After all this time, my Chinese is still pretty basic. If someone talks really slow and using everyday words with out any slang, weird accent or some Taiwanese, then I might be able to get most of it, or at least give a good guess by combining the words I do recognize with the body language and situational context. But, in this very ability lies a serious dilemma in my Taiwanese life.

If at the beginning of the conversation I demonstrate even the slightest of comprehension, and even the most basic ability to say anything in Chinese, then the average Taiwanese would assume that I understand everything. Staring at the Taiwanese with a confused look, asking the Taiwanese to speak a little slower or saying something like "Duibuqi, wo ting bu dong… wo de zhongwen bu tai hao…" (etc.) would not help. The Taiwanese is now convinced I can speak Mandarin and nothing will change that. Maybe they assume that I’m just being modest and humble when I’m actually expressing my ignorance. I honestly don’t know.

But, there’s another side to that. If I have a relatively complicated question and decide to approach someone with English or something like "I’m sorry, I don’t speak Chinese very well, do you speak English?" then the Taiwanese – once finished with the scared looks begging for a rescue from the foreigner while mumbling "no, oh-no, can’t, no English, please, please, no" – will not be able to understand any Mandarin that follows, even if I speak like a native. The Taiwanese is probably convinced that I speak absolutely no Mandarin, and no matter what comes out from my mouth will sound like a foreign language. At first, I couldn’t believe this was really happening, and I tried again and again to show that I can maybe try my luck at asking in Chinese, but sometimes that was replied by even more disturbing actions of people just walking away, or – when it’s a shopkeeper that can’t go away – completely ignoring my existence from that moment on by  turning to someone or something else.

So, almost everytime I need to start a conversation with a Taiwanese, in matters like looking for an apartment, renting a motorbike, asking for directions, etc. I face the dilemma of what opening I should use.

And… that’s without going into how people generally respond to the fact that I’m a foreigner. That, in itself, is a completely surreal thing here in Tainan…

Tags: body_language; comprehension; dilemma; everyday_words; situational_context; Taiwan; taiwanese;

Leave a Reply

7 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
5 Comment authors
paula fernandoJohn天天北极-CarriefiLiNaruwan Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

for me it’s always funny to hear a foreignter to speak chinese. chinese, i gotta admit, is a very difficult language, that’s why i never meet a foreigner who could speak with correct accent. anyway, wish u progress greater in the following days^^ 加油吧!


And you’ll find no matter how good your Chinese gets, there are some Taiwanese who will insist on only speaking English, even if their English sucks.

Another bemusing situation you may encounter when you start getting good at Chinese is when you’re talking at length with someone in Chinese and then that person decides that they need to translate some trivial thing for you like “120 dollars”. Not a big deal but it’s bizarre and takes some getting used to!


fili, actually we seldom care about whether a foreigner can speak wonderful chinese, as long as he can understand and speak, he’s great already. on the contrary, chinese people are more strict with the native speakers. since my mandarine got more or less a little cantonese accent(well, i promise, just a little bit). but people could immediately tell which part of china i’m from, and some northerners even say my accent is kind of weird. hehe, cantonese usually got big influence towards other languages… the true is, comparing the way we view native speakers, chinese are much more tolerant towards… Read more »


I have found if you can say Ni Hao you will get a canned response that all Taiwanese learn somewhere (perhaps the greeting foreigners 101 class they take at school) that your Chinese is so good. It can seem so patronizing as well, as after your Chinese becomes better you still realize it sucks and you have a guy that doesn’t know you that has heard you say two words saying your Chinese is so good…. I’ve heard this kind of politeness is a kind of control/face thing. So anyway, you know your Chinese has made it big time when… Read more »

paula fernando
paula fernando

whats “WAHAO BUH” in english??????????????

Facebook Iconfacebook like buttonTwitter Icontwitter follow buttonVisions of Travel InstagramVisions of Travel InstagramVisions of Travel Instagram