For Whom Do We Tidy?

When we ‘tidy’, who are we trying to impress?

Yes, I am still going through that KonMari thing even though it’s been a few weeks since I’ve blogged about it. Among other things, I’ve browsed/skimmed a few other books about decluttering/tidying at the library. I’ve even read one of them from cover to cover, specifically Decluttering at the Speed of Life. (Why that one and not the others? Because it’s entertaining. The others I’ve browsed are too boring to finish reading.) These books I’ve browsed at the library were all (I think) written by Americans, and (I assume that) the forewords were also written by Americans.

I’ve also read the Taiwan edition of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up with two forewords which (I assume) were written by Taiwanese people. (There were a lot more differences between the Taiwan/Chinese translation and the U.S.A./English translation of the book than I expected, and I could write an entire post about that).

So now I can do a little cultural comparison – how are books about tidying/organizing/decluttering/etc. written by Americans different from a book about tidying written by a Japanese person with forewords written by Taiwanese people?

I’m sure a cultural anthropologist could dedicate an entire career to this kind of thing, but I’m not an anthropologist, so I will jump straight to what stands out to me. Namely, whether tidying is supposed to make a home look good to guests, or whether it is supposed to make it look good to residents. Continue reading


A Guide to Distinguishing Sinitic Languages by Ear: Answers & Commentary

Two weeks ago I posted a guide to distinguishing Sinitic languages by ear. Here are the answers to the exercises where one guesses which language(s) are being used. But just giving the answers would be boring, so I’m adding my own commentary. Continue reading

When You Live With the Assumption that Everything Will Have to Go

I recently read the popular book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Kondo Marie-

Oh no, don’t tell me that you’re joining the Konmari cult!

Why would it matter whether or not I am joining the Konmari cult?

Because if you join the cult, you’ll repeatedly use the phrase ‘spark joy’. Are you going to do that?

No, especially since I suspect that it is an imperfect translation of the Japanese word tokimoku anyway (just as this comment claims that the English verb ‘tidy up’ does not quite convey the Japanese cultural concept Kondo Marie wrote a whole book about). I’m willing to completely avoid the phrase ‘spark joy’.


I suspect the real reason this book is such a bestseller is that it is fun to read. Even if you have zero interest in tidying up your own space, it is worth reading for the humor. Kondo Marie has visited hundreds of messy homes and offices; she has anecdotes.

However, this book did not just make me laugh; it also prompted me to think about my life in Taiwan (as well as ultralight backpacking philosophy, but that is for a different blog post).
Continue reading

Nobody Needs to Change Their Name When They Marry

The essay “Why Don’t More Men Take Their Wives’ Last Names?” at The Atlantic opens like this:

In the run-up to marriage, many couples, particularly those of a more progressive bent, will encounter a problem: What is to be done about the last name?

Some have attempted work-arounds: the Smiths and Taylors who have become Smith-Taylors, Taylor-Smiths, or—more creative—Smilors. But there just isn’t always a good, fair option. (While many straight couples fall back on the option of a woman taking her husband’s last name, same-sex couples have no analogous default.)

Notice the option not mentioned? Nobody changing their surname upon marriage. And nowhere does the essay mention the possibility (except in the most indirect way). I suppose there may a situation where each spouse keeping their original surname is not a “good, fair option” but I cannot think of any such situation.

(I have since learned that both the essay writer and her fiancé intend to keep their original surnames when they marry, so she obviously knows that it is an option. The only reason I can think of that she did not bring it up in the essay is because she was trying to keep the word count low.)

I’ve spent several years in Taiwan, where (except for some indigenous people and foreigners) practically nobody changes their surname when they marry. And quite a bit of the fiction I’ve read in the past decade has been in Chinese and set in societies where, not only do people not change their surnames when they marry, they don’t even think about changing their surnames when they marry.

And some of Taiwan’s indigenous groups have very distinct naming traditions, such as the Tao people, who change their name, not when they marry, but when they have their first child (the parents take the child’s name), and then they change their name again when they have their first grandchild. Basically, in traditional Tao society, children aren’t named after their parents, parents/grandparents are named after their eldest child/grandchild.

