When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the East Coast last spring, I unexpectedly found myself at home for an extended stretch of time. For me, quarantining with family meant that daily walks with my dad and weekly drives to a local Taiwanese bakery became a natural time for me to learn more Taiwanese — something I had been trying to do on-and-off for quite some time. As weeks turned into months, my vocabulary slowly expanded from “tsia̍h-pá–buē” (have you eaten yet?) and “gû-bah mī” (beef noodle soup — my personal favorite) to more complex idiomatic phrases that I had only ever overheard in the laughter-filled conversations my dad would have with friends back in Taichung.
Around the same time on the West Coast, the Taiwan School of TAC had begun to move its language classes online as a result of the global pandemic. Based in San Jose, the Taiwan School has offered Taiwanese classes to the public since 2005. While student interest has waxed and waned over the years, a core group of volunteers has remained committed to teaching Taiwanese as a means of celebrating and preserving their mother tongue.
The Taiwanese language — also known as Taigi, Taiwanese Hokkien, Taiwanese Minnan, Hoklo, or Holo — has a fraught history. For decades of the twentieth century, its use was forbidden in schools and official settings across Taiwan. While Taiwan’s language policy has certainly shifted since the lifting of martial law in 1987, Mandarin continues to have the highest percentage of users, especially among younger generations.
Yet for what seems to be a growing number of Taiwanese Americans on this side of the globe, Taiwanese represents much more than a language they may have heard growing up. For many Taiwan School students, the language acts as a vehicle of culture and meaning, with its distinct sounds and tones evoking a visceral sense of care, family, safety, warmth, and belonging. It is no wonder, then, that the school’s adult class registrations spiked as programs moved online. Students like me from different time zones and coasts were now able to access the class that grew to reflect the diverse Taiwanese diaspora.
For many Taiwan School students, the language acts as a vehicle of culture and meaning, with its distinct sounds and tones evoking a visceral sense of care, family, safety, warmth, and belonging.
As I got to know my classmates through weekly Webex meetings (my beginner class, for example, bonded over weekly lessons from the Bite Size Taiwanese vocabulary book) and one-on-one Zoom conversations, I saw how our stories bore similar contours that ran alongside the particularities of our individual experiences. Our class spanned various geographies, generations, immigration histories, and language proficiency levels. Yet nearly all of the people I spoke with shared poignantly about how hearing Taiwanese spoken or sung would often elicit a certain response — for some, a physical feeling of comfort or kinship, and for others, an emotional connection that would bring tears to their eyes.
For many, the desire to study Taiwanese stems from a longing to be able to communicate across generations and connect with relatives or grandparents on a deeper level. Our learning thus creates space for an exchange: the gift of relating to another in their heart language, and in return, becoming acquainted with a facet of their being that defies translation.
Our stories underscore the reality that the Taiwanese American community is far from being a monolith — rather, the different reactions and longings that the language evokes in us contribute to a fuller picture of what it means to be human. Indeed, in the midst of a pandemic that stripped away many of the anchors that ground our human experience — physical connection, community, and embodied presence — the language learning process became an exercise in reclaiming our shared humanity. For some students, to gather online and to weep at the sound of a language they could hardly speak was to be reminded of their identification with a broader community. For others and myself, choosing to learn and love a language for its beauty, over its perceived lack of universal utility, became a resistance to our cultural fixation on productivity that the pandemic had only illuminated in greater measure.
Our stories underscore the reality that the Taiwanese American community is far from being a monolith… for some students, to gather online and to weep at the sound of a language they could hardly speak was to be reminded of their identification with a broader community. For others and myself, choosing to learn and love a language for its beauty, over its perceived lack of universal utility, became a resistance to our cultural fixation on productivity.
And then, as anti-Asian violence rose across the country, learning Taiwanese became, for some, a means of asserting our dignity against a backdrop of hate. In learning new sounds and songs, we celebrated our culture and heritage in the wake of attempts to deny us our humanity and belonging. We experienced the joy of having a space where we could bring our full selves, without having to explain or truncate parts of our identities, even in a climate where our community gets flattened or overlooked.
In a pandemic season of protracted loss, I have grown to especially cherish how this Taiwanese-learning journey has gifted me new words and language with which to tell my story. Learning Taiwanese has given voice to rich familial and cultural connections — the intangibles of our complex identities. In the words of my Taiwan School classmate, “I only wish that my grandma were still around to hear me speak her language.”
Sarah Lin is a graduate student in public policy at Harvard University, where she serves as Co-Founder/Co-Chair of the Taiwan Caucus at the Harvard Kennedy School and Editor-in-Chief of the Asian American Policy Review.