Say My Name

How learning a new language helped me to untangle my heritage.
A street scene in Taiwan that demonstrates how Taiwanese signs use Mandarin characters

When I was in middle school, I ran with a group of friends so tight that kids called us “the groupies.” I didn’t really understand what that meant—being an immigrant in Southern California meant I wasn’t as fast to pick up implications, snark or idioms—I just knew that it meant we belonged together.

At a certain point, we were assigned S.E. Hinton’s classic novel, The Outsiders. After that, we saw the movie, and we all were so taken by the story of Ponyboy and his friends and their never-ending friendship that we thought to take on the nicknames of the boys in the story. Our friendship, we thought, was just like that. I’m not sure how it happened, but the best names were quickly claimed—Tracey was SodaPop, Candace was Ponyboy, Jo was Two-Bit, I think, and since “Steve” wasn’t really an option for a girl in the ’80s, I ended up as boring, run-of-the-mill Dally. Dally’s not really a nickname, is it? It’s just a shortening of “Dallas,” the character’s real name. 

Whatever. It was miles better than watching people’s lips contort and their faces flush as they tried to pronounce my real name, Yi Shun. More often though, I was asked if people could call me something else — so once I’d been dubbed “Dally,” I often opted for that name. 

I don’t blame people for trying to avoid saying my name. It was only last year, pushing middle age, that I myself finally learned how my name is really pronounced in its written Mandarin.

See, Mandarin’s not my native language: Taiwanese is, and in Taiwanese, my name is pronounced Gee swun, with a hard “G,” nothing at all like how it’s pronounced in Mandarin (Yí xùn). But if you’re me, “learning Mandarin” isn’t just like, “Oh, I’m picking up a new skill. That’s cool.” It is flat-out learning the language of the country that kept your people down for what was, until a decade ago, the longest-ever period of martial law.

By now, you are completely befuddled. Let me explain: In 1949, when the Kuomintang party left Communist China for Taiwan, they quickly decreed that Taiwan’s official language would be Mandarin Chinese, with punishments meted out if you were caught speaking Taiwanese. My father remembers the indignity and sudden danger of having to watch what you said outside the house, on the street, in school, lest you be flogged or fined. 

From then on, Taiwanese’s grip on its own people began to vanish. It went from being a recognized lingua franca to being denigrated as something only old people or hicks spoke. It started to be considered a spoken dialect, a designation underscored by the fact that it relies either on Mandarin characters or on varying systems of romanization—cramming non-Western sounds into Western letters—to be communicated in written form. When my parents left Taiwan for the United States in 1978, I was 4. Military rule was still in full effect; Taiwan wouldn’t shake it until 1987, when I was a teenager. On the freer shores of the United States, where you wouldn’t be officially persecuted for speaking your native language, my parents kept reminding my brother and I of our heritage. Once we returned home from elementary school, junior high, high school and then college, we spoke with our parents in Taiwanese. They never asked us to learn Mandarin, for obvious reasons.

But Taiwanese is, as I mentioned, primarily a spoken language, a dialect. Not being able to write the characters meant that I had to memorize the hell out of everything. A couple of years ago, desperate for better ways of communicating with my aging parents and others of their generation, as well as hankering to strengthen my ties to my homeland, I swallowed my bile and signed up for Mandarin lessons. 

I hired a teacher, a Taiwanese national, who spoke both Mandarin and Taiwanese. Within weeks of beginning my Mandarin lessons, I was learning new words in Taiwanese with a speed I never anticipated. And I could pick apart words I never really had understood the roots of before; piece them back together again until I truly understood what those words meant. I could ask my parents how to write a certain new word, and as they wrote it out for me, I could recall them better just by noting which radicals formed them.

It sounds like better fluency, but it still tasted like betrayal. I hid my Mandarin lessons from my parents for months, fearing I had somehow let them down. One day I took a deep breath, called them on the phone and asked them, in Mandarin, if they wanted takeout for dinner. My parents, after a surprised pause, corrected the grammatical error I’d made, and answered me in Taiwanese. They were pleased, it turns out, that I was learning Mandarin, if only because it meant I’d be better able to navigate in Taiwan, where street signs are still written in Mandarin and only 70 percent of the population speaks Taiwanese.

Sometimes now, when I’m stretching for words, I’ll reach for the Mandarin before I can find the Taiwanese. And when I ask my parents to teach me a new Taiwanese word, it’s still painful to know that they have to write it in Mandarin before they pronounce it for me in Taiwanese. 

Learning Mandarin has proven to be the right decision in all of the usual ways you’d expect: when I go to the restaurant or Asian grocery store, I can try to pick out the right dishes, rather than pointing and ordering in English. I’ve started communicating with my cousins and aunts and uncles in Taiwan using LINE, their preferred social-messaging app, in Mandarin, which keeps us more closely connected.

And I can finally, finally parse the exact details of my name, reconcile the fact that it gave me so much trouble as an American kid with what my grandfather intended for me when he gave it to me. 

My name is Yi Shun, 儀遜. The first character is taken from the word for “most admired favorite.” The second character is taken from the word for “upstanding.” When paired with the second character of my brother’s name, that second character makes the word for most morally upstanding. 

My parents, who are so proudly Taiwanese, have some colonial lag: Growing up, I was always expected to be the good Taiwanese daughter, delicate and demure. What they got instead is five-foot-seven, with a booming voice and big shoulders, miles away from what they thought of as someone to be admired, or a favorite. I didn’t take on a career they could explain to their friends, either, so I couldn’t exactly be “upstanding.” I knew I was a failure to them, and my twenties and thirties were a misery for it. But when I started learning Mandarin, I could truly begin to understand the depth of their aspirations for me.

 If I’d never taken the steps to learn the language of the country that had once oppressed my parents, I’d have never learned exactly what they hoped for. And, perhaps most important, I’d have never gained the power to define exactly what I wanted those characters to mean for myself.

I asked my Dad recently about how he feels about the written Mandarin language being the traditional way to learn Taiwanese. He said, “It’s always been that way; it’s as Taiwanese to me as Taiwanese itself.”

I don’t quite feel that way. I can’t shake the history, the image of my uncles and aunts getting spanked and humiliated and sent home for speaking their native language. But learning Mandarin has given me another chance at being Taiwanese, another way to get to know my parents. And I can’t quite shake that, either.

This article is part of a series commissioned and paid for by Babbel, but it represents the journalist’s views. It was edited by Michelle No and Thomas Devlin. Header Photo by Su San Lee on Unsplash.

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