Tag Archives: mandarin

What’s in a name?

16 Mar

English is very simple sometimes.  We have one word for cousin, one word for aunt, one word for grandmother.  Your father’s older brother and your mother’s younger brother are given the same label – uncle.

Chinese – not so much.

Older and younger brothers (and sisters) both have specific names {哥哥,弟弟 and 姐姐,妹妹}.  In fact, the word for siblings is a combination of all those terms Xiongdijiemei 兄弟姐妹。Siblings are just the beginning though.

Recently we got into quite a long discussion about the word for mother-in-law.  It is different depending on if she is the husband’s mom or the wife’s mother.  For me, my mother-in-law should be called 婆婆 which is easier to remember because 外婆 (waipo) means your mother’s mother.  Li should be calling my mom 岳母- yuemu – where the second syllable is part of the formal word for mother.

Learning all these iterations is tough on a language student.  Even almost seven years in I sometimes flip the words for uncle or grandfather because my head just doesn’t seem to contain enough space.  English is remarkably concise – but we do have to ask a lot of follow up questions, “Is that your mom’s mom or your dad’s mom?  Which side of your family is Matt on? Is your brother older or younger?”

Then there are the questions about siblings because with the one child policy people use old words with new meanings.  Because people don’t have older or younger brothers, they now use those words to refer to their cousins instead of the traditional words.  This leads to questions like, “Is it your brother with the same mother?” The first time I heard that one, I was pretty confused.

With my sister-in-law having a son, there are also the words for nephew and niece – which once again vary by side.  Too many names!

One potential family tree - though Li doesn't agree with all these labels!

One potential family tree – though Li doesn’t agree with all these labels!

The above is a chart we found, but even this has some variations from what I hear colloquially.

So, who are you?  What names do you have and which would you like to know?

I am a daughter, older sister, wife, daughter-in-law, aunt, cousin. That would be 女儿,姐姐,老婆,儿媳妇 and 表妹,表姐 and a couple of other words.


Guest post – I’m ready to move to China* – part 2

14 Jan

*except for that whole “speaking Mandarin” thing

I am pleased to announce that I’m starting the year off with something new on the blog.  My good friend and cousin, Matt came to visit me mid-October and before he left I gave him the idea of doing a guest post.  This is the second segment of the three.  To read segment one with his observations, click here.

Apparently the Chinese Internet Censors are asleep at the switch, because I’m back in the blogosphere! You didn’t think I’d spend over a week in China and only have seven recordable observations, did you? Much thanks to my hostess for allowing me continue my rambling, incoherent jumble of thoughts that I insist is a narrative!

Without further ado, here are some more of my Chinese observations:

  • G and I got foot massages together. I don’t get massages often (or, um, really ever) but I gather that the concept of Chinese massage is sort of a test of endurance. I spent my time straddling the line between relaxation and bearable pain. She taught me “ching e dian” (轻一点lighter) and “jong e dian” (重一点harder). I said “harder” once, held on as long as I could, and then asked for “softer.” Upon leaving, I felt like I had survived, rather than relaxed.  That said, I would definitely go back again (and did, near the end of my visit).
  • Massage sidebar: both of our masseuses agreed that my size 15 feet were the largest they’d ever seen.  My feet barely fit in the pre-massage hot water bucket.  I do like to leave an impression on people!
  • The Shanghai subway system is very easy to learn. Having English signs is a boon, of course, but what really helps are the large arrows on the floor showing where to go to reach your desired train line. I also marvel at the temporary blockades they put up to better control the flow of foot traffic during rush hour. One complaint: you need to know which exit gate to go through, because there’s no second chance. More than once I left through the wrong set of gates, and ended up being forced to go back to street-level from an exit across the street from where I wanted to be.
  • Whether you’re in the shops around Yu Yuan Gardens, or Tiantong Rd., or just off Xizang Rd near Zizhong Rd, or the famed Night Market in Hangzhou, one observation holds true: you’re gonna see a lot of stalls selling the same stuff.  There’ll be differences in types of merchandise from location to location, but within any particular center you’ll find three or four shops selling the same items.  I guess if you’ve got time and can haggle respectably, that means there are deals to be had. If you’re me, it means making a purchase at one shop, then finding a vendor four stalls down offering you the same item for 20 RMB less as a starting offer.  Hmph.
Many stalls around Yu Yuan

