May 22, 2005

Taiwan: Say what?

The future speaks Chinese. The U.N. predicts that Chinese will surpass English as the most used language on the Internet by 2007. The U.S. State Department has designated Chinese a “critical language” for reasons of “economics, culture and security.” China’s star is on the rise.

And, amidst the brinksmanship on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, there are intermittent positive signals in the relationship between China and Taiwan. Taiwanese have traveled to China for years, but the People’s Republic recently announced it would begin allowing its citizens to visit Taiwan as tourists. Lien Chan, leader of Taiwan’s Nationalist party, recently went to China and met with President Hu Jintao. The historic meeting prompted Lien to announce, “I believe the door has been opened.”

Chinese tourists should get on well with the people from the “renegade province” because they speak the same language. They may disagree over politics, but they’ll agree over proper pronunciation of Mandarin. There will be no humiliating and potentially dicey linguistic bombs like the one I dropped during an unintentional assault on Taiwan’s – and China’s –mother tongue.

My tourist map of Taipei had no Roman letters. No Hanyu Pinyin transliteration of Chinese characters into something I could attempt to pronounce. But it had pictures of the city’s top draws, so when Mike and I flagged a cab to go to the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, I pointed to the little blue-tile-roofed icon on the map. The cabbie nodded and opened the taxi door.

Hah! We were on our way by simply pointing at a picture, and, feeling satisfied and in control, I said Chiang Kai-shek’s name. Or thought I did. Things devolved from there.

What I said sounded like “chang-ky-SHEK,” a perfect utterance, I thought, of the name of the man who’d turned the island of Formosa into Taiwan, the Republic of China. Assuming leadership of the Kuomintang after the 1925 death of Sun Yat-sen, Chiang battled the Communists under Mao, lost the civil war and removed himself and his party and military faithful offshore, creating Taiwan, which some parts of the world consider a nation and others, like China, consider a piece of rogue real estate to which the word “independent” does not and will never apply.

The instant “chang-ky-SHEK” came from my mouth, the cabbie shrieked with laughter. He would have doubled completely over had the steering wheel not been in his way. “AAAHHHH!” he howled, “Chang-ky-SHEK! Chang-ky SHEK!” He nodded and bobbed his head in hysterics. He chuckled uncontrollably. He looked in the rearview mirror at me, grinning. “Chang-ky-SHEK! AAAHHHHH! Chang-ky-SHEK!” He turned all the way around in his seat to stare at me and howl with glee. “EEEEEEEEE!”

I knew the cabbie wasn’t laughing at the revered Chiang, so I accepted his subtle, tactfully delivered hint that I’d erred in my pronunciation and made apologetic, I’m-just-a-tourist-what-do-I-know gestures with my head and shoulders. But rather than take the fun I’d gifted him with, enjoy for a moment and move on, he decided to humiliate me from one end of Taipei to the other. It was hot, his window was rolled down, and he was primed for a good time.

At red lights and intersections all across the city, he’d lean out the window, catch pedestrians’ and drivers’ attention, point to us in the back seat and yell, “Chang-ky-SHEK!! HAAAAA! Chang-ky-SHEK!! AAHHHHH!!” The others laughed and held their bellies and put their hands over their mouths. “EEEEEEE!” They stared at us and grinned and bobbed their heads up and down. We tried to melt into the seats. I apologized to Mike for whatever I’d said that had led to this. We’d set out on an innocent sightseeing jaunt, and I’d ended up sending half of Taipei into convulsions.

We pulled up to the Chiang Kai-shek memorial (above). Our friend sprang out to open our door, saw another cabbie, and lapsed again into his “chang-ky-SHEK” histrionics. Both cabbies became debilitated by laughter. I felt ripped off when we paid the driver. What I really wanted was to bop him on the head. Twenty minutes earlier I’d felt repentant about the unintended mutilation, but enough was enough. It’s over, pal. Get a grip. I wished I knew a few other choice Chinese words to mutilate for him.

Before we walked away, our cabbie stopped laughing long enough to try to sell us a jar of honey and an ancient photo of Richard Nixon. I looked him square in the eyeballs and responded with a perfectly delivered “Chang-ky-SHEK! CHANG-KY-SHEK!!!”

(If anyone knows what I said when I maimed the founder’s name, please let me in on the joke.)