Saturday, July 18, 2009

Back in the USSR, er I mean China

So I've been back in China for about a week and a half now and getting back into the swing of things here.

Last week I was working part time at a place called "WEB International English." It's basically a private school, and they have offices in cities all over China. I had been working for them part-time since last semester, but at that time, it was maybe one extra hour a week. This last week however they had me working every evening from 6-9pm straight. I have to say that's not my most preferred schedule in the world, but I also just kind of dealt with it since it was only last week, and these next 2 weeks I will be gone travelling.

It has been fairly hot here since I arrived, and when I would go to WEB, I would ride my bicycle. But when I arrived, my shirt would be soaking wet, especially the back, so each day I brought an extra shirt for me to change into once I arrived.

A couple interesting things have happened in the brief span since I've returned, however. Last week, on Monday I think it was, I was standing at a corner, waiting for the walk signal to light up, and these two girls came up to me and asked "Excuse me, can you tell me where Red Flag Road is?"

Now the interesting thing about this is... In Huzhou, maybe if you're 20+ yards away you can't tell I'm not a Chinese. But if you're standing right next to me, it's pretty clear that I am a foreigner. SO, these girls NOT ONLY decided to ask a FOREIGNER for directions (why they think he would know, I have no clue), but they ALSO asked me in CHINESE! So here they are in a small (relatively) city with few foreigners, and they ask one for directions in Chinese. I really don't understand why they would have thought I could help them, let alone understand them.

The funny thing is, I knew exactly where Red Flag Road was and pointed them in the right direction.

The other interesting thing that had happened is this. In the US, Tampa is very well known. It's not a huge city, it's not a bedazzled city, but at least within the US, Americans all know of Tampa.

However, not too surprisingly, I had never met a Chinese person in China who had heard of Tampa. It works the same way there. There is a city in China called Shao Xing. It's not a large city, there's nothing particularly special about it, but everyone in China has heard of it. But I had never heard of it before coming to China. So it's really just a cultural thing. (Many Chinese have heard of Orlando, but not because of Disney World... because of the Orlando Magic, they are NBA crazy out here.)

BUT, this last week, while I was teaching at WEB, the "never met" changed to "ever met." I was teaching a small class of business intermediate students (by small I mean 2 students). One of the students was a man about age 40. In the last 5 minutes of class I asked them if they had any questions about the lesson, or since this was the first time we had met, if they had any questions about me. They asked me where I was from, and I said "America, Florida." The man then asked me, "What city in Florida?" And I said, "maybe you guys haven't heard of it but, Tampa." With a laugh he slammed his hand on the table and told me that he had actually lived in Tampa for 3 years working at a Chinese restaurant. He couldn't remember the name of the restaurant, but in any case, I've finally met a Chinese person in China who knows about Tampa.

Ok well, I'm off now. I will now be leaving to go fetch my aunt and uncle and their two daughters from the airport, as they will be arriving in just a few hours. We're going to travel to Beijing and Xi'An, finishing the travel next Friday, the 31st. Here's hoping we have a smooth trip!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Chinese Wedding

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend a Chinese wedding because Jean's cousin in Shanghai was getting married. (Unfortunately I pulled a bonehead move and forgot to bring my camera along, so, sorry, no pictures.)

Since Jean was her cousin's maid of honor (ban niang in Chinese), she was often busy helping her for much of the day, which gave me the opportunity to practice my Chinese with her aunt and uncle and her cousin's friends. I definitely struggled as this quickly became more than basic conversational Chinese, but I was actually surprised by the level to which I was able to hold my own. This is not to be confused with fluency, mind you, but just that I get a personal sense that my Chinese really has improved while I have been here.

A modern Chinese wedding is a bit of a mix of both Chinese and western traditions. For example, the bride wears a traditional western white wedding dress.

Before the wedding the bride's friends come over to her house help her prepare. Now, in a western wedding, it's bad luck for the groom to see the bride that morning, but in the Chinese tradition, the groom comes over to pick her up.