Many stalls around Yu Yuan

  • During our first afternoon in Hangzhou, Greta and I ambled down to the West Lake waterfront. Coincidentally we arrived near the water’s edge roughly a minute before a water fountain show was to begin! Some people had arrived early to get available seating for the “Music Fountain,” but we were able to walk up to the first row of “standing room.” The actual show was impressive: a line of rotatable water spouts (plus a circle of spouts to each side) that “danced” in tune with the music being played over loudspeakers. There were three or four songs in total, and the whole spectacle lasted about 15 minutes.
The fountain at work

The fountain at work

I repeatedly came back to two thoughts: what kind of effort went into programming all of those nozzles to perform such elaborate routines, and how much mechanical upkeep is necessary to keep the show running in top condition year round? (Remember, I AM an engineer!) That second thought came from watching one poor spigot without enough water pressure flailing helplessly at the lake’s surface between its functioning brothers.

Hazy view of the fountain

Hazy view of the fountain

  • One of my better accomplishments in China was during our second night in Hangzhou. After parting ways, I wandered back down to the Night Market and successfully pantomimed my way into ordering a delicious grilled squid from one of the many sidewalk food vendors.  The key moments were pointing at the squid, holding up one finger, and mumbling “yi ge.” Baby steps, people!
  • The smaller the diameter of tapioca ball in your milk tea, the longer it takes to finish that tea.
Lingyin Temple

Lingyin Temple

  • The Lingyin temple compound is quite impressive, but it probably spoiled me. Later in the week I visited the Longhua Temple, and found it to be interesting, but underwhelming by comparison. If I was better versed in Buddhism, perhaps I would be able to pick up on the nuances of each temple (and each chamber within the temple). Alas, at this time I can only appreciate them from an artistic (and sometimes architectural) perspective.
Rear of Lingyin Temple

Rear of Lingyin Temple

  • When we got back from Hangzhou, we showed Li our videos of the “Music Fountain.” We wanted to know if he recognized the song being used. Li did not recognize it; he surmised it was some generic composition that Americans tourists would think “sounded Chinese.” He’s probably right.
  • English translations on Chinese restaurant menus can be head-scratchingly hilarious. G and I ate at Yun Se Restaurant in Shanghai, where she spent a lot of time comparing the accuracy of the Chinese names to their English equivalents. Mind you, the food she DID order was delicious, but here are some other options (as seen on the menu): Pepper beer, Basin of hypodermal, Burn the pig feet, Hairtail, The non general perch, and of course, Donald Duck. Bon appetit!

We’ve reached the end of another guest segment. Make sure you stay tuned next week for the final segment. Thank you again for allowing me to write! And thanks to you, the viewer, for boosting both the page views and my own ego. Until next time!

Any engineers out there who want to comment on the pressure in the fountain?  What types of details do you pay attention to when traveling?  Share your thoughts!

Guest post – I’m ready to move to China*

7 Jan

*except for that whole “speaking Mandarin” thing

I am pleased to announce that I’m starting the year off with something new on the blog.  My good friend and cousin, Matt came to visit me mid-October and before he left I gave him the idea of doing a guest post.  For my Christmas present he prepared three posts to provide his point of view on the trip.  Sit back, read and enjoy!

Greetings all!

This is Matt, cousin and friend (that’s right, I wear TWO hats!) and recent guest of your favorite Shanghai blogger. And now I’m guest-blogging my perspectives after spending a little over a week in China in October.  My Chinese knowledge upon touching down at Pudong consisted of 1/8 of the Rosetta Stone Mandarin Level 1 CD combined with everything I picked up from the “Learn a Language” games offered by Berlitz in the personal headrest screen on the flight over.  I confidently strode off the plane knowing numbers 1-10 as well as hello, goodbye, thank you, help, sorry, “I don’t know”, and uh, inexplicably “I love you.” (Apparently Berlitz feels this is a common enough travel phrase internationally to include it with the others I listed.)

Over the past several years, G has blogged about a LOT of aspects of China.  It may be difficult for me to mine new territory, so I’ll take the dual approach of both the “first-timer” perspective, with a little “engineer” perspective to boot.

