Telling Anecdotes


Overheard in the office:


> Girl A: 索性的索是…?

> Girl B: 索尼的索。

> Girl A: 哦,知道了。

> Girl A: Which character is the 索 in 索性? [索性 is a not uncommon Chinese adverb meaning “simply.”]

> Girl B: The same as in “Sony”.
[索尼 is the Chinese transliteration for “Sony.” Its characters are meaningless, chosen for phonetic value only.]

> Girl A: Oh, got it!


I recently had the 抽油烟机 in my apartment fixed. I’m not sure what it is in English. Literally translated, it would be “oil smoke sucking machine.” It’s more than just a hood and exhaust fan for the cooking range. Because Chinese cooking uses so much oil and the oil goes into the air during the cooking process, this appliance helps suck in that oil and collect it. As I have discovered, if you don’t have a “oil smoke sucking machine” or it doesn’t work properly, the area around the cooking range gets covered with a thin layer of sticky oil residue every time you cook. Nasty.

So yesterday my landlord showed up to collect the rent, and he brought a repairman with him. Some valve in the exhaust duct had gotten stuck shut. Easily remedied.

What amused me was the way the repairman checked to see if the exhaust fan was drawing in the air. In the past I had used a piece of tissue. He just lit up right in my kitchen and used the cigarette smoke to test it. Of course, after testing the fan he also finished the cigarette.


A Chinese friend of mine made this comparison recently:

America’s September 11th is like China’s 1989 incident. When the anniversary rolls around, security gets tightened big time.

I know it’s an innocent (and true) comment about security, but I felt emotional spasms of revulsion inside when I heard a comparison being made between the two incidents. I don’t think I have to go into why.

(Linguistically, there’s another similarity. As with several holidays and other historical anniversaries in China, the 1989 tragedy is referred to in Chinese by the numbers corresponding to its date. It’s called 6-4 — for June 4th — in Chinese. In the same way, the American tragedy is referred to as 9-1-1 in Chinese.)

P.S. Happy Moon Festival!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Da Xiangchang Says: September 28, 2004 at 4:22 am


    Interesting. I love how the Chinese incorporated foreign brands into Chinese words, like McDonald’s and Coca Cola (sorry, but I forgot what the pinyin was!). Hopefully, Mandarin won’t go the way of the non-English European languages–i.e., infiltrated by English expressions and definitions until all of the original language’s charm is destroyed. (One example: the English word “download” is “download” in German. However, the past tense of German “download” is not “downloaded” but rather “downgeloadet”–and that’s fucked up!)


    Ahhhh, I have such fond memories of those air-oil suckers. Growing up in an immigrant Chinese family in California, I remember seeing these things advertised all the time on Chinese TV. Memories, lovely memories . . .


    The only way Tiananmen can be compared with 9-11 if the maniacs who rode their planes into the towers were US Government officials–and I doubt even the most delusional leftist would believe that. Still, I have very ambivalent feelings about the Tiananmen Square Massacre. On the one hand, it was a total tragedy, and a great reminder of the evils of the C word. On the other hand, I’m almost positive China would be worse, not better, if the students’ demands had been met. If there’s one thing I feel certain about, it’s this: the Chinese are not ready for democracy. The Russians tried it, and looked what happened to them!

  2. Da Xiangchang Says: September 28, 2004 at 4:25 am

    My mistake: I should say “China” is not ready for democracy, not the “Chinese.” Beyond the rampant parliamentary fistfights and bitchslaps, the Taiwanese seem to have a decent democracy.

  3. Ë÷ÐÔ also means “clear-cut or straightforward”, similar to ¸É´à.

  4. Hey Da Xiang Chang,

    We incorporate the foreign brands into our own language by the reason of similar pronounciation for easy remembering. “Mai Dang Lao” for McDonal’s “Ke kou Ke le” for “Coca Cola”. I am pretty sure that “Mandarin won’t go the way of infiltrated by English expressions and definitions until it is destroyed” for one reason: ÖÐÎÄÊÇÒ»¸ö·Ç³£¶ÀÁ¢ºÍ¼á¹ÌµÄÓïÑÔ»úÌ壬²»»áÒòΪÆäËûÓïÑԵIJÎÈë¶øÊܵ½±¾ÖʵÄת±ä£¬µ±È»»ìºÏÓïϵµÄ±ØÈ»ÊDz»¿É±È±ÜÃâµÄ¡£(I am not English capable of explaining this in English though).

