Thursday, October 14, 2010

Women Hold Up Half of the Hanzi?

Studying something as brutal as the Chinese language is, every day there seems to be a new reason to give up. However, every once in a while you'll uncover a hidden gem about the language that is so interesting, it gives you just enough reason to keep going. The other day I came across my new all-time favorite Chinese character.

But before I explain what it is or why it tickled me so, let's take a quick second to go over again some basics of Chinese characters. Each character is made up of a several smaller parts, each which have their own pronunciation and a meaning. Characters' meaning and/or pronunciation is based on one, both, or a combination of these components.

The classic example is the character for good (好), which is comprised of the character for woman (女) and child (子). Here, the two components come together to form a new meaning, since a woman and a child together are generally considered 'good'.

Not every character works this way, however. Sometimes the meaning is based on only one of the parts, and one of the other parts supply clues to the pronunciation. Or sometimes, it seems completely random. There's much more to this, but this explanation will do for our purposes here.

Okay, back to the action. A few weeks ago, I was browsing through my Chinese dictionary, searching by "radical" (the name given to the most significant of these smaller components of a character). In this view, I was able to see all characters containing a given radical. After poking around for some time at various random radicals, I began browsing the radical 女, which means woman.

It was then when I came across my favorite new Chinese character. It's the character 嬲. What's so great about this character is how descriptive and direct it's composition is. What we have here in this character is the component for man (男) on the left, with the component for woman (女) in the middle, then surrounded again with another man (男) on the right. The meaning to this character? "to flirt / to tease / to play with / to disturb". This was just too good.

This got me thinking back to my studies over the past few years. There's always some interesting or ironic about the radicals that are used in some particular Chinese characters. For example, is it a coincidence or antisemitism that has placed the dog component into the word for Jew (犹)?

But by far, the one that I noticed most being used in interesting ways is certainly the woman character. It seemed to be used very stereotypically, chauvinistically, or just simply applied to words that have very negative connotation. At the time, while slightly taken aback and mildly offended, I just kind of laughed to myself and used it as a mnemonic device for remembering the character.

Soon soon after that, however, I ran across an article on the wonderful ChinaSMACK! about Chinese women being upset about the perceived sexism implicit in the written Chinese language. I realized perhaps I wasn't the only one who noticed this.

Here are some examples of characters with very negative connotation that include the woman radical:

奴 - slave
妖 - wicked, evil
嫉 - envy
妒 - envy
婪 - greedy
佞 - flatter
嫌 - dislike
妄 - presumptuous
奸 - rape
妨 - hinder, impede, obstruct

This is of course leaving out the dubious connection my Chinese friend pointed out about the character for marriage (婚), which contains the component for woman on the left, and the component meaning "confused / muddled" on the right, implying that when a woman gets confused or muddled, she then gets married. (Anyone familiar with the language, however, would understand that the confused / muddled component gives the character it's sound, not the meaning.)

Most words involving the woman radical are simply words that are directly and objectively related to women, such as mother, sister, etc... Then there are some that are just funny and bizarre, such as 姗姗, meaning "to walk slowly like a woman". (Why don't we have a word for this in English? At least you'd think we'd have a word meaning "to throw like a girl".)

But what about all the Chinese characters with positive connotation that contain the woman radical? The character, 安, means "peace", which is the roof component over the woman component. (Could this mean "one woman under a roof will bring peace to a household"?) Or how about the character 妙, meaning  "wonderful / excellent / fine". There are so many more, and I'm not even going to bother listing any of the literally countless words meaning beautiful containing the woman radical.

Are people just seeing what they want to see? Are these characters merely a coincidence and there is another explanation? Or is it sexism as a result of a male-dominated society?

Monday, October 04, 2010

One Man's Trash

Today, I recalled a humorous annectdote I had heard from a friend when I first arrived in China that I almost forgot about. Because it's third-hand information, I can't vouch for the truthiness of the story, but it sounds quite plausible to me. This story takes place approximately 15 years ago.

Some American friends living in rural Southern China, and wanting to continue the American lifestyle, were dissatisfied with hanging out laundry to dry. As clothing dryers were completely unheard of, and absolutely unavailable in mainland China, they decided to make the trek down to Hong Kong to pick one up.

When crossing the border back into the mainland, they were prepared to pay a duty on this large-ticket item when passing through customs. Although I wasn't present for the event I'll attempt to recreate the scene that transpired with the customs officials.

Customs Official: "What the hell is this thing?"

Americans: "It's a clothing dryer."

"A what?"

"A clothing dryer."

"Well, what does it do?"

"You put your wet clothes in it, press the button, and then they come out dry."

(Laughing hysterically in utter disbelief) "You know if you just hang clothes up, they'll dry by themselves, right?"

"Yeah, but this does it faster."

(Still laughing in disbelief) "How much did you pay for this hunk of junk?"

"About $500*."

"$500 for this worthless thing? Buddy, you got seriously taken. Go on and pass on through. No need to pay a duty on this piece of garbage. You've already been ripped off enough."

*I have no idea what the actual price was.

I love this story. Just goes to show that some luxuries that we believe to be so indispensable in the developed world are viewed as worthless in the majority of the rest of the world.

