So here I am in Taipei. I have not seen much as yet and don’t expect to get out very much over the next few days … meetings being what they are. But what is quite noticeable here is how much English is spoken — especially in public spaces.
On my recent trips to China I have been greeted by the musical sound of Mandarin (and various delicious dialects) — and I expected the same here. I have even been practising some basic Mandarin words and phrases but have had no need of them — not so much as a xie xie (thank you) so far.
But there is a sort of imaginative freedom that you encounter while travelling — especially when you are immersed in a culture and a language which is not your own. You are simultaneously constrained and open … captured by your own language but also freed from it — sort of similar to what Johnnie Moore describes here.
But when you do not actually understand the language around you, you become attentive to other things — to the smell of the airport, the feeling of the air on your face and how it is different from the air in your city. So it is with Taipei. From the air it looked specatular … with wind farms spread across the beaches facing Mainland China, rice paddies terraced into the low-lying fields and waterways snaking between the terraces. But a city is a city … and Taipei stretches as far as you can see.
Up close there is plenty of neon in the downtown streets … and the air is pungent and warm. And at night, even late, there are people out walking with their small children. The streets are alive with fragrance and noise and chatter … and cabs.
So yes, there is a joy of hearing, but there is also a freedom in non-understanding. I am reading all the signals, but I don’t know what any of them mean. But it also awakens a hunger to learn more because I the more I travel in China and across Asia, the clearer it is, that I am only scraping the surface — and without a way (through language) to converse or dive into the culture, it is a ghostly experience.