Making the Most of My Mandarin

My first day in Taiwan, I stayed in Taoyuan. Excited to use my legs after sitting for 15 hours, I decided to go on a walk once I got myself settled. Not far into my exploration, I found a bubble tea place. As I walked up to the storefront, I mentally prepared myself to use the little mandarin I had learned nearly two years ago. My mental preparation, however, proved unnecessary. The place offered an English menu and one of the workers had a decent command of English. The only snafu that arose was when they wanted to know how sweet I wanted my tea. Unable to communicate his question through speaking English or signaling with hand gestures, he seemed ready to resign. I then forced myself to say a few Mandarin words to show that I had some understanding of the language. The man then launched into a barrage of sentences that initially seemed unintelligible. I could feel my anxiety about communicating in Mandarin building, when I heard the word “tián,” sugar. From there, I was able to piece together his question and provide a brief answer; “I wanted my pearl milk tea with only a little sugar.”

Able to stave off my hunger while simultaneously quenching my thirst, I continued walking through the streets of Taoyuan. I walked by a temple, several storefronts, and a couple of public parks. I sat in one of the parks for a while. I swung back and forth, listening to the buzz of the cicadas become louder as if trying to drown out the melody of the passing trash truck. The truck’s melody reminded me of summers at my dad’s, sitting on the stoop waiting for the ice cream truck to near. As my mind drifted off to thinking about the country I had left only 24 hours ago, I noticed two elderly men staring at me. One came over and sat at my table looking at me as if he had something to say. I tried to bring myself to say “nǐ hǎo,” but once again my words were caught in my throat. Unlike the time at the bubble tea hours earlier, I was unable to push myself to say anything. I was too afraid of having a conversation in Mandarin. The man ultimately left before a word could be exchanged.

One of the reasons I decided to study in Taiwan this summer was because I wanted to put myself in an environment in which I could overcome my fear of communicating in Chinese. Thinking about my first day and comparing that to where I am now nearly a week later, I am proud of my progress. I have ordered food, asked where things are located, and listened to a lady explain about the oxidation of oolong tea. Most of the people I have talked to were patient and understanding as I stumbled through sentences. While there are still several words I do not understand, I have noticed that I have already become more comfortable responding to people and asking for clarification in Mandarin. I am excited to see the progress I will make over the next few weeks.

By: Damali Britton

Program: Tradition and Modernity in Taiwan

Term: Summer 2018

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