Monthly Archives: February 2009


Feb 2009

Cross-Cultural Marital Communication: Sacrifice, Identity, Choice

Commenter 維特利 recently made this observation:

> From reading different blogs I see that there are two kind of situations in mixed families in China:

> 1. American husbands speak Chinese with their Chinese wives and therefore wives aren’t fluent in English.
> 2. Chinese wives speak English with their American husbands and therefore American husbands aren’t fluent in Chinese.

> It looks like that real bilingual families are not easy to find:-)

The comment rings true, and it’s something I always suspected was partly due to language-learning motivation of one of the parties. In my case, I preferred not to date Chinese girls that wanted to speak to me in English because I was in China to practice Chinese, and at least this way I could be sure I wasn’t being used. (I wasn’t just using, of course… I did fall in love.) Still, this explanation isn’t terribly compelling. Not every cross-cultural relationship is sparked by a burning desire to learn a language.

A study by Ingrid Piller called Language choice in bilingual, cross-cultural interpersonal communication examined the languages used by German- and English-speaking cross-cultural couples and made some interesting observations.

In the following excerpt from the study, Deborah speaks English and her husband speaks German:

> Deborah: […] well, my husband and I decided to speak English together, and I guess mainly that has to do with the fact, that, when I first arrived here in Germany two years ago his English was considerably better then my German, and in order for us to communicate, even on a basic level, it was- it was necessary for us to speak English. And I think we’ve just kept that up, because it became a habit, and also I think it’s sort of a, … a way for him to offer some sort of sacrifice to ME. because I had to give up, all my things, my culture, my language, my family, and my friends, to move to Germany. and he had everything here around him. And I guess the only thing he COULD offer me was his language. […] it- it’s STRANGE for us when we speak German with each other. because we met in the States, he was teaching German at the university where I had studied. and I had already graduated but he was giving me private lessons. and that’s how we became friends, and we just spoke English together THEN. and we have always spoken English together, and it just seems strange that- that once I came here, that we should then speak German. […]

It’s interesting that Deborah sees her husband speaking English as a sacrifice, because I think both my wife and I see our communication in Chinese rather than English as an opportunity sacrifice for her which was necessary not just because I was enthusiastic about learning Chinese, but also because it’s more important for me to be fluent in Chinese in China than it is for her to be fluent in English in China.

The excerpt above was followed by this analysis (bold mine):

> Deborah finds it strange to use the majority language with her husband because that is not what they did when they first met. The fact that couples find it difficult to change from the language of their first meeting to another one can probably be explained with the close relationship between language and identity. In a number of studies in the 1960s, Ervin(-Tripp) (1964; 1968) found that language choice is much more than only the choice to the medium. Rather, content is affected, too. In a number of experiments, that have unfortunately not been replicated since, she demonstrated that in Thematic Apperception Tests (TAT) the content of picture descriptions changed with the language (English or French) a person used. When she asked English-Japanese bilingual women to do a sentence completion test, she got the same dramatic results: the sentence completion changed from one language to the other. Her most famous example is probably that of a woman completing the stimulus “When my wishes conflict with my family…” with “It is a time of great unhappiness” in Japanese, and with “I do what I want” in English (Ervin-Tripp 1968: 203). Likewise, Koven (1998) shows in her study of the narratives of French-Portuguese bilinguals that the self is performed differently in these languages. She argues that these differing performances point to contrasting experiences and positional identities in the two linguistic communities. So, there is evidence that bilinguals say different things in different languages, which makes it quite obvious why intercultural couples stick to the language of their first meeting: they might lose the sense of knowing each other, the sense of connectedness and the rapport derived from knowing what the other will say in advance if they switched.

Very interesting (and a little scary).

Yet I’d still like my wife to know the English-speaking me better, and I would hope that someday not too distant the Chinese-speaking me can converse with a bit more sophistication. Meanwhile, the English-speaking her is shy, but shows a lot of promise.

People change. Identities evolve. Maybe it’s not the norm, but I imagine marital language relationships can develop too.


Feb 2009

Counterfeit Money, Payrolls, and Banks

I received this e-mail from a reader recently:

I just read your piece on counterfeit money. I work for a school in a western province which paid me just before NY. About one third was counterfeit money which I’m having a tough time with, groceries to buy, transportation and so on; nobody wants to take my money and school isn’t back in for another month. My employer is out of the country and doesn’t return my emails. What to do with counterfeit money which he got from the bank himself?

