There's something about living in another culture and not really speaking the language that lends certain experiences a surreal air. One such incident occurred recently.
I was coming back from taking Conrad to Taekwando in the early evening when I noticed a smartphone on the pavement. Naturally, I picked it up and looked around for its owner, but the road was empty. Then the phone started ringing. I was in a dilemma. If this had happened to me in England I would have answered the phone, of course, established who it belonged to, and arranged to get it back to them somehow. But here, there isn't much point in my answering a call from a stranger as I'm unlikely to be able to understand a word they say.
What to do? Taking it to the security guard at our block of flats would be the quickest way of getting the phone back to its owner, I thought. But no, the security guard told me I should take it to the police station. No problem, the police station was just around the corner. Off I went. Somehow, I managed to convey to the police that this wasn't my phone, that I had found it and I just wanted to hand it in. End of story? Not quite.
Despite clearly demonstrating that I'm a complete idiot by staring blankly at the officer whenever he spoke to me, the police felt they needed my further involvement. Another officer beckoned me to follow him out to his car. Soon I found myself in the back of an unmarked police vehicle (where, I have to say, the seatbelts didn't work, even though the law has been changed recently to require buckling up in the back ), travelling to an unknown destination.
I was starting to feel slightly nervous. After all, I was alone with a strange man, in a strange car, travelling I knew not where, or why.
"Ummmm.........where are we going?" - I know that much Chinese at least.
"Garble garble garble garble......garble garble." Gesture back to where we came from and forward to where we're going. I understood the word for 'the same'. I took this to mean we were going to another police station. And, yes, we arrived there a few minutes later.
The problem having been explained by my accompanying officer, I became an object of interest and not inconsiderable amusement to the staff at the new station. 'May I help you?' one joked before rambling off again in Chinese. This general air of festivity was brought to an end when the smartphone rang again. The new possessor of the phone answered and after a brief conversation, finally, it became clear that the owner was on their way to pick it up.
A car pulled up just a few minutes later. A woman walked in and as the officer was talking to her I found out what my blank stare looks like because this person was doing the same thing. She looked at me questioningly.
"I think he said 'meiguoren' (American)," I said.
"Oh," she said.
Yes, she didn't speak Chinese either.
Then her husband walked in. At last, someone who could communicate with the police. As everyone was establishing exactly what had happened where, when, why and by whom, I noticed the police officer who had brought me there making his way to the door.
He can't be leaving, can he? I thought. I had just been taking my son to Taikwando when all this happened. I had no phone, no purse, and had no idea where I was. It would be silly to drive someone a few miles away from home at no notice and then just abandon them, wouldn't it? my thoughts continued. I mean, the police would be the last people you would expect to do such a thing. Something between disbelief that this was happening and the inability to think of the right words in Chinese cast me into muteness as the officer left.
My fellow non-Chinese speaker must have seen the look of panic on my face.
"Can we give you a lift home?" she asked.
What a relief.
They were a very nice couple, Linda and Royce, and very grateful that I'd handed their phone in, even though anyone would do the same. The wife was either Indonesian or Thai, I think and her husband Chinese. They invited me to their church on Sunday.
After they'd taken me home, as I got out of their car, Linda shook my hand and as she did so, deposited a red envelope (a traditional Chinese New Year money gift) into my hand. I was alarmed.
"No, no, really, there's no need," I said.
Linda kept insisting and I kept saying no, and I got into one of those awful quandaries where I didn't know if it was rude to accept or rude to refuse. In the end I accepted, and on opening the envelope later was dismayed to find $NT2000 in there (about £40).
When I was telling this story and explaining my inadequate knowledge of the social etiquette in this situation to a Taiwanese friend later, he said the correct thing to do if I don't want to accept the money is to keep the envelope but give the money back. So now I know.
Never mind. I know of a good charity to donate it to. And the next time I see a phone in the street, I'm going to point it out to the first Taiwanese person I see.