Tag: vocabulary


Sep 2005

Taxis and Rain

Yesterday as I rode in a taxi through Xujiahui I was glad that I was not one of the many people trying in vain to hail a cab. It can be extremely hard to find a taxi when it rains. Sometimes it’s completely impossible.

A thought struck me, so I asked the driver:

> Me: Master*, do you like rainy days better or non-rainy days better? On rainy days you get more business, right?

> Driver: With traffic like this, the rain doesn’t do that much for business. I can only get a few fares anyway, with all the traffic I have to sit in.

> Me: Well what about rainy days when the traffic isn’t bad?

> Driver: The traffic’s bad even when it doesn’t rain. When it rains it’s even worse.

> Me: Well what about late at night when it rains?

> Driver: Yeah, I guess business is a little better than usual then.

> * In China, drivers (and many other blue collar workers) are addressed as shifu, which is the same way students address their kung fu masters. I always get a little kick out of calling a taxi driver or a plumber a word that can be translated as “master.”

The typhoon is upon us here in Shanghai. What an auspicious sign for my first week of classes. This week I don’t actually have my first class until Thursday, though.


Sep 2005

New Ireland

When I ride in taxis, the drivers frequently ask me if I’m American. I confirm it, of course. I guess I look very American. The “casual look” and all. When I met Todd here in Shanghai recently, his comment was that I was “even more American than [he] expected.”

Well, I yam what I yam.

The other day I had an audition for a commercial, and I was told to come somewhat dressed up. So I did. The cab driver asked me if I was British.

After learning I was American, he asked me if “New Ireland” was a city or a state. I asked him to repeat the name. Then I realized I had misunderstood. I was having my first Chinese conversation about the tragedy that is New Orleans (新奥尔良). It sure sounded a lot like “New Ireland” the first time I heard it.

Neither of us had much insight to offer.


Aug 2005

Science (something) Sect

I hate celebrity gossip. I think it’s the stupidest thing. Why should we care about that stuff?? What bugs me the most is when I realize I am actually somewhat following it. I don’t want to, I don’t mean to… how does it happen?? I find it even more ludicrous that Chinese people sometimes also follow the celebrity gossip of Hollywood stars. Yeah, I shouldn’t be surprised, in this age of international media… but still. It’s ridiculous.

Last night I accidentally got involved in a celebrity gossip chat with my girlfriend. Argh! (Disclaimer: neither of us really knows what we’re talking about here, so if we’re wrong… ummm… so what??)

> Me: So you wanna watch a DVD tonight?

> Her: What DVD were you thinking?

> Me: How about Mr. and Mrs. Smith?

> Her: (wrinkles her nose)

> Me: Oh yeah, you saw that already… You didn’t like it, right?

> Her: Right. I just can’t believe he would do that to his girlfriend. I feel so sorry for her…

> Me: Huh?

> Her: You know, how he left her for that other woman…

> Me: (realizing what she’s talking about) Oh! You mean…

> Her: Yeah! Peter!

> Me: Haha… Not “Peter”… It’s “Pitt!” Brad Pitt!

> Her: Right… he left that one girl for the woman in this movie.

> Me: Oh, right. He left his wife Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie.

> Her: Right. Because of this movie!

> Me: So you don’t like it because you don’t like him.

> Her: Right.

> Me: OK, I guess that decides that…

> Her: Which one would you choose if you were Brad Pitt?

> Me: (suddenly sensing very dangerous ground) Ummm…

> Her: I think I would choose Angelina Jolie. She’s younger and sexier.

> Me: (relieved) Yeah, me too.

> Her: Men always go for the younger woman. Like Tom Cruise.

> Me: Yeah.

> Her: I think they’re kind of a cute couple.

> Me: What?? Why don’t you hate Tom Cruise? He did the same thing that Brad Pitt did. He was married to Nicole Kidman, and then he did a movie with Penelope Cruz and divorced his wife. And he didn’t even stay with Penelope Cruz long!

> Her: Oh, really?

> Me: Yeah! And plus he’s crazy!

> Her: He is?

> Me: Yeah, you haven’t heard?

> Her: I heard that he and his girlfriend are having some troubles. One reason is that it’s Tom Cruise’s third wedding and he wants to keep it small and simple, but his girlfriend would like her wedding to be a big affair.

> Me: Hmmm.

> Her: The other is that her family is Catholic, and one time when Tom Cruise was talking to her father, he got in a big argument with him over religion. It almost came to blows! You know, because Tom Cruise is in that one religion… science something sect… [科学-什么-派]

> Me: Oh yeah… [“Scientology”]. (I had no idea what that was in Chinese)

> Her: So Tom Cruise is really crazy?

