Archive for June, 2007

zao gao characters Meaning: Literally, “messy cake.” Figuratively, “darn.”

Why I like this word: Come on. Obviously, it is completely awesome that “messy cake” means “darn” (and not just because I like most things that involve cake). I originally thought I should start out with a basic word like “I” or “you,” because that’s what Chinese-language students start with. But I realized that anyone reading this would be much more likely to use an exclamation such as zāo gāo. Admittedly the characters are somewhat complicated, but the word is relatively easy to say, and it’s a lot of fun.

If you want to see the etymology of the characters, you can click on these: . The one for “cake” is pretty neat. It’s a combination of the character for “rice” and the character for “lamb,” because cake is rice made soft like lamb’s wool. (Oh. Yeah. Welcome to the strangely enjoyable hell that is learning Chinese characters.)

Pronunciation: Both syllables are said in Mandarin’s first tone, which is sort of like singing. Click on the link below to hear me say it in my horrible American accent, if you’d like.

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So, I’m just starting to look at the China Daily (the state-run English-language newspaper) on a semi-regular basis. China’s media are reporting on “industrial raw materials” found in food, as well as closures of food-processing plants. Today’s story mentions that 180 plants — out of about a million — have been shut down. It doesn’t mention how many have been checked. But perhaps I should avoid eating “flour, candy, pickles, biscuits, black fungus, melon seeds, bean curd and seafood.”

Another story today discusses deaths in China caused by recent storms. This seemed like a normal — albeit sad — story, until I got to the part about 37 people being killed by lightning strikes in eastern China. In less than a week. Now, I know eastern China has a lot of people. And a lot of these people work in open fields. But 37 people being killed by lightning strikes? In a short span of time? I can’t get my mind around it.

Just to keep you updated on the blogging conditions in China: They’re nearly impossible. Access was spotty even before I moved into the dormitory in Beijing, and once I got onto campus, things became even more difficult. Firewalls at Chinese universities are more strict than those in China as a whole, I hear. I’ve been blocked from accessing any blogging services – and from accessing any blogs hosted by those services. The firewall even blocks I Can Has Cheezburger?, which as you can imagine was quite devastating for me. Oh, and of course it blocks my site.

So how do bloggers blog from China? Often, it’s via something called an onion router. Basically, this connects you to a network of foreign servers that in turn connect you to the content you want. The computer you’re connected to is always changing, so Google might show up as Google France one minute and German Google the next. All in all, it’s quite handy, but excruciatingly slow.

If you want to know more about China’s firewall, Human Rights Watch has a good overview.

peach with a character on it After stopping by Tiananmen Square and a several parks in the past week, a few days ago I had my biggest adventure: the grocery store. The coolest thing I found: The Chinese might be taking the chemicals people use to artificially ripen fruit and having fun with them. The nectarine in the photo on the left has the word for “longevity” on it, through some magical process that may or may not involve actual sunlight. Is it awesome, or is it a creepy reminder of what’s on our food? You decide.

The grocery store also provides us with exhibit No. 1 in my Reasons Non-Chinese Speakers Should Not Get Chinese Tattoos. This store, Ito Yokado, helpfully has signs in English as well as Chinese. I really appreciate this effort. But translating between such vastly different languages is tough. Case in point: “The songis strange.” True, the first symbol of the Chinese word means “song,” and the second symbol is the first syllable for “strange.” But together, these are pronounced “qū qí” and mean “cookies.”

sign in grocery storeNow, if such a simple word as “cookies” leads to this sort of problem, I don’t even want to contemplate the ridiculousness that results when people try to write complicated concepts such as “peacefulness” or “fabulous warrior” or whatever Chinese words people are writing on themselves these days. Other examples of such “Chinglish” at the grocery store include “using in babies” (diapers) and “carbonic acid beverage” (which I will henceforth use to refer to soda).

