Maria Holland

Fire Bird

In Uncategorized on November 26, 2014 at 3:59 am

‘Turkey’ remains my favorite example of the importance of context in language.  No matter how good your grammar and vocabulary, no matter how perfect your tones – you may still have problems.  The year I lived in Xiamen, I had grandiose visions of hosting a Thanksgiving dinner true to Thanksgiving’s intercultural-sharing-of-food roots.  I wanted to buy a turkey and have one of my favorite Chinese restaurants prepare it.  Kung-pao turkey, perhaps?  Curkey (turkey + curry)?  I was up for anything.

When I was met with confusion, I thought I was pronouncing it wrong.  Instead I discovered that turkey (火鸡) and lighter (火机) are pronounced exactly the same (hǔojī).  (It may have also been complicated by the fact that turkeys are native to North America and far from common in China.  But the language thing didn’t help.)

Anyway, as I’ve told this story before, what I really wanted to touch on is the word ‘turkey’.  I read an interesting article on Slate today, “What’s the Word for Turkey in Turkish?”.  (Very interesting, and I encourage you to look at it.)  They list the word for ‘turkey’ in many different languages, including Abkhazian, Nahuatl, Icelandic, Armenian, Malay, and Lithuanian – but not China!

So here you go: the Chinese word for ‘turkey’ is 火鸡, or “fire bird”.  Not totally sure why, but when we draw them we do always depict them with fire-like colors, right?


(The wikipedia article they link to says 七面鸡, or ‘7 faced bird’ is another term, but a quick survey of the six Chinese speakers we had over for Friendsgiving today showed no basis for that.)


Thanks, Obama

In Uncategorized on November 12, 2014 at 4:07 pm

China has been very much on my mind recently.  I’m applying for a grant from the National Science Foundation to do research in China next summer.  The program is called EAPSI and it would be an amazing opportunity for me, to turn my past experiences in China into real research experience abroad and international professional contacts.

With the help of my advisor at Stanford, I made contact with a professor in the Department of Engineering Mechanics at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and we discussed a few possible questions relating both to my work and his.  He’s an expert on the wrinkling and buckling of soft films, and I study the development of the brain (which is essentially layers of soft tissues), so it’s a really good match.

Anyway, I spent last week reading a lot of papers and writing the 5-page project proposal, because I had told my potential host that I would send it to him by Friday.  I clicked ‘send’ at 5:30 and allowed myself to forget about it for the weekend.

But come Monday . . . and then Tuesday . . . I hadn’t heard from him.  This professor had been extremely gracious and prompt in all of his previous replies, so I was concerned.  A follow-up message that I sent last night was returned to my inbox, undelivered – on all four attempts! – at which point I started to legitimately panic.  The proposal is due Thursday at 5pm and I needed him to review the proposal.

Fortunately, about an hour later I received a response from him:

I have received your proposal, which is excellent. For more details, we may discuss later.
Sorry for having not replied you earlier since we have been in a one-week holiday.

I immediately felt stupid.  Of course, it was a Chinese holiday!  . . . Wait.  It’s mid-November.  What holiday was this??  I know that 11/11 is Singles’ Day in China, but it’s essentially like China’s Black Friday, not occasion for a week of vacation.  I asked my roommate (a Masters student from Zhejiang) and she verified this.  Maybe he was at home for a week shopping online?  I deemed that unlikely.

But at any rate, the crisis was averted and the proposal was approved, so it didn’t really matter.

Then today I took a break from preparing some of the supplementary documents to catch up on some news.  I had seen headlines about President Obama’s visit to China and the agreement on climate change, but didn’t know anything beyond that.  Going to the bottom of my “to-do” pile, I came across this article (In Beijing, Clearer Views Hid Real Life):

. . . The ban on burned offerings was one of a cascade of government orders, from the draconian and sweeping to the picayune and puzzling, aimed at reducing air pollution and securing azure skies when government leaders meet in Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which began Wednesday and runs through Tuesday.

Determined to offer visiting heads of government, including President Obama, a cleaner, emptier version of China’s capital, where the air is often dirty and the streets always full, the authorities have ordered dozens of temporary changes that are upending people’s lives and dampening commerce, affecting activities like marrying, driving, eating and mourning the dead. . . .

The government has also tried to shed some of the city’s 21 million people, declaring an APEC Golden Week, a six-day vacation modeled on the Golden Week public officials get each year around National Day in early October. Public schools have been closed, work has been halted on construction sites, and public services such as issuing marriage licenses and passports have been suspended.

Cue hysterical laughter.  The university (and much of the city, apparently) were shut down for a week-long “holiday” as part of the attempt to clear up the air for Obama’s visit.  Thanks, Obama.

It’s things like this that make China so exciting – frustrating, yes – and intriguing to me.  Can’t wait to adventure back.

Thoughts on Mark Zuckerberg’s Mandarin Interview

In Uncategorized on October 26, 2014 at 12:03 am

Okay, so recently my internet has been going crazy over this interview that Mark Zuckerberg did at Tsinghua University in Beijing, in Chinese.  (I say “my internet” because I’m sure that there are people who have not heard about this, but when you know as many Chinese language learners as I do, it’s unavoidable.)  Reactions ranged from the clickbait headline “Of Course Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Fluent Mandarin” (courtesy of Mashable, so no surprise) to the much harsher “Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Mandarin Like a Seven-Year-Old”.  My feelings are . . . mixed.

