Monday, 29 April 2013

Why do we dream?



Came across this excerpt from 苏青’s《结婚十年》八、少奶奶生活(3) (Su Qing’s Married For Ten Years, Chapter 8: Life as the young mistress of the house (3)), written 1943:

QUOTE
我会剪纸花,找张大红贺贴,我能剪出小兔子,小猪,小剪刀之类。我把这些剪出来的东西贴在她的小圆脸上,鼻梁当中再贴条两头尖的红条儿,等会儿揭去,红花便清楚地印在脸上了。婆婆说:孩子们脸上不可多贴花,因为他们睡时灵魂儿要出去的,及找回来时若认不得自己脸孔了,岂不糟糕!
(My translation) I know how to cut out paper flowers.  I’d find a big red greeting card and cut out things like little rabbits, little pigs and little scissors.  I would stick these on her little round face, also two tapering strips on each side of the bridge of her nose, so that when these are removed, the red flowers would be clearly imprinted on her face.  My mother-in-law said:  Mustn’t stick such things on children’s faces, because their souls go out when they’re asleep, and if the souls cannot recognise their own faces when they get back, wouldn’t that be terrible!
UNQUOTE

When I was a child, the siblings who went to a Chinese school had to do Chinese brush calligraphy.  Grandma would be dozing off in her cane chair in the tropical heat.  For light entertainment, my bored siblings and I would take the calligraphy brushes and paint whiskers on her cheeks, or moustaches on her upper lip, or blacken her glasses (for her to wake up to darkness).  If the grown-ups caught us doing this, we’d be told off for endangering Grandma’s life, as her soul wouldn’t be able to recognise the body when it returned from its wanderings, so it wouldn’t be able to be reunited with her body, and she’d die.  We were told that dreams are really what our souls see in their wanderings when we’re asleep.  We were also told that the reason a sleeping person wakes up with a jump when there’s a sudden noise is that the body has to investigate the cause, so the soul has to come back from its wanderings and jump back into the body very quickly.

(Singapore, 1960s)

Friday, 26 April 2013

“I’m the imperialist” (Peking)



During one of our one-to-one lessons in 1994, my British ambassador student told me about the time in the 60s when he was serving at the British Embassy in (the then) Peking.  It had been negotiated for the White Russians who’d been living in exile in north-east China to leave for another country (maybe America).  My ambassador student was chosen to escort them, on the day of their departure, between the train station at which they were arriving from the north-east, and the airport to catch their flight out of China.  He had been chosen because he could speak Russian and Mandarin, and Britain was also a neutral country.

The route between the train station and the airport was lined with Red Guards, shouting angrily, in Chinese, “Revisionists!  Revisionists!  Revisionists!”  When the group of White Russians and my student arrived at the airport and got out of the vehicle, with the Red Guards thronging them and still chanting angrily, “Revisionists!  Revisionists!  Revisionists!”, it was well nigh impossible to make their way to the airport building, not to mention a bit hairy and threatening to turn ugly.

My student, ever so quick, said in Chinese, “They are the revisionists.  I am British, so I’m the imperialist.”  The Red Guards were stunned into momentary silence, amazed at my student’s wit, and his ability to be witty in Chinese on top of that.  Then, they burst into laughter and the sea of red parted to allow the group to go through.

(China 1966-1968)

Photographic memory (Singapore / London)





My second sister did Chemistry at the Singapore University, and recounted this story about two of her classmates, both boys.

The first one did not like the idea of lugging around campus their very thick chemistry textbook, so he would tear out the relevant chapter on the relevant day, and leave the lesson with the pages shoved into his trouser pocket(s).  At the end of the course, the book was just an empty shell with only the cover left and the contents lying around somewhere in his dormitory room or, worse, long lost to the dust bin.  This boy went on to get a distinction for his exam all the same, so my sister’s conclusion was that he’d done it all on memory.  (No, he did not procure a copy from the library.)

My sister approached the second boy one day over a point she did not understand.  He said, “Well, let’s have a look and see what the textbook says,” and inserted his finger into the thick textbook at exactly the relevant spot.  The first time this happened, my sister thought it was just a fluke, but she went back to him a few more times, with a different query each time, and every single time he’d dip into the book at the very spot for my sister’s question.

