The (Chinese) Alcohol for (Chinese) Alcoholics

Here’s another one for the “I can’t believe they named the product that” file (see also “Cat Crap Coffee“). This one has more of a cultural differences angle, with a little bit of translation difficulty thrown in for good measure.

There’s a brand of Chinese rice wine called 酒鬼酒. Here’s a picture of it:

酒鬼酒

in Chinese, while often translated as “wine,” more generally means “alcohol.” Traditionally, it’s some kind of grain alcohol, like 白酒 (Chinese “white wine“).

A person who routinely drinks to excess is called a 酒鬼 in Chinese, which literally means “alcohol demon” or “alcohol devil” or “alcohol ghost,” depending on how you want to translate . It sounds pretty negative, but in fact, in Chinese culture this type of alcohol abuse is not nearly so stigmatized. Although the police forces of many regions in China have begun cracking down on drunk driving in recent years, alcoholism in China is not as closely linked in the public consciousness to vehicular manslaughter, domestic violence, child abuse, and the host of other evils as it often is in the west. In fact, regular heavy drinking is closely linked to some of China’s greatest poets, most famously 李白 (Li Bai).

Here’s 李白 getting his drink on:

Li Bai drinking

So it’s more in the spirit of historical drunken poetry (as opposed to inebriated abusiveness) that this brand of Chinese rice wine is called 酒鬼酒.

Translating the brand name into English is a new challenge in itself, though. If you simply translate 酒鬼 as “alcoholic” and as “alcohol,” you get “Alcoholic Alcohol,” which sounds like it means “Alcohol that Contains Alcohol,” which is just plain dumb. In fact, you can’t use the word “alcoholic” as a modifier at all for that reason, so if you don’t want to ditch the noun “alcoholic” altogether you have to say something like “Alcohol for Alcoholics,” which sounds like some kind of horrible demented “charity” to my American ears.

So what else can you do? “Booze for Boozers” and “Wino Wine” are ridiculous. “Drunk Spirits”? I’m curious what a creative translator can come up with. (Pete? Brendan?)

Anyway, 酒鬼酒 is a real company in China, and has its own Baidu Baike page (in Chinese, obviously), and is also listed on Wikipedia under “unflavored baijiu.”

Chinese Interbank Transfers Go Offline, and Alipay Swoops in

This National Day holiday (October 1-7), the People’s Bank of China (中国人民银行) is doing some major work on its computer system which handles interbank transfers, and as a result, interbank transfers will not be possible for the entire vacation.

It strikes me as totally ridiculous (and incompetent) that such an important part of China’s banking system would need to be down for so long. One could hope that it’s the last big push the country’s banking system needs in order to be completely modernized and never require this kind of downtime again for interbank transfers (or anything else), but I’m not quite that hopeful.

The amusing silver lining of this incident is that Alipay (支付宝, Taobao’s payment service) is taking advantage of the business opportunity and sending out its own marketing message: “hey, you can’t do regular interbank transfers during the October holiday, but if you try Alipay instead, no transfer fees!

Alipay's National Day Holiday "Deal"

Pretty clever.

Bring on the Seed of a Free Internet!

Yesterday quite a stir was caused by an article on the South China Morning Post called EXCLUSIVE: China to lift ban on Facebook – but only within Shanghai free-trade zone. To be clear, though, it’s not just about Facebook:

Beijing has made the landmark decision to lift a ban on internet access within the Shanghai Free-trade Zone to foreign websites considered politically sensitive by the Chinese government, including Facebook, Twitter and newspaper website The New York Times.

An unfiltered Internet? In Shanghai? Seriously?! For some of us, this is a total dream come true. I often say that filtered (and slow, as a result) Internet access in China is one of the most frustrating downsides to living in China as a foreigner. Maybe we should be more concerned about food safety, pollution, and social issues, but the truth is that Internet censorship directly affects us (and our businesses) every single day.

OK, but first, let’s be clear about what this so-called “Shanghai FTZ” really is:

Shanghai Free-trade Zone is the first Hong Kong-like free trade area in mainland China. The plan was first announced by the government in July and it was personally endorsed by Premier Li Keqiang who said he wanted to make the zone a snapshot of how China can upgrade its economic structure. Other mainland cities and provinces including Tianjin and Guangdong have also lobbied Beijing for such approvals. The Shanghai FTZ will first span 28.78 square kilometres in the city’s Pudong New Area, including the Waigaoqiao duty-free zone and Yangshan port and it is believed it may eventually expand to cover the entire Pudong district which covers 1,210.4 sq km of land.

