Traditional Pride

After telling my family in Taiwan that I was studying at Fudan University in Shanghai for a semester, the first question I was asked was “Why are you going to the Mainland?”. When I told them I was going to improve my Chinese, they were ecstatic, especially after my 17 years growing up with the proficiency of a 6 year old. However, it wasn’t before long before one relative lets out a loud and nasally, yet classic Taiwanese interjection, “ayennn, so are you learning to write too? But wait, they use simplified don’t they? So sad”. This is the usual dialogue I have with each of my Taiwanese relatives since I’ve been “home”.  I’ll almost certainly receive a few comments if they catch me practicing characters around the house. Often times, they’ll sit down with me and show me characters that don’t make sense, have lost their true meaning, or are too simply confused with others. Then they’ll explain to me that they still use Zhuyin or “bo, po, mo, fo” that was also phased out of the PRC when the language was simplified. At first, I merely regarded their comments as chauvinistic Taiwanese pride, but as they confront me more and more, I’m slowly beginning to regret my year and a half learning simplified. Since being in Taiwan, I’ve been able to decode various traditional characters and many of the transitions are quite seamless, logical. I can begin to understand that living in Taiwan next summer won’t be quite the challenge I had imagined, however it’s the entire learning process that I resent the most.

As I do my homework at the dinner table with my cousin who’s 8 years old, I glance over at her Chinese workbook and see the beautiful pictures, bright colors, and playful stories. Then, I go back to reading The New Chinese Practical Reader and about 王小云 picking up her uncle at the train station as boredom consumes me. Examining her book more closely, I notice the Zhuyin next to each character. I then learn there are entire children’s books written with Zhuyin next to it and more importantly, during my grandfather’s worship, she was able to read scriptures while I was left in the dust. Perhaps, my frustration is with consistency, but it goes a little beyond that. Zhuyin does not have the adverse effects that I’ve noticed with Pinyin. As a native English speaker, I often rely too heavily on the pronunciation of my native tongue rather than learning the new pronunciation sounds that come with a new language. Zhuyin doesn’t allow this. An entirely foreign set of symbols, each paired with a sound, forcing a new learner to memorize these sounds. Although inapplicable to a person without experience with the romantic alphabet, I find that there would be a “two birds with one stone” scenario in learning Zhuyin first and allowing Pinyin to come naturally. In text, I find my lazy eyes more drawn to the pinyin written under the characters than the characters themselves. Zhuyin is written directly to the right of a character, forcing the reader to first recognize the character before it.

Traditional characters are another story. With a year and a half of study, I understand a tiny percentage of the etymology behind characters and the differences between Traditional and Simplified script. However, from what I’ve learned from my peers and family, Traditional characters just make more sense. I’ve noticed that the Chinese language has inherently more depth than English. Seldom are we taught in schools the roots and etymology of English words. We simply learn to spell it and memorize a definition. However, the key to memorizing thousands of characters is to understand them and be able to conceptualize how they are formed. A memorization technique, meaning, and sound bundled into one. Then when my aunt shows me words that were simplified because they sounded the same at the cost of the radicals that differentiated them, it turns learning some simplified characters into pure memorization. I also can’t help but feel inadequate when my young cousin can breeze through my text, while I can read 50% of hers just because the transition from traditional to simplified is more fluid than vice versa.

Perhaps I’ve been easily brainwashed by my Taiwanese heritage, perhaps I’m lazy and need a more fool proof method of learning so I don’t distract myself from learning characters, perhaps I just need to suck it up because there are millions of people learning pinyin and simplified characters just fine and without complaint. Still, I can’t help but have a subtle urge to be taught the way my family was; to retain the fullest meaning of a language without shortcuts.



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