A Promise of Thunder
Letter from Taipei! Nora Lessing decodes Chinese characters and gets a new name
Dec 01, 2015
To live in a foreign country without being able to read or speak the local language is challenging, to say the least. Even the simplest things tend to turn into major, time-consuming ventures. Consider, for instance, the insane amount of effort I invested in trying to activate my Taiwanese SIM card (in the end, I gave up and bought one off a different company). Or the challenge of finding out about the street vendor's dumplings' stuffing (yes, duck blood products ARE a specialty around here). Without the help of friendly natives who have mastered the English language, many things in Taiwan just can't be done if you don't speak Mandarin.
Luckily, there's Teacher Chen lending a helping hand. For a couple of weeks now, she has been patiently teaching Mandarin to my classmates and me. And even though we're really not doing the greatest of jobs, Teacher Chen so far has stayed surprisingly calm. She never seems to tire of our constant struggle with tones and the abundance of sibilants that are part of the reason why studying Chinese isn't the easiest of tasks. Dsi, tsi, or is it actually shi? Where there's barely a difference to the European ear, a Taiwanese person may have heard you talk about a lot of different things. Unfortunately, you rarely end up saying what you intended to.
Also, Chinese characters are usually printed in the tiniest of fonts. Whoever has stared at and tried to copy Chinese characters for a couple of hours will feel a lot of respect for the people who have mastered this language. It takes years of hard work to speak fluently and to know enough characters to be able to read a newspaper, let alone Chinese literature.
Progress in Comprehension
Nevertheless, I'm in high spirits lately since I'm beginning to at least understand a little bit of what's going on around me. There's the occasional character I can read. And I recently found out that shop owners do not, in fact, greet you around the clock by saying "Good Morning" but by saying "Huān yìng”, which means "Welcome." I also found out about the meaning of the Chinese name that was given to me when I moved here. The name "Léi nuǒlā“ is inspired by the sound of my European name. It means "promise" and "to pull," and the last name is "thunder.”