Out of the Well: A Frogs-Eye-View of China and the World

Random Jottings on China, History, Culture, and Life as seen by an American student in Beijing.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A post I wrote instead of studying for tomorrows test

I still have not died of Avian Flu or a terrorist attack (see last post), so I guess I should make an effort to write in this thing more often. Mostly I have a test tomorrow, so I wrote this to avoid studying.

So the deal is that I really like the Chinese language. I like studying it, I like speaking it (although I often feel like an idiot when I do) and I like its history and idiosyncrasies. There are however a few things that just drive me nuts. Here are a couple of them.

In English if we don’t greet each other with “Hello” or “Hi” we might ask the somewhat rhetorical question “How are you doing?” or “How have you been?” It is understood that this very general question could or could not be answered. In Chinese there is no word for hello (due to English influence the word Nihao, literally “you good,” has been added), so native English speakers of Chinese often greet each other with “Ni zenmeyang?” which basically means “How are you doing?” This drives our teachers crazy. Apparently no Chinese person would ever say this as a greeting, it is much to general. The Chinese are a specific people, so they do not have one set question they ask each other in greeting but instead a infinite number of questions that are not expected to be answered.

Here are a few, imagine these questions being used by a relative stranger instead of Hello.

Have you eaten? (Chibao le ma?) – This is confusing as you often wonder if they are asking you to dinner or lunch. They are most certainly not.

How are your parents? (Ni de fumu zenmeyang?) – This person has never met my parents. For all they know I might be an orphan.

Where are you going? (Qu nar?) – Often said in passing without stopping.

How’s business? (Shengyi zenmeyang?) – this one makes sense. I have no real argument with it.

The second thing that bugs me is that sometimes two similar things will be described with the same word and the same character. As far as I can tell, and I have tried to find and answer to this, there is no way to differentiate in spoken or written Chinese between a goat and a sheep (both Yang). I think I eat sheep just about three times a week, but who knows? Maybe I eat goat. There seems to be a similar problem with the word for both elevator and escalator (dianti). I will admit I am less researched on this example. As far as I know, to be specific you have to say something like “The Yang with the white fluffy wool.” or “The dianti you get inside to ride.”


At November 22, 2005 12:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

actually, yang is just as bird in English. And we also have another word for escalator, which is 扶梯(futi).

At November 22, 2005 12:40 AM, Blogger Eben said...

Thank you for the word for escalator!
Yang seems a little more specific than bird, but I take your point.


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