Thursday, 13 June 2013

Chinese tones (London)

Further to my blog entry Learning Chinese: tones, first posted 160811, another word for which Westerners often get the tone wrong in Mandarin Chinese is “笔 / writing implement”, which is bǐ (third tone).  Out of Western students’ mouths, it usually ends up being rendered in the first tone, which is “vagina”( bī:corpse radical 尸 shī, and xuè cavity).

One evening, I was in the pub with my students for our usual post-lesson drink.  The conversation, as ever, was an extension of the lesson—we often talked about things related to the Chinese language or culture.  The students doing the evening classes in Chinese were all there out of interest, so it was natural that they were always interested in background issues beyond the textbook and the classroom.  

At one point, I said something that caught Ronnie’s special interest, so he wanted to write it down.  Turning to Frazer (now deceased), Ronnie asked in Chinese, “你有没有笔?(nǐ yǒu méiyǒu bǐ? / Do you have a pen?)”  

Unfortunately, Ronnie’s 笔 came out in the first tone.  

Frazer had already got up to go to the loo, just as Ronnie put this question to him, so I said, “He’s going to check.”

(London 1989)

Frazer:  hope you’re having a giggle over this!  You’re being missed lots.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Rubbish at experimenting (II) (London)

As a B.A. student, I used to frequent a Chinese restaurant near Russell Square which served a set-meal lunch at an affordable price.  This was a three-minute walk from SOAS, rather than 20 minutes to Chinatown.  My regular order was beef and mixed vegetables in a thick sauce, served over plain rice, because my upbringing in a Buddhist family meant that beef was totally banned from our diet at home in Singapore.  (My first taste of beef was at age 16 when I ventured downtown to a Western-meal restaurant called Cozy Corner on Orchard Road, where I’d have a regular sirloin steak.)  

Unlike the grilled steaks I’d eaten at restaurants and the stir-fried sliced beef I’d tried cooking at home in London, the beef in this dish was tender.  So, after a few more visits when the waiter recognised me and was therefore friendly (the almost-default Chinese reaction to strangers is what I’d call an unfriendly, if not outright hostile, look), I plucked up courage to ask him how they managed to get their beef so tender.  The waiter went off to the kitchen, and came back with the tip from the chef: marinade the beef with some sodium bicarbonate.

My first attempt with the sodium bicarbonate produced a stir-fried beef as tough as before.  Perhaps I hadn’t put in enough of the stuff?  The waiter had said “about a teaspoonful”, so the next time, I put in double that amount.  When I threw the beef into the hot oil, the whole lot started to froth.  I had to rinse the beef under the tap, and start all over again, not daring to add any sodium bicarbonate at all this time.  Chewy beef is still less horrible than frothy beef.

(London 1980)

PS:  I’ve since learned how to produce tender stir-fried beef, lamb and pork, even the cheap cuts, without having to resort to sodium bicarbonate.  But I’m not telling.  (Ditto with my kimchi recipe.)

Cheese sauce: I adore macaroni cheese and cauliflower cheese, so when Pete’s mother served a cauliflower cheese on one of my visits to her place, I asked for the recipe.  Got home, bought the cheese (not cheap on a student’s budget), the cauliflower (not cheap on a student’s budget), the butter and the milk.  Followed the recipe to the letter.  I got a lumpy sauce.  Down the sink  it went.  Started again.  Another lumpy sauce.  Down the drain again.  By the time Pete got home from work around 630pm, I was on my fourth sauce and in floods of tears, just about to chuck it down the sink again.  Fortunately, he took over and managed to rectify it.

(London 1979) 

PS:  I’ve since learned how to make a smooth cheese sauce.  The order of putting together the ingredients is different from the one given by Pete’s mother.

Hash cake (London)

The first time I’d heard of “hash cake” was in 1980 when my flatmate (featured in the blog entry Wrong-footed) came back from a weekend up in Scotland and told me about their exploits:  eating, drinking, smoking (hash[ish]), then going for a horse ride after a dessert of hash cake (cake made with hash[ish] in it).  He said riding while high on hash was an amazing experience.

Fast forward to three years later when I was working at the TV documentary film company on The Heart of The Dragon series on China.  One of our researchers was Lisa Pontecorvo, whose father Gillo Pontecorvo made Battle of Algiers (1966), among other films.  (I read in the papers two or three years ago that she was killed in a bicycle accident.)

One day, Lisa joined us in the staff room over the lunch hour.  The rest of us were eating a fish and chips takeaway, but Lisa had brought her own homemade lunch: a sandwich made with brown wholemeal bread, and a salad.  Lisa cycled, was a vegetarian, and didn’t smoke.  So I nearly fell off my chair when, once we’d finished our lunch, she produced a plastic bag with brown lumps in it, and asked, “Anyone for my hash cake?”  I couldn’t believe my ears:  lunch time on a weekday, and Lisa, the clean-living person, was offering us some of her hash cake?!?  It turned out her homemade chocolate cake had gone a bit wrong, hence her calling it “hash cake”.

