“We’ll catch a cab,” my husband announced as he stepped toward the curb and extended his hand.
We had been in Taiwan about three weeks, and although our Mandarin language skills had the finesse of a plate of sweet-and-sour pork, we could say our address. If that two-syllable word was misunderstood, we could always hand over the Chinese directions that were tucked away in our wallets.
As the compact taxi swerved to pick us up, my husband helped get our two preschoolers in the backseat with me before wedging his six-foot frame next to the driver. This would be one of many trips where the proximity of the dashboard kept his knees on his chest.
“Tai Da,” my husband quipped as the driver smiled broadly and started the meter.
As we maneuvered between two city buses, the open windows of the cab channeled carbon monoxide directly into our lungs. Although we would never quite understand the concept, we had learned that the Chinese have an affinity for fresh air, even if it is only a figment of their imagination. So, as I gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to our youngest, my husband repeated the second valuable Chinese phrase we had learned.
“Kai lung chi.”
Although these three magic words literally translate “open cold air” (turn on the A/C), we found that they also did a remarkable job with getting a driver to actually close the windows.
Just so you know, cold air is not the only thing that you can open in China. You can open lights in your house and open coal out of the ground. You can open a joke and even your own appetite. Kai can get just about anything started.
Back to taxis: when we arrived in 1988, the newer ones all had knobby seat covers made from wooden beads about the size of olives. Their purpose was to give you a tension-free ride, but somehow going at mach speed in and out of motorcycles, bicycles, and buses seemed to decrease the comfort of the seat covers. Now grateful for the AC, I took a deep breath of the filtered air and decided I was not going to hyperventilate after all.
The girls were fascinated by the little cat figurine on the front dash. With every near-miss and pothole, the cat’s upraised paw rocked up and down, supposedly inviting good fortune for all its passengers. Although I realize this is a very auspicious symbol, it reminded me of the trinket my dad once brought home from a trip to Tucumcari, a thirsty chicken which bobbed up and down into a glass of water for a drink. I suppose the Chinese preferred cats because a chicken’s water glass might easily spill in Taipei traffic!
It was about this time that the driver caught my eye in the rear-view mirror. With a kind nod of the head, he motioned to the radio, letting me know that he was changing the station just for us. At first, it sounded no different to me than any other Taiwanese talk radio, since every other word rhymed with either wang or kong. Yet, as our driver continued exchanging happy eye-brow lifts with me in the mirror, I did suddenly notice the radio announcer use three English words in a thick Chinese accent.
“Today Engrish Resson.”
In union, our entire family leaned forward toward the broadcast. As we strained our ears to hear the phrase for the day, we realized that a lot of explanation evidently went into doing one of these programs. With the comprehension of chopsticks, we muddled through another few minutes until we heard the day’s English question:
“How ees yours bowels move-ment?”
Shocked, I could not believe what I had just heard. Surely, this could not be the special question they felt all Chinese needed before traveling abroad. Yet there it was again, rapid-fire, giving emphasis on a different syllable each time:
“HOW ees yours bowels move-ment?”
“How EES yours bowels move-ment?”
“How ees YOURS bowels move-ment?”
“How ees yours BOWELS move-ment?”
“How ees yours bowels MOVE-ment?”
“How ees yours bowels move-MENT?”
Somewhere between the bowels and their activity, I lost it. Not my lunch, you understand, but my composure. I began laughing unreservedly from the back seat, as I pictured Taiwanese men in three-piece suits asking this question at power lunches all across America.
In the meantime, my husband tried desperately to remain culturally sensitive in the front seat. This was evidenced by the rigidity of his posture and the way he kept clearing his throat … away from his knees.
As the Mandarin explanation resumed, I noticed that the taxi driver was focusing more on me in his rear-view mirror than on the blue bread truck on our bumper. I decided for the sake of our safety and my own sanity, I needed desperately to calm down.
Taking deep breaths, I had just about regained my cool when we all realized that the English lesson was not yet over.
“I am con-stee-pated.”
As the inevitable repetition began, our four-year-old doubled me over with her own question.
“Mommy, what does constipated mean?”
Question to consider: What fun stories about language do you have from your corner of the world?