Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Short Story

I’m going to finish off a very English-language morning with a short story, about a phenomenon that I expect will surprise you.

This past summer, I bought the second season of “Chinese Family” (《中国家庭》), a not-outstandingly-popular TV drama from a few years ago. I only ever watched the first episode or two: the show is kind of depressing, and also massively ridiculous. The main character, adopted into her current family while very young, breaks down on her wedding night and refuses to marry her brother; her public refusal embarrasses and angers her father, who chases after her intending to beat her and ends up having a heart attack instead; he dies in the hospital, where the girl meets a handsome doctor who treats her very well; the entirely family blames her, and her adopted mother banishes her from the home; later her brother, in a fit of drunken rage, chases the girl from the doorstep of her friend’s house on a rainy night and in doing so gets hit by a car. All of this goes down in the first episode.

At that time, I dismissed the plot as the work of screenwriters attempting to toe the line between immense, improbable tragedy and physical impossibility. But while I still think it’s ridiculous and melodramatic, I recently learned that the basis for the story isn’t quite as far-fetched as I had thought.

Yesterday, I was eating a very late lunch of fried rice in a restaurant run by a couple from Fujian Province, and since we were the only two in the place, I got to talking with one of the owners. Judging by her son’s age and what she told me about their business and her life, she comes from a very poor village in the countryside, and she’s a lot younger than she looks.

At one point, I asked her how she met her husband. “We grew up together,” she said, and I didn’t think anything of it.

Later, when I told her I was one of three sons, she asked whether my parents had considered adopting a girl. I said no, I don’t think so – three was plenty for my parents to handle. Then she started telling me about a practice that’s developed in Fujian: Parents who have a son but who also want a girl will often adopt her from the parents of relatives or friends.  (They can’t have one of their own, or they will be fined heavily in accordance with the one child policy.) The families that give up their daughters for adoption usually do so either to avoid paying fines for having a second child, or because they had a second child legally (in the countryside, a family can have a second child if the first is a girl) but find that they don’t have the means to raise her.

Often, the adopted girl will end up marrying her new brother – just like, as I found out, the two owners of the restaurant at which I was eating.

The owner said that sometimes girls in that situation would refuse to marry, especially if they already had a lover of their own. She didn’t say what her own situation was before she married into her adopted family. But she was only half joking when she explained, “The family was really, really struggling. I didn’t want to leave my mother alone. And anyway, I grew up with him, so we knew each other completely... and I was worried that if he didn’t marry me, he wouldn’t be able to find a wife!” The wifeless man - “bare branch” - has become a phenomenon in China, where the ratio of men to women can get as high as 120:100 in some provinces because of a preference for male children, and men without means are often not even considered for marriage.

So maybe the “Chinese Family” storyline has something to it after all – though I’m sure that in real life any village family as good-looking as that wouldn’t exactly be short of marriage prospects.

Here today with your fun fact from China,

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Progress Report

I am 2/3 of the way through my ‘spring semester’ here in Beijing, and also about 2/3 of the way through the TV series that I’ve been using as my main course material throughout.

With this perspective, I can confidently say that I made the right choice in dropping out of ICLP (that sounds really bad, doesn’t it? for the record I never even started attending classes there this year!) and coming back to Beijing to study independently.

For one thing, I know that the content that I’m learning here is useful, and that I would have not come in contact with much of it had I stayed in Taipei. A lot of the credit goes to 《蜗居》, the drama I’ve been watching, providing a perfect mix of vocabulary: 70% is common colloquial dialogue, much of it dealing with everyday topics like houses, family, and money; 20% is literary or flowery narration; and the remaining 10% is business-related conversation involving members of the intelligentsia. 《蜗居》, which has been called “a series that slipped through SARFT’s [China’s media regulatory body] guidelines” (www.danwei.org/tv/narrow_dwellings.php) is also a candid glimpse at modern social problems in the metropolises of China: official corruption, sky-high housing prices, and the widespread mistress phenomenon. In my own daily life, I’ve also been forced to deal with some problems that would either not have come up or would likely have been solved using English were I in Taipei: the details of housing rental; looking for part-time jobs; bedbugs (?); and the like.

As expected, I’ve found that setting my own pace makes my learning more efficient. At 30-60 new words per night, I’m slow (at least in comparison to the programs I’ve been at), but I’m thorough – including review, I’ve watched every episode at least five times. A key result is that, when I check back on my mastery of the episodes with less new vocabulary, I can get English-to-Chinese translation right as much as 80+% of the time. Perhaps even more important, I can remember context.

Less daily vocabulary (and no daily tests) has also allowed me to feel free to really put my notebook to good use. (Thanks, Light Fellowship: I’m on my second now, left by Trent when he went home in August.) Along with my keys, my phone, and my wallet, I also make sure I’m carry that notebook, and a pen, whenever I go out the door. When I run into a word I don’t know, or find that I’m struggling to say something, I’ll jot it down and either look it up or ask my tutor to help me with it later. It’s not perfect – after a conversation, I’ll often be completely unable to recall what tripped me up or what words I didn’t understand – but it’s been massively helpful. On my most recent page I have: “337. Health and Preventative Vaccine Clinic; 338. an article about...; 339. to lie around in bed and not get up; 340. pentagon; 341. router; 342. pictures of [person].”

