Updated: Jun 6
Food buying adventures while teaching in Taiwan
I lived briefly in Taiwan to teach English to children of farmers. My tiny apartment in Huwei had no kitchen. Like 90 percent of people in my town, I had to go out and buy all my meals. Mostly I ate street food. Like the locals.
I did not speak a word of Mandarin other than ni hao (hello) and xie xie (thank you). But after a few hungry days, I had figured out ways to feed and care for myself. I stood there in the street and watched the owner whip up the food in front of customers, observing the different varieties of dishes made by a particular stall. I made a mental note of what would probably taste good.
I grew up on Chinese food, so many of the dishes and ingredients, even spices, were familiar. After a while the owner noticed me and wondered why I was standing there. He asked me questions in Chinese. I have Asian features so I did not look like a foreigner. But I had no idea what he was saying. I did not respond. He paused, looked at me strangely, and then continued to cook. After a while he talked to me again, this time a little more impatiently.
Sometimes, the owner would talk to other customers about me. I knew this because they were going back and forth in Mandarin and at the same time looking at me.
Sometimes they laughed— a kind laugh.
The Taiwanese are kind, gentle and friendly people. The owner was probably saying “This strange person has been standing here for a long time now and I don’t know what she wants. Maybe she will rob me.” Or, “Look at this crazy woman. She just stands there and pretends not to hear a word I am saying. But I know she can hear. I wish she’d go away.” I hope some were saying, “No, look at her, she is so pretty. Her bicycle is rusty but she is decently dressed.”
After a while I learned to say “Wo shi meiguo ren.” (I am an American). I have to say this repeatedly – “Meiguo ren, Meiguo ren” - before they stopped speaking to me in Mandarin.
I regularly went to a certain food cart, where a couple cooked chives dumplings. I ate the hot chive dumplings (more like an empanada, not dimsum) while sitting in my bicycle next to them. There was a place that made fresh vegetable lumpia for NT$50. I went there about four times a week. The owner gave me free soup. She also asked me to tutor her two teenage daughters in English. There were Family Marts– sort of Foodies and 7-11 rolled into one - everywhere. They served hot bento boxes and sundries like toiletries and umbrellas.
Roast duck in Huwei is probably some of the best in the world. I don’t think I ever had chicken while in Huwei. When I was new there I often asked for chicken. “You have chicken?” “Yes, we have chicken.” Then I am served duck. I think chicken and duck were synonymous to many people there. Servers just assumed I meant duck when I asked for chicken. They were probably scratching their head wondering why someone would ask for chicken when everyone knew only duck is served in Huwei.
Before I learned my Mandarin numbers I held out an NT$100 bill or a bunch of coins in my hand and let the owner or storekeeper pick the right coins. But it was hard to keep up with carrying enough hundreds and coins. Sometimes we went back and forth with pen and paper, calculator or cell phone typing numbers. It was time consuming.
I also used sign language. Not always the best results. I found out one day when buying roast duck that they used different signs.
Once at morning market I wanted only half of a duck, so I made what I knew to be the hand signal for half – intersecting two index fingers to make a cross. “Half only,” I told the man at the chopping board, making the finger cross. “I only want half a duck,” I said. He said something in Chinese. I kept repeating the hand gesture for what I thought was understood to mean “half.” We went back and forth. He started to get agitated.
It was clear to me you could buy half. I saw him give half a duck to many others. Later on, I found out the sign I was giving for half is the Chinese signal for the number 10. The man did not understand what I was saying but he knew well enough I did not want 10 ducks. I overheard him talking to others as I walked away. He was probably saying “Crazy woman. Ten ducks! Who orders ten whole ducks for dinner?! Look how tiny she is! How will she carry ten ducks in that small rusty bicycle?”
Then I started to learn how to say numbers in Mandarin. It helped. Usually. I learned Mandarin numbers online without understanding tone marks. Some Chinese words look the same in our alphabet but mean something different depending on the tone used. For example, the number 4 (si) is spelled like the word “die” (si) but they have different tones. Many Chinese are superstitious and they avoid references to death as much as possible. Once I was buying something that was worth NT$70 which is qishi, pronounced chee shi. I thought the lady said sishi, or NT$40. So I gave NT$40 in coins.
“Chee,” she said.
“Yeah, si,” I said.
But all she was hearing was the word “die.”
“No, cheeshi,” she repeated.
“Yes, die,” I said as I pointed to the money.“Die, die.”
She looked troubled. I realized something was wrong. I took my NT$40 back and gave her an NT$100 bill. Phew. We both sighed in relief.
“Give us this day our daily bread,” Jesus taught his disciples to pray. It was not hard, having no kitchen. Buying my meals was actually a lot of fun, and usually the highlight of my day. Eventually I became quite savvy with my numbers, and sounded like a native. Friends sometimes asked what I did for adventure during my free time in Taiwan. “I go out and buy food, what else?” I said, with a wink and a gleam in my eyes.
Jeni Ann Flores is an educator, blogger and freelance writer. You may read more of her writing at https://teacherseditionflores.blogspot.com/