Pink Flowers

Photo by Will Change

OK, so it’s not all of Shanghai, it’s just a corner of Pudong. Bummer. But one could hope that such a haven of free internet access right in Shanghai could be expanded over time… or at least exploited by the entire city. It does give one hope.

Lastly, I’m reminded of a quote here:

百花齐放,百家争鸣 (“Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend”)

Here’s hoping for the best!


Update: The People’s Daily has refuted the claims made by the SCMP article linked to above. Here’s some English coverage. Bummer, but I guess there’s no new “100 Flowers” incident brewing, at least!

Cat Crap Coffee

OK, so you’ve heard of kopi luwak, right? Just in case you haven’t, here’s some Wikipedia for you:

civet-cat-coffee

Kopi luwak, or civet coffee, refers to the beans of coffee berries once they have been eaten and excreted by the Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). The name is also used for marketing brewed coffee made from the beans.

Given the process by which this coffee is created, it’s not too surprising that we elect to refer to it in English by a foreign name–kopi luwak–rather than actually giving it a descriptive name. I mean, you can’t just call it “cat crap coffee,” charming as the alliteration may be, right? Well, you can in Chinese.

The Chinese name is 猫屎咖啡, literally, “cat crap coffee.” If you want to be a little cruder, the translation “cat shit coffee” is no less accurate.

What kind of blows my mind is that a coffee shop in the business of trying to sell this product (and it’s kind of expensive coffee) just straight up calls it 猫屎咖啡 (“cat crap coffee”). Don’t strain yourself too much with the marketing effort, right?

You can ask your Chinese friends if they’ve heard of 猫屎咖啡, and probably most of them have. What you won’t hear is them saying things like, “isn’t it weird that we just call it ‘cat shit coffee?’” Well, I have to hand it to the Chinese for calling a spade a spade.

But what I find even crazier is that there’s now a coffee chain expanding to multiple locations in Shanghai that goes by the very name “猫屎咖啡.” So some entrepreneur heard of this coffee, liked it, and decided he wanted the word “shit” in both his main product’s name as well as the name of his very business. Now that’s bold. Sassy, even.

猫屎咖啡

The English name for the Chinese chain is, notably, “Kafelaku Coffee.”

Looks like there’s some backlash forming around this particular strain of coffee in the UK. I can’t imagine it’ll faze the Chinese market, though!

The California No and the East Asian No

I recently came across the term “California no” on Urban Dictionary. It is defined as:

The way rejection tends to be handled by Californians, who are sunny in disposition and less brusque than East Coast residents. Instead of bluntly saying “no,” Californians say no by avoiding the question, forgetting to respond to emails, and generally postponing the issue. The best way to give a California no is to do nothing at all, as opposed to saying it outright.

This is especially popular in the entertainment industry. For example, Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal is quoted as saying: “To me, postponing a Hollywood lunch meeting is the new passing. They figure they’ll postpone you until you go away. This way, they are not saying no. If that happens more than twice — obviously emergencies come up — you’ve got to get the hint.”

A: So I emailed that agent a week ago and still no response. What is going on?

B: He’s giving you the California no.

This strikes me as very similar to the “Chinese no” (or even “Japanese no”): indirect, requiring the rejectee to “get the hint.” Anyone who’s ever studied “how the Chinese do business” will have read at least a full chapter on this topic.

Here’s a typical example taken from Chinese Business Etiquette: the Practical Pocket Guide:

THE “NO” WORD

Misunderstanding over the use of “no” is one of the most frequent causes of frustration in business negotiations. It is common knowledge that Chinese people do not like to say no.

In accordance with Confucian ideals of humility and service, Chinese do not like to disappoint someone or seem ungenerous or unhelpful. The Chinese consider it rude to say no to someone even if that is the only answer possible. This cultural norm finds its most frustrating aspect in asking Chinese for directions. Should the person questioned not know what you are talking about, he or she will nevertheless give you false directions rather than appear unhelpful. Despite the wasted hours of wandering you may incur, remember they were simply being polite.

Likewise, in business the Chinese will not usually come out and say no to a proposal directly. Instead they will give a vague response such as “perhaps,” “I’m not sure,” “I’ll think about it,” or “We’ll see”–all of which usually mean “no.”

What do you think, Californians? Are you culturally “more Asian” in this regard?

