Archive for the 'Chinese Language' Category


Learning Chinese

So the summer long ago that I spent studying Chinese at Cheng Da, I indulged my nerdiness by enjoying the benefits of my library card.  (The library had a lovely sculpture of a swooping flutist in front of it at the time, too, which I’m kicking myself for not photographing).  With strong A/C, the library was a lovely modern space with some neat spaces to lounge about in the company of books.  I also had my first exciting experience with sliding stacks, which were quite cool.

Anyway, in addition to reading up on film criticism and helping my cousin with his research on Psycho and Gaslight (neither of which, I’m sorry to say, I was brave enough to watch on my own in the typhoon storminess of that summer…  What can I say, I’m a film-wuss, and too highly impressionable for my own good…  Where was I?  Oh, yes, in addition…), I looked up all the how-to-learn Chinese books there.  I already had a bit of a collection that I was studying on my own before going to Cheng Da and studying from the Shida book that is standard university Chinese fare in Taiwan (in spite of being kind of ancient).  However, being a bit of a research nerd, I came across this book:

It is probably out of print, and its phonetics are not hanyu pin-yin.  However, being a bo-po-mo-fo learner myself (which I think tends to make pronunciation better, though it has its confusing bits too), this wasn’t an impediment for me.  This is more of a character-writing book, with nice charts of radicals and their meanings as endpapers.  Also, I was delighted to discover that the author had a sense of humor, as evidenced by the entry for the character of “ghost,” which as evidenced by the blue dot, I was not the first reader to note:

Seriously speaking, I’m a fan of studying character etymology, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m an etymology language nerd.  I think the contextualization of why/how characters came to be is helpful in remembering them.  At Cheng-Da, there was a class with pretty pictures that showed the evolution of characters.  Back in the US, on a few rare occasions, my mom used to teach me calligraphy, though all I really remembered was fairly basic.  I practiced my characters with calligraphy in Taiwan too, just to make it a bit more fun and involve more gross-motor movement to try to remember them better.  Haven’t touched my calligraphy set for a while, and am not very confident that I remember all my characters that well.  Spent many an afternoon at my grandfather’s house that summer, practicing characters, which unfortunately tended to make me nod off a bit with all the repetition.  My piano teacher could probably vouch that I’m not so good with repetition.

However, I did have a fun experience at Cheng-Da in Tainan that summer, and was a huge fan of my teacher and our class.  It was a friendly department, and I would recommend it for other prospective students.


A quick post…

I’m much busier than I thought I would be here in Tainan.  Apparently my Chinese has improved to the point where my aunt can tell me Chinese mythological stories about the gods and goddesses and after a very long time of her explaining every other word to me, I can understand why the lovers are separated by higher powers…

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen the celebrations for the children turning 16, and the lunar 7/7 day which always rains at night because the weaver and the cowherd are reuniting on a bridge of birds, and raining tears of joy and sadness.

I also picked (and nibbled) longyen (a fruit directly translated as dragon-eye), gave myself a mini-shower in my first attempt to pump the flooding from the typhoon out of the basement (oh, right, attaching the hose–an excellent idea, and I didn’t actually electrocute myself!), and got a mini-lesson in shufa or Chinese calligraphy from my aunt (well, it’s more like beautiful Chinese printing for my very elementary skills at writing words).

Tainan is hot, but there is oftentimes a small (if also at times warm) breeze floating through the air. 

Oh, and I printed out some of the photos I’ve taken over the years for the very first time, and they turned out well!  It was rather exciting, since they usually sit in my hard drive…

I’ve gotten myself (slightly) lost walking past temples, and through back alleyways which are so narrow one can hear the voices behind the doors chatting in Taiwanese.

My aunt and I stopped by Chikan towers, where there was a quartet of musicians playing traditional Taiwanese songs and children’s music (the theme to Doraemon was one of the ending pieces), in front of a backdrop of beautiful Chinese buildings that I’ll have to go back to shoot photographs of during the day at some point.

