When the Taiwanese started the Language training and Study Tour they hoped to give a sense of cultural identity to foreign-born Chinese youth. But for 1,000 teenagers every year it turns into a six-week party and a chance to find the perfect partner. Alison Dakota Gee boards the Love Boat …
In 1966, the people of Taiwan were concerned that its citizens were going off to Canada, Britain and Los Angeles’s Monterey Park as full-blooded citizens of the Middle Kingdom but later sending back strange progeny. Yellow on the outside and white on the inside, these creatures appeared to be Chinese until they opened their mouths and said: “Oh my god!!” So was born the phenomenon of the Banana, Twinkie and Bamboo Head.
These foreign-born Chinese (FBCs) could no longer even speak their mother tongue. They used chopsticks sometimes like skewers and at other times like mini snooker cues. They wore black-soled shoes in the house. they refused to eat fine foods like cow’s stomach and chicken’s entrails —- delicacies that real Chinese fight over.
Ask these Bananas who Wong Fei-hung is and they say,”Isn’t he the head waiter at Hue’s Sichuan Kitchen?” And Sun Yat-Sen? “Isn’t he that old guy who used to get trashed on Jim Beam outside Wong’s Fluff and Fold?” Waaaaaaaaaaaah!!
This would not do, the good people of Taiwan declared. And so, 28 years ago, they formed the Language Training and Study Tour to the Republic of China, a 6-weeks programme that would “assist overseas Chinese youth to increase their ability to use the Chinese language, to understand Chinese culture and history, and to see at first hand the achievements of the Republic of China”. In any case, that’s what the handbook says.
It was a glorious vision but one that would only be a shadow of itself in reality.
The Language Training and Study Tour (also known as ChienTan, for the campus on which most of the programme takes place) is still a summer repository for buaqiao (Overseas Chinese) in need of a crash course in Chinese culture. This year, 3,000 FBCs applied for 1,000 places.
But since the original 250 FBCs, mostly American-born Chinese (ABCs) and Canadian-born Chinese (CBCs), made their way to the Taipei campus in 1966, Chientan has metamorphosed into a six-wks party. Instead of an intensive language programme, it has become an intensive way for bananas to meet the object of their dreams. Instead of a way fo earnestly searching for one’s past, it has become a way of groping — in steamy Taipei nightclubs and crowded dormitories– for one’s future. Chientan has evolved into what ABCs now know simply as the Love Boat, after the hormone-raddled 1970s American TV series of the same name.
Ask ABCs in Hongkong about the notorious cruise (Which remains stationary for four weeks at Chientan and then moves on to half a dozen buses to tour southern Taiwan) and their eyes will flicker either with ardent recognition, bliss-laden nostalgia or downright disgust. Every ABC has either been on or downright disgust. Every ABC has either been on the Love Boat, paid a visit to the Love Boat, or had siblings, cousins, best friends, even parents who have made this one of their rites of passage.
“My mom told me it wa an intensive Mandarin programme”, says a Hong Kong-based ABC who begged to remain namless. She’s a passenger in 1991. “Since I had already had one year of Putonghua I thought I’d really get into it. So my parents said, Go and talk to Walter”, one of the kids in the neighbourhood who had gone the year before. He said,”Yeah, it was fun.” and I thought, an intensive language programme —- Fun?!
The “Fun” began on the flight to Taipei. Almost every seat was occupied by an ABC in uniform; for the X-chromosomes that meant head to toe black garb, preferably with a Lybra content somewhere in the 90th precentile, and enough hairspray to destroy the ozone layer above Manchuria; for the Y-chromosome, college T-shirts, baseball caps worn backwards and smirks that reads,”Finally, I’m going to somewhere I can score”.
“The foreign-born Chinese have what we call an “identification problem” sighs Shen Chiu-Tang, the director of the programme for the last seven years. “They say, “Yes, my parents are Chinese but I am American. But there is still so much race discrimination there. Their grandparents want them to come and find the root of Chinese culture. After a month of the programme we hope they learn about their culture and heritage.”
The programme is aimed at Buaqiao aged between 18-23 — old enough to understand the importance of a cultural odyssey but still young enough for radical personality reform. They come from the finest universities, the finest families and have the finest course set out in front of their fine lives ( For example, a confirmed place at Harvard, Stanford or Yale medical or law schools ) ” This year we have seven students who have received the Presidential Award and two who have received a Westinghouse Award”, says Shen proudly.
In the words of one headstrong Love Boater, “Beautiful college just doesn’t happen here. This is for the best and brightest”.
If this were a perfect world, these young people would eschew their nasty foreign habits and for six weeks immerse themselves in the study of Mandarin, as well as China’s high arts. They would learn to play Phoenix Flower Drum on the zither and Small White boat on the southern fiddle. They would learn to stick fight, fan dance, perform the praying mantis martial arts movements, paper cut traditional forms, create calligraphic scrolls and paint lily onds, carp and ming dynasty vases in classic watercolours. They would absorb Taiwan’s political philosophies by attending lectures by Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and by viewing films about the relationship between overseas Chinese and Taiwan.
