It’s hard to believe that my son, M, has lived in Taiwan for 10 years. When he hopped off the plane in Taipei, M spoke not a word of Mandarin Chinese. In late January, 2005, after he’d been in Taipei for a week, M sent an email home. These are the first three sentences: “OK. So, if you ever wanted to know what it’s like to actually travel to an alien planet and have to learn how to communicate there, this is it! I’m deep under water and swimming to the surface a few hours at a time.”

Being the boy’s mama, my first urge was to hop on a plane, fly west across 10 time zones and rescue my baby. He would have hated that! So I didn’t.

Now, when I spend time with M in Taiwan, like recently for Chinese New Year, he blows my mind with his ability to converse on, or negotiate, or even sing absolutely anything in a language that I love to look at…let’s face it, written Chinese is gorgeous…but am clueless to understand. This poem is a reflection on my potential for mastering Mandarin.

I guess it’s too late to learn Mandarin.

I’m talking about speaking it, maybe

not like a local but, you know, even dogs

get the basics of Mandarin around here,

though they don’t exactly speak it

as far as I know. And then there’s this:

Is it even possible to mold an English speaking

mouth into a 4-tone machine

capable of bargaining down the price

of a kilo of chicken feet at a night market,

or a wind instrument chanting Taoist

prayers at Longshan Temple,

or a squawk box barking the mainland

Chinese Anthem at Taipei 101 next to

silently meditating Fulan Dafa followers?


I guess learning Mandarin just isn’t the cards,

or the fortune cookie, like it is for

that white gloved elevator operator

at the Sogo Zhongxiao

with a pitch sharp enough to shatter jade,

and even if I burned ghost money

in a smoldering brazier til the goats came home

mine would never be a single syllable

xie xie ni hao ma clerk mouth,

kind as a cup of Maokong tea,

still smelling of her danbing breakfast,

shouting something in a convenience store

in Mandarin.

Photo by Winingtai, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

14 thoughts on “On Not Understanding What the Clerk Asked Me at 7-Eleven

  1. I like how this works as a tribute to the unique culture–very smart how you interwove contemporary allusions into the narrator’s personal quest–so the piece also serves as a mini-memoir of sorts–with its peeks inside the narrator’s mind and mindset–amid the cacophony of sights and sounds furnished through this beautiful language.

    As always, am inspired and edified from your words.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Xiexie, jd. I’ve been spending time with my assorted journals (I write/paint one each time I go to Taiwan), hunting for moments to sweep into poems during Nation Poetry Writing Month, and later into a book accompanied by photos taken by M. I’m one lucky mama to have such a talented son.


    • Super hard! Those 4 tones are a killer. But, you know, Katie, even R has trouble with American English. He can’t, for example, say “women.” He can say, “I saw a woman,” but not “I saw two women.” He’ll say instead, “I saw two woman.” His mouth just can form the weh sound, though it can form we. Interesting, huh?


  3. Oh what adventures your M has had! And I so well understand the tangled things our mama hearts feel when our kids are far away and struggling. But, what a wonderful mama you are, and how I’d love to see that 7-Eleven scene play out. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks, Dawn. As you know, when our children decide to have international “adventures,” they ultimately bring us along and our lives are changed forever. I’ve grown so much through my visits to the beautiful island of Taiwan.


  5. Susan, your blog is interesting I will keep following you, our daughter has lived overseas in various places off and on for 20 years , even though it is hard to accept they are free spirits, one loves their sense of adventure. We are so pleased she is home for now!!!,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Marg, and thanks for dropping by. Yes, when kids follow their dreams it often takes them to heartbreakingly distant lands. On the other hand, what a joy to see them so happy and what a great opportunity to expand our own geography! Nice to have them home for a while, too. 😀


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