My Chinese has improved to the point that people now ask if I’m from Singapore, instead of Japan when they meet me and realize I speak English and Chinese that has possibly progressed from tot to pre-school level.


In a temple in the mountains…

Past the large painted Buddha that greets you as you walk into what would be a large garage if it weren’t a temple, across the green concrete floor, up the stairs to where there are identical crystal Buddha sculptures peacefully smiling at you from within identical curved alcoves, through a stairway where there neat shelves of slippers to flip flop across granite floors of shadows into a room filled with stacks of pink plastic doors, there are the ashes of my grandparents and my uncle and aunt.

My cousin drove us up the mountains and through the curvy roads in his modified Mazda.

My grandmother was actually Catholic, but my uncle said she wouldn’t mind resting there, where there are chants that soothe them through round speakers in the ceiling.

It really feels like a library of the dead.  Each door is the same, names in gold on a blue background.  I managed to thrill my father by happening to stand right in front of my uncle’s door, and actually read his name in Chinese aloud.  It helps that his name was made up of some of the most common characters in the language, which I happen to actually recognize.

We trooped out and did the obligatory squint photo, and headed back on the road along the coast to stop and eat very fresh seafood (I have huge sympathy for vegetarians– watching my lunch thrash wildly as it was picked up by the net was rather disturbing…  But I confess… I ate it.  It was delicious.  I don’t think it died in vain, but maybe that’s rather selfish of me.)

I also managed to impress my parents by reading from a Buddhist Sutras book which has the zhuyin fuhao bo po mo fo printed on the sides of the characters.  The only literature here that has zhuyin fuhao on the sides of the characters seems to be children’s books and Buddhist Sutras.  I think a friend of mine explained that the zhuyin is actually supposed to approximate the original language in some cases.

So, although wo de zhongwen sze bu hao, at least I can still impress my parents a little bit, even though they still correct me most generously…  😉


Chinese Proficiency status…

“I’ll get to practice and learn a lot from you guys when you come, though… Well, maybe not. You might just laugh at me.”

“I won’t purposefully make fun of you. Sometimes it’s natural, though. Sometimes you can’t help to laugh, because it could be funny….You can mistake lao se which means teacher for lao shu which means mouse. That’s funny.”– excerpt from a conversation between my mom and me.

So, I’m getting conflicting messages as to my current state of Chinese proficiency. Granted, it’s not what I would have hoped for, since I never actually took formal classes as I’d intended to when I arrived.

Anyway, I’m living in a state of immersion, except for the fact that a lot of Taiwanese people around here speak or understand English with varying degrees of proficiency, and I work in an English-speaking environment all day.

The other weekend, I had an afternoon to myself at a tea shop.

After spending a few hours scribbling, I popped downstairs to pay the bill and found myself on a barstool chatting with the two tea servers about their lives for another few hours mostly in Chinese. Between mangling each other’s languages and pictures and hand signals, I was able to talk about my family and what they do, learn about the tea girls’ studies, discuss the dating mores of Taipei, and learn what songs were playing on the radio.

I felt quite impressed with myself for being able to chat in Chinese as much as I did.

It’s at the point where often I’ll address my suitemates in Chinese and they’ll respond automatically in English. I suppose it saves time since usually the conversation will break down at some point and they’ll need to translate their conversation into English for me anyway. However, when they talk among themselves, I can generally surprise them by understanding something.

So, after being quite impressed with my Chinese abilities after the chat in the tea shop, I went to look for wood cleaner and laundry soap. I popped into my local everything store. I’m a ridiculously laborious decision-maker. I like reading labels, going for the least environmentally damaging product, etc. I can’t read labels here. At all… And I’m paranoid about getting a laundry detergent and unwittingly bleaching all my clothes, or accidentally ending up with hair remover instead of shampoo (a story told by a fellow expat friend– fortunately the mistake was caught by a friend before any hair loss ensued).

I overheard a salesman talking in English with some other foreigners in the store, and went to him to ask about finding wood furniture cleaner and which bar of laundry soap would possibly be vegetable-based so that it could do double-duty.

