Iâ€™m going to tell you a story every day for the week.
Near the end of my time living in Taiwan, I decided to go to Kinmen (formerly transliterated as Quemoy), a Republic of China (Taiwan) island 2km off of mainland China for a weekend. It’s a fascinating place that’s had a lot go on in the last century: isolationist Fujianese culture followed by briefly adopting British-Asian colonial styles and then sustaining shelling by both the Japanese and Maoist Chinese.
It leads to some shocking scenes: traditional Fujianese villages with miles of bomb shelter tunnels underneath. Or sorghum fields, waiting to be harvested for traditional brews, with rusty anti-parachute spikes every 10m. Such images are endless.
The English proficiency was very low and I had mastered only a few dozen words and phrases of Chinese including such useful phrases as “This is a pair of chopsticks” and “This is my business card” so communication, or lack thereof, was a major issue. I didn’t hear any English on my flight. I was picked up at the airport by someone that couldn’t speak English; I was taken to a scooter shop where I rented a scooter from people who didn’t speak English. Only when I got to the guest house did I hear any English and then it was quite broken.
I was in over my head. I was an island.
At one point I tried going to the local-style noodle shop. Well, I succeeded at getting there. And I succeeded at standing awkwardly in the entrance for a while. I even succeeded at pointing at a bowl of noodles with pork and indicating I wanted that dish.
When the proprietor said something as she carried a bowl past me, I thought she meant it was mine so I followed her to the table where a young man and an older woman were already sitting–it’s not entirely unusual to sit with people you don’t know–and started to sit down. Then the young man’s friend returned to the table and sat in that chair and started eating the dish I thought was meant for me.
Seeing my confusion, the young man got up and grabbed me a chair. “Xie xie” (Thank you). A dish of various meats and tofu arrived. “We,” he said motioning in a circle, “together.” “Oh. Xie xie” and I tried a few pieces. My noodles arrived and I started eating them. (They were delicious, incidentally). He pushed some sauce toward me. “Spicy.”
Finished with their meals, the young man and his friend got up and paid the proprietor, who gave me a funny look. He came back over to the table. “You no pay.” The spicy sauce must have started to get to me because my eyes welled up a bit. “Xie xie.”
No man is an island, it turns out.