Sunday, September 27, 2009


Bad Dad and I saw A City of Sadness last night at the LACMA film series.  The mainly Westside crowd appeared (from overheard snatches of conversation) to know a lot about film.  They didn't know much about Taiwanese history.  Even Bad Dad, who had heard my family's stories, still had trouble keeping the people and the plot straight.

I think the problem stems from the five languages used on screen: Taiwanese, Mandarin, Shanghainese*, Japanese and Cantonese.  You are supposed to learn something about a character's background, sympathies and motivation from their language.  But, to most of the audience, all they saw were the subtitles in English. 

For instance, at the hospital, the staff speaks to one another in Japanese and Taiwanese.  The language flows back and forth, showing how comfortable they have become with one another.  When the Japanese retreated, some of the Japanese settlers choose to remain and continue to work at the hospital.  (They were so young, they had known no other home than Taiwan.)

To prepare for integration into China, the hospital gave Mandarin lessons to the staff.  Bad Dad knew they were learning some language, but didn't know which language or why.  They were learning Mandarin because almost none of the hospital staff knew Mandarin.  I think that point went right over the heads of most of the audience.

I understand a little bit of Taiwanese, Mandarin and Shanhainese, and I can distinguish the sounds of Japanese and Cantonese, though I can't understand them.  It made it so much easier for me to keep the characters straight.  If Bad Dad was lost, I think the rest of the audience must have been completely clueless.

Was it really that bad?  Actually, it was worse.  They had to downplay the genocide to get it past the censors.

My parents speak Taiwanese, Hakka**, Mandarin, Japanese and English.  They also know a little bit of Cantonese.  Like many American immigrant families, my parents will speak to me in one language and I will reply in English.  Bad Dad's family spoke German at home and the kids replied in a mixture of German and English, too.  I took enough German in high school and college to follow along and reply when necessary at my in-laws' house. 

Once, when we were visiting my dad and stepmom (who spoke Japanese when alone but spoke in Mandarin out of respect for my presence), Bad Dad didn't answer a question addressed to him.  I poked him and glared.  Why was he so rude?

He gave me a, "What?" look back.

No one else had realized that my stemmom had asked him a question in Mandarin and he didn't understand it!

My most popular joke abroad
Q.  What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
A. Bilingual
Q. What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
A. Trilingual
Q. What do you call a person who speaks one language?
A. American

* I have no idea why the movie background sheet distinguishes between Mandarin and Shanghainese.  I had previously thought that the Shanghai accent was the adopted Mandarin standard pronunciation (used by TV and radio newsreaders, natives of Shanghai, and  social pretenders).   But I forgot that there are so many regional accents and dialects.  I guess, at one time, Shanghai must have had a distinct dialect.  It was before my time.

** The Taiwanese and the Hakka were the two most populous groups in Taiwan until the mid 19th century.


  1. I would expand your joke to have the third answer be North Americans - most Canadians are unilingual as well. In rural Quebec there is no English ability, in most of the "rest of Canada" there is no French ability.
    Shanghainese is still a living language today. I guess it is known as the Wu dialect, same as the character on the Shanghai licence plates. Apparently it is not broadcast on TV or taught in schools.
    Glad you had a chance to see the new print of City of Sadness! Definitely one of the best films ever, and it sounds as though it would resonate well with your family history.
    Lisa in Toronto
    p.s. you left out the sign language as another language used in the film

  2. Thanks for the info about Shanghainese. So I should amend my earlier statement b/c I only understand Taiwanese and Mandarin w/ a Shanghai accent.

  3. Raye Ann18:15

    I learned that Shanghainese is still a completely different dialect used in Shanghai when I was there last week. Of course, I couldn't hear any difference at all, but my husband's business colleagues filled us in:)
    It is hard not to feel inferior about my inability to converse in several languages. I deal with it at work (healthcare industry) as well as during travel. I need to study French again- my only other formal language training, and definately have a goal of at least Spanish. I don't hold out any hope of learning Mandarin. I don't think I would ever get inflection even if I could produce the sounds of the language.

  4. I often fret that my French and Spanish are quite rusty, although I am much more fluent reading. It has been so long since I used either. It is nice to be able to turn the subtitles off on foreign movies and see if I can follow them.

    I am always surprised at the number of people I know who feel that there is no reason to learn another language, or for their children to learn another language. They just assume that everyone will learn theirs.


Comments are open for recent posts, but require moderation for posts older than 14 days.