Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Language Barrier: Both a Blessing and a Curse

Though feeble, Chris and I actually have made an attempt at learning some of the Chinese language. However, our grammar leaves quite a bit to be desired and our vocabulary consists of varying coffee orders and saying “one of this” or “two of that”. While we accept all of the blame for this “ugly American attitude”, I will say that the helpful and English-friendly Taiwanese have added fuel to our lazy fire. Being a language teacher, I am obviously an advocate for learning the language of the culture in which you find yourself. On the other hand, I am going to admit that there have been times when I was glad that I didn’t speak Chinese.

One such occasion was the last time that I went to go get my hair cut. Getting a haircut in Taiwan is a glorious two to three hour ordeal that involves washing, massaging, pruning, and overall pampering (see Great Clips, eat your heart out blog). This is an event that I look forward to with great anticipation. The salon that I frequent is located in our apartment complex and is owned by a young woman who speaks about as much English as I speak Chinese. Typically, when I come in, she hands me a magazine and I point to which picture most closely resembles my desired coif and I hold my breath and hope for the best. Generally, she does a good job and is very friendly whenever I see her around the complex. The inability to communicate frankly doesn’t bother me that much as I am not a big small-talker. However, being a hairdresser, the owner chatters on continuously at me seemingly indifferent to whether or not I understand what she is saying. As I said, not into small talk myself, I am okay with the arrangement that we have. She talks, I nod, smile, or shrug as I think appropriate, she massages my shoulders and cuts my hair, I pay her, and we all end up happy.

This is not always how it turns out. Sometimes, the owner feels obliged to ask one of the other costumers in the shop to translate for her. This is awkward for me for two reasons. First, I hate interrupting another costumer’s relaxation time to come and interpret for the dumb American. Secondly, it is through these translated conversations that I experience a side of Taiwanese culture that I don’t see very often: their bluntness and their uncontrollable desire to offer unsolicited advice. In America, we tend to beat around the bush and sugar coat anything we say as to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. And, to be honest, I like it that way. But, at the salon, I get to find out what people are really saying about me.

The first translated conversation went something like this:
“She would like to tell you that the blemish on your forehead is very large. You must go to see a doctor about it and eat more vitamin C. You must go to the doctor before you come back.”

The next visit went something like this:
“Ah, I see that the blemish on your forehead is gone. Did you go to the doctor? No? Hm. You really should go. The blemishes that you have are unnaturally large. (directed to other costumers) Don’t you agree that her blemishes are unusually large? (nods of agreement all over the salon)”

My most recent visit:
“Wow, I see that your face is very pale but your arms are too tan. Why do you do it that way? Your face does not have as many blemishes but I don’t think that you should not go to America because America is very bad for your skin. You also must learn Chinese, it is very important.”

So, I am going to be honest. After hearing on several occasions how I need to seek medical attention for my apparently horrendous skin affliction, my motivation to learn Chinese and communicate first-hand with the Taiwanese dissipates a little bit. Though, it would be nice to not have to involve a third party in my berating. We’ll keep you updated on our communication as well as the condition of my leprosy.


junia said...

Hilarious -

Ray of Ace said...

yeah I tend to get those "unsolicited" advice from time to time, but usually from the older generations. I think it has to do either with upbringings or personalities. Either way, a little sensitivity goes a long way! The young people are way different, imo.