As a Mandarin language student in Taipei, I am often told I add ‘R’s to words like a Beijinger. ‘That’s not how we say it in Taiwan,’ my teacher points out.
This is but one example of the ways in which I was made aware, almost daily, that there exists subtle differences between the Taiwanese and the Chinese. The words for bicycle, hour, holidays, even subway, are all different from the words I had learnt before. It is often a polite assertion by the Taiwanese to make sure I know that it is like what we say in Indian parlance: ‘Same, Same, but different.’
My first few words in Mandarin were in a basement language school in Beijing’s Dongzhimen area in April 2019. My teacher was a young Chinese woman from Anhui province who had spent time in a university in Beijing learning how to teach Mandarin to foreigners. She had a northern accent, and I guess so did I, because of her.
Over two years on, she has been one of my closest friends. I whine to her about how hard the language is, and she whines to me about her bad dates. These days, she jokes over texts written in Traditional Chinese Characters – the preferred script in Taiwan compared to China’s simplified script – that I have replaced her with Taiwanese friends.  She writes in the traditional script not because she is trying to prove a point but like any good teacher, she believes, my transition into a new way of learning should be seamless.
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This past Monday, on Lunar New Year’s Eve, I met a Taiwanese aunty on a high-speed rail going south from Taipei along the west coast of the island. She spoke non-stop to me like any co-passenger on a train would in Asia. Her daughters, who sat in the row ahead of us, often turned back to tell their mother off for asking the ‘foreigner’ too many questions.
We conversed entirely in Mandarin. She was kind when I fumbled with my answers and even politely corrected my grammar a couple of times. We discussed travel, culture, food, and clothes, and at one point, after saying I resembled ‘Halle Berry’, she took a selfie of us to post on a friend’s social media group. Just once, in response to something I said about East Asian tour groups visiting India, she politely corrected me: ‘But I am not Chinese, I am Taiwanese.’
When I deboarded the train in Chiayi in southern Taiwan where I was headed to visit a friend and her family for new year celebrations, I thought how different this interaction was from the one I had with a co-passenger on a high-speed rail to Pingyao in Shanxi province. My Mandarin skills were so nascent in 2019, my co-passenger and I agreed to communicate via WeChat. So, we sat next to each other, silently, and texted. ‘If you want some tea, there is hot water at the front of the train compartment,’ he had offered.
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It was the same situation with Julie, a real estate agent in a small city in China, who I credit with introducing me to the peculiar-tasting East Asian soy milk. I was in her hometown Cangzhou in Hebei province to interview Indian medical students interning at a large government facility. She regularly played badminton with one of them and gladly offered to host me.
In June 2019, reluctantly sipping on soy milk, I stood at her window in a high-rise building looking down at a funeral ceremony. Julie and I were on different language journeys at the time, she was insecure about her English; I about my Mandarin. But I know she was trying hard, judging by the fat English textbook on her couch, which was scribbled on, highlighted, and bursting with sticky notes. English was a way out of a job she hated. At the time, sadly, I could barely ask Julie for water in Mandarin, let alone ask about her aspirations.
Between my two stints in East Asia – China in 2019 and Taiwan in 2021 – what I used to hear as mere background noise has transformed into full sentences with meaning. Now, there is an ease in conversation that has enabled my understanding of the culture through the language despite all the grammatical mistakes I may commit.
As a journalist, I will admit that it has been much simpler to have political conversations with complete strangers in Taiwan than compared to China. Foreigners refer to Taiwan as much more ‘chilled out,’ yet I have seen first-hand the magic of time in gaining trust despite where you are from. Take my Mandarin teacher from Beijing for example. Recently, she spent time on online forums making sure Chinese people, who think Indians make bad housemates abroad, know that ‘not all Indians are alike.’ She then texted me in traditional characters: ‘How can people say such things!’
Sowmiya Ashok is a journalist and writer. She was the Beijing correspondent for The Indian Express in 2019. Currently, she is a Chinese language student at the National Taiwan University and is based in Taipei, Taiwan. She tweets @sowmiyashok.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)
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