My own experience involved attending a small lunch party thrown for us three teachers by Peter, one of my first batch of two FCO students, at his parents’ flat.  Peter had once told me, as a conversation exercise in class, that his older brother, Andrew, was studying theology at Cambridge.  On the day of the lunch party, Peter’s parents had gone out for the day to give us space but returned just before our departure, so we stayed on for a bit to chat.  At one point, Peter’s father (Sir David Wilson, who was the penultimate governor of Hong Kong) started to say, "Peter's brother…" and I heard myself say out loud spontaneously, "Andrew".  His eyebrows shot up, "Now, HOW ON EARTH do you remember that?"  I answered nonchalantly, "Well, when you've filled your brain with a few thousand Chinese characters, what is a name or two?"

(Singapore 1960s / London 1992)

Jumping to conclusions (London)




There is an ancient Chinese story (The Warring States period, 475-221 B.C., Liè Zǐ 列子:失斧疑邻) about a man who had lost his axe and suspected his neighbour’s son.  Every time he looked at the neighbour’s son, the latter had all the body language of a thief.  A bit later, the man found his axe.  The next time he saw the neighbour’s son, the latter no longer looked like a thief.  So his brain was leading his eyes astray.

In my case, it was my eyes leading my brain astray in my experience with the two swans that I would espy plying along the canal past my flat when I first moved in one summer seven years ago.  They frequently hung around directly opposite my flat to feed—there must have been a lot of food at that section of the canal—so I would get a good view of them dipping their long necks into the water over and over again.  

I told my ex-landlord Terry about them when I next visited him and Shirley, and he told me that swans mate for life.  I already knew that,  but because he mentioned it, I was always reminded of him and Shirley whenever I saw the swans thereafter, not least because they’d been married for almost 50 years and did practically everything together.  Shirley had once said to me, “We’ve never had a cross word.”

One day the following spring, I found only one swan on the canal.  My immediate thought was, “Oh no!  The other one has died!”  For many days after that, I’d spot the lone swan, this time with a difference in its pattern of movement:  whereas I used to see the pair go past my flat about once a day if they were going towards the reservoirs, or twice if they were going away from the reservoirs, returning later, I now saw the lone swan many times a day, in both directions.  One night, I’d gone into the kitchen for a drink of water at 2 a.m. and found the lone swan on the canal.  I thought, “Poor swan!  It’s frantically searching for its mate up and down the canal, even at 2 a.m.!”

Another few weeks went by, and then I saw them!  A white swan followed by a line of six furry little bundles of grey, with another white swan bringing up the rear.  What I’d thought was the lone swan frantically plying the canal at frequent intervals looking for its dead mate was actually the two swans taking turns in sitting on the eggs and going off to feed.

Update, April 2013:  A couple of weeks back, I saw a single swan again on the canal.  This time, my reaction was one of joyful anticipation.  Last year, they had only one cygnet.  I wonder how many there’ll be this year.

(London 2004)


(See also blog entry 2 + 2 = 5)

In case you're interested, here's the original of the axe story:

Traditional Characters: 戰國 · 鄭 · 列御寇《列子 · 說符》:“人有亡斧者,意其鄰之子。視其行步,竊斧也;顏色,竊斧也;言語,竊斧也;動作態度,無為而不竊斧也。” 


Simplified Characters战国 · 郑 · 列御寇《列子 · 说符》:“人有亡斧者,意其邻之子。视其行步,窃斧也;颜色,窃斧也;言语,窃斧也;动作态度,无为而不窃斧也。”

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Prosopagnosia



My friend Valerio taught me this word only a few months ago: prosopagnosia, which my computer dictionary says is: “an inability to recognise the faces of familiar people, typically as a result of damage to the brain”.

I used to have an almost photographic memory when it came to telephone numbers and directions to/from places, even places in foreign countries where I’d be able to direct the local taxi drivers after only a day there (cf. Caracas in 1986 — see blog entry A day in at the Caracas Airport, posted July 2011).  If I saw a telephone number over a shop selling some commodity I wanted and I had no pen and paper with which to note it down, I’d close my eyes and burn the image of the number onto my brain screen.  Later, I’d retrieve it by closing my eyes again to see the number light up on my brain screen.  For directions, I’d note landmarks without even being conscious of doing it, and be able to retrace the way in the opposite direction.