With that said, here are my observations of Shanghai and China:

  • The Chinese do not care for hand-washing.  Or more specifically, using soap. In the various public/restaurant bathrooms I visited during my stay, I saw plenty of sinks but rarely a soap dispenser. Further dissuading hand-washing was the omnipresence of ineffective (uh, American-made) hand dryers.  So watch out for that next handshake!
  • Along the same line of thought: When I packed a couple of pocket tissue packages for potential allergy issues, I didn’t realize I’d be on the cutting edge of culture! Pocket tissue packs are the must-have accessory for the frequent restaurant patron, as apparently many Chinese establishments don’t supply napkins, or charge extra for the convenience. Charging for water or extra bread I can see, but napkins?! Betcha didn’t think of packing tissues on purpose!
  • In the parks of central Shanghai, stray kittens appear to be the Chinese equivalent of squirrels in American parks. They’re all over the place, and they’re not shy about looking for a food handout. I tried to tell one kitten I didn’t have any food in both English and Spanish, but she willfully refused to understand. Berlitz really dropped the ball, not teaching me how to tell a cat that I don’t have food in Mandarin! Maybe I should have told her I loved her instead…
The frisky feline

The frisky feline

  • Also in the parks, I noticed public-use exercise equipment, of the low-aerobic variety. Now, I assume the primary users are those most likely to be in the park during the day: the middle-aged to elderly. But I think that’s good, to give this group an opportunity to exercise for which they might not otherwise have the impetus (or financial wherewithal).  This would be a good idea for city parks States-side.
Ready to move?

Ready to move?

  • G took me to the intersection of Yan’an Rd and Chengdu Rd, and told me the story of how the feng shui expert recommended putting dragons on the primary pillar to ensure the structure would hold up. That entire elevated highway intersection is fascinating: the engineer in me wonders about all the designing and construction that took place in order to make that happen.
Here Thar be Dragons

Here Thar be Dragons

  • I also like the plants along the sides of the elevated roads. The greenery really helps to mitigate the coldness and grey that so often accompanies large concrete structures.
  • Here’s to the power of suggestion! We went to Wujiang Road and had some traditional Chinese desserts. I had durian and green tea ice cream in a cold vanilla broth. The durian initially tasted odd yet unassuming, but then she told me Andrew Zimmerman’s (of Bizarre Foods) thoughts on the infamous fruit, and well, I had a hard time eating much more of it.  It might be a while before I try interacting with durian again.
The durian is the lower of the bowls

The durian is the lower of the bowls

That’s all for now. When I sent the first draft of my writing, she observed it was less of a “blog entry” and more like a “short novel.” I can’t disagree. So my observations have been broken into more time-friendly segments. Until next time!

Any comments or thoughts on Matt’s post?  Please let him (and me) know what you found interesting or new!  All comments welcome.

Who’s worried?

15 Dec

Last week I caught up with a former coworker for lunch.  There have been some interesting legislative developments recently about an aspect of her business so we were discussing how/if they were planning on capitalizing on the change.

She said it had been very difficult to get the decision maker (who sits outside of China) to take the changes seriously and it really felt like her team was pushing to try to market the appropriate new solution.  Then she asked if I had heard the expression “皇帝不急,太监急"(Huang di bu ji, tai jian ji.)

I hadn’t heard that phrase before and asked her to explain.  She said that it meant that the key person (the emperor) didn’t think something was important but his underlings were all running around trying to find an answer.  The phrase seemed to fit the situation perfectly as she just described it.

The next day I told my husband I had learned a new phrase.  He listened, corrected my pronunciation slightly and then asked me if the woman who taught me the sentence was married.  Taken aback, I said that yes, she was.  He then gave me the literal translation of the phrase.

Literally the first part is the same – The emperor isn’t worried – but the second part is – but the eunuchs are worried.  You can see how that translation emphasizes a slightly different point of view.  The overall idea is the same, but the specific words have a different focus.

We had a good laugh – and I decided not to use that phrase for a while.  I don’t feel my Chinese is quite good enough to work that one subtly into conversation.  Give me another couple of years – I am not worried.

