We got by with some ink and a smile
It never occurred to me, when Ken came home on leave, that I would return to Southeast Asia with him as his bride. Once this eventuality dawned on us, we had a scant three weeks to notify family, plan and execute a wedding, dispose of my worldly possessions, and take the legal and military steps required for Ken to bring me and my 4-year-old son back to Taiwan with him.
With all we had to do prior to leaving, there was little time to consider what life would be like at the other end of the journey.
I didn't think much about language differences until we arrived in Taipei and needed to take a taxi from the airport. Ken asked a driver, "Do you speak English?" The man nodded and started loading our suitcases into his cab. Ken told him we wanted to go to the train station.
For the next few minutes the driver stopped next to every other waiting taxi and shouted something at the drivers, each of whom shrugged and shouted something back. We eventually realized that our driver did not speak English and was asking for help because he had no idea where we wanted to go.
Being a lifelong doodler, I pulled out the little notebook that served as my trip log and sketched a locomotive on one of the pages. When I showed it to the driver, he brightened, said something that sounded friendly, and drove us straight to the train station.
Thereafter, Ken allowed me to be our official communicator largely via hieroglyphics and charades.
One evening we went in search of a desk. Along the highway that ran from Taichung to the air base there were several furniture stores where the local people were accustomed to Americans, but we wanted to experience the untouched local flavor.
We drove our tiny, two-cylinder, two-passenger Subaru into an area rarely, if ever, visited by Westerners, moving along a quiet street until we saw an open-front shop piled high with furniture.
The proprietor watched as we scanned the stacks and spotted a small desk a few feet higher than our heads. I pointed to it and rubbed my fingers against my thumb for "how much?" With a ballpoint pen he wrote a number on his palm, less than the equivalent of $20 too inexpensive to warrant any haggling. We said we'd take it.
Perhaps because we were willing to pay full price, he made it clear that we shouldn't buy that desk. He wanted us to follow him to the back of the store to see a better one, which turned out to be exactly like the first, except it had a laminated top and for the same price. We agreed to take that one and paid him in Taiwanese currency.
Now we needed to have it delivered.
On a piece of packing paper I drew a map showing his store, our house, and the route between. Then I drew a pickup truck with the desk in the back. He nodded and left, soon to return and stand with us outside the front of the store. By now his wife had appeared, and we all watched expectantly for the truck.
After a few minutes Ken observed that we might be able to tie the desk upside-down on top of the car, if we had some rope. So, we went back to the scrap of paper, and I drew our car with the desk so appended to it. The man shook his head: Bad idea. He pointed again to the truck drawing: Much better.
Once again we waited for the truck. And waited. We and they smiled uneasily at each other.
Then it hit us: They thought we were the ones with the truck! Back to the scrap of paper we went.
I pointed to the truck and to the man. He shook his head and pointed to the truck and to us. We shook our heads. Now everybody realized that no one had a truck.
We all laughed, nervously at first, then heartily. The man pointed to the drawing of the desk atop the car, an idea that suddenly had much more appeal.
We agreed, and he ran out, returning almost immediately with a group of men and a rope. They secured the desk to the car and bid us a friendly farewell. One man pointed to the speedometer to tell Ken to drive slowly. Another made sure our son was safely tucked into the little space behind the seats. And another cautioned me to keep my hands inside the car.
We thanked them and drove away feeling an almost familial bond with the cheering, waving throng outside the store.
All without the exchange of a single word. The only thing I ever learned to say in Taiwanese was "thank you."
Not long after the desk purchase the United States began withdrawing from Vietnam, and a few months later we moved back to America where transactions generally occur in unremarkable English.
But I still carry pen and paper just in case.