Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been travelling around Taiwan, visiting various towns and cities in the south of the country. As I wrote previously, daily interactions with locals in shops, hotels and train stations tend to pose a different kind of challenge to what I’ve become used to learning Chinese in the UK over the past six years.
These new challenges are not primarily linguistic in nature; the vocabulary and grammar patterns involved are usually known. But when they’re fired at me in situations I’m unfamiliar with, communication problems can occur.
For example, never having lived in Taiwan before I was not previously familiar with terms like 悠游卡（you1 you2 ka3) – a smart card used for public transport – or 有载具吗？(you3 zai3 ju4 ma5）- a question shopkeepers often ask customers at convenience stores.
However confident I may have become understanding podcasts on topics of interest and having conversations about them with native speakers, this did not entirely prepare me for booking a train ticket with a long impatient queue waiting behind me and loud background noise impeding my ability to hear clearly.
Steve Kaufmann covers this point in a recent YouTube video:
“I have found time and time again that in order to understand a particular context you have to have experienced it before. You have to be able to anticipate what’s coming at you and if you haven’t had that particular situation before it will be more difficult. So the second or third time I go to buy a train ticket in Russia it will be easier because I’ve already experienced it. I can anticipate what the person’s going to say.”Steve Kaufmann, Polyglot & Youtuber
Added to the challenge of unfamiliar contexts is the fact that outside Taipei, many locals become nervous when approached by a foreigner. Often this is because they aren’t confident speaking English and assume that like most tourists I can’t speak or understand Chinese. Whatever the reason, it causes interactions to run less smoothly.
However, one thing I’ve noticed is that the extent of the other person’s nervousness usually correlates very closely with my own. In other words, the more more nervous I am entering an interaction, the more panic stricken they tend to be. The more confident I am, the more at ease they are.
A good example of this is my experience of buying snacks at night markets. Last week I stayed in Kaohsiung in the south of Taiwan for two nights. My hotel was a five minute walk from the local night market so on the first night I decided to grab some snacks there. I’d never been to a night market on my own before and I was apprehensive. The street was bustling with noise and I often didn’t know what the food items were called.
Each time I approached a stall I did so with my heart racing. As a result, I inevitably stumbled over my words and generally appeared unconfident. So unconfident, that a neutral observer might have been forgiven for thinking I’d only been studying Chinese for a matter of weeks. The people manning the stalls noticed this and responded in kind.
One elderly woman selling grilled fish froze in panic as I approached her stall. Seemingly unable to produce any sound she responded only with hand gestures pointing to a sign quoting the price. After I paid she praised my Chinese, clearly out of polite sympathy, and I responded modestly. She smiled and added “一点点” – “at least you can speak a teeny weeny bit of Chinese.” I returned to my hotel room with my tail between my legs.
The next day I went back to the night market with a score to settle. This time I decided to deliberately enter into each interaction with confidence. I reminded myself that although I’m not very experienced at night markets I can handle myself in Chinese. Each time I approached a stall I spoke clearly and assuredly. I knew what I was going to say and was confident I could anticipate what the sellers would reply.
The response I got couldn’t have contrasted more starkly with the previous night. There was no look of panic on their faces and in every case I was treated exactly as any other customer would have been. Each interaction went smoothly and I walked back to my hotel with my confidence restored.
Of course living abroad and being constantly bombarded with new, unfamiliar situations it’s not always possible to feel confident during every interaction. There are still things I’m not yet competent at handling.
But what I’ve learned is that appearing as though you know what you’re doing and are confident enough to handle the situation makes a huge difference to the way locals respond to you and causes the majority of communication issues to immediately dissolve.
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