In another language note – last week I went to an event where the current US ambassador to China (Gary Locke) spoke.  He will soon be stepping down from his post and was explaining why.  His translator had a style very similar to his so I started to see if I could see the translator in the crowd.  To my surprise – he was a white, foreign face! The man was amazing.  In comparison, my Chinese is terrible.

Translation is not an easy job and there is so much more than just translating words – there is the feel, the meaning, the historical context, the rhythm and the underlying shared background.  This language continues to draw me in.

Have you had a moment when you proudly used a phrase that didn’t turn out quite right?  Or have you viewed a masterful translator in practice?  What aspects do you remember?

A mandarin milestone – traveling and translating

20 Oct

I have been lucky to have had a visitor in town for the last week or so.  Each visitor is a gift – I know that crossing the pond is a big thing and I do everything I can to try to make the trip memorable.

This time, as I have been blessed with some free time I took my guest out of Shanghai to Hangzhou during the middle of the week.  I haven’t had that opportunity for a couple of years as most guests have been in the city while I’ve been working so I can only grab a day or two to  spend with them.

Going to Hangzhou was a revelation – not only because it is a beautiful place but because how I communicated during the trip.

Because my friend doesn’t speak any Chinese – I was on my own in terms of setting the plan, asking questions, ordering food, etc.  I wasn’t with a group of colleagues who let me follow along and I wasn’t with my husband who typically plans our travels within China.  If I didn’t get it right – we weren’t doing it.

I rocked it.

We ate at restaurants where the only menus were listed on the wall.  We successfully navigated the Hangzhou bus system – three times – with me looking at the bus diagrams in characters, choosing the right bus and getting us off at the right stop.  I bargained for gifts and I even chewed out a taxi driver who just didn’t want to take foreigners because they were “too much trouble.”

What I found really interesting was that even outside of my “comfort zone” in Shanghai, I was still able to function – people understood me and helped me and I finally asked questions to make sure things were right.  Sometimes having a guest makes you fearless.  For yourself you can accept certain elements of discomfort – but for your guest – no way!

Over the years I have noticed that this time of year – autumn – tends to be the time when I notice a significant change in my Chinese ability.  I remember my first phone call, my first meeting where I “got it” – my first presentation to a big group in mandarin.  All of those were milestones at the time.  This one was unexpected and very validating.

Have you had a language milestone recently?  Have you ever had others dependent on your translation ability?  It can be stressful – or it can be a gift.  This time, it was a gift.

To read about past mandarin milestones I have had, try the posts below:

Mandarin Milestones

Another Mandarin Milestone

Another Mandarin Milestone (2)

The 9th quarter review

17 Oct

The last quarter has flown by – it seems like just last week I wrote my last post celebrating Zhongguo Jumble’s two year anniversary.  Even though there was only one major trip in the last quarter (our trip to Greece) – I feel like I have been all over.

The posts show that as it was in the last quarter that I published many of my travels from the previous quarter as I got caught up with such a busy summer.  Travel posts were very popular and the following especially so:

Posing over 50 floors up

Posing over 50 floors up

1) Roppongi Hills & Tokyo City View – a post on my visit to Tokyo in May and getting swallowed by a spider (not quite)

Ready to dig in!

Ready to dig in!

2) The Pineapple Cake Wars – tasting two competing pineapple cakes in Taipei, Taiwan and hearing which kind others will choose.  The food in Taiwan was so good.  I would like to go back just so I can eat.  Taiwanese sausage has now become a staple in my kitchen.

The Parthenon

The Parthenon

3) And We’re Back… – the initial post on our trip to Greece with just enough of a taste to keep people coming back to see what will happen.  I’ve only had time to get through the first day so far.

There were also two posts that sparked a lot of comments based on their topics which were more philosophical –

My mandarin accent – where I thought back to how I got my mandarin accent prompted by a taxi driver in Taipei, Taiwan

The Chinese dream – looking at the propaganda campaign that the Chinese government has been pressing lately and talking about what your dreams are.  Make sure you check out the comments on this post if you haven’t before, lots of good commentary that made me think even more.

And finally – two posts that I especially liked with some great photos to share.

The pavilion perched on the river with a tall building in the background

The pavilion perched on the river with a tall building in the background

A walk in Hefei – where I saw the possibility of a beautiful park over the Mid-Autumn Festival

Hammock with feet

Without a care in the world – photos from our trip earlier this year to Michigan, the place where I can put up my hair and dance crazy circles on the lawn.

