered if I could get off the bus in a valley by the sea, maybe hook up with an Amis babe and skip college and grow bananas and just kick 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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