I wasn’t sure how to answer this… My first thought was that the employer was lying, and he didn’t really get it from the bank. He might easily have bought a bunch of counterfeit bills himself, and cut all his employees’ paychecks (or maybe just certain ones’) with them to save money on his payroll.

That said, I live in Shanghai, and I’m not sure how things work in the “western provinces.” The banks themselves could be mixed up in counterfeiting as well. Does anyone have any experience? (中国朋友,不要害羞!写中文也可以。)


Feb 2009

Comic Reduplication Meets Historical Reduplication

Reduplication, in linguistics, is a morphological process by which the root or stem of a word, or part of it, is repeated” (Wikipedia). You see reduplication in Chinese a lot, with verbs (看看, 试试), nouns (妈妈, 狗狗), and even adjectives (红红的, 漂漂亮亮).

You get reduplication is Japanese too (some of the coolest examples are mimetic), in words such as 時々 or 様々. As you can see, rather than writing the character twice, the Japanese use a cool little iteration mark: 々. Now if the Japanese learned to write from the Chinese, why don’t the Chinese use the same iteration mark?

According to Wikipedia, the Chinese sometimes use 々, but you don’t see it in print. This is true; what the Chinese use (only when writing shorthand) actually looks something like ㄣ. Ostensibly, because you never see 々 in print in China (or it never even existed in neat, printed form), it comes out a bit sloppily as ㄣ in Chinese handwritten form.

I recently read a cutesy Taiwanese comic called 兔出没,注意!!! Rabbits Caution about the lives of two rabbits named 呵呵 and 可乐 and their owners. In the comic, the author took a rather “mathematical” approach to reduplication. Look for 宝宝 and 玩玩 in this one:


Look for 看看 and 谢谢 in this one (and don’t be confused by the in 回家):


In this frame, even “bye-bye” gets the treatment:



While cute, I figured this representation of reduplication was not likely original. I was quite surprised, however, to see an almost identical representation on Wikipedia dating back to 900 B.C.! The quote:

The bronzeware script on the bronze pot of the Zhou Dynasty, shown right, ends with “子寶用”, where the small 二 (two) is used as iteration marks to mean “子子孫孫寶用”.

Well, as they say, there’s nothing new under the sun, and history repeats itself. The weird thing is that 2 and 々 even sort of look alike, in the way that 々 and ㄣ do. 2 is 々 without the first stroke, and ㄣ is 々 without the last stroke. Meanwhile, the ancient Chinese iteration mark 二 bears a striking resemblance to the modern “ditto mark” used in modern English! (I’ll leave those for the orthographical conspiracy theorists among you to chew on.)


Feb 2009

Mark's New Pinyin Input Firefox Extension

My friend Mark has created a FireFox addon. It does one thing and it does it well: it converts onscreen text from numeral pinyin to pretty pinyin with tone marks.  (It doesn’t convert characters to pinyin or any of that jazz.)

I find this very useful. If it sounds good to you, try out the Pinyin Input Firefox Extension.


Feb 2009

Buying a Wii in China

A while back I blogged about buying a PS2 in China, and there was a lot of interest. There’s not much to say about PS3, because it is so far uncracked/unpirated, so everyone who plays PS3 here imports everything. Games are 2-300 RMB each. XBox 360 has similar status re: pirating to Wii in China, but I have almost no experience with it, so will limit my observations to the Wii and its games.

Nintendo does not officially sell the Wii in the People’s Republic of China, so buyers must purchase an imported system. While previously Japanese Wii systems were the most common, now Korean imports are becoming more common. I imagine it is possible buy the Wii imported from the United States and other countries as well.

These are the prices I was quoted at my local video game shop:

– Basic Wii system (one controller) imported from Korea: 1580 RMB
– Installation of WiiGator “backup launcher” (which allows you to play “backup copy” AKA pirated games): free
– Extra Wii controller set (Wii remote + “nunchuk”): 450 RMB
– Wii Fit imported from Japan (with Wii Fit game/software): 800 RMB
– 10 games (not imported, obviously) – free


All games work fine as long as you load them through the WiiGator Gamma Backup Launcher 0.3. The system also comes preloaded with Homebrew and Softchip (an alternate backup launcher). The shopkeeper told me only to use the WiiGator Gamma Backup Launcher, but I did actually try out the Softchip launcher, and it worked for most games. The (Korean) Mii section, however, does not work at all. I’ve heard that it can easily be enabled; the shopkeeper I talked to said it’s a waste of precious memory. I didn’t buy any memory upgrades, and so far I’m doing fine without it.

