We’re often asked how we can talk to people if we don’t speak Chinese. We gesticulate wildly! We pronounce words tediously slowly in English though I don’t think that helps at all. I think it’s the pantomiming that does it.
I believe the clear, slow enunciation makes them think I’m just another English teacher, common in Taichung. When all else fails, I resort to the inimitable smile. I find that it goes a long way and saves a failed attempt at communication.
Ivan’s years of acting practice and improvisational theater helps. Overcoming my shynesss together with my powerful need to make myself understood helps me to communicate in a foreign language.
Today, the salesman in the grocery store was preparing sections of guavas for shoppers to taste. He was cutting out and discarding the core of the fruit. The core and seeds are the best and sweetest part of the guava, but most Taiwanese people won’t eat it. I jokingly admonished him for wasting the preferred part, and motioned that I would have gladly eaten it. Surprisingly, he made sense of what I was trying to say and presented me with a bag of sweet guava cores for free. And here I was thinking that he thought I was just crazy!
Yesterday, the friendly saleslady who provides samples in the grocery store went on and on in Chinese and I understood nothing. It’s hard to understand anything sometimes if hand, body gestures or facial expressions aren’t used. I was a happy customer though, because the lady plied me with samples of pork dumplings and taro ice cream while she pattered on about something. She kept pointing at the items in my cart so I guessed she was exclaiming how healthy I was eating because they were all fruits and vegetables and nothing else.
We so have computer applications that help when when we know that pantomime won’t work. Using my i-Translate app on the phone makes it easy searching for the English word and downloading the translation in myriad languages. There needs to be a lot of trust though, that the translation could be correct in the context, especially with Chinese. There is also a voice function of i-Translate and it can be used by the other party speaking into our device. They can also use the handwriting option of the application if we are entirely stumped with what each other is trying to say.
Sometimes, we need to make ourselves understood when it’s not about the basics like food or finding a bathroom. Technical areas present problems for both sides. We were purchasing a mobile phone package and couldn’t understand what the salesperson was trying to say. She spoke very clearly into my iPad pronouncing the word that she was unable to translate for us. Slapping herself on her chest and referring to herself as a ‘molester’ made us fear how wrong we could be with our own translations at times. And to worsen the situation, our laughter didn’t make the saleslady feel reassured at all. We certainly couldn’t explain what the new block in our conversation was and decided to abort that attempt at communicating altogether.
We now realize that our device could give us translations like the classic Monty Python skit “The Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook”:
Thankfully, we have not had to flap our arms in the air, squawk like a chicken and frantically run into a coop to squat while grocery shopping. Eggs are displayed in plain view in Taiwan. But they do hide eggs behind the counters in small grocery stores in the Czech Republic and you are forced to ask for them whatever way you must.