Back to It

Wow, this has been a long break.

I’ve finished up with a semester of law school, but I’ve done very little in the way of language study since I returned from China. But that’s going to change, because today I received a nice solid kick in the ass.

I had a phone interview in which my ability to read and translate on the fly were called to task. Just two paragraphs from two different news sites (Xinhua and a Taiwanese site). They were from two articles, one a science article and the other an economics article, and all I had to do was recite the first paragraph of each, and follow it up with a translation. But I kept stumbling, and failing to recall words, and totally blanking on the meaning of some traditional characters. It was embarrassing. The recitation wasn’t that bad, it was the on the fly translation that was the toughest.

So now I’m going to redouble my efforts. I’ve got a subscription to Chinesepod that I will be using to actually go over the lessons, rather than just listen to the mp3 class. In addition, I will be doing newspaper reading and spoken translation drills every day. If I run into the same interview situation I will not be left with this feeling of disappointment again.

And for parting words, here’s a very cool 歇后语 I learned from a Chinesepod lesson:


Literally, clay Bodhisattva crossing a river…finds it difficult to protect itself. It was used in a line of a dialogue in which a statement about how China might be able to overtake America economically, by way of the current financial crisis. The xiehouyu was used as part of the reply, the essence of which was that it would be difficult for China to do that, because her hands are tied simply taking care of herself at the moment.

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Japanese Grammar

Today I studied: ~た(だ)事がある

Which pretty much means: To have (done~) before.

This is one of those grammatical structures that opens up a whole new world of expression, and I also especially like the syntax. The structure can be divided into four parts. Take this for example, “I’ve eaten dog.”: 犬の肉を食べた事があります。

First up is a sentence phrase, anything can be said and the verb goes into the ~た (past tense) verb form. This is the meat of the sentence. Haha.

事 (こと)
Koto means matter, circumstances, or thing (not in the sense of a physical thing, but an affair).

Ga is a grammatical particle, used to indicate the subject of the sentence. Well, mostly…usually… haha, it’s complicated. I don’t even want to touch that yet, I was just looking at the Japanese Grammar entry on Wikipedia, yikes.

This is a verb, meaning to be, or to have, or to exist, but for inanimate objects. It’s used because koto is not a person or animal, but rather is an abstract concept. In the example sentence it’s conjugated in the positive “ありあす” (there is).

Putting that altogether, and fitting the English to the Japanese syntax “犬の肉を食べた事があります。” becomes:

Dog (‘s) meat (obj. particle) eaten affair (subj. particle) there is.

Haha, using foreign syntax with English always makes me happy for some reason. One of those unreasonable things that people enjoy, like taking the caps off their muffins or kissing their engagement ring. So really this is just one sentence embedded inside of another “There is a (having eaten dog meat) affair”. And of course this opens up all these possibilities…“Have you ever ~?” “I’ve never ~” “I have ~ before” etc. For those of you who’d like to express the negative of the dog-eating affair: Inu no niku tabeta koto ga arimasen!

That’s it, gotta chug along with this book, one more chapter left, hopefully I’ll start it tomorrow!


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Well, yesterday was my last day at my internship. For my going away dinner they took me out to this really amazing, if slightly odd, place.

First of all, the whole shtick of the dinner was that we’d be having 烤全羊 as the main course. Kaoquanyang, literally “roast whole lamb”. And it was certainly very whole! They plopped it right there in the center of our table, red and spiced. Haha, we had to cut it ourselves. The thing was maybe three feet lengthwise (missing the head and all the innards of course), I wish I had a decent camera because I would have taken pictures to put up. I’ll try and get some of the pictures from my colleagues. Anyway, the lamb, the staff said, was about a year old, roasted for between three and four hours, and then served like so. Pretty good, although I prefer more flavor, I need sauce!

The odd thing about the place was its location. We had to drive out 40 minutes from the city center (well, we left while there was traffic so maybe an hour or so), to a place not far from the airport. Then we drove through all these walled off farm/light industry plots of land, down these sometimes dirt roads, to a closed gate. It was already dark by then, because it was late and extremely cloudy; I felt like we were in the mafia, heading out to meet with the don or something. We get to this gate, honk the horn, and they open the gate and wave us in. There was a big courtyard, with a building that had lots of Christmas lights hanging up over the entrance, no name or anything. We had to walk maybe 10-15 yards to the door through a neat little orchard in front of the building, and over a little glass bridge that spanned this tiny running moat.

And inside, was just wow. Not flashy or ritzy, just spacious and rich. Rich, is the best way I can think of it, and extremely tasteful. Sparing and clean. High ceilings, very few tables, wide spaces, and lots of wood around, plain walls save the well-chosen art. Very different from the city center. It looked almost like a home. Just not the sort of thing you’re expecting out at a 农家 place. The 13 of us had a private room, also impeccably decorated, although this room’s art was a little more eclectic than the main room. Aside from the Chinese calligraphy and other art there was this large renaissance cupid playing a lute tapestry, and then slightly more puzzling, this panoramic painting (maybe 7-8 feet long) of a futuristic sci-fi city. Bizarre, haha, I liked that one the best though.

So all in all, good food, good people, good fun! Here’s a joke I learned:





Nobody got it then. Scroll down for the answer!










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Language Outsider (iii)

Cultural and linguistic disadvantages in group conversation.

Linguistic hurdles include: simply not being able to understand or misunderstanding what is being talked about; not being able to catch on to the overall narrative of the conversation because your mind gets hung up on the details; or the opposite situation, grasping the gist of the ideas, but missing out on the details; lack of knowledge of technical terms or idiom or slang. These are all on the listening end, and the speaking side of it can be even more daunting, like an inability to express one’s ideas because of lack of mastery of grammatical structures or vocabulary, or an inability to express oneself fluidly in the proper rhythm of a native speaker.

