Adrift in a Sea of Mandarin

I was going to do a post about the found poetry of Taiwanese promotional brochures. I was also going to be sure to highlight the remarkable niceness of the Taiwanese people (they really were strikingly helpul to us hapless foreigners in multiple instances). Perhaps I still will or maybe they’ll just get added to the contemplated posts post.

We spent over a week in Taiwan, imposing on Susannah and Aaron, who were delightful hosts (Aaron arrived in Taipei after us so we even got to show him the ropes in his new apartment). We were eager to relax a little in an apartment (we volunteered to cook – how exotic!) and enjoy a modern, developed city (which Taipei very much is, though I’ll leave it to Mark to expound on its virtues since he’s spent so much time complaining about lack of mass transit – Taiwan’s high speed rail kicks our butts).

The only difficulty was the language.  Susannah wildly impressed us with her Mandarin skills.  While on the one hand, grammar is very simple (for example, there is no pesky conjugation of verbs), on the other there are four tones (plus neutral), and tens of thousands of characters (of which only about 3,000 are commonly used, but that’s still a lot more than 26 letters). So I’d safely say the difficulties outweigh anything else.  Despite this, Susannah is able to have what appear to be actual conversations with people, and was able to write some wishes on our lantern festival lantern in Chinese (traditional, as used in Taiwan) characters before we released it into the sky.

(Lengthy aside: I am careful to say Mandarin when referring to the spoken language because although Mark and I keep talking about not speaking “Chinese,” there are many dialects. This was driven home by a woman we met who was London raised by Hong Kong parents who bemoaned that although she had learned to speak Cantonese, she had never learned to read it and thus it was of no use to her here. Moreover, because she looks of Chinese descent everyone expects that she can speak to them. We told her that most people keep trying to speak to us in Mandarin too, but I’m not sure if that’s any consolation.)

So the side benefit to our Taiwan detour was that Susannah also helped us with our survival Mandarin training after we came back to Taipei from the Taroko Gorge having attempted to teach ourselves numbers using Lonely Planet and a free iPhone app. It appeared we had mastered the vocabulary but not the pronunciation.  For example, fourth tone (I think – the one that’s rising) should be pronounced as if asking a one word question: really? right?

Learning numbers really opened up our world. Out of the incomprehensible babble came some glimmer of comprehension. At the park we could understand photo takers’ countdowns: 1, 2, 3, cheese (okay, we still couldn’t understand the cheese part, or whatever the Chinese equivalent is). Young girls play marching through the park intoned 1, 2, 1 2 1 instead of left, right, left right left.  And with the acquisition of “how much?” we were able to have our own mini conversations with shopkeepers and street vendors every day.

I am trying to add a new phrase a day, though now that we are on the mainland, and I no longer have Susannah to correct me, it’s doubtful that I am pronouncing it anywhere near correctly (improper pronunciation often means you are saying another word entirely).  Drumroll please- my Mandarin abilities, extant and desired (this will end the post; I’ll leave etymology and the frustrations of different transliteration systems to Mark, who excels at such things.  Mark, you are now two posts in the hole, better get blogging):

In the repertoire (Xièxie, Sus):
– Hello, goodbye, thank you, excuse me
– How much, and numbers 0-99 (once I master “hundred” I will be able to do up to 999 but I keep forgetting it)
– food basics: fish, pork, beef, chicken, is it meat? is it sweet? (our great difficulty with Chinese cuisine is decifering what’s inside dumplings and whether buns are filled with strange meat concoctions or red bean paste)
– that’s okay (ie no thanks, for fighting off touts). also, not going (wherever it is your bus, boat or motorcycle is going)
– and the two questions Susannah says she gets asked most in Taiwan: spicy? and, do you want a bag? (this has not been an issue so far in China where they’re not as in to the whole environmentally sustainable thing like the Taiwanese have become; I did however sucessfully refuse a bag by saying I don’t want and pointing as I had forgotten the word for bag. Gesturing wildly, pointing, and occasionally pictograms are surprisingly effective in many instances).

Up next (ie things I want to learn):
– I’m walking, similarly I already have a hotel (with very persistant touts it pays to be specific and it also seems to shake them if you reply in Mandarin, maybe it reinforces that you can get by without them)
– where is the toilet (though I do now recognize the character and can also differentiate between the characters for male and female)
– how do I get to …? (the problem is that this requires understanding the answer, the yes or no Is this the way to …? is probably more practical)