And there is this interesting essay by an American woman in Taiwan who decided to change her surname to her husband’s name, even though it goes against Taiwanese conventions. Though I don’t know why she says this: “I’m not sure why name-changing never caught on in Taiwan” – why would she expect wives-taking-their-husband’s names to ever catch on in Taiwan? What reason would the Taiwanese have had to change? (Okay, yes, Taiwan was part of the Japanese empire for about 50 years, but apparently the Japanese were uninterested in changing this aspect of Taiwanese culture).

In Sinophone societies, if a mother and child have the same surname, it tends to mean one of the following things 1) the mother is in a ruzhui marriage, 2) the father is unknown or 2) the father and mother have the same surname, (which carries the connotation of incest, even though many Chinese people who have the same surname aren’t related at all, marrying someone with the same surname is still a bit taboo). Even if the parents are not married, if the father is known, the child will take the father’s surname 99% of the time. For example, in The Condor Trilogy (which includes that novel I keep on mentioning in this blog), Mu Nianci is adopted by a man whose surname is Mu, so she take his surname, not the surname of her biological father. She gets a crush on Yang Kang. It then turns out that her adopted father’s real surname is Yang, not Mu, but Mu Nianci chooses to keep the surname ‘Mu’ because, if she has the same surname as Yang Kang, then marrying him would be taboo. It turns out that they never marry (at least in the original novel, they get married in some of the TV adaptations), but she does have a child with him, and their child takes the surname Yang because, even though his parents were not married, it is obvious that Yang Kang is his father.

A few years ago I wrote a post culture countershock in Japan. I can add another example of culture countershock to the list I wrote in that post. I met a woman in Hokkaido and learned her full name. I later met her daughter. Then I stumbled across a package which was to be delivered to the daughter, and I saw the daughter’s full name. I was shocked to learn that she had the exact same surname as her mother. You would think this would not be surprising at all, especially since I myself have the same surname as my mother. However, after having been in Taiwan for years, and for years 99% percent of the fiction I read was set in Sinophone societies, I had internalized the idea that mothers and daughters having the same surname is weird.

A few minutes after seeing the daughter’s name, I figured out that in Japanese society women probably take their husbands’ surnames, just like in the traditional/conventional United States. I don’t know why I assumed the Japanese, like the Chinese, almost never change their surnames upon marriage, I guess because Japan is also a traditionally ‘Confucian’ society? But most probably because I had so fully internalized the Sinophone tradition of not even thinking about changing a surname upon marriage, let alone actually changing a surname upon marriage, that I just … did not think about it.

In the letters responding to that essay in The Atlantic, it is pointed out that it is very common for women in India to keep their original surnames after marriage, and that in Quebec, the government requires women to keep their original surnames and they have to petition the courts if they want to take their husband’s surname. Considering the population of India and China, it is very possible that a majority of the world’s people take it for granted that a wife will probably keep her original surname after she marries, and the people who live in societies where women are expected to take their husband’s surnames are actually a minority.

I’ll be honest, I think not changing a surname at marriage is the most sensible choice. I can respect that some people think it is good/important for everyone in a [nuclear] family to have the same surname, but I do not see how that is good or important. My parents don’t have the same surname, and that’s fine. I’ve lived in an entire society (Taiwan) where people don’t change their surnames except for adoption and some exceptional circumstances (unless they belong to certain cultural minorities), and it works just fine. It’s egalitarian. In fact, I think the idea of someone changing their name when the marry makes about as much sense as the Tao tradition of changing their name when they have their first child/grandchild (by that I meant that they are both traditions which can work, but requires people to change their name just because they formed a new relationship with another person, and having people change their names can be confusing). Barring some really unusual circumstance, I am never going to change my surname, whether I marry or not (if I do marry, I’ll let my spouse do whatever they want with their surname).

That said, I also support people having the choice to change their own surname for whatever reason. I may think their reason is silly, but I want people to feel free to do what they want with their surnames even if I think it’s silly. If one wants to change one’s surname because of marriage, fine, if one wants to change one’s surname to ‘Potter’ to express one’s love of the Harry Potter franchise, that’s also fine. I do not judge people who change their surname when they marry, regardless of gender.