It was a wonderful quarter and I look forward to the next one.  Did I miss your favorite post?  I’m still debating about the book possibility, so maybe more to come on that front.

More changes to come, so stick around and keep reading!  I anticipate more trips and of course, more views of Shanghai.  Autumn is my favorite season.  Happy Fall!

One good turn deserves another

17 Sep

I learned another traditional Chinese phrase the other day.  It’s 礼尚往来(Li Shang Wang Lai)translated it is normally “one good turn deserves another” or “courtesy calls for reciprocity.”

In theory then, this should be a similar concept to the English.  However…

Let me share how I came to know the term.

We are going to celebrate the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival in Li’s hometown.  Li’s mom helped us arrange a taxi ride from the train station to their house.  It so happens that the gentleman who is coordinating the driver and car is her neighbor.  Unbeknownst to both of us, this gentleman and his family attended our wedding and gave a gift.   There were over 250 people at our reception – I knew just over 10.  Very possible.

So how are these two events connected?

Nothing – but it so happens that his son/daughter by chance is getting married in Li’s hometown at the same place we had our reception, while we are there.

Li’s family is now convinced that if we don’t go to the wedding he will feel slighted and there will be problems between neighbors later. Because he has coordinated our taxi ride, he now knows we will be in town.

So – “courtesy calls for reciprocity.”

I have problems with this from several angles.

1) We were not invited to the wedding.

2) Neither of us knows this gentleman or his offspring.

3) We were planning on spending time with other members of Li’s family during our short visit which now may have to be skipped.

To my western mind, ignoring your own family to go to the wedding of a neighbor’s kid you’ve never met seems to be showing the wrong kind of courtesy.  But, I am in China.  I tried to explain this point of view to my husband.  At the end of the discussion we agreed to disagree.  Our definitions are different, though the words are the same.

I think (though am not certain) I will be going to a wedding over this Mid-Autumn Festival.  I wonder what my next good turn will be?

Has anything like this happened to you?

My mandarin accent

25 Jul

As I settled into the taxi to head to the famous pineapple cake store in Taipei, I started talking to my taxi driver in mandarin.  We talked about where I am from and why I was in Taipei, but suddenly he asked me if I had studied Chinese in mainland China.

It took me back, but when I answered in the affirmative, he indicated that he could tell from my accent.

Similarly when I told my Taiwanese colleagues that I went to visit Taipei 101, I used the “mainland Chinese” way of counting (yao ling yao instead of yi ling yi).  The number “one” has two different pronunciations and I chose the wrong one for Taiwan.  They laughed and said my terms were the same as the “mainlanders” and corrected me.

This started me thinking – many moons ago before I moved to China I volunteered at the Chinese Mutual Aid Society in Chicago.  There, before I made the plunge to mainland China, I took half a dozen lessons from a teacher there who had taught English in Taiwan for a couple of years.  We didn’t accomplish much more than the greeting words and the numbers, but I found it useful when I first hit the ground.

One evening as a group of us teachers were waiting to catch the subway after a night of classes, I was talking with a local teacher trying to show off my numbers.  I said “Line 2 (二号线)” and she laughed.  She said that my pronunciation of the number 2 was very Taiwanese!  Then she corrected me gently with the correct pronunciation.

I have come full circle.

In Taiwan, I noticed that the number two was different from mainland China – and I could hear the difference, but now, I can’t replicate it without feeling strange.  I also noticed other words and phrases that are just a little different – it seems to me that the Taiwanese phrases are more polite.  For example, “Good Morning!”  In Shanghai we say, 早 !(Zao) But in Taiwan they say, 早安!(Zao an) It feels less abrupt and more traditional, just like they use traditional characters, the language is different.

Language changes with time – there is no static way to capture a language.  New terms and words are constantly coming and going – slang changes and becomes standard and my mandarin is starting to get to the point where I can pick up those differences.  It’s not just my accent, but my ability to recognize and absorb and mirror back those changes.  Taiwan was a good lesson for that.

Do you have an accent?