> Me: So it seems. There are all sorts of clips documenting it on the internet. Wanna see?

> Her: OK.

Celebrity Names in Chinese (absolutely worthless — don’t learn these!):

– Brad Pitt: 布莱德·彼特/皮特 (His last name in Chinese sounds like a transliteration of the English name “Peter,” so he gets called “Peter” a lot by the Chinese.)
– Tom Cruise: 汤姆·克鲁斯
– Angelina Jolie: 安吉利娜·茱丽 (Characters vary somewhat. Why didn’t they just use 周丽 for her last name??)
– Jennifer Aniston: 珍妮佛·安妮斯顿
– Katie Holmes: 凯蒂·霍尔姆斯 (This one was slightly harder to find.)

Scientology” in Chinese (could potentially result in some interesting conversations and/or jokes!): 科学论派 (literally: “science theory sect”)


Aug 2005

The Foreign Teacher Role

In China foreign teachers are called 外教 (a shortened form of 外籍教师). Literally it means “foreign teacher.” It’s a simple descriptive term. There’s nothing wrong with it.

And yet I don’t like to be called a waijiao. Why? It’s the connotations that usually come with the word. A waijiao can come in many shapes and sizes, but typically:

– A waijiao is white.

– A waijiao is most often male.

– A waijiao is young, likely fresh out of college. (Alternatively, he could be retired.)

– A waijiao is entertaining.

– A waijiao doesn’t speak much Chinese, if any. (If he does, it’s likely entertaining.)

– A waijiao doesn’t really have any skills other than being a native speaker of English. Sometimes they’re OK teachers.

I know… I am white. I am male. I am young. However, I am not in China for anyone’s entertainment but my own, although that’s certainly not my main reason for being here. And I do speak Chinese. I am not without skills. I don’t like to be pigeon-holed.

I was a waijiao for 3 1/2 years in Hangzhou. I enjoyed that job, and I was good at it. Then I was a waijiao teaching kids for a year here in Shanghai. That was a valuable experience too. But now I would like to move on… I like teaching, but I don’t want to make it my career. (Not TEFL, anyway.)

And yet to most Chinese people, if you’re a foreigner and you’re young, you’re either a student or a waijiao. If you’re not young, you’re either doing business here or you’re a waijiao. There’s really not much else.

Ironically, now that I have finally moved away from the role of waijiao with my current job, I’m returning to the pigeon-hole by becoming a student again. Plus they still call me a waijiao at work anyway even though I’ve corrected them on numerous occasions. Micah is a (skilled) waijiao, and I guess it’s too much to remember that we actually have different roles at the company.

When I get out of grad school I’m going to have to wreak havoc on all this waijiao stereotyping.

I do three main things at my job now:

1. I edit a new line of textbooks for Chinese kindergarteners. I don’t decide the lesson themes, but I play a role in determining the vocabularly to be taught, and I write the lesson text. My lessons must be of the appropriate level, but not contain too much difficult or unfamilair vocabulary or grammar. The lessons must also have rhythm, because they are set to music and sung as songs. When these books come out, my name will be in the books as writer.

2. I play the Chinese voice of a cartoon character as well as the English voices of several characters. I also manage the recording of the international versions of those cartoons, which involves putting together a team of voice talents and overseeing the studio recording. (I’m doing that this week and next week.)

3. I translate the cartoon scripts from Chinese to English, which are then used to record the international version of the cartoon. I also translate other parts of the textbook line for the international edition.


Aug 2005

While Searching for Tabs…

I have gotten several requests for the guitar tablature for the song 月亮代表我的心, so I did a search for them and found them in about 20 minutes. They’re hosted by a Chinese music site: www.yf66.com.

In the process, I necessarily learned the word for “guitar tabs” in Chinese. It’s 吉他谱. This is unsurprising, as the character has the meaning of “musical notation” itself, so you can just tack the word for “guitar” (吉他) onto it. Normal musical notation with the staff and all that is called 五线谱 (“five line musical notation” Heh…). There’s also a simplified musical notation which uses numbers in place of notes, and you can see amateur pianists all around China using it. It’s called 简谱 (“simplified musical notation”). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out this 简谱 for 月亮代表我的心.

Anyway, as with any search, my search for guitar tabs for “The Moon Represents My Heart” resulted in quite a few deadends before I found what I was looking for. Most of what I found was annoying crap, but I did discover a video that sort of cast a spell on me.