(London 1980, 1983)

Monday, 3 June 2013

One way of putting on weight (or not) (Singapore)

Traditionally, when the Chinese tell you you’ve put on weight, they mean it as a compliment, as can be seen from the way the observation is phrased: 发福 fā fú / “develop good-fortune”.  The thinking behind it is:  if you’re fat, you must have more than enough to eat; if you have more than enough to eat, you must be rich.  Also, you don’t have to do heavy work, which would keep you thin.  (The same with having fair skin:  it must be because you don’t have to work outdoors, therefore you must at least be a white collar worker, if not outright rich without needing to work at all.  Same thinking behind the Brits traditionally setting so much store by a tanned skin—you must be sufficiently rich to go far enough south to where the sun is.)

My mother retired at age 47 and, being very face-conscious, was concerned about her social standing image now that she no longer had to toil day and night as a midwife.  Being of a naturally slim build, she decided to speed up the process of putting on weight by drinking milk, which she’d heard could make one fat.

Fresh milk was not easy to come by in those days in Singapore, if at all, so she went to a lot of trouble tracking down an Indian man not too far away from us who had a cow.  An order was placed with him for a bottle to be delivered daily.

My mother would boil the milk, but some five minutes after drinking the stuff, she would go straight to the toilet.  It is fairly common knowledge that the Chinese constitution is, as a general rule, unable to process dairy products since it is traditionally not a milk-drinking culture.  (This might now have changed, as more Chinese are adopting Western habits.)  So, what was meant to be an exercise in fattening up my mother ended up with her losing weight through the runs.  The delivery was cancelled after a month.

(Singapore early 1970s)

The hotel bill (Kuwait)

In 1986, a 50-strong Chinese delegation from various provinces was in Kuwait to meet, face-to-face, 50 Arabs from the different Gulf states to talk about a US$3.6bn package of joint venture deals.  A lot of money for 1986.

The Chinese side were originally supplying their own Arabic-Chinese interpreters, but last minute said their interpreters weren’t coming after all.  Not sure if it was cold feet on the interpreters’ part, or they didn’t have enough Arabic-Chinese interpreters to cover such a big event.  The Kuwaitis, who were hosting this event, generously said they would provide a team of six English/Chinese interpreters. I was the second to be invited to form the team.  

We were put up at the Hilton Hotel.  A Mr. Ali from the Kuwaiti Ministry of Finance told us to go to him if we had any special requirements (e.g., photocopying, typing of documents).  He set up a table in a corner of the foyer, with a telephone line and a typewriter, and was on duty most of the time throughout our three-day sojourn there.  If he wasn’t at the desk, we would call him on the telephone.  

When we were not actually in the conference hall interpreting, we would be in the foyer using the sofas and armchairs there to work on documents the Chinese would give to us last minute to translate.  For one particular document that was quite long and a bit trickier, Mr. Ali offered us his suite upstairs as it was quieter.

We were on expenses, dining at the six restaurants on offer in the Hilton, eating oysters, king prawns, lobsters, and steaks, and drinking milk-shake-glass helpings of fresh kiwi fruit juice or strawberry juice.  Mouth-watering juices, eye-watering prices.  (This would be the fuel for flying them in that the consumer was paying for.)

When we checked out on the fourth day, the man behind the reception desk emerged from the print room behind the reception area with a very long print-out which itemised every single meal and drink we had consumed over our time there.  Room and board per person for three days came to a lot more money than what I was earning in a month at my Chinese computer research job.

I couldn’t understand why the man should be presenting us with this marathon three-foot-long print-out, unless it was for us to keep as a record.

It then transpired that he was expecting us to pay these sums!  The conversation went something like this:

Me: But, we were on full expenses.

Man: (Grave expression on his face; graver, no nonsense tone of voice) That is not my understanding.

Me: The Ministry of Finance are supposed to be footing the bill.

Man: (Tilting his head, raising his chin and looking down his nose at me) I have received no such instructions.  (Sub-text: “Yah, sure.  Good try.  Ministry of Finance indeed.”)


Me: (Suddenly remembering Mr. Ali) You can verify with Mr. Ali.  He’s from the Ministry of Finance and he was looking after us over the last three days.

Man: I have never heard of a Mr. Ali from the Ministry of Finance.


Me: He had a temporary office desk in the corner of the foyer.

Man: There is no such temporary office desk in the foyer now.

Oh help.

