That American’s eating dumplings!

And other encounters with children in Taiwan…

Customers gathered around a dumpling food cart on a street in Taiwan.
A street restaurant in Tainan. Photo: Zhen-Kang.

Taiwanese kids aren’t shy to say hello. Apparently, English teachers encourage them to approach foreigners—and the good students of Taiwan have taken this to heart.

Below are four short stories of my encounters with children in Taiwan:

I don’t have an English name yet

One night after dinner, I was sitting in a local park enjoying a language exchange. Although it was around 9pm and dark, children were playing freely while their parents relaxed nearby, often out of sight. (A night-time scenario that’s unimaginable in New Zealand.)

From time-to-time, kids stood only a meter away, staring at me intently. (Think Village of the Damned without the glowing eyes.) My Taiwanese friend was unnerved, and said if I wasn’t there, he’d tell them to get lost.

But from my perspective, this was just another day in Taiwan: children often stand weirdly close, and stare.

Eventually, two of the boys moved on, and two girls took their place.

The older one, who was around eight, said hello and told me her English name was Natalie. I said that’s a pretty name, and asked the other girl what her name was.

“I don’t have an English name yet”, she said.

I asked her Chinese name, and told her that was pretty too.

The older one asked me to watch them, as they started cartwheeling. I clapped politely and said “Hen bang a!” (So great!).

My friend held his tongue.

The American said I’m smart!

Supermarket checkouts are where children most frequently say hello.

Perhaps once every three or four weeks, a kid will come up to me in the checkout line and say hi. Or ask “Are you American?”, or “Do you speak English?”

Less commonly, they’ll count aloud to 10, then run away.

Sometimes I have enough time to say “Wow! You speak good English!”, and they’ll say “Thank you”, or less modestly, “Yes”.

If there’s time, I’ll say “You are very smart!”

Then they run back to their parents and say (in Chinese, or maybe Taiwanese), something like “The American said I’m smart!”

That American’s eating dumplings!

Back in March, I went to Tainan for another day trip. This was my seventh trip to Tainan, a beautiful, dusty, historic city of 1.8 million, just 50km from Kaohsiung.

We had dinner at a street restaurant where the food was prepared in a cart out the front, but customers could sit inside to eat. (This is a really common set-up.)

As always in Taiwan, it was cheap and delicious.

When one of the owners returned, his young son—perhaps aged five or six—ran up to his dad, pointed at me, and exclaimed (in Chinese) “That American’s eating dumplings!”

Are you happy?

I’ve only been to my local Sogo department store once. It’s a weird place: the many retail floors had no customers, but the basement food court was packed.

After picking up my bowl of tomato noodle soup, I sat at the only empty table while my friend collected his meal.

A stranger sat his daughter immediately next to me with a tray of McDonald’s, then left.

(There were five empty chairs around the table, but Taiwanese parents don’t have the same fear of stranger-danger that’s common in New Zealand—hence this random kid being placed in the nearest-possible seat.)

She was maybe seven years old.

She looked up at me and asked “Are you happy?”