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Posts Tagged ‘Chinese’

Every so often you have one of those dreams that you wish to share with people immediately.  Last night I had a dream that I was going to see an old friend from China.  Oddly, though within the dream this friend, a woman in her fifties or sixties who had endured several divorces and moves around China, was very familiar to me, when I woke up I realized that she and her family were entirely fictional.  Not that uncommon in a dream, I guess, but it was surprising.

Getting on with the story, when I arrived to meet her I found her standing outside a room where a wedding was going on.  Apparently her daughter was getting married and with her father unavailable, I was asked to escort her.  Everything proceeded as normal, with an appropriate nervousness on my part, until the question “Who gives away this bride?” (or however it was phrased) was asked (in English).  For some reason, I had three responses in mind, in Chinese: “她妈妈” (“Her mother.” Would’ve worked I guess), “她妈妈和我” (“Her mother and I.” Translation of a familiar usage, but awkward in context.), and finally “我” (“I/me.”  Extremely awkward under the circumstances.)  Only after I woke up did I realize that it would probably be best not to say anything in that situation, letting the mother take that particular formality.

Luckily, that was apparently not the actual wedding, just a rehersal, so I wasn’t entirely put on the spot.  I guess my subconscious was trying to save itself some embarrassment.  In any case, I had a conversation with a few people that I was feeling uncomfortable with the responsibility and wanted to bow out, but my own mother (my whole family was suddenly there) convinced me to go ahead with it, citing that one relative had already addressed the groom as “princess” and there’s no possibility that I could cause any more embarrassment than that.  I have no idea where such a “princess” comment would come from, by the way.  If it happened in real life, I’m sure Alzheimer’s would be involved.

I never saw the conclusion to the story, as I woke up before the actual wedding started.  Maybe it’s better that way, as although the pastor was one from my past church, I am sure that there would be some parts of the ceremony in Chinese, and since I’m not familiar with Chinese weddings, any lines my subconscious would generate would almost certainly be flawed or even entirely wrong.  I’m sure the story would have turned out alright, though.  In any case, that was my dream, and if you read all the way through, thank you for your indulgence… and your boredom.

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When you’re not able to practice a foreign language, it gets rusty. The best way to practice, of course, is to surround yourself with native speakers. I have always spent a good amount of time doing this, and it always takes some effort. Even when I was studying in China, it took a little push to get out of the foreign student bubble at the university, and now that I’ve been back in the States a while, I’ve had to put in even more effort.

Those efforts led me to discover the Morgantown Chinese C&MA Church (摩根城華人宣道會). Let me preface by saying that although I was raised in a traditional Methodist church, I am not a religious person. A friend of mine needed a ride to church, and I was curious about the place and how it might differ from other churches I have attended.  What I walked into was a very traditional service that could have occurred in the church I attended as a child, save for the fact that it was bilingual.

Most of the hymns I readily recognized, though I was not confident enough reading the Chinese lyrics (projected on a screen up front in traditional characters) to attempt to sing with the congregation.  The sermon itself wasn’t necessarily my kind, it was heavily reliant on an analysis of a fairly long scripture passage, meaning that the Chinese was somewhat difficult and the English translations felt a little boring.  Other than the formality of the affair, the only particularly “Chinese” thing I heard in it involved a part at the beginning where a Chinese emperor was quoted — unfortunately I have forgotten the quote.

Of course, there was also the inevitable reaction of the Chinese congregation to the only white person in the crowd.  I was immediately singled out to introduce myself as a new attendee, and did my best to introduce myself explain my reasons for being there in Mandarin.  Afterward quite a few of the congregation came to me specifically to compliment me on my Mandarin (“你的中文很好 / Your Chinese is very good” was heard a lot) and didn’t seem to mind that I was more interested in language practice than religion.  Of course, I couldn’t help showing off by trying to read the bulletin (mostly in Chinese), just as much as I couldn’t resist talking to the little kids in the congregation.

Will I be going back to that church?  I may.  Perhaps not every Sunday, but once in a while it may be fun.  The bottom line is that often you can find cultural experiences where you would never expect in — in little pockets near where you live.  Get out and try it.

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There is an urban legent that the Chevy Nova had to change it’s name in Mexico because it could be interpreted as “no va”.  it’s a cute story, but it’s false.

Now, apparently there is a little claim going around that Bing, the brand name of Microsoft’s search engine in fact sounds like the word for “disease”.  And this is based on what?  A fortune cookie. Of course, the fortune cookie is right in this case (they usually aren’t bad, but never take them seriously), there is a character 病 that is pronounced bìng* and means “disease.”  However, one thing that you can always count on in Chinese, especially with single-character words, is that there are homophones and near-homophones that are just as likely.  Lots of them:

binginchinese

What matters is what characters you use to transliterate it.  It should be noted that Google could have been transliterated to mean “skeleton”, but the company wisely found a couple characters that could loosely mean something like “valley song” (in other words, a nonsense phrase with non-offensive characters).

