Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Joys of Language

When I initially arrived in Taiwan, I carried a small notebook around with me writing down the characters that I was unfamiliar with that I ran into. After two or so weeks of this, I realized that I would be unable to function if I tried to look up every character I was unfamiliar with. For my own sanity and the sake of time, I would look up characters that I would run into frequently. This system, while not as comprehensive, is a great deal more practical for daily interactions. The downside of it, of course, is that my vocabulary would be left with certain holes until I bumped into a character enough times. While this isn't ideal, it’s a reality when you begin to study a character-based language. Consequently, there were (and still are) numerous characters that I passively run in to and think little of. All in all, this method of interacting with the language allows me to function in daily life without forcing me to come to grips with two facts:

1. I have a mind like an Etch-a-Sketch.
2. The Chinese writing system is complex and there are still thousands of characters I am unfamiliar with.

Thus, when I study a new vocabulary word in class, I often have the feeling that a whole new world has been opened to me. I'll illustrate this point for clarity. Currently, I live in amidst a great deal of household machinery.... My neighborhood (if it can be called that), is where people come to buy and sell used kitchen and household equipment. Though I have been repeatedly tempted to place an offer on a deli slicer, ten-gallon mixer or betel nut stand, I have resisted. At the end of my alley is a store that deals exclusively in second-hand fridges and washing machines. These are all in various states of repair or disrepair. Stacked up at the end of the alley are the hulls of washing machines that been stripped for parts. Although I enjoy the pile's ability to serve as a cat tree for the areas numerous felines, on the whole, I ignore it and disregarded the various claims made by the stickers remaining on the shells. That is until I learned the word for "-proof." After lesson about business negotiations and product quality, I wandered home past the ever-growing pile of washing machines and stopped dead in my tracks. In front of me was a discarded bluish machine that made numerous claims about its quality. Not only was it economical in its ability to save water and electricity but it also was "stylish." Laughing this off, I examined it further to see that the machine was also "Rat-proof." I wasn't sure how to take this. "Rat-proof?" Why had I never heard about this? Is this something I should be worried about? With my new vocabulary came an onslaught of new paranoias. Was this enough of a problem that this sort of claim would help sell the machine? Though I don't have washing machine I found myself wondering if my family was going to be alright or that they were unwittingly harboring a secret society of plague-bearing rats. What size rats are they talking about? Slightly shaken, I rushed up to my fourth floor apartment, glancing furtively for any sign of the horde. There was none. Looking down onto the alley, I saw a few cats jumping through the empty machines desperately seeking anything residing in the non-rat proof machines and sighed a breath of relief.