    Sounds like you two, John and Da Xiang Chang, have never seen “ÍÏÅÅÓÍÑÌ»ú¡±in anywhere besides China. I have such a smilar machine in my apartment here (RI) as well. What do you guys call it though? Has it been installed for other purposes? Or you have other name for it? 🙂

  5. TWO: Its actual name is “kitchen exhaust fan”. It is a must in all Asian kitchens, due to the oil use in their cooking.

  6. Tian and Juju,

    There’s nothing unusual about exhaust fans. You’ll notice I used the word “exhaust fan” in the entry. It’s the oil collector that makes Chinese ones special.

    (But then, maybe some Western exhaust fans have oil collectors in them too… I’d just never seen one before China.)

  7. Juju,

    But there are some words that have no foreign origin in common use in China today. ÆÏÌÑ£¬²£Á§£¬and µç»° are a few examples. For the most part, Chinese is resistant to foreign influence, but not because there are no languages in a similar family to it. Actually, there are many languages considered part of the “Sino-Tibetian” language family, many southeast asian languages included.

    I believe it is because there is no “clean way” to express foreign sounds in every day writing. Importing foreign names requires finding a character combination that is the least offensive to the person/thing they refer to. If there was a phonetic system built into the language like similar to Hangul in Korean and Katakana in Japanese, you better bet there would be a ton more loan words.

  8. oops, I meant “have a foreign origin” not “have no foreign origin”

  9. Two modern languages that have an voracious appetite for including foreign words are English and Japanese. Modern English is far different that what is was in Chaucer’s time and radically different from that spoken during King Alfred the Great’s time. Likewise, Modern Japanese, incorporating large blocks of English vocabulary, is still Japanese but differs considerably from Japanese of the Warring States Period, which had incorporated huge blocks of Chinese, which was radically different from Pre-Heian Japanese. Chinese itself has incorporated large numbers of non-sinitic words into its vocabulary, but it is difficult today to discern their origin without effort. With English and Japanese it is much easier to identify the “non-native” words because a significant part of their borrowing was from well established literate languages (Latin and Greek for English and Chinese for Japanese).

    I believe the rate of incorporation of foreign terms is more of a function of the speakers of that language coming into contact with new technology, new ideas, or new places which requires new terminology.

  10. Regarding loanwords, one thing I don’t like about Chinese dictionaries is that rarely are etymologies included in dictionary entries. Pretty much every word in an English language dictionart will have an etymology listed, and etymologies are pretty common in Japanese dictionaries too. In a lot of Chinese dictionaries, however, even for words that are clearly loanwords, no etymology is given.

    Why is that? Is it because of an unspoken belief that the Chinese language is a mystical entity older than time, beyond the reach of modern study? I can’t figure it out.

  11. “Is it because of an unspoken belief that the Chinese language is a mystical entity older than time, beyond the reach of modern study? I can’t figure it out.”

    Haha.. sometimes, I think people really believe this; especially my Chinese teachers in Beijing.

  12. The ³éÓÍÑÌ»ú differs from a regular kitchen exhaust hood not only in the oil collector but also in it’s fan power. A standard range hood in a US residential kitchen moves air at 250~320 CFM (cubic feet per minute), but these Chinese suckers, no pun intended, can do 760 CFM when new, or hopefully after your smoking handyman fixed it, or else then he really really just smokes.

  13. For Two:

    Could you please tell me where you bought the exhaust fan, and which brand is better. I really need one.

  14. kung,

    Sorry, I didn’t buy mine, but I know you can buy them in any major Chinese store that sells home appliances. Don’t go with the bottom-line brands and you should be fine.

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