These and more compound to create the largest stumbling linguistic block at all, subtlety. Going back to humor, there are certainly many forms of it ranging along the spectrum beginning at brash and dirty and ending at witty and intellectual, and in most (intelligent) conversation it tends to gravitate towards the latter. Which makes subtlety a tool of no small importance, not just in the application of it, but in the recognition of it. Thankfully my level of Mandarin ability gives me enough spring to bound over a lot fo these hurdles, but I wouldn’t even need all of the fingers on a single hand to count the number of times I might catch a glimpse of subtlety or bring it into play over the course of hour long banter.

But subtlety needs more than a good grasp of the language, you have to cross chasms of cultural peculiarities as well. Taking my daily lunches as an example, when the topic of conversation turns to America, or the experience of studying abroad, or my travels, or even just myself, then I can hold my own. I’m fairly well versed in those things, haha. But as soon as the center gravitates away from me, and we’re talking about say…preparing to take their road test, discussing a Burmese power plant contract, the costs of buying an apartment in different areas, then I get lost fast. Sometimes those cultural disadvantages lead in a downward spiral towards linguistic disadvantages.

Fortunately, the Chinese love to talk about their culture and love to exchange parallels and contrasts between Chinese and American culture, but sometimes I don’t want to base everything I talk about on those things. One of the things I regret is having dropped my habit of reading Chinese news religiously. Current events are always great. I stay away from the touchy stuff though…haha, all the stuff I’m most interested in hearing about! I just need more time to practice with the subtle knife.

Too bad I’m already starting to drift away from Mandarin towards serious Japanese study. I don’t want my Mandarin to backslide again! I’ll have to refocus over the summer.


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Language Outsider (ii)

Sometimes I like to think of human conversation as a game. Liken it to whichever game metaphor is handy—sports, video games, psychological games—or even better just speak of it as if conversation were a game in its own class. And the game gets really interesting when it’s played as a large group. Take mealtime chatter as an example. You have several people, any of whom might bring up a topic of conversation. Maybe something they were thinking about, or something they did, or something they saw. So the topic’s on the table, and then they develop it and grow it for the others with their words. There may or may not be a climax to it, maybe they were just mentioning something to get the ball rolling, but eventually somebody else will step in.

That person will carry the last person’s thought further, in whichever direction they’d like, until they’ve finished or are interrupted, whereupon someone else takes over. The dynamics of the exchanges get complicated fast, and the nature of the conversation can be varied. Maybe it’s an argument, a debate, simple banter, general bullshit, jokes, stories, whatever; each has its own style of play and its own strategy. Sometimes single threads of conversation weave in different directions throughout the night and sometimes the conversation is broken and restarted many times, or the main narrative splits up among the players and merges again later. There are so many different things to talk about, and so many different ways to talk about them! There are some people who dominate conversations, some people who are great at relevant interjections, some people who direct the talk on the sly, some people who are conversational wallflowers and some people who simply 空気を読むことができません! All sorts.

I generally think about dinner conversation in terms of laughter, with the more successful games leaving you with that nice warm feeling of general mirth afterwards. Haha, a conversational after-mirth if you will. And I know I can hold my own, not one-hundred percent of the time, but enough so that it’s always exciting to me. And sometimes I find myself thinking on that meta level, of when I contributed to the game by throwing in my words or throwing someone else’s words into a different light or bringing in something new and relevant. But that’s just in English, Chinese is a very different story.

Here at my internship, I eat out with my colleagues every afternoon, generally five to ten people on any given day. Now, one-on-one I can be gregarious as anything, but when you’ve got that many people playing the game, the field is extremely different, and I find myself opening my mouth a lot less. I’m not a language outsider, I can understand maybe 85% of what they say, with the 15% being some vocabulary I might not be familiar with on a basic level (let’s say they were talking about mortgages or some specific regional tea or, ugh, Chinese medicine) and which thus makes contributing all the more difficult. But even if I minimize the linguistic disadvantage, the cultural disadvantage is substantial.

Tomorrow I’ll describe more of what I mean, 明天见!

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Language Outsider (i)

Sunday night I went out with some friends to ç°‹è¡— for dinner. ç°‹è¡— is a great place, essentially a long street of restaurants, lots of 火锅,串儿等等. Red lanterns hanging all over the place, people waiting and talking outside, just tons of atmosphere. The restaurant we went to was great, it was really packed so we didn’t get to partake in any 重庆火锅, but the restaurant still had some great food. Crayfish, eel, frog, chicken (spicy!), beef, dofu, carp, etc. おいしいですね! And lots of 干杯!

Anyway, one of my Aussie friends brought along a Chinese friend, a Tsinghua student, which got me thinking about lopsided language dynamics. Out of six he was the only one who wouldn’t be comfortable with conversational English. He mentioned my 口音 wasn’t a problem to understand (Midlands accent!), but the Australian, southern, and non-native English accents were pretty much 听不懂. He spoke hardly more than a word of English the whole night.

Groups like this generally tend to gravitate towards English. Even though I try to accommodate the non-English speaker with Chinese as often as possible because it is great practice, the pull of the group’s lingua franca is pretty powerful. I always try to check that at the very least someone else is engaging the language outsider. Inevitably I end up feeling pretty bad for them. Language, or lack thereof, can be pretty alienating, and I always feel like I’m not being as polite as I should be. Worse, I imagine that the language outsider might leave the night feeling a little down, which is unfortunate. It is pretty incredible how fundamental communication, and therefore language, is to the human condition. I’ve been in the language outsider seat before, and it’s definitely not the most enjoyable experience.


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