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Saturday, October 15, 2011


Shopping for something as mundane as milk at a hypermarket in Taiwan like Carrefour or A-Mart 愛買 can be an ordeal that brings out some of the worst traits in the Taiwanese national character. As soon as you approach the dairy section, a horde of middle-aged female milk touts will descend upon you. Small plastic cups filled with samples of milk or a yogurt drink will be shoved in your face and/or hands, and the women will aggressively vie with one another to deliver their sales pitches in an attempt to get you to purchase their particular product. Some of the more annoying aspects of this competition include placing milk jugs in the hands of young children, knowing that the kids won’t refuse an adult, and rudely interrupting the conversation I’m trying to have with my daughter. But, hey, it’s English, after all, and not Mandarin or Taiwanese, so it’s perfectly acceptable to butt in.

Which brings me to the subject of English, for the most annoying thing about the above dairy shills is the tendency of some of them to speak in broken, horrible English to Amber. I’m probably overly sensitive on this subject, but I’m careful to ensure that my daughter is exposed to correct, natural English while she’s living in Taiwan, and I don’t appreciate less-than-fluent natives trying to undo all my hard work. This afternoon at the local A-Mart I actually had to tell one saleswoman to speak in Mandarin to Amber because her English was too poor. 

My daughter is a citizen of the Republic of China (Zhōng​huá​ Mín​guó) 中華民國, and a holder of an R.O.C. passport. She speaks Mandarin as fluently as any 5½ year-old child can. But she looks a lot more like me than she does her mother (sorry, Amber), and when the two of us are outside, many people will insist on using English to talk to her (or at her, in some cases). Unfortunately, the English language skills of many of these folks are worse than my Mandarin ability. Funnily enough, though, when Amber is out with just her mother, almost everyone will speak to my daughter in Mandarin, despite the fact her appearance hasn’t changed one bit just by being with the other parent. 

What really irritates me are those parents who try speaking to their children in English when they are in our presence. They’re not talking to us, but the fact that we are close by triggers an urge in some Moms and Dads to get their kids using the international lingua franca. Of course, in most of these situations, the sentences the parents are using are riddled with strange constructions and poor usage of grammar, and spoken in peculiar accents and intonations. If the intent is to impress me with how cosmopolitan their offspring are, the results are usually mediocre at best.  You can color me unimpressed.

Finally, there are the weird hybrid sentences, such as this one I heard today on the streets of downtown Fengyuan (Fēng​yuán) 豐原: as Amber and I were getting ready to go into a bookseller’s, we passed by a mother and her young son. Mom saw us, then asked her boy “你要去 bookstore 嗎?”

Amber and I might have some fun in the event we encounter some Taiwanese tourists on our next visit back to the States. 

It's hard to read the words in the above photograph, but I found them to be of interest. Not the name of the business, although it's kind of cute: Taiwan Boo-Boo. No, I'm referring to the descriptive sentence underneath: Taiwan Dinkey Railway Bento. I have no idea what "dinkey" means, but my attention was drawn to the word "bentō" 弁当 (I've anally retentively added the macron), which is Japanese for "single-portion takeout or home-packed meal(s) common in Japanese cuisine" (according to the Wikipedia entry). Bentos were introduced in Taiwan during the Japanese period 台灣日治時期『日本統治時代』, and have been popular ever since. In Mandarin they are called "Pientang" (biàn​dāng) 便當, while the Taiwanese word for them, Bendong, was derived directly from the Japanese. Boo-Boo specializes in a popular variant known in Japanese as ekiben 駅弁 (see link), which can be found in train stations all over Japan. In Taiwan, the most well-known ekiben are those which are sold in Fench'ihu (Fèn​qǐ​hú) 奮起湖, a midpoint outpost along the Alishan Forest Railway 阿里山森林鐵路. 

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