My Name is Tim. Tim Bu dong

As I fumbled in my purse for NT$1.00, my mind was mentally going through the numbers 1 to 10—in Mandarin. I almost wanted to count with my fingers to get the math right, but then xuen shang (mister) was looking at me expectantly with an expression of concern.
 
Yo ma? Yo ma? (You have? You have?)
 
He was asking if I have another dollar to pay for my Coke purchase. I paid NT$28 instead of the supposed NT$29. It wasn’t because I was such a pathetic cheapskate. It was because I thought zho was eight. Counting invisibly in my head deduced me to the fact that pa is Eight and with the embarrassing realization that my Mandarin skills still rivals that of a toddler’s.
 
Mandarin is so damn hard. It reduced me to this humble ball of a person who sometimes sleeps in fetal position to comfort herself from a day’s worth of tim bu dongs (I don’t understand) and dui bu zhi (sorry). If you are a pinyin pro reading this, I will totally understand your growing desire to smack me for my pinyin transgressions. Let this be a warning that there will be more in this post.
 
See? I’m that bad. I can’t even get the pinyin right. Though technically, I have never met a local here who agrees to using pinyin. They say it’s still wrong.  It’s theoretically acceptable, but still technically inaccurate.
 
At work,  ayi (an elderly woman) who womans one of the food stalls would get into a staring contest with me as I try to order from their menu. Her eyes would demand that I place my order in Mandarin. Her expression is unforgiving. It felt like I was being questioned by a Kuo Min Tang member. I am often helpless, without a local friend to rescue me from my Mandarin-impaired reality.
 
Zhi su fan, wai tai (chicken strips with rice, take out). I uttered the words, imagining the way I heard it from the xuen shang (mister) who taught me how to say zhi su mien (chicken strip with noodles).
 
And just like that, the clouds would part and reveal that sunshiny smile that has evaded ayi’s face in the last 10 seconds. She would smile a betel-nut stained smile and nod in agreement while punching the numbers to my order. The first time I did this to her, she graciously replied with a heartwarming han hao (very good). I felt like a kid who finally managed to put away her toys. Life is beautiful. I will be able to eat soon.
 
Learning a new local language is a byproduct of blood, tears, and sweat. Sometimes, a fart can be included if you’re that nervous. From the many things it brought into my life, the best one that it gave me is a pure sense of humility. No matter how good your English skills are, slang and accent are pointless when the person you are talking to can only manage a confused scrunched up expression punctuated with the universally understandable, “Huh?”
 
It gets harder when you look like a local. When I get lazy and just speak in English, I always encounter that confused “huh.” Sometimes, it makes me question if I may have some lisp or nasal problems. I have a sneaking suspicion they silently hate me, thinking I’m being such a social climber. Who is this person who dares to speak with an English tongue though I smell her breath traced with tofu and oolong tea? Time and experience taught me to be humble and patient. When faced with this dilemma, I break my English and mix in what little Mandarin I know. 
 
Me: You have a new stock?
Saleslady: Huh?
Me: Uh, chi ge (this) new? Stock? *points to cabinet that I thought might have the new stock I want*
Saleslady: Stock? *says something in Mandarin that I don’t know yet*
Me: Dui, chi ge. (right, this) Stock. New. Not this. 
Saleslady: *smiles confusingly, wanting to cry anytime soon*
Me: Hao, mei guanxi. Mei guanxi chi ge. (Ok, no problem. No problem this.) *pulls out my wallet, pays and leaves behind kind saleslady all happy and sane*
 
So you can just imagine my relief whenever I get to visit the Pinoy stores. At least there I can freely speak not just in English but most importantly, in my beloved language—Tagalog! As soon as I step inside the Pinoy store, my ears soak in all the Tagalog words it could possibly hear which consist of Filipino television shows and conversations ensuing around me.
 
Ideally, that’s how it should be except last weekend. Coming from a bike trip, I entered the Pinoy store clad in my version of a bike outfit with my bike helmet still strapped on. I grabbed an ensaymada and leche plan (I know it’s flan but the sign said plan so deal with it) then made my way to the counter. Before me, the cashier (who suspiciously looks like a local but speaks fluent Mandarin) spoke to the Pinoy customers in Tagalog. When it was my turn, she took a few seconds to look at me and my purchase. Her face registered surprise. I was slightly expecting her to scold me based on my food choices.
 
Judgmental cashier: pa shu kuai (eighty new taiwan dollars)
Me: Oh, hao. (Okay) *hands over a hundred dollar bill*
Judgmental cashier: Xie xie (thanks). *something in Mandarin I don’t know yet* er shu kuai (twenty new taiwan dollars) 
*Crickets chirp because she did not pack my food purchases. Shit, she really thought I’m a local. Locals do not ask for a plastic because it is usually purchased here in Taiwan.*
*Crickets continue to chirp for three more seconds…*
Judgmental cashier: Oh! *at this point I thought she understood I’m not a local until the following happened* ni yao tai zi ma? (you want plastic?)
Me: *still playing along* hao, xie xie ni (okay, thank you!)
 
So much for seeking refuge in the supposed comfort of a Pinoy store. Nowhere is safe. I must buy a Chinese language book soon. Or enroll in a Mandarin cram school. Anything, just anything, to save my pride and save me from possible national identity crisis.
 
wēn 溫  sī 絲  tè 特, Jia yo!
(Wen Si Te is the Chinese name given to me by my Mandarin teacher, Jia yo means “you can do it!” or something close to that)
 
P.S. I tried Google translating the Chinese characters of my name. With a space between each of them, they translated to “Special Temperature Wire”. Without spaces, they translated to “Wen Esther.” 
I think I shall sleep in fetal position again tonight. 😛

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