A BRIEF ENCOUNTER WITH Mr. AND Mrs. FEI HUA
C. T. Nieh 3/31/2001
Recently I read an article in memory of Mr. Fei Hua on Qu Zefang¡¯s web page. It triggered my memory of my brief encountered with his family when I visited Taiwan in 1983. I like to take this opportunity to thank aunt Zhang Xinyi and her family for their hospitality to me during my visit of Taipei.
GE sold to Taiwan Power Company (Tai Power) the Second Nuclear Station in Taiwan, named Kuo Sheng, in late 1970s. The station consists of two identical units; each unit can generate around 1,000 million watts of electrical power. The plant is located in a suburb of Taipei. At the beginning of 1983, Plant Unit 1 experienced some problem with a group of critical valves. The problem did not affect plant safety, but had an impact on plant operation. Since I was responsible for the design of those valves, GE sent me to investigate the problem and to recommend a technical solution. I had no role in any monetary compensation to Tai Power for any impact resulted from the incident.
My aunt, Renee Nieh, asked me to carry some personal effects to her cousin, Ms. Zhang Xinyi, who lives in Taipei. I had not met this other aunt since I was very young. I had no personal recollection of her. I know that aunt Xinyi¡¯s mother, Ms. Nie Qide, gave my father a generous gift when she visited Hong Kong many years ago. This grand aunt had passed away already. Aunt Renee gave me the impression that aunt Xinyi was very scholarly and was a serious author. I have no knowledge either of the high position that her husband, Mr. Fei Hua, occupied in the government. Aunt Renee gave me their address and the telephone number to contact aunt Xinyi.
I stayed at the President Hotel in Taipei. Since that was the first time I visited Taipei, I decided to call her first instead of trying to find her residence in an unfamiliar city. She was not home at the time. Someone took down a message. Shortly afterwards, aunt Xinyi returned the call. She said that her residence was very close to the hotel and would come over to see me. I was embarrassed. Since I belong to a younger generation I should have visited her, and not the other way around. She came with her husband, uncle Fei Hua, who appeared to be an easygoing gentleman. He dressed properly but without any special sign to indicate his high position in the governmental administration. He did not put on any air to show off his exalted position. Since their house was within walking distance from the hotel, we walked over for a short chat.
Their house was inside a gated fence, but was not overly large. It was tastefully decorated with Chinese calligraphies and Chinese paintings, but in no way opulent. They had a chauffer-driven car and a housemaid for household chores. The couple treated the housemaid and the chauffer with respect, not at all like some superiors to their inferiors. The car was an imported model and in good driving condition, but was a few years old. A daughter of aunt Xinyi and her family stayed with them at the time. Our conversation concentrated on the past achievements of the Nieh family, which I did not know too much at the time. We also talked about the purpose of my visit. Uncle Hua felt that I should visit a friend of theirs, Mr. Bruce Chu, who occupied a high position in Tai Power. I had neither reason nor desire to visit this gentleman, but agreed in order to comply with the uncle¡¯s goodwill. Aunt Xinyi invited me to dinner the next evening. I left their house with the impression that this was a tightly knitted family and its members had a genuine love for each other. The deep love among uncle Hua and his grandchildren was apparent to even a casual observer who had been around them for a few minutes.
I had a delightful dinner with them next day. For the weekend, they took me to lunch in a famous hotel in Taipei and then to visit the famous Old Palace Museum in Taipei. We also visited a memorial that honored the heroes of the country. The honor guard put on an impression drill routine for the visitors. Aunt Xinyi took me to visit another museum that displayed some paintings by her Chinese painting instructor. She even spent time to bring me to a jewelry shop where I purchased a coral necklace for my wife. All in all, I felt deeply the hospitality of aunt Xinyi and uncle Hua. They made me feel at ease. They were generous with their time to show me around that city. I enjoyed the experience greatly. My regret was that I did not know them sufficiently well. If I had already read the article that aunt Xinyi wrote about my great grandmother, Nie Zeng Jifen, I would have asked her for more details and asked for her recollections of interaction with my great grandmother. I like to hear more anecdotes of my family. As an engineer, I would have asked uncle Hua for more information about the Ten Major Constructions of Taiwan. Uncle Hua even promised to bring me to visit the one nearest to Taipei, which was a major water reservoir. Unfortunately my schedule did not include enough time for the visit.