What Parts of Taipei Would I Put in a Story?

After writing the previous post, I started wondering what parts of Taipei I would put in a fictional story. First of all, it would depend on what the story required. But beyond whatever the story demanded, what would I show in a story to make it feel like it was in Taipei?

This has everything to do with my personal experience of Taipei, and is by no means a universal perspective. That said, if I were to write a fictional story set in Taipei, these are things which would be very likely to appear.

1) Taipei Main Station. As far as I’m concerned, this is the center of Taipei. As soon as I arrived in Taiwan and escaped from immigration/customs, the very first thing I did was board a bus going to Taipei Main Station. When I lived in Taipei for a few months, I lived in a place which was just a few minutes walk from the train station. I spent a lot, a lot, a lot of time walking around the train station and all of the underground arcades which connect to the station. And when I was living in Taoyuan (which was most of the time I lived in Taiwan) Taipei Main Station was my link between Taoyuan and almost anywhere in Taipei (except on the rare occasion I went to Songshan station instead).

2) Japanese-Colonial Architecture. That building I lived in during the brief time I lived in Taipei was clearly built during Japanese rule. Most of the buildings with the most interesting architecture in Taipei were also built during the era of Japanese rule. I would probably want to incorporate these buildings into a fictional story.

3) The rivers. Since I had never lived in a river city before, I was impressed with all of the rivers in Taipei, and I think that would come through in a story.

4) The Legislative Yuan. I grew up over a thousand miles away from the capital of my country, which I have never visited (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been within 500 miles of Washington D.C.) Thus I’m used to thinking of the national government as being in a Really Far Away Place. So it was a bit of a shock when I realized that the Legislative Yuan, which is Taiwan’s equivalent of Congress, was less than a twenty-minute walk away from where I lived in Taipei. It was the kind of place where I could pass by while going about my day-to-day life! (I cannot imagine casually walking past Congress during my everyday routine). Even when I lived in Taoyuan, I sometimes had to visit the National Police Agency, which is right next to the Legislative Yuan. And I saw a bit of the Sunflower Protests, when the Legislative Yuan was shut down because the protesters literally did not let people enter the building.

5) Finding Things. I sometimes wanted/needed things which I could not find in Taoyuan, so I would look for them in Taipei. For example, I could not get women’s dress shoes which fit my feet in Taoyuan – I had to go to a store in Taipei which specializes in shoes for women with big feet. There was also something which I looked for in Japan for over a month, and not only could I not find it in any stores in Japan, not even in Fukuoka or Osaka (I did not go to Tokyo), the Japanese people I talked to had no clue where I could find that item. When I went back to Taipei for a visit (before I went back to Japan for more travel) I was able to find that item very quickly (probably because I am a lot more savvy about Taipei than any Japanese city) (I also have a pretty good idea of where I could find that item for sale in San Francisco the next time I need a replacement). Thus, to a large extent, I think of Taipei as the Place Where I Get Things I Cannot Get Elsewhere.

6) The street address system. Shortly before I moved to Taiwan, a Taiwanese-American neighbor tried to explain the street address system, and I totally did not understand it. It was only after I was in Taipei for about a week that it finally clicked. And once I understood it, I thought it was totally cool that Taiwan has a different street addressing system than the United States (and unlike the Japanese street addressing system, the Taiwanese street addressing system actually is consistent and logical). Taoyuan has a simpler street layout than Taipei, so Taipei is definitely a better place to appreciate the Taiwanese street address system.

7) Maokong. Yes, this is a touristy part of Taipei, but it is one of my favorite touristy parts of Taipei, one I returned to again and again, and it is one which draws more local tourists than international tourists. And some of the best tea in the world is grown there, right there within Taipei city limits. Isn’t that cool?

