Characters followed before, but no more.

• Mary, the Christian scientist
• Yi-jung, a Taiwanese in Beijing

This is the third (and likely final) installment of translations from the facebook notes of a Taiwanese exchange student in Beijing. Read my preface of sorts to these translations, here.

In this note, Yi-jung’s visit to the old Summer Palace prompts some thinking about history teaching in Taiwan and mainland China.

A trip to the old Summer Palace (2010.12.3.2010)

I took the subway today from Peking University station to Yuanmingyuan station, and the old Summer Palace was right there.* Before, I’d only seen a picture of the old Summer Palace in my middle school history textbook, but now there’s a subway station next to it. I couldn’t believe that a hundred years ago, British and French troops destroyed this place, and maybe a lot of people died here. Even more difficult to imagine was that Qing dynasty emperors, eunuchs, concubines and courtiers had also walked on this land. This feeling is difficult to describe. At any rate, these people hadn’t gone to Taiwan.

Walking through the ruins of the European buildings, I saw lots of Western style architecture, but what I saw wasn’t authentic, but rather a simulated rebuilding. Then I walked into a maze. It was difficult to understand why so much effort was spent to build a maze like this, I really don’t know what the people of the time were thinking. According to my limited memory of history, the political situation of that time was chaotic, and the state of affairs worldwide had changed, but there were still people [i.e. the imperial court] who didn’t realise how explosive the times were.

Beijing is a city with a heavy history. However, I feel that these historical sites aren’t so important to the locals here, maybe [having them around is] as natural as breathing for them? I don’t understand why the history my middle school taught included mainland Chinese history in our national history**. If I was taught another version of history, maybe the meaning of this place to me would have decreased immensely.

去圓明園 2010-03-12





* ‘Yuanmingyuan’ is the Chinese name for the old Summer Palace. The Chinese means ‘garden of the full moon’ (correct me if I’ve got this wrong, readers).

** For ‘national history’, Yi-jung uses 本國歷史, referring to the Republic of China (中华民国) as her perspective is Taiwanese. The term I’ve translated (wrongly, but it helps to make the meaning clearer) as ‘mainland Chinese history’ is 中國歷史, literally ‘Chinese history’. In her clarification email when I asked about these terms, Yi-jung writes that this term includes 淪陷的大陸地區 - ‘mainland [China] which fell into enemy hands’ (no kidding). All this give me a big headache, as it does Yi-jung. “I think that [本国] and [中国] aren’t unequivocal terms”, she writes, “I’m not even clear about them myself. It’s an extremely complicated problem.” You got that right.

As an interlude to the Diary of a Taiwanese in Beijing posts I’m running, here’s a little vignette from when I invited Wu Yi-jung - a Taiwanese exchange student in Beida - to join Marie and I for dinner one night. Marie has had a long-standing interest in Taiwanese and Japanese culture*, and was excited to meet Yi-jung. Her first question was about the Taiwanese chat shows and singers she loved. Yi-jung shot a wry glance at me - just that afternoon, she’d told me this was the most common question she got in Beijing. But she answered patiently, and we started talking about Sally’s recent trip to the Great Wall.

I had hardly expected this to be a segway segue* into the topic of Taiwanese independence.

Yi-jung and her friends had been cheated on car-fare to the Great Wall. Yi-jung and Marie both thought that was because the group was all from Taiwan. Not thinking, I added “yes, it’s easy for foreigners to get cheated”. The word I used for ‘foreigners’, 外国人, literally means ‘people from outside the county’. Marie stopped eating, gave me a smile so sweet it could only mean she was offended, and said “but Taiwanese aren’t foreign. Taiwan is part of China.”

Yi-jung froze up, not wanting to play through this line of conversation - clearly a TiVo repeat of countless conversations before it. “I’m hypersensitive,” she mumbled (saying ‘hypersensitive’ in English), “change the topic … change the topic.”

But Marie wanted to score the point. “Don’t you think Taiwan is part of China?”

Yi-jung wasn’t getting involved. “I’m afraid you’ll get angry with me”.

