I just returned from a week-long trip to Taiwan and now have lots of great fodder for this blog, which I will share in the next several posts. Trying to get around in my far-from-perfect Taiwanese and my very-far-from-perfect Mandarin reminded me of two things: 1) one is frequently not as fluent in a language as one thinks one is, when tested in a variety of real-life situations, and 2) one can get very far with minimal fluency if one has enough patience and creativity.
I've written before about my need to resort to slightly embarrassing measures when interpreting for Spanish-speaking patients at the clinic where I volunteer. And recently, my boss related an incident where he was presented with whale meat at a restaurant in Japan and asked his hosts what it was. They couldn't come up with the English word for "whale", so they instead explained "Moby Dick!" He got it.
While buying some last-minute gifts on my last day in Taiwan, I went to a music store to try and find a book of folk songs for my daughter's piano teacher. But I'm pretty much illiterate in Mandarin, and I wasn't having any luck looking through the shelves randomly. The only clerk present didn't speak English. I don't know the Taiwanese word for "traditional" or "folk", so I asked her, "Piano book. Taiwan songs. Really old." It worked---in seconds she'd pulled three books, all of which I bought.
My parents and cousins found this story hilarious, but I say...whatever works. As a professional interpreter once told me, when you use a foreign language, you just need to hang your ego by the door and do whatever you need to do to get the job done.