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language nerdery and cultural learning
singapore sunset
amw
I mean, you know, then you find a place like this, a large concrete blob in the middle of the highrises that called me. Turns out it is some kind of art gallery or performing arts center and there is a huge covered courtyard out the front with mirrored pillars everywhere. It's like a massive public dance studio. Right now there are 3 troupes rehearsing and a bunch of solo dancers perfecting their moves. It's a wide open space, but everyone has their ghettoblaster just loud enough to not annoy the other crews.

There is also a group of kids who set up picnic blankets and are sitting down having a sushi feast. This isn't the first time i've seen a picnic being held on a covered concrete space here. I guess it makes sense in a city with a rainy season. It's always hot, and often wet. The public space is so well-utilized. What's striking is how respectful of the public space people are - everyone and their dog is out and about, but no one is loud or obnoxious or getting in the way of anyone else. That's why i found the security guard's behavior last night so peculiar.

I mentioned it on Facebook, and a Canadian ex-pat acquaintance of mine said it's more likely that the security guard was honestly trying to make a kind gesture. To be honest, that almost makes it worse. I am really not comfortable with people doing "nice" things for me. I'm always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Now that you did this for me, what's my obligation to you?

But, perhaps that is part of the culture here i still need to learn. Kindness without obligation. Although, just kindness - sure - that's something i enjoy and i also spread around. What i find really awkward is someone taking me into their private space, making a sacrifice of their freedom for me, that feels like a debt i can never pay back. I have to keep reminding myself that "normal" people don't see private space as a fortress of solitude like i do.

These dancers are lovely. There is an old guy with white hair bouncing around like a thing on a spring, and an old lady going through tai chi moves, and a toddler in bare feet stomping around and looking at her reflection in the granite.

I feel like a big fat slob.

-o-

Okay, that's confirmed it. Random acts of kindness do appear to be a Taiwan thing.

Today i sat down at a restaurant where i recognized the logograms for vegetarian food - 素食 (sùshí). This phrase has caused me no end of trouble here, because if you pronounce it without knowing pinyin you might be tempted to say sushi, like the Japanese dish of rice and seaweed. Here's where it gets interesting. Taiwan used to be occupied by Japan, so some older people know Japanese but not English, and they recognize the pronunciation "sushi" as the Japanese word 寿司. The Chinese word for that dish is also spelled 寿司, but in Mandarin that's pronounced shòusī. Forget about the tones - the point is that in Mandarin the sh- and the s- sound are reversed to English and Japanese, so it should still be easy enough to differentiate, right? But just to fuck with you even more, Taiwanese have their own special accent of Mandarin, and in the Taiwanese accent sh- and s- are both pronounced s-. What that means is that when i say sùshí they think i am speaking Japanese even if i do get the tones right. Eventually they realize i mean vegetarian, which pronounced in the Taiwanese accent sounds like SuSE, the German Linux distribution.

Anyway, i asked for rice, but it wasn't a buffet or anything so i couldn't point and smile. I said 米饭 (mǐfàn) and they came back to me with a flurry of language where the only word i recognized was 面 (miàn), which literally means a surface, but i also know from eating noodles all over the world that anything that sounds like the English words "me" or "main" is probably a noodle. Eventually they threw up their hands and ushered a kid out from inside the building to translate. He said "do you want noodle?" Here is another problem i have with this language. There is no word for "yes" in Chinese. If someone asks you a yes/no question and you want to answer positive, you have to reuse the verb they used in the question. If you don't know the verb they used, you are fucked. Anyway, i said yes in English and got a big bowl of noodle soup with fake beef plus broccoli, bak choi and winter melon on the side.

Bak choi is the only thing i know how to ask for. 青菜 (qīngcài) is the Mandarin phrase, and it literally means green dish. The reason we call it bak choi in the west is because it is the Cantonese pronunciation for 白菜 (báicài), which means white dish. In Mandarin if you say báicài you mean napa cabbage/won bok. Good times. Anyway, i have learned you can ask for qīngcài and it basically just means greens - whatever greens.

As i was eating my noodles they plopped a jar in front of me and said 豆瓣酱 (dòubànjiàng), which i recognized vaguely as meaning some kind of spicy chili paste. The only reason i knew this is because since i have been on the cargo ship i have been practicing flash cards of Mandarin phrases using a tool called Anki. It automates picking flash cards, progresses you through the vocab and makes sure you don't study too much each day. As a kid i hated learning vocab, but now i am in a country where no one speaks English i understand the value. So, last night i started to build my own deck of flashcards specifically for food, using Wikipedia and Google Translate and photos of menus to put it together. I realized that i can't learn the whole phrase without context. For instance, for 辣豆瓣酱 it is easier for me to remember as hot-bean-segment-sauce instead of the complete translation which is là dòubànjiàng, a type of hot sauce we don't have a name for in English. Breaking it up helps to recognize things like 辣 (là) - the same word used in 麻辣豆腐 (málà dòufu) - numbing-hot-bean-curdled. Bean-curdled is, of course, tofu. There is something endearing about a language where new words are built up out of groups of smaller words.