Me: (Suddenly remembering the suite) He has a suite upstairs, on the seventh floor.  Please ring him.  His suite number is xxxx, and his extension number is xxxx.

Man: That suite has been vacated.  We have no record of the details of the occupier.

WHAT!?!  This was getting truly surreal!  I had visions of my washing up dishes at the Kuwait City Hilton for the next six years.

Then I remembered that Ken
 and I had gone the day before to see the Kuwaiti Minister of Finance with a business consultation idea of ours, and the Minister had given me his business card.  I duly produced it now.  

The man looked at the card for a while, then at me for another while, then at the card again, studying every letter of the alphabet printed on it, wondering if he should believe me.  Eventually, he reluctantly picked up the telephone and dialled the number on that business card.  

After a minute or so, he hung up, and said, “The Minister has confirmed that all your bills are indeed to be footed by them.”  

I didn’t stop shaking for another few minutes after we stepped out of the Hilton.  Talk about hairy moments.

(Kuwait 1986)

These foreigners don’t understand the language anyway: 02 (England)

A student’s brother, Bill, had learned to play the flamenco guitar in Spain and was able to speak fairly fluent Spanish.  This was back in the 1970s when it wasn’t so common for British people to go to Spain and not many Brits could speak Spanish.  (The latter is probably still the case now…)

Back in England, Bill was in a pub one day, sitting at one end of the bar, drinking, with a middle-aged Spanish couple at the other end of the bar.  The wife then addressed her husband, without keeping her voice down (presumably because she assumed that people in Britain couldn’t speak any Spanish at all):

Wife:  Look, look!  Look at that man at the end of the bar.  Look how long his fingernails are.

Husband:  He’s either a flamenco guitarist, or he’s a poofter.

As Bill left the pub, he walked past them and said, in fluent Spanish, “Actually, I do play a bit of the flamenco guitar.”

The couple’s jaws nearly touched the floor.

(England, 1970s)

How many seats do you want? (Taiwan / London)

In 1976, the second year of my two-year stint in Taiwan, Pete the British geologist and I were going on a trip to Kaohsiung, in the south of Taiwan, for the weekend.  We decided to fly as we only had two days, and not even full days at that.  China Airlines, the national carrier, told me they were fully booked.  

I approached Freddie Chen (now deceased), who was our deputy manager at Conoco Taiwan.  He was really the fixer for any bureaucratic requirements related to our oil rig, work boats and men, as all his ex-air force mates had gone to work for various government departments after the Vietnam War (where they’d fought alongside American troops—Taiwan being anti-communist, remember).  I would hear Freddie, whose office was next to mine, addressing them down the telephone line as “Brother Wang, this is Old Chen.  I need a favour.”

Freddie now took out a sheet of paper, asked me, “How many seats do you want?”, wrote something on it, put it into an envelope, and said, “Take this to the China Airlines main office on Nanjing East Road and hand it over at the main desk.”

I went along and did what Freddie said.  The staff member took a look at the envelope and went away.  When she came back, she said, “Which flights do you want there and back, and how many seats do you want?”  So there were not only seats available after all, I even had a choice of the flights both ways!  Freddie had only written to the head of China Airlines, no less, or someone high enough anyway, presumably addressing him as “Brother XX”.

Fast forward to 1986 and London.  A student on the evening programme, Robin, told me after a lesson one night, when I asked what he’d be doing for Christmas, that he was in a right conundrum.  

His (British) wife at the time was working in Hong Kong, and they’d arranged to go on holiday in Thailand, meeting in Bangkok—he flying out from London, she from Hong Kong.  He was then going to fly on to Taiwan, where he was hoping to do some business deals.  So, apart from the fact that this was to be over the Christmas holiday—peak period for travel, this was also quite a bit of a juggling job in itself logistically.  And don’t forget, this was 1986, pre-online-booking days.

For some reason, Robin decided to make his life even more hairy by trying out different options (on the basis of price), which left him in the end with none because he didn’t make a decision soon enough on any one of them.  His then-wife, however, had already booked her flight to Bangkok.

I told Robin my 1976 Kaohsiung weekend story, and said I could try Freddie for him.  The next day, I telexed (yes, that’s how long ago it was!) Freddie, explaining Robin’s dilemma, giving him the dates for Robin’s intended travel into and out of Bangkok and Taipei, and giving him Robin’s telex address as well so that Freddie could liaise with him directly, especially given the tight timing.

The following week when I went for the lesson, I asked Robin, “Well, have you heard from Freddie?”  

Robin’s answer: “Yes.  Freddie’s telex just said, ‘How many seats do you want?’”

So from “fully booked” to “how many seats do you want”, one can see that when airlines tell you they have no seats left, it may not actually be the case.  (Look out for another blog, to come, on this subject.)

(Taiwan 1976; London 1986)