I wasn’t surprised by any of the answers I got, although I was struck by how much of a depth of knowledge I don’t have and can’t have, because I wasn’t there. Here are some things students have said:
“When I was younger I always had many opinions. I wanted to say anything I was thinking. My dad told me – ‘don’t do that, be careful, or a truck might stop outside the door.’” (Which meant, as everyone else in the class knew, that he would have been carted away by government operatives, possibly never to be seen again).
“When I was a child we were poor people. I lived in a farmhouse in Shuangxi [Taipei County] and every day we ate rice and vegetables. We grew the rice and vegetables, we did not buy. We also had chickens and pigs. Sometimes we could have chicken or pork. But usually we ate rice and vegetables. We didn’t have money to buy other things.”
“When I was young I couldn’t speak Taiwanese in school, or the class monitor would make us pay five kuai. Of course in that time no local children spoke Chinese. If you were a local one, your parents often did not speak any Chinese at all, so you could not remember the rule to speak only Chinese. But here is my secret: I was the class monitor. If I spoke Taiwanese I forgot to charge myself five kuai. If my friend spoke Taiwanese and there was no teacher, I forgot to charge him. You only paid five kuai if the teacher was there, or if the class monitor didn’t like you” (proving once again that middle school alliances are stronger than cultural solidarity).
“My uncle was taken away by the KMT. He disappeared for many years and then he came back, but he was crazy. He couldn’t remember anything from before his jail time. When he got older he would walk around the street and be confused. One day they found him dead in the street, but he was an old man and totally crazy. But my family still votes for the KMT” (joining a long list of people who don’t deny the atrocities committed by the KMT but still seem to refuse to blame them).
And from a friend – complaining about taxes paid to the current government and asking why he should have to pay so much when there is glass in the parking lot, his apartment building has been robbed twice, and there is no law and order anymore. I said that I thought Taipei was a lovely city – maybe not perfect but I used to live in Washington DC, so if he wanted to see ‘a lack of rule of law’ I could tell him some stories about crime there. “Taipei used to be more beautiful than now,” he replied, but I am pretty sure he was referring to Taipei under the mayoral governance of Chen Shui-bian.
Here’s the thing – none of this stuff was in the least bit new or surprising. Heck, the majority of it contains facts I already knew. And yet, I wasn’t here for it – in part because I’m fairly young (30) and many of my students are noticeably older than I am, and partly because I did not grow up here. I moved to Taiwan in 2006, long after it had become a developed country, a democracy, a country in which the capital city is clean, safe, politically stable and has a better infrastructure than many cities in the USA. I moved here long after Taiwan solved many of its worst problems (the worst of which being, of course, the oppressive and murderous dictatorship of a government, the urban infrastruture and the pollution).
I was born long after the White Terror ended. I didn’t even know where Taiwan was when Chiang Ching-kuo ruled the country. I had only a faint notion of it when Lee Teng-hui did. I moved here long after Chen Shui-bian ceased to be the mayor of Taipei. I look at old pictures of Taipei – which are easy to find, as the government seems fond of scanning them and putting them up in displays aimed at civic boosterism (which always struck me as odd, especially in the area around Ximen and Longshan Temple – why put up pictures of a time when the buildings were far more gorgeous, and have since been torn down, to make people feel good?). I don’t see a past I can share in or fully understand. I wasn’t around when my student was a class monitor and would get charged – or beaten – for speaking Taiwanese. I was not here back when the divide between waishengren (外生人) Hoklo Taiwanese, or Taiwanese and Hakka, was at its deepest during the days leading up to and after democratization. I was not around when many people still mainly lived as subsistence farmers, even in Taipei County. I feel like I know, because I’m here now and I’ve studied a lot of history, but I don’t really know. Deep down in the culturally influenced fibers of my being, I don’t really, truly know.
The same is true from the other end: I have so many acquaintances, students and even friends (not so much friends, but occasionally) who speak as though they were there for events that happened in the USA while I was alive and living there, but they weren’t. You can read about it, study it, have a professor lecture about it or hear about it from foreign friends or ABC cousins, but really, if you weren’t there, can you really understand what it felt like to be American during the Reagan years, when greed was good? Do you really know why ‘80s fashion is currently trendy, and how that feels to someone who was 7 when that stuff was popular the first time around? Just as locals in Taiwan probably think my fetish for the Taiwanese Grandma aesthetic (bamboo paper fans, Chinese-style shirts, 白花油, Japanese-era shophouses, cypress ceilings and floors, old-fashioned tea boxes and tins, kung fu shoes) is odd, do they really understand the idea of “retro” and “vintage” as we would know it back in the USA?
Heck, were they there when we invaded Iraq the first time and people generally supported it, or the 2nd time when they didn’t? Were they there when we elected a false president in 2000? Although I was not there when Obama rode into the White House on a tsunami of hope, I do have an innate feeling for the cultural underpinnings of what that actually meant – how many Taiwanese can say the same thing? Just as I can’t say I fully hold in my gut an understanding for the tide of history that brought a DPP President to Taiwan, and then subsequently brought him down. Even if I”know”, do I really know?
I say much of this tongue-in-cheek – I was not even ten years old under the reign of Reagan. I was actually studying in India in 2000 when George II was unfairly sworn in, and had to deal with the taunts of rickshaw drivers (“we thought your Amrika was different, but I am knowing that compared to Indian politics, you are same-same only!”)
And yet, I feel it every day when I talk about my childhood, or ask students about theirs, in class. I can’t convey the feelings behind the Pledge of Allegiance, and I can’t fully dissect the reasons behind why I always mouthed, never spoke, the words after the 8th grade. I can’t really describe the taste of a Bomb Pop or 4th of July fireworks in Cantine Park in small-town upstate New York (although comparing it to Dragon Boat in Longtan is fairly close). I can’t tell people how it felt, as an American woman, to watch an American woman get as close as Hillary Clinton did to the White House, and then watch her go down in a spiral that was part a lack of charisma, part a surge of support for a younger, ethnically different candidate, and part – honestly – sexism. I was here when that happened, but I have the innate cultural understanding that allows me to really get it.
That’s a gap that I try so hard to bridge with friends and students, and I’m not sure I’ve succeeded yet.