When i finished my meal, the kid plucked up the courage to come over and introduce himself as J. His English was very limited, but a lot better than my Mandarin. He apologized that there wasn't any meat in the soup and said it was because his parents are strict Buddhists. I said that's exactly the reason i sat down to eat here! He asked where i was going and what my plans were, and then he suggested a few places i should go to see. One recommendation was the Pier 2 Arts Center, which is a converted warehouse in the old train station district i walked through a few days ago. He showed me a map and explained how to walk there, and how to take a train to Tainan.

J also explained my mistake in ordering rice. I had come to a "soup noodle" stand and asked for a side of rice. Soup-noodle being the direct translation of 汤面 (tāngmiàn) or, i guess, what we would call ramen in English. He said the choice was between soup noodle or dry noodle. Literally, 干面 (gān miàn), dry-noodle. I was thrilled by this, because i had already put 豆干 (dòugān) into Anki as dried tofu. Then he said they did have rice, but it was glutinous rice, so it was called 糯米 (nuòmǐ). I had expected it to end in fàn like fried rice - 炒饭 (chǎofàn), but it seems when you have these two-logogram words, you can sometimes leave one out when building a new word. So although rice, noodle and tofu are all technically two-logogram words in Chinese, different preparations of them may only use one (like 豆干 instead of 豆腐干). This might explain why sometimes the same ingredient is translated differently on the same menu in Chinese restaurants in the west. This sort of nerding out is stuff that helps me learn better, so i'm glad i'm getting plenty of opportunity.

Eventually i was feeling a bit awkward from all the fawning - though thankful for getting a free Mandarin lesson - so i took out my wallet to pay and he said don't worry, the meal was free. Now, granted, it was probably going to only be 50 kuai or something, but still. Then it started pissing down with rain again (did i mention there has been torrential downpours in Taiwan this week, roads have been washed away etc?) and he gave me an umbrella. He gave me, for free. Along with my free food and my free Mandarin lesson. I asked what can i do? He just said "come back to Taiwan". Not "come back to this restaurant", but "come back to Taiwan". Of course, cynical me is thinking that it's in the interests of Taiwanese to garner foreign friendships because thanks to China they are living in a limbo where they are not recognized as an independent country but also do not operate as a real province of China either. Their diplomatic limbo is comparable to Palestine, but perhaps worse because America could turn off Israel's gravy train to solve things there very quickly, whereas there's not much anyone can do to put the thumbscrews on the biggest, baddest country in Asia. Anyway, forget politics, we're talking about random acts of kindness.

I walked away from that experience kind of dumbfounded. I know Buddhism preaches a culture of giving, and that the concept of karma is a part of that tradition too. I didn't think when i gave away all my stuff before leaving Germany that i'd be collecting on that karma already. I didn't expect to be collecting at all - i gave selflessly and without conditions. I guess now i've been on the receiving end. I need to learn grace in accepting this stuff.
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your travel posts always make me hungry. >.< especially now that you're actually in taiwan, because i looooove chinese food. (maybe not the stinky tofu, tho, even if it isn't that stinky.) the language nerdery is pretty cool too.

I love Chinese food too! I know it's a bunch of disparate cuisines, but i think there are some common philosophies - nose to tail eating, fresh meat, fresh vegetables, small dishes, good textures as well as flavors... The day i left Kaohsiung i was feeling cocky at recognizing the logogram for noodles, so i sat down triumphantly and ordered noodles. I ended up getting the famous Taiwanese beef noodle. Even though it wasn't veg, it was very good. Pretty simple, just red-cook brisket, noodle, cabbage and some kind of broth, i think with fivespice and doubanjiang, but everything perfectly balanced. At that point i realized i should kick the vegan eating every now and then to make sure i taste some of the local specialities.

I love learning about the differences between and quirks of different languages. I have a few stories.

One of our staff is Japanese, and she ran a Japanese theme night at the restaurant. I'd been watching a lot of anime at the time, and I noticed that the Japanese "ryokai" roughly translates to "Okay/Roger/Understood", so I looked it up thinking it would be cute to say that to her when she gave me an order.

Problem is, "yokai" means "Demon/Ghost", and it's stupid to say that in response to an order. I couldn't tell the difference, so I didn't try. I asked her about it later though. She was legit surprised that it sounded the same to me. I found out later that "ry" vs. "y" is actually a fairly common problem for English speakers learning Japanese.

My souschef is Sri Lankan, and his English is generally good, but sometimes he asks me really interesting questions. The floor staff were making popcorn for a movie night, and he asked me; "Is it pop corn or popping corn? Or is it the same?"

"It's popcorn -after- it's popped. It's popping corn while it's being popped, because it's corn that -is- popping right now. Popping corn is also the type of corn that you pop, because it's corn that's -for- popping."

English. He asked me what "stuff" meant once, and that threw me for a loop.

Haha! I love hanging out with an international group, because you can spot so many quirks between languages. The best is when you are hanging out with several multilingual folks and you can laugh at the peculiarities of every language, or code switch for better clarity.

Right now i am tripping up on joining-words in Chinese like "ge" and "zhi" and "li" and several others that have a specific meaning in certain cases but also appear to get thrown in randomly elsewhere. But i also really dig their end-of-sentence words like "ma" for yes/no question, "ne" for other question, "ah" for just random punctuation. If you ever talk to Malaysian or Singapore dude you will know this stuff from them interjecting "lah", "neh" etc everywhere.

I forgot how much i enjoyed learning languages. The last time i did was when i moved to Germany, and that was with the head start. This is a blast.

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