Sometimes, when you’re living in a foreign country, the language barrier can turn the most simple of tasks into the most aggravating and troublesome ones. A lot of the time, though, it’s pretty funny (usually in hindsight).
A couple weeks ago we had a “fridge incident” (read: I didn’t unplug the fridge while I gave it a deep clean, and because the door was open for so long it froze over and the temp soared. I’ve cleaned many a fridge many a time in my day in the service industry (on another side note, this is probably also why I should have been able to figure out the issue on my own, but I failed to do so), and so I would be lying if I told you that it didn’t occur to me to unplug it. But the electrical situation behind the fridge is such that I will pretty much do anything to avoid touching it. The fridge cord actually plugs into a floating, yes a floating outlet that just hangs out in this hole in the wall filled with other wires and such. I’m not saying it’s a fire hazard, but it probably is. So you see). Normally this would be a pretty simple affair. I’d call the landlord and they’d send somebody and they’d look at it and we’d have a normal conversation.
But no. I first had to message my old boss, who continues to (out of the kindness of her heart) be the middle man between us and our landlord. She in turn messaged the landlord, who sent the guy she sends to scout it out when something is wrong. He’s not always helpful, and I say that because usually he tries to tell me that there is nothing wrong. Of course, I never completely understand what he’s saying but I can pick up enough words like “不可以” (“can’t”) to get the gist, and besides it’s amazing how much can be communicated through non-linguistic cues. This time, though, I somehow got him to (reluctantly) call the refrigerator man for us, and the next day the refrigerator man called back to tell me he would come the following morning at 10. I was absolutely triumphant to have understood and affirmed this simple message. And so it was we waited two days, two sad days of trying to keep our perishing goods on mountains of melting ice.
Of course, the arrival of the refrigerator repair man presents this whole other sort of exercise in having a conversation. I honestly have no idea what people did before Google Translate. It is at once miraculous and also incredibly clumsy. Besides the fact that things don’t always translate well, having a Google Translate conversation often results in a sort of jolting, disconnected discourse. I’ve tried to convey what that’s like through my illustrations below, however keep in mind there’s a lot left out – that is to say, him speaking Chinese, me speaking English and random Chinese words that I know, trying to understand each other, miming etc. etc. After looking at the fridge for 5 minutes, our “conversation” went something like this…
After he left, I was busy coming to terms with another 24 hours of buying bags of ice and mopping up new puddles of once frozen berry juice. It wasn’t until about an hour later that I realized he had left his tool. I thought about calling him, but that was a laughable idea… I chose the next best thing, Google-Translate-copy-and-paste-into-messenger, and I sent him a text and a picture.
He caught on and was texting me back in English. We managed to communicate the basics via text, “I’m coming back to get it”, “I will arrive in thirty minutes”, “I will meet you downstairs” etc. When I went downstairs to meet him at the door, he had prepared a message for me. One that made me smile, because in English the translation is quite comical – a very serious apology disproportionate to such a trivial “problem” (me walking down the stairs to give him something… he’s the one that had to drive all the way back!). But I smiled also because it was so sincere and kind. I enthusiastically told him 没关系! 没关系! We were both embarrassed.
While things can be more difficult to accomplish here, and language barriers heighten all of those struggles, I am more often than not left with simple gratitude at the end of these encounters. Gratitude for the kindness of people in Taiwan, for their patience, for their willingness to help, and for all the comical moments that spring out of our difficulty in communicating.
(Thank you refrigerator man, wherever you are. The fridge is working properly.)
If you liked that, check out my post on how I quit smoking, life in Taiwan during COVID, or my reflections on homesickness. Let me know what you think in the comments below. Want to see more stories and anecdotes like this one?