The video is just a short clip of a Chinese girl playing 月亮代表我的心 on her guitar and singing the song. It’s not that the girl is a babe or an amazing singer. She’s rather ordinary-looking. In fact, she could easily have been one of the many students I taught in Hangzhou. So what makes the video special?

I was struck by how incredibly Chinese it was, down to the last detail. The girl looks like a typical Chinese college girl, and even when she’s filming herself, she never even looks the camera straight on. She’s wearing the same kind of white puffy coat that I’ve seen so many girls here wear in the winter, complete with faux fur trim on the hood. The bare white walls behind her, the simple shelf holding just a few knicknacks guarded by a stuffed bear, the folded up Asian-style comforter behind her that’s just barely peeking out… so Chinese.

I don’t mean to imply that all Chinese girls are just like this girl or anything ridiculous like that. I’m not trying to reinforce stereotypes here. I was just really amazed how the sweet song of a girl on video could just scream “China.”

Take a look for yourself.


Aug 2005

Kingsoft on Chips

I don’t think I’ve ever written about it before, but it’s such a valuable resource that I really should. Every student of Chinese (intermediate or higher) should be aware of the Kingsoft Online Dictionary.

The dictionary itself is not that special… If you put in an English word, it returns some possible Chinese translations. If you put in a Chinese word (in characters), it returns possible English translations, which are linked to those words’ Chinese definitions. Naturally, it is completely Chinese user-oriented, so there is no pinyin or notes explaining the differences between the Chinese words. I pretty much never use that dictionary.

What I do use often is the 短句 (“Short Sentences”) function. You can either enter a word in the dictionary first and then click on 短句, or you can click on 短句 and then enter a word.

For example, recently I encountered the word 芯片 at the video game store. I could tell by context that it meant “chip” (as in “computer chip”). The shop’s PS2’s came installed with a mod chip (直读芯片 or 米赛亚芯片) as well as an “anti-frying” chip (防烧芯片).

Later I wanted to explore the word 芯片 a bit more, so I looked it up with Kingsoft’s 短句 function. It returned 10 sentences using the word 芯片. The simplest sentence was first:

> 芯片是计算机中最贵重的部分。

> The chip is the most valuable part in the computer.

The most complex sentence was last:

> 硅元素与计算机的关系如此密切以至于大多数人可能更容易将它与加利福尼亚的硅谷而不是元素周期表联系起来。但是随着高速运算超越芯片和机器的局限将试管、承物玻璃片、溶液甚至脱氧核糖核酸(DNA)等生物化学和遗传学工具包括在内,这种想法可能很快就要做出根本性的修正了。

> The element silicon is so closely identified with computers that most people would be likely to associate it more readily with California’s high – tech valley than with the periodic table.But such thinking may soon have to be radically revised,as high – speed computation moves beyond chips and machines to include the tools of biochemistry and genetics:test tubes,slides,solutions,even DNA. [punctuation/spacing errors theirs]

Definitely a useful tool, but I should note that Kingsoft is very much a fallible source of information. I’ve been using its products for almost five years, and sometimes it comes up with some bizarre meanings/translations. Example: when I put “chip” into the 短句 function, these two were at the end of the list:

> What carpenter,such chip.

> 什么木匠,出什么活。

> Such carpenter,such chip.

> 什么木匠出什么活。

What’s going on here? Possibilities:

– Kingsoft is more down with the latest slang than me.
– Kingsoft has some seriously outdated expressions in its database.
– Kingsoft has taken upon itself to be a creative force in the evolution of the English language.

I’m not sure which it is.


Jun 2005

Animal Names from Animal Names

Not long ago at work I was part of a team working on an educational cartoon about sea creatures. The term 鲸鱼 was used in the script. Someone pointed out that the correct term for the mammal is actually , since a whale is, in fact, not a fish at all (the 鱼 character in means “fish”). I found this quite interesting. In English we don’t need to worry about the actual name of a whale; its name doesn’t carry that information. Still, you hear some of the same kind of nomenclature lecturing from the zoologist crowd when people say “panda bear” or “koala bear.”

I think probably every language has funny words for animals that are based on other animals. In English we have guinea pig, groundhog, hedgehog, prairie dog, jellyfish, and sea lion. I don’t think those are going to change. The ones targeted for “revision” seem to be the ones that are actually potentially misleading due to great similarity.