Impressions of Taiwan

4 Jun

At the beginning of May right after the Labor Day holiday (World Labor Day is different from Labor Day in the US – though that’s a topic for a different post), I went to Taiwan with my colleagues.  As I noted in this post on Hualien Beach, I have a soft spot in my heart for traveling with them.

Taiwan was unlike anywhere I have been before.  Most of my impressions prior to the visit had been from the TV show – “Fun Taiwan” and from my good friends Mike & Lily whom I met in Shanghai.  Neither really prepared me for the visit.

A view of the famous Sun Moon Beach in Taiwan's interior

A view of the famous Sun Moon Beach in Taiwan’s interior

It feels like China – but cleaner and more polite.  It feels like Hong Kong – without the Cantonese accent.  It feels like a mountain resort and hot spring, but it also feels like a traditional city with temples and culture.  The food was tasty and affordable with a myriad of tastes that I have never had.  Taiwan thoroughly bewitched me.

In addition, because I was traveling with a group of people from mainland China, the trip opened up different types of cultural and historical back-drop that I never even considered.  For example – did you know that elementary school text books in mainland China have a special unit on the “province” of Taiwan and all of its natural beauty? Or that Taiwan has two calendars – one that started when the Kuomintang arrived?  I didn’t.

My impressions of Taiwan then are a mix of different tastes and sights and sounds.  Here are a few to wet your appetite.

1) The food, the food, the food – even at the rest stations on the highway there were so many choices for quick meals.  Taiwanese sausages on sticks, bowls of noodles, dried fish, sweets, pork cutlets…  The rest areas put all other rest areas to shame.  Fresh papaya milk, pineapple cakes, seafood, hot pot, bubble tea – we joked that we were eating 5 meals a day.  Don’t go to Taiwan and try to diet!

You can laugh at the English translations - but the food was top notch - I even tried one of the rice tubes

You can laugh at the English translations – but the food was top notch – I even tried one of the rice tubes

Photo from one of the street markets - all of the possible hot pot combinations displayed for your evening snack

Photo from one of the street markets – all of the possible hot pot combinations displayed for your evening snack

2) Politeness – I have good Taiwanese friends who are exceedingly polite, but I never projected that onto an entire people.  It appears that I should have.  When waitresses put dishes on the table, they said excuse me – every time!  I was looking for a certain bus stop – and four or five people offered assistance.  There were free umbrellas at the hotel if you needed them and people kept their helmets stored on their motorbikes – without locking them together.  I know that had I never lived in China these small acts of kindness would likely not make such a big impression – but I have, and they did.  Here were people speaking Mandarin who had kept the civility which is so often missing in Shanghai.

3) Traditional characters – Hong Kong also uses traditional characters, but Hong Kong has a lot more English sprinkled through signs.  I was impressed by how much I could understand – and how complicated characters that are so basic were before the writing reform.  For example – the word for advertisement:

广告=廣告=guang gao (simplified, traditional, pinyin)

They are pronounced the same way and have the same meaning – but the second has lots of additional strokes.  Reminds me of my mother telling me when she was small that it “just wasn’t fair” that her name had so many letters.  I imagine Taiwanese kids must feel the same way when they see the simplified Chinese versions.

It felt like I was getting the inside track – we saw very, very few foreigners after we left the airport and since my colleagues had done their research I was treated to the best views, the best snacks and even serenaded by Taiwanese music during the trip.

Ready to explore!

Ready to explore!

What’s the best group trip that you’ve had?  When tour groups work well they can smooth out all of the problems and potential issues and truly let you enjoy the destination instead of the trip.

Have you been to Taiwan?  What are your impressions?

Translating training

11 Apr

I was lucky enough to attend a leadership training course recently which was conducted in English but the majority of participants  were Chinese.  We were talking about different concepts like engagement and accountability. After about 15 minutes the only mandarin speaking facilitator asked the group to define those two terms in Chinese.

The room was silent for a few moments and then people started shouting out possible translations which were all different.  It was an interesting lesson for me, those terms are used all the time, but obviously never clearly explained, never really translated.

I wonder how many other concepts that I use have a different meaning or multiple meanings in Chinese.  Or, to flip it around, when I speak chinese can I truly “translate” what I want to say?  Some concepts just don’t translate, they require a shared cultural experience.

The training may have been about leadership, but I took away a different lesson.

Have you had a similar experience?

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