“Nose sh*t”, marijuana, & How to handle public embarrassment in Taiwan

Today we had swearing, drugs, people that can’t keep their pants zipped, a monk driving a Lexus, and a cat who… ‘went swimming.’

Disclaimer: the Chinese grammar in this post is atrocious, and at this point there’s nothing we can do about.

Nose sh*t & the hazards of language learning
After spending the morning passing out ads for PEI, during which a dog ran up and pee’d on my bag of fliers, we hung out with the college-age group all afternoon. At one point we were talking about names for pets, and one of our good friends (whom we’re not naming) mentioned that in college her friend’s dog was named “Booger” in Chinese. Jessica asked how to say it, of course (can’t pass up a learning opportunity like that!), and our friend answered, “鼻屎.” She knew that we knew é¼» (nose), so in a very matter-of-fact kind of way, she added, “屎 means sh*t.” Jessica, caught slightly off guard, gave a quizzical look.

Our friend repeated with extra clarity: “Sh*t.”

“So it means, ‘Nose sh*t’?” Jessica was beginning to laugh.

“Yes. Nose sh*t.”

Jessica started laughing so hard she almost knocked an old lady off the sidewalk who happened to be passing by.

Now, you have to understand, this particular friend is a leader in the young people’s group, a choir member, a prayer warrior, enthusiastic core member of the congregation… the kind of girl who ditched her boyfriend of 5 years when it became obvious that he was not interested in considering her beliefs. She knew what the word meant, but had no idea what she was saying. She felt a little embarrassed when we explained the various English terms for poop and their shades of meaning, so we haven’t named her here. But next time we’ll talk about meaning and context and everyone will have a good laugh.

It’s a great example of how you can “know” the meaning of a word, but not really understand it. Until you feel it like the natives feel it, you don’t really understand it. Roll that into your exegesis papers and smoke it!

Imported drugs, and more hazards of language learning
And speaking of smoking, we also learned another fine “Why tones are important” lesson at dinner tonight. We ate at a Malaysian food place, and the word used for that particular style of food was dà mÇŽ. So after the meal, I wanted to say, “Dà mÇŽ food is very good!” (“大馬吃是很好”.) What I actually said was, “大麻吃是很好” – the 2nd character is different, but I was unaware. The guy I was saying this to, whom we had just met this evening, looked at me blankly while our other friend across the table started laughing.

They explained that “Dà mÇŽ” (ma with 3rd tone) is the name for the food, and “Dà má” (ma with 2nd tone) means marijuana. I had said, “Marijuana eat is very good!”

“So then,” I asked, “jǐng chá lái shuō nǐ yÇ’u dà má mā? hé wÇ’ shuō dà má chÄ« shì hÄ›n hÇŽo!” [Police come say, you have marijuana? And I say, marijuana eat is very good!]

We all laughed pretty hard. (See that kids? You don’t need to actually take the drugs to have a good time.)

What to do when someone is standing in front of a group speaking, and their fly is wide open.
We went along with about 11 others from the young people’s group to visit an elderly couple in a nursing home this afternoon. We were seated in the lounge waiting for the couple to arrive when a girl in her late 20’s stood up in front of all of us to talk about what we’d do with the couple (sing and stuff). Her fly was 100% unzipped and it was impossible to not notice. She was the only one who didn’t know.

These are situations to which we pay exceptional amounts of attention. What will people do? How and who will react? How will the problem be neutralized? We’ve heard so much about “high-context culture” and “saving face” that we expect different rules to apply in situations like the one this afternoon.

One of the guys in the group stood up and walked to Zhi-ling who was sitting closest to the speaker and whispered to her. Then Zhi-ling whispered to the speaker, who laughed sheepishly, turned around, and promptly… neutralized the problem. Everyone had a quick chuckle of acknowledgment and then we went on. We’ve got plenty of questions about it for Zhi-ling that we’ll ask later. But just in case you wondering, that’s how a group of 20-somethings handled a friend’s public embarrassment in Taiwan.

And, we saw a female Buddhist monk get into a shiny new Lexus and drive off. I’m not sure what to make of that, but something’s going on.

ps – as as I’m typing this, the cat just fell in the toilet. I’m not sure what to make of that either. And this morning she actually flushed it all on her own. What a day!…

Finding your bearings (or not)

An immigrant family in Vancouver, B.C. once served my dad frozen canned orange juice mix in a dish with a spoon for dessert, not knowing that you’re supposed to mix that stuff in a pitcher of water and drink it. That’s sort of us right now (only we have it way easier than the average immigrant/refugee family).

It’s not easy to convey what it’s like to live somewhere where you don’t have a clue what’s really going on. We knew it would be this way without knowing Chinese so it’s not a surprise, but it is an interesting experience. In a big way, needing locals is a huge blessing. But without language (or even an alphabet!) you just can’t get a clue, at least not on your own. Two weeks in, it’s not the big, immediately obvious differences that are annoying… it’s the slowly rising collective impact of a billion tiny things making you dependent on everyone else.

…Like not being able to tell the difference between a package of Kleenex and a package of toilet paper, or if there even is a difference, and whether or not any of that matters when it comes to what you offer people on your dinner table. Not that it matters right at the moment, because when you picked out your furniture the table came without legs – not because the store messed up your order but because you didn’t know that you picked out a table top, that table legs are chosen separately, and that it was in black and white right in front of you on top of the table you chose.

Or, when the phone-looking-thing on the wall of your apartment by the door suddenly lights up around 9pm with a really obnoxious alarm. It’s loud, you can’t get it to stop, it can be heard in the hall, and you’re pretty sure it’s not a phone call because (a) you don’t have a phone line installed and (b) you already picked up the receiver and pressed all the buttons several times. You can say “our telephone” and “upstairs” in Chinese and you can do an entertaining impression of the noise it makes, and the security guard on duty (who can say “hi!” in English) is down four floors at the opposite end of the complex. But don’t worry – you’ll eventually be informed that the phone-thing is really just the carbon monoxide sensor and you should just crack open a window.

In Kenya and Uganda the languages are so phonetic we could at least sound everything out and ask about it. But here, it’s all traditional (unsimplified) characters that offer no hint for the uninitiated re: pronunciation. And what little Mandarin we did study before arriving was simplified Mainland characters. The majority of the things we see in grocery stores, at the sidewalk food stands, and in opaque packages are things we wouldn’t know about even if someone identified them in English. And even if we do know what something is, what do you do with 18+ inches of whole dried squid… grind it up? BBQ it? try and re-hydrate it?

This isn’t culture stress – not yet anyway. The new stuff, the not knowing, the learning, it’s still fun. Maybe in three months it won’t feel that way, but for now the annoying things are like a few mosquito bites on a summer camping trip – well worth the adventure.