I’ve been watching a lot of Chinese TV since I arrived here. And I have to say, I’m addicted to one particular soap opera that runs every evening. It’s called “Hong Kong Sisters” and is supposedly meant to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to mainland China. Basically, it follows the lives of two best friends — we’ll call them Hotel Girl and Actress Girl — in Hong Kong over the past decade. As it stands now, Actress Girl has landed a role in a movie and is about to become a starlet. But in the process, she has become a bit of a jerkface, using people and even lying to her best friend, Hotel Girl. Hotel Girl, meanwhile, is … well, she’s working in a hotel. She’s also facing a decision between Hot, Cocky Son of Hotel Owner and Lovable Hotel Employee Boy.

Verdict: awesome.

So, the first thing I noticed when I logged on to this site from China was a neat row of squares with red Xs where my Flickr photos used to be. At first I thought it was just a slow Internet connection, but then I realized … Flickr’s image servers are being blocked here. I can get to the Flickr site, but photos themselves don’t show up.

I’m not surprised that I can’t get access to sites about the Tiananmen Square protests. I wasn’t even surprised that all Blogspot blogs appear to be blocked (although that’s actually quite inconvenient, given that information about my program was being posted at a blogspot address). But nice, sweet little Flickr? What has it ever done to anyone? Well, according to one site it has played host to some photos about a recent protest in Xiamen, so that could have angered some people. But I’m able to access other news about the protest. The Boston Globe says the crackdown came after photos of the Tiananmen massacre showed up on Flickr. But I can see those on a Google Image Search. So I really don’t know.

I’m staying with a host family until Friday, when I move into a dorm. I asked them about sites being blocked, but they didn’t seem terribly concerned. They told me I should “try again tomorrow.” I can’t tell whether they really don’t notice the limitations on Web access, or whether they just don’t want to discuss it with a near-stranger. If they don’t know what they’re missing, I suppose it doesn’t matter to them.

Strangely, I don’t feel any moral outrage at the limitations on Web access. I knew sites were blocked before I came here, so it would be silly for me to get in a tizzy about it at this point. It’s an annoyance more than anything else — but only because I know I’ll be able to see all the Flickr photos I want to see when I go back home.

Chart of Headline FrequencyA few people reading this blog may be chagrined at part of the title: the use of the words “in translation.”

See, one of my former coworkers has a theory that Sofia Coppola’s film “Lost in Translation” has been responsible for an intolerable increase in the use of the phrase in headlines. These headlines have become a running joke — and a source of much eye-rolling — at the Online Journal. To test the theory, I counted the number of times the phrase “lost in translation” appeared in headlines in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Not only has there been an increase in usage, especially at the Journal, but it really does appear to coincide with the film’s release in the fall of 2003.

You may think the spike is simply a result of articles that discuss the film. But you would be wrong! I didn’t count any of the stories or reviews that referred to the film itself. No, it seems that the film brought the phrase to the forefront of editors’ minds, and they started using “in translation” more frequently in headlines. Sure, we’re getting only a handful of these headlines a year, but that doesn’t include variations such as “Found in Translation,” which the Journal used recently.

At any rate, I hereby call for a moratorium on the use of this cliché in headlines — except, of course, when it’s done knowingly, as it is in this blog.

Wondering what those Chinese symbols in this blog’s title represent? As you may have guessed from the rest of the title, it’s my name in translation. Well, sort of.

European names don’t necessarily translate well into Chinese. Our names use different sounds — and they tend to have a lot more syllables. My American name, Jennifer Valentino, has seven. Most Chinese names have three. It would be a real pain for a Chinese person to pronounce my regular name. And, given that each syllable is represented by a character, it would be a pain to write as well.

When I first started studying Mandarin, our teachers assigned us names that were based on our American names but that sounded good in Chinese. Mine is 樊珍婷, or Fán Zhēn Tíng. To hear how this is pronounced, you can click on the audio link below. (Flash Player is required.)

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The first syllable of my name, Fán, is a Chinese surname that, according to my online dictionary, also means “caught in a hedge.” The second syllable means “precious” or “treasure” and is pronounced a lot like “Jen,” which is convenient. The final syllable means “graceful.” Really, it’s a pretty good description of me: graceful, precious and caught in a hedge.

You can get your own Chinese name here.

(If you’re having trouble seeing the symbols at all, you may need to change your browser’s encoding or add the relevant font. If you have a Mac, take a look at this very helpful site. Help for Windows machines is here.)