8) The neighborhood with all the used bookstores. There is an area near National Taiwan University which has a lot of used bookstores. I have many happy memories of walking through this area, going from used bookstore to used bookstore, looking for gems (mostly wuxia novels). This area also had a lot of posters which gave me a clue about what was going on with Taipei’s cultural/intellectual life, even though, as a resident of Taoyuan who had to live by train schedules, I was not able to take full advantage of it.

9) Songshan Airport. Most airports are on the outskirts of cities, or way outside the city. Not Songshan. It is not in the center of the Taipei basin, but it is surprisingly close. I generally do not care for air travel, but one of the exceptions is flying in or out of Songshan airport. You can really see how Taipei is a dense built-up metropolis in a bowl, with a ring of green mountains serving as the lip of the bowl. As the aircraft approaches Taipei, all of the buildings become closer and closer, and more and more landmarks become identifiable. And then the aircraft plunges straight down into the heart of the city with two million residents (yep, Taipei has a bigger population than any city in the United States except New York and Los Angeles). (I suspect that San Jose airport may be similar since it is close to downtown San Jose, but since I have never flown into/out of San Jose, I’m not sure). You can see what it looks like in this video.

So there you have it. I probably will never write a fictional story set in Taipei, but this gives you all an idea of which impressions of Taipei have stayed with me all of these years.

The Visitor Perspective vs. the Residential Perspective

The book cover of Want

I read two novels back to back, Want by Cindy Pon and Ann Mary, Contraception, and the Pope of Rome by Nancy Taforo-Murphy. Both of these novels are centered in a particular city – Want is centered on Taipei, and Ann Mary, Contraception, and the Pope of Rome (which from now on I will abbreviate as ‘AMCatPoR’) is centered on San Francisco. Reading these two novels one after another – and my familiarity with these two cities – made it apparent that these books are not only about two different cities, but they are presenting those cities from very different perspectives.

I have an odd relationship with Taipei. I lived in Taipei for a few months, and I worked in Taipei for years (my job in Taiwan was split between Taoyuan, Taipei, and Hsinchu), not to mention all the times I went to Taipei to run errands/meet with people/make a transit connection. On the one hand, I got to know Taipei very well because I commuted there so often, but it never became ‘home’ to me the way that Taoyuan did.

In any case, I definitely noticed that Want focused very much on the touristy parts of Taipei and ignored anywhere which was not touristy. For example, they go to the touristy Shilin Night Market, but not the more-popular-with-locals Shida Night Market (confession: I went to the Shilin Night Market more often than the Shida Night Market, but that was only because I went to the Shilin District often – everyone I knew who lived in Taipei preferred the Shida Night Market). I was almost expecting them to go to the National Palace Museum at some point. They go to Snake Alley, which is a place you pretty much only go to if you are a tourist or you are with a tourist. They go to Yangmingshan, the most touristy mountain in Taipei, rather than one of the many other mountains around the Taipei Basin.

Meanwhile, there are many features of Taipei which I found prominent, but the novel ignores. I was amazed by all the rivers in Taipei because I had never lived in a city with a river before, let alone FOUR rivers (yep, there are four rivers in Taipei – the Dahan river, the Keelung River, the Xindian river, and the Tamsui river). Yet the novel hardly ever mentions the rivers at all, not even to say something along the lines of ‘the rivers were such toxic polluted messes that they all had been buried in tunnels to prevent their corrosive chemicals from destroying the buildings whenever there a flood’ (yeah, this is a dystopia novel).

I know that Cindy Pon was born in Taipei. I don’t know how much time she has spent in Taipei, but the novel read like it had been written by someone who had visited Taipei, but never immersed themselves in the city.

(I was also wondering the whole time what was going on in other parts of Taiwan. I understand why the writer wanted to keep the action focused on Taipei, but the way they never, ever mentioned anywhere else in Taiwan, not even places like Tamsui or Kaohsiung, was weird. People who live in Taipei often do reference other parts of Taiwan in everyday conversation. On the other hand, people who do not live in Taiwan often do not know about any city/town other than Taipei itself, so the complete lack of recognition any part of Taiwan ex-Taipei contributed to the feeling that this was a shallow outside perspective).

