Monday, May 22, 2017

Stranger in Every Land: Reflections of a Transcultural Adult in a Shrinkg World


Stranger in Every Land chronicles my journey out of the good ol' USA and into exotic Asian countries and inviting Pacific islands where I stayed long enough to no longer completely identify with my country of origin, but never long enough to fully be regarded as a native.   In Stranger in Every Land: Reflections of a Transcultural Adult in a Shrinking World, I share the hilarious stories, the unforgettable experiences, and the internal regurgitations of the last quarter century which transformed a lad from Titusville, Florida into a Transcultural Adult in a Shrinking World, a stranger in every land (even the land of my birth), yet one who has learned to be at home speaking new tongues, and embracing customs and cultures I never imagined possible.

Here is the Contents page and an excerpt from it...


1 Where Are You From?  From Titusvill-ian to Transcultural Adult in a Shrinking World.
2 What’s In a Name?  
3 What Time is It: P-Time or M-Time?
4 How Do I Know What is Right and What is Wrong?
5 The Doctor: My Friend; The Hospital: My Home
6 One Size Fits All
7 One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure
8 Kenny G is Everywhere
9 In The East, The Host Lives in Fear of Offending the Guest
In the West, The Guest Lives in Fear of Offending the Host
10 It’s A Small World After All


         In 1992, in order to apply for an Alien Resident Permit in Taiwan, the four of us needed to have Chinese names.   Before you can appreciate my Chinese name, you have to first understand a bit about all Chinese names.  Unlike those from Western English-speaking lands, Chinese list their family names first and their given name or names, second.  Most people in Taiwan have three characters in their full name, while those from the PRC might have either two or three.  There are ten common surnames in China and Taiwan.  According to a comprehensive survey of residential permits released by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security on April 24, 2007, the ten most common surnames in mainland China are, in order; Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, Chen, Yang, Huang, Zhao, Wu, and Zhou.  (The “zh’s” are pronounced like a “j.”) The most common family surname in Taiwan is Chen.

Sometimes when a Chinese person’s name is listed in a Western publication, they are listed with their given name(s) first, and sometimes they are listed with their family name first.  It really can be confusing.  The Academy Award winning director, responsible for such blockbuster films as “Crouching Tiger-Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and the unforgettable, “Hulk,” is known in the West as Ang Lee, but in Taiwan as Li An.  What’s up here?

The problem with Director Lee’s name goes far beyond the order of the Chinese characters. Transcultural adults residing in China or Taiwan, or even Hong Kong, know exactly what the problem is, while those who have not effected such a transformation remain clueless-even stymied.  The first problem is that Chinese names are Anglicized in Hong Kong according to the Cantonese Dialect, whereas in Taiwan and China they are Anglicized according to the Mandarin dialect.  The other problem is that even for Mandarin names, there are at least three entirely different systems to Anglicize the sounds of Mandarin.  First, there was the Wade-Giles System of the 19th century which gave us Nanking instead of Nanjing, and a whole host of other strange spellings and sounds and apostrophes in awkward places.  Then came the logical, yet not as popular, Yale Romanization, that was in use in Taiwan until the turn of the last Century.

Functioning alongside the Yale system was the pinyin system mandated in the PRC under Chairman Mao.  Pinyin is a good system, but not a perfect one, one that carries with it a whole host of pitfalls.  Zh’s are pronounced like English “j’s” with a curled tongue.  Xi is pronounced like the English “she” but with your mouth in a Cheshire grin. Pinyin is not always intuitive.
If you try and pronounce pinyin as if the letters were English, the results are ghastly, comical, and more importantly from the standpoint of the listener, unintelligible.

All in all, there are only 387 distinct word sounds in the Mandarin language.  These words appear in four different possible tonal inflections that comprehensively represent the pronunciation of over 30,000 written Chinese characters.  Mandarin is a language of beautiful homophones and undecipherable hieroglyphs..

The good news in all the confusion is that I can teach a monkey to speak Mandarin (as long as the monkey is not tone-deaf).  The other good news is that if you give me six hours of your time (and a corresponding amount of Ben Franklin bills) I can teach you how to correctly pronounce every word in the Mandarin language and in the Chinese dictionary. In six hours.  No kidding.  The bad news is that it will take you a lifetime to learn how to read and write the characters.

The even more depressing news is that Chairman Mao “simplified” the Chinese characters, causing 40 percent of them to lose the meaning implicit in the character’s radical component parts, thus furthering the rift that already existed between the Chinese in the mainland and the Taiwanese and Chinese in the R.O.C. on Taiwan.  I appreciate the fact that Chairman Mao wanted to make the masses literate, but I do not appreciate the fact that the simplification of the Chinese characters meant that a person like me, who failed Art class in elementary school, now, at the age of 30 had to start learning not one but TWO Chinese written languages.  Nowadays, it is not such a big deal.  Thanks to the Google translate and Pleco Dictionary apps on our smartphones, the Tower of Babel has been reversed by a finger-point or a mouse-click.  But in 1992, in the days before email and cell phones, I had to start to piece together the puzzle which is the Chinese written script-without technological help.

I realize in reviewing what I just wrote, that what I intended as a mere excursus of explanation of Mandarin, turned into a hiatus of history into the etymology of Chinese characters, but I trust that you will forgive me.  Getting back to the problem of the order of a Chinese name… The first time I encountered the problem of the inverted order of Chinese surnames and given names was in college at Eastman.  Eight years after ping-pong diplomacy incited an epidemic of Sino-phobia, one of the fruits of Mao and Nixon’s ping-pong game was that musicians from the People’s Republic of China, were now allowed to apply for entrance into the world’s finest music conservatories.

