Three Years on Taiwan, 1976–1979

Written by Michael Broschat, November 2012

Not quite as catchy a title as “Two Years Before the Mast,” but it gets the idea across. It might seem a bit strange that someone is writing a personal memoir of a time in his life nearly 40 years before, but perhaps we can be guided by this comment from Gabriel Marquez:

What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.

When I got out of the Air Force, I remember telling my then-wife S that we would be in Seattle only about three years. That is how long I had calculated it would take to do a PhD in Chinese. Technically, I was probably correct. But not for someone who only knew some of the language and had not studied the subject at all yet. That three years ended as I finished fourth-year Chinese and, in fact, my “prelims.” As I recall, one had to get permission to go on for a PhD, by taking an oral exam in four subjects. Evidently, I passed this and was authorized to go on.

But an interesting thing was happening. I remember going to the PhD completion party of one of my classmates (some years ahead of me), and he telling me, “You know, Mike. Here I am with a PhD in Chinese and can't speak a word of it.” In truth, our degrees represented study in ancient literature and associated subjects, so it wasn't necessary that one spoke Chinese. But it did seem odd.

And some folks thought this was strange enough to do something about. Wikipedia tells us that the “Stanford Center” began in 1963 (and is now run by Berkeley). In those days, Taiwan was probably the only reasonable location for a language center to exist within a Chinese-speaking population that was also accessible to foreigners. The purpose of the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Study was simply to give modern language exposure to graduate students of Chinese studies. Mostly, these students were American, but I remember a Brit, and see others in a subsequent class listing. It just so happened that a couple classmates at University of Washington went to this program in my third year at UW, and the reports were wonderful. Additionally, another classmate—Madeline Spring—had done the program a couple years before, and raved about it and its teachers. Also, she loved the family with whom she lived, and was sure S and I could live there, too. So, we decided to go.

S was less enthusiastic than I, for good reasons. She had no interest in studying Chinese, and would just be going as accompaniment. What's more, she had a good job she liked right there in Seattle. The program was only a year, and we had been separated before, so I'm sure we considered my going alone. But in the end she agreed to work a certain amount of time and then join me there. As I recall, I left Seattle in fall, and S joined me in Taiwan before Christmas.

It occurs to me there might have been another reason for S's reluctance about this venture. While stationed on Okinawa a few years before this, we had reason to visit Taiwan. This was my first chance to see Chinese society, and I enjoyed it. But S had reason to be less pleased. Racially Japanese, most Taiwan residents took her for being Chinese, and in the company of an American soldier, well, certain conclusions were reached. I'm sure most had nothing against her presumed profession (Taiwan had been an R&R place for the Vietnam war, and surely generated significant income for at least some on Taiwan), but perhaps she violated certain unspoken codes for such professionals. Maybe she was supposed to be cutting in the hotel folks on her catch or something. But we got through our week, and finished up my enlistment within the next year.

So, what about the housing situation? The attraction of living with a family was just too strong to pass on. Madeline did not hear back from her host family in Taiwan, but she said, “Oh, just go and then give them a call when you get there.” Easy for her to say—she spoke Chinese! I remember that first day very, very well, and that is a good measure of how terrified I was. I had the address of the family written in Chinese and, of course, their phone number. After a night in, I think, the YMCA, I did call. Miraculously, I communicated with whoever answered the phone—the “mom” of the family, the person with whom Madeline would have been closest. “Well,” she said, “Come on over and let's talk about it.” Still terrified, I managed to tell the cab driver where I wanted to go, and had a nice visit with Madeline's former landlady. Because this ends my memory of starting life on Taiwan, I presume that the experience had become less terrifying at this point, and I could relax.

My host's point was that she and her family were in the process of moving to the United States! Things were a mess, and having a student again simply wouldn't work. But she had contacted a relative of some sort in a suburb of Taibei called Xindian (to use modern spelling), and although this relative was not interested in hosting an American, her next-door neighbor was (for economic reasons). So, arrangements were made for me to go out to Xindian and discuss the situation with this relative and, of course, the mom of the Wei family. I have no memory of that encounter, but it must have gone well. I explained that my wife would join me at some future date, and a fee was established. I would be given a bedroom and meals and, of course, access to the family. In fact, I gained six sisters. And a kind of little brother.

