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avant-garde_chauvintist wandering through the garden of ideals

A Lesson in Chinese

CHINA | Monday, 24 September 2007 | Views [551]

So far my Chinese lessons have been trying to communicate with street vendors, ticket takers, and random people who I ask for directions. I know the numbers, directions (north, south, east, west), how to ask how much something is, thank you, hello, and how are you. Oh, and how to ask for the bill in a resturant. That's basically it.

But my students' little discourses between my shouting in English at 40 college freshman has helped me learn a little. For instance, the word for "this" is zhe ge. It's pronounced jigga. Perhaps J-Z had a little visit to the PRC before writing his inspirational, chart topping hit.

And the struggles of learning a foreign language have helped me realize less important things about normal conversation. When I was teaching in Dongyang, the students would always say this one word before starting in English. I didn't know what it meant, but it made my head turn every time. I later learned it essentially means "ummm."

So why did this seemingly innocent word make my head turn? Well, it rhymes with zhe ge, but it starts with an N. I'll let that sink in.

Yep. These little Chinese kids had no idea how offensive their space filling word has the potential to be. Needless to say, I don't think I'll pick up the habbit of saying ummm in Chinese conversation.

Another thing I've found interesting about learning Chinese is that there is only one word for he and she. This is why in my first days in China I was confused about who the other teacher in Dongyang was. Frank (whose English is very good) was telling me about Heather, and Mr. Li (whose English is not so good) was telling me about him. I later learned this is a common mistake because of the structure of their pronouns.

The context of this seems very progressive. Almost as if the Chinese have eliminated the gendered confusion that our language sometimes induces. But it's weird to find such language progression in a society that, until very recently, commonly practiced selective abortion so the one child a family can have would be a boy. The society is so misogynistic, in fact, that there are about 17 million men of marrying age who will never find wives because of the preference for boys.

This place is endlessly fascinating.

Tags: Work

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