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.

China, the Country of the Blind

Old man in alley

Photo by Iris River on Flickr

I recently read H.G. Wells’ short story The Country of the Blind, and it immediately struck me how relevant this story is to western visitors of China in modern times. If you’re a China observer, and an observer of how westerners interact with China, it’s definitely worth a read.

If you’re too busy to read a short story (and it’s not overly sci-fi, for those of you not into the genre), you might check out the plot synopsis on Wikipedia.

Here’s an excerpt to give you a taste:

“Why did you not come when I called you?” said the blind man. “Must you be led like a child? Cannot you hear the path as you walk?”

Nunez laughed. “I can see it,” he said.

“There is no such word as see,” said the blind man, after a pause. “Cease this folly and follow the sound of my feet.”

Nunez followed, a little annoyed.

“My time will come,” he said.

“You’ll learn,” the blind man answered. “There is much to learn in the world.”

“Has no one told you, ‘In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King?'”

“What is blind?” asked the blind man, carelessly, over his shoulder.

Four days passed and the fifth found the King of the Blind still incognito, as a clumsy and useless stranger among his subjects.

It was, he found, much more difficult to proclaim himself than he had supposed, and in the meantime, while he meditated his coup d’etat, he did what he was told and learnt the manners and customs of the Country of the Blind. He found working and going about at night a particularly irksome thing, and he decided that that should be the first thing he would change.

There really is a lot there to appreciate. Read the original.


On a related note, Kaiser Kuo has recently stated:

On my podcast not long ago, Evan Osnos suggested that the best way to understand China today is to read Mark Twain—specifically “The Gilded Age” and “Life on the Mississippi.” Paul Mozur from the WSJ did just that and concurs. I’m now reading “The Gilded Age.” Yep.

Evan Osnos also recommends The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells for the same reasons.

Coke’s Creative Campaign Can’t Hold Off the Tablet Wars

This big ad space in Zhongshan Park displayed massive iPad ads for the longest time, after which it was covered by Microsoft Surface ads. Just briefly, it was home to this Coke ad:

IMG_1894

The ad reads:

型男 室友 老兄 神对手 一起分享可口可乐 (Enjoy Coca-Cola with stylish guys, roomies, old buddies, and arch-rivals.)

Coke is doing something creative with its labels this summer, using Chinese internet slang instead of the name 可口可乐 (Coca-Cola). Read more about this campaign here and here.

I noticed that as of this week, the ad space has been reclaimed by the Surface again.

13 Euphemisms for Sex in Chinese

We all know that Chinese can be a little challenging to learn, and one of the reasons is cultural. Certain topics are not talked about openly by most Chinese, or at least not directly. Enter the euphemism, those delightful ways of subtly referring to a taboo topic without outright naming it (and befuddling all foreigners in the process!).

Below is a list of Chinese euphemisms (委婉语) for sex. These are all somewhat subtle, but they vary quite a bit in how modern or tactful they are. Just to be clear, if you use the words 做爱 (“make love”) or (“sex, sexuality”) or 性交 (“sexual intercourse”), you’re not being subtle, and dropping those words in polite company is likely to cause some embarrassment.

OK, so here’s the list:

ML

  1. sex: This one needs no expanation, except that since it’s an English word, rather than a Chinese word, it loses a lot of its taboo flavor in Chinese (thus it’s counted as a euphemism when it’s really just a translation).

  2. 那个: Literally, “that.” You know… that.

    Example: 他们有没有……那个过?

  3. ML: Stands for “Make Love.” So once euphemized by translation, and then euphemized once again by abbreviation. I asked native speakers if there is a “ZA.” You know… for 做爱. Of course there isn’t. (And at first, before the clarification, native speakers were even confused about what in the world I could be talking about. “ZA”? Zā?) This one is often used online.

    Example: ML的时候

  4. happy: You may know this word as an innocuous English adjective, but in Chinese it can sometimes be a verb.

