This heartwarming, inspiring letter from son to mother is about one Canadian man’s journey finding his place in Taiwan. The author, Darryl Sterk (“Big Wheel”), is a faculty member at National Taiwan University and established Chinese-English translator. He was also the topic of a TV show that was filmed in Taiwan for Big Love Television.
Dear Jane Sterk, Former Leader of the Green Party of BC,
It’s me, your son. I’m just writing to tell you not to worry about me (as mothers are wont to do), because for a young (well, not so young anymore) handsome (ahem) Canadian expatriate in Taiwan, anything is possible. Who would have thought that a kid who failed French would end up translating an incredible environmental disaster novel – Wu Ming-yi’s The Man With the Compound Eyes – that would get a glowing review in The Guardian? Who would have thought that a monolingual Alberta boy would end up living his life in Chinese, and teaching Chinese-English translation at a university? And who would have thought that a junior high school nerd would end up starring in his very own television documentary? Maybe you saw it all coming, but it’s all been a surprise to me.
I’ve been living in Taiwan a long time now. I came here 18 years ago, nearly half a lifetime. Don’t think I’ve never had moments where I wondered, “What am I doing here?” You know, moments of existential crisis that only a one-way plane ticket home could resolve. But you know they say home is where the heart is. I am not sure when my heart up and decided to move from Canada to Taiwan, but it has, somewhere along the way.
My story is the oldest one in the book: boy meets girl. Fresh off the plane in Taipei, I laid eyes on the most beautiful girl in the world. I didn’t know what hit me. Whatever it is it’s still hitting me. My wife and I live on a little hill in the center of Taipei. Taipei’s real estate prices are through the roof, but here we are, on the roof of Taipei, at the edge of the rainforest, with a garden and clean air – everything we need. In a few years the little Darryls and Joeys will no doubt be swinging through the trees.
Lately I’ve been thinking, Joey needs me, the little Darryls and Joeys need me, even Taiwan needs me, or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe I need Taiwan to feel like I can be of use somewhere. Just like you’ll read in The Man With the Compound Eyes or just like you’ll watch in a recent documentary called Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above there are endless environmental problems here. Taiwan got rich exporting camphor, cement and plastic. Taiwan got even richer making textiles, scooters, and cell phones. The country is hyper-mechanized and super-motorized. Maybe it’ll take a crazy foreigner like me to let everyone know there are other things in life besides getting from point A to point B in the shortest possible time. Maybe it’ll take a new immigrant to remind local people that the point of life is not to make the most money or buy the most stuff. Maybe I can get everyone to follow me? I am writing partly in jest, but partly also in reference to my name, Big Wheel. Big Wheel kind of sounds like Darryl when you say it in Taiwanese. It implies that a young man is going to make a lot of money. It’s the wheel of the law in Buddhism. And it’s the wheel of fortune in medieval literature. But to me the Big Wheel represents a new way of life: it’s a bicycle wheel. I bet you never realized when you named me just how far my name would take me.
In my humbler moments I focus on what I can do day-to-day: teaching students in the Graduate Program in Translation and Interpretation at National Taiwan University. In the program, we teach students to parse grammar, analyze discourse, and employ fiendishly difficult rhetorical techniques. By the time they graduate they know everything and they can do anything. They help Taiwan play a role as a citizen of the world in a world that isn’t always so sympathetic to Taiwan.
Naturally, a white boy from Alberta tends to stick out here, and it was only a matter of time before someone noticed me and made a television documentary about me. That someone is Laha Mebow. She’s aboriginal, one of Taiwan’s First Nations people. The first nation to which she belongs is called Atayal. We met when I went to her village, the setting for her wonderful feature film called Under a Different Moonlight: Finding Sayun. The documentary she made about me is part of a new immigrants series, and believe it or not there are lots of new immigrants in Taiwan, immigrants from Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and even China, alongside immigrants from Europe and the Americas. I’m proud to be a new immigrant, if Taiwan will have me.
That reminds me that I have an announcement to make: I’m learning a new language. With all the new immigrants in Taiwan you can bet that people here speak all kinds of languages, in addition to local tongues like Hoklo, Hakka and native languages like Atayal. To cheer myself up and make some friends I’m planning on studying another of these native languages, Seediq. Learning Mandarin has opened a whole new world for me, and I have a feeling that Seediq will too. So maybe the Graduate Program in Translation and Interpretation isn’t just about globalization. Maybe it’s also about helping Taiwan retain some of its linguistic diversity.
So don’t worry about me, Mom! It turns out that there are lots of chances for a grammatically challenged, socially inept Alberta boy here in Taiwan.