The first thing she said to me was, “You smell weird.” At least, that’s probably what she said.
I had taken a train to a city called Kaohsiung (pronounced “gow-shong” — SO WHY IS IT SPELLED WITH A K ????) for the weekend. Taiwan was having a holiday, which meant a rare three-day weekend, and I wanted to take a little vaycay to a new spot. Taiwan Mom had recommended Kaohsiung, a city a couple hours south (EVERYTHING in Taiwan is a couple hours away), because it’s a fun place and her mom lives there, so I could just stay with her.
Only one hitch: Taiwan Grandma can’t speak any English and the most complex thing I can say in Chinese is, “I want a mango smoothie.” But I figured I’d be outside exploring the city, only coming to her home at night to sleep. No need to talk, really.
Taiwan Mom set it all up and Taiwan Grandma met me as soon as I got off the train in Kaohsiung. I said “Ni hao!” (“Hi!”). She said nothing, handed me a helmet, and got on her motor scooter. I hopped on behind her and we zoomed down the street.
I like riding scooters. They make me feel like Harry Potter on his Firebolt. Only difference being his broom is magic and I’m on a scooter riding piggyback behind (in this case) an old Asian woman.
At the first stop light, she turned and said something. Obviously, I didn’t understand the words, but her pointing to her nose and at me confirmed what I thought she’d notice: I reeked of deet. I had just applied a layer of deet to my skin cuz there’s an epidemic of dengue fever in southern Taiwan. Since I figured she’d notice the smell, I was prepared with an answer: “Um, I know” (in English).
The light turned green and we continued buzzing down the street. We stopped at a restaurant and I followed her inside. I was glad because I was hungry, but I knew it would probably be the most awkward meal I’d ever eaten (and I’ve DATED in PROVO for FOUR years). And I was right!
First, the menu didn’t have any English or pictures (and we weren’t at a smoothie place), so I didn’t know how to order. I was fine eating anything, but I couldn’t even say that! I busted out Google, she called Taiwan Mom to act as translator, and we all decided on beef rice.
While we waited for the food to arrive, we were both silent and didn’t look at each other. It was like when you’re meeting a new person and you want to say something to get to know them, but you don’t know what to say and you’re afraid of sounding stupid. Like that except we also COULDN’T say anything. I pulled up Facebook and showed her a couple pictures of my family, but I can only say “dad” in Chinese (thanks, Mulan), so that didn’t go far.
When the food came, I was already really tense, but I was even more nervous about not being able to hold my chopsticks right (I’d already dropped them on the floor), so I crouched my back and I kept my arms as close to my body as possible so very little food would fall, but this position mixed with a fresh layer of deet resulted in my elbow pits getting bright red rashes. I straightened my arms and hid my elbows from her.
Of course Taiwan Grandma was very nice. She paid for everything and I was very grateful to stay with her, but the only thing I could say was, “Xie xie” (“Thank you”). She kept saying stuff and pointing at different things on her plate and I kept nodding and muttering, “Thank you. Good food,” after which, she’d flag down a waiter, and I’d have another plateful of food in front of me. Eventually, I figured out that she was asking if I wanted more, so when I finished my chicken leg, I said, “Wu uh,” which I think means, “I’m full,” and we left.
And that was the first day. The next day, we almost became Baptists (or Catholics?) and she left me at the bottom of a mountain. And then there was a typhoon.