It makes sense that translator and author Kai-Chun Huang will be part of this year’s TAIWANfest celebrations in Vancouver.
After all, she’s become a popular commentator in her native Taiwan on Islam—a faith embraced by only 0.3 percent of the country’s population (not counting Muslim guest workers). And this year, as part of its annual Dialogues With Asia series, TAIWANfest is shining a spotlight on the country with the largest number of Muslims—Indonesia. It’s home to about 231 million Muslims, accounting for 13 percent of all followers of Islam in the world.
So how did Huang—who translated Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time into traditional Chinese script—become so keenly interested in this topic to the point where she delivers speeches on Islam in schools and universities?
It actually started with her love of learning languages, which she traces back to a very young age. In an interview with the Straight over Zoom, Huang says that mastering the mother tongues of other cultures has always given her a sense of accomplishment and made her happy.
“I also like the unique beauty of different languages,” she adds. “I think [through] the languages, I can know the thinking, the logic, and the values from different cultures.”
She has learned words from many languages, but considers herself fluent in English and Mandarin and speaks a fair amount of Japanese and Arabic.
“I learned Spanish, but I almost forgot it,” Huang quips.
She’s relearning Taiwanese, which is spoken by her grandparents. With a laugh, she reveals that they say she speaks it with a foreign accent.
Huang knew nothing about Arab culture until she began preparing for university entrance exams to study the Arabic language.
At that time, she became conscious about unfair stereotypes about Arabs in Taiwan, sometimes associating them with terrorism. This reminded her of stereotypes about the Indigenous people in her country.
“I feel like Arabs and the Indigenous people in Taiwan are similar,” Huang explains. “They’re both misunderstood.”
It made her curious to learn more about the context behind what created this stigma about Arabs in Taiwan. One of her professors told her that Islam is not just a religion, it’s a culture. But it wasn’t until she travelled to Egypt to study Arabic that she truly experienced this reality.
“It’s part of their daily life,” Huang says. “For example, every day when you go to Muslim countries, you can always hear Adhan—the calling for prayer—and you can also see Muslims praying at all sorts of places.”
She also gained a great deal of understanding about Islamic dietary rules, including what is permissible under Halal. In addition, she gained insights into Zakat, which is a form of obligatory charity that literally means “to cleanse”.
“I feel that this religion is very friendly,” Huang says. “Also, they are very flexible.”
As an example, she points out that not everyone is required to fast during the holy month of Ramadan if it’s extremely difficult due to personal circumstances.
Huang herself tried to go without food from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan after returning to Taiwan from Egypt. Her fast lasted for about 20 days.
“What surprised me is I didn’t feel hungry that much,” she reveals. “I felt tired more than hunger.”
In Egypt, she also became fascinated about the relationship that women had with the hijab. She interviewed several women about this, including some who chose not to wear it.
“I asked each of them: ‘Do you think wearing a hijab is an obligation?’ Almost all of them answered that it depends on if you’re convinced that this is an obligation,” she says.
Huang was also intrigued to learn that every woman seemed to have her own hijab story. Some told her that they didn’t want to wear it when they were young because they thought it was too traditional and conservative, but then changed their minds as they matured.
Another woman who had a deep relationship with Allah told Huang that she did not want to wear a hijab because she wasn’t interested in publicly demonstrating her faith, preferring to keep it private.
“This decision is like their inner journey,” Huang says.
All of this was very different from the folk religions practised in Taiwan, she notes. Often, she says Taiwanese people visit temples because they need something or they want to improve their luck.
“In Taiwan, religion doesn’t connect so closely with life like Islam,” she says.
She shares her articles and talks about Islamic culture for the people of Taiwan on a website called “Islam Has No Veil”. She's also coauthor of Songs Blowing Over the Island.
“I think the best way to fight stereotypes is not just to deny it, but to know the story behind it,” Huang emphasizes.