From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Fieldnotes From History (6)—Early Acculturation

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Fieldnotes From History."
[a] Taipei morning RF
Part of an occasional Round and Square series that follows the blog’s main theme (east meets west, round meets square, and past meets present), these snippets from my early fieldnotes are reproduced as they were written by hand—and then revised on an ancient desktop computer—during my first fieldwork stay in Taiwan (1985-1987).  All entries are the way that I left them when I returned to the United States in 1987—some nicely-stated and some embarrassing. I will allow myself an occasional comment when something makes me wince after a quarter century.

I do wince when I read these lines, and am a little embarrassed by them. It is not the items that "date" me in these notes (such as pay phones) that bother me, and I do like the general set of acculturation issues that I have raised here (transportation, pronunciation, and concern for my topic of research). No, what bothers me is the breeziness of it all. I recoil when I "hear" myself use "they" in what sounds these days to have an air of condescension. I could claim that I didn't mean it, and that is how I recall the cultural tumult of those early days. Still, the arrogance of it all (which, when combined with the built-in vulnerability that makes fieldwork such a strange process) bothers me. 

Moreover, although it doesn't "bother" me, I roll my eyes inwardly and outwardly at my confident expressions that I could have spoken for half an hour on Tang dynasty history and other such ridiculous statements. Yeah, in English. I still didn't have a clue in those early days, and apparently confused knowledge of a subject (I did know a good deal about the Tang) with an ability to express it in a foreign language. All I can say is, wow...naivety makes for strange fieldnotes. Finally, just a reminder that the conversational tone of these paragraphs has everything to do with the ethnographic (writing) process I followed while in Taiwan (I have since modified it slightly). I discuss these matters in the introduction to this series, so I will not do so again here.

As for the implication that perfect Mandarin pronunciation should be the focus of all linguistic activity, the 1985 Rob stands rightly accused. I have, since then, come to a more nuanced perspective on these matters, although it still may not be exactly what students of anthropology might expect.

15 May 1985

Becoming acculturated was difficult during those first few days. Little things—like using a pay phone, buying a bus ticket, telling a taxi driver where to take us, and ordering off an all-Chinese menu—were tough. My textbook Chinese was not terribly helpful for finding the #277 bus, which leaves every 6-12 minutes from the front of the Mandarin Hotel. (If someone would have wanted me to tell about Tang Dynasty historiography I could have lectured for a half-hour, but nobody asked). It didn’t take long to adapt, but the process was painful.

Learning to communicate in spoken Mandarin would be difficult, even under ideal circumstances, but it was made harder here by the fact that the Taiwanese dialect has affected people’s pronunciation of Mandarin. I learned Beijing Mandarin, which is—theoretically—the language officially spoken here and throughout the mainland. But it varies; Beijing speech and Taiwanese speech are about as similar as Boston English is with Jackson, Mississippi’s. The local people have an annoying (from a language student’s perspective) habit of not clearly enunciating the initial syllable or fragment of each word. They might say san sui (three? years old?) when they mean shan shui (mountain water). They do this with the ‘zh’ sound, pronouncing ‘z’; the ‘sh’ sound, pronouncing ‘s’; and the ‘ch’ sound, pronouncing ‘c’. The problem is, there are hundreds of words where the difference between ‘sh’ and ‘s’, ‘zh’ and ‘z’, or ‘ch’ and ‘c’ make all the difference in the world. I have gotten used to these things, but I won’t speak like them. Even people with a heavy Taiwanese accent respect good Beijing pronunciation, although it usually sounds a little funny to them. 

All of those things that seemed so difficult during the first week are quite routine now. I enjoy taxi rides, and view them as a language lesson. I’m paying for it, so I talk with the taxi drivers about weather, Taipei, and Chinese history (they usually don’t say much; it’s the same thing as asking the average American about the Period of Reconstruction—you get a bunch of blank stares; it’s contemptible, but it’s reality). I am no longer a confused foreigner whose formal Chinese is of no practical use. I am now a confused foreigner who can get by in Chinese, but still lacks a lot of practical knowledge. My passion for reading Chinese history and philosophy has left a few gaps in my ability to, say, reserve a hotel room. It’s not too bad, though; I can find a restroom if I need to. 
[b] Juxtaposed RF

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