I’ve arrived to this stinky, noisy, horribly humid place – Kaohsiung – and, if you haven’t picked up already, I hate hate HATE it.
I can’t understand a word people say. I can’t even go and buy a drink to stop myself dying of thirst because I don’t understand the numbers. I can’t believe my parents made me come here. You know what? There are so many people here. You like, have to jostle yourself across the street, and then jostle yourself back. Not to mention not getting run over by the scooters who think they have right of way. Oh, and by the way, people don’t even look at traffic lights – okay so actually, they do – but it’s just for guidance. Meh.
Gonna see Granny today, I’m nervous: I haven’t seen her in such a long time that I don’t even remember what she looks like. Is that bad – a granddaughter not knowing how your grandparents look like? And aren’t cancer patients bald or something?
Anyways, how are Wendy, Brian, Sing-a-long, and Mr Perfect? Have your ewes started lambing yet? I hope the winter goes easy on all of you. Say hi to your folks for me.
You probably haven’t gotten my last letter yet but I’m going to write anyways. Say Happy Birthday to your Mum for me please. Say hi to your Dad, your sheep and NZ for me too. And, how is everyone coping with the winter, Mr Reporter?
Visited Granny today, she actually still has all her hair. And both her and Granddad are really sweet together. They’re so nice to me as well even though my Taiwanese is bad. Granddad’s favourite ice cream flavour is the same as mine – cookies and cream, how awesome is that! I’m a little glad that I came back, just so I could get to know them (again). You know what really impresses me? Both my grandparents learnt Taiwanese when they were kids, then when they went to school they had to learn Jap, and then later they had to learn Mandarin, and now they have to learn English. Kinda puts us to shame doesn’t it?
It was my first day of school today. Guess what? I feel like a frigging freak. Everyone stares at me and when they speak, I know they’re talking really, really slowly and with, like, swiping hand gestures to boot; I just still can’t understand their Mandarin. Taiwanese is okay, Mum and Dad spoke it back in Dunedin so I get bits of it but then at school you don’t really speak Taiwanese, which really confuses me, I mean, they live in Taiwan, right?
School here is weird. You put your bag on your chair so you perch on what’s left of the seat – they’re wooden and look like those chairs from the good-old bad-old days Mr Hodden would yap on about. I’m sandwiched between two desks. I don’t see how the other people cope. I now live in for 40 minutes times eight periods. Feels like military school or something. Class goes from 7:30 am till 4:00 pm. You don’t move between classes – the teachers come to you. Lunch is eaten at your desk. My bum is going numb and I swear it is also going flat.
I haven’t received a letter from you yet. Maybe because it’s the spring holidays over there and you aren’t home. God I miss you. How are you and how’s everyone? Does Tammy-grouchy-cat still glare at our new puppy? How is your family? Send me a photo of you guys would you? (And New Zealand of course. What I would give to see the horizon, to see green mountains again!)
You’d be proud of me, I’m picking up the language, finally. I also learnt that my name in Mandarin means star. Pretty!
I have to work so hard to catch up with everyone else. At least I don’t have to be in the classroom when it’s English. Man you’d crack up if you heard the ‘English’ teacher’s English. I seriously cannot understand it. I mean, yeah, it’s English, but their accent is hilarious!
P.S. I saw full on protesting today. Police in armor standing ready and everything. It was cool, and kinda scary.
Summer already. Hope the lambs are growing nicely. Tell your parents I said hi, say Happy Father’s Day to your Dad for me, and tell our gang that I wrote please. And, I’m saving the most important till last: how are you?
Guess what happened today? I answered a question without thinking about it in English, translating it into Mandarin, and then thinking about how to say it. The first time, I thought it was a fluke. But then, that entire day, the words went out, just like that! I never thought this day would happen. The teacher even called mum in the evening to tell her how well I did – can you imagine that! It’s like teachers here care a lot about you, they’re like your second mother/father. I think it’s because we see each other non-stop. Whereas in NZ it’s like, our relationship kinda ends after the 50 min period. Okay, it’s not that bad, but you get my gist.
AND, this is the first time I got more than 80% in my mandarin tests. Oh, the number of tests by the way, is like, uncountable. Remember how we’d groan and moan at the bi-weekly tests in bio? Well, we have at least a test a day. It is a given. I thought I would die. Remember in year 3 or something you said that I looked like a weed coz I was so small and scrawny? Well, looks like you can’t kill weeds!