I’m also has some slow progress at listening to the news – which, as I think I’ve mentioned before, is an entirely different animal than everyday conversation, to an extent that most people who haven’t studies Chinese or a similar language just can’t imagine. I’ve done this mostly by way of listening most nights, originally to a BBC podcast and more recently (when BBC slashed their radio programming in a ton of foreign languages, including Chinese) to the nightly Network News Broadcast. (The latter is state-run television, and can be so boring that lately I’ve stopped listening in favor of thinking of ways to kill the producers... I think I need to find something new.) I’m getting better at understanding the news, and building my practical vocabulary in this area too. (Guess who knows how to say “Cote D’Ivoire,” “Libyan militants,” and “the International Atomic Energy Agency”?)

All of that is to say, in comparison with what could/would have been, I’m doing pretty alright. In comparisons to my own goals, though, I have to say that I’m still falling far short.

 - Reading and writing: I don’t particularly care. I can, and will, work on these when I get back to Yale.

 - Listening: I still need to focus every ounce of my attention on every conversation, and I can be tripped up by the most innocuous things. For me, it’s not as simple as having learned a word and then being able to pick it out when it’s spoken. No. I need to have learned it; and then I need to hear it in context; and then I need to hear it again; and then I need to hear it spoken fast or with an accent; and then I need to hear it again... And only when I’ve heard it over and over again am I able to pick it out from among the words I don’t know, or in dialogue with an interlocutor who speaks fast or with an accent or unclearly; only when that word has really worked its way into my marrow am I able to count it as one of the pillars on which I build my understanding of a given dialogue, and around which I listen for new words. I am finding that this is a very, very slow process – particularly in a tonal language with so many regional accents and so few distinctive syllables. (“mei2” can mean petroleum, media, not, eyebrow, and I’m sure many more.) I can understand most of what’s said in《蜗居》but only about 30% of another series, 《奋斗》 (in the latter, they speak faster and the sound quality isn’t quite as good); I can understand some news reports but often can’t even keep up with the speed of delivery of words I already know; there are times when the simplest things are said to me and my mind just goes blank.

 - Speaking: Improving slowly but surely, but whenever I spend a significant amount of time with Chinese friends I discover that I struggle to express myself far too often. I am still convinced that speaking will follow from listening – the surest way for my tongue to master a phrase is for my ears to become familiar with it – but I’ve also just recently started working on some tactics that I hope will get better results. As I noted once or twice before in this blog, and has been pointed out to me a few times recently, I need to reject the feeling that because I can say a few things fluently, then I can say everything fluently. I need to backpedal to higher ground and start allowing myself to speak slower, louder, and with more thought behind my words. Accuracy first, fluidity second: I shouldn’t be putting the cart before the horse just because I enjoy overestimating myself, or because I’m insecure about sounding like a foreigner (which I will anyway, probably for my whole life).

And that’s where I am right now. I don’t expect any massive breakthroughs in the next month in a half (though, who knows? I may surprise myself), so consider this the authoritative, if tentative, summary of the results of my spring semester.

For now, it’s into the breach once more.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Translation, Now Recursive!

On Chinese online forums, blogs, and (beginning just last year) microblogs, one will find a lot of acronyms floating around. Some of them even appear in common speech, at least among the younger generation.

Many of these acronyms come directly from the pinyin Romanization of Chinese words – for example, FQ is the pinyin of 愤青 (fen4qing2), or “angry youth.” But other online slang, especially words originating in English, have taken a more circuitous route to today’s form, sometimes involving multiple translations and/or re-interpretations. Today I have for you a sample of some of the most notable:

1. PS
PS is straightforward and oft-used: have a photo that needs some touching up, or perhaps requires the removal of an ex-boyfriend? Why not “Photoshop” – PS – it a bit?

2. PK
My all-time favorite, “PK” is used in conversation comparatively often. It comes from English-language online slang meaning “player-killing,” and is an old acronym, in online terms: it originally described (turn-based) battles between human players in the world of MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons, or text-based online roleplaying games), which were mostly passe’ long before I started getting into WoTMUD (www.wotmud.org) in middle school. In China, which has a massive online gaming population (for reference, see http://thenextweb.com/asia/2010/10/09/report-china-online-gaming-market-to-reach-5b-this-year-338m-gamers/), “PK” has come to refer to any time two parties “fight it out,” or more generally just “compete.” Whether it’s Google and Baidu fighting it out over the Chinese search market, or two admirers seeking a girl’s attention, you’re PK-ing to win.

