Monday, April 9, 2012

Culture Conversations

A Kind Person
Me:  "Linda, how do I say 'kind' in Chinese?"
Linda, slightly puzzled:  "Kind?"
Me:  "Not zhŏng; I want to know how to say 'kind' as in, she is a kind person."
Linda:  "Oh.  You can say qīn qiè dē."
Me:  "Qīn qiè dē?  Could you write down the characters for me?"
Linda writes out the characters (亲切的).
Me:  "Oh, wonderful!  Now I can thank people better when they are kind to me."
Linda:  "Oh, actually, we don't say that.  You should only use this when you are not talking to them."
Me:  "Like if I'm talking to someone else about a person who is kind?"
Linda:  "Yes, never to the person's face.  We don't say things so strongly."
Me:  "So to someone's face . . ."
Linda:  "You can say hĕn hăo, or maybe hé aĭ kĕ rén, but never qīn qiè dē.  If you say that, they will maybe feel —"
Me:  "Bù hăo yì si?"   (Bù hăo yì si means embarrassed.)
Linda:  "Duì."
Me:  "So maybe I should just stick to complementing Chinese people in English?"
Linda:  "Yes!  Exactly!  You can say as strong as you want to if you do it in English."
Me:  "In that case, you are the KINDEST person I know!"

Western Directness
Me:  "Linda, would you say that I am a direct person?  You know, like a westerner is direct?"
Linda:  "Oh yes!"
Me:  "Am I ever too direct?  I mean, do I ever accidentally seem insulting to Chinese staff here?"
Linda:  "Oh no, no, you are never that way.  You are a very accessible person."
Me:  "Accessible?"
Linda:  "We are all feel comfortable with you."
Me:  "Ah, okay.  So I don't offend with my western directness?  Ever?"
Linda:  "No, because you are not so direct in Chinese.  You only do it in English."

Typical Questions
Lulu:  "One of my students just send me a text.  He wants to know how to say to a Chinese person, 'mind your own business.'"
Me, laughing:  "Oh, did he get asked how much his salary is?  Or how much he weighs?"
Lulu:  "Yes, probably.  But you can't answer that way!"
Me:  "Ah.  Yes, we find those questions rude in America.  We don't think it's polite to ask things like that, especially to ask a stranger those things."
Here the conversation went on in Chinese, since this was, after all, during one of my lessons.  However, for the sake of my readers, I'll record it in English.
Lulu:  "In China, it is not rude; it is okay to ask the questions if it is an older person."
Me:  "Yes, I get asked those questions often, too often!"
Lulu:  "How do you answer?"
Me:  "Oh, I have an easy solution.  Any time that I don't want to answer a question from a Chinese person, I just say, 'tīng bù dŏng' and pretend that I don't understand Chinese."
Lulu, nodding:  "Yes, that is a very good method."

Double Words
Lulu:  "So sometimes we say the word two times, like cháng cháng or kān kān."
Me:  "Yes!  How do I know when to do that?"
Lulu:  "There are usually three times when we do it.  First is when it is a suggestion or maybe not so much.  And second is if you want to have a try, maybe not definite about it."
Me:  "Okay."
Lulu:  "And sometimes we just say it because we think it sounds better.  Because, you know, when we speak Chinese we usually want to use two characters instead of one."
Me:  "Why?"
Lulu:  "Just . . . because.  Actually, I am not sure why exactly we do it."
Me:  "So in other words, you do it just to confuse poor westerners who are trying to learn your beautiful and thoroughly frustrating language?!"
Lulu, laughing:  "Yes, probably."
Me:  "I KNEW it!"
Lulu:  "So we use those three ways for putting the word twice."
Me:  "I'm never going to understand this, am I?"
Lulu:  "Probably not."

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Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
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~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"