Tag Archives: travel tip

We Squawk and Lay an Egg – How Else to Communicate?!

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.

IMG_0117I 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!

“I can’t tell you what it is in English, but it’s my favorite.”

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.




Same But Different

TaichungHaircut_0044 DentistTaichung_00099

Everyone probably thinks that we’re on permanent vacation. Actually, we’re just living a normal life,  except the scenery keeps changing. Much of what we do is very mundane … like getting a haircut, or getting our teeth cleaned.

The challenge is often figuring out how to get the normal things done when we can’t read or speak the language. It makes shopping fun. (“What is THAT?!”) We also spend time looking for things to do in a place that is not familiar. If we were satisfied with the tourist hotspots, that would be easy. We’re not.

Sometimes we badger the people we meet to tell us what they do, or what interesting places we should go to. The first reply is often the tourist spots. That’s why we badger them!



Don’t Make These 10 Sushi-Eating Faux Pas in Japan

Just about at every turn I unwittingly make flagrant errors in etiquette in Japan.  I’ve wanted to travel to Japan for a long time  but making errors in Japanese etiquette and bringing dishonour to my family has always worried me. I had read a lot about Japanese traditions and etiquette. I believed that I had a handle on many daily customs which are really different from those in my Western world.

I now realise that just in the area of sushi-eating,  I am so woefully boorish as far as manners go. Here are 10 errors I have made that have certainly brought me shame.

Osaka Sushi Chef
“You bring dishonour to your family!”

I’m always offered a hot, wet towel (oshibori) at the start of a meal and I’ve used it to clean my hands as required.  When I’m finished, I leave it in a crumpled heap near the plate. I didn’t know it was to be folded  neatly at the end of the meal. 

I’ve seen people make little holders on which to place chopsticks during a meal when not in use. So I’ve always made that little chopstick stand from the  sleeve that the chopsticks come in. But then I didn’t know  that when I’m not using them, they should be placed parallel to me on the holder or on the soy sauce (shoyu) dish. I then leave them just anywhere when I’m finished with them. But they should be wrapped in the sleeve in which they came, the sleeve folded over at an angle and then placed on the soy sauce dish.

When wooden chopsticks have been provided, I’ve often rubbed them together. I don’t even know why I do it . I’ve just always seen it done. I guess it wasn’t a Japanese I’ve copied because it’s just not done. I don’t know the reason for this but it’s certainly not polite.

I’ve made a mixture of wasabi and soy sauce for dipping. I guess it was not a Japanese who showed me that one either. Wasabi, in an amount that is felt to be a proper balance between fish and wasabi,  is already placed under the fish!  And, only the fish is to be dipped not the rice lest it soak up too much soy sauce.

How many times have I rudely picked up  a piece of food from my partner’s  plate with the end of my chopsticks; the end I put in my mouth already. The end of the chopsticks where they are held is to be used.  This is considered the polite way. I imagine this would be a little messy afterwards.

Who showed me to place the  ginger (gari)  on top of a piece of sushi and eat it together? It is only considered a palate cleanser and to be eaten between bites or between different types of sushi.

I’ve never been able to eat a piece in one bite . Am I imagining or have they been making sushi larger and larger in North America? They are made the proper size in Japan because they should be eaten in one single bite.

donburi sashimi rice bowl
Never stick the chopsticks straight up in the rice.

I did know that chopsticks were never to be stuck in my rice and left sticking straight up. I knew that it resembled incense sticks at a Japanese funeral and so it just should not be done . But, I didn’t know that passing food to another person using chopsticks is also never to be done because it resembles the passing of a deceased relative’s bones at a Japanese funeral.

How many times have I ordered sake with sushi? I always thought they went hand-in-hand like a good cheese plate and wine. But sake is not to be drunk with sushi (or any rice). It can be drunk only with sashimi or before or after a meal. It is believed that since they are both rice based, they don’t complement each other and should not be drunk together. Green tea would be considered a better option with sushi or sashimi. 

Finishing  a meal with a clinking of glasses and toasting  the meal with “Kanpai!” (“empty your cup”) is traditional. Often, when asked what we say in our country,  we rhyme off many of the common toasts from  other countries, “chin chin” among them. Japanese usually titter and laugh at this but I’ve never known why. They would never use this toast because they use chin chin to refer to something best left out of a polite conversation (a certain male body part).  Who knew?Sushi in Osaka