Xiaodong was that little brother, and I suspect that we needed each other about equally. He was the son of a man who had another family, a very common occurrence in Taiwan (and traditional Chinese society, in general), and Xiaodong and his mother lived alone the vast majority of the time. I was resident in that building for several months, and never saw Xiaodong's father. He was sensitive about the nature of his family, and I learned of it from my new sisters. He was (and, I hope, still is) a terrific person. I'm so sorry to have lost touch, but I could say that about so many folks I'm going to stop right here. The Wei girls had adopted him as a brother, their own (one) being off in the United States and strangely quiet. I'm not sure they heard anything from him during my time with the family.

I see from my photographs that we went off on an adventure right away. The kids took me to a kind of mini-Universal-City, a facility for making motion pictures that was also open to the public. San Jie decided to go swimming in what I guess was a public pool. I wonder as I write this whether she wanted me to see her in a swimsuit. She was definitely the babe of the family, a description that I think involves as much attitude as it does reference to physical beauty. I would offer a tentative definition as a woman who thinks her attractiveness can get her somewhere. I suggest—from the photographs—that Si Jie was her equal in attractiveness, but she had no special feeling about that. It just was. Si Jie was involved with the young man we see in the pictures (who is not Xiaodong). His interest might have been greater than hers. San Jie, I got the feeling, was looking for someone above her station in life.

One last story about San Jie, who had probably had no contact with Westerners before my arrival. I came to know K, who was a second-year (or subsequent) student at Stanford Center, perhaps because he lived near me in Xindian (I have no memory of that, but it's clear from the class roster). One evening, he came to the Wei house to pick me up for some event we were going to, and in my memory I was sitting in the living room with San Jie. Perhaps the rest of the family had gone to church (more about that later). K, whom I would soon know had a thing for the ladies (and, presumably, vice versa), was much taken with San Jie, and proceeded to impress her with what I suppose was his usual come-on with Chinese women in his very fluent Chinese. I think I only remember this because at the time I would have been astonished. But it was fun to watch, and San Jie's reaction to it (you think Mona Lisa had a subtle smile) was also a factor for sticking it up there in the old memory cells. I'm not aware that they had any further contact but I suspect she wouldn't have minded.

I should tell some other stories, before we leave the topic of my Chinese family. I was probably closest to Er Jie, who S reminds me was a nurse and was not involved with anyone (that I knew about). Her oldest sister (Da Jie) was engaged, and would be married before S and I left Taiwan. We attended the wedding. One day, Er Jie and I were talking (I learned so much from the girls, who treated me as an honorary member of the family, tolerated my Chinese, and helped when they could), and she showed me some certificates she had. Like so many Chinese I have known, she was something of a perpetual student, and she had obtained these certifications through various night-school classes. One she couldn't show me was her certificate as a pharmacist. “Oh,” I said, “why can't you show me?” “Because I rent it out.” I asked for an explanation. It turned out that Taiwan had strict laws about pharmacies (most Chinese I knew and we, ourselves, treated pharmacies the way Americans treat doctors). Part of Er Jie's income derived from renting certificates to places that needed them to satisfy the law but did not (perhaps, could not) have them, themselves. I fear that I expressed my Western sentiment about this practice more forcefully than I would now, and generally made my opinion known that it wasn't right to satisfy the law just by having the certficate and not the certified person. She disagreed, and was probably hurt. I am genuinely sorry for causing any distress. In my dissertation some years hence, I would quote from a Chinese author's work on political history in China, in which said author notes that the Western sense of truth as something overriding everything and fundamental to being was not understood by Chinese, who believe that truth is what you have in your hand.

I have no other stories about the family. The youngest girl was cute as heck and just as spoiled. Good for her. She was adored and cared for by her sisters, a couple of whom would soon enough have their own children. My sister (20 years older than my younger brother and me) once told me that she used the two of us as surrogate babies, when her former high school classmates started having children about the time Lyle and I were born.

Oh, one more story before The End. Almost every day, Wei Ma would come into my room and tell me that when S came, she would bring down the beautiful bed that they had bought with money sent from the absent son. There was only a single bed in my room, so this made sense (especially if you had agreed to house a couple). After the nth repetition of this sentiment, I—ever stupid and dense—finally got it, and I said to Wei Ma, “Oh, no, Wei Ma. We can't do that. You keep your beautiful bed, and we'll make do here.” That was, as I soon gathered, what I was supposed to say the first time, but in this case later than earlier was OK, because S had not yet arrived.