If you’re a foreigner just learning the Chinese language, however, there are a lot of animal names that could be misleading. Some of the ones that come to mind:

鳄鱼 (lit. “alligator fish”) — alligator or crocodile
熊猫 (lit. “bear cat”) — panda
龙猫 (lit. “dragon cat”) — chinchilla
河马 (lit. “river horse”) — hippopotamus
长颈鹿 (lit. “long neck deer”) — giraffe (hey, some deer do have long necks!)
荷兰猪 (lit. “Dutch pig”) — guinea pig
海豚/海猪 (lit. “sea pig”) — dolphin
豪猪/箭猪 (lit. “badass/arrow pig”) — porcupine
壁虎 (lit. “wall tiger”) — gecko
田鸡 (lit. “field chicken”) — (edible) frog

I’m sure there are more, but I’m not a Chinese animal name encyclopedia.

Maybe I’ve left out a lot, but it seems to me that Chinese does a lot more “borrowing” of animal names to create new animal names than English does. Could it be related to Chinese characters? (A large number of animals have their own characters, but at some point that practice becomes impractical.) It seems that a much greater proportion of animal names in English are loanwords.

I’m not really trying to prove anything here… Just throwing out a few thoughts. Also, I think it’s names like the Chinese examples above that make learning a new language interesting, so it’s a fun thing to share.


May 2005

Episode 3 in China

Star Wars: Episode III

Last night I went to see Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (AKA 星球大战前转3) with some friends. We went to the 9:40pm showing at Hongqiao Century Universal Theatre (虹桥世纪电影城) and paid 60rmb (about US$7.50) per ticket.

For the day after the much-anticipated movie just opened and a Saturday night, the turnout wasn’t spectacular. The theater was only about half full. There were a handful of foreigners in attendance.

I have no way of judging whether or not the other viewers had been following the Star Wars movies at all, except for the woman behind me. She was making obnoxious comments the entire time. Whenever Yoda came out she kept remarking how cute he was. When Anakin was talking to Palpatine early in the movie and Palpatine mentions the Sith, the woman had an earth-shattering epiphany: “He’s the Sith!”

I enjoyed the movie. The way I saw it, the movie had to do three things:

  1. Wow us with special effects
  2. Connect the new trilogy with the old one
  3. Tell a good self-contained story

I’d say it did quite well on #1 and #2, but was definitely lacking in #3. For one thing, there were some lame lines. For me, what took the cake was how Darth Vader taking his first steps in his new costume looked like it came right out of an old Frankenstein movie, and then, just a little later, his cry of “NOOOOOOOO!” at what the emperor told him was so clich�� it was embarrassing. Still, overall the movie was quite entertaining.

I didn’t let the Chinese subtitles distract me too much. I wasn’t worried about them being wrong this time, I was just interested in seeing how certain lines or words were translated. I did happen to notice that “Sith” in Chinese is 西斯 (which I could have gotten just from the full name of the movie in Chinese), and “Jedi” is 绝地. They’re pretty much just systematic transliterations. The one for “Jedi” doesn’t bother me so much as the one for “Sith.” “Sith” somehow sounds evil in English… like “seethe” or “hiss” or “writhe” or “death.” “X��s��” doesn’t really sound like anything–except maybe the legendary Chinese beauty 西施–and it doesn’t sound evil.

If you’re interested on how the new Star Wars movie is received in China, don’t miss Joel Martinsen’s report on Danwei.org: First Reactions to “Sith.” If you’re interested in Star Wars in general or Lucas’s inspirations in particular, don’t miss this revealing in-depth analysis: How did George Lucas create Star Wars?


May 2005

Laowai Time Warp

The day after posting a link to the great laowai debate, I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker. It was the kind of thing I would probably not have paid much attention to were the matter not already on my mind.

My co-worker is in her late twenties and comes from Sichuan. She has been living in Shanghai for the past five years or so.

I was having a conversation with my co-worker about foreigner teachers. When she got to the word “foreigner” she got as far as “laow-” and then switched to “waiguoren.” I smiled at this and let her continue.

After the conversation was over, I couldn’t let it go. I had to ask her: “Why didn’t you just say ‘laowai?'”

Clearly, she was embarrassed. I anticipated this, but I had to ask anyway. She replied, “I was afraid you would be offended.”

“Why would I be offended?” I asked. “Isn’t it a neutral term?”

“Yes, it is definitely neutral. But I’m aware that some waiguoren don’t like to be called laowai.” [Note: zhwj reports similar exchanges.]

This got me thinking. And I wasn’t taking anything for granted. Call me cynical, but I never completely trust one native speaker’s view of her language, and I thought this case was particularly suspect. Why was it suspect? Well, Chinese can be especially sensitive to how they are viewed by outsiders. If “laowai” does, indeed, carry negative connotations, some Chinese people would be worried that foreigners would consider them racist for using it. In short: Chinese people might lie about the connotations of the word laowai in order to avoid being viewed as racist by foreigners.

