Living abroad in a land where I don’t speak the language very well, questions abound and answers are not forthcoming. It’s my own fault, obviously; you should become literate in the language of the place you are in, not simply as good manners, but also as common sense. What happens when you need to find something at the grocery store? What happens when there’s an emergency – you get hit by a car – and you can’t communicate with the EMT? What happens when your internet goes out, and you have no one you can call?
These are pretty daily realities, with the exception of getting hit by a car (though that does happen, eventually). But, almost every foreigner can speak about a time where they were treated with extreme hostility not because of their poor Mandarin skills, but because the Taiwanese knew absolutely no English and, many times, is also super racist. There are myths about how all the white guys in Taiwan are just here to fuck their women, almost like how white Americans would talk about black and Latino Americans in the early 20th century. It’s completely irrational, but there’s a lot that’s irrational here. Like how the majority of the population has been schooled in English their entire lives in public school – many of them taking private English lessons or at least private English classes – and their English is no better than my Mandarin.
I’ve never taken a class in Mandarin. What I learn, I learned on the street. The same goes for my Japanese. I have been told by both the Japanese and the Taiwanese that my intonation in both Japanese and Mandarin switches back and forth from “gangster” and “cutesy girl.” There is a good reason for this. On the street, you learn through mimicry, like a parrot. And, most of the people I know at street-level are scooter boys and pool hall tough guys. At the same time, most of my contacts in my personal life are female. I learn a lot of language from girlfriends. To put this in an American perspective…
Imagine being Chinese in Chicago. You can find places on the South Side that are owned/operated by your own people, but most of the people in the city cannot speak your language nor can you speak theirs. So, you get involved. You meet a cute white girl at a bar who knows a little Mandarin, and since communication is far more than language, you two hit it off and start exchanging language. At the same time, you go to athletic events (Chicago has two baseball teams, a basketball team, a football team, and a hockey team – plenty to get into there – Go Cubs Go!), and you meet guys there.
Imagine what you’re going to sound like. One says things like, “What movie should we watch tonight, baby?” and the other says, “That ref is a motherfucking asshole; I want to beat his ass!” After a few months, you’re going to speak some English with Americans and flip back-and-forth between what you learned at home and what you learned at the game…and that can get awkward. You go to a grocery store and you need to get some vegetation.
“Please excuse – please – I look for lattice.”
“Lattice? We don’t sell lattice here. You need to go to Home Depot for that.”
“Oh, God damn fuck sake. Lattice. You know? Eat?”
“Woah. OK. You mean lettuce. It’s right over there. Where’d you learn to talk like that, man?”
I swear to you, that is very much reality. Until you live it, you really can have no idea. Once you get accustomed to saying “fuck” in the native tongue because all your homeboys say it while you work on your scooters/motorcycles, it starts to become second-nature. And when that’s one-of-two-hundred words you know, you’re going to use it more often. Imagine what would happen if you taught a two year old kid the word “fuck.” It’s like that. You’d never stop hearing it.
Anyway, we’re currently getting bombs dropped on us by Typhoon Saola. So, here I am, writing on M$ Word instead of on my blog, because I am without internet. Taipei lost power last night, though, so I think I’m still in relatively good shape here in Taichung. I also have the benefit of needing to finalize my apartment (I have been cleaning and redecorating all week) and have a pair of hard drives (3000GB and 2000GB) that have enough media on them so that a day or two without internet becomes more of a nuisance than a catastrophe. Plenty to do, including taking video to be uploaded to YouTube at a later date, when I get my internet back up.
I’ll be writing more in the future about culture/language issues, both my own and those of the Taiwanese, which is sure to get their panties in a twist. They, like most people of most nations, are happy for you to speak about their country, as long as it’s positive or (more importantly) as long as it agrees with what they think. If you’re sitting with a group of politically-green people and say how you hate President Ma, they will cheer you on. If you do the same in a group of politically-blue people, they will tell you to keep your nose out of their affairs, and will cite reasons like, “You are not Taiwanese; it does not concern you.”
More on all that later. Until next time…
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