Last Thursday, our group went on a field trip to the Mainland Affairs Council. We sat at connecting tables equipped with microphones and pots of hot water for tea. After a few minutes of getting settled, an official walked in the room, briefly introduced the current relationship between China and Taiwan, and opened the floor to questions. His request was met with a long, awkward silence.
Looking back, I probably should have done a little of my own research about cross-straight relations before coming to the Mainland Affairs Council, instead of taking my usual afternoon siesta. But there was nothing I could have done at that point. I had been hoping that our guest speaker would elaborate a little more about the history between China and Taiwan. He did later on, mentioning statistics such as “80 percent of Taiwanese citizens prefer the status quo” and that China and Taiwan “had been through good times and bad times”, but as an American citizen whose historical background is focused mainly on China, these phrases drifted in one ear and out the other. Over the last few weeks, I had seen the relatively high standards of living
and education many Taiwanese enjoy. I spent the past two weekends interviewing Taiwanese students to go work and travel in the United States, and I share a dorm room with three Taiwanese girls. It seemed to me that the average young Taiwanese person knows a significant amount about Western countries, while China, the economic behemoth directly to the north, remains somewhere in the back of his or her mind. I felt myself being roped in with the eighty percent of Taiwanese citizens: the situation between China and Taiwan had reached a tenuous cordiality. Why change anything?
At last, one of my classmates asked a question in Mandarin, and the official responded in English. I was inspired by her effort to incorporate Chinese in real life setting, so I did the same. I turned on the microphone in front of me.
“Hello,” I said in Chinese.
“Hello,” the official responded, also in Chinese. He then switched to English. “I hope that’s not all you can say in Chinese.”
I suddenly felt as though I was alone in the room with this condescending official. He didn’t even wait for me to blunder through a question before assuming I couldn’t ask a coherent question in Mandarin.
I don’t remember the first question I asked, but as I far as I could tell the exchange between us went relatively smoothly. My second question, which I also asked in Mandarin, proved to be a disaster.
“How did you develop an interest in the relationship between China and Taiwan?”
This question is a little awkwardly phrased in English, and even more so in Chinese, but I didn’t know how to say cross-straight relations, so I figured I would work around it. This strategy was not the wisest one: there was cultural ambassador sitting right in front of me. I could have written down my question and asked a native speaker for her help. But I didn’t. And now I was in a situation where I wasn’t understood, and the result was not getting plain dumplings instead of the spicy ones I wanted. I was proving this jerk right—maybe my language skills weren’t up to snuff.
Everyone else seemed to understand my question, and a few of the other cultural ambassadors repeated what I said, hoping to clarify the situation, to no avail. He took the last two characters of my question, （兴趣, the word for “interest”）and changed them into a word I didn’t recognize. He asked me if his new word was what I meant, and I nodded eagerly, hoping he would answer my question and be done with it. He gave a slightly more detailed history of cross-straight relations, which was informative, but didn’t answer my question. I left the question and answer session miffed and deflated.
On the way back, I talked to Angel, one of the graduate students I have bilingual sessions with once a week. As a native New Yorker who talks quickly in English, I find comfort in his “machine gun Mandarin”, as he jokingly calls it. The Taiwanese linger over their vowels, and insert extra vowels when there isn’t necessarily a grammatical need for one. Angel, a native Malaysian, does not do this when he speaks. He plows through one word after another, never bothering to spend more time on one syllable that absolutely necessary. The result is that the syllables merge together, forcing the listener to pick out the important words, thereby gauging his overall meaning. Because Angels is not Taiwanese, I felt a little more comfortable telling Angel exactly what I thought of the official. Angel eagerly validated my complaints, but also gave me some important cultural insights. No one had bothered asking the official anything because they already knew that he would not offer any of his own personal opinions. His speech would be just information that could be accessed by newspapers. I realized then that the official had deliberately sidestepped my question under the guise of a language barrier, because I had bothered to ask about his own personal life outside of his credentials. Angel told me not to worry about not being understood, because he and the other cultural ambassadors were happy to see me try I still felt snubbed, but I was glad I had someone like Angel to help me learn from my cultural faux pas and to encourage me to keep speaking Chinese in spite of my mistakes.
I have a midterm this week. I am going to study hard, because I want to remember the proper grammar patterns and correct ways of phrasing questions in order to be ready for my next close encounter of the Taiwanese kind.