It seems to me, however, that most evidence indicates that laowai is a neutral term. Todd has recently done an internet study on it, and came to this conclusion as well. This was also the original premise behind Tom Vamvanij’s post that started the debate. Why all the conflicting anecdotes then?

I posit that the word is in something of a state of transition. As zhwj has pointed out with a Chinese dictionary definition (via the Peking Duck post), the word used to have a more negative connotation than it does now:

> Breaking out the dictionary: 《应用汉语词典》(2000年), published by the venerable Commercial Press, says: “老外…(2)称外国人(现在外国人自己也称自己为“老外”,所以已经不含轻蔑意,而是一种诙谐的用法了)

> The parts I’ve emphasized imply (1) in the past the term had a
disdainful flavor to it, although it doesn’t now, and (2) it’s more
jocular or familiar now.

Why would this negative connotation change to neutral? Probably the biggest catalyst would be real-life contact with foreigners. Naturally, you would expect Shanghai and Beijing to lead the pack in such an evolution, as those cities’ foreign populations are quite large. By the same token, we would expect small Chinese towns with little or no exposure to foreigners to cling longer to the “negative version” of the term laowai.

If we are currently in such a stage of transition, it would explain a lot. It would explain why Hank, living in a small rural town, might find the word extremely offensive, while I, in Shanghai, find it totally innocuous. And it would explain the conflicting “real life reports” of different foreigners’ experience with the word.

Understanding of certain words often varies from individual to individual; I think it’s unsurprising for a lexical discrepancy to arise in a country as large and diverse as China, especially with the widening gap between the “rich east” and “poor west.” This might be just the perfect set of conditions to nurture a sort of verbal time warp effect to which the term laowai could fall victim.

Despite my suspicions regarding native speaker explanations, I still maintain that laowai is a neutral term. If it doesn’t feel neutral in your part of China, it may just be a matter of time. Encourage the locals to watch more TV.

Related blog entries:

Todd writes about seven Chinese words for foreigner.
Tom Vamvanij asserts that “laowai” has no positive connotation.
Richard throws a link up and gets lots of comments.
Todd asks his Chinese readers (in Chinese).
Adam thinks “laowai” has lost its negative connotations.

Kinda Related: 老外的秘密 (in Chinese; scroll down)


May 2005

eBay and Wordplay

eBay currently has an ad playing on the flatscreen displays of the Shanghai subway system. It shows a series of short Chinese phrases, each followed by a brief illustrative video clip. The phrases are:

拍球 (dribbling a basketball)
拍瓜 (smashing a cucumber — a typical way to make some cucumber dishes)
拍脸 (daubing shaving cream onto a man’s face)
拍粉 (powdering a girl’s face)
拍被子 (beating the dust out of a quilt)

These images are followed by the phrase “不管你怎么拍… eBay” (“no matter how you … eBay”). I think that’s most of the commercial. I might have missed a little of it, though.

I’m pretty sure the word 拍卖 is never uttered in the commercial. 拍卖 is the obvious 拍 reference — 拍卖 means “auction.” eBay is referring to its various ways to auction items, I suppose.

I find the choice of 拍 objects pretty interesting because none of them are the most common examples. The really common ones would be 拍照 (take a photo) and 拍手 (clap). Of the usages chosen for the commercial, I think I’ve only ever encountered the first: 拍球 (not to be confused with 排球). I think I usually hear used most commonly for the last one.

I also thought it was cool that I could gain a better understanding of the scope of the verb 拍 just by watching a commercial. For me, that sort of understanding is usually gained by discussion with a teacher or tutor.

Why is eBay China advertising on Shanghai’s subways? Well, because it’s engaged in full-on war with Alibaba‘s online auction service Taobao, of course. More info:

Standing up to a Giant (Forbes)
Alibaba, EBay Square off (China Daily)
Jack Ma: Chairman and CEO, Alibaba.com (Asia Inc)
EBay’s Bid To Regain Its Glow (E-Commerce Times)

(Sorry, not trying to be Danwei.org–don’t expect much more of this kind of “news reporting” stuff in the future.)


May 2005

study make John HONGRY

Since this week I haven’t had to go to work, I’ve used it to buckle down and finish learning the material on Modern Chinese that I need to know for the exam this month. I have to display understanding of this material in order to be admitted for graduate school.

I haven’t finished it yet (working mainly on 现代汉语, a 560 page extremely dry Chinese textbook), but I’m getting there.

One thing I’ve discovered is that putting in about five hours of study a day (reading and writing) really works up an appetite!