“We always think that Taiwan is just another province of China.”

“I’m afraid you’ll argue with me”.

This was getting repetitive. I felt I had to intervene. (And yes, I was fully aware of the risks of being labelled a ‘foreign nation intervening in affairs which are not it’s own’.) It was tricky: I had to pick a topic different enough to break the impasse, but not so different as to be awkward. I choose poorly: tensions within the United Kingdom.

Explaining the respective relations of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and Northern Ireland, not to mention which combination is Britain, which is Great Britain, and which is the UK … this is difficult enough in English. In Chinese … well, I guess there’s only one way it could have been worse. A Scot could have been sitting next to us.


* a quick note: it isn’t mutually exclusive for young Chinese today to be politically hostile towards, and at the same time culturally fascinated by, Japan or Taiwan.

** thanks to my Dad for pointing this out to me. And apologies to any Italian readers for butchering your language. What a foaw paah!

This is the second installment of translations from the facebook notes of a Taiwanese exchange student in Beijing. Read my preface of sorts to these translations, here.

In this note, Yi-jung bumps into friends from Taiwan who are now living in Beijing.

Meeting old friends again (6.3.2010)

Today and yesterday, I met some friends from my university. I was really happy to see them, but I thought that a half year having gone by, ordinarily speaking, our lives should have gone different ways. Besides the physical seperation of the Taiwan Strait, there was also the invisible wall seperating us online. They couldn’t use facebook, so we could only use MSN to keep in touch.* So [seeing them like this], I felt it couldn’t be true.

We strolled together around clothing stores, trying on clothes as we pleased. Talking and shopping like this was just like it used to happen in Taipei, but now it happened again in Beijing. This confused me as to when and where I was. The roles had switched from half a year ago in Tainan.** I had a very special feeling: aren’t we really just molded by our circumstances?

My friend told me: ‘’I think it’s fate, I thought we would never meet again.” I replied: “I think it’s fate, although I will leave [Beijing] in July, we will surely meet again in the future.”

再見面 2010-03-06





* this sentence isn’t in the Chinese above, but was in an another draft of Yi-jung’s.
** when Yi-jung was a student volunteer at Tainan, helping exchange students settle down; now her friends are showing her around.

This is the first installment of translations from the facebook notes of a Taiwanese exchange student in Beijing. Read my preface of sorts to these translations, here.

What I find interesting in this note is Yi-jung’s expectation that Beijing will be a world apart from Tainan, not to mention a romanticisation of pre-liberation Beijing.

Before going to Beijing (18.2.2010)

Travelling to Beijing, I don’t know what kind of people I will meet or what will happen. I don’t know whether I will like these people and things or not. Maybe some of them I won’t like, but I’ll just have to learn to accept them. After reading my Mainland friend’s writing, I was overwhelmed and surprised that she still remembers me. In fact, the biggest reason that motivated me to apply for exchange study in Beijing was that I wanted to meet my old friends in Mainland China again. If I just fly over there, I can certainly meet up with them again. But I really want to know what the city and society they grew up in is like.

So I think if I can stay in Beijing for a short time, maybe I’ll have the opportunity to better understand their culture. Even though we speak the same language, there are still differences between us.* I want to go and see Beijing, and see how different after all it is to the book I read once, Memories of Peking: South Side Stories, by Lin Hai-yin. I know new Beijing will not be like the book’s description of old Peking anymore; things have changed over many decades.** I’ve already mentally prepared myself, Beijing may be just like other big cities I’ve been to, with so many skyscrapers. Maybe I can only like that Beijing of my imagination, and not the real Beijing. I simply don’t know.

If you go for a stay in a city you’ve never been to before, wouldn’t you be afraid?