Chinese Character Picture Logo for “Yin Wei”

I definitely don’t like this logo as well as the 永久 logo, but this one is still noteworthy:

吟味

The Name

The name of the Japanese restaurant is 吟味. This is kind of a strange name to me; the only Chinese word I’m very familiar with that contains the character is 呻吟, which means “moan” or “groan.” It has numerous sound-related meanings, like “sing,” “chant,” and “recite.” , of course, means “flavor.”

In Japanese, I found an entry for 吟味 (ぎんみ) which means “testing; scrutiny; careful investigation.” I guess a name like that could be comforting in a country so beset with food safety issues?

The Pictures

I found it interesting how the mouth radical () is used in the same logo to form two very different pictures. The first one is of a table reminiscent of ancestral forms of the character 口, except upside down. The second one looks like a bowl, and although looking more modern, resembles a few of the other ancestral forms of the character 口 (and not upside down this time).

The right side of 吟 (the roof combined with the kneeling Japanese figure) to me really looks more like the character than in certain calligraphic styles.

Logos like this are interesting, but to me highlights an important point: Chinese characters are not pictures. They’re not even very much like pictures. If characters were really “like pictures,” this kind of logo wouldn’t work.

Certain Chinese characters and character components are historically pictographic in nature, yes, but you can see how even a basic pictographic element like the mouth radical (口) is actually very plastic. To me, what’s so fascinating about characters is not that they’re “like pictures,” but that they’re a ridiculously complex (and yet still viable) alternative symbolic system to alphabet-based writing systems.

I’ll write more on this subject later.

What is your staple food?

A while ago I was asked this question by Sinosplice reader Efraim Klamph:

I am teaching English in a somewhat rural location in Hunan. Sometimes students ask me, “What do Americans have as their main food?” I assume by “main food” they mean 主食, which Wenlin translates as “staple/principal food”. The concept of 主食 seems very clear in Chinese cuisine; particularly at the cafeteria where I eat, you get your veggies and meat all on top of a large serving of white rice. When I think of American or Western cuisine in general, I have a hard time thinking of what could serve as the 主食. Many of the students who ask me seem to be inclined that Westerners eat bread as their 主食. But think about the meals you eat when you’re back home; at least for me, it’s not always a bunch of vegetables and tofu served on a block of rice. So I say to the students that Westerners don’t really have a 主食, we sometimes eat bread, noodles and rice, but the concept of 主食 is rather different in Western cuisine. I mean, where’s the 主食 in the classic salad, hamburger and fries? Any thoughts on this?

I think when the Chinese think “主食,” they normally think “one kind of food,” whereas westerners often think of this as “a class of foods,” AKA what society in the States currently refers to as “carbs.” So our 主食 can be pasta, or bread, or mashed potatoes, or rice, or any of a number of things. Maybe even the hamburger bun and the fries. It depends on the meal.

It sounds a little ethnocentric to say that Western food has a rich smorgasbord of “主食” (carbs), whereas China has only rice. In reality, China does have quite a bit more variety than just rice.

Typical Chinese Carbs (主食):

  • rice: 米饭
  • wheat noodles: 面条
  • mantou (steamed buns): 馒头
  • glass noodles: 米线
  • various “cakes”:
  • various dumplings: 饺子
Bread

Photo by rprata

Typical Western Carbs (主食):

  • bread: 面包
  • pasta: 意大利面
  • rice: 米饭
  • corn: 玉米
  • potatoes: 土豆

Neither of these lists are exhaustive, but clearly there’s variation in the carbs consumed in both regions. The difference lies in the fact that certain regions of China stick much more closely to one type (e.g. rice every day in the south, noodles every day in the north), whereas more of a variety is typical in “the west.” More than once, I’ve had Chinese friends from the south tell me that they “just don’t feel right” if they don’t have at least some rice every day. It’s a seriously ingrained (ha!) eating habit.

Obviously, it feels kind of ridiculous to try to sum up the eating habits of “the west” so simply, even though your Chinese friends may very well expect you to do just that. So you may have to explain that in Mexico more corn tortilla and rice is eaten as the 主食, in Poland it’s more potatoes, in Turkey it’s various types of bread, etc.

But if you’re in China for very long studying Chinese and communicating with locals, sooner or later you’re going to have the 主食 discussion. Most Chinese have heard their whole lives that western food is very uniform and boring compared to the rich culinary tapestry that is Chinese food, so you can have a little go at shattering 主食 preconceptions with this one. (Good luck!)