Book cover of Ann Mary, Contraception, and the Pope of Rome

By contrast, AMCatPoR offers ample description of San Francisco, yet barely mentions any touristy areas, and on the rare occasion it mentions a touristy place, it does so in the same context that a local resident would think about the touristy place. In particular, AMCatPoR focuses on the Sunset District. I grew up on the outskirts of the Sunset, and I can tell you that this novel offers a very accurate picture (even though I grew up in a different part of the Sunset than where the novel takes place). I cannot judge if it presents 1940s Irish-American Catholic culture accurately, but it obvious that it was written by someone who knows the Sunset very well.

There is also the matter of audience. Want is written in English, and most people in Taipei do not read novels in English, thus the people of Taipei are not its target audience. AMCatPoR, based on the reviews I’ve found, is mostly read by people who are long-term residents of San Francisco, and I suspect it is to a large extent aimed at San Franciscans. That may be another reason that Want (in spite of having protagonists who spent their whole lives in Taipei) reads like a tourist guide, whereas AMCatPoR reads like a native San Franciscan engaging in nostalgia.

Mind you, I’m not saying that writing about a city from a visitor’s perspective is bad. For example, if I am a traveller, I want my guidebooks to be written from a visitor’s perspective. And in fiction, if the protagonist is a visitor to the city, then a visitor’s perspective is probably appropriate.

I am very used to media presenting San Francisco from a visitor, rather than a residential, perspective, which is why I am so sensitive to whether a writer is writing about San Francisco from the perspective of a visitor or the perspective of a resident. This is the first time I’ve seen Taipei in a fictional presented from a visitor’s perspective, which might be why it was a bit jarring.

I’m not sure if I would have picked up on this if these novels were set in cities I do not know well. I wonder if it possible to write about a city from a resident’s perspective without ever having been a resident. I think it is, but would require good research, and most of all, to mentally put oneself in a resident’s shoes (i.e. ask oneself whether a resident of Taipei would ever want to go to Snake Alley, or whether a resident of San Francisco would ever want to go to Fisherman’s Wharf).

What is the Mandarin word for ‘Mandarin’? (a rant about Chinese language politics)

What is the English word for the English language? It is ‘English’ of course. And this is so in all of the Anglophone countries. That is simple.

English also has a single word for the language ‘Mandarin’. If I’m talking in English, and I want to refer to the Mandarin language, I can just say ‘Mandarin’ without thinking too hard about it.

Ah, if only it were so simple when I’m actually talking in Mandarin.

You see, there are many names for the Mandarin language in the Mandarin language. I could just pick my favorite name, and use it all the time – except different names for Mandarin have different connotations, particularly political connotations. And there is no name which is completely politically neutral, so if I want to refer to Mandarin in Mandarin, I have to take some kind of political position.

My position is usually ‘I don’t want to argue with you about language politics’. Thus, if possible, I will try to figure out what the other speaker’s preferred name for ‘Mandarin’ is and just mirror them. However, if I cannot do that, or if I’m not thinking too hard, my default is to use the name ‘Zhōng​wén’ which is far from ideal, but closer to being politically neutral than any other term. Even if it’s not the other speaker’s preferred term, I am unlikely to offend anybody by referring to Mandarin as ‘Zhōng​wén’.

‘Zhōng​wén’ roughly means ‘middle language’ as in ‘language of the middle country’ i.e. the language of China. But wait, not all forms of Chinese are Mandarin. Whatever, I’m probably trying to carry out a conversation about something other than Chinese language politics, and don’t want to get into a digression, and even if Chinese is not just Mandarin, Mandarin is definitely Chinese.

Where did the English name ‘Mandarin’ come from? The British called the government officials of the Qing Empire ‘mandarins’ and the language which those officials spoke also became known as ‘Mandarin’. In other words, ‘Mandarin’ is a translation of the Mandarin term ‘Guān​huà​’ which means ‘bureaucratese / officials’ language / Mandarin’. However, this is a very old-fashioned term which nobody uses in everyday conversation anymore unless they are being ironic or quirky. And I can’t be quirky, because if I drop words like ‘Guān​huà​’ into conversation, people won’t think that I am being quirky, or expressing an opinion on language politics, they will just think I am bad at speaking Mandarin.

