Sunday, May 31, 2009

More Adventures in Chinese Slang

For the first year I lived in China, I intentionally avoided learning bad words in Chinese. I had heard that people on the streets have been known to curse like sailors, and quite frankly, I just didn't want to hear it. I figured this was a rare occasion in which I'd rather be ignorant of something rather than be bothered by it. If someone on the streets told me where I could put something, I was able to just stare back at them blankly.

However, two years later in my studies, I figured it's now perhaps a part of my comprehensive learning to pick up these colorful words and phrases. A well-trusted language blog online recommended a book of Chinese street language, so I curiously made the purchase. My theory was indeed correct. My first day back in China after reading the book, I heard all sorts of fun words sitting in the internet cafe.

Nevertheless, this book has gotten a lot of attention among local friends here when they find out I posses such a book. It's quite juvenile, but they get such a kick out of reading it, perhaps never seeing all of these phrases compiled in one all-encompassing list.

That's not to say it's all trashy language, sexual innuendo's, and different words to say "poop". The vast majority of the book is actually dedicated to everyday slang, how not to accidentally make mistakes in your tones which could lead to very unfortunate misspeaking, exotic food, words about crimes and drugs, mild insults, euphemisms, etc..

While I will spare you the most giggle-inducing words and phrases in light of keeping this blog somewhat family-friendly, I'd like to share just a few of my favorite slang words, phrases, and expressions.
  • A common way to call a westerner is a "big-nosed person"
  • A euphemism for having your menstrual period is to say you're "having bad luck"
  • If someone is talking nonsense or trying to cheat you, you can say he "let's out dog farts"
  • For some reason, saying that someone is "Two-hundred and fifty" is saying that they're stupid
  • Here's one I can see leading to a lot of confusion: If you're at a hotel and someone asks if you "need an extra quilt tonight", they're really asking if you'd like a prostitute sent up to your room later. What if you're really just cold?
  • The same character for "relieving yourself" also means "convenient". So if you're going #2, you're literally say you're going for a "large convenience". In this way you can also go for a "small convenience".
  • One of my favorite idioms so far: "he's dumb as a wooden chicken"
  • Chinese pride themselves on being extremely humble and are never allowed to accept a compliment. When complimented, they will often respond by saying "Where? Where?" as to say "You can't possibly be talking about me!" A popular story Chinese people like to tell goes like this: A foreigner is talking to a pretty girl. He tells her that she's beautiful. She tries to deflect the compliment by saying "Where? Where?" Confused and slightly embarrassed, he replies "Um...your face, your hair, your legs..."
Okay, so this next one is not family friendly, but it's just so hilarious and ridiculous I just have to share it.

Evidently, if you want to insult someone by saying they're poor, you can say that he is:

" poor that he cannot afford a drumstick, but instead must use his penis to beat his drum."

(The Chinese is much less clumsy than the English translation.)

Get a Real Name, Hippie

I ran across a story in the New York Times a while back that's just too good not to share:

A mind-blowing and intimidating fact about the Chinese language is that it contains over 55,000 characters. Mercifully, the vast majority of these characters have more or less gone into extinction, with many only appearing in books or ancient literature. A paltry 3,500 characters are all that is required to read a newspaper.

Added to this is an interesting fact about Chinese names. Despite this multitude of characters, 80% of all Chinese people share one of the 100 most common Chinese family names. (Which is why it might seem like there are millions of Mr. Chen's in the world - there are millions of them.)

However, given names are quite the opposite and can be chosen from any combination of the 55,000 characters in the library. Similar to the recent creative explosion in hilariously imaginative names in America, parents in China love combing through these rarely-used characters in search of a name that is truly unique or possesses a special meaning for their children.

Here's where the problem comes in. The Chinese government's Public Security Bureau just got a new computer system. However, it only recognizes approximately 32,000 characters. If the characters in your name are one of these left-out 20,000, there is no way to enter you into the system.

What to do? Change your name. That is the solution put forth by the Chinese government. If your name doesn't fit our system, it's time for a new one. You shouldn't have had such a ridiculous name in the first place.

I'm curious to see how people would react to a similar law in the States.

Read the full article at The New York Times


I don't know why this is so funny, but naming a restaurant "BABYSHEEP" is just fantastic.

KFC Delivery

Walking down the streets of Hohhot, Inner Mongolia quite late at night, I noticed that supplies are delivered to KFC stores via China Post. Picturing a Big Mac filled US Postal Service truck outside of a McDonald's would be a strange sight. Is this not analogous?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

This is not a 7-11

However, this is:

The Times...

While studying in Hong Kong in the Spring of '05, some friends and I visited Beijing. It was an incredibly exciting experience as it was our first time in the mainland, and the city amazed us at every turn. However, as much fun as we had, we weren't left with a great overall impression of the city. Although we were living in what's considered one of the most crowded cities in the world at the time, coming to Beijing felt three times as crowded. In addition to the feeling of claustrophobia in the city, the public spitting (even indoors), rampant littering, omnipresent grifting, and an overall general feeling of rude and uncivilized behavior completely rubbed us the wrong way.

For this reason, when I decided to return to Beijing to study, I did so reluctantly. Although I knew the city was definitely the best city in the world to learn Mandarin, I was not looking forward to repeating our experiences from before. I understood that the city had gone through quite a bit of transformation in preparation for the Olympics, so I was optimistically hopeful, yet understood that four years is still a very small period of time.