And here’s the original note (in 繁体字, of course, her being Taiwanese):

行前 2010-02-18

此行去北京,其實我無法預知會遇到什麼人,發生什麼事。我不知道那些人事物會不會讓我喜歡,還是也會有我不喜歡的人事物,但是我也得學會去接受。看到我的大陸朋友寫的文章,有點讓我受寵若驚,因為她還記得我。因為其實讓我有最大動力申請去北京大學交換,是想再去中國大陸看看以前認識的朋友; 如果我只是專飛過去,我確實也可以見到我的朋友。但是我更想知道他們成長的城市和社會是什麼樣子。

所以我覺得我若可以在這個城市待一短暫的時間,也許我有機會更了解他們的文化。我想去看看北京,到底和我以前讀過林海音寫的城南舊事中的北平,差別在哪裡? 其實我已經做好心理準備了,北京也許就像我曾經去過的那些大城市一樣有許多高樓大廈。也許我只喜歡那個想像中的北京,而不是真正的北京。我真的不知道。



* this sentence isn’t in the Chinese above, but Yi-jung had written it in another draft.
** ditto. Yi-jung also mentions she first read the book (which is set in the 1930s) as a teenager.

Last summer, on a train in California, I eavesdropped shamelessly on the Chinese conversation of some summer students in my carriage. Waiting for the ripe moment to reveal I could understand them - which is as fun as it is smug - I struck up a friendship with one of the girls, Wu Yi-jung 吳宜蓉*. (Who kindly let me publish her summer research project on stereotypes of Asians in the US.)

Shortly after the Chinese new year, I got an email from Yi-jung saying she was in Beijing for five months, on an exchange program from her university in Tainan - taking psychology classes at Beida (Peking University). This was her first trip to Beijing, and my curiosity was instantly piqued: what were her first impressions? What were her expectations before? How did Beida students react to her? And her reactions in turn?

We met up, then and over the following months, and I bugged Yi-jung with these questions and more. She also pointed me towards her facebook profile, where she had been posting notes from Beijing (using a VPN - facebook is blocked in mainland China, unlike in Taiwan). I’ll be translating three of four of these notes and posting them here - starting with one right away. But as a preface, here are a few of Yi-jung’s impressions of the city which emerged during our conversations. I resisted schoolboy bullet points.

First up: Beijing’s so cold! (This in early March; I’ll back her up here.) And her second impression? Taking a shower in Beida isn’t like back home in Taiwan. “Many student dorms in Beida don’t have a shower, students have to use communal shower rooms, and there’s one shower tap. When I found out that everyone showers together in this way, I was so surprised, there’s no right to privacy (隐私权).”

What about the food, then? “Much too oily.” The second time we met, Yi-jung had just had a Subway sandwich for dinner (Beida has a joint on campus).

How about reactions from Beida students, when they hear where she’s from? One of the first, she tells me is: “Oh, you’re from Taiwan? You speak Mandarin really well!”** After this, most people ask about the pop stars and chat shows Taiwan is famous for. But sooner or later (especially over meals, for some reason), many get onto politics. Here, the phrase she hears most is “Taiwan is part of China”, offered as a sound-bite, often without prelude or context. Yi-jung couldn’t agree less, but she never rises to the bait.

But what I found most interesting was how Yi-jung’s reactions changed two months later. In March, shortly after her arrival, she considered Taiwanese students like her completely unlike their Beida counterparts - for all of the reasons above, and more. Now, the food is still oily, the students still nationalistic - but Yi-jung has become “无所谓”. That’s an essential phrase to know in China, equivalent to “I couldn’t care less”.

In California, Yi-jung had had a culture shock too: after a month there, she told me, it became clear to her that American students weren’t anything like her or her friends. But here in Beijing, she’s realised that the differences she’d complained of between herself and young mainland Chinese were quibbles. “Now I think they are just like me”.

The first of Yi-jung’s facebook notes is up, here. The second, here. Third, too.

Next, this is what happened when Yi-jung met Marie, and here is my other Taiwanese friend’s two cents.


* that third character doesn’t sound like the English because it’s the Wade-Giles system of romanisation, still used on Taiwan. In pinyin, her name would read ‘Wu Yirong’.

** standard Mandarin or putonghua is spoken in Taiwan with a heavy accent. As it is in pretty much every mainland province, of course … so this is seriously patronising.

