When I first told people I was going to Taiwan to teach science, they would usually ask: “do you know Chinese?”
“No,” I would say casually, like it wouldn’t be a problem.
“In fact,” I would continue, “I think it’s kind of a plus for the school since the program’s all about getting the kids immersed in the English language. I’m not supposed to speak to them in Chinese.”
Well, it may be a plus for when I’ll be in school, but before work, after work, and weekends it is most certainly not a plus. I wish I had taken some Chinese in college. I even remember sitting in the New Trier West cafeteria looking at a friend’s Chinese workbook. She started taking Chinese freshmen year of high school. In her workbook, they were learning certain phrases but the sentence construction was so foreign to me I just slammed words together eventually settling on “Hello, coffee? Teacher.” (I think I had a thing for just learning dumb phrases in every language. By sophomore year I would memorize the phrase “it was cheese, but I am Napoleon” in French.)
It’s nice that I knew the word for teacher, because that’s what I am now. A teacher. So that and “Ni hao,” which means hello, were the only things I knew how to say.
It’s so interesting. For the first time I can remember, I’m completely illiterate. I cannot read or partially understand anything. There are some signs here in English, but usually it’s just a title with no real information given in English. Everywhere I’ve visited in the world, they’ve spoken either English or a Romance language, so my knowledge of Spanish had made things tolerable. But here, my eyes glaze over the characters like “how could I ever learn to read this?”
I think the term illiterate doesn’t do it justice, because there are Americans who are illiterate but they can still speak English. They can’t necessarily read street signs but they can ask for directions. They can’t read a menu, but they can ask “do you serve dumplings?”
I’m told in Taipei, a lot of people (especially in the shops) can speak English. But I’m in Keelung, where I’m told only young people might speak English and there’s no guarantee older shopkeepers will. But I’ve found young people here who can’t really and old people who can and shopkeepers who can and shopkeepers who can’t. It’s like roulette. And it’s amazing how difficult this makes things that seem like they should be so easy.
My second night in Keelung, I was hungry. I was staying in an AirBnB place and had eaten a big lunch, but around 7pm I was hungry again. I didn’t want to be a chicken. The previous night I had stayed in and ate honey roasted peanuts because I was nervous to go out and try to get something to eat. I didn’t want to do this forever so I forced myself out the door. I thought, I’ll find a cafe that has a picture menu and I’ll just point to a picture. For clarification, a lot of the streets have these stall-like restaurants that serve noodles, or dumplings, or “lunchboxes” where you can pick out the stuff you want in your box. These types of places are what I mean by cafe.
As I was walking, I saw no cafes with pictures, just characters. Some didn’t even have a menu, you just had to tell the proprietor what you wanted and they’d make it for you. So that was out of the question, right?
Why didn’t I keep walking? My stomach was rumbling and I thought I wanted to just eat and get back to my apartment. Maybe I thought if I kept walking I would chicken out and buy some food from the FamilyMart (like a Seven-Eleven) and not achieve my goal.
So I stopped at a stall where this woman was making soup. She had just made a soup for a man and I thought: Okay, I’ll just make hand gestures to imply that I want soup and everything should be fine.
She said something to me and I said: “soup” while not making any hand gestures.
She gave me a look like: hun, I can’t understand you.
I motioned with my hands, but only in abstractions, nothing really concrete. How do you gesture soup? Oh gosh, it’s so obvious to me now, but at the time it was like I had stage fright.
I looked away and considered walking down the street, but decided to give it one more go since she was still attentive; she wanted to help me eat food.
I pointed at the wok where she had just made the man some soup, and then I pointed at myself. She pointed at some noodles and I was like “yes!” while nodding ecstatically. She motioned for me to sit down. Then she pulled out some meat, and I was like “no.” I wanted what I thought was fish (turns out it was squid, which is very popular in Keelung) she was cutting up before I’d placed my order, so I pointed at that. She nodded, “okay.” Then she pulled out some shrimps and I nodded “yes” and she nodded “okay.”
And that was how I ate dinner. There was a TV on in the café and I just stared up at it as if I understood what was going on.
That night of success – not starving – gave me the courage to walk around and explore more. Because we all know lightning strikes the same place more than once pretty often*.
The next morning I walked around Keelung and wanted to get a milk tea somewhere I could sit down in the shade. A lot of the drink dispensary shops are takeaway only, no little café space to sit down, so I eventually found myself in the Keelung Cultural Center where there was a little air conditioned café.
