In Taiwan, the traditional form of Chinese writing is still used, even after most of mainland China switched to a simplified version in 1956. The traditional Chinese characters are still used in written Japanese as well. I know about 400 of these characters which is why, though I know about 5 phrases in Mandarin (“thank you,” “you’re welcome,” “excuse me,” “how are you?” “mint chocolate chip ice cream” and “wee wee”) I felt as though I might have a chance at understanding a bit of what was going on around me in Taipei.
To my amazement, I was indeed able to understand a lot of what was going on around me. This was not, to my regret, because my kanji-reading ability is so great; it was because, unlike in Osaka, many Taiwanese people – shopkeepers, tour guides, hotel staff, waiters – speak English. Nonetheless, I tried to maintain my rule of “hold the English until it’s spoken to you first.”
While enjoying Mongolian barbecue, my parents became thirsty. I gave the passing waitress a meaningful look and, because I don’t know how to say, “Water, please,” in Mandarin, I grabbed my pen and scrawled the Chinese character for “Water” on my napkin when she approached.
“Water,” said the waitress in disgust. “How many you want?”
Abashed, all I could do was hold up three fingers.