Wait—another story. I'll tell this one here, because it happened before S arrived. K was a real wheeler-dealer, and was involved in all kinds of money-making schemes. One of his connections involved the world of Taiwan television. From this connection, he learned that the station was creating a Tribute to Chinese Culture special for Chinese New Year. Westerners would perform various Chinese-style acts to show their love of Chinese culture, and K had an idea. First, he offered me and two women as a singing trio. We would sing some famous Chinese song. Now, I know myself as one of the finest voices never heard by mankind, so of course I was up for this. Fortunately, one of the women could actually sing. When I watched this show with the Wei family and S at New Year, I was stunned to hear that the engineers had turned off the microphones for me and the other woman. So, you saw the three of us singing but heard only one voice. Quite good, I might add, but still.

Oh, one other story about that event (before I get to the main one). Watching the show with the Wei family, I saw many things that I had not seen while I was at the studio. After all, the show was put together from pieces filmed over a few weeks. The MC was a cute pop singer who spoke some English. This was necessary, because many of the Westerners were not so hot with Chinese. At one point, MC was interviewing someone, who told the MC something she considered marvelous. “Jesus Christ, that's terrific,” she gushed. Good thing I was already on the floor as I watched this, but the Wei family never did understand what I found so amusing. I do suspect I know who her English teacher was, though.

Anyway, back to the main story. K's idea was to do what Chinese call xiangsheng. This is what we are seeing when we watch a routine by Martin & Lewis or Abbott & Costello. And speaking of Abbott & Costello, K's idea was to perform the “Who's on First?” routine that had made Abbott & Costello so famous, and justly so. He figured that with Taiwan's great emphasis on baseball as a sport, the Taiwan folks would understand the puns where, say, Chinese mainland folks would not have had a clue. He worked hard to translate the dialog, and consulted just about every Chinese he came across. One of the (non-)singing women was the straight man. I was in the studio when they taped that routine. The Chinese crew had become a bit jaded by this time with the Western attempts to praise Chinese culture with their often less than spectacular performances, and so the taping began. When it ended, there was absolute silence in the studio. And then every Chinese crew member stood up and started applauding. It was absolutely magnificent. I hope K was able to get a copy of that tape for his forever collection.

I'll add this note about “Who's on First?” I met a mainland Chinese woman in a programming class a few years ago, and I told her the story I just related. I'm not sure she knew what baseball is, but after telling her the story, I found the transcribed dialog on the Internet, and already had a copy of the Abbott & Costello original on DVD (and it's probably on YouTube). I gave or lent both to her to watch with her family, and she appeared to enjoy it as much as I do. How one could without a knowledge of baseball, I don't know, but miracles do happen.

S arrived before Christmas. I don't recall the event, but I must have gone to the airport to meet her. Nor do I remember introducing her to the family. Certainly, not knowing a word of Chinese but appearing to the Wei family as if she were Chinese, it must have been interesting. Eventually, though, Wei Ma came to me and asked me to pay more money than we had agreed. Armed with a certain knowledge of what my classmates were paying in similar situations, I refused. Wei Ma stopped calling us to meals, and S, who must have been uncomfortable in this foreign situation, anyway, said we had to move. So, we found an apartment being abandoned by its American graduate student occupant, and made a deal with him.

Wei Ma did not tell her family why the change in her behavior, but of course everyone figured it out eventually. We “kept” Xiaodong, the boy next door, who would remain a friend welcome at our new place. After a while, I don't recall seeing him again, but we both valued his friendship. I recall that he had some English, which he would have had to use with S. Good practice.

One last story, alluded to above. The Wei family was religious. They had been converted to evangelical Christianity by some Los Angeles sect. As must often happen, they had had something of a checkered past (in their eyes), and had made money back during the Vietnam days by transporting soldiers around to Pleasure Palaces. Or whatever. They were straight now, and loved the society afforded by their new religion. They earnestly invited S and me to join them in a Sunday (or perhaps a Wednesday evening) service. We both were non-religious folks but had both come from family cultures that included Protestantism. After much pleading by the Weis, we agreed to attend a service. The church was simply two apartments joined by removing the wall between. We started to enter together but then were very vigorously educated by the congregation, which informed us that Jesus did not allow men and women to enter a room together (or some such sentiment), and I went through one door while S went through another. And, of course, we had to sit in the female and male sections, respectively. This experience was not a thrill for us, and would not be repeated. But I suspect it was for the congregation, and they probably got to tell themselves stories about us for years.