There have been military exercises and missile drills in the Taiwan Straits as a warning to people coz we’re voting for a new president. They’re warning not to give power to the candidate who’ll push for Taiwan’s independence. I can’t say who or they might find out and get me, but you can use your brains. Last time I checked you were still pretty smart (not as smart as me, of course). No one was hurt, I feel sorry for the fish. But apparently they’ve got like, a thousand missiles pointed at us and they’ve shown they aren’t afraid to use them. People say that they won’t, that it’ll launch a third world war if they do and they wouldn’t risk it. I know that America wouldn’t jump in to help us if they did despite its petty talk about peace. America is all talk and no action. I know you care about me so much that I know you look worried – but strangely, I’m not scared. Funnily enough, I don’t think it affects us that much, I mean, life goes on, doesn’t it?
Enough of politics. Mum and Dad hate talking about it, it’s like worse of a topic than Grandma’s surgery. Now that’s what I get the shivers thinking abut.
Anyways, what I need to work on since I understand and can actually speak the language is the accent. People know I’m a foreigner. Some of my classmates love it and imitate it, they think it’s so cool! But others who aren’t so nice think I’m a stuck-snob who refuses to fit in. El, could you punch them for me?
P.S. Hey, why aren’t you replying to my letters? Are you still mad at me?
So it’s been a while. I’d stopped writing because you never wrote back, and Mum and Dad said that you guys had probably moved houses. But today, I missed you guys so much that I felt dizzy and I started flicking back through the photos of NZ and us two and Wendy, Brian, Sing-a-long, and Mr Perfect. How are they?
And more importantly, how are you? Which Uni are you planning on going to? Do you have a girlfriend yet?
Me, I’m still working my arse off. We don’t start our Uni till after you get in, we’re half a year slower than you guys. And no, I don’t have a boyfriend yet. I’m too busy studying. I have glasses that are like 5 cm thick (okay, they’re not that bad), and I’m at school from 7:00 am till like 8:00 pm at times. You know, it’s actually rather interesting. Like, when we say classmates, it’s just oh, someone you go to classes with together. But here, 同學 has this deeper meaning. It literally means same school, but because we’re basically together all the time, I mean, being in the same class for like 13 hours in the same room, it’s pretty impossible not to talk and to get to know everyone. When it’s that crowded, I think you learn how not to get on other people’s toes. I think that’s the same with the traffic. I’m still not totally used to it and still mutter and swear when someone almost gives me a haircut when they swerve right behind me or something, but it’s more of an unspoken agreement. I’ll do my thing, you do your thing and as long as there isn’t an accident, we’ll keep it that way.
Something happened the other day that I still can’t get my head around. Some friends and I were shopping in the department stores and I was trying on a dress.
“You’re from overseas aren’t you?” The store lady gave me an attentive smile.
I don’t know why, but I felt caught. Guilty, like a criminal in helicopter light.
She could not possibly know.
“What makes you think that?” I bounced the question off her. Sure I was a foreigner in my own home, but that didn’t stop me from denying it. I knew my accent was good enough; knew the mannerisms my culture asked of me to pass as a local kid. I have the same black hair, the same colour skin.
“You hold yourself differently.”
Studying my friends and I through the mirror, I realised what she meant. My Kiwi part resurfacing, you would probably say. I could cover it up.
But you know, El, it’s still so hard for me sometimes. Most of my friends only see one side of it and think that I’ve been so lucky to have lived overseas, to have that foreigner feel. Yeah, I was blessed to be able to live in two countries and speak multiple languages fluently. But everything comes with a price.
Sometimes, I feel so much like a traitor.
To be not quite there. Not quite Caucasian and not quite Asian. And there are lots of us out there: hybrids. Home is a hazy concept we can’t quite curl our fingers around. My friends have accepted my oddity but they can’t understand my unease.
I guess strangers can sense the difference. Humans are good at figuring out what’s wrong, what’s odd. What’s different from the norm. And so, I stick out like a sore thumb.
I can’t be rid of the dirtied traitor feel. Because they can sniff me out, as if I emanated some smell that is off, I can’t settle. I can’t be home.
How are you, how is everyone? Say hi to your Mum and your Dad and new lambs and NZ for me too. Me, I’m not too good, I’m tired all the time, I’ve lost so much weight that I look like those skinny supermodels (only that I don’t feel so super). Probably studying too hard, huh? Mum and Dad keep on telling me to eat more and stop reading girly magazines – as if I don’t eat enough and as if I have time to read magazines!
