Chengrish: The First 20 Minutes in Taiwan

The International Airport my cousin found really funny

When traveling to unknown lands, the first impression counts – my cousin’s first twenty minutes on Taiwanese soil
by Jens Kastner

My cousin came. I concede that this might not be of interest to others, but for me it did have some significance.

For three years I have been living in Taiwan, and that’s exactly the amount of time it took for someone in my family to finally decide to overcome the burden of having to purchase a heftily priced flight ticket to pay a visit to me here.

I have done my best to make this happen. In fact, on each of my trips back to my beloved fatherland, I virtually slipped into the role of a representative of the Taiwanese Tourism Promotion Bureau, if there were such an institution. I have, on any given occasion, praised Taiwan, my host country, so much, and I remember how, over a beer or two that I had with that very cousin who was about to visit me, I described fascinating night markets, the awesome 101, and Danshui’s sunsets.

And last Monday, he came.

“No, Jens, don’t take that day off just to pick me up at the airport. I speak English, I’ll manage to get to your place by myself,” that’s what he told me, and what the heck, I knew he would make it, I mean, he hitch-hiked from Germany to Algeria when he was barely eighteen.

“Alright, I’ll give the keys to the guy in the wine shop downstairs. He’ll show you my door,” was my reply.

The cousin-visits-me-here-affair was a tricky one. I took some pride in it, because his coming here proved that he trusted me and my judgement of Taiwan in terms of holiday-worthiness. Like other Germans, he has his four weeks or so of paid vacation a year, and I understand that he might well have preferred the Bahamas to the Shilin night market.

On the other hand, I was well aware that Cousin’s Taiwan trip counted as a reconnaissance mission. He was on my family’s payroll, sent to check on me: dear cousin, my clan’s spy.

On the day of his arrival, I got home and there he was in the living room. He had my computer running, seemed very amused and didn’t even bother looking up to say hi. He has always been like this, and while standing there in the door and seeing him more or less ignoring me, I couldn’t help but admit to myself that I have actually never liked him much. As a kid, he had this offensive habit of taking my toys without my permission and then usually breaking them, but above all I couldn’t stand his sarcastic humor, each and every joke notoriously cracked at someone else’s expense.

“Check this out, this is so funny”, was the way he finally greeted me, waving me over to the monitor.

Of course I expected pictures of Mom and Dad posing while hiking or skiing, or at least while having a barbecue; instead of that, a snapshot of some sign taken at the Taoyuan airport, which read: If you feel uncomfortable. Do contact with quarantine persons, Please.

“Well, they got their English a bit screwed up, I suppose. How was your trip, anyway?” I patiently and politely asked. But Cousin went on, giggling and clicking through this folder packed with photos of signboards full to bursting with English grammar mistakes and misspellings he took while going through the Taoyuan airport after his arrival.

He found it so funny. Remember to claim your personal belongings, such as cigarette, alcohol, etc…through customs examination.

Passengers travelling to dengue fever epidemic country, Preventing yourself from mosquito bites.

No riding barefooted

Fire Alarm Manual Station

By that time, I was already sitting next to him, staring at the computer screen. Even though I wasn’t half as amused as he was, I admittedly had become curious. How can it be that they botched the English language on each and every corner of an international airport?

Cousin didn’t stop. For Passengers Only Press Stop Here Please – He reported with a chuckle that there wasn’t any button anywhere near that sign passengers could possibly have pressed.

“I can explain this one,” I educated him, “the Chinese text above advises reporters -the press- not to go any further -stop-; as opposed to advising passengers to press some imaginary stop button.

Failure to declare will be fined NT$3,000 or more “Who the hell is ‘Failure to declare’? Is this some guy’s name, or what!” he snorted with laughter. There it was, his unbearably malicious sarcasm, perfectly happy only when given the opportunity to nail others making fools of themselves.

He clicked through one jpeg after another. Taiwan really good! Taiwan go go go!

Center for Disease Control cares about you; Centers for Disease Control; and again using the singular: Center for Disease Control etc, etc, etc.

Having set foot on Taiwanese soil for a mere twenty minutes, my cousin (whose mission it undoubtedly was to check on me and also to some extent to check on the soundness of my host country) had passed as many signboards with, in some instances ridiculously, twisted English on them.

I have already mentioned that I’ve always regarded him to be the family member I liked the least, yet in the following two weeks, I still managed to arrange a great vacation for him; we did Taroko, Alishan, and Kenting. I estimate that Cousin took a couple hundred photographs, most of them depicting Taiwan’s gorgeous landscapes or intensely lively city-scenes. But since I pretty much know what kind of gloating guy he is, I’m more than certain that of all the pictures taken on his trip, he will always let his buddies see the ones from Taoyuan International Airport first; I’m more than certain that for a long time to come those twenty photos will give him the much appreciated ammunition to crack his hallmark mischievous and sarcastic jokes…

About the Author

Jens Kastner (嚴斯) used to work as a TV-editor in Germany before coming to Asia. He studies Chinese and Indonesian to gain a profound understanding of Asian matters. In the future, he hopes to gather and evaluate Asian news for the European and/ or Asian media. Jens writes short stories in Chinese and has been honored with the Nanhua University Literature Award 2009 (南華大學文學獎)and the Taipei Bar Association Law Literature Award 2009 (律師公會法律文學獎). He also translates for the Taipei Times. Jens Kastner's Blog email @

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