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…