But Shen Added, “Some kids know absolutely nothing about Chinese” he says with a weary sigh. Indeed, even the wrapper around the chopsticks in the students cafeteria comes with illustrated instructions as well as this inspirational message:”Welcome to Chientan Overseas Youth Activity Centre. Please enjoy your food with chopsticks. The traditional and typical of Chinese glorious history and culture”
There are mothers who fill out application forms for their daughters,” says Dan, a 23-year-old Love Boat Graduate who has come back to Taipei to serve as a counselor on the programme,”You know, that biological clock starts ticking and the girls think, “Oh, I gotta get married”.
Richard, another counselor, tells of a relative who met her husband while she was a passenger on the Love Boat. He wasn’t on the programme. But, better yet, he was a local doctor. “Since then, every one of her sisters has been sent to Chientan in order to find sex is rampant,” says the Hongkong based former Love Boater.”Everyone is sleeping with everyone. There are always rumours of pregnancy and abortions.” There are couples who meet on the first day and spend the rest of the tour holding hands and eating every meal together. “Some of th girls actually come out of there with huge rings on their fingers.”
But even if the Love Boat doesn’t bring the yearned-for results the first time, there’s always the possibility of taking a second cruise as one of 10 overseas counselors. “Most the counselors come back to meet somebody”, says Carson, who sailed in 1993 and admits he will be paid a merely $US400 (HK$3080) for six weeks of counselling work. ” All my brothers and three of my cousins have been on the programme.”
Although nearly 80 percent of Asians in San Francisco and Los Angeles (well, the females any way) marry Westerners, finding a culturally compatible mate is still a weighty ABC issue. While many FBC girls move easily in and out of inter-racial relationships, many FBC boys spend their adolescent years in sullen isolation, overlooked by Western girls and shunned by their more popular cultural counterparts.
“That’s why the guys just love the programme, says the local Love Boater. “After years of growing up in the United States with absolutely no attention from anyone, they are suddenly hot stuff. The girls on the programme love them. And the local girls are all over them too.”
“Nobody goes to learn the culture or the language,” says another former Love Boater. “They go because it’s an outright meat market.”
“It is a very special time for the boys,” says Shen,”They are flattered by their relatives here, treated very nicely. Here in Taiwan they suddenly feel like very important persons.”
Just Li, an athletic and attractive ABC from New Jersey who spent her university years in Virginia —— not exactly a hotbed of ABC socialism, has her own reasons for boarding the Love Boat. “A lot of the other students here are from California,” she says,”They don’t have any problems with inter-racial dating.” But Justine college boyfriend was “very Southern”, a white man who wouldn’t hold her in public. “I’ve never had a Chinese boyfriend,” she said.
Next year, Justine starts a veterinary course at Cornell University in New York State and it is time to make serious decisions. “I need to decide if I’m going to be a large animal vet or a small animal vet. First, I need to know if I could be attracted to a Chinese guy. If I could be, then I would know I could live in the suburbs with him, have 2.2 kids and take care of small animals.” If not, then it would be big farm animals and a white husband for Justine.
“But after being on this programme, I’ve confirmed that, yes, I’m very attracted to Chinese guys,” she says, breaking into a grin. So maybe there will be kittens, puppies, sauteed tofu and a hunky ABC in Justine’s future after all.
It is midnight at Chientan, an hour past the campus curfew. BUt the exodus of students spewing from the front gate looks like a modern Long March. That is, if Chinese communists wore platforms, hot pants and Channel No. 19.
The Love Boaters routinely and bravely ignore the curfew. “It’s a battle that the programme supervisors just can’t win,” says Josephine Wu, a Love Boater from the University of Southern California. “If you want to go out there is nothing they can do”.
But one night at the beginning of the programme, the counselors attempted to set a precedent. All 63 of these glorified babysitters surrounded the gate in a show of authority. ” We also broke out a couple of motorcycles and a video camera,” Dan recalls. “There were hundreds of kids, all dressed up, walking around in circles. That night they kept asking us,”why aren’t you letting us out?”
Most discovered what is known as “The Wall”, a 2 1/2 -meter high stretch of concrete that, once scaled, leads to late-night freedom. Several students this year have complained of spraining ankles and bruising arms and knees either on their way out or on their way back in.
“The worst thing is when you’re all dressed up,” says Justine. “Like when you’re wearing a really tight skirt and high heels and one of the counselors starts chasing you.”
“I don’t mind going over the wall,” says Peter who hails from Houston.”It’s the closet route to the beer anyway.”
A wizened guard emerges from his booth at the front to watch this flow of hormones heading fro the Indian Beer Gardens then the Taipei night-clubs, absolute, Kiss and The Gate. “There they go again,” he mutters disapprovingly. “I don’t know where they’re going and I don’t care. They are Buaqiao. They are supposed to be here to study Mandarin. Study Mandarin? Ha!”
“We hope we can provide culture and heritage for these kids,” says Shen. “After a month, we hope they can change and learn. If not, they make some friends and have some fun.” He speaks with wise resignation, this reluctant captain of a boat whose destination is somewhere in the heart of China.