Throughout my life of consuming media, the large majority of my diet has been in languages other than Taiwanese. Growing up Taiwanese American, I just have had generally less access and exposure to media in Taiwanese, and no, I don’t have a subscription to a satellite tv that funnels all of Asia’s media broadcasts to my home television. My mom does, but she didn’t get that until after I graduated from college. I had been meaning to watch some TV shows in Taiwanese, but some of the options just didn’t seem palatable. I’ve got little patience for teenage daytime drama love polygons and a crying girl gracing the screen every few minutes. However, when my mom insisted I watch a Taiwanese TV series called “Sand in the Waves”, based on a novel written by Tongfang Po inspired by the story of the first Taiwanese female doctor, I was intrigued.
The opening shown in the YouTube clip above is the show’s theme song sung in Taiwanese, and the images are depictions of historical Taiwan for the past 100+ years.
In this Taiwanese historical drama, I figured there was probably still going to be love triangles and a lot of crying, which there is, but if it’s got a century of Taiwanese historical backdrop and a feminist thematic base, I could totally do it. The TV series story starts at the beginning of Japanese occupation of Taiwan with the parents of Qiu Ya-xin, a fictional character based on the real Dr. Cai A-xin (oh snap! she has the same last name as me!). Her father is a doctor who saves his own father from a Japanese execution with the help of her mother’s father. The young man and woman marry, and have their first child, a girl, and the midwife recommends for the new mother to suffocate her daughter, pointing out that daughters only cost money and never bring the family anything. *Cue dramatic music*. The narrator says in Taiwanese, “Little did they know that the little girl they let live would grow up to be Taiwan’s first female doctor.”
It’s hard for me to judge the acting because there’s a definite cultural and linguistic disconnect. It’s kind of odd for me to see a grown woman still behave like a little girl, which I know is the difference between a Taiwanese woman of that time period vs a modern American woman. Also, unfortunately for non-speakers, the whole series is in Taiwanese and Japanese, with smatterings of English here and there, and the only subtitles available are in Chinese characters. With English is my dominant and academically trained language, the Taiwanese in the series helps me figure out about 60% of the story, the Chinese subtitles adds another 10% to that, and the Japanese another 5%. So at least I know what’s going on most of the time.
The strange thing about my experience of the show is that despite the disconnect, I have a strange personal connection as well to the whole story, too personal for comfort at times. For one, the main character was born in Hsin Chu, Taiwan, my birthplace. She goes off to study at an all girls school in Taipei, exactly what my own mother did. Also, the main character is Christian, as my mother and I are, and her father died of illness when she was young, just as my mother’s father died when she was only 4 months old. And I think if my mother had been from a wealthier family, she would have gone on to be a doctor as well, since her own aunt, my grandaunt, was a practicing doctor. My mom told me stories of how she would watch live surgeries at her aunt’s practice for fun. The woman’s got no fear of blood.
What was too close for comfort, however, was the Taiwanese language and culture that was of course ubiquitous throughout the series. I grew up speaking Taiwanese at home and actually didn’t learn Mandarin fluently until college. I associated Taiwanese with the inner quarters, with home and family and Sunday school church very much separated from the rest of the world. Whenever I heard my parents speak Mandarin Chinese, it always felt really formal because if they were talking to close friends or family, it would be in Taiwanese. Taiwanese was like secret code that my family spoke over simple family dinners or private holiday parties. In school, if I was lucky, a few students could speak Taiwanese, and it became an immediate connection. It was easy to feel like anyone who could speak it was already like family. So as I watched this TV show in Taiwanese, it felt a little invasive. My home language suddenly wasn’t so exclusive. Watching it being used on a TV show with 99% of the characters being able to speak it just throws me off.
Of course, I’m happy to see such Taiwanese language media and to know, thanks to the political situation in Taiwan, that it has become a valued identity and linguistic treasure. Media preserves the language and culture if nothing else. It preserves the heritage. Every time a language disappears from our world, a piece of humanity’s consciousness dies, because all the thoughts, hopes, dreams, knowledge, and lessons learned that humans had embodied in that language disappears with it.
I’m currently on episode 13 of 30, and it’s like riding an old bike. My brain had been exposed to so much of it as a child, and though I don’t understand 100% of what’s being said, I notice my comprehension increasing as I go along. Yesterday, while walking to my car, I found myself thinking in Taiwanese. I can’t remember the last time I did that.