Lost in Translation

Having lived abroad pretty much the majority of my life, I am used to things getting lost in translation. For instance, there was that time in my native Germany in the 1980’s when I worked with a language instructor from Ireland who was teaching me English for my upcoming move to the U.S. Let’s just say I was greeted with much laughter when I started middle school in Pennsylvania and asked a classmate if she had a “rubber” (eraser) I could borrow.

Over the years, I’ve come to enjoy learning different languages as they teach me so much about the culture itself. As a bilingual speaker who easily switches back and forth between English and Germany without having to think too hard, learning languages has been fairly exciting and, yes, more or less easy for me.

And then I started taking Chinese classes. Well, I think I may have finally found a language that remains a mystery for me.

There is just so much to it: the different sounds…. the tones…. the way your tongue and mouth are supposed to work together…. the endless characters (why are there so many??) … but most of all, my sad attempts at trying to recreate those sounds and words. And tones. Or rather lack thereof as I am hoping someone can understand what I am trying to say by context or charades. (Actual line from my teacher this week: “Fourth tone, Nicole. You need to be angry when you say this. Be angrier”…. on another thought, maybe I am just too nice to learn this language?).

Yes, despite this current pandemic crisis, I am in school and so are the kids even though their spring break was extended (and yes, we already had our fair share of distance learning in February). While we are more or less walking on eggshells and keeping our interactions more distant here, we are not as limited in our movements as some of our readers around the world (PSA: Please stay home!).

With shops being open and life more or less “same old” on our little island, I decided to stock up on medical supplies since the kids (of course!) started coughing a few days ago (that as of this writing has luckily diminished) and I realized that our thermometers had not survived the many, many moves since we last used them when they were babies. So, I wanted to go out and buy a thermometer to have, you know, just in case.

And here our story begins as it turns out, buying a thermometer in Taipei is no easy feat.

In my quest, I did what I would do in any other place I have lived: head to the nearest drug store. I searched high and low among OTC shelves and when I couldn’t find anything resembling a thermometer, I continued to search the entire shop until I eventually worked up the courage to ask the salesperson if they had thermometers (thank you to my Pleco app that comes in so handy). I was met with great confusion and a strange look and a firm “méiyŏu” which I fortunately understood to signify that there were no thermometers to be sold in this drug store.

Odd, I know. So I opted for Plan B: head to the nearest pharmacy. And that’s when things got a little more exciting.

It didn’t take me long to find a handful of digital thermometers: perfect, I thought! Just the ones I was looking for as I didn’t want the hassle of replacing inserts on ear thermometers or opt for a forehead thermometer because they are not as reliable as those good old digital ones you stick under your tongue.

I browsed the boxes of digital thermometers and hoped to find an alphabet I could read but I was left with a good knowledge of numbers I could decipher (I assume 60 second results?) and some pictures of kids and women. I selected a box and headed to the cashier who gave me another one of “those” looks I had already seen in the drugstore and said in broken English (which was SO much better than any of my Chinese attempts), “you want to buy this?” to which I nodded my head and maybe (maybe) affirmed in Chinese. The lady then put the box down firmly on the counter and said “no.” She walked me to another shelf with offerings of forehead thermometers to which I said something along the lines of “no thank you, I’d like the other one, please” (I did say thank you, “xièxie,” that’s one of the few words I can comfortably say in Chinese).

Well, yes, I must have had a confused look because she then told me that the digital thermometers are only for “making babies” (which I guess explains the pictures of kids and women on the packaging and judging by the looks I received at the two stores, no one thinks I should be making any more babies) and that I should buy the forehead thermometer. I kindly said something like “thank you” (again, my comfortable Chinese word) and left. I was utterly confused on my walk home and tried to sort out this cultural difference before laughing it off.

But, I was still in need of a thermometer … so, a few days later, I went back to the pharmacy, picked out a digital thermometer, and headed to the counter. During that visit, there were at least two people behind the counter who, after validating with me that this is really what I wanted to buy and no, I did not want the forehead thermometer that was once again offered to me, became engrossed in a long discussion of which I could not understand a single word. So I just smiled and affirmed a second time that I wanted to buy that thermometer. And then the paperwork ensued – I needed to provide my name and phone number which was either to give me a discount for their membership (is that a real thing here?) or to track my upcoming ovulation schedule for making a baby (you choose).

And no, grand-parents, don’t even think about asking. No more babies. I just needed a reliable thermometer to measure temperature during these crazy times. To our readers in the U.S. and Europe, please stay safe and most importantly, stay home. Wishing you all the best of health and sanity.

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