She was gesticulating wildly and speaking in Taiwanese, diagnosing the problem with my water heater as we stood on the street.
“Buy a new battery! A battery! Battery.” She waved a D-cell battery, showing that this was what she meant. Being of an older generation, she spoke very little Mandarin, and I being raised with only Mandarin at home, spoke very little Taiwanese.
“Yes, battery. I understand.” I repeat the word in Taiwanese and Mandarin. I continue in a mixture of Taiwanese and Mandarin. “And I’m telling you the pilot-light lights up fine. If the battery were dead, I wouldn’t have a pilot-light, would I? As long as the pilot-light gets lit, you’d expect the boiler to catch, wouldn’t you?”
“Okay, but you’ll have to show me where it goes in.”
I bought a battery and came back.
“Can you show me where it goes?” She locked her front door, crossed the street, and climbed the stairs with me.
“So are you living in this place with your family?”
“No, by myself.”
“Yourself! Oh what a waste!” I led her through the front door.
“I looked at smaller places. Rent was the same.”
“How much are you paying for rent?”
I told her.
“Oh!” and she stuck her tongue out and looked down.
“Does that mean it’s expensive?” I watched her facial expression. “Cheap?”
“You know, this place was empty for a year!”
“Your curtains! How beautiful!” she repeated in careful Mandarin. “Beautiful.” then switched back to Taiwanese. “Did the landlord give you these?”
“No, I just bought them today.”
I led her to the kitchen.
“Your washing machine is indoors. Why is it indoors?”
“The balcony is too small for it, if I put it there, I couldn’t dry my…”
“No, you mustn’t have it indoors, it should really be outside on the balcony.”
I led her through the kitchen to the balcony. She took one look at my gas water heater, saw how old it was, and said. “Haha! This? It’s probably broken!”
“That old, huh?” I said. She showed me how to replace the battery. “Ok, I’ll go in and turn the hot water on. Watch for me to see if the boiler lights-up.”
I went in to the bathroom and turned the hot water on. There was window onto the balcony, so we could talk to each other.
“Anything?” I asked.
“No. Your heater is broken.”
“Well thanks. We tried.” I turned the water off, walked back around, cut the gas off, then led my neighbor back through my kitchen.
“You should put your washing machine outside. When you cook, it’s right next to the gas stove. The heat won’t be good for it.”
“Yeah, I’m going to buy a heat shield.”
“You still will get oil splashed on it.” She pantomimed an oil drop leaping from the stove arching through the air and landing on my washing machine. Taiwanese cooking typically uses oil and water on high heat. I don’t cook that way. I often steam or simply coat the pan with oil and close the lid, preventing the oil from leaping out. But I didn’t feel like talking about cooking with my neighbor.
“Yeah.” I said, not meaning it. She could tell.
“I’m serious.” She switched to laboriously careful Mandarin. “I’m just telling you what’s good for you.”
I walked her back through my living room.
“How much money do you make?”
“I… don’t want to say. Thank you for helping me.” We had reached my front door, which I opened for her.
“Oh, it’s nothing.”