Yet, I have difficulty telling Oriental faces apart.  Year after year, if I had more than one overseas Chinese student (of the same sex) in my class, I’d get them wrong.  One year, I had four!  One day, two of them turned up, so I took a surreptitious look in the register to see which two of the names had been signed against for attendance.  One was sitting on the window side of the classroom; the other on the door side.  Pleased with myself for coming up with this solution, I went for Name X when asking a question, looking at the student on the window side as I was sure it was her name I’d called out.  The answer came from the student on the door side, which made me jump!

Fast forward 20 years and I’m no better.  My Cambodian friend brought back from Hong Kong a 50-episode Korean DVD of a story set in the 1400s and 1500s, with a lot of intrigues and corruption among some of the officials at the imperial court.  

It is confusing enough when they refer to people sometimes by their name in full, sometimes by their surname followed by their court title, sometimes by their full court title only, so that one is never sure, at the first (or even second or third) sitting, that they’re actually the same person.  Some of the court titles are three characters, which makes them look like names — like Chinese names, the format of Korean names is: one character for the surname, followed by two characters for the personal name.

It gets trickier, however, when one’s prosopagnosia makes one unable to tell apart the goodie and the baddie — two high-ranking officials (same rank, therefore same costume).  (It doesn’t help either that later even the goodie turned against the hero, thus making him a baddie as well…)  

Another pair, both buffoon in looks (the stereotypical representation of buffoon features: eyebrows sloping downwards on the outside, a permanent drop-jaw open-mouth expression on the face, drooping outer corners of the mouth, a jutting lower jaw with only the lower row of teeth showing) and in behaviour, are, first to appear, the military man in charge of the exiles on the island to which the heroine was dispatched — he rather fancied the heroine; and later, one of the medical practitioners at the imperial court — who also worshipped the heroine.  My immediate conclusion, therefore, was that the military man had re-trained in order to be close to the heroine.  It took me four more viewings of the whole series before I realised they were actually not the same man. They both treat their immediate underling appallingly, shouting and beating them with the nearest object to hand.  Admittedly, the different underling in each case was a different man, but it was a minor observation to my prosopagnosiac mind.

My prosopagnosia got so bad that I even found the assassin looking exactly like the hero, and thought perhaps there was a sub-plot, i.e., intrigue within intrigue, with the hero maybe moonlighting as an assassin in order to penetrate the corrupt network of the baddies, etc., etc..  I had to go back over the (separate) scenes that featured them, freeze-frame or play frame by frame, to study the physical features to see what the difference might be: the assassin had two vertical frown lines between his eyebrows, the hero had horizontal ones in the scenes I looked at — that could’ve been deliberate disguise, though — but in other scenes he had four vertical frown lines; the assassin’s face was more elongated; the hero had crow’s-feet; and so on.  

I have now watched the DVDs at least five times but still cannot confidently distinguish the baddie official from the goodie official.  Luckily for them, I’m only watching them on disc, because if it was a live performance on stage, I would be pelting the wrong chap with rotten eggs and tomatoes!  Performance after performance after performance.

(London 2012/2013)

The verb (China)



I remember hearing a story some 30 years ago about a United Nations conference.  The speech was in German.  After the speaker had been going for a little while, the audience heard no simultaneous translation on their earphones, so they fiddled around with the various control knobs, thinking there was a technical problem.  Then they looked up at the interpreters’ booth and found the German-English interpreter’s lips not moving.  They raised their hands and shoulders, asking the interpreter why he was not translating what the speaker was saying.  The interpreter said, “Wait for the verb!  Wait for the verb!”

This put me in mind of what happened on the first film shoot, done in January/February 1982, for The Heart of The Dragon, the 12-part documentary series that went out on Channel Four in January 1984.

The film directors first thought of using a presenter for the series, and they chose an English woman who could speak Chinese.  Let’s call her Mary Smith.