However, it's not just as easy as that for him. First, the bride's girlfriends will block the way and not let him to her, despite his cries of “I love you” to his waiting bride. Finally, he gives the girls many “hong bao” (红包, literally “red package”) which are red envelopes filled with money to “bribe” his way past them. Later they make him do some extra feats to prove his love for her, in this instance, by doing 20 pushups on the spot. These games and feats are all in good fun.

Next, they head off together to the dining hall for the wedding. Although an American wedding has two parts, the processional and the reception, the entirety of a Chinese wedding is basically the reception. There may be a very brief ceremony on stage for the exchanging of the rings (another western influence), but the rest is just a big dinner.

At an American wedding reception you might see decorations in light color themes like white, purple, light blue, or pink, but at a Chinese wedding the predominant color is red, red, red. This is because red is a lucky or prosperous color in traditional Chinese culture. Also, when the guests give money as a gift, they always give in denominations of “lucky” numbers, such as 888 or 600. The NEVER give anything with a 4 in it. 4 is considered unlucky because the Chinese word for “four” sounds similar to the Chinese word for “death.”

Finally, the bride and groom go around to each and every table at the reception to share private toast with everyone. Meanwhile all this time, food is being served to the guests. And the food is important. I have heard (though I can't remember from where at the moment) that Chinese will sometimes judge the quality of a wedding based on the deliciousness of the food!

Family Feud Redux

So the last week of normal classes I played The Family Feud again with my students. While playing unexpectedly (as is the way with these things) came across some interesting cultural points

The survey question in this case was “Name an animal men are compared to.”

It turns out this question actually has more to do with culture than language, so while I did get some of the expected answers (e.g. rat, pig), some of them have different meanings, and others times I got answers I didn't expect like “monkey.”

The students did say the #1 survey answer, pig, but in American English it can mean a couple things; it can be a fat, lazy person, or it can mean a chauvinistic man or womanizer. In China, it only has the fat, lazy connotation and is used more often for women than men.

A rat in American English might mean a sneaky person who might try to deceive others, whereas in Chinese it means a person is just garbage in general. Similar, but not exactly the same.

Snake is similar to rat in English, someone not to be trusted, but in Chinese this comparison (according to my students) is not common and doesn't really have a meaning.

Fox is used in both languages and, by one definition, a bit similarly. We might say someone is “smart like a fox” meaning they're very sly and clever. In Chinese is would also mean someone is very smart, but in a bad way, sort of a “using one's powers for evil” kind of thing. In English, however, a fox can also be a very sexy woman or man, but this usage doesn't exist in Chinese.

Wolf has almost the exact same meaning in both language-- a guy who chases lots of girls.

The students also suggested “cow” which at first thought seemed a bit unusual, but then I remembered that we might also use “ox.” And the translation of “cow” and “ox” to Chinese is both “niu” (牛). If a man is a “niu” in Chinese it means he is honest and hard-working, while if we say a guy is an ox, it just means he is big and strong. I also explained to my students that we might use “cow” to describe a very fat woman.

Being compared to a lion in English would speak of one's bravery or whole-heartedness, but in Chinese it means one is ambitious.

The Chinese also compare men to tigers if they are strong and fierce... similar to how we might use it to describe a woman of similar characteristics. (The Chinese can also sometimes describe a woman as a tiger if she is strong and fierce, but the connotation implies a bit of manliness to her, like if we might say a woman has balls.)

If a man is a dog, in both English and Chinese, he is generally not a very good guy, perhaps a cheater. However, in English, as slang, it might also be used to describe a very ugly girl.

And finally, while we would never compare someone to a monkey in English without racist undertones, in Chinese it means someone is very clever.

To any of my Chinese friends who are reading this and disagree with my Chinese interpretations, these meanings I got after asking my students what the meanings are, so it is according to them. If you disagree with it though, I'd love to see your point of view in the comments.

Also, to any English speakers who were interested in the survey results of the family feud question, they were, in this order: pig, rat, snake, fox, wolf, bear, and skunk.