The other night when Carl, his friend Drew, and I made spaghetti for dinner, they each had a bowl of it. I had three bowls of spaghetti plus a blowl of salad. The next day Drew and I had 饺子 (dumplings) for lunch: carrot and pork, cabbage and beef, leek and pork, and qingcai and chicken. Good stuff. We each had about 4 of dumplings. Drew seemed to think it was a good amount of food.

That night when we went to dinner Drew said he was still fairly full from lunch, but I ended up eating way more than any of the other four people at the table. It was a Xinjiang restaurant, so we ate (Uygur bread), 羊肉串 (spicy lamb skewers), 丁丁炒面 (chopped noodles), 老虎菜 (a sort of spicy salad with tomato, cucumber, and onion), 蒜泥黄瓜 (garlic cucumber pieces), 红烧豆腐 (soy-braised tofu), 酸辣白菜 (hot and sour cabbage), and 大盘鸡 (a chicken and potato dish), washed down with Xinjiang black beer. I guess it was too much food for five people, but everyone else gave up way too fast. I kept eating for about 30 minutes after they had stopped.

If all this studying in the final stretch leading up to my exams is going to make me ravenous every day, I really can’t say I mind at all.


May 2004

Debating “You’re Welcome”

One of the first phrases a student of a foreign language learns is “thank you,” followed closely by “you’re welcome.” Every culture has etiquette, and these two phrases are about as basic as etiquette can get. It’s best to keep things simple for a new learner. One-to-one vocabulary correspondences are easiest to accept for memorization.

When I learned Spanish, it was gracias and de nada. When I learned Japanese it was arigatou gozaimasu and dou itashimashite. For Chinese, it was xièxie and bú kèqi.

In English, there are actually a variety of ways to express both “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” I tend to stick with “thanks” and “no problem.” It’s only natural that such variety exist in foreign languages as well, but somehow it seems to cause problems.

Soon after arriving in China, I learned that a lot of the Chinese I learned in the classroom was specific to Beijing, and that it didn’t match what I was hearing around me. I quickly discarded nǎr (“where”) for nǎli, huār (“flower”) for huā, etc. I also started saying bú yòng xiè (literally, “you don’t need to thank me”) for “you’re welcome” instead of bú kèqi.

I used bú yòng xiè almost exclusively for a long time. Then I began to realize that if Chinese people can mix it up, I should have a little more variety in my usage as well. I started using mei guanxi (literally, “it doesn’t matter”) for “you’re welcome.” Pretty soon it had completely replaced bú yòng xiè.

Then there was a short period of time when I switched back to bu keqi (literally, “don’t be polite”), the form of “you’re welcome” I had originally learned. I didn’t stick with that one for long though, because it feels more northern to me and I don’t like that.

I noticed today that I’m using méi guānxi all the time again. I think I want to switch back to bú yòng xiè, it just has the nicest feel to me.

My point is that I can’t seem to be able to “mix it up” like I originally planned. I can switch which form I use, but then I tend to use that one form all the time. Is this actually difficult?? Should I just be content with using one form all the time like I do for the most part in English?

In any case, it’s not a problem. Just one of those little linguistic issues I ponder and probably no one else cares at all about….


May 2004

Alcohol Vocab

I want to add more Chinese study material to Sinosplice, and the latest is a vocabulary list. Of Western alcohol. You won’t find any form of baijiu on the list, but if you ever wanted to know how to say “Guinness” or “Jim Beam” or “Sex on the Beach” in Chinese, this is for you.

It’s noteworthy that many of these names do not have a standard name (especially mixed drinks), so many variations are possible, but the names in my list have all been verified through online sources and/or in actual Chinese bars.

Some of the ones I find interesting:

  1. Sex on the Beach. The literal Chinese is “sexy beach.” I guess a faithful translation would be too racy for printing on a menu in a Chinese bar?
  2. Absolut. In Chinese, it’s just “Swedish vodka.” Boooooring. The name in English is kinda cool.
  3. Cocktail. It’s literally “chicken tail alcohol.” Of all words to translate absolutely literally (which the Chinese don’t really do so often), why this one??
  4. Draught beer. It seems that in the south it’s more often called sheng pi (生啤), whereas the north prefers to call it zha pi (扎啤). Sheng pi means “raw beer.” (It also happens to be exactly the same thing the Japanese call it: 生ビール.) I really like that. “I’ll have a beer. Make it RAW.” Badass.
  5. Smirnoff. In Chinese it means “imperial crown.” Since the Chinese name sounds nothing like the actual name, I’m guessing that’s a translation of the Russian. Cool. Learning Russian through Chinese through booze. How scholarly. [Update: That guess was wrong. See comment #14.]

