October 13, 2005

Tales of Intercultural Communication

I had a great time in Neiwan (內灣) last weekend, and should have some photos to post in the week or so. While stopping to eat a barbecued turtledove off a mountain road, I met an aborigine man, and we had a nuanced discussion of Taiwan politics. He began by telling me that he is an operation. I smiled and nodded my head knowingly. I am naturally skilled in the communication skill of mirroring; I will pretend to understand his speech at the same level as he expects me to understand, and will speak Chinese (or not speak Chinese) as well or as poorly as he expects me to speak. (I later understood that he is an aborigine, not an operation.)

He began the discussion something like this: "Cities are bad. I live in the mountains. I like the KMT. You know the KMT? The Kuomintang? Blue is good. Green is very bad. Blue is about being together, friends. Green is about being alone, like this dog here. [Points to dog.] Green i s lonely." At this point, he began struggling for words (in English), but we managed to continue the conversation for five or ten minutes. We could have continued this discussion in Chinese, but I felt that I should play the part of foreigner who can't speak Chinese, and I was eager to begin eating the barbecued "little bird" (小鳥).
* * *

Yesterday I was sitting in a meeting, wondering if there were any possible way to spend two hours more meaninglessly. As the man who was speaking looked at me, probably seeing me there for the first time, his speech began to slow and he took on the expression of a deer caught in headlights. His speech was sputtering, and sounded like it would soon crash to a halt. Although his comments had no connection with my work, he looked at me as if his words were meant for me alone, and as if he needed some confirmation that I could understand him. It seemed that only I could save him from crashing mid-sentence. I nodded encouragingly. That seemed to do the trick. His speech began to return to normal. I turned away and laughed to myself, happy to have averted a disaster. If it weren't for my agile interpersonal communication skills, I might have had to introduce myself, or worse yet, explain why I was at the meeting. I was at the meeting because I was invited. No more, no less.


  • It always makes me laugh when reading your articles describing what happened in your life. You seem to give a lot of thoughts to every little thing, which makes me feel like you are not the one I know. ^_^

    By Anonymous Yaru, at October 14, 2005 3:48 PM  

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