Maria Holland

Archive for November, 2014|Monthly archive page

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.