Someone Else’s Childhood (in Taiwan)

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There’s something unsettling about nostalgia that doesn’t belong to you.  The bittersweet melancholy of realizing you’re witnessing someone else’s memories is poignant.  Stories others have told have painted hazy images in my mind’s eye, and I can recognize snapshots from their memories as I go about my adult life, but it’s just not the same.

My mother grew up in a town in Taiwan where everyone knew everyone else.  Her father was the principal of their local elementary school, as was his father before him.  Schools were a hub, and my mother’s family lived in tiny Japanese-style homes that were specifically built to house teachers on the school campus.

Why were these teacher-homes Japanese-style?  Because Taiwan was under Japanese occupation from 1894-1945.  My grandparents grew up speaking Japanese in school, and all other languages were banned.  (Fun fact: My grandfather’s earlier books were written in Japanese, and it wasn’t until he taught himself how to write Chinese in his mid-20s that he translated those books into Chinese.)  Later, when the losing government from China took up residence in Taiwan, Mandarin Chinese was mandated, and other languages banned.  My parents, therefore, grew up speaking Mandarin.  What was spoken at home?

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So what’s it like to witness someone else’s childhood?  This is what it’s like.

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These are the semi-abandoned remainders of the teacher housing from fifty years ago.  My mother’s home is this one:

Mom's House
My mother’s childhood home in Longtan, Taiwan.  Somewhat renovated, this house appears somewhat like it did when my grandfather and his family were still living here when was still a teacher, fifty years ago.  The calligraphy engraved on the wood panel was written by my grandfather.  [Digital photo because I wasn’t able to capture it with my Canon AE-1]
How strange.  How weird.  How funny!

But it’s not just my mother’s childhood that I’m surreptitiously reliving.  It’s also my father’s.  It’s also my fiance’s. My parents grew up in Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s, and my fiance grew up in Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s.  And yet, their childhoods are very similar.

This is what an elementary school looks like.

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So different from the elementary schools of my childhood in the U.S.

To them, the outdoor sinks directly outside the classroom, the mops hanging on the wall, the shape, size, and color of the buildings itself . . . These are their childhood memories.  These memories are not mine.  They will never be mine.  I can experience their childhood through trinkets and remaining edifices now, as an adult.  And that is where the bittersweetness floods in.

For good measure, because it was the Taiwan elections when I was in Taiwan in January, I’m including a photo from the Taiwanese elections.  I had to capture the historic, historic day!  The day a female president was elected! Tsai Ing-wen, now the most powerful elected female in the Chinese speaking world.

(So much passion lie behind Taiwanese politics.  I will address it some other day.  Today, I celebrate something that the U.S. hasn’t been able to achieve– the election of a powerful, opinionated woman to the helm of a country with a complicated, convoluted, and confusion past.)

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It wasn’t as crazy or exciting as the TV showed Taipei was, but Longtan’s elections, held at the local elementary school (my mother’s), was fantastic in its own right.  Quietly, people (the majority of the people of Taiwan) voted.

Yet another memory that isn’t quite mine.  I merely bore witness.

// 35mm film photos taken in Longtan, Taiwan, mid-January 2016 by a Canon AE-1.

5 thoughts on “Someone Else’s Childhood (in Taiwan)

  1. I’ve enjoyed reading your blogs and you’ve inspired me to write something about my town, which I’ll get too shortly. I’m currently editing a set of photos I took of my Member of Parliament for a photobook project of mine. Are you aware of Ted Forbes? Great photo vids.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am not aware of Ted Forbes– But I’m looking into his work now! 😀 Glad you’re enjoying reading my blog. Please do write something about your town!

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  2. It’s easy, growing up in America and being of mostly European descent (with a little American Indian thrown in there) to not realize that there are histories and realities outside of those experienced here. To think that a people could be mandated to speak the language by the occupying force — and that that force would change — mystifies me. And it had to shape the people who lived through it in concrete ways. Thank you for providing a small window into that world.

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    1. Isn’t it kind of crazy? I meant to keep writing about this in my blog post (I’ll probably have to edit the post to include this information), but my parents and their families spoke Hakka at home. Most of my family members in Taiwan also know how to speak Hoklo, another common dialect in Taiwan. This meant, of course, when I went to Taiwan to visit relatives as a child, conversations would be a combination of four languages: Hakka, Japanese, Hoklo, and Mandarin. Sometimes a few phrases in English were thrown in for good measure. Today, when the news channels interview people, their responses can be in any of the local dialects– with no voice-over translation! Kind of cool, right?

      Side note: In recent years, as the Taiwanese political landscape has changed, there has been a resurgence of “cool” home-languages. No longer is it mandated that people only speak Mandarin or, previously, Japanese. People are free to speak whatever language they prefer. Many pop musicians sing and perform in their home-language. In fact, home-languages are now taught in school as a required course.

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