Thursday, March 26, 2009

Taiwan characters: Eric and studying Chinese I

Taiwan doesn't get many western visitors - A tiny number of whom actually come to study the language and live for a long time. They have been taught it is polite to speak to the foreigner in English. Many have studied abroad and already speak good English. They want to practice their English. They are afraid of their English ability so run off. They are not used to hearing their language with a strange accent. In short, when you are in the early stages of studying Chinese, it could be difficult to get the opportunities to speak.

Most of us weren't in any great hurry to learn the language. Others found their methods: Pierre only dated girls who worked in department stores, running the gauntlet of them laughing out loud at everything he said because they were embarrassed at being with the foreigner. Most of us dated upwardly mobile middle-class girls who came and found us, the downside was they spoke good English - and it automatically became the language you spoke in.

Eric was in a hurry to learn and had taken the above as a personal slight. He had thrown himself out of every school in Taipei, and now he was refusing to speak to people unless they spoke Chinese.

First, he had started to argue with people:

“I can speak Chinese,” he said.

“I can speak English,” came the reply.

“We are in Taiwan.”

“But you are an American.”

To which he usually replied, “Are you ashamed of your language? Or just a racist?”

Then he started to pretend to be French or German.

“So where are you from?” said the woman next to him in the breakfast shop.

“Fa Gwo (France),” said Eric.

“Really? Where in France?” she asked.

“Why are you speaking to me in English? I am French so speak French or Chinese.”

“Sorry,” she replied and quickly left.

Picked the wrong foreigner to exploit for English practice bitch.

Eric turned his attention to the guys opposite and started listening to their conversation. They were talking about the local elections and he was surprised, he could understand what they said. The election was fascinating as outside the environment was transformed: every bridge, grass divider between sides of the road, intersection, roundabout, building, and private apartment that it was possible to put a candidate flag on had one; otherwise giant-sized pictures of candidates adorned the front of buildings, buses taxis and trains; flyers were being handed out everywhere; rallies held everyday in football stadiums.

He could join this conversation. He would love to. The signs were good: they were men in their late forties; two of them were wearing the traffic volunteer orange armbands suggesting they were taxi drivers (At every intersection across Taipei at rush hour armies of volunteers stood blowing whistles to stop people going through the red lights). He could hear they were also supporters of the DPP. It would love to hear some stories of protest or imprisonment. The chances are they didn’t speak any English. He thought about joining their conversation - Just going over there and sitting down. They would make a few stupid comments about him being a foreigner at the start but then would just let him join in. These kind of guys always did: they were loud but essentially harmless ...Eric got out his textbook and started to learn a few more characters instead.

“Hey. Hello,” said the woman he had been rude to before. She was back with a young pretty girl. “This is my friend’s daughter. She is studying French. Uh, maybe, you can speak to her for a while. Let her practice.”

“Did I say French? Sorry, my Chinese is not so good. I meant to say Spanish.” Eric packed up his things and looked longingly back at the group of guys discussing the election. Once outside it occurred to him the questions about his identity were worth it to join the conversation, but he wasn’t going back now. Besides, he didn’t have time because he had an interview at a new school, and he needed to get this job.

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