Just like PS2 and XBox 360 games, Wii discs sell in Shanghai for 5 RMB each.

It is expected that “backup launchers” and other alternate Wii firmware will continue to make strides. Currently, for example, online access is impossible, and attempts to use it will likely lock down the offending Wii system. In the event that alternate firmware does release better versions, it’s understood that shopkeepers will upgrade the firmware of their customers’ systems free of charge.

I can’t actually help you buy a Wii; this information is for reference only. If you’re interested, please also see Buying a Wii in Taiwan, a sister blog post by my friend Mark, who lives in Taiwan.


Feb 2009

Where Futurama and Queen Meet

Despite the fantastical title, this is a blog post about translating into Chinese. Bear with me here.

Although she recognizes its importance, my wife has never been very enthusiastic about studying English, so over the years I’ve tried various ways of encouraging her to study. One of the earliest ideas I had was the TV show Friends. Tons of young Chinese people love it as study material, and ever since my teaching years in Hangzhou, I’ve always felt it’s great for that. (I’m not one of those Friends-bashers.) My wife, however, hated it. She thought it was dumb.


Eventually, we found the English TV show that she liked. To my surprise, it was Futurama. Now don’t get me wrong… I love the Simpsons, and I love Futurama, but I really didn’t expect my wife to like it. But she really, really did. (She continues to surprise me on a regular basis.)

So we found the English language TV show she wanted to watch, but she still wanted Chinese subtitles. And so the great “Hunt for Futurama-with-Chinese-Subtitles” began.

This turned out to be way more difficult than I imagined. We asked a lot of shops for a long time, and in the end we only ever found Season 1 with subtitles. In the process, however, I became familiar with Futurama’s Chinese names.

Yes, that’s names, because it has a few. It seems like the most popular one is 飞出个未来. Taken literally, it doesn’t make much sense… something like “fly out a future.” I guess it sort of jives with Futurama’s opening sequence, but what the name is actually doing is approximating the sound of the English word “future” with the Chinese word 飞出. Kinda clever, if crafty transliteration is your bag, but certainly no masterpiece of translation.

The translation I like better is the one I first learned: 未来狂想曲. The first part, 未来, means “future.” OK, fine. But here’s where the interesting part comes. The next three characters are supposed to somehow represent “-rama” in Chinese. Considering that I’m not even sure how to explain what that means in English, I really feel that “-rama” is not easy to translate into Chinese, especially considering that this time the transliteration copout was not used.

The second part, 狂想曲, if broken down into three characters, literally means something like “crazy imagination tune.” It’s a real word that means “rhapsody” (in the musical sense). According to wikipedia:

> A rhapsody in music is a one-movement work that is episodic yet integrated, free-flowing in structure, featuring a range of highly contrasted moods, colour and tonality. An air of spontaneous inspiration and a sense of improvisation make it freer in form than a set of variations.

I think that description matches “-rama” and the feel of Futurama quite well, actually.

Still, if you’re a non-musician like myself, when you hear the word “rhapsody,” there’s a good chance you make this association:

Sure enough, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is 波西米亚狂想曲 in Chinese. I even found a website that translates all the lyrics of the song into Chinese. Just go to this 波西米亚狂想曲 page and watch the text to the right of the video as it plays. The translation isn’t 100% accurate (the translator also wimped out on “Scaramouche”), but it’s pretty decent. And more than a little awesome.

Bohemian Rhapsody in Chinese

Sadly, the 未来狂想曲 translation of Futurama is seldom used, and has even been co-opted by a TV show called The Future is Wild. Ah, well. Easy come, easy go… doesn’t really matter to me.


Feb 2009

John DeFrancis

I’ve been feeling guilty for a month for not saying something about John DeFrancis’s passing. I have have no words more eloquent or meaningful than these three, however:

– Victor Mair (on Language Log)
– David Moser (on The China Beat)
– Brendan O’Kane (on his site)

Not surprisingly, I especially liked (and identified with) Brendan’s. If you don’t know DeFrancis and you’re at all interested in Chinese, by all means, check out the man’s work.

I’m also a little embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until recent word of DeFrancis’s death that I realized when it was that I first read The China Language: Fact and Fantasy. While I was studying in Japan in 1997, I checked it out from the Kansai Gaidai library. It was perhaps that book, more than anything, that kindled the spark of interest I had in Chinese, impelling me to formally study it after I went back to the U.S., and ultimately to travel to China after graduation.

Thank you, John DeFrancis.