Saturday, January 29, 2011

Knowledge comes at you from surprising places

For example, I now know that 笨, pronounced bèn, is Chinese for "stupid." (Also for "foolish" and "silly" and "slow-witted" and "clumsy.") And why do I know this?

Well, because...

1. I wanted a Chinese-English dictionary for my Kindle; so I went to the Amazon Kindle store and saw a five-star rated book called A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Now, a five-star rated dictionary was exactly what I was looking for...but what's this bit about "...for Lovers"? Was it only naughty words, or what? So I checked the reviews...

2. ...and discovered that it was a actually a novel, written by a young Chinese novelist who for years has gone back and forth between London and Beijing. And all the reviewers loved it; plus it sounded truly fascinating: it's a first-person novel that is written in the voice of a young Chinese girl from a nouveau-riche Chinese country-village family, who has been sent to London for a year to learn English (rather against her will, actually). Of course she is completely unprepared culturally and linguistically; and she falls in love with a much older English man who is pretty much the first person in England to actually be nice to her. So it is a novel of self-discovery on every level (including, I warn you, sexually, since one of the features of traditional Chinese life is that parents don't talk about sex to their kids and the Chinese government tries not to let anybody else talk about it either...there are numerous passages that are very explicitly sensual indeed). And the novel is written in English -- but it's the character's slowly-improving English, which is therefore in the early chapters Chinese syntax with English words. Here, for example, are the opening words of the prologue:

Beijing time 12 clock midnight.

London time 5 clock afternoon.

But I at neither time zone. I on airplane. Sitting on 25,000 km above to earth and trying remember all English I learning in school.

I not met you yet. You in future.

Looking outside the massive sky. Thinking air staffs need to set a special time-zone for long-distance airplanes, or passengers like me very confusing about time. When a body floating in air, which country she belonging to?...

3. Obviously, intrigued by the premise and impressed by the enthusiasm of pretty much every reader who had submitted a review, I bought the thing, started reading it...and couldn't stop until the end. Had to finish it. Had to.

4. But along the way, it caught my attention when the narrator asked herself, "How I finding important places including Buckingham Palace, or Big Stupid Clock?" For a moment I was thrown: Big Stupid Clock? But then I realized, "Oh, she must mean Big Ben." And the next thought: "Ah, so I bet ben means 'stupid' in Chinese." So I went and looked it up, and sure enough, 笨, pronounced bèn, is Chinese for "stupid." (Also for "foolish" and "silly" and "slow-witted" and "clumsy.")

And now I'm unlikely ever to forget how to say "stupid" in Chinese -- even if I have trouble remembering such basic and essential phrases as "Hello," "Thank you," and (critically) "Where's the bathroom?" I'll always know how to say "stupid," thanks to the Big Stupid Clock.

That kind of thing happens to me all the time, which is pretty much how I tend to wind up the possessor of so many random pieces of odd and not terribly useful knowledge.

In the meantime, I very highly recommend A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo.

By the way, here's one of my favorite paragraphs from the novel, as Zhuang's frustration from her daily English classes boils over into her journal:
Chinese, we not having grammar. We saying things simple way. No verb-change usage, no tense differences, no gender changes. We bosses of our language. But, English language is boss of English user.

But this one is good, too (obviously from much later in the book, as you can tell from the improved English):
"Love," this English word: like other English words it has tense. "Loved" or "will love" or "have loved." All these specific tenses mean Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite. It only exist in particular period of time. In Chinese, Love is "爱" (ai). It has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future.

If our love existed in Chinese tense, then it will last for ever. It will be infinite.


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