“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 the United States. 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 was when I first set foot on the island of Taiwan.
By the time you have been in Asia four years, you have become accustomed to an all-Chinese menu; you have learned what foods you like and where to point to them on the menu. Although I have become fairly adept at chatty Chinese, written Chinese remained a challenge.
For those of you still fumbling with your chopsticks, 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” or the word for “toe-goo.”
Here is a simple Mandarin example. Look at the character for fish (you might want to wear gloves). It is 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 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 will know that the meaning of this new character 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 am teasing?)
Wait! There is more!
If you cram more scribbles right next to the fish symbol, the result will be another completely new character—while still keeping it under the sea. This was such a radical idea to the early Chinese that they decided to call this (are you ready?)—a radical. There are about 200 of these radicals in existence today.
This fish radical swims beside all kinds of great words: squid, shark, cuttlefish—all of which, by the way, are on a Taiwanese menu.
Which brings me back to the menu. (You type-A people thought I had forgotten the point?)
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.
Unfortunately, the mere fact that I could read every word actually immobilized me. This was taking forever!
“Um, I think I will 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, wishing 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 did not help. Instead of hearing bits and pieces of Mandarin in the table next to me, I was inundated with the West-Texas slang. Yes, I could translate every word; that did not mean I had a clue as to the culture from whence it came.
“My dawghter went on her first date th’uther nite,” one of the cowboys behind me drawled to another.
“Oh yeah? Whut, ain’t your dawghter just about fo-teen?”
“Yeah. When that boy came to d’ doe, I sat him down and looked him strate in th’ eye. I tole him ‘Boy … anythin’ happens to my gurl—I’m a 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 does not 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 had gradually made an unforeseen shift. The last several years had put me into a progressive transformation toward a different world-view.
Maybe I will never be a true egg that is white on the outside and yellow on the inside. I avoid stinky tofu and have never quite gotten the hang of mahjong, but I do prefer green tea over black and get a surge of energy from an open-air market.
I suppose I do not quite fit in anywhere. Texas twang and Taiwanese intonations—neither make me feel at home. A mortgage and a passport are equally unsettling.
Is this what it means to be a sojourner?
I am still trekking toward my final destination.
Question to consider: We know you have them, what are some funny situations that you have experienced that show you “do not quite fit in anywhere”?