Running from a Language
To the untrained ear, Chinese can sound quite hostile at times. The language demands the use of four or five tones, giving it either a musical quality or an intimidating air. After just arriving in Taiwan, it took on the latter. When Thomas Gray wrote that “ignorance is bliss”, he was obviously not referring to Chinese.
Although I went to Taiwan to teach English, for my first few months there I felt like a student on a really long field trip. Bridging the language gap, my employer did a lot to get me settled into life in Taiwan. Thankfully, an assistant from the school even helped me test-drive and buy a scooter, also providing insight on how to operate the mechanical beast of burden. Because the school’s head office was still busy finalising my work permit, it took them a couple of weeks to complete the scooter’s paperwork.
Wobbling around on a scooter for the first time, I realised that I needed gas. The gas attendant jumped to attention as I diffidently rolled into the gas station. Being paranoid about not having a licence or any papers for the scooter, I was sure that he was onto me.
Eyeballing me, the gas attendant began rattling off something in Chinese. I pointed to the pump. The attendant quickly replied with a very energetic “Hǎo”. Did he say “How?” Did me mean to say, “How are you?” “Okay,” I replied.
“Jiǔ wǔ?” Jail? Why did he say “jail”? It then occurred to me that not only did I not have a license; I did not have any form of ID! The school still had my passport!
“Jiā mǎn ma?” Yamaha? “Yes, I think it is.” Well, at least he wasn’t talking about me going to jail anymore. Perhaps the all-knowing gas attendant was not going to report me to the authorities.
Then, he and all of his co-workers lined up and yelled, “Xiè guānglín qǐng màn zǒu!” in perfect unison. He ratted me out! I could see the police approaching! I sped out of the gas station as fast as I could without losing balance and headed straight for my apartment. It was too risky to be out!
The next morning, I was still too shaken to drive the scooter. I convinced myself that the police had reported the licence plate. I headed on foot to the nearest 7-Eleven for a bite to eat. As I was leaving the store, the store clerk casually said, “Xiè guānglín qǐng màn zǒu!” Had I appeared in a most-wanted list over night? What was going on?
Confused, I headed to the cram school. My confusion quickly changed into embarrassment as a Chinese Teacher explained what was said.
During my time in Taiwan, my Chinese did improve slightly. I was finally able to appreciate its melodious quality, making the language less frightening. Despite my endeavours as an English Teacher, I feel that I learned more Chinese than I taught English.
Below: Another case of misunderstanding from yester-year