I talked to the local GE manager, Mr. David Chien, at the power station to arrange my visit with Mr. Chu. Mr. Chu was very graceful and scheduled an appointment. I was not politically sensitive and did not know exactly how high a position this gentleman occupied at Tai Power and how much respect I should display. I treated the meeting strictly as a social call, without any business connotation at all. Later on I found out that Mr. Chu was a vice president of Tai Power, and was responsible for all power generation from nuclear and fossil power plants. Mr. Chu was a technical leader who had earned respect and recognition for his performance and knowledge. He was the direct supervisor of the plant manager of Kuo Sheng Power Station that I was visiting. During my career with GE, I met and talked with various vice presidents of electrical utilities, but mainly on technical issues and not on general topics. The valves that I was responsible for were critical to power plant safety and operation. When there was a problem with them, the matter got direct management attention. Sometimes, this brought me unwanted limelight.
Mr. Chu¡¯s office was situated in Taipei. He occupied a huge room with carpet. This sign should have warned me that the owner of the office occupied a high position, but again I was not politically sophisticated and the sign did not heighten my attention. We had a friendly conversation, and then Mr. Chu broached the subject of my visit to Taiwan. The conversation was in mandarin. As we discussed the technical issues of my visit, my unfamiliarity of Mandarin became obvious.
I spent my childhood in Shanghai. For seven years I spoke Shanghai dialect with my family and in school. I learned to understand the Hunan dialect that my father spoke with his relatives, but I can only speak a few words of that dialect. I converted to speak Cantonese after I moved to Hong Kong and lived there for twelve years. After I came to America in 1963, I speak English in schools and in all professional transactions. I had lived in America by that year for as long as I have lived in Asia. I still speak Shanghai dialect with my family and Cantonese with most of my Chinese friends. I had learned mandarin in grade school, but had never spoken mandarin on a daily basis. I can speak a little, but the accent was incorrect. I become self-conscious when I make mistakes. For technical discussion, my limitations in mandarin go beyond incorrect intonation. I do not know the proper Chinese names for some of the technical terms. May be I should be ashamed of my ignorance, but I had not learned those Chinese terms and had no need to learn them up to that point. So I started to discuss the matter in English, without thinking about the consequences. I certainly did not switch to English to impress anyone. It is only natural that I should be able to speak English since I was educated in America and worked for an American firm. Mr. Chu also spoke English without any accent. He was fluent in English. Based on his command of the English language, I guessed that he was also educated overseas.
All of a sudden, Mr. Chu spoke in a severe tone and asked me why I spoke English when all those present were Chinese. I was taken aback completely. First of all, I applauded Mr. Chu for his pride is his national language. I had to apologize for my inadequate command of mandarin. I switched language because of my inability to communicate effectively in mandarin. I should have asked his permission before I started to converse in English. The switch was so subconscious that I did not even notice. I also wanted to thank Mr. Chu for the lesson that I should be more careful in the future when I speak English to Chinese.
Nonetheless, I wonder if we can show a little forbearance to people who appear to be Chinese. If they cannot converse in any one Chinese dialect, it is possibly that they do not do that out of pride or for any ignoble motivation. There are probably over a thousand Chinese dialects that Chinese speak around the country on a daily basis. For Chinese who are born overseas or have lived overseas for an extended period, Chinese may not be their primary language anymore. While mandarin is the national dialect, people speak many different versions of mandarin. Some past presidents of Taiwan were noted for the heavy accent when they spoke mandarin. I wonder if Mr. Chu would challenge them and command them to speak Mandarin correctly. This was a minor incident, but it illustrates the difference between a family whose members treated their guests with warmth and made them felt at ease, and another person who was a little heavy handed with his guests.