On the query about wood furniture soap, well, first he took me to the plugs and wires section of the store, then the rags section, then the scrub brush section, then the laundry bag section, then the laundry soap section, the electronics section (where a kind lady understood English and translated for me ), and finally to furniture wipes and furniture cleaning sort of things. I did try drawing a picture, but my artistic ability was hampered by the limited space on the edge of a receipt, so it didn’t really work. As I thanked him profusely for his help, he said kuh ai and something else.

Kuh ai means “cute.” I have been called “cute” quite a bit here by my co-workers and roommates. Actually, people tend to say I’m “cute”– it’s a trend that has been fairly uninterrupted since babyhood. My language-partner Chinese teacher was teaching me various ways to say “pretty”–mei li, pia-liang, and finally kuh ai. She explained to me that that’s what people say when there’s really not much else to say– polite filler if you will. When I burst out laughing that that must be why everyone here calls me kuh ai, she laughed and abruptly ended class.

Perhaps it’s because I’m such a little kid. Or I’ve entered Old-Hag-ness, and am just politely uninformed.

Anyway, so I told him I didn’t understand and then he told me in English that I’m very cute and should come to shop there every day.

It’s interesting the bits of language people actually learn. For instance, my students in Korea, some of them couldn’t have a basic greeting sort of conversation in English, but they would come up to me and swear most cheerfully thanks to watching American movies. I’m slightly equipped in the local colorful vocabulary now myself, but have trouble with the weather, and seasons, describing people, and asking for furniture cleaner.

Of course the other day when my language partner told me in Chinese that class was canceled and I understood her, she was impressed by my improved Chinese and then said something I didn’t understand with nanpungyo in it. My director kindly translated that she thinks I’m ready to be set up with a primarily Chinese-speaking boyfriend.


I think I should be able to talk about the weather first… Among other things.


At last–

One of my goals for coming to Taiwan has come to pass… I swore in Taiwanese in the middle of an English conversation!

There’s more to this, but I’m insanely exhausted right now, so I’ll fill it in later…


So, I don’t really seriously swear at all in English. It’s kind of just a habit and a distaste for bad language, though honestly, I think American swearing, where there is only a variety of maybe 4 or 5 naughty words that get combined, swapped, and modified to fit into every possible part of speech is really quite silly, often misogynistic, certainly overused, and somewhat insipid. British swearing seems to have a good more variety, but I really have very little idea of what most of the slangy words mean and their level of badness (shocked my British cousin by accident once).

So why swear in Taiwanese or Chinese?

Well, my parents, as most married couples seem to, do squabble on occasion, and it is generally in Taiwanese when they get their dander up. However, in the past maybe ten or less years, they’ve taken to sprinkling their arguments with swear words in English (generally addressing the topic and not each other personally).

(sidenote: I found an ancient copy of Love Story in the basement once with unknown words underlined in red.  Alongside words that were multisyllabic and obviously challenging for the ESL reader my father was, were all the swear words, which he never found in the dictionary.  Thirty years later, and it’s interesting how language changes…)

So anyway, I’d hear a bunch of what was barely intelligible and then some swearing in English. Being the uptight Victorian priss than I am, I’d scold them for swearing in English and tell them to swear in Taiwanese if they were going to argue in Taiwanese, which would be an effective means of diffusing said arguments with laughter. My parents would tell me that no one really swears in Taiwanese, because Taiwanese curses are actually wishing bad upon the person, and Taiwanese swears are soooo bad no one ever says them…. My mother told me that Taiwanese swearing is reserved for the low class. Being an American egalitarian, I suspect this to be very unfair.

So, I figure, if I swear in Taiwanese in an American conversation, it’s not really an assault on anyone’s sensibilities, while providing the emotional outlet that naughty words seem to provide people.

Finding people to teach me to swear in Taiwanese was initially difficult. My parents outright refused (it’s interesting to think about language that everyone understands but a certain contingent never utters). A friend who went to Taiwan and worked briefly with construction workers refused (see what kind of friends I have??? sniff.).