The episode was Episode Two, called Caring (on different levels:  the state for its people when they go mad or bad, so we filmed a psychiatric hospital and a prison; within the family — between husband and wife, between parent and child, between grandparent and grandchild).  Mary was interviewing a grandmother about life within the family in China, and at one point got on to the subject of grain vouchers, which the government gave their citizens in those days.  Mary was trying to find out what they could buy with their grain vouchers.  The dialogue went this way:

Mary:  So, apart from grain, can you use the vouchers to buy other types of food?
Grandmother:  Yes.
M:  Oil?
G:  Yes.
M:  Sewing machine?
G:  Yes.
M:  Bicycle?
G:  Yes.
M:  Tram?  (What she meant was: “to travel on the tram”, but she forgot to switch the verb.)
G:  (Taking her literally)  Most Chinese families don’t buy trams.

Mary then moved on to the kind of material the Chinese like to use/wear.

M:  So, do the Chinese wear cotton?
G:  Yes.
M:  Silk?
G:  Yes.
M:  Feathers?  (Mary had now moved on to stuffing for quilts and pillows, and padding for coats, but again she forgot to switch the verb.)
G:  (Again, taking her literally)  Most Chinese people don’t wear feathers.

(China, 1982)

Strange logic (London)



The students on the MA Bilingual Translation course that I was teaching in the late 90s had to do a few linguistics modules as well.  This course was for native-speakers of Chinese, so they struggled a bit with the English language, and certainly with essays in linguistics a subject that, like legalese, can confound even those for whom English is the first language.

The students would come to me as module leader with any problems they might encounter in their studies.  One of them turned up one day, saying she was really struggling to get her linguistics essay written.  I don’t usually dole out advice just like that.  I tend to try and make them see for themselves where the roots of the problems might lie, so that they can perhaps come up with the solution themselves.  This way, I train them to be independent and not rush off to the teacher every time they encounter a problem.  So, I took her through the usual check-list:  what did the brief say; what could she say about the subject matter; what was the mental block over; had she done all the reading required; how was she to structure her essay; etc.  Then, I sent her away to have a go.  She came back a few days later, saying she’d managed to struggle up to 300 words, out of the total 1,000 word count specified.  I said, “That’s only one third of the word count, which is way too low.  You’re usually allowed a 10% leeway either way, so you’ll have to get up to at least 900 words.  Go and do more work on it.”  She was most unhappy about it and complained, “But I can’t think of what else to say!!  Besides, the teacher knows it all anyway!”  I said, “Well then, if that’s the case, why bother writing the essay at all.  After all, the teacher knows it all.”

It never fails to amaze me the kind of strange logic some people come up with.  (See also blog entry Communcations: non sequiturs.)

(London 1998)

Chinese etiquette: modesty



Chinese etiquette dictates that one should downgrade one’s own abilities, which extends to include one’s children’s.  For example, if someone were to praise your daughter for her good looks, you’d say, “Oh no, my daughter’s very ugly.”  If someone were to say your child’s very clever, you’d say, “Oh no, I have a very stupid child.”  The child would not suffer any damage to the ego or self-confidence, because s/he just knew grown-ups played this superficial game to satisfy the rules of social etiquette.

Sarah Allan, an American lecturer at SOAS in the 80s, a Western expert on Chinese oracle bone script, now a professor in California, had written a book or two on the subject before getting her next book translated into Chinese as well.  

As is the convention with academic writing, reference would be made to other people’s works/theories on the subject, including the writer’s own previous ones, if any, followed by the source.  So, if the writer was Mary Smith, she’d refer to Robert Jones’s work as “see Robert Jones, TITLE, Chapter x, p.xx”, and to her own as “see Mary Smith, TITLE, Chapter x, p.xx”, in the same neutral tone of voice.  

However, the Chinese translation had to observe the Chinese conventions, including the modest way of referring to anything related to oneself.  I was typesetting the translation of Sarah Allan’s book and noticed that the neutral version in her English copy (“see Sarah Allan, TITLE, Chapter x, p.xx”) came out in the Chinese translation as: “see clumsy work, TITLE, Chapter x, p.xx”, with the “clumsy work” being immediately obvious as being the speaker’s/writer’s own.  She was tickled pink about this and came to my office to have a good giggle about it.

(拙作 zhuózuò / “clumsy work”)

(London 1989)