Today, my brother and I went for lunch with some church friends, where we decided to stop by at an Aldi after just to buy some Kombucha. Little did we know, however, that this bottle of Kombucha would be the most hard-earned Kombucha ever known.

An unassuming Chinese lady probably in her 60’s kindly came up to us while we perused the store. In Mandarin, she asked if we could help her recharge her phone. At least that was what we thought – as our Mandarin was poor. Feeling sorry for her predicament in which she expressed as being quite lost, we tried to help her. We lined up at the counter to ask to purchase a recharge costing 15 dollars. As we received the recharge receipt, the instructions were in English. So, we tried to help her input the credit.

Little did we know, however, was that she did not have an Aldi service, but that her SIM card was for a different provider! So, returning back to the counter in frustration, we tried to ask for a refund. The manager of the store approached us, telling us that phone credit is non-refundable.

Dang it.

Feeling shocked and dumbfounded, in the end we bought a $5 prepaid sim card for her phone.

Already about 15 minutes into this detour just to buy Kombucha, we started the process of trying to help her activate it. Realising that she had no internet, I had to hotspot her in order to try to activate the phone. We had continued to fumble broken Mandarin to ask to input her details, however to not much avail. At the end of the process of activating the SIM, the final step required an identity verification in which she had left all the possible documents at home.

So with around half an hour being burnt and $20 dollars spent, that was when we said goodbye to the lady, and both of us questioned if we really managed to help her. Feeling quite sorry for her, it must be extremely difficult for her to get around in a foreign country such as Australia without being able to speak much English.

In this incident, one frustrating complication led to another, in which all of this angst could be much easily avoided had we been more fluent in Mandarin.

Reflecting on the situation made me realise how important communication is. This incident cemented the repercussions of not being able to fully learn my mother tongue. Had I been more diligent and less rebellious in learning Mandarin in my younger years, things may have turned out quite different. It is a large regret of mine not being able to speak to my relatives in Malaysia in Mandarin all these years. Many familial moments over the years that could have been cherished were tarnished due to bad Mandarin. With this event cementing my regret, I should really put in the effort to change this.

Arriving at home, my brother and I drank that Kombucha that he had bought as a sort of consolation. The bitter-sweet taste of the fermented drink in a way came across to me to represent the bitter-sweetness of this event that unfolded. Bitter that we may not have been able to help her – thus wasting both her time and ours, but sweet in that we had finally realised the cost of not being fluent in Mandarin, and that we should improve.

For those who have read this far, I think it would be beneficial for you to pause and reflect – is there anything that you regret not learning? For me, Mandarin is one of them – where the cost of it has been like a thorn that has been with me for many years. If you have found it – that’s good. Now, I urge you to tackle it as soon as possible, before it is too late.