Mandarin is difficult. Another one of those tonal languages. As in “ma” can be pronounced 5 distinct ways for 5 different meanings (in Thai it’s 6 or 7 different ways for “ma”!)
Of course I didn’t look at my Lonely Planet phrasebook until breakfast the first day in Taipei, which didn’t help. In retrospect, with enough time, I wish I would have sought someone who speaks English and Mandarin (e.g. in Chinatown, or at a hostel if traveling) to ask for 15-30 minutes of pronunciation help. Oh well, maybe I’ll be better prepared for Hong Kong.
I’m not sure who created pinyin exactly – that’s the official way the Chinese adopted for writing in Roman alphabet (i.e. regular ol’ letters like in English). But it’s not English pronunciation (unlike Japanese romanization (romaji) which is pronounced as an English speaker would pronounce it).
For example, “sorry” is “duibuqi” (with some accents) but pronounced “dayboochee” more or less). Say what?
Or, to quote an example from the phrase book, foreign diplomats (waijaoguan with some extra accents) who pronounce it with a flat tone are saying that they are “rubber U-bend pipes”
The LP guidebook/phrasebook suggests 2 things: Taiwanese people are friendly, and don’t worry so much about the tones. Case in point…
The second time I went to Taipei 101, afterwards I ate lunch in the food court in the bowels of the building. I had to circle the whole food court before finding a seat at a narrow table with barstools. A Taiwanese woman, Silvia, sat down across from me a little later. After a while, noticing my phrasebook, she asked me (in very good English) what words I knew. I swear she couldn’t understand half my words the first time I said them (mostly due to intonation, and some errors on my part). She helped me straighten it out a little. It turns out she manages the new office for a law firm that is headquartered in Seattle.
Using her spare cardkey, Silvia took me up to show the office and view, on the 45th floor (most of the Taipei 101 building is office space, with 10,000 people working there!). We had to switch elevators at the 35th floor “lounge”, which had a Starbucks and a Family Mart (main competitor to 7-11 here) with a view! She had only been in this office for a month, so it was with a touch of irony that I pointed out that her view was towards the Maokong mountain (where the gondola is).
So, Taiwanese are indeed friendly! And intonation does matter!