In my evening class last night, I had to explain the meaning of “sweet potato greens” (a common vegetable in Taiwan). I described, in English, what a sweet potato was like, and one of the students guessed “Fānshǔ yè?” but everyone looked a little confused. Fānshǔ (蕃薯, literally “barbarian potato”) does in fact mean “sweet potato,” but a much more common term in Taiwan is dìguā (地瓜, literally “ground melon”). The relative frequency of fānshǔ vs. dìguā in Taiwan is perhaps roughly similar to that of, say, automobile vs. car in America. In fact, in my 12 years in Taiwan, I don’t think I had ever encountered fānshǔ anywhere but in a dictionary until yesterday. So I said, “Well, yes, but most people would say dìguā yè.” At that, everyone understood. “Oh, right, dìguā yè.” That, unlike fānshǔ yè, was a vegetable everyone was familiar with.
Perhaps half an hour later, on my way home from that class, I stopped to buy some stinky tofu from a roadside stand. The owner, who knows me, decided to throw in something extra for free. He said (all in Chinese, of course), “Here, have some dìguā fritters, too. They’re free.” Then, thinking I might not know what he meant, he added, “Do you know dìguā? It means fān-shǔ” — enunciated slowly and clearly, like Sam explaining to Gollum that taters are “po-ta-toes.”