Every shopper glared at us. Brazenly loud English and periodic shrieks at the sight of trinkets couldn’t have concealed our foreignness. Many of us were seeing the night market in Taiwan for the first time. The florescent booths, jockeying vendors, and chaotic atmosphere, however, were all too familiar to me. Seven years ago, before I moved to study abroad in America, I roamed these streets chattering in Chinese. Now I returned conversing in English. As a conclusion to the Summer A.I.D. (Assisting Individuals with Disadvantages) English-teaching program, I toured Taiwan with 300 other American volunteers. We visited museums, Taipei 101, and even local bookstores—places I had already been to as a child growing up in Taiwan. But this time, I was a tourist.
My American friends searched hungrily for souvenirs at the night market, losing all composure. They shoved hair accessories, key chains, and t-shirts into their shopping baskets, each discovery accompanied by a squeal of exhilaration. Slightly embarrassed by my American companions, I strolled behind the shopping racks, afraid to distinguish myself as a stranger in my hometown. When a mountain of goods had overflown their baskets, my friends finally headed towards the cash register. Before they reached for their wallets, however, I rushed over just in time to stop them.
You’re buying so much! You have to bargain! Do you know how?" I urged in English. They stared back blankly.
Leave it up to me." I assured them and turned to the vendor, who now smirked and folded her arms across her chest. Not intimidated by her impudence, I greeted her warmly in Taiwanese, a Chinese dialect. Her eyes widened, and my friends’ jaws dropped. My fluency in the native language astounded them. I proceeded to impress the vendor by feigning indifference, as if I could easily purchase the same goods for less from the neighboring stand. I asked her to lower the price by half. She instantly refused. A third, I pressed on. She paused. During this brief silence in which she deliberated her surrender, I seized the opportunity to hustle my friends toward the exit. And just as I expected, the vendor immediately halted us and conceded to my proposition.
My friends lauded me in jubilation when they finally realized I had succeeded. Bargaining was merely a skill most Taiwanese learned as a child, but it unexpectedly made me a hero in the eyes of my American friends. Eager to try bargaining, they inquired me the key Taiwanese phrases and the mannerisms associated with each expression. Now, instead of the rowdy English we were speaking when we first arrived, broken Taiwanese peppered with English words and our laughter permeated the air, and we embarked on a night of bargaining.
At first, being a tourist in my home country made me feel disconnected, but this stranger’s viewpoint actually prompted me to rediscover the vitality and excitement of the everyday life of Taiwan. As we traversed through the restless streets, I found myself pointing out my favorite childhood drink stand, force-feeding my friends the famous seafood ice cream (which they eventually fell in love with), and simply enjoying sharing the culture of my home country. Just as my understanding of Taiwanese culture enriched my friends’night market adventure, seeing my childhood home from a new viewpoint also enhanced my experience back to Taiwan. As we exited the bustling market, I licked the last bit of seafood ice cream left on the corner of my lips, savoring it as if it were the first time I had ever tasted something so ingenious and delicious.
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