Scorching kebabs


Everyone makes mistakes, no matter how hard we try to accommodate each other. Frustration was nevertheless to be expected when the lady at the deep-fried stall earlier this evening failed to grasp what the hell I meant when I asked her the price, in Chinese, of a tofu kebab.

My Chinese is far from fluent, but I manage to express myself adequately on a daily basis in diverse situations. I can converse about this and that with colleagues at work; I can discuss new schedules with a school principal, and I can make small talk and crack jokes with six-year-olds for half a period (in Chinese, when I’m actually paid to speak English). “How much does it cost?” is a phrase that foreigners usually master in their first week in Taiwan. To not be understood after a few years when you use a phrase that at least you had thought you had mastered is disturbing for the serious language student.

My pronunciation of “How much is this thing?” was, like most of my Chinese, probably not one hundred percent accurate. But what other information can one possibly be inquiring about from the woman when you pick up the skewer with little squares of tofu stuffed in a row and inquisitively utter “woof, woof” in her direction? To say an amount should, in my opinion, have been an immediate reaction to any sounds that flowed from the general direction of my face! But instead of replying with a price she declared that she did not understand me.

Figuring that she might not have expected any sounds from their regular and usually mute foreign customer, and that she was possibly overcome with anxiety because she had thought she had to speak English, I repeated myself, slower this time. Again she smiled as if I were an imbecile, and asked the older lady next to her who was throwing food into the boiling oil, “Auntie, the foreign guy has never said a word, but now he’s speaking. What’s he saying?”

I tried again. And once again she could not figure out that I was not asking her for a lecture on the history of greasy food in Northeast Asia, but merely inquiring about the price of the damned tofu kebabs. When she looked at me for the third time with a well-intentioned but unhelpful smile, my own oil started getting hot enough to scorch the kebab there and then on the street.

I thought grabbing a coin out of my pocket might help, but I only managed to throw my keys in the bowl of amputated chicken feet.

Furious, and embarrassed at the same time, I triumphantly held out a coin, moments later. “Qian qian! Duo shao qian?!” I again pleaded in frustration.

The older lady turned away for a moment from another customer’s bacon-and-sausage kebab frying away in the boiling oil and translated my effort as “Duo shao qian?” in her native dialect, or “How much money?”.

“Thirty,” the younger woman indicated with three fingers in the air.

Red-faced, I retrieved my keys from amongst the chicken feet, and started filling my green plastic bowl with tofu kebabs. And because I was in a foul mood and certainly needed it, also a few bites of octopus.

“Haven’t you heard a foreigner speak Chinese before?” I fired off in English over bundles of beans and cauliflower.

But a glow had already started dancing over the woman’s cheeks, so I abandoned my little tirade. Maybe, I reckoned, she was lost in thought, and when I unexpectedly started mumbling strange words, she tried her best to understand what she probably thought was English.

The last laugh was hers, though. I prefer my deep-fried cauliflower and tofu with just a pinch of red pepper, and I was looking the other way when she heaped on the spices.