Thursday, September 30, 2010

Expat and studying Chinese: The friend who never learns Chinese

We all have a friend who still can't speak much Chinese after 10 years in Taiwan, that was John. At once best able to deal with the Taiwanese but not able to say more than 20 words of their language. Because of it you would get stupid phone calls like the one below.
I was in an important meeting:
“Dan I am getting a hair cut, and these girls don’t seem to understand what am saying,” said John agitated.
“I am kind of in a meeting, John,” I said. “Don't you have a girlfriend for the week or something who can deal with this?”
I said this because taking you to the hairdresser was one of the P.A roles a Taiwanese girl performs for her new boyfriend. Among the hundreds of little tasks we passed onto our girlfriends this was actually one of the most necessary - Applying for a phone number could be done ourselves because their would be someone in the office wanting to practice their English, and even if you insisted on speaking English when ordering your pizza their would be a student who could sort it out, but hairdressers were populated by girls who left school at sixteen and were not so fantastic in their own language, let alone English.
In fact, most of the younger girls loved taking you to the hairdresser and it was great to see the competition that would play out between stylist and girlfriend:
Stylist would be just giving girl in question a knowing dirty look about her being a stupid whoring western lover.
Girlfriend: ‘Have you ever cut western hair before…isn’t it so soft…please shave his neck; you know he has too much hair, it like that all over his chest.’
The stylists would be polite, complimenting the girl on her English.
Girlfriend: 'Have you ever had a foreign boyfriend before?”
Stylist: 'No, my English is so poor.” Trying to be polite.
Girlfriend: 'Many foreigners these days can speak Chinese.'
Stylist: 'Really?' While thinking: 'Who cares? I am not a stuck up fucking whore…Anyway, you know he is going to dump you soon and return to his country.’
Back to the conversation with John:
“I was walking past this place and it said haircuts for 200,” he said. I wondered why he insisted on trying to get a cheap haircut when he earned a lot of money.
“You read Chinese?” I replied.
“Yeah. My Chinese isn’t that bad, you bastard.” Then why are you calling me, I thought.
“Look, mate. Can you help? They have me sat in the chair here with the apron on for a while now and I am feeling like a right tool.”
It seems girls didn’t know what to do with him and so came back and forth every 5 minutes or so to check if he had learned to speak Chinese.
“She is back again, how to say, ‘just a little off the sides’?”
“Pang bien, duan e dien dien,” I said.
“Pang bieng, dan e dien dieng,” repeated John. All the tones wrong and some of the actual sounds.
“She’s not responding,” he said.
I excused myself from the meeting and went outside the door.
“Give the phone to her,” I said.
I then took the assistant step-by-step through how to cut his hair. It was a weird feeling, describing how to cut another man’s hair; like buying shirts for a guy and telling the assistant: “Well, he has a large muscular chest…” A little too intimate, and I wanted to go home for a shower.
I then went back into the meeting ready to apologize profusely for answering my phone. It didn't matter as they had all taken their chance with the foreigner gone to start dialing away.
Twenty minutes later and my phone was ringing again.
“Hey, Dan,” said John.
“She says it isn't 200.”


Anonymous said...
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Paul said...

Taaaah! Loved this story and I'm sorry for you. :/