The same year I arrived at Eastman as a trumpet-tooting freshman in 1979, Dong Dong Dong arrived as a Master’s piano candidate in the studio of Barry Snyder.  The only problem was, nobody knew how to pronounce her name.  Hours were spent in pouring over the pinyin, by our Freshman Orientation Committee (also responsible for orienting new Master’s Student’s living in the Eastman Dorms).

Was it “Dong Dong-Dong,” or was it “Dong-Dong Dong?”  We didn’t really understand at the time that family surnames are only one Chinese character or we would have unanimously exclaimed Dong Dong-Dong.  Or would we have?  The other thing we didn’t know after figuring out which Dong was which, was whether to call her as the Chinese do, Dong Dong-Dong (or Dong-Dong for short), or to call her (since she is in “Americuh” now, Dong-Dong Dong,  Well the “Americuhns” won out.

Regardless of what she ever preferred to be called, Miss Dong, was known from that point on as Dong-Dong Dong.
Looking back on it after 25 years of Mandarin lessons, I find it ironic that a sea of students with relative and perfect pitch were clueless that the Dongs have tones and even more, that Dong in pinyin is not pronounced like Dong in English (rhyming with the pong of ping-pong), but rather with a more rounded “O” sound, like the “O” in “Oprah.”  But whatever, in the minds of every Eastman student, this whiz on the piano and extraordinaire on the badminton court was from then on always affectionately known as “Dong-Dong Dong” (pronounced like English not pinyin.)

All this is essential background if you want to know what happened when we got our Chinese names. One of the sisters in our church, Joan Cheng, had quite a reputation for naming foreigners, so the responsibility of naming the four newly-hatched pet resident aliens fell on her shoulders.  Like chimpanzees behind the glass wall in the Philadelphia Zoo, after one week of walking our bald-headed, blue-eyed, vocal two darlings in a double stroller down the impassable Roosevelt Road and the uneven sidewalks of Shita Lu (pronounced Sure Da Loo- not Shitta Loo) we definitely knew we were aliens and we certainly felt like we were monkeys in a zoo.

What then do we call these recent additions to the Taipei City Center Zoo? When pausing to ponder that question, Joan came up with a clever strategy, one that she hoped would prophetically bless all of our days in the R.O.C. and one that would simultaneously endear us in the hearts of both zookeepers and residents alike.  Joan took the sound of my surname, Conkling, and Chineseophied it into three renown Chinese characters.  Kang, signifying “health,”  Ke, meaning, “to conquer,” and Li,  designating “reason,” “logic” and “truth.”  Kang Ke Li: The healthy one who can conquer all by reason, logic and truth.  It was a stroke of brilliance that even 25 years afterwards, brings a surprised smile to the questioner when I proudly respond, “my name is Kang Ke Li.”  But keep in mind, in Mandarin Pinyin “Kang” is pronounced like it rhymes with the English word “Dong,”  My last name rhymes with the mother-of-all-zoo-animals, King Kong.

But even more importantly than what’s in my name, what’s in the term “Transcultural Adult?” The best way I can explain it is to share some scribbles from my napkin in T.G.I. Fridays in Taipei.

You Know You Are A Transcultural Adult When…..
-You can’t remember your last three addresses
-You want to post “First World Problems” in the comment section on all of your American friend’s Facebook page.
-You cringe at the thought of owning or driving a car
-You don’t know the names of either team in the Super Bowl
-You forget Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Memorial Day, Pearl Harbor Day, and Thanksgiving Day, but count the days until the Moon Festival or Chinese New Year
-You plan your vacation and work schedule around Ramadan
-You desire a monitor lizard rather than a kitten for a pet
-You get in a taxi and forget which language to speak
-You have four currencies in your wallet
-You have gone through more passports than Donald Trump has wives
-You do not own a television and could care less
-All of your phone contacts begin with a “+” and the country code
-You cannot get over how fat “Americuhns” are or how much they eat
-Your children fall on their faces screaming “thank you, thank you Mom and Dad for not raising us in the US,” during their furlough high school year back in the United States
-Your list of favorite restaurants spans six countries
-You dream in two languages
-You prefer Chicken with the bones left on
-Your high cholesterol can be directly connected to eating too many chicken feet
-You no longer check your feet when passing a stinky tofu (or dofu) stand but instead order some as a snack for your son
-The goal of your parenting is teaching your kids to travel solo internationally by age 13
-The size of your entire apartment is as large as your Florida friend’s walk-in closet
-You eat out locally to save money and time
-All of your preferred health-care providers are in Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia
-The thought of moving back to the USA keeps you up at night
-You can’t remember when your license expires
-You dream more of snorkeling than owning a gun
-You don’t feel safe unless you are in a crowd
-You have visited more provinces in China than States west of the Mississippi.
-You can name the last 10 Emperors of China but not the last 10 presidents of the USA
-You take out a traveler’s insurance policy to return to the US for 30 days
-You could care less about owning a home
-Every cell phone you have ever bought is unlocked
-You don’t think that it is gay for a man to carry a purse(or murse as we lovingly call them) or wear a pink shirt to work
-Your dog has moved internationally 14 times
-You know the best seats in any Airbus or Boeing plane without having to look at a seating chart
-You have more friends than you ever thought possible.
-You regret nothing about the decision you made to leave the USA 25 years ago with two kids in tow.
If you can relate to 3-5 of these then you are an expat.  If you can identify with 5-10 of these, then you are a seasoned traveler.  If you really embrace 11-20 of these, then you are well into your transition to becoming a transcultural adult.  If you heartily embrace 21-37 of these, then you are a transcultural adult in a shrinking world.

excepted from Stranger in Every Land: Reflections of a Transcultural Adult in a Shrinking World


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