Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Plum Rain and Communication Breakdown

I don't know what I like about you, but I like it a lot.

Anyway, it's rare that I feel anything greater than a low-level, temporary frustration in Taiwan. When I do, it's rarely ever greater than the frustration I sometimes feel back home, where nothing is convenient, everything's too quiet and boxed off, doing even one simple thing is expensive and you have to drive everywhere (plus having to share the country with people who make me feel ashamed of America - though I don't have to deal with them much, seeng as I'm an east coast liberal progressive feminist socialist elitist snob - although not, to reference Woody Allen, a pornographer, Communist, homosexual or Jew).

The past two days, however, have imparted onto me a low hum of frustration that has not receded. It seems to be mostly stemming from one source: communicating really, really badly. Everything I've said to somebody who is not a native English speaker (that is, to a Taiwanese person) seems to just not be understood in the way I intended it, or more likely, I screwed up in what I was trying to say in the first place, and the language and culture barrier just invited my poorly articulated words to be misinterpreted.

It got to the point where someone thought I wanted them to have the front seat of his car removed to check for a piece of jewelry of mine that fell somewhere in the car (admittedly it was of great sentimental importance and not insignificant cost). Obviously, that's not what I wanted at all - who would ask for such a thing? I was trying to say that since the only way to find it after having the dealership search thoroughly with flashlights and coming up empty-handed was to remove the seat, but as that was ridiculous, to forget about it and just accept that these things happen.

That's just one example of the mayhem I feel my mouth has unleashed these past few days.

So, clearly, an orangutan signing in Swahili is apparently a better communicator than I am.

I think part of it is cultural: the slightest whiff of mentioning you want something or you are considering something is misinterpreted as a request for that other person to do it for you. I mentioned the car seat, and it was heard as a request to remove it. Or you mention wanting to go somewhere and the person who hears it thinks you want them to be your guide. Or you mention replacing an item lost in their house or car  (because you are intending to replace it yourself) and the person thinks you are hinting that they should replace it. Where we hear idle talking, or thinking out loud, a lot of people here seem to hear subtly-worded requests.

I know these things can happen even years into an expat life in some other country - you think you've basically got it figured out, the bumps are minimal, life is going smoothly (or as smoothly as possible with a family illness to deal with) and fulfillingly, and then BAM! You find your muscles knotting up, you can't seem to say anything clearly, everyone misinterprets you, or they say things you just don't want to or care to hear. To wit, the old guy at 7-11 who, when he saw me buy a Liberty Times, said "That paper is LIES! We are all Chinese and we have 5,000 years of history. You foreigners can't understand. Don't buy that paper of lies!" He said this in English, no less. And me with no good response to such nonsense beyond "大家有他們自己的想法, 大部分的台灣人不同意你的意見" and, after he wouldn't let up "你好傲慢喔" before walking away.

And now, the plum rains are turning Taipei gray. Rain is supposed to wash things away, turn things green, refresh everyone. Instead, it feels like a downpour of more of the same and matches my mood eerily well.

Oh well. Communication breakdown, it's always the same. Communication breakdown, a-drive me insane.


Brendan said...

There's something that the old guy at 7-11 neglected to explain. If he belongs to such a unique culture that foreigners could never understand, why does he sound just like the local arrogant, inflexible jackasses in every other city in every other country in the world?

J said...

I think that's a pretty common cycle in learning a language, even at higher levels- you go through periods where you feel like you can do no wrong, and then you suddenly feel like you can barely speak. I think it's largely psychological- sometimes we just lose our mojo, and can't seem to get it together.
Frankly it happens to me in English as well sometimes.

Jenna Cody said...

J - this *was* in English. The problem is me communicating in English to Taiwanese people and being completely misunderstood!