I came to visit Keelung directly after I lived in Beijing for a year. I taught English and hung out mostly with Westerners, so a huge chunk of that year was spent in my native tongue. I still picked up a little bit of the language, so I guess I’m like a 2 on a scale of 10 in Mandarin.
Keelung is much a smaller and different city. Many of the menus at restaurants are in Mandarin characters, a lot of the street vendors sell things I’ve never seen before, and there are many interesting sights without much of an English presence. How have I gotten by for a month with very little Chinese?
Visit Keelung: How to Ask?
Well, first, I became an expert with Pleco and Baidu Translate over the last year. They’re not perfect, but they are very useful when figuring out how to say or understand a specific word or phrase. They work for English-Chinese and Chinese-English, and what’s nice is that you can use the Pinyin without needing to type headache-inducing Chinese characters. It’s a good idea to know what you want and look up how to say it before going somewhere; you can then easily ask if that place sells it (you ___ ma?). For those times when there are Chinese characters only, I use Waygo, but there’s others like it. With this app, you point your camera at or take a picture of the characters and it gives you a rough translation in English (you can also do this with Google Translate). You get 10 free translations per day, but you can upgrade if you want. So yeah, when standing in line or trying to order, it does take extra time for me because I can’t communicate many of my questions, and I’m using a combination of apps to gain better understanding. If you use them enough, you get pretty efficient, so it’s really not bad. Plus, when you visit Keelung, people are good at asking and answering questions in slow and simple Mandarin or short English (small, hot, beef, etc.).
There are lots of street vendors as you visit Keelung, selling fascinating things I’ve never seen before. Ordering from these can be kind of scary at first, because they usually require some communication. Sometimes you need to put whatever you want in a bowl, and they cook it together according to your specifications. At these guys, I watch others and do my best with apps and simple questions, but for the most part, I take an educated guess. When they ask about the seasoning, I just say yi dian la de to make sure it isn’t too spicy and, pointing to the other options, dou ke yi, giving the vendor the green light to put a mix of whatever he/she chooses. This is something I would only recommend to those who are not afraid of trying new things (including weird parts of animals) and those who don’t have strong allergies. If you’re okay with a surprise, then more often than not, you’ll have a nice local treat! To keep note of what I’m having, I ask zhe ge jiao shen me? (what is this called?) I carry around a small notebook and a pen and occasionally ask the person to write it down. Very useful for later.
Visit Keelung: Using a Common Language
Life is not only about buying things. Everyday actions in the city can be difficult without a knowledge of the language, but you’d be surprised how far you can go. I think the key is being okay with looking stupid once. The first time I took the local bus in Keelung, for example, I was a confused foreigner who didn’t know exactly what to do. But that first bus strip was immensely helpful. I used gestures to communicate, I was offered assistance by the bus driver, and I closely observed where others stood, how they paid, and other details. After that, taking the bus was a breeze.
And really, after spending some time in a place, you pick up little tricks. For example, in Keelung, if you hear a taxi beeping twice, that means it’s shared. Apparently this originated when US army soldiers in Keelung needed to get to Keelung harbor. For this, no language is necessary, although it’s a good idea to know the name of your destination in Chinese so you can confirm. Then hop in and split the costs with one or more others going to that same spot.
To sum it up, when you visit Keelung is not hard if you’re an English-speaking foreigner. You can watch others first and use apps, hand and face motions, and any of your previous language knowledge. Again, I must state that I know a little bit of Chinese. For an absolute beginner, it would be more challenging, but Keelungers are very friendly and welcoming. And with all this in mind, I would encourage you to get out of your comfort zone; Keelung is a wonderful place to learn and practice your Chinese!