The Yongjiu Bicycles Logo

I noticed this cleverly designed logo for the Shanghai brand 永久 recently, and had to take note:

永久 Logo

永久 means “permanent.” Here’s the logo with its English name, “Forever”:

Forever (永久)

Here’s a bit of evolution of the logo over the years (notice that it was once written right-to-left):

Forever (永久)

Finally, if you’re having trouble identifying the character elements in the logo, here’s a little deconstruction aid for you:

"Yongjiu" Logo Deconstruction

On Delayed Language Acquisition

JP recently finished studying Chinese at the Monterey Institute, and he said something that caught my attention:

Ok, how’s my Chinese now? It’s better than when I started. I’ve certainly seen a lot of vocab and patterns. A few of them are in my daily speech now. I’m not terribly worried that I haven’t internalized more of those yet… it’s not my first rodeo. I know that some of that stuff will start coming out of my mouth in the months to come.

I actually discovered this phenomenon when I got back from France in 1993. My French had improved tremendously from the immersion experience, and I had plenty of new frenchy habits. But I was a little disappointed that my French wasn’t even better. I would go to French class in Seattle and make a lot of the same mistakes I had made before. Oh well, I thought, I didn’t get fluent, but at least it was fun.

Fast forward to a year later, and I was totally able to speak French. So apparently the growth came after I had returned, after the immersion experience was long over.

Of course there’s a big catch. You have to keep talking, keep practicing, keep trying to improve. That’s certainly no problem for JP, but some learners may think that all the magic happens in one special context at one special time, and once extracted from that special environment, all the learning stops. Not so!

The jury is still out an exactly how closely related first and second language acquisition are, but clearly the two are related. One of the things that gives me great pleasure is watching my (not-yet-two-year-old) daughter soak up new words, earnestly taking them all in, but refusing to repeat them. And then, days or weeks later, she’ll suddenly bust out with those words in the appropriate context, much to the amazement of her audience.

No, it’s not a deliberate show. Her brain needs time to properly “digest” what she’s ingested in order to put it to use.

For me personally, some of the most interesting phenomena relate to Chinese grammar. There are certain higher-level grammar patterns that you can learn, and know, and understand in context, but then just never use yourself in normal conversation. Why bother with something like 之所以……是因为 when you can just use the regular cause-effect pattern? Or why bother extracting the object and with a 把 sentence and moving it around when you can get by with a regular SOV sentence?

Pork Chops Are Marinating

Mmmm, nuance. (photo by Merelymel13)

The answer, of course, is that all this stuff adds nuance. But you filter out nuance when you’re not ready for it. Then you marinate in nuance for a while before you’re ready to fully embrace it yourself. Then one day the nuance just pops out of you, expressing just what you meant, and you didn’t even know you had it in you.

To get to that point, you just have to keep accepting that input while continually giving yourself opportunities to communicate.

Text Message Fraud (a sample)

Chinese way

Photo by .sl. on Flickr

There’s a fair amount of text message (SMS) fraud going on in China, and if you have cell phone number here, you’re likely to receive this type of text at some point. As a foreigner, though, if you have trouble reading the text, you may get too caught up in trying to decipher what it says and forget to ask yourself, “could this be a scam?

So here’s an example of a fraudulent text message I received just the other day:

我是房东,我换号码了, [This is the landlord. I've changed my number.]

你记一下,以后找我就打这个。 [Please write it down. In the future, you can reach me at this number.]

另外,这次租金请打我爱人卡上, [Also, this time please pay the rent to my spouse's account.]

工行 621226.240200.6159780 [ICBC 621226-240200-6159780]

李敏,谢谢 [Li Min. Thanks!]

A few notes on what makes this text a little bit crafty:

  1. The landlord’s changed his/her number. That’s why you don’t recognize the number. And you’re welcome to contact him/her at the number! Seems legit.

  2. Oh, but now you have to send money. And the reason you don’t recognize the account is because it’s the landlord’s spouse’s account.

  3. Here’s the kicker. The spouse’s name is Li Min (李敏). This is a deliberately gender neutral name (although it’s more likely to be a female name). The words for “landlord” (房东) and “spouse” (爱人) are also gender neutral. So whether your actual landlord is male or female, the message still works.

  4. The spouse’s surname, Li (), is not a coincidence. It’s #1 in the list of common Chinese surnames.

Don’t fall for this stuff, guys. I receive messages like this once or twice a month. They tend to follow a very similar pattern to the one above.

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