Of course, Microsoft seems to just want to dodge it altogether.  Their China site has no transliteration of their name, just the name in Latin characters:

bingchinapage

Not sure if what the deal is there.  Maybe they expect Chinese people to pronounce it as pinyin and be done with it (ok for mainlanders, but what about Taiwanese people who don’t learn pinyin in school?)  In any case, if Microsoft has any Chinese speakers in their marketing staff, I’m sure they will never, ever brand themselves as “disease”.  Some nasty netizen might make fun of their name, but I don’t think there’s much chance of avoiding that in Chinese.

*the pronunciation may or may not be the same as various English realizations of <Bing> but I won’t get into that right now.

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Danwei translates from book planner Zhen Yufei’s Sina microblog:

Famous Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin — remember, he’s a science fiction writer. A science fiction writer writes science fiction. When we sent this author’s work to the publisher for review and approval, they rejected it. The reason they gave for rejecting it was that China no longer existed in the world he depicted in the novel!

Danwei got the message through a blogger named Pan Haitian, who added his own remark under the title “Harmonious Society, Harmonious Society.” I’ll see if I can do it justice:

大刘还是不够成熟呀,看看我,奥运前写过一篇一万年后的北京,奥运场馆都已经被浣熊和狒狒占领,四环路变成森林狼和麋鹿的乐园,但是,伟大的北京人民通过全息摄影依然坚持活在鸟巢里,他们载歌载舞,高呼亚克西,让前来考察的外星人深感震惊,谁都不敢乱说乱动。这就没问题了,一点都没被审查。

Big Liu is not mature enough.  Look at me.  Before the Olympic games I wrote about Beijing in 10,000 years.  The Olympic venues have been occupied by raccoons and baboons.  The Fourth Ring Road has become a paradise for the timberwolves and elk, but the great [me: not sure on this next part] Beijing People’s Communications and News Hologram continues live in the Bird’s Nest, singing, dancing, shouting that Asia will overcome the West [me: I assume there are people in the holograms doing this].  The first aliens who come here to study are deeply shocked, and no one dare make irresponsible remarks or actions. This was no problem, and has not been investigated.

So, one way people can get banned in China: write science fiction where China doesn’t exist.  (Granted, 2012 destroyed China along with most of the rest of the world and it made it in.)

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I recently got into an interesting discussion at Ben Ross’ Blog about language competency and Huaqiao*.  The original post topic was on how to get a job using one’s Chinese skills, and the main point of it I am in total agreement on:  Unless you are specifically interested in something like translation, knowing a foreign language is not enough to get you a job.  Plenty of people have told me that my languages (English, Chinese, and Spanish) would make me a good candidate for companies that do international business and they will be valuable in getting a job, but as I approach graduation I have got to thinking that, while speaking more that one language is definitely an advantage and I would encourage anyone to learn a foreign language, I haven’t quite learned any skills that I can apply that language too.

But that’s for another post, what sparked the discussion was this:

What this means is that not even counting the hundreds of thousands of American currently studying Chinese as a second language, there are already over two million Americans, who by virtue of growing up speaking Chinese, speak the language better than you ever will, regardless of how much you study.

Myself and another commenter took issue with that statement.  While there are a large number of people in the United States who speak Chinese at home, their children are not necessarily going to be that good at Chinese.  Here’s a basic sample of what I put in:

I’m here at a special language program at Zhejiang University and have met several huaqiao here studying Chinese for one of two reasons:

1) They spoke a fangyan at home and had little or no exposure to Mandarin.
2) They can speak Mandarin, but never learned to read.

I think as more Mandarin-speakers move out into the diaspora and more Mandarin-language schools start popping up, there will gradually be more huaqiao that are competent in Mandarin, but it won’t necessarily mean they will all be better than a non-native. Language loss happens in a lot of immigrant groups — I also speak Spanish and I have met a few Hispanics with limited vocabulary or who never really learned Spanish at all (at home, that is), in the US the general rule is that immigrants lose their “mother language” in the third generation.

