I am an easy tourist to please. I don’t care about the food, the bed, the bedbugs, the rats in the kitchen, the pickpockets, the surly wait staff, the closed attractions, the lost baggage, the little ant-mounds of filth in the door-corners of the airplane lavatory, or the highway robbery airport exchange rate.
The only thing I want is the one thing I can’t have. Of course.
If you thought that after making your way to a dusty little corner of a dusty little island stuck off on the edge of a dusty little ocean where everyone is Chinese that it would be really easy to get people to speak to you in Chinese you would be wrong. Frightfully, terribly, credit-default-swap-mortgage-backed-securities-wrong.
From the moment we got to Taiwan, everyone did in fact speak Chinese. But they refused to speak it to me. This was pure racial discrimination. No matter how many times I said, “Where are the oxtail suspenders?” or “How do we get to the plutonium?” or “What is the cost of a young girl like your wife?” and no matter how smilingly I said it, the result was always the same: The person being addressed ignored me and spoke to Mrs. WM.
“Sorry, I don’t speak Chinese,” she would answer, upon which utterance they would repeat themselves. It was like being the ugly American in reverse, where instead of shouting slowly in English to make the locals understand, the local shouted quickly in Chinese because whether or not Mrs. WM could speak Chinese she looked Chinese and when forced to choose between someone who looked Chinese but couldn’t speak it and someone who looked tall and white and who was urgently asking “Which cow to the upper bowl of noodles?” they defaulted–every single time–by talking to the fake Chinese person.
At one point Mrs. WM even said, “I’m Japanese!” at which point the person said to her, in perfect English, “All of Asia is our little brother.”
If we’d had Kim Jong-Un around I’m sure the nukes would have been loosed.
Of course the hotel staff was super pro at ignoring people who tried to foist off their bad Chinese thereby complicating their lives, confusing them about what was actually being asked for and generally giving everyone a headache, so they simply smiled and answered everything in English.
“Ni hao!” I’d brightly say as we showed for the 6:30 AM breakfast at 6:31 and have thirds before the next guests even arrived.
“Good morning!” they’d say.
“Qing gei women liang bei kafei,” I’d ask to which they’d reply “Cream and sugar?”
Before long I was enraged as I watched my entire trip swirl down the toilet, although it wasn’t exactly rage because four days in I still had only spent a hundred bucks, and nothing salves a wounded ego like a bargain. Still, fo this I’d spent the last seven months torturing my family with 5:00 AM radio programs? For this I’d memorized two dozen Chinese characters? For this I’d paid $46 each for books 1 and 2 of the New Chinese Practical Reader?
No and hell no.
So I went to the concierge and asked for a town tour guide who would conduct the whole tour in Chinese. “Sure,” he said. “$2,500 okay?”
I did the math and it came out to either $76 or $760, so I took a chance and said “Yes.”
The next morning Mr. Zhou showed up and we started off. “How are you today?” he said. “My name is Zhou.”
“Please only speak to me in Chinese,” I said.
“Okay,” he answered, and began a torrent of Chinese, none of which I understood. However, having been married to Mrs. WM for 30 years and still not understanding much more than 5% of everything she says, I handled him easily. You can fake anything with a smile and a nod and $76 bucks.
An hour or so went by and I was completely not understanding anything at all, not even a little, and Mr. Zhou knew it. He feebly tried to switch to English a couple of times but I smacked him down. “Chinese only, please,” I said.
As he began to stare into the maw of an 8-hour day speaking to the human equivalent of a tree stump, his sails visibly slackened. Two hours later he was completely exhausted, depressive, and sunken into despair. I of course was thrilled. I’d finally found someone I could force to speak Chinese. So what if I couldn’t understand anything? What the hell was there to understand, anyway?
“This old place was founded by this old person and these old people killed these other old people and here are some pots and a painting and bunch of stones.” History is the same everywhere.
However, Mr. Zhou’s momma didn’t raise no dummy. He eventually realized that he could realize his secret goal, which was getting me to hire him so he could practice his English, by “translating” everything from Chinese to English for the “benefit” of Mrs. WM, who was about as interested in historical facts as she was in learning to iron, probably less.
Pretty soon it was all English, all the time. “Hey,” I’d protest “what about the Chinese?” Mr. Zhou would then ask me in Chinese “Do you need to use the bathroom?” or “How old are your children?” and go right back to Englishifying with Mrs. WM.
By the end of the day I was completely exhausted, depressive, and sunken into despair. What kind of loser can’t even pay someone in a country filled with Chinese speakers to speak to him in Chinese? Wait a minute. You don’t have to answer that.
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