Tiny Fish

Some things are just weird. I tried a piece of candy the other day, some kind of caramel, and it was hard to decide if it was inedible or just weird. I didn’t have the sudden urge to spit it out, but there was something wrong. The flavor shifted from butterscotch, to steamed pork buns, then back to butterscotch. I’m still not sure what exactly it was. I’m guessing the milk they used, maybe flour, but why would flour be in caramel? Just weird.

The other thing was the fishermen. I have seen them at nearly every river and pond, but there are a few things missing. Like a bucket to keep fish in when they’re caught. Bait on the hook. Fish that can be caught with a hook. I have seen them fish where the only thing to catch is the size of bait fish. If we were back home, I would assume they were catch and release fishermen, but the size of the fish available and the lack of beer don’t fit what I’m used to.

I’m guessing it’s just a reason to sit by the water and think, but I never needed props to give me reason to sit by the water. It’s water, you sit and skip rocks. You sit and read. You sit and think. Maybe it’s a connection to the past, or some other cultural thing. That’s the worst part about the language barrier. You can’t ask these questions.

I remember as a kid one of the most awesome abilities would be to speak and understand all languages. Just to be able to talk to anyone I met. Now, I’m starting on that goal, at least with the few languages I can. I can speak Spanish, not perfectly, but I can have a conversation. I’m working on Mandarin, I just started with classes on top of the Rosetta Stone.

The program does a good job of helping build vocabulary, grammar, and context, but the speech recognition is horrible. Part of it is the programming, the other part is that it wants you to speak quickly. When you’re learning, it’s better to go slow and break up the language the way it’s supposed to be broken up. Certain groups of words go together, and when they’re separated it changes the meaning. It’s like in English, where the sentence “I didn’t say that,” has four different meanings depending on which word you stress.

“I didn’t say that,” but someone did.

“I DIDN’T say that,” it wasn’t me.

“I didn’t SAY that,” but I implied it.

“I didn’t say THAT,” but I said something.

Language is weird, and even when you understand it, you don’t always know why. We speak it for so long that it becomes innate, and we think it’s instinct when we pick up something in subtext. The reality is that our minds function without our help, and we just forget that most of the time. We can go through the steps to figure out something if we need to, but most of the time we just trust our brain to spit out the answer. How many people really think about their words before they come out? How often do we regret what is said, or get questioned about how it is said?

Most people think they listen, but they never really listen to themselves. They don’t hear their words as other people do, they hear them with all the meaning and intent that cannot be expressed easily. They hear what they want to say, not the actual words, not the body language, not the tone. Language is one of the most important and complicated inventions of the human experience, and we treat it as background, like the soundtrack to a movie. Most people never really hear it unless it’s just wrong.

That’s one of the things I like about teaching the language. I have to hear it the way my students do. I have to know what is going with the words, what each sound means, and how to put them together. And I know almost none of it. It’s amazing how little we know when we begin, how we don’t even know what questions to ask.

I have been thinking of staying in Taiwan for another year, not Taipei, but somewhere away from the center. Away from the things of man. I hope it works out, it will give me time to learn the language, and maybe to pick up some Taiwanese as well as Mandarin. Or at least some Cantonese that doesn’t involve starting fights. It’s nice to have the future open to me, even when I have no idea where I’m going. Especially when I have no idea.

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