However, shortly after my arrival to the city, I was absolutely stunned with unbelief and confusion. Quite simply, the city I live in today seems to bear no resemblance to the city I visited four years ago. The city is covered with new skyscrapers, beautiful and modern western clubs, bars, and coffee shops, luxurious upscale shopping centers, all complemented with green landscaping lining the city. The crowded, ancient, dirty subway has now been transformed into a crowded, ultra-modern, clean subway, and the busses are nearly all brand-new.

I was prepared for these aesthetic, tangible changes in the city, but it appeared that China had done a complete surgery on the behavior of Beijing's residents. Public spitting has dramatically been reduced, while littering is now on par with most large cities in the world. While I had heard about the enormous public effort at 'civilizing' Beijing residents in preparation for the Olympics by such focused days as "National Queuing Day" and "Give Up Your Seat Day", I never expected a society could be transformed so quickly. In my amazement, I paid the same price as locals almost everywhere I went. When I got on the bus, it was the same price every time. When I bought something from a street vendor, it was not 10x the price as the guy next to me. People do not stare, point, or request to have their picture taken with you. People queue (at least, more so than any other part in the country). I have not once been "petted" by someone curious about my body hair.

Being an ex-pizza deliverer, I have an uncanny sense of direction, and have been able to retrace the exact paths we followed on our journey four years ago. Perplexingly, each street seems like a dream-like representation of where I was before. As with a dream, everything seems similar, but in an inexplicably dissimilar way. The sleepy streets I remember passing are now full of chic coffee shops and bars. The dirty alleyways are now beautifully paved and immaculate. I knew the hutongs were being demolished in droves, but it seemed as if every single street in the city recieved a complete make-over.

What was going on here? I was honestly baffled.  Had the city indeed changed this much? Did my visit only take me to the worst parts of the city and I somehow missed the good parts? Did my memory not serve me well, remembering things incorrectly? Or was I simply biased, seeing only the negative, and ignoring the greatness of the city?

While the answer is undoubtedly a combination of these things,  I've spent the past few months trying to find which explanation is the most accurate description of reality. Lately, I've come to the feeling that my memory is not betraying me, but the city is really just this different. I had been looking for evidence to support this theory, but was unable to come up with something concrete.

That is, until yesterday. On my five-hour bike ride to the city center, I decided to visit the hostel we stayed at during our previous visit. It was an amazing hostel - not in the fact that it was an amazing hostel (read: not smell like piss and be filthy as hell), but more so in the fact that we were staying a 10-minute walk away from the Tiananmen Square for less than USD $5 a night. But when I arrived at the street the hostel was located on, I stopped in shock: The entire street, along with every building on it had been bulldozed. In fact, it had been turned into a pedestrian-only street. Every building was brand new - so new, that almost 9 out of 10 storefronts were still vacant!

As I walked down the way in amazement, I finally saw the first hard piece of evidence I had been looking for. Our old hostel had been turned into an H&M store. I am certain of it, not only because it seems to be exactly about the same place where our hostel was, but because in the alley behind it, the old building still stands, where it is awaiting its imminent demolition.

While I admit, yes, perhaps we were slightly bias and more affected by the appalling negative aspects of the city during our first visit, it is clear - this is a very different place than it was just a very short time ago.

Photo taken in 2005

Photo taken in the near exact spot in 2009

The H&M store in front of our old hostel

Remnants of the soon-to-be demolished hotel next to our hostel

View of the entire street, May 2009

More on Product Positioning

A friend and fellow observant Beijing blogger came across another quite interesting positioning of products in Chinese pharmacies. Evidently Watsons places condoms directly next to baby supplies.

Makes sense, right? If you need to buy a pacifier, you'll need to pick up some of the product right next to it, so as to prevent purchasing a second at a later time. Perhaps we have a new runner-up to the old "Wal-Mart Beer and Diapers Correlation".

Monday, May 04, 2009

Fermented Horse Milk

Contrary to what Sasha Baron Cohen claims, the national beverage of Kazakhstan is not fermented horse urine, but fermented horse milk. Since hearing of this ambrosia of sorts, I've been quite curious as to what it could possibly taste like. First of all, who knew milk could ferment? Secondly, it's not often you hear of people drinking liquid from horses' boobs. These reasons combined to make it a must-try beverage, so imagine my surprise when I came across it on my recent trek to Inner Mongolia.

It was only $3 USD for a bottle, so a few of us decided to go in on it. In retrospect, it may have been a good idea to splurge for bottle of a higher-grade in order to try the tipple at its finest, but this one certainly did the trick. Upon checking the label, the drink clocked in at 16% alcohol, and was produced locally.

At lunch that afternoon, we christened the bottle and poured everyone a glass. It was a clear and slightly cloudy, but not quite milky in appearance. After cries of "ganbei!", we all sipped our respective glasses. The taste was certainly a bit milky in flavor, a bit sour - but not in a sour milk way, more similar to the sourness tasted with traditional Chinese rice wine. Thankfully, it was nowhere near as reprehensible or fierce as the 150 proof baijiu.

In summation: Not bad, but it might be a while before I start ordering fermented horse milk on-the-rocks, or a fermented horse milk and coke at the local pub.