Taiwanese, a dialect generally spoken in rural areas of Taiwan with the older generation, is a quick way to distinguish yourself as a local. I’m a weirdo as I was born in Canada but my Taiwanese is far more fluent than Mandarin since we spoke it at home. For me to converse in Mandarin, I think in Taiwanese and do a mental translation; thus I speak “excruciatingly slow that it’s suicide-inducing”, to quote my lovely sister. (Though, I began thinking in Mandarin by the end of this trip!)
I visit the motherland every 2-3 years to see family, hike and eat incredible (and unbearable amounts of) food. This past trip, my dear friend Bayan tagged along for the first chunk of his inaugural Asia trip and it was also my first time bringing someone (Persian, even!) with me to my ancestral home. I taught Bayan some Mandarin basics but my parents and their peers mainly speak in Taiwanese and switch mid-sentence-or-diatribe to Mandarin (you can imagine my confusion growing up) so we started a Taiwanese survival list on his iPhone. Not many people learn the local tongue before the official language so needless to say, Bayan was a hit and left the elders roaring. My grandma, who's never interacted with a non-Taiwanese human, had her silver tooth glinting after every utterance and responded with much skeptical prodding, "Does he even understand what he's saying?!" "Make him define what he said!" And he would. Even though she doesn't understand a word of English.
TAIWANESE BASICS TO THRIVE AROUND LKK*S
I tried to spell the sounds to how they work in English.
*LKK (older people refer to themselves as the acronym ‘LKK’) stands for Lao Kohk Kohk = slang for Old person (Lao means old and Kohk Kohk is the sound of knocking on a hollow head… this may be my own interpretation)
Swee dung dung! = Pretty! (to a lady of any age)
Lee na hia san = How are you so skinny? (women love this)
Lee oo gao lee hai! = You’re so awesome/incredible! (of skill/talent or general perseverance)
Jin Swee = Quite pretty
Ja Bung = Eat a meal (literally, 'eat rice')
Ho Ja = Delicious
Zok Ho Ja = Very delicious
Jin Ho Ja = Quite delicious
Pai Seh = Embarassed (Say this when you receive a compliment)
Bai Tok = Please
Doh Sha = Thank you
Bwai, Doh Sha = No I don’t want it, Thank you.
Ja Ba Bweh? = Have you eaten? (Another way of greeting a stranger)
Ja Ba = I’m full
Zok Ba = So full
Wa Ja Zok Zeh = I ate a lot
Wa Ja Beh Ki = I can no longer eat
Wa Bwai Go Ja = I don’t want to eat anymore
Wa Ja Shew Zeh = I ate too much
Wa Beh Ding Dung = I can’t move
Wa Ja Ga Beh See = I've eaten to the point of death
Gum Beh! = Cheers!
Zhan! = Great! (say while thumbs-upping)
Him Shoong = Picture (LKKs are obsessed with photos so always offer to take some and prepare to be deluged with iPads, iPhones and cameras)
Lai lai lai lai lai = Come come come come! (say when gathering people for cheers, food or photos)
Have this list handy or partially memorized! Bayan could not load his notes quick enough at one humongous dinner which resulted in him having to cram another piece of chicken into his stomach. Upon seeing his defeat, my mom cried with laughter for ten minutes. So perhaps this guide is moot and the real key to charming the Taiwanese -- or anyone -- is making an effort and embracing the mayhem that ensues. (I guess it helps to be an attractive foreigner too.)