So I had to wait to get to Taiwan myself, then in the middle of a quiet conversation I couldn’t understand (this happens quite a bit hanging out with Taiwanese people who are fairly proficient in English but naturally get into the flow of chatting in Chinese or Taiwanese with each other and I just sit by try to figure it out), I asked for a definition of a somewhat commonly used word in it. Laughter and initial hesitation showed me I was on the right track. After some cajoling and persuasion, I was able to get some instruction. So I now I have a mini-catalogue of naughty Taiwanese and Chinese curses that will probably not qualify me to be a construction worker or sailor anytime soon, but will successfully shock and amuse my parents.

Honestly, it does seem that Taiwanese and Chinese swearing is much less common than American swearing, which I think probably preserves its oomph. According to my instructors, said swearing is so bad that it’s not in popular mass media, the way that American swearing has infiltrated movies and television.

The little off-color vocabulary I have now though, actually turned into quite good prior knowledge when my children, whom I’ve recruited to teach me Chinese in odd moments during breaks, offered to teach me Chinese and tried to teach me naughty words without telling me what they meant, I was able to give them the shocked scolding they richly deserved.

The words I’ve learnt have meanings like “cry” or “cry because your father’s dead” or “cry from hunger” which I imagine originates from a time and group where things like mortality of fathers and hunger were much more present concerns. I’ve also learned the corollary for the f-word. Of course, my instructors have been amused at my proficiency and now whenever I’m introduced to new acquaintances and my language ability (or rather inability) comes up, I’m often asked to display my swearing abilities.

I’ve also learned the sort of insults applicable to children (these are generally picked up while hanging out with my friends who are boyfriend/girlfriend and being silly with each other), and I mangle these slightly occasionally.

Unfortunately, I’m much better at learning the really bad words than I am at learning ordinary ones. However, this seems to be somewhat universal. I’ve hung out with students who couldn’t say “How are you?” but would come up to me and shout an English swear word they learned from the movies. My friend will swear in English, though she’s much more comfortable in Chinese/Taiwanese.

Besides, truly bad words are easy to remember the tone for– they’re all 4th tone.


Matrimonial, yet scatalogical… Amongst other things

I visited my zhongwen lao se (Chinese teacher) for dinner and to chat and crochet last night.  We had dinner at her in-laws, who have a lovely house and served gwa bao (at least, that’s what I think it was kind of called), cuttlefish, chicken, and chicken pineapple bitter melon soup (really neat, tasty bunch of flavors).  The gwa bao is kind of a wrap that is made out of manto– a steamed white bun, except the gwa bao is flatter and folded over.  You open it up and fill it with something like parsley, salty pickled vegetables, powdered peanuts, and pork.  It’s delectable.  Apparently, it’s a special dinner and only served once a year (though I was rather stymied as to what exactly the special occasion was supposed to be about, other than the upcoming new year).

After a nice supper, we headed over to her place and sipped fruit tea.  We’re both Anne of Green Gables fans and I need to get her and her husband to watch The Princess Bride (he likes swashbuckling).

We got on the subject of her wedding, and she told me that when Chinese people get married, their parents need to agree on the things they should buy.  The bride is supposed to buy her groom twelve particular things  (a suit, etc.), and he’s supposed to buy her six.

One of the things the bride is supposed to have to start their lives together is a chamber pot.  It’s a new red plastic pot with a symbolic sugar stick inside it, a handle, and a removable top with the double happiness characters stuck to it.  It’s supposed to ensure that her husband will have wealth.  The Chinese word for what goes into a chamber pot is hwang jin, which also means “yellow gold.”  Therefore, if they have a chamber pot, which the bride brings to the groom’s house, they will have wealth.  My zhongwen lao se isn’t really sure what to do with some of the things they had to get when they  were married– like the chamber pot, wash basins, etc., which people don’t really use anymore.  I suppose a chamber pot is easier to carry over to the groom’s house than a modern toilet, though…

On her wedding day, my zhongwen lao se had to step over fire– not an open fire– a little pot with holes in it and a cover.  In her long, flowing white dress and high heels, she had to step over the fire to keep bad spirits from following her.