In California last summer, on the train from Palo Alto to Berkeley, I met a graduate student from Taiwan who was in the US in a summer camp organised by Stanford University, bringing students from Taiwan and Japan over to the states for English and ‘American culture’ lessons.

It was her fourth time in the states, and I was interested in her research project for the camp: the stereotypes of Asians in the US, and how those differed between East Asians and American Asians. Well-worn ground, but I was curious what a young Chinese would make of it.

So I got her email just in time before my stop (if you’re bringing your bike on the Caltrain with you, you can forget where your bike lock key is, or which stop is yours, but not both) and here is the fruit of her labour, which I’ve edited for its English and for length. One interesting bit - besides the two lists of words - is her assumption that there has to be a stereotype (because there is in movies?) and her surprise at the by and large positive words her interviewees used to describe Asians with (to her face, so of course they were positive!).

More out of embarrassment at her essay than anything else I sense, she asks to remain anonymous (again, aargh).


The stereotype of Asians from Americans’ perspectives

Imagine you go to another country whose culture you are not familiar with, how would you feel if the people there have already developed some stereotypes about you? Most international students who come from Asia to the United States for higher education pursue science or engineering degrees. Most of the time, they are stereotyped as “good at solving math problems but probably poor at English”. Although some Americans don’t show this attitude directly, their behaviors still reveal that “East Asians tend to be more obedient”. Also, in American movies or sitcoms, Asians often play characters who know Chinese martial arts. Even in 2008, Batman: The Dark Knight, the director shaped a Chinese, Lau, as a greedy businessman. You can also see these kinds of characters in Jackie Chan’s movies.

My hypothesis is that Americans still have stereotypes about Asians. Therefore, I conducted a survey, asking twenty participants to fill in my questionnaire about their views of East Asians and American Asians. The participants were from downtown Palo Alto and Stanford University. They are mostly under twenty five years old, and have at least a high school degree.

[I'm skipping the first section of her survey results, as it's all obvious and a bit GCSE. In brief: participants responded they form ideas about East Asians from personal encounters much more than from media, TV or films; they mostly consider Asian American culture as distinct from mainstream American culture; and they are - unsurprisingly - more familiar with Asian American culture than East Asian culture. What's below is more telling I think.]

Survey question number ten asked Americans to give some words to describe East Asians. Since it is an open-ended question, we got diverse words. I will list all the words here to give you a general picture of how they think about East Asians: hard-working, intelligent, submissive, ground-minded, family-oriented, community-oriented, discipline, thrifty, honest, fast, multi-culture, naïve, traditional, honorable, proud, humble, cultural, friendly, smart, polite, adhere to rules, homogeneous, outgoing, calm, enlightened, serene, enthusiastic, driven, well-manned, stick with their own people, nice, like to study, dedicated, foreign, immigrant, humble, educationally driven, hospitable.

Question number eleven asked Americans to give words to describe Asian Americans. The words they used included: like to study, sometimes socially awkward, ambitious, computer-using, smart, innovative, striving, respectful, educated, sensitive, confused, friendly, intelligent, family is important, assimilated, outgoing, calm, enlightened, serene, willing to help, adaptable, perfectionist, aware, accepting, independent.

During the survey, Americans tended to refuse to use negative words to describe Asian Americans, maybe they are afraid that they will stereotype Asian Americans, and some actually only wrote none or “They are Americans”. It’s interesting to see that they tend to use positive words in the open-ended question. All the more negative adjectives are original suggestions from my questionnaire. Maybe Americans find it hard to put their thoughts into words, and they just feel that Asian Americans are the same as them. We still need more data to find out.

I also interviewed four Asian Americans (all Stanford University students) about their personal experiences of being stereotyped. Over all, most of them talked about being stereotyped as good at maths and science. Two of them majored in were social sciences, so they actually said that they were not that talented at maths. Since the school’s peers and teachers expected them to be good at maths and science, it added more pressure to choose those subjects. Luckily, now they are studying what they really like now.

« Older entries