Another name for Mandarin is ‘Pǔ​tōng​huà​’ which means ‘common language’ in Mandarin. Sounds like it would be a pretty neutral term, right? Wrong. First of all, it is a term which is strongly associated with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). If I hear someone referring to ‘Pǔ​tōng​huà​’ I guess that they are either from the PRC, or they learned Mandarin in the PRC. It also implies at least tacit support for the PRC’s language policies, which is to get people to speak Mandarin more and use other languages less (not that this policy is universally successful).

And then there is ‘Guó​yǔ​’ which means ‘national language’ in Mandarin. Now this is a more overtly political term. It is associated with the Nationalist Party (KMT) which, ummm, without getting into a political history of China and Taiwan, let us just say that anything which is associated with the KMT is going to be politically loaded. The KMT, like the Communist Party which runs the PRC, is very much into getting everybody to use Mandarin and abandon other languages, and they have historically been willing to use government powers to coerce people to abandon other languages and use Mandarin. In Taiwan, there are still many people who grew up when the KMT controlled the media and the schools, so they are used to saying the word ‘Guó​yǔ​’ even if they are entirely sympathetic to the KMT. I have also heard some Hong Kongers use the term ‘Guó​yǔ​’ and I don’t know why they use that term.

And there is the term ‘Huá​yǔ​’ which means ‘language of the Hua’ in Mandarin. ‘Huá​’ roughly means ‘Chinese’ but in an ethnic sense, not a national sense (yes, I know there is more nuance to it than that, don’t shoot me, I’m not delving into what ‘Huá​’ really means because I’m trying to avoid that digression). It is the name for Mandarin favored by Singaporeans. I don’t know nearly as much about Singaporean politics as Taiwanese politics, but I do know a little. Singapore presents itself as a multi-ethnic state, not just a state for ‘Huá​’ people, so the powers that control Singapore don’t want to refer to Mandarin as a ‘common’ or ‘national’ language. However, most of the ‘Huá​’ people in Singapore historically spoke Hokkien, Cantonese, or Teochew – not Mandarin. For some reason, the powers that be in Singapore don’t like this, so they encourage all ‘Huá​’ people to speak Mandarin instead of Hokkien/Cantonese/Teochew, My guess is they refer to Mandarin as ‘Huá​yǔ​’ because it is considered the appropriate language for all ‘Huá​’ people (but not Malay people, or Tamil people, or various other ethnic groups in Singapore).

And then there is ‘Běi​jīng​huà​’ which is Mandarin for ‘language of Beijing’. Instead of presenting Mandarin as the universal language of the Chinese nation, or the Chinese ethnic group, it presents Mandarin as a language spoken by people from a particular region, which is not necessarily better than the language of any other region. As you can imagine, this is a term for Mandarin favored by people who want to promote Chinese languages ~other~ than Mandarin, such as Cantonese or Hokkien. If someone uses the term ‘Běi​jīng​huà​’ in Taiwan, the connotation is ‘Mandarin is a foreign language brought to Taiwan by outsiders after World War II, the real language of Taiwan is Hokkien (and maybe also Hakka), because people in Taiwan spoke Hokkien (and Hakka) long before World War II’.

As I said before, my position is usually ‘I don’t want to argue with you about Chinese language politics’. I am willing to use ANY term for Mandarin, whatever the political connotations, if it will make the people I’m speaking to feel more comfortable. Thus, every term I have listed in this blog post (except ‘Guān​huà​’) has come out of my mouth in casual conversation, depending on who I am talking to.

I wish I did not have to think so hard whenever I want to refer to Mandarin when I am speaking Mandarin, but I also know that there is not going to be a consensus on the word for Mandarin in Mandarin in my lifetime unless one political party takes over all Mandarin-speaking communities in the world and cracks down so hard on everyone who disagrees with that political party’s particular language policies that nobody dares use any other word to refer to the Mandarin language, and I don’t want that to happen. So from that perspective, I accept the diversity of Mandarin names for the Mandarin language.