How to scandalize your Chinese neighbours: Evil stepmother edition

Brace yourself; we’re going down the cross-cultural rabbit hole.

China’s Good Samaritan Exception

As you may have heard, Mainland Chinese are (in)famous for not being Good Samaritans; they really don’t want to get entangled in some other family’s problems. Domestic abuse, public medical emergencies, blatant pickpocketing — if it’s not their family, it’s not their problem, and it’s too risky to get involved anyway. But I’ve found an exception to this rule: our kids.

What happened yesterday is a prime example. Jessica took the girls to play outside while I was teaching. It was pushing 34’C and neighbour kids were playing in some water on the sidewalk and invited ours to play. Scandal ensued.

Pop Quiz: Spot the Scandal

Now, Chinese culture pop quiz: Why is this stranger grabbing our kid?

There are clues in the photo. But there’s nothing special about the water (the pipe delivering potable water to the building sprung a leak, so free clean water!) or the ground; it’s just kids playing in water on the sidewalk. But if China had a Child Protective Services and Chinese people cared to use it, they’d consider calling it on account of our horrible parenting on display in this picture.

The parents and grandparents (not all the kids & caregivers are pictured) were visibly disturbed and provoked to intervene more than once when Jessica didn’t stop K, our youngest, from sitting down on the wet sidewalk. They’d try to stand her up, and she’d just give them a look and sit back down (notice the stools in the picture). And of course they hassled Jessica about it. According to our language tutor, if a Chinese person let her kid play this way, neighbours would gossip that she can’t be the biological mother (妈妈), that she must be a stepmother (后妈后娘) because only an uncaring non-relative would let a kid do that. “She just doesn’t look after her!” (不怎么) is what they actually said in front of Jessica.

Oh, I… see.

Of course, Jessica asked questions to get them to explain. She knows a good educational entertainment opportunity when she sees it.

Jessica: “What’s the matter with her sitting down?”

Neighbours (looking like