Monday, October 15, 2012

Chinese Immersion

I'm in China again, and immersed in the second language I've chosen to study. 

In a recent lesson I found a new word, gang (刚) which means "just after" in the context I was learning. Whenever I learn a new sound, I always look up what other words sound the same, so I know what people might hear me say. Sadly, this time one word that came back means "anus", same tone too.  I suppose this is not likely to be misunderstood since people won't expect me to say anus in a friendly conversation. But still, it makes you ponder how this language has been used so effectively for so long despite being rife with easy communication mistakes.

We have some of the same in English, but not nearly as much. I used to hate studying Spanish tenses, but now I wish for such a reliable indicator of time. I try to make sense of the overlapping sounds and symbols through silly mnemonic tricks and I get laughed at a lot.  Things like, "since the word for 'surprised' is the character for 'eat' next to one that looks like 'Jing' from Beijing, I am 'surprised to be eating a city'". But the Chinese don't see the relationship, they see 'surprised', I see a mashup of other characters I know from other contexts.

I can order coffee at the Starbucks, where I say "gei wo xiao bei bing ka fei dai zou" and they respond, "tall iced coffee to go". I know that "yo" can mean "right", or "have" or "again", depending on tone and context. I can sing a song about colors that has the line "red, the sun shakes its head and laughs". Not very useful, but fun to sing while waiting in lines.

This weekend I went to a theatre to see what was showing and found Looper, translated to "ring like envoy". Not bad as far as name translations go. Thankfully it is too new for dubbed versions to be out, so I get to see it. My first movie theater experience in ages!

Funny story about Looper, it was supposedly a record breaking box office in China, but turns out, you need to divide Chinese Yuan by 6.3 to get US dollars. I guess that was a Looper Blooper.

Yesterday I ate ginkgo nuts, supposedly good for your brain, but toxic if you eat more than 10 a day. They were a mushy texture and a delicate flavor, more like a bean than a nut.

I am in the middle of a book called "Why the Chinese don't count calories" by a British author who lived in Beijing for 10 years. She mocks the fast food "Chinese" us Westerners grew up with and glories in the favors of real Chinese food.

She came before the western influence dispelled much of what she touts about Chinese cuisine, at least in the context of a visitor. Hopefully people at home still cook as she describes. Basically the idea is to eat lots of vegetables, rice is a good thing, and oil is not evil in the right context (mixed with chili, garlic, ginger, fresh veges). They don't eat sandwiches here, but they eat lots of mushrooms, and strange veges that I love. I think her ideas are solid, it's just that I love dumplings a bit too much and the big banquet meals that guests are taken too are not ideal. But my favorite dish falls into her category, 西红柿鸡蛋, tomato and egg stir fried. In this spelling, tomato literally translates to "western red persimmon" and on the iPad, there is an option to replace the word with an icon, meaning that Chinese people use it enough to prefer an icon over the word.

I often find myself saying "wo bao le", I'm full! Which sounds very similar to the word for "bag", so I think of myself as having a full bag on my lap, or it is like the word for dumpling, which is often what I am full of, or look like. 

As a reminder that China is still a third world country, despite all the glitz and infrastructure in the Tier 1 cities, I heard a story this weekend about a requirement for the driver's license test. You have to dodge the man-holes in the road, swerving between them quickly. The reason is because they may not support the car's weight, or someone may have stolen the lid because the iron it is made of can be sold. Also a good note for pedestrians, don't walk and text or you may end up in a man-made hole. 

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