When I first watched the video, I’m not gonna lie – I cringed a bit.  It’s probably easier for us foreign language learners to understand bad Chinese because we remember the not-so-distant past when we sounded exactly like that (“What, tones are a thing?”), but it’s also more grating because it’s like a reminder of our own imperfections, but glaringly obvious because they’re displayed by a stranger that we are more willing to criticize than ourselves.  In fact, the whole interview is like watching someone demonstrate some of the most significant impressions I have of my language learning process:

First of all, it’s almost too much to say his tones are bad, because he almost doesn’t seem to be trying to do tones.  (Oh man, do I remember this stage of my Chinese!)  His pronunciation (clearly has not figured out the ü sound, or the difference between “q” and “ch”, etc.) is also pretty painful to listen to – but probably partially because I remember the summer when I lived on the farm and had no idea there was a difference between 去 (qu) and 出 (chu).  BUT! He demonstrates, exactly as I remember, that – given an understanding audience – it is perfectly possible to carry on a conversation without tones and with terrible pronunciation.  Charity covers a magnitude of sins!

The reaction of the crowd is 100% what I would have expected in such a scenario – going crazy over the smallest sentence that this white guy strings together.  If you watch nothing else, watch the first 20 seconds, in which Mark says “Hello, everyone” and nearly gets a standing ovation for it.  One of the first things I learned in Chinese was that whatever the other person said after I said my first sentence was inevitably some variation on “your Chinese is so good”/“wow, you speak so well”/“how long have you been learning?”/“incredible!”.  I maintain that the enthusiasm and encouragement of Chinese people is the single biggest factor in making Chinese possible – rather, easy! – to learn.

Another thing that was familiar was his sheepish grin when you’re not sure if they’re laughing at what you said or how you said it.  Story of my LIFE in China.

One thing that was unfamiliar to me was his vastly superior knowledge of start-up and social media-related terms.  In many ways, beginner Chinese is beginner Chinese – but at the same time, there’s a subset of the initial vocabulary that is (and should be!) highly influenced by your reasons for learning the language, by the circumstances of your life.  My Dutch friends knew how to talk about the European Union and dikes; my Israeli friend who is now a taiji teacher in Jerusalem knows a wealth of martial arts terms.  I started out with a strong construction- and sustainable-energy-related vocabulary, which later expanded to include a good dose of Catholic theology, just because that’s what I needed.

So, speaking from a place of compassion, realizing that my days of terrible Chinese are not as far in the past as I would like, and that my decent Chinese is not as good as I would like, I don’t share the sentiments behind either headline.  My problem with the first headline, calling him fluent, is that such a headline sets up people like me (who know something about Chinese) up for disappointment, when the interview actually is impressive on some level.  If it had been billeted as “Mark Zuckerberg conducts an interview in Chinese”, my expectations and reality would have been much more aligned and I would have been more impressed than disappointed.  The second headline rubs me the wrong way because, in my years of studying and using Chinese, I have recieved nothing but encouragement from Chinese speakers, and I ackowledge that it has been crucial to my continued study.

As foreign speakers of Chinese, many Westerners seem to think that what we’re doing is basically impossible and we’re freaks of nature.  The truth is, there are not enough people who visibly speak imperfect Chinese.  There are millions of us who do this on a regular basis in our everday lives, but a famous person conducting an extensive interview and recording it for the internet?  To me, this showed two things: Chinese is not impossible to learn, and (because?) “fluency” is not necessary in order to communicate.  These are the two things that I try to impress upon people who ask me about learning Chinese (or, more often, try to convince me that it is impossible and anything less than fluency will result in me regularly insulting people’s mothers).

Mark also comments on his listening comprehension, saying that his wife Priscilla (a Chinese-American) has better listening comprehension than him.  But I think this is almost a universal sentiment among Chinese language learners.  I personally remember learning the word for “why?” very early on, and promptly filing it away for some time in the very distant future; I could ask the questions I wanted to ask, but the chance of me understanding anything of the answer was essentially nil.  So I totally sympathized with him when someone in the audience asked a question and he clearly had no clue what she had asked.  I could see the simultaneous relief and “you’ve got to be kidding me” in his eyes when she tried again in English:

“How did facebook establish the competitive edge towards other early social network sites, and what’s the biggest challenge?  And the second question is, at what moment did you get a leap of faith and decided to leave the school and devote [something I couldn’t understand even in English]?”

Oh man.  The limits of your Chinese are established at moments like this – not when answering softball questions like “What’s your favorite Chinese food?” and “Why did you want to learn Chinese?”  But I guess it seems to me, this question came after 21 minutes of conversation in Chinese (broken only by some English pause words), and that is an achievement in his own right.  Fluent?  Hell no.  (Like anyone knows what that means, anyway!)  The most prominent exhibition I’ve ever seen of the principles of “speak the damn language” and “Chinese is not impossible”?  For sure.

One last comment: I laughed out loud when I read an International Business Times article about the interview (Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Chinese ‘Like a 7-Year-Old With a Mouth Full of Marbles’).  After criticizing his Chinese, and attributing all the positive comments to English speakers, they say that Mandarin speakers have been less complimentary – namely, this one guy:

厉害 means something like powerful, intense, strong.  You can use it to describe a terrible stomach-ache (我的肚子疼得很厉害), for instance . . . but the hilarious thing here is that it’s usually used to mean “awesome” or “impressive”.  So . . . the people criticizing Mark Zuckerberg’s Chinese rely on Bing’s translation to make a mistake a first year student would make?  Now that’s embarrassing.


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