To expand a bit, I have met Huaqiao here who have no literacy in Chinese to speak of, and others who had noticable foreign accents or who spoke no Chinese at all.  Back in the states I have met Hispanics with very good Spanish ability, but also a Mexican American who did not learn Spanish until college and now speaks Spanish with a very noticeable West Virginia accent.  So, while there are definitely people back home that speak either of those languages natively, they wouldn’t represent the whole of the immigrant group, and even those who do speak natively may not have any professional vocabulary to speak of.  A native speaker of Mandarin would definitely have an edge on me — my Mandarin is still no where near it would need to be to actually do any kind of serious professional work.  A native Spanish speaker would to, if he has the professional vocabulary to back it up (and that still might not take much, as my Spanish is slipping through lack of exposure.

Ben later clarified that “expanding ones ideolect to include intelligent terminology and industry jargon is not one of the more demanding aspects of language learning.”  I tend to agree with that statement, once you know the language to a certain point, new vocabulary is not so difficult.  But native fluency is definitely not a golden ticket, just as having a second language in itself is not a golden ticket into international business.

Anyway, enough recap, if I haven’t bored you to tears and you are really interested in this stuff, read the original discussion thread.  Poke around on the other posts over there, too, Ben has a lot more experience than I have with China and Chinese learning, his stuff is a lot more informative than mine.

*Huaqiao 华侨 “Chinese diaspora” (#6 here)

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ChinaSMACK has a contest up to win a copy of the book In China, my name is… which focuses on the phenomenon of Chinese people choosing English names for various reasons.  All you have to do is post a comment to their contest post with a story or stories about Chinese people’s English names or foreigners’ Chinese names.  My (slightly obnoxious) posting can already be found in the comment thread (Sorry Burr, I stole your story before I thought about sharing the link, maybe you can post a more accurate version :S ).

Note: Mom I think you know this, but just to remind, ChinaSMACK is not safe for middle school (sorry, but you’ll see why pretty quick).

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If you followed President Obama’s recent trip to Asia, you may have picked up on a story about different names for Obama used in Chinese. Essentially there are two competing versions of his last name: 奥巴马 (aobama), which is the officially endorsed version used by Xinhua and other news agencies in China, and 欧巴马 (oubama), which is the version used by the US Embassy in China for press releases and other information. The embassy claims 欧巴马 should be used because it more accurately reflects the pronunciation of the name, while Xinhua and most Chinese news outlets prefer 奥巴马 because that is the form that organically occurred back when Obama was a candidate. As for which version I would use, I’m not sure yet. I’m a big believer in self-determination when it comes to names, but Obama didn’t really choose that transliteration himself, he had Chinese-speaking aides do it. And there’s something to be said for using consistent spelling forms, if for no other reason that it makes it easier on search engines if they don’t have to recognize the variant forms (or users so they don’t need to remember to search both forms at once).

But I didn’t tune in late to a discussion of Obama’s name just to opine on that. The fact is, learning Chinese, you have to learn new names for everyone and everything you might want to talk about to Chinese people. If you’ve ever studied another language you have some idea what I’m talking about. Even in European langauges, you’re likely to have to learn new country names, names of Biblical characters, and many historical figures (particularly those from the 1500’s or earlier), and maybe deal with a few mispronunciations of more recent names coming from monolinguals. In Chinese, every country, place, movie, book, or famous person has a “Chinese name”, whether that name is just a transliteration like 奥巴马 or 哈利・波特, some sort of translated name like 星际旅行, or in the case of many Chinese actors and celebrities, the actual characters of their name: such as 成龙 or 李安.

Historical figures have the same problems.  Of course, it won’t take long to learn that Mao’s full name is 毛泽东, but often figures in Chinese history are known by different pronunciation of their name from a different Chinese language (Chang Kai-shek for instance, is 蒋介石 Jiang3 Jie4shi2 in Standard Mandarin).  And of course, foreign historical names are prone to transliterations, which can be compounded by not necessarily knowing which language was the source for the Chinese phonetic pronunciation.

These things go the other way around, as well, particularly with older historical and literary figures.  You learn pretty quick that Confucious is usually called 孔子 (Kongzi) — the English name comes from an honorific title 孔夫子 (Master Kong), and you may later learn that his real name is thought to have been 孔丘 (Kong Qiu).

So what’s the best way to sort out these names.  Good dictionaries will have some of them listed, but I’ve found the best way to find the names is to use Wikipedia.  Most (if not all) people and literary works that originated in China will have their Chinese names listed in the introduction.  For those things that aren’t so closely related, look at the list of languages, hopefully you will see the a link saying 中文.  Thanks to some script magic, all Chinese Wikipedia articles are available in four versions:  Mainland, Hong Kong / Macau, Singapore, and Taiwan, so you can choose the character set that best suits your needs.  That won’t get you everywhere, but it’s a useful learning tool, or a resource you can use if you happen to be chatting online with Chinese friends and you want to know, “What do I call Obama him in Chinese?”

Anyway, hope I was helpful in some way.

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