Lost in Translation (Part 4: On Purpose Series*)


*My purpose-driven journey, at least geographically, is taking a brief detour to Taiwan.

Mandarin, aside from the mouth-watering mini oranges, is a thorn in my foreigner flesh. With it, I have blessed a handful, and cursed many:

  • “Hello, Old Items”: First words uttered to my future in-laws. (Inflection is a thing in Mandarin. Luckily, I was visiting for their retirement celebration.)
  • “I am a beautiful melon.”: My response when asked my nationality. That’s a bit shy of “American.”
  • “Enema”: My pronunciation of the Chinese translation for “English?” In hindsight I’m wondering what question I was really asking: “Do you speak English?” or “Where is this medicine? I am constipated from eating too many noodles!”

I marvel at how Mandarin rolls off the tongue for over a billion humans, while I struggle to spit out just few unintelligible words. (Pointing helps. Sometimes.)

If you’ve ventured away from your mother tongue, surly you’ve lived with these liabilities too. Here, meaning and intent are as inconsistent as the weather. I shudder at the sheer volume I’ve muddied and misinterpreted. So much, lost in translation.

Thankfully, there’s an upside: I’ve found that language obscurity quickens non-verbal social senses. In the safety and seclusion of my favorite Taipei coffee shop, narratives unfurl all around me: Connection – or the lack of it, love – or the longing for it, kindness and indifference. These fragments of life magnify, unobstructed by the spoken word. As I peel back layers of language, cultural context and norms I find human heart solidarity: What tugs at the soul – our needs, desires, struggles – and how we respond; this is our universal heartbeat.  

A friend here said it best. As our sons (unable to verbally communicate) hurled stuffed animals at each other: “They are not so distant.”

Feng Shui Frogs

Presiding from his perch in (some) homes here, sits the money frog. He rests on a pile of coins, clinching one in his jaws, since . . . that’s more intimidating. Some in Chinese culture believe that a well-placed frog in a home or business can conjure monetary prosperity. Following feng shui frog rules, they hope, will optimize their prospects.

Placement in bathrooms is strictly forbidden, as this business is solitary. Unless, of course, there were too many noodles . . .

The money frog seemed strange to me, until I considered my own lucky rabbit’s foot-shooting star-four leaf clover-culture. All of these spot-light some of our collective cultural yearnings: Distinction, security, comfort, success. For better or worse, what’s valued, and how much we have of it, toggles with purpose.

When I peek into my own heart, I see him sitting there too: My very own metaphorical money frog, snugly tucked away, under blankets of saintly denial. But he’s there, clamping down on all the things: So much of what my culture (and so many others) aspires to. If I’m really honest, this is the purpose that propels me forward. Or maybe, it’s the opposite direction.

We are “not so distant,” after all.

And not so distant, either, from that middle-eastern mountainside, where crowds gathered: Straining for glimpses of a Galilean carpenter, rumored to wield super-powers. Here was distinction, success, power – purpose.

They leaned in, straining for the golden ticket – their own first-century money frog.

“Blessed are . . .”

  • The poor, the morning, the morning, the merciful and meek.
  • The hungering, the peacemakers and the persecuted.
  • The insulted. *

Words in a language they knew, but couldn’t understand. Lost, in translation. I pity them, until I try to count the times these words have fallen on my own deaf ears.

“Blessed are the what?” I hear them murmur.

Or, maybe – frog in hand – that was me.

*Paraphrased from Matthew 5:3-11

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