Sinosplice vocabulary: Alcohol

Special thanks to Brad F and Brendan, who helped me a bit with my research.


Dec 2003

Model Competition

I rarely watch Chinese TV (because it’s dumb and boring), but I watched it last night. I was rewarded for my bravery.

Last night I happened to catch part of CCTV 2’s Televised Model Competition (模特电视大赛). Like I said, I rarely watch Chinese TV, but if I do happen to go for a flip through the channels, if there’s anything that’s going to catch my attention, it’s a whole bunch of hot women. So this competition did the trick. I’m not sure, because I tuned in late, but apparently it has all kinds of different rounds, including formal fashion catwalks, swimsuit modeling (damn, I missed that one!), and answering various “deep” questions. Most of the model hopefuls were 18-21 years old, and close to 180cm tall (around 5’10”).

Several elements of the competition caught my attention. First, I’ll talk about the models’ hotness, since it is of primary importance. Some of them really weren’t very special. Quite a few had the “anorexic model look” that seems to fly in the New York and Paris fashion industries. Many of them had very pretty faces but stick-like bodies. I don’t really go for that type. Perhaps a few models had already been eliminated in previous rounds before I tuned in, but the one that caught my attention was #46: Jiang E (姜娥). (If you look at the picture of her on the page linked to, you might not think she’s very pretty. I don’t think it’s a very good picture, but that girl has got a body, trust me! The other girls couldn’t compare.) The show said she was from Harbin, but her online info says she’s from Dalian. [Now Derrick, don’t get too smug. I never said Dalian girls weren’t pretty.] I did notice that girls from the Shanghai/Zhejiang area were seriously underrepresented, and many of the girls I’ve seen in Shanghai could easily compete with the contestants I saw on TV.

One thing that was cool was just that day in Chinese class we had been talking about the “triumph of the superior over the inferior” (优胜劣败), “Darwin’s theories of natural selection and evolution” (达尔文的自然淘汰理论,进化理论), “the law of the jungle” (丛林法则 or 弱肉强食). So when taotai (淘汰), a word meaning “selection” in the “elimination” sense — which I might not ordinarily get right away — came up in the competition, I was all over that baby.

It was interesting hearing the girls answer various questions. One of the contestants was allowed to ask one of the judges, a famous model, any question she liked. She asked what she should do to improve her chances of succeeding as a professional model. The professional model’s answer was that she should improve her Mandarin and her English! I was shocked. I don’t know if it was just B.S. or if the model really believed it, but she said that language was extremely important in the industry for communicating with designers, photographers, etc.

Another contestant was asked how she would relax if she worked hard for an entire year and then finally got any vacation of her choice. She said the first thing she would do was go to the hospital for a checkup. When the host asked for clarification, she said she’d get her eyes checked, because vision is very important. Ah, the wisdom of models.

Another thing that startled me once it hit me was that the Chinese model judge pictured below, Jiang Peilin (姜培琳), from certain angles really looked like that girl Katie Holmes that got famous on Dawson’s Creek. It was weird. I noticed in Jiang Peilin’s pictures online she doesn’t look like Katie as much; she tries to hide her dimples and her smile.


After the competition finished, I flipped through the channels a bit. A scene of a cute little black girl speaking fluent Mandarin flashed out at me. I flipped back. To my disappointment, she was dubbed. To my utter horror, it turned out to be the Teletubbies dubbed in Chinese. Disgusting.

Then I stopped on a drama. I was tuning in late, so I had to guess at what I missed, but the plot seemed to center around a woman who had contracted AIDS. She got it from her boyfriend, who apparently committed suicide (because he cheated on his girlfriend and unwittingly gave her AIDS, maybe?). The characters who knew the girl had AIDS were treating her with nothing but compassion. (The Chinese propaganda machine is going strong on this AIDS thing now that it has finally gotten its act together on the issue.) I had to stop watching after about 10 minutes, though, because another female character who was supposed to be cute was unbearably annoying.

And off went the TV.


Oct 2003

"Catch and Kill Bill"

I was pretty sleepy in Chinese class today. I didn’t get enough sleep last night, and the teacher’s explanations of the subtle differences between 4 different Chinese words somehow wasn’t jolting me into the desired state of consciousness. I desperately wanted to yawn, but that would be really rude to the teacher if she saw it, so I kept trying to sneak one in when she’d turn to the board to write, but then she would always turn around just a bit too soon, forcing me to clamp my mouth shut and depriving me of full yawn satisfaction at every attempt.

