Jesha Prekop identifies her time in Taiwan with things that were never said.
And it wasn’t only what, but how. As a native Taiwanese, she realized the language she used her entire life was only telling half of her story.
Prekop, a 36-year-old artist with Austronesian indigenous ancestry as part of the Siraya people, now goes by her Hoklo Taiwanese name Tân Tik-iông. Last year, she began only speaking Hokkien, or Taiwanese, and English after she realized many of her fellow islanders could speak neither Taiwanese nor other indigenous languages.
“Until you step away, then you’re able to look back at the situation and really question a lot of things that are actually really bizarre, and doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “But this language is one of the many things I discover after I stepped away.”
She abandoned Mandarin altogether—much like the Republic of China demanded of the Taiwanese in 1945 when Japanese, Hakka, Taiwanese and other Formosan language were banned, and a modified version of the Beijing-style Mandarin was to be used instead.
Prekop’s realization ultimately led to a performance earlier this month in her hometown of Tainan called “Scribe,” where she translated letters from Mandarin into Taiwanese for passersby on the street. The result, she said, was underwhelming. In fact, no one stopped.
But she wasn’t expecting anything different.
“I wanted to point out that most people are unaware of the situation,” she said. “If you see me and walk by, you don’t know what’s happening. You’re illiterate. I had a lot of people that saw me, saw my sign…and most people can’t read it, so they walk by.”
This response to Taiwanese and indigenous languages has been confusing for her, to say the least.
“You’re sort of not allowed to speak Taiwanese in formal, public settings,” she said.
Her own experiences with this unspoken prejudice began in restaurants, local shops and during small interactions on the street. When she spoke Taiwanese in these settings, she encountered aggression, distaste and confusion from the people she spoke to, she said.
“At first it was so sad and because I speak the language of the land, on this island…as if this is unacceptable. It’s too sad. And I don’t know what made people numb to the situation.”
Historically, it began in 1937 with the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. Taiwanese and the indigenous Austronesian languages were to be abandoned in exchange for Japanese. This only lasted until the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) arrived, yet again changing the rules and creating the “National Languages Promotion Committee” (國語推行委員會), which more strictly enforced the use of Mandarin in schools, government and daily life. This limited opportunities for even the most educated class under Japanese colonial rule.
“Because of that, suppressing the educated group, the new Chinese regime brought money, power and everything,” she said. “They started presenting Mandarin Chinese as a higher, classier language, and it became the marker for all those people in power; a marker for being in the elite educated class and a marker for money and authority.”
And this doesn’t even touch on the languages of the 16 recognized indigenous peoples of the island, whose cultural traditions were often painted under the new regime as “lower class,” Prekop said.
“I believe if they used their native language to try to communicate, they would receive similar or even worse discrimination,” she added.
Perhaps this year will reward small victories for language preservation groups, as more Taiwanese are aware of the issue. In July, President Tsai Ing-wen posted a photo of local Hualien documents written in native Pangcah (Amis) and Rukai languages, calling them “national languages” (國家語言) and even welcomed local governments to use their own native tongues.
But Prekop said she doesn’t want to just advocate for language rights, like many other groups on the island that are trying to draw attention to the issue.
It’s about something bigger for the artist.
“If you have some illness and you don’t feel comfortable, you have to be aware that you are sick,” she said. “Then you will look for treatment. But if you are in denial or you don’t know you’re sick, there’s no step forward. I don’t understand why people are so comfortable with this fact [and] almost take for granted the position of a colonial policy.”
“They take their side.”
(Feature photo from Jesha Prekop)
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