The Most Embarrassing Moments While I Speak Chinese
National Taiwan Normal University-Isatou A. F Jallow

My name is Isatou A.F Jallow, a first-year-student in the Graduate Institute of International Human Resource Development at National Taiwan Normal University.

It is rather hard for me to just talk about my most embarrassing moments while I speak Chinese and not to say some things to this beautiful island, Taiwan.

Ever since, I was doing my undergraduate studies, I have noticed that my Lecturers admired the Asian Tigers, particularly Taiwan on their rapid transformation from a developing country to a newly industrialized country. To be honest, even me, I have been admiring this island for a long time and I have always ask myself this question –“How did Taiwan do this within a short period of time?” unlike most African countries that had gained their independence since the 1950s and still underdeveloped. When I learned that I was part of the 2010 TaiwanICDF Scholarship recipients, I was more than happy and excited to visit and study in a country, I admired so much. Most importantly, it presented an opportunity for me to understand and try to answer the question I have been pondering over the years and an experience of a lifetime. I know most of you are enthusiastic about the answer to my question.  To let the cat out of the bag, the answer is, it is the Taiwanese’s’ attitude towards work, their discipline attitude towards time, their ever willing attitude to strive against all odds, the love and respect for their culture, their none tolerance to corruption, their continuous adherence to peace and stability, their respect for law and order amongst others that have made this island to continuously progress along the lines of prosperity and development to date.

Before coming to Taiwan, the only word I can speak in Chinese was “xue-sheng” which means student. I heard this word from a friend who was once a student in Taiwan and since then it has remained in my mind. The fact is I never thought in my entire life that I would ever speak a sentence in Chinese because to me, Chinese was a language that was not easy to understand much less to think of speaking it.  There are two incidents I had in Taiwan that I consider my most embarrassing moments while I speak Chinese and these incidents, I called them a journey. This is like a confession I am making now in writing about my most embarrassing moments while I speak Chinese.

Well, the first journey all started on the first week of classes in September 2010.  When I received my course timetable and the Chinese course was part of it, I was more than eager and excited to attend the class and I was wondering what the Lecturer will teach me first. The school has a bus that takes students from Linkou Campus to the Main Campus at Shida. As I mentioned earlier, I was so excited that I entered the five o’clock pm (17:00) bus without any knowledge that the 17:00 bus stops only at the Taipei Main Station. I was sitting in the far end of the bus and when the bus stopped at the station, I could realize that almost all the people went out except me and a classmate who was also from my country but, it was normal to see a lot of people stopping by the station so it didn’t upset me. As the bus proceeds, we had no idea the driver was turning back to Linkou.  As we were chatting, we realized that the journey was getting too long and I could vividly remember that we were told that it takes only 30- 40 minutes from Linkou to the Main Campus but this journey was taken more than that. It was then we realized that we had to go to the front seat and talked to the driver. Communication became an issue. We had to speak Chinese but we never spoke a sentence in Chinese in our lives before, so, how could we now? I remembered the only word I know and began chanting “xue-sheng” but of what use was “xue-sheng” in this case. Interesting isn’t it? I approached the driver again, but he didn’t even look at me much less to talk to me. It was really embarrassing. As he was driving, we saw a sign board which reads “Welcome to Linkou”, we demonstrated to him, through non- verbal communication that we wanted to step out. Luckily for us, he understood and stopped the bus and we stepped out. We were determined to go to class that day and we both decided that we should take the 1210 bus from Linkou to Taipei West Bus station.

On arrival at the station, we headed to take the MRT to go to Guting.  At Guting we were so much in a hurry to get to the class that we didn’t even bother to check the exit routes. We were moving and wondering blindly in the station. We had to ask somebody for help. I had to speak the only word I know in Chinese with the belief that they will understand. I kept echoing the words- “xuesheng”, “xuesheng”. Some were laughing at me and others were just avoiding me. I was really embarrassed. I desperately wish I could speak Chinese and tell them that I need their help to show me the exit route to the university. Fortunately, we meet one gentleman who could speak English and he directed us to the correct exit. After coming out of the station, our next dilemma was which route to take, which direction - either to curve or to go straight. We just decided to cross the road and follow a straight line. As we proceeded, we noticed that we were lost because we remembered, there are lots of trees in the street to the Main Campus and where we were heading to, no tree could be seen whatsoever. We had to face the same trouble again- trying to speak Chinese. We stopped two ladies who were moving along our side and I spoke to them with the words “xuesheng Shida” but they couldn’t understand. In fact, they were also laughing at me and speaking Chinese and later they were avoiding me. This was one of my most embarrassing moments while I speak Chinese. I was so much embarrassed that my colleague could read it from my face. I was so mad and I started regretting why I tried coming to the class after the bus incident. We were wondering like homeless people in the street with sweats all over our faces. At last, we met another lady who could speak English and she helped us until we recognized our way. Unfortunately, it was too late and the class was almost over but we were still determined to go to the class. As we approached the classroom, the students were coming out, it was over. I couldn’t suppressed my emotions – I was crying, yes I was crying and two of my classmates who attended the class were calming me down by telling me that it was the first day and the Lecturer would probably repeat the lessons again.

Well, that was the first journey and the second journey started some weeks later. I was in the Main Campus at Shida road that day and I decided to visit Nova (commonly known as the computer market) which is situated not very far from the Taipei Main Station. I took a bus and I was sitting in the front seat this time. Remember my first experience hahaha, funny isn’t it?  At first, I was relaxed knowing fully well that I could recognize the Main Station through some features like – “ Taipei West Bus Station’’ signboard, the “Caesar Park Hotel”,   and the “ Shin Kong Mitsukoshi”. But later on, the bus was taken too long to reach the station and it was heading towards a narrow path which sent an alarm to me. Immediately, I started feeling tense, I was looking around- left to right, front and back. I stood up and had to talk to someone in the bus and I recalled the few words I learned in my Chinese class – “wo” meaning I in English. I said, wo Taipei Main Station showing along a non-verbal signal of wanting to go that place.  The bus was full of old people and few youngsters. No one at the time in the bus understood what I was saying. Instead, like always some were laughing at me and some were continuously looking at me. I felt for the first time in my life that I was a complete stranger among these people. I was so embarrassed that I had to sit back in my seat and just look on the road ahead. As time and time goes by, the driver was busy driving, my silence turn out to be my torture accompanied with embarrassments. Soon afterwards, the bus stopped and a young man entered it and when I approached him, the people were still grazing their eyes on me. Luckily for me, the man could speak English and when I told him everything, he informed me that I entered the wrong bus number. I saw him talking to the bus driver in Chinese and few seconds later, the bus stopped and he stepped down with me. He stood there till the correct bus number arrived and he told the driver where I was going. I was dumfounded that some people could be so kind.  That man was like a Saint that was sent to me from Heaven to save me. Only God knows where I will be now if it was not for that man.

These above two incidents were the most embarrassing moments while I speak Chinese in Taiwan. It was my deficiency in speaking the Chinese language that made me to undergo all these embarrassing moments.

Finally, in spite of all those most embarrassing moments I encountered while speaking Chinese, there were lessons I learned that will always remain with me forever. I learned that the best and most effective way to understand a people’s culture is by speaking and understanding their language. Once again, I am sincerely grateful to the TaiwanICDF for giving me the opportunity to study in Taiwan and especially the chance to learn some basic Chinese.