Saturday, 31 March 2012

Chinese tones and English vowels

It had always baffled me why so many Western students of Chinese simply cannot tell the difference between Chinese tones (just to name one aspect of the Chinese language), which makes them come up with the totally wrong interpretation of the message.  
I have now thought of the English equivalent for non-English speakers:  the English long vowel and short vowel, which a lot of speakers of Chinese and some, if not all, European languages just cannot distinguish.

--> People will say “sheeps”, and get corrected (“no s for plural sheep”), when it is “ships” they meant to say.

--> One French girl was losing at a croquet game in a posh-neighbourhood garden in Surrey, and protested loudly, “You can’t!  You can’t!!”  Except that she uttered the short vowel version of (the British pronunciation of) “can’t”, thus rendering it into a four-letter swear word.

--> One French woman said she had a farm wedding, with a tractor loaded with hay and her beloved grandmother’s “sh*t” on the hay.  She’d meant the long vowel version.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Marvin's culinary challenge (London, UK)

During a lesson for final year students Marvin and Jo, I was running through the vocabulary related to the topic we were covering, giving examples to show how the compounds could be used in sentences.  One of them was “pre-heat”, and the example I gave involved food.  Marvin immediately challenged it, “Does one pre-heat food?  Surely, one just goes straight into the cooking stage.”  Jo felt that one can pre-heat food.  I asked Marvin, “Can you cook?”  He went bright red, thus ending the challenge.  A walkover.  (Though I’ll still need to go and check the culinary usage of the word “pre-heat”…)
(London, 2009/10)

Update 310312:  Marvin's just posed a new challenge:  that I've failed to set the record right on his original challenge.  I have since checked with Alex*, who does cook, and he says one only pre-heats ovens, not food, which was what Marvin had pointed out at the first challenge.  Marvin:  I did not say I was right; I only asked you if you cooked and you dropped the challenge because you were too busy blushing…  (hee hee)

*Alex of other blog entry fame: Memory loss (posted 21 Aug 2011), Not good student (posted 21 December 2011).

Have a happy... (London, UK)

Dawn, a retired schoolteacher and a student of mine, had dealings with Chinese artists, helping them organise their exhibitions and sell their paintings.  John, Dawn's husband, had always been dead set against her learning Chinese and devoting so much of her time to it.

Two of these Chinese artists, a married couple, were over at her house one day.  Upon learning that it was John’s birthday, the Chinese husband decided to make a birthday card for him, painting something on the spot and adding, in English, the message, “Have a happy.”  The wife pointed out that it was ungrammatical, as the sentence was incomplete.  As John was born in the year of the rooster, the chap added one word to make the sentence complete: “Have a happy cock.”  

(Those readers who don't understand the funny side to the amended birthday message:  look up "cock" in the dictionary, where you'll find it under the vulgar slang version.)
(London 1999)

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The old man in Chinatown (London, UK)

Being very early for a job interview in Chinatown, I was walking around to kill time when I spotted an old Chinese man with a white stick heading up a ramp which ended in a vertical drop.  So I went over and asked him in my best Cantonese where he was going, to which he replied, in Cantonese, that he was going to XYZ Chinese supermarket.  It was in the opposite direction, I told him, and he happily allowed himself to be herded away from that ramp by the elbow.  
We reached the edge of the kerb, which I hadn’t anticipated, so I instinctively called out in English, “Mind the kerb!”  The old man stopped abruptly as if I’d slapped him in the face, and said, in Cantonese, “啊,你係鬼婆! (Oh, you’re a Westerner!—literally: You are devil old-woman)”  He then yanked his elbow out of my grasp, as if I was an untouchable or too disgusting for him to come into contact with.  I said, once again in Cantonese, “No, I’m not a devil old-woman.  I’m from Singapore.  It’s just that I’m a Teochew [dialect] speaker, so my Cantonese is not very good.”
He visibly relaxed and once again allowed me to steer him by the elbow for the onward journey towards XYZ supermarket.  He asked if I was a student, to which I said, “No, I’m a teacher.”  He stopped in mid-track, and clapped his hands like an excited child, beaming from ear to ear: “啊,你係老師!(Ah, you are a teacher!)”
(London, late 1990s)

The story of the stone (UK)

