Categories: Taiwan

How to open a conversation in Taiwan – The Taiwanese opening bias dilemma

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…

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