“Table for two?”
Martha and I nodded. I was home from Asia and looking forward to lunch with my high school friend.
Surveying the restaurant, I was reminded that I was back in America. No plastic sushi on display, no Chinese characters explaining the day’s specials and no ducks hanging by their roasted necks. The only roasted necks in this place were those on the cowboys coming into town for lunch.
As Martha and I opened our menus, my brain fully expected to see Chinese characters. I had become accustomed to that — familiar even. Yet there, on the printed page, were all kinds of vowels and consonants formed into hundreds of words – all of which were in the English language. I was just as paralyzed in this moment, as I when I first set foot on the island of Taiwan.
When you have been in Asia for four years, you are kinda used to an all-Chinese menu. And if you are me, you know which thing you like and where to point to it on the menu. Although I became fairly adept at chatty Chinese, written Chinese remained a challenge.
For those of you still using rabbit ears on your TV, enroll with me in a simple Chinese lesson. Each character has a defined amount of scribbles and scrapes assigned to it, and leaving out a jot or tittle can be the difference between the word for beef and the word for toe-goo, for instance.
Now, even the Chinese caveman of 5000 years ago realized that he needed some kind of coordination for these characters when his teenaged daughter kept making up new words.
“Wang Wife! Daughter say walking without covering feet cause stlange substance betreen toes. What call dis?”
So, here is an easy Mandarin tutorial. Take fish, for instance (but you might want to wear gloves). It’s a fairly simple looking character, which my Chinese teacher said clearly resembles a fish swimming in water. (Honestly, I think it looks much more like a Christmas package thrown onto a fire, but then my viewpoint probably comes from growing up landlocked and having little experience at the beach).
If the fish symbol is placed beside another random character, you know that the meaning is fishy smelling. It might be a “fishhook”, a “fish scale”, or the ever, popular phrase “to pass fish eyes as pearls” (you think I’m teasing).
But wait! There’s more! Our creative Chinese caveman decided that if he would cram more scribbles right next to the fish scratch, he could make up completely new characters – while still keeping it under the sea. This was such a radical idea that they decided to call this (are you ready?) – a radical.
Soon, his cave wall was full of these scribbles, as there are about 200 radicals in existence today.
“Wang Wife! I lun out of space for ladicals! We move now!”
So, the fish radical swims beside all kinds of great words: “squid”, “shark”, “cuttlefish” – all of which, by the way, are in a Taiwanese menu.
Which brings me back to the menu (you type-A people thought I had forgotten the point, didn’t you?).
With all of these fish radicals floating around in my thick, brain matter, you can see how astonishing it is to get back to a place where you can actually recognize all of the words. No pictographs. No radicals. No fear of ordering a whale blowhole.
But the mere fact that I could read every word actually immobilized me. This was taking forever!
“Um, I think I’ll visit the restroom,” Martha said, interrupting my preoccupation.
“Oh, sorry….um…sure,” I mumbled, noticing that her menu had been closed so long it was growing mold.
Putting down my menu, I inhaled deeply and took a big gulp of water. I sure wished it was a cup of oolong.
Maybe I needed to push back a little from all of the vowels and consonants. Yet, closing my eyes didn’t help. Instead of hearing bits and pieces of Mandarin in the table next to me, I was inundated with West Texas slang. Yes, I could translate every word, it didn’t mean I had a clue as to the culture from whence it came.
“My dawghter went on her first date the uther nite,” one of the cowboys behind me drawled to another.
“Oh yeah? Whut, ain’t your dawghter just about for-teen?”
“Yeah. When that boy came to the dore, I sat him down and looked him strate in th’ eye. I tole him ‘Boy… anythin’ happens to my gurl – I’m gonna kill yur muther.”
“Sounds fair ta me,” responded the friend. “Whud he say?”
“He said, ‘Mama’s out in the car. Ya wanna talk ta her?’”
I had a discovery that day: just because you can translate all the words, doesn’t mean it is necessarily easier to understand the meaning.
Juxtaposed beside a culture which I thought I knew was the contrast of who I had become. What once seemed very familiar, suddenly felt uncomfortably foreign. Sure, I looked like I should fit into that restaurant. No one stared at my clothes, hair or skin tone.
But on the inside, I’d gradually made an unforeseen shift. The last several years had put me into a progressive transformation of a different world-view.
Maybe I will never be a true egg — you know, white on the outside, and yellow on the inside. I still avoid stinky tofu and never quite got the hang of mahjong. But, I still prefer green tea over black and get a surge of energy from an open-air market.
I suppose I don’t quite fit in anywhere. Texas twang and Taiwanese intonations — neither make me feel at home. A mortgage and a passport; both are equally unsettling. Guess this is what it means to be a sojourner. I am still trekking towards my final destination.