Tuesday, 11 February 2014

An Alien in Taiwan - Cathy Butler

In December I made my first ever trip to the Far East. I’d been invited to talk about children’s books to some academics in Taiwan, but it was a wonderful opportunity to see the country, eat the food, and of course meet some of the Taiwanese people – mostly students (see above) and lecturers. I was there for less than a week, but I had a great time, and would love to return. (Yes, that’s a hint.)

As well as two suitcases my luggage of course included a plentiful supply of English self-consciousness and pre-emptive guilt. This began, as so often, with the question of language. It happens that I’ve been learning Japanese for a while, so I was able to guess at the meaning of some of the Chinese characters (which are largely the same in both languages), but my spoken Chinese was limited to a very few words I’d hastily mugged up from a phrasebook. No one seemed to mind, and it was no practical impediment to getting around (these days, the world comes with English subtitles), but it felt a bit pathetic.

Language guilt was just the tip of the iceberg, though. I also noticed myself continually pinging between two attitudes, both of which I wished to avoid. How could I simultaneously refrain from a) seeing everything in Taiwan in Western terms, and b) focusing too exclusively on the differences? How could I steer between the Scylla of orientalism and the Charybdis of appropriation, while still entering fully into an appreciation of what I was seeing?

I soon decided I was worrying too much, and that not quite understanding what I was seeing or immediately knowing how to process it was a valuable part of the experience, as well as an inevitable one. Why was it, for instance, that in Taiwan (a country in which Christians make up less than 5% of the population) Christmas decorations and music were far more in evidence than they had been back in Bristol? I didn’t know – but I could admire these life-sized cardboard cut-outs of the nativity, especially the psyched expression on the Virgin Mary’s face.Why did approximately one in ten Taiwanese  (especially young women) wear surgical masks – even in lectures? Was it to do with pollution? A fear of spreading germs? A measure against the unseasonably cold weather? Modesty? In the end I stopped asking. And what is the appeal of the Bunny King, skull-wielding Lord of Nature, whose mount is a farting pig? I don’t know the answer, but I bought the mug.

The wish to remedy ignorance is laudable, but sometimes it’s salutary to embrace one’s own lack of understanding. It can sharpen the senses and the observation – just as a piqued appetite is more discerning than a sated one. “Children are used to not knowing,” Diana Wynne Jones once told me – explaining that this was what made them more observant readers of her books than adults, many of whom had let their curiosity slacken and their stamina wane through surrounding themselves with people and ideas they understood and were comfortable with. It’s good training for writers, too, whose job is in large part one of making the world strange and new by catching it at unexpected angles.

The trick, of course, is not to make ignorance one’s goal. But as long as I’m uncomfortable, I can relax.


Penny Dolan said...

An exceedingly good point! May you continue to be uncomfortable in this fine way!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

'making the world strange and new by catching it at unexpected angles' ... that's brilliant Cathy! I've never been to Taiwan but having experienced a few hospitals with an iill friend in remote villages in mainland China, I began to feel the world as very strange and new!

Emma Barnes said...

I've felt something similar in France, of all places. I was staying with a French family, and listening to them converse, catching only a phrase here and there, and wondering what they were saying, I began to feel just like a child, constantly puzzled about what the "grown-ups" were on about (while mainly thinking about the next nice thing to eat).

Catherine Butler said...

Emma, I used to have French in-laws and had a similar experience (my French is poor), especially when they'd switch from English to French halfway through a conversation!