So… DRUM ROLL… my accent is now officially a native’s. Met Dad’s friend the other day and greeted him in Taiwanese, as family. You do that here, it’s respect, not to call someone who’s status is higher or if they’re older than you, by their actual name. If they’re friends of your parents, you treat them as family. Well, actually, if you see a stranger on the road and you want to ask directions, you call them a big brother or a big sister. (Obviously within reason, if they were like hugely older than you you’d call them Uncle/Auntie whatever.) How cool is that, isn’t that like the entire place is your family? You’d never be alone! Funny how I thought I was so lonely when I first got here. But I still think of you though. Always.
Anyways, Dad was talking to his friend and suddenly his friend turns to me and says in slow, purposefully pronounced Mandarin. “Little Sister, how are you finding Taiwan?”
I tell him that I’m good, in Mandarin.
Dad laughs then, and says, “She understands both Mandarin and Taiwanese.” And oh boy, do I hear the pride in his voice.
“Really?” He still speaks in Mandarin, as if not quite believing.
“Really,” I say in Taiwanese. My gaze meets his, and then I let it drop a little, for respect. The Asian way.
“How old are you?” His Taiwanese is slow, as if not sure how well I can understand it.
“Can you speak Mandarin?”
“Are you happy that you came to Taiwan?” His Taiwanese gathers a little speed.
I tell him that it has been hard, but that I appreciate what’s been done and I love being able to speak fluently in three languages.
“Eh” he turns to Dad, “She really understands it!”
I let a grin spread. “Of course I do. I’m Taiwanese.” That I think, has taken me a long time to understand. Moving to Taiwan, getting to know family again (Grandma’s beaten the cancer!), I think I’m grateful that I came back. I mean, the politics is annoying, and knowing that death is pointed at you every breathing second isn’t easy to get your head around, but like I said before, life goes on. And I think even if by moving I’ve come closer to death, I think becoming Taiwanese has been worth it. It’s in my blood. Hey don’t get me wrong El, I’m still Kiwi, deep down, but sometimes I think you can be both. Like a hybrid, not a traitor.
You shoulv’e seen it: Dad’s friend’s smile stretches cheek to cheek and he shakes his head in astonishment. “Songya, you should get a prize for this. Me, I failed as a father for it. None of my children can speak Taiwanese. And their Mandarin isn’t half as good as your daughter’s.”
When he’s out of earshot, Dad whispers, “You’ve made me proud, my Star.”
I think I could’ve burst of happiness.
Anyhow, I’m rambling. You’ve probably forgotten about me, moved on.
P.S. Did you know that the character friend is two moons side by side? Makes sense, the moon’s pretty lonely up there all by itself.
P.P.S. I still think of you. Still miss you.
My name is Leila, and I am Xing Xing’s mother.
I don’t know if this package will arrive in the right hands. If you are a total stranger and these letters mean nothing to you then do whatever you want to them. If you are who these letters are meant for but your heart is a stranger to them, I don’t blame you. It has been a long time. A very long time: enough for a boy to become a man. Things do get forgotten whether intentionally or not.
There is a Chinese proverb 光陰似箭 meaning time passes as quickly as the arrow flies. Nowadays we could say time passes as quickly as the bullet flies. You and Xing Xing became and remained friends for almost eight years – regrettably, we had to return home and had to cut your friendship short. Xing Xing would always contradict me here. It is my husband and my home country, Xing Xing at that time argued bitterly with us, her English strong and fluent, against our equally forceful Taiwanese. She said it was ours, not hers. That this New Zealand was her country.
But what had to be done had to be done. I don’t know if you remember, but the reason for us leaving was that Xing Xing’s grandmother had been diagnosed with stage one skin cancer. It could be treated, with the medicine in Taiwan, but it was expensive. If we went back to Taiwan, put Xing Xing in a public school there, we could make ends meet. If we stayed out here, the cost would be my mother-in-law’s life.
Xing Xing missed you and Dunedin terribly. On several occasions, she wrote to you and asked my husband or I to post the letter. You may think us cruel, but we made the decision not to. The relationship between you and her was an empty one. We would not be returning to New Zealand: we simply did not have the money. Children forget and adjust easily. It would’ve been easier for her to do so rather than cling onto a friendship that would in the end cost only a lot of energy and time.
You must find it strange then, why am I writing after twenty odd years, when there has been not one word. My mother-in-law survived the cancer, but even with our medical improvement, the doctors could not save Xing Xing. Just before she lost her battle to cancer, she mentioned you and her letters. You can imagine her father and my surprise to this –she still remembered you even after all those years despite our efforts to make her forget. After she passed away, her father and I decided to send all her letters to you, partly to say sorry at our interference, partly to let you know how much you meant to her.
With my deepest regrets,