    Example: 他们今天可能要happy一下。

  5. 睡觉: This one is pretty easy to just translate, since the euphemism is directly analogous to the English “sleep with someone.” Just remember to use in Chinese: ……(somebody) 睡觉.

    Example: 她不会跟你睡觉。

  6. 爱爱: So you know how in Chinese verbs can reduplicate, like saying 看看 for “take a (quick) look”? Well, in this particular euphemism, the same little grammar trick is used for the verb . Only it’s pretty unambiguous in Chinese. Cute, huh?

    Example: 他们今天可能要爱爱。

  7. 嘿咻: This one is a little hard to explain if you’ve never heard it, but it’s the sound someone makes when engaged in some kind of hard labor. The kind where you’re breathing hard. So it’s essentially an onomatopoeia turned into a verb.

    Example: 在车里“嘿咻” [source]

  8. 办事: This one is slightly problematic because 办事 is a little bit hard to nail down even in the non-euphemistic sense. It’s kind of like “get some work done,” or “handle some (official) business.” Perhaps the most (unintentionally) appropriate translation in this particular case is “handle affairs.”

    Example: 男人、女人“办事”时喜欢开灯和不开灯的理由 [source]

  9. 发生关系: I love how spontaneous this one sounds. 发生 means “happen” or “occur,” and 关系 means “relations” or “relationship.” So sometimes “relationships happen.” The interesting thing is that this one is actually fairly formal; it can be used as an almost classy euphemism without the need for any additional chuckling or winking.

    Example: 为什么男女发生关系后一切都变了? [source]

  10. 床上运动: “Exercise in bed.” Need I say more? Often used as a noun phrase.

    Example: 床上运动一周几次才正常? [source]

  11. 上床: “Get in bed.” Again, this one isn’t too hard for an English speaker to decode. As with 睡觉, the pattern is ……(somebody) 上床.

    Example: 她不会跟你上床。

  12. 房事: Literally, “room affair.” I’ve actually never heard this one myself, but I’m assured that it is definitely used, and sometimes even by doctors. It can also be used as a verb.

    Example: 怀孕后多久不能房事,为什么? [source]

  13. 云雨: Ah, “clouds and rain.” (Yeah, you know what I’m talking about!) This one is definitely the most poetic of the bunch. To me, it smacks of “the birds and the bees,” only classier.

    I’ve got no examples for this one. My searches turn up a whole bunch of Chinese people asking how 云雨 came to mean 做爱 in ancient Chinese. It’s not normally used in spoken Chinese.

So that’s enough euphemisms for now! Next euphemism post: Chinese euphemisms for death.

Thoughts on Summer Blockbuster “Pacific Rim” in China

Last night I went to see the movie Pacific Rim at Shanghai’s newest, biggest mall, Global Harbor. My hopes were not super high, but I ended up really enjoying the film. I had totally forgotten that it was directed by Guillermo del Toro; I think it was suddenly seeing Ron Perlman’s face in the movie amongst all the other relatively unknown actors that reminded me. Anyway, very fun movie.

Pacific Rim Locandina

A few things struck me about seeing the film in China:

  1. The Chinese mech dies first. This is kind of a shame, not because they’re Chinese, but because their badass red, four-armed robot with buzz-saws for hands looked awesome, and I would have liked to watch it do a little more damage in battle. This didn’t really seem to bother the audience, though; the Chinese mech pilots weren’t even really characters in the movie… easy come, easy go.

  2. The human characters in the movie use the Japanese term kaiju (怪獣) for the giant monsters they’re fighting. This was kind of interesting. The (simplified) Chinese is 怪兽. (Another common word for “monster” in Chinese is 怪物.)

  3. The Hong Kong Chinese are experts at dicing up the kaiju (giant monster) corpses and selling the parts on the black market (as “medicine”?). There is discussion of the going rates for ground kaiju bones and various kaiju organs. This struck me as both a funny stereotype as well as somewhat insightful.

What do you think? Racist? Or would the biological matter derived from monsters from another dimension totally be worked into the black market, extreme fringes of TCM relatively quickly?

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