Also, people are supposed to keep and feed chickens for a few months when they get a new house.  The Taiwanese word for “chicken,” “ge,” is a homonym for the word for “house” (if I recall correctly).  Therefore, people are supposed to have a pair of chickens when they get a new house for good luck.  A rooster and a hen, which would be rather difficult to accommodate in a modern apartment.  Therefore, my zhongwen lao se has a lovely little basket with tiny rooster and hen dolls.  They do have a lovely home, so the rooster and hen dolls must be working.



So, being someone who gets lost a lot.  I tend to ask for directions often, or just get more lost until something begins to get familiar, or give up at some point and try to backtrack until something looks familiar.

I seem to pass successfully (as theoretically I ought to) as a native person who knows what they’re doing here.  Was asked for directions last night when a red-helmeted, grey-masked scooter rider approached me as I waited to cross the street.  She had an address in Chinese written in her book, and I had to apologize in my rather bad zhongwen, “Dwebuchi, wo de zhongwen bu hao.” and successfully look clueless.

As I was walking across the park to school today, a woman asked me, gesturing with her arm “blah blah blah jeh uen zhan blah blah blah…” and looked puzzled.  So I apologized for my Chinese as usual, and gestured with my arms to indicate that “zhe ge rue and then there’s zhe ge rue shi jeh uen zhan ” and pointed through the library and to the roads beyond it.  The jeh uen zhan is the subway station, as far as I remember from working on being able to say that I live by it for the past three weeks.

It’s kind of funny.   In a lot of ways, I feel kind of lost here at times.  Not just in terms of geographic navigation, but also in terms of where I am in my life at the moment, I guess.  I tend to feel betwixt and between things, and never quite as if I’m actually here or there.

I did ask a foreign-looking fellow who was studying the subway map and muttering to himself the other night whether he was lost in English.  The subway is one thing I feel comfortable with.  Once you’ve figured it out in one city, it’s pretty easy to figure out in another, and Taipei, like Seoul, doesn’t even have any express lines to get confused with.

He complimented me on my English, which I find rather amusing (it is the only language I can claim any sort of fluency in), and explained that he was just practicing checking out characters, which is something I do too.

I’ve learned “Yong” for “forever” and “bei” for “North” and “nan” for “South”and “shwei” for school (well, I think re-learned, since Saturday Chinese school long long ago), and so forth this way.  The subway’s reinforced my spoken understanding of hospital as “ing ren” although I still don’t really have any sort of character recognition of it.

I’ve just spent the evening playing with my shu fa set– three rather wimpy brushes (very bad springiness factor), an ink stone (that smells the way I remember an ink stone should when my mother and I used to practice on the dining room table), and a little stone well, felt, etc.  Reviewed my bo, po, mo, fo, and remembered how difficult it is to figure out getting the right consistency of ink, etc.  Even though there is the aforementioned wimpy nature to my brushes, they can still (with some glares) manage to make lovely lines on a rather inconsistent basis.  As I seem to retain the memory of my mother’s kitchen table lessons of Chinese characters with the set that Bwe-E (my artist aunt) gave us, better than the pencilled practice I did as a child (well, granted that was much longer ago), I’m trying to practice writing with brushes.

I invested in a packet of soak-up sheets of paper, too.  They are grey-colored with an orange grid, and are simply used with a water-wet brush.  The strokes evaporate away in minutes, and then they can be used over again.  I wish there was an equivalent for pen.  My journal could be much more interesting, and leave no traces…

All this practice tonight is merely built-up guilt too, since I haven’t been particularly observant of my studying.  I’d like to blame teacher-parent conferences, but it’s not entirely their fault.  After all, I’ve seem to have committed to honing my knowledge of crappy cable TV.  I’ve just pasted bo po mo fo over the screen of the television.  Perhaps this will re-channel my efforts when temptation strikes?

Free Rice

September 2019
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