The Gentle Giant had picked up a stone on a beach in north Wales that looked just like a small potato (the size of a new potato/plum) and given it to me, as I was an avid stone collector.  I’d fool people with it, just holding it out to them in my palm, and they’d think it was a new potato.  This gave Colette—the inveterate party-organiser and prankster—an idea for one of her away-weekends in Dorset.
For these away-weekends, a select group of six people (the cottage was not big enough for more), including Colette, would head off to the village on Friday after work, arriving around 10pm, leaving people an hour at the local pub before returning for a late meal.  There’d be an appointed/voluntary cook and an assistant, who were Colette and me on this occasion.
Colette had planned the meal so that the potato stone could play its role: a roast with three vegs and new potatoes.  I’d even taken the trouble to hand-pick every single new potato at the greengrocer’s to match my potato stone in size and shade of colour.
The target of this practical joke was poor Pavel, who’d been the victim of previous pranks because his mind tended to be on loftier matters, making him an easy prey, poor man.  He was also a good sport, so it was safe to pick on him.
When Pavel came back from the pub with the others, Colette made a point of asking him to keep an eye on the new potatoes that were on the boil, reminding him more than once to make sure they were properly cooked.  He said, “Don’t worry.  I’ve done this before.”
Finally, we began our meal, and I was sat next to Pavel, with Crispin on Pavel’s right.  The food was dished out, and everyone started to tuck in.  Pavel was engaged in an earnest conversation with Crispin about something, so his head was turned towards Crispin, which was perfect as this allowed me to slip the potato stone among his new potatoes.  Colette then started to comment loudly about the boiled potatoes, saying, “These are a bit hard, aren’t they?!?  Maybe they’re not cooked enough!”  Pavel, who’d been given the task of looking after the boiling of the potatoes, immediately said, “I did keep my eye on them, and I did prick them with a fork!”  Then his fork hit the potato stone.  It wouldn’t go in.  He tried again.  No dice.  By now, Colette and I were spluttering over our food, falling about in our chairs.  The penny dropped.  Pavel said, “You b…..ds!”
The potato stone was removed from Pavel’s plate, and the eating continued.  So did the intense conversation between him and Crispin, which allowed me to smuggle my stone back onto his plate when it came to second helpings.  Once again, unnoticed, until his fork told him he’d been targeted yet again.  “You b…..ds!”
Poor Pavel seemed to have been dogged by stones, for Colette had played a stone trick on him on another outing a year before that.  That away-weekend group had gone on a cliff walk along the Dorset coast near Weymouth, which entailed some very long, arduous uphill climbs.  Pavel had a rucksack on his back, and was once again engaged in some intense conversation with someone.  (In hindsight, I now suspect Colette had arranged these intense chats to distract him from her carrying out the deed, although she is a master of impromptu tricks too.)  Colette, walking behind him, would sneak a stone into his rucksack at regular intervals, saying after quite a handful of stones had found their way into his rucksack, “Come on, Pavel, you are slacking!  Get a move on!”
The poor man’s such good value for pranks.

(UK, late 90s)

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Born to pun (London, UK)

This morning, Emily and I touched upon the subject of punctuation in Chinese.  I said it is a borrowing from Western conventions, and that classical Chinese texts did not have any punctuation at all.  She was greatly surprised and said, "What?!  No commas?"  Nope, I said.  "No semi-colons?"  No.  "No colons?"  I said, "No punctuation full stop," then realised what I'd just said!

(London, 2012)

Update120312:  Tiffany, my serious rival as Queen of Recycling, said she had a whole box of perfectly good envelopes which some company had thrown out because they'd done the labels wrongly, and would I like to have them?  Yes, I'll pick them up on Saturday, I said.  Unfortunately she also gave me a lot of other things, as she's moving out of London, so I had to leave the envelopes behind, as well as a huge bag of clothes Mrs Sun had given me for Congo.  On Sunday, Tiffany sent an email asking if she should deliver the envelopes to me on Monday and if she could ring up a charity to collect the clothes as they're too heavy for me to lug home.  I replied about the clothes but forgot about the envelopes, so had to send another email, saying without thinking, "Sorry I forgot to address the issue of the envelopes in my earlier email," then realised I'd done another pun.  They're just tripping off my tongue these days!  (^_^)

Update 051112:  I started working part-time in a pub on Saturday, and a group of Russians asked me, after sitting down, if they could play chess in the pub.  Without thinking, I said to them, “I’ll check,” then winked at them as I realised what I’d done.  (They smiled, but I’m not sure if their English was up to the level of punning.)  Not that one is allowed to be so familiar with the customers anyway, but if my brain had been sharper, I should’ve said, “I’ll check, mate.”

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Virtuous cycle (London, UK)

What is it that makes one place so different from another in ambience and vibes?

At Place X, one hears people talking about scholarly matters all the time: research ideas or just language issues for the fun of it.  Inadvertent eye contact with people—total strangers, at that practically always nets one a smile, even a "hello".  Even the canteen staff are pleasant and helpful, some of whom are openly friendly and jokey.

When one is treated in such a kind and civilised way, one automatically reciprocates—and passes it on to the next person, which in turn makes that recipient respond amiably.  And so on.

At Place Y, I was ill eight times in eight consecutive months.  Message loud and clear, wouldn't you say?

(London 2012)