One day, either in the summer or on a weekend, when I was still too young to live on my own, but old enough to drive, my grandma and I went to get breakfast, just the two of us.
“You take me to go eat breakfast,” my ama ordered. She wasn’t really that bossy, it was just the combination of words and syntax that she knew how to use in English.
“Oooooh, Taiwanese breakfast?” I asked, looking at her hopefully. I gave her that “pretty please” smile that she always waved off, but inevitably gave into. I was her first grandchild and that definitely came with perks.
“Yeah, we go to Yung Ho,” she responded. I know that looks like it says “young ho” which doesn’t exactly sound like a breakfast spot, but it’s actually pronounced closer to yong hu. I can say it, but I don’t know what it means.
We sat down in a worn down booth with the wood veneer restaurant table top and looked at our menus, slightly sticky with old oil and splattered with soy sauce and black vinegar. I’m not sure why either of us looked at the menu because neither of us really understood it. My grandma didn’t really read in Chinese or English well and I could read the English, but didn’t know all the foods by their English names. No matter, we each knew what we wanted—big steaming bowls of sweetened soy milk and long savory donuts to dunk.
The waitress approached and asked us in Mandarin, “You ready to order?” or something to that effect. I didn’t exactly know the words, but I recognized some of the sounds to understand the question.
I looked at my ama, expecting her to order for us.
She looked back at me.
I looked at her.
“You order,” she said.
“I don’t know how, you order,” I answered. I looked back at the waitress sheepishly.
Ama tried to order in Taiwanese. You’d expect that to be understandable in a Taiwanese restaurant, but our waitress was younger and didn’t understand very well.
We ended up pointing at the menu, neither of us speaking the “right Chinese”. Luckily, we pointed at the correct things and got the items we wanted. Phew!
And that was the day I learned my grandma didn’t speak Mandarin.