I can completely resonate with the story as well. When I first arrived in Hong Kong, part of the developed world, and realized no one used dryers here, I thought they were nuts. I was completely inconvenienced having to hang up every piece of clothing and wait a full 24 hours for my clothes to dry. Now, after three years of being dryerless, I'm wondering why we ever used them in the first place.

However, with the amount of development in the past 15 years, it's hard to imagine this story taking place today. Or at least in the big cities in China. Now, sadly, it seems as if the new middle class in China is copying all of the worst ideas of America and the rest of the developed world. The idea among the middle and upper class has now become, "If America has it, we want it." As I look around at packed KFC's on every street corner, pizza delivery, and drive-through fast food joints, 2-car garages, SUV's and urban sprawl, I'm beginning to hang my head in shame, wondering if America has now created a monster.

More on this idea to come in the future.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sheep Skeleton Hot Pot? I Want Seconds and I Haven't Even Had Firsts.

(Actually, this is a very traditional Beijing specialty. It's supposed to be quite good, and I'm surprised I still haven't tried it yet. It just sounds so gross when translated literally.)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Rides Look at the Ship to Delimit to the Sea Sand Beach Amusement Park

Perhaps not even as much fun as they let on. Note the difference between the stock photo and the real photo in the bottom left.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Fought The Law (and I Won!)

(Suggested listening: "I Fought the Law" by The Clash)   

Living in China can be dangerous - and I'm not talking about the countless hazards we face on a daily basis (insane drivers, the lack of "hard hat areas" in construction sites, etc). It can be dangerous because so much of the time as a foreigner here, you feel above the law. Or above the rules at least. Every rule can be bent or broken here, given the right circumstances. As a foreigner, simply pretending you don't understand for long enough will frustrate authority figures to the point where they simply give up. If this doesn't work, you can always then can the act, and argue/joke with them until they relent.

Therefore, the danger comes in when you're actually in a situation when it might not be the best thing to mess with somebody. When you're used to no consequences, your behavior starts to get riskier.

A group of friends and I were enjoying a lovely meal of Korean barbeque in the neighborhood. The meal was just about finished, but we were in good spirits and lingering for a spell. I excused myself to the restroom, and upon finishing washing my hands in the unisex shared sink area, watched an obviously drunk, middle-aged woman stumble in to common area. She looked at the omnipresent long line to the woman's restroom and sighed and cursed in frustration. Jokingly, I pointed at the door that said "Men" on it, and said "No line in there...".

With that, she barged in through the door, where she was greeted with a few urinating Koreans. She immediately charged back out to see me drowning with laughter and disbelief. "坏蛋!坏蛋!" ("Bad egg!"), she yelled. (Common name called of a bad person). The woman was livid. I was in tears laughing. Even being as drunk as she was, I never imagined she would actually listen to me.

She didn't stop there, though. "Bad egg! You're a bad egg!", she yelled, continuing with an endless stream of ranting. I laughed it off and walked back to my table. A few minutes later, when the drunk woman finally found our table in the small restaurant, she came back to give it to me in front of my friends, who had no clue what was going on but were wondering why I was laughing so hard.

"What's your name? Where are you from?", she demanded.

"I'm from Xinjiang province."

She was unconvinced. "No honestly, I'm from Xinjiang! Look at my beard! Listen to how bad my Chinese is!"

(This might have only been slightly plausible. People from Xinjiang are Uigher, of Turkish decent. When I wore a beard, my Chinese friends told me I could pass for someone from Xinjiang, but really, there is no way this was possible. Even less possible was the fact that this Xinjiang person was sitting with a table of 6 other foreigners speaking fluent English.)

"Don't lie to me!"

"I told you, I'm not lying!"

"Don't lie to me, I'm a police officer!"

At this point, I was having a blast. It was as if things couldn't have gotten any better. Even if she were telling the truth, the fact that she was having difficulty standing up assured me that I had nothing to be afraid of.

"That's great! So am I!"

She stormed off. A minute later, she came stumbling back, this time flashing her badge in my face. She demanded again to know where I was from.

I pulled out my Indiana driver's license. "See! Xin. Jiang.", I said as I pointed to the word, "Indiana". I turned to a friend to laugh, while still holding up my license. She then reached in without me even realizing it and snatched it from my hand. The woman then drunk-ran around the corner, where she huddled over the card, simultaneously trying to get her eyes to focus on anything, and trying to find a single word her extremely limited English could recognize. I knew the only English word that she might be able to understand would be "America", but thankfully, due to the States' fiercely anti-national ID beliefs, this word was nowhere on the card. Even still, I had to get my ID back.

I snuck up behind her ever so quietly and slowly. I reached around the huddling woman and lifted the card right from out of her grasp, then made a mad dash back to my seat.

This was met with another barrage of "Bad egg! Bad egg!" and a few more minutes of shouting. By this time, I was done. I'd had my fun and just wanted the lady to go away, which she eventually did after a few more empty threats.

I only wish she would have brought me down to the station to hear what charges she wanted to file against me. "Informing a drunk off-duty female police officer of vacancy in the male restroom"? I'm sure they would have thrown the book at me.

Goodbye, Kermit. Thank you for being delicious.

Photo credit: Eva Chan

We've Heard You Loud and Clear: Now with More Privelege and More Happy

Don't Put Bathroom

Sometimes life just isn't fair. You want to put bathroom, but the man won't let you.


Found on bathroom stall doors in a Wangjing mall. Self-explanatory, but are people really shaped like this?