The other day, I watched “Tigertail,” Alan Yang’s Netflix movie about a man coming to grips with both his past in Taiwan and his present in America. The movie is named for a township near where both my parents grew up. In Mandarin, you’d write it “虎尾.” And in Taiwanese (which is written in Mandarin but which is spoken…well, in Taiwanese), you’d say, “Hó͘-bóe,” your lips looping around the syllables, corralling them from pinyin into my mother tongue. In Taiwanese, no words can be uttered without your tacking on an added layer of description (computers are “electronic brains,” bicycles are “steel horses,” or “foot-powered cars,” even lowly rear ends are “between the legs”), so you might then wonder why Hó͘-bóe is named this way: picture the shape of the township, perhaps, curling warmly around its cities and villages, protecting them like a big cat might drape its tail loosely over its cubs.
It’s easy to get sentimental in Taiwanese. The songs my parents gravitate to are always sad songs. My mother’s favorite, for a long time, was John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” and after that, it was “Send in the Clowns.” Whenever I asked her why she thought Taiwanese people loved songs like this so much, she’d say, “Well, Taiwanese people had a hard life.”
She could have been speaking of the Japanese troops occupying her family’s home towards the end of World War II, or maybe of the evening she and her family fled into the mountains to avoid persecution by the Kuo Ming Tang, the party that would put Taiwan under military rule. Either way, I could never tell if she was being overly dramatic or not; most days in our house were punctuated by some kind of screaming or argument. No boy would ever love me, say, if I didn’t dress the way my mother prescribed. Or, the boy I was actually dating only wanted me for sex.
My parents voiced strong opinions about everything, from the classes I was taking to how I chose to spend my leisure time. I bristled at nearly every single one. But the one I never pushed back about was language, even though ours was a tri-lingual household: My parents and I speak mainly Taiwanese to each other, my brother and I speak English to each other, and my parents spoke Mandarin when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying. And now, my parents speak English to my white, white husband.
My brother and I never questioned this. We knew Mandarin existed, but we also knew it was somewhat verboten to us. “You’re Taiwanese,” my parents always said. “You’ll speak Taiwanese when you step over the threshold of this house.”
In “Tigertail,” the hero speaks Taiwanese until he becomes a teenager, which coincides historically with 1949, the beginning of Taiwan’s period of martial law. Mandarin was declared the official language, so the kids learned to speak Mandarin to each other to stay in line with the law. In the movie, all of this is underscored by the hero’s speaking Mandarin to his mother, while she answers in Taiwanese. And later, after he’s been to America and raised his children there, he will only speak English to his kids. It’s unclear whether they know Mandarin or Taiwanese.
In my grandparents’ houses, the rule was clear: If you want to live here, you’ll speak Taiwanese. Even if my uncles and aunts got flogged and publicly shamed for even accidentally speaking Taiwanese in school, we’d never give up our mother tongue for the mainland’s.
I never questioned my parents’ insistence on Taiwanese, even as I questioned virtually everything else they had to offer me. I think something about their near-militant attitudes about Taiwan’s deserved independence from China appealed to my own dramatic side; it’s always cool to have something to believe in.
The stakes are lower now, obviously. Here, in our cushy American lives, speaking Taiwanese does not come with the threat of public shaming, monetary fines, or worse. Arguing for Taiwanese independence does not carry with it the threat of death or torture, like it did in military-rule Taiwan. Here, we speak Taiwanese to underscore our culture, or as a point of pride.
My brother and I were happy enough with this. Taiwanese is buckets of fun. It has seven tones; Mandarin only has four. Every Taiwanese word could have seven possible meanings. And it is the language we speak with nearly all of my relatives. It feels so much like home, with all of its imperfections, that I’m apt to approach people on the street I hear speaking Taiwanese, say hello and ask where they’re from. Just hearing it sends me right back to humidity and rainstorms, street markets and mopeds, far, far away from the arid California landscape or the relative sterility of a New York street. But this shared understanding isn’t enough to bridge any kind of cultural gap.
When my brother got into Peace Corps, he didn’t tell my parents until mere weeks before he left on assignment—it was too hard to explain why he’d choose to go over taking a “real job.” When I was tasked to go to Taiwan for a disaster-relief agency, I didn’t tell my parents until the night before I left—we’d never even discussed anything remotely like disaster relief. I kept my debut novel a secret until my author’s copies had arrived in the mail—when I first told them about the pending contract, they’d said, “A lot can happen between now and then. Don’t get your hopes up.”
It’s easy to entertain the idea that we were protecting them from the fact that their kids would never fulfill the aspirations they’d so carefully nurtured for us. Good daughters got married and then pregnant, but not until after they’d become doctors or lawyers. They did not go messing around with words or in disaster areas. Good sons became doctors. Period. And then they got married and got someone pregnant—preferably a good Taiwanese girl.
My parents speak fluent English, and my Taiwanese is pretty well close to fluent, but some things cannot be communicated.
Seven and a half years ago, my husband and I moved from our home in New York to be closer to my parents in California. They now live a mile away. I made the move totally chagrined, since I was fulfilling a Taiwanese stereotype of the dutiful daughter, returned home to help her aging parents. And even now, whenever my parents’ friends look upon me with something like approval for having come home, my throat clogs with protest. I want to tell my parents’ friends about the internal battle I’d fought; I want to lay out for them, year by year, how I’d tried everything else to mend the fracturing relationship that grew ever more fragile with every passing day I lived across the country. “I’m doing this for me,” I want to tell them. “Not because I’m a good daughter, or whatever.” I would punctuate this remark with a marked eyeroll, just in case they didn’t get it.
But sarcasm probably doesn’t translate all that well.
Watching “Tigertail” with my white husband during our time of social distancing, when I can’t be physically near my parents to experience it with them, had an unexpected, undesired effect: I want now, more than ever, to meet them on their terms.
Despite my need for independence from their expectations, I want suddenly to honor the fact that we do speak the same language, that they’ve laid the groundwork for us to meet on ever more broadening grounds.
I called my mom the day after I watched “Tigertail,” to see what she’d thought. “Enh,” she said. “bô-síaⁿ hó.” Not so great, mostly because it didn’t make sense that a good Taiwanese boy would be so rude as to speak to his mother in Mandarin when she was speaking Taiwanese.
I had hoped for more discussion.
I shrugged, over the phone. Even if we don’t agree on anything at all, we can at least discuss these differences in our shared language.