Show Mercy to the Slender Grass

I’m going to China… The thought is sinking in…

Mostly because it’s true, but also because it’s happening soon (3+ weeks), and I have so much to do before I go…

Empty an apartment, get rid of furniture, box the remaining books, and figure out what to do with the bits of a/v cable, stacked data CDs, (curiously but indecipherably scribbled on in permanant marker), audio tapes scattered under a cabinet, clothes I won’t wear for 4 months, or maybe a year…

In a short time, this and all manner of flim-flam will hit the Goodwill, sidewalk, or, (with alligator tears)…the garbage.

Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, and environs. And then into Japan, for a couple of weeks. (C’est cher la bas).

I’ve been exposing my ears and mind to the sound of Mandarin. Ni Hao, back atcha.

Chinese: Four words out of one syllable: Ma, ma, ma and ma. One like a sigh, one a statement, and two as questions expecting very different answers.

Sound developed into patterned meaning…I find it remarkable. What a language – What a sense of organization and subtlety – What a remarkable creation it is.

I, who like Latin and German, love Italian, speak French with reasonable dexterity (but think it sounds mucousy just the same), am awed by the major language of China, for the fact that it creates meaning out of the music of the voice…

Aural structure codified into patterns so distinct as to render the sound of a word as important as the glyph itself.

Not in improvisation, like our many subtle (and bold) lingual jests and moods – Sarcasm, Sympathy, Compassion, Cynicism, Sincerity – all made available in to us with a turn of the sound of a syllable:

What? What! What? …what. whaa—aaat…

The corkscrewing of vowels into a multiplicity of intentions…

Sure. suuuure… Sure? shuuure.

You? You. You! youuuu….

But in Mandarin, from one word, four meanings. Not four subtle meanings….but four precisely different meanings:

  • mā – mother
  • má – hemp
  • mă – horse
  • mà – scold, abuse

And then, at the end of a sentence, as a question particle:

ma? – huh?

Ni hao ma?How you be?

Nin hao ma? – How you be, sir?

Hi, How are you? Your mother is a horse, do you serve vegetarians?

A few more, for practice:

  • yān – cigarette
  • yán – speech
  • yăn – cover
  • yà n – wild goose

And the always necessary:

  • Nín yŏu…? Nímen yŏu…? – Do you have?

Hi, how are you? Do you have any wild goose?

And the question you ask that you will not understand the answer to:

Năli yŏu – Where is…?

Where is the brown rice, everybody?

And how does it sound?

I like Rough Guides for providing some tutelage for free. (but I buy “Living Language” – uninterrupted by English, it lets the sounds sink in).

So, a few weeks until China…then Japan. Soooo desu.

Then back to the West Coast man, then on and on and on…Hopefully to Russia and its liberated states by late summer, to see if I can discover what my Lithuanian roots might tell (and why that side of the family never talks about them.)

But so much to do before I go. Or, maybe not, maybe I’ll let it slide, and let the Mandarin seep into my auditory banks…

And then, for fun, a few clips from an article in last Monday’s Wall Street Journal.

“Tired of laughter, Beijing gets Rid of Bad Translations”

by Mei Fong

For years, foreigners in China have delighted in the loopy English translations that appear on the nation’s signs. They range from the offensive (“Deformed Man,” outside toilets for the handicapped) to the sublime (on park lawns, “Show Mercy to the slender Grass”).

Last week, Beijing city officials unveiled a plan to stop the laughter. With hordes of foreign visitors expected in town for the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing wants to cleanse its signs of translation nonsense. For the next eight months, 10 teams of linguistic monitors will patrol the city’s parks, museums, subway stations and other public places searching for gaffes to fix.

Already, fans of the genre are mourning the end of an era, and some Web sites dedicated to it have seen traffic spike. The bewildering signs were “one of the great things we want to show people visiting us,” says financial services consultant Josh Kurtzig, a Washington native who lives in Beijing. Correcting them is “really taking away one of the joys of Chins.”

Stuck in Beijing traffic recently, Mr. Kurtzig noticed workers replacing one of the classics: ”(Dongda Hospital for Anus and Intestine Disease Beijing*.” The new sign: “Hospital of Proctology.”

He grabbed his Blackberry [oy] and emailed the news to friends around the globe. Their reactions, he says, were swift, and mostly unfavorable. “Nooooooooooooo,” read an email from one friend.

More fun at