I approached the barista and said, “ni hao,” which in retrospect is a mistake because she launched into something in Chinese and in my head I told her, “ummm, I’m sorry, ni hao is all I know how to say,” while giving a “I don’t know what you’re saying” look.
I said: “milk tea” aloud, but she couldn’t understand it. I said: “tea.” Still nothing. I looked around, hoping someone else was drinking tea, or milk tea so I could point to it. A man waiting behind me translated without talking to me. He just said something to the barista and she nodded and asked: “cold?” and I nodded, “yes.”
From this experience, I learned to never say “ni hao” again before placing an order. (But I still do it all the time.) And I also learned how to say milk tea.
*This is kind of a joke but also kind of not. There’s the saying “lightning only strikes the same place one.” But also, I’ve heard that that’s not true.
In Taipei, a decent number of people can speak English. But in Keelung, it’s much more rare. Making things much more difficult. The most difficult thing about not speaking Chinese is accessing services. Things like ordering food at a restaurant (as you can see by my previous examples). Taking a taxi. Taking the bus. In the U.S. I couldn’t even use a bus system without messing up. Here in Keelung, I can plan my route on Google Maps and think I’m going the right way but the bus route is different because I accidentally got on an express bus or something… I don’t know. My bus card doesn’t work and the bus driver says something to me and I have no idea what he’s saying. Some buses say the stops in English and I’m INCREDIBLY thankful when they do. Otherwise I’m guessing at does the string of characters I wrote down match the characters scrolling on the LED at the front of the bus.
I’ve never thought immigrants should learn English because that’s what we speak in America, but now I have the life experiences to accurately defend the statement that moving someplace with a completely different way of speaking and writing is incredibly difficult. You can’t just order people to learn English or leave because it’s frickin’ hard. And I now understand why Hollywood blockbuster action films are so popular in foreign countries. I was clicking through channels in Taiwan and clicked through several dramas and romcoms until I settled on Journey to the West, an incredibly cheesy, low-budget TV series (based on a classic novel of the same name) about a monkeyman and a pigman being seduced and attacked by spiderwomen. Why? Because I could understand what was going on without being able to understand Chinese. Action films are like the silent films of the post-silent era?* Wow, I feel like that could be a thesis if I had been a Comp Lit Major Film Certificate student at Princeton.**
That being said, I do want to learn Chinese. When I was younger, I had a nanny who spoke Chinese. I remember her driving me around while she was talking to her family and she always sounded really mad and angry. As I got older, people said that’s what Chinese sounds like. But being surrounded by it, I no longer feel that way. Maybe it’s one thing when you just hear snippets of Chinese here and there? Maybe Ellen was always really angry when she spoke on the phone? But when you’re surrounded, the sounds become like a sonorous envelope. It can sound very lyrical at times. I stayed with the family of one of my colleagues for two weeks when I was looking for an apartment, and I had a long conversation with the father. He told me about Chinese: the five tones, how you build up the letters to make characters. How new characters are made to deal with newer words – like TV or cellphone. And the way names are written and what they mean. It was very cool.
And it reinforced my desire to learn Chinese. Some people here have been telling me that Taiwanese that can’t speak English are embarrassed they don’t know English. But I’m thinking I’m the one who should be embarrassed! This is your country and one of your national languages, I ought to speak it or at least try! I want to be able to understand a menu. I want to know where my bus is going, or be able to ask the bus driver: is this bus going to Heping Island? I want to be able to tell the woman that sells pastries that they are very very delicious!
I’ll tell you one thing that’s nice about not being able to speak Chinese. I feel this obligatory isolationism. I feel like in the U.S., I was always hesitant to do things alone. To me, it seems like there’s this perception that if you’re doing something alone it’s because you don’t have enough friends to do that thing with you. It’s only recently I started to go to movies alone, and even then I usually show up just in time for the picture: walking into a dark theatre, sitting by the door, and leaving as soon as it’s over. But here in Taiwan, I feel no uneasiness about going places alone. I think it goes beyond language and may also have to do with the fact that I’m an outsider in a new culture that I’m not (at least now) that much a part of. But I think language is a component of this. In a crowded bus or a crowded café, all I hear is a wave of tones. I don’t get glimpses of conversations that I’m not apart of. I’ve been to a museum and walked around a downtown, and I plan to go to a beach to swim in a concrete seawater pool. I wonder if this pushing myself to do things alone will transfer whenever I get back in the U.S. I hope so.
*I think the new Mad Max movie is fairly dialogue free. I read a story about it and supposedly the director relied mostly on storyboard panels instead of a script.
**But actually, a comparative literature major with a film might be able to do something with this idea. Multiple languages… analyzing film…