Before coming to Taiwan, I didn’t even really have a working knowledge of Mandarin Chinese and my Hoklo Taiwanese was barely passable. I’m working on becoming more fluent in these languages during my time here- among other things. Seems like a no brainer, but there are plenty of people who have lived in Taiwan for several years, yet haven’t picked up any of these languages.
Taiwan is a great place. In general it’s very urban and convenient. Many people who have lived in different Asian cities have told me that they think it has the best quality of living overall- in terms of convenience (you can get almost anything you need- American style toiletries, cosmetics, food stalls are everywhere at any time of the day, shops are open late, and then of course there are the night markets), the society is very open to foreign media influences so there’s plenty of entertainment (there aren’t many restrictions on Hollywood films- they’ll often hit Taiwan first, whereas China still tightly controls what it allows in and some films will never make it to audiences in Japan).
It’s become increasingly easy for foreigners to live in Taiwan in the past 5 years. I’ve met many foreigners who have told me that they don’t speak any of the local languages and still manage to get around comfortably. On the other hand, I’ve met foreigners whose language skills have put me to shame. It’s great that foreigners are able to survive easily without having to speak any Chinese or Taiwanese. But I think that after living in Taiwan for about 2 years, it’s a shame if foreigners still haven’t mastered one of these languages. You know how the saying goes, when in Rome... Not knowing a local language means that you will miss out a lot on learning the nuances of the local culture and will less able to actively participate in the society.
All too often people ask me where I’m from because of: 1) my limited language skills, 2) my preference to communicate exclusively in Hoklo Taiwanese- which is quite a rarity and 3) they’ve overheard me speaking English or being spoken to in English. I’m so obviously out of place. Sometimes it gets to me because I don’t want to draw attention to myself or to be treated differently because I’m perceived as a foreigner. When people are well intentioned and try to speak English to me, it’s a reminder of my lacking language ability. I can’t read any Chinese characters, i.e. I can’t read a lot of signage, or notices, and I can’t order off a standard menu- I don’t always want to be dependent on my friends or family translate for me… I can get by and I do at least know how to order a few basic dishes, but that’s not enough. What kind of existence is this? Likewise I’m critical of people who’ve immigrated to North America for years but still haven’t mastered the English language.
I hope to one day be fluent enough so that I can function more or less effortlessly in this society. I don’t want to be treated any differently whether it might work to my advantage or against me. I want to be able to communicate easily with others. Maybe I’m being too idealistic, because no matter what, I will always have some distinct advantage or benefit from being a “foreign” native English speaker. After all, I’m able to teach English at the college level because I’m a native English speaker and English is HOT in Taiwan. There’s been talk of possibly making it an official language in Taiwan.
This semester I’m studying both Hoklo Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese. My Mandarin classes often seem very rudimentary, but necessary… gotta start with the basics… Recently, I’ve been having a little fun learning Chinese thanks to my language exchange sessions. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement between myself and another student who helps me with my Mandarin and in turn, I help them with their English. It’s given me more opportunities to learn practical Chinese phrases and to experiment with my spoken Chinese.
I think this story is pretty hilarious, given how little Mandarin I actually speak. I’ll try to my best to retell what happened. Just the other day I was in a department store with my Mom at a cosmetics counter discussing the merits of various cosmetic products and although we try to speak Taiwanese, out of habit, English sometimes inadvertently slips in there. Upon overhearing our conversation, the salesgirl immediately asked me where we were from.
(I’ve been given away again I thought! Here we go again …
And then I don’t know what it was, maybe I was feeling a little playful, maybe I was feeling a little defiant…. I thought I’d play a little game and see how far it would go…)
So with a very earnest look on my face and in a confident voice I told her in Mandarin Chinese, “Wo she Taiwan ren. Wo zhu zai zhe li. Wo zhu zai Kao Shiung.”
(I’m Taiwanese. I live here. I live in Kaohsiung.)
Her eyes grew wider.
“Wo de yin wen hen hao, en wei wo she yin wen lao shu. Zhe she wo de mama”
(My English is so good because I’m an English teacher. This is my mother). At this point I was speaking to her in such light hearted way- I almost laughed in her face because I knew that the joke was on her and I just couldn’t keep a straight face. I’m just not a good “faker”.
The salesgirl seemed confused. Stumped by my response, she turned her line of questioning to my mother and asked in Mandarin Chinese:
“So where are you from? Are you the one who taught her such good English? I thought I heard you speaking perfect English to her. Are you an English teacher?”
Clearly my mom was getting a kick out of this but thought better of it and decided to put and end to the charade. She said:
“This is my daughter. Did you understand or believe what she said to you? Actually, she was just joking with you. She was born and raised in North America. She’s American born. Recently she’s moved here, now she lives here. She is an English teacher, but I’m not an English teacher, but I lived in North America for over 20 years.”
Mystery solved. The salesgirl understood and said:
“Oh, so that explains your great English ability… because you immigrated to the states and lived there for so long.”
My mom and I had a good laugh over the incident.
“I think the salesgirl did actually believe you because she stopped pressing you for answers and started in on me,” my Mom said.
I’d like to believe that I had the salesgirl going for a little while. Guess my language classes are starting to pay off and to provide a little harmless amusement.