3. Acting Thirteen
This one is interesting because it started as a Chinese word but wouldn’t be where it is today without going through an “English phase.” Online, you can call someone out as a wannabe or braggart by saying that they’re “装屄.” This is pronounce zhuang1bi1, and is almost never written that way, because the second character in the original version is quite indelicate... and also not even included in my computer’s input system for simplified characters?! At any rate, the phrase is most often typed as “装B.” But in some places the “B” has become a “13” (note the similarity in form), especially when spoken as it sounds less offensive that way. The final spoken product: “装十三” (zhuang1 shi2san1, “十三” being “13” in Chinese).

4. BL
Here’s where things really get contorted, almost like a real-life Translation Party (http://www.translationparty.com). When referring to homosexuality, most young Chinese either use the Chinese term (“同性恋”) or just say the English word “gay” - I’ve heard each about 50% of the time. Online, though, someone somewhere decided that when referring to men it should be called “boy love,” which someone else (I assume) shortened to “BL.” Then a third guy (or 腐女, i.e., “corrupt girl”) decided to take the final step to incorporate the phrase into the Chinese language, and in a process that is the opposite of abbreviating (is there a word for this?), the term morphed into one of the roughly 190 Chinese characters whose pinyin can be abbreviated into “BL”: “玻璃” (bo1li), which means “glass.” Which allows young Chinese people to say to each other, without fear of being misunderstood, “Those two guys are definitely glass.”

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Very Brief Update: $$$ and omnomnoms

A few days ago, a surprise source parachuted in to assist me with my monetary woes: the IRS. My mini bailout came in the form of a $400 tax credit, which was automatically doled out to eligible taxpayers this year. (The bad news is that I now know I could have applied for it last year too... Excuse me as I kick myself for insisting on doing the whole damn form by hand.)

This leaves me a bit more at ease about the whole Zambia thing, to the extent that I think I’m ready to start dealing with tickets and visas this weekend. After hearing in the negative from four of the scholarships I applied to, I’m still waiting on another three; if I don’t get those, then I’m going to kick it into high gear and secure myself some decent-paying work by fair means or foul. (Considering my visa, it’s all foul, isn’t it...) A total of 25 extra hours – and that isn’t much if you think about it – should be quite enough to allow me to take the hotel job offer, assuming I get things sorted soon-ish.

In other news, this week saw the opening of my “visit every shop and restaurant nearby” project, which I can proudly say has already resulted in the discovery of the best dinner deal in these parts.

Delightedly yours,

Sunday, April 3, 2011

maybe I had bedbugs, and maybe they went away?

Three days in a row this past week, I woke up with what strings of what seemed to be bug bites along various parts of my body. They were itchy, and seemed to be multiplying exponentially each day. Although my sliding window-door has no screen, I hadn’t seen hide or hair of a bug in my room, except for a small fly which I’m still not sure I killed. After doing a little research online, I decided on the third day that I probably had bedbugs, which only come out at night and are quite adept at hiding themselves away. (I am now a bedbug expert, so if anyone would like more information, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve even read a bit about the so-called “assassin bugs,” if anyone’s interested.)

Although bedbugs seem rare here and the problem could also have been an allergic reaction or that damn rogue fly, the latter two seemed very unlikely given the circumstances. Deciding to act quickly (one bed bug can lay 4-5 eggs per day), I went to Carrefour to get something to kill them. Carrefour having nothing appropriate and no one who knew anything about pesticides, I called my landlord for advice, who told me to come back to the apartment and borrow his magic spray bottle full of who-knows-what. As a firm believer in the secret weapons of grumpy old landlords, I followed his orders to the letter and essentially fumigated my room. One is supposed to wash linens in hot water and then dry them on hot in case any bed bugs have taken refuge inside, but since I don’t have a dryer here and I wasn’t even completely sold on the bedbug theory in the first place, I decided to take everything sensitive out of the room and go with the all-chemical procedure.

It’s tough to tell, but so far I think it’s worked. It’s not really clear to me whether any given bug bite is new or old, or just a delayed reaction, but at any rate I haven’t woken up with any new swaths of the stuff, and that’s a promising sign. I’m holding off on declaring victory just yet, and I suspect that what Wikipedia aptly terms the “psychological effects” of bedbugs will be with me for a while: let me assure you that the thought that there might be little creatures crawling over my body at night sucking my blood is not particularly comforting, and just writing this post makes me feel itchy. That said, I have to say that when put in perspective, it’s a far cry from worries about things like deer ticks in the northeast (friends from areas in which ticks are non-endemic: did you know Lyme disease, if undetected for too long, can permanently impair brain function?), or even poison ivy, which has been known to ruin months of my life at a time – while bed bugs can cause allergic reactions, they’re not known to carry any diseases.

Plus, I learned how to say “mattress,” “smelly bugs” (a general term for crawling, infestation-type insects), and “pesticide” in Chinese – brings back the oh-so-fond memories of summer 2009 and the never-ending battle against the mold in my bureau. I guess that when you’re studying a language, every infestation has its silver lining.

And if the problem still isn’t solved, well, I’ll have no choice but to bring this guy into the picture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masked_hunter. Those bedbugs will wish they’d never been born.