Taiwan Journal, Part IV

A Taipei street scene


We ended Part III with a note about names — Chen and Smith. For that third installment, go here. For the first two, go here and here. And, continuing in the same vein . . .

Many Taiwanese and Chinese have an “English” first name, for the benefit of English-speakers: Jim or Jane, Bob or Betty. Sometimes, in my opinion, these names are unnecessary, as their actual first names are easily pronounceable, and, in any case, people should make an effort — should certainly make an effort about other people’s names.

But, frankly, sometimes these English names are a kindness: for the Chinese names fit an English mouth like a cactus into a glove.

Transliteration is a mess, a total mess — I am speaking of the rendering of Chinese names and words into English (or at least the Roman alphabet). It’s not just that this transliteration is often inconsistent; it’s that it’s illogical, barely usable.

If someone would put me in charge of transliteration — Jay Nordlinger, Czar of All Transliteration — I could do the world a great favor. Stubbornly, the world doesn’t ask.

Take transliteration from Indian tongues. I have complained about this before. If you want people to call the old language “Sunskrit” — and if you’re an Indian, you do — don’t write “Sanskrit.” If you want them to refer to the yogurt drink as a “lussi” (rhymes with “hussy”), don’t write “lassi.”

Oh, I could go on (and, luckily for you, I won’t).

Chen-Shen Yen is a scholar at the Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University, here in Taipei. He is virtually an American. He spent 18 years, from 1978 to 1996, in our country. He studied and taught in Texas, Indiana, and Alaska. One thing he and his family miss about Alaska? That lovely oil-dividend check.

The question of his identity — what he feels like: Taiwanese, Chinese, some mixture — is a little complicated: He was away from the country during the years when a Taiwanese consciousness was really developed.

In Taiwan, the main languages are Mandarin, “Taiwanese” (a form of Chinese also known as “Hokkien”), and a couple of other, less common tongues. I ask Yen what he and his wife speak at home.

He says, “Mandarin, sometimes English — sometimes Cantonese.” They used to speak Cantonese with each other when they didn’t want their kids to understand. Then, the kids learned some Cantonese. Now, the elder Yens speak Cantonese when they don’t want their dog to understand.

This smart canine understands key, doggy words in Mandarin and English. (“Out,” for example.) But she has not yet gotten wise to the Cantonese. Only a matter of time, I suppose.

Yen is sometimes interviewed by the Chinese media — the PRC media, such as they are. And when he speaks of Taiwan’s president as “President Ma,” they tell him, “Don’t say ‘President Ma’: Say ‘Mr. Ma.’” And “Don’t say ‘presidential election’; say ‘leadership election.’” Because, you see, the PRC will not recognize Taiwan’s system and sovereignty.

What does Yen do? He tells them to go jump in a lake.

Sometimes, as I understand it, the censor simply beeps out the word “president.” So Chinese viewers will hear Yen say, “So-and-so is running for [beep] against the incumbent, [beep] Ma.”

Another term the censor doesn’t like: Taiwan’s formal name, “Republic of China.” Beep City.