I started Mandarin lessons about four months ago and, wow, it is tough! The hardest part is that there are four different tones and I feel like my ear doesn’t even hear the difference between them. The second hardest part is remembering how to learn again–it’s been so long since I’ve had to memorize anything! What I love the most about learning Chinese is my teacher Alyssa. She is an adorable mainlander who is very gifted at coming up with really unique ways to get you to understand or remember something and she also provides boundless insight into the culture and history. I’ve learned so much about the Chinese culture from learning the language. I thought I’d share my four favorite insights with you today.
1. The chinese word for good is hao. It is a composite of two characters. The character on the left means female or nu. The character on the right means kids. Talk about a family-oriented view of what is positive in life!
2. The Chinese word for meat is rou. Unless you modify rou with another word or character it always refers to pork. That is just how much the Chinese love pig–they eat over 1.2 billion pigs a year!
3. The character for kid (under no. 1, at right) is not exactly masculine, but how Alyssa described it is that “90% of the time it means male.” Speaking of sons, the joke of the day at Alyssa’s language school is about the number of sons Osama bin Laden had. Given the Chinese one-child policy, it’s really shocking to the Chinese that he had so many sons… and the way they make fun of this is by saying he has so many sons he can’t remember all of their names so he refers to them by numbers “dan erzi (oldest son), er erzi (second son), san erzi (third son), etc.” Alyssa thinks this is seriously the funniest thing in the world! But talking about the one-child policy caused her to tear up a bit as she remembered her mother telling her about her work for the government in that social services department… she described having to “deal with” stacks of female newborn corpses. Pretty sad. It’s these first-hand accounts of life in China that I think really make my time with Alyssa invaluable. On a somewhat lighter note… the exact number of children Osama had is actually unknown, but is thought to be around 24. Apparently his 5 wives don’t want their kids to be known as Osama’s kids. He had more than 300 nephews and nieces!
4. The Chinese have single-hand gesture symbols for numbers, which I think is pretty smart and comes in handy for people like me who are still learning their numbers. The system was developed because some numbers (10 and 4 in particular) sound different in various dialects and it is also a sly way to make a bid with your hand hidden in your sleeve when negotiating in public. 1 through 5 are obviously just your first hand, but six through ten are more entertaining. Check out Alyssa demonstrating!
No. 6 is like hang loose.
No. 7 looks an awful lot like a gun!
No. 8 is like a little ‘c’.
No. 10 is an x.