amw (amw) wrote,


全世界无产者联合起来 (quán shì jiè wú chǎn zhě lián hé qǐ lai)! Or, as my Chinese/English dictionary translates it: Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch!

This is one of my favorite Chinese phrases, not just because of the meaning, but also because it has a good rhythm and sounds nice. 全世界 means "whole world". 无产者 means "ones without property". 联合 means "unite". 起来 is one of those great little Chinese constructs you can tack onto the end of another verb to make it more active. It literally means "get up", but attached to another verb it means to kick off the process, or to get it moving. This is where the phrase loses something in back-translation - in China it's not just about uniting the proletariat of the world, it's about kickstarting the revolution!

全世界无产者联合起来! Happy Labor Day.

Something my Chinese teachers tried to explain to me last year was that Chinese people like to make every word into two syllables/characters, even when it's not strictly necessary. I didn't really understand it at the time. I guess I just assumed it was some kind of poetic thing, like trying to make your sentence always have nice symmetrical groups of syllables. While there is some truth to that - the Chinese do really get a kick out of expressing things with a nice meter - coming up on 11 months in Greater China, I am realizing it's also critical in verbal communication.

See, when you are first taught Chinese you just learn one of the characters and assume that's the only way to say the thing. Then you get frustrated people can't understand you. But what you don't realize at that point is that even if you perfectly nailed the tone and pronunciation (which you almost certainly didn't) there are a half-dozen more characters that have exactly the same tone and pronunciation, so how is the listener to know? In written Chinese that doesn't matter too much because you can just read it, but in spoken Putonghua adding a second character with a related meaning is a great way to give a bit more of a hint as to what you're actually trying to convey.

Just to make things confusing, that also works in reverse. When you have a 4-character word, it's not uncommon to abbreviate it by removing one "unnecessary" character from each 2-character word to create a new 2-character word. One of the first ones you have to deal with when you arrive in the country is 体格检查 (tǐ gé jiǎn chá). It loosely means "body frame check". So, your physical. But no local ever actually says 体格检查. They say 体检, which also means "body check". As a foreigner, though, if you just say 体检 without any context, no one will know what you're talking about. But when you say 体格检查, there are twice as many hints, so they might get an inkling of your intent.

Given all of this, it feels like a goddamn miracle when you use an abbreviation and somebody actually understands what you said. That happened to me this week. I can't even remember the abbreviation I used any more, but I felt grand. Briefly. Because a beat later, I said something else and received that bemused look again.

Chinese is a pain in the ass. But it's nice to get even a speck of a reminder that despite the fact I haven't been to a proper lesson in months, and at work I don't speak a word, I am still progressing little by little. Every day I do about 300 flash cards, I talk to myself a lot, and I try to eavesdrop on strangers. It ain't much, but it's something.

Occasionally I watch a show.

I still haven't finished 中国有嘻哈 (zhōng guó yǒu xī hā), a surprise hit reality show from last year to find China's next top rapper. Hip-hop started trending nationwide for a few months until the Party put the kibosh on it because youngsters rapping about thug life isn't promoting core socialist values. This year iQiyi (Chinese Netflix) is trying to reproduce that success with a possibly-less-controversial street dance reality show called 热血街舞团 (rè xuè jiē wǔ tuán). This weekend I watched half an episode then got bamboozled when it suddenly turned into some kind of giant robot live action Transformers thing right in the middle of the dance-off. Fucking Chinese television, man.

Admittedly i would probably find a scripted show that exclusively focused on giant robots more compelling, but thanks to the Party's efforts at trying to get everyone in the country to speak the same language, it appears most scripted shows have this wack Beijing accent that - although technically correct - sounds douchey as fuck when you live down here in the south. Nobody talks that way. I think even the yankee migrants lose their most rhotic affectations quicksmart because they don't want to sound like prats. At least reality TV showcases a mix of terrible southern accents, which is far more useful for me.

Though, I gotta tell ya. Most days I am so done after work, television in another language is too much. It's all I can do just to read the subtitles in The Americans, fer chrissakes.

Anywho, that was my language ramble for the day.
Tags: china, tv

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