August 13, 2007

Snarky Tofu: Taiwan's Linguistic Inscrutability Complex

Snarky Tofu: Taiwan's Linguistic Inscrutability Complex

JoSamBro has aptly renamed his blog. His latest entry is on the local habit of reminding us "out country people" that we are not part of their club by switching to Taiwanese when they discover that we can understand Mandarin.

This has happened to me a couple times in situations where I have known the conversants (I'm a blogger, I make up words), and in each case of linguo-switching it was pretty obvious that they were making the switch to talk about me. One guy was the security guard in my building and he was complaining to his co-worker about the foreigner who complains too much. Something like that. The other was a disagreeable coworker in a previous life. It'd be nice if people wouldn't talk about you behind your back in front of your face, but these aren't nice people doing it.

Someone once let me borrow the phrase "Consider the source" in situations where negative comments are offered up about you. Judge for yourself if this person's opinion of you really matters. Of course, this makes you a judgemental prick, as well. Hmm...

I've found myself in situations where everyone knows that I speak Mandarin, but they insist on speaking Taiwanese. Perhaps they are more comfortable with the regional dialect. That's fine, I'm more comfortable reading my book in the back seat of the car. Actually, I'd be more comfortable in the front seat.

If anyone wants to speak to me, they know what language I'm most capable of using.

I have learned a few phrases in Taiwanese, and from hanging out with my in-laws, I have improved my listening comprehension to about 25%. That is, I can follow the ebb and flow of a conversation to a certain extent after which it becomes lulling. Occasionally, I will interrupt and ask what a phrase was that I've heard over and over again as if that phrase will unlock the conversation. Sometimes it does, sometimes they switch to Mandarin for awhile.

Linguistic Assumption is something I've encountered more often with Mandarin, though. A few months after I arrived, I was entering a classroom and a student's mother told her friend that I was very handsome. I turned immediately and said, "xie-xie." She was definitely a MILF (Mom I'd Love to Fluster)

Another time, I stepped onto an elevator in that building back in a previous life. A younger woman turned to her friend and said, "Ni kan, zhe-ge waiguoren yingai bu hwei jiang zhong wen. (Look at this foreigner, he probably doesn't speak Chinese.)" To which I replied in her right ear" "Yingai bu hwei, ba! (Y'know, you're probably right!)" The poor girl got flustered.

I guess what you have to do is just pick up a few phrases of Taiwanese that you can uncork in certain situations. I usually squeeze a few out when I meet a new group of people. Tinki bei bai, hoh? A-nei hoh? Swee! Tinyabo! (Nice weather, eh? Is that right? Beautiful! I don't understand.) This suggests that I know a little Taiwanese, and they often reckon it's better to talk about the A-do-ga when he's out of ear shot rather than sooner. My MILF (Manager I Loved to Filet) at that other school told me every time I spoke to her in Taiwanese that she would no longer be able to say bad things about me. I told her that she shouldn't be saying those things about anybody. But, she's a bitch.

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