Kill Bill

What did wake me up, though, was the teacher’s explanation of the word (劈), meaning “to chop, to cleave.” Somehow she decided a good point of reference was Tarantino’s new movie Kill Bill, in which someone’s head is cleaved in two with a katana, apparently. I was amazed. “You’ve seen it already?” I asked her, forgetting the whole point of the reference. (This was a woman who loved Taiwan’s sappy Meteor Garden — not someone likely to be into such a violent movie.) No, she hadn’t, but she’d seen ads online, and some head-cleaving image had stuck in her mind. Then we went off on a tangent about whether you could buy a pirated copy on the streets of Hangzhou yet. (We decided you could probably find it, but not better than a camcorder copy.)

I’ve never been a Tarantino fan, but this movie sure is creating a stir. It’s even trickled into my Chinese classroom. I’m intrigued.

The English title “Kill Bill” is translated into Chinese as something like “Catch and Kill Bill.” The Chinese tend to prefer a 4-character name over a 3-character name, and since “Bill” gets transliterated into the 2-character Bi’er, the “kill” part has two characters to play with. The translators decided to add the “pursuit” concept that the plot revolves around to the 1-character “kill” word.

So I’ll be watching the streets to catch that DVD release.


Oct 2003

Too much DNA

I didn’t have my usual Intensive Reading Chinese class today. Yesterday in class someone from the administration came and passed out special letters of invitation to the “First China Zhejiang Academic Festival” (首届中国浙江学术节). We were told if we went our taxi fares would be reimbursed, and we’d get a free lunch. We all decided to go.

Last week I was walking near West Lake with Russell and we passed a huge lavish meeting hall-type building. We weren’t sure exactly what it was. It turned out to be the Provincial People’s Congress Hall (浙江省人民大会堂), and that’s where the “Academic Festival” was. Today I showed up 10 minutes late and was greeted on the steps of the building and given a ticket and a special pass to wear around my neck (it said “特邀代表证”). Then I was ushered to my seat along with a classmate who happened to show up at the same time.

A word about the Congress Hall. It is massive. Lavish. Lush. Evidently no ordinary four walls and a roof will do when it comes to determining the will of the people. It’s like that place was built just to make painfully apparent the point that the government is squandering the people’s money on displays of opulence. (That said, it was cool to be there for an official function once and to have a “specially invited representative” pass.)

I was seated on the ground floor of the “show room,” but there were balconies on the second and third level which could be accessed by escalator. There were massive video screens on either side of the stage, showing a zoomed-in view of the “important” people seated on stage. This was their day to shine, to blab on and on about boring crap. You know they’re bullshitting when you hear them mention the “Three Represents” over and over.

The “award ceremony” was kinda amusing. This troop of girls in red qipao was parading around with plaques, handing them to the appropriate recipients. At one point sashes were handed out to outstanding scientists, but there weren’t enough to go around, and one guy didn’t get one, on stage, in front of everyone. Some Chinese guy behind me was calling out loudly and repeatledy, “HA! They’re short one!” Tactful.

Next the main speaker launched into an intensely boring and long-winded talk on DNA. I really don’t get it. Why was he talking about DNA? The talk was too basic for anyone in the field of biology, but a little too in-depth for anyone not. The guy was going on and on about Watson, Crick, Franklin, and Pauling, and all the details of the discovery of DNA’s double helical structure. It would have been interesting to hear a 5-minute talk on the subject, as I was familiar with it (my major freshman year of college was microbiology — I once wanted to go into geneetic engineering) and it was kinda interesting to hear it in Chinese, but this guy went on for an hour and a half with his neverending PowerPoint presentation! People were nodding off left and right. I did my best to keep my own drowsiness from getting too obvious, but I think I failed.

The talk did provide lots of vocabulary. I got to hear words like “double helix” and “cytoplasm” and “chromosome” in Chinese. Word of the day: 蛋白质 – protein. As you might expect, the word came up again and again, and I just think it’s a funny word. “Protein” in Chinese, translated literally into English, is “egg white essence.” That’s kinda funny in itself, but I can’t help also associating it with 蛋黄南瓜, a Chinese dish made with pumpkin and egg yolk (“egg yolk” translated literally from Chinese is “egg yellow”).

What redeemed the entire ordeal was the meal afterward. It was in a nice restaurant, and it was really good. Crab, shrimp, mussels, chicken, duck, tofu, asparagus, lotus, dates, nuts, and other stuff I can’t remember — all really good. Also, the waitresses had this habit of refilling my wine glass pretty fast, so I was well on my way to very happy by noon! I had to teach class at 1:30. I was very cheerful in class.

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