Projecting a glob of what I had once assumed was toothpaste into the bathroom sink, I quickly realized mandarin was a bit more confusing than I had assumed. Glancing around the sink, suddenly, none of the characters seemed familiar. What was the character for tooth? Was it ten strokes or eleven? And why were there so many tubes in this bathroom?
My host dad’s voice drifts lazily from the kitchen “Do you need any help? “
Oh, he would. Trying to make me ask him. Forcing me to admit that I can’t differentiate the character for “Tooth” and “fungal” cream. So smug in his fluency.
Grabbing a tube that looks promising, I slip out of the bathroom, and into my room. The pages of my chinese dictionary, previously crisp, are flattened, crumpled as I frantically flip to the character for “tooth”.
My host father begins to hum. I keep searching.
It’s useless, the character –牙or was it 壓 ? Is nowhere to be found. It is just me. A tube of what may or may not be fungal cream and my host Dad.
“Ask him” a small, treacherous, voice in my head pleads. “It’s your first night (in Taiwan), just ask him”
Grudgingly, I pick up the tube and head towards the kitchen.
When I first started with languages, I struggled. Suddenly dependent upon others, I resisted. Questions became duels, between unsuspecting native speakers, and my blunt determination to not need them. When approached with a problem, I scoured every Chinese learning chat board, flipped frantically through every Spanish-English dictionary, and obsessed over the indexes of my chinese textbook looking for the answer. I stood alone, painfully aware that asking a native speaker a question felt more like admitting I was an inferior, than admitting I needed help.
For 18 years, I’ve held independence on a pedestal. Self-sufficiency, more than anything, was to be constantly strived for. So, wary of anything that would depend me on others, I looked at questions with suspicion. They were crutches. A symbol of not only being helpless, but acting helpless. Compliance with the dis-truth that we are unable to find our own answers.
Sadly, languages were unaware of my views on self-reliance. They demanded questions. No amount of concentration could help me name exotic fruit, just as no amount of brow crinkling could correct my pronunciation. Instead, I was forced to seek out people. To need people. And so I’ve changed.
It was not immediate, the change. No moment of clarity. Instead, it was hard lost.
I thought of questions as crutches and perhaps they are. But I’ve realized it is not the crutch that makes cripple, but the cripple who needs the crutch. Languages in that sense we are all crippled. No man can be an island. We need people. It has been my struggle to embrace this.
On my last day in Taiwan, I sat at my dining room table, looking over my chinese textbook, waiting for my host (little) brother to finish breakfast. Skimming the pages, I notice a word I don’t remember. My dad’s whistling, floats slowly from the kitchen.
I raise my voice. “Dad, Can I ask you a question?”