But was there a better way to put these pronunciations on the page?
The directness and warmth of this language are barely known in the United States. When I apologize for my poor Mandarin skills to my aunties, they will give me pitying smiles, telling me “close enough is okay.” That’s my cue switch to Taiwanese, which elicits delightful belly laughs, as if I were a precocious toddler. The sounds are humble, coarse, guttural, ineffective at putting on pretenses.
I can describe the cadence and tones of Taiwanese with pages of metaphors or I could Romanize them, transposing ancient sounds to an alphabet familiar to English-speakers. I could write those phrases using Chinese characters, as all dialects basically share the same ideograms, but that would be inaccessible to readers who don’t know the fifty-thousand characters (or even the two hundred radicals that are combined like Legos to form those characters). And even if the reader can comprehend the strokes, what if they sound them out in Mandarin or Cantonese or one of the other dozens of Chinese dialects? I will not have succeeded in conveying the full experience of my father’s words, something I don’t want to fade away with his generation.
When I started writing stories using snippets of Taiwanese, I just guessed at how to phoneticize words. Grandmother became “Ah ma.” Leaf-wrapped meat dumplings were described as “bah tsang.” But was there a better way to put these pronunciations on the page? I wanted a standardized, universal system to Romanize the sounds of my family’s sayings to English-language readers. After all, these words were the lingua franca that connected my great-grandparents to my grandparents to my parents, and finally to me.
To be honest, my Taiwanese language skills are just okay. When my relatives speak to me in our home dialect, I am most comfortable answering in English. But with the threat of the People’s Republic of China swallowing up the island—either through the soft power of language or military action — I feel compelled to commit the sounds of my native tongue to paper, so future generations might be able to decipher the sounds of this language.
Online, I found a resource: the Maryknoll Taiwanese Dictionary, which uses a system called Pèh-ōe-jī, or POJ for short. Originally created as a system for Presbyterian missionaries to communicate with the non-Christian islanders, it’s sometimes called “church romanization.” Efforts by Europeans to transliterate Asian languages with the Roman alphabet have historically served the goals of colonization or religious conversion. As early as the sixteenth century, Spanish Catholics in the Philippines attempted to phoneticize the Hokkien language to proselytize to sojourners. Much of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia—Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand—came from the Fujian province; they spoke the Hokkien dialect or its cousins Teochew or Hakka.
Using the Maryknoll online dictionary is like looking at Taiwanese through a foreign lens. Also, it’s cumbersome. The website hosts scans of hundreds of pages of a paper dictionary, organized alphabetically. To translate a sentence of dialogue, I had to look up individual words, reading the phoneticizations aloud to see if they sound like my father’s aphorisms. The words, when spelled with the Roman alphabet, don’t give many clues of how they should be vocalized. Too many consonants. Diacritics sticking out at every angle. The fonts on my computer can’t even replicate most of the marks necessary to indicate the rises, falls, and sudden stops of the language.
After looking up individual words through the dictionary, I cobble together my best estimate of phoneticizing my father’s phrase. It looks like this: Chha-put-to tō ē-sái.
Getting closer. But was it good enough?
During our most recent trip to Taiwan last year, my father again asked what I wanted to do. I didn’t request to go to the famous xiao long bao restaurant this time (they have since opened up a franchise in my hometown) but to go shopping for a Taiwanese-English dictionary. I scoured two locations of Taipei’s famous Eslite bookstore.
But was it good enough?
When I asked a clerk for a Taiwanese-English dictionary, he pointed me toward a shelf full of TOEFL cram books. I bought the only volume I could find, a manual of common phrases whose title translated into something like “Learn Taiwanese Regardless of Nationality.”
That evening, I emailed the Maryknoll headquarters in upstate New York, asking where in Taiwan I could buy a hard copy of their dictionary. A man replied, “To get a printed copy of the dictionary, call our office in Taichung.” That was nearly a two-hour train ride from the capital. We would be boarding a plane back to California the next evening. In the morning, my dad and Uncle Jeff picked us up.
“What would you like to do today?” they asked.
“I tracked down the dictionary in Taichung, at the Maryknoll office,” I stammered. “Is there any chance—”
“That’s too far!” my dad answered. “Just go to the Eslite near the main train station.”
“I really need to get this book.”
“Nobody uses a dictionary!”
“But for my writing . . . I need to get this so I can write Taiwanese words in my stories . . . ”
“Everyone spells things differently!”
Chha-put-to tō ē-sái.
“If everyone makes up their own spellings, then what do words even mean? How will people understand them?” I asked. “We have to all follow a system or eventually people will forget.”
“Yes, a system!” Uncle Jeff agreed, trying to smooth over our father-daughter quarrel.
“Who says their way of writing is better than anyone else’s?” my dad retorted.
My dad doesn’t like the idea of foreigners dictating how to write his language. Especially Christian missionaries on this island where temples for Buddha, Guan Yin, city gods, and even one’s ancestors could be found on every street corner. I realized then that my path would begin to diverge from my father’s. He gave me the language and the memories, but writing about them was something I would have to figure out on my own. That evening, I flew home empty-handed.
Back in California, I discovered a podcast that teaches people how to speak Taiwanese. It’s hosted by two guys in Taipei—one raised on the island, the other amongst the diaspora in America. The phrases sounded like home but looked unfamiliar written out on the website. It turned out that the podcasters, Phil Lin and Alan Chen, use yet another system of Romanization called Tâi-ûan Lô-má-jī. If you say it out loud, it sounds like “Taiwan Romaji.” For short, it’s called Tâi-Lô, or simply TL.
Tâi -Lô is a newer system of Romanization developed by the Taiwan Ministry of Education in 2006 to meet the growing interest in the mother tongue movement after martial law was lifted in 1987 and gained momentum after the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected to power in 2000. Phil told me that Tâi-Lô is increasingly popular in Taiwanese literature, which got my attention, as I want my writing to be part of that body of work.
Phil points me to an app, which I use to phoneticize my father’s words using the Tâi-Lô system. It looks like this: Tsha-put-to tō ē-sái
But my heart has a soft spot for POJ. I remember attempting to follow along a church songbook; the unfamiliar combinations of letters, such as “chh” and the many syllables ending with a silent “r” and the nasal wisp of the tiny superscript “-n” seemed like a secret code. These words were barely more intelligible than the Chinese characters.
For me, deciding how to Romanize Taiwanese is paralyzing, because it’s so symbolic. Should our words be the next link in an unbroken chain with tales of Taiwan’s past—with its history of occupation and all—or is this a chance to write the new narrative of a self-determined, but more uncertain Taiwan of the future? Perhaps I am overthinking this, and my attempt to wrangle this wild and organic language is yet another form of imposing outside rules to these age-old expressions. After all, the people of this island have survived not by sheer force of will, but by their ability to adapt to whatever situation has been thrust upon them and to do the best they can at the time. Ultimately, my father’s words may be wise advice, whether for dumplings or for language: Close enough might be okay.
Grace Hwang Lynch is a journalist and essayist obsessed with Asian American culture and food. Her work has been featured by NPR, PRI, Tin House, and other outlets. She is pretty good at a lot of things, but not an expert on anything. Except maybe baking sourdough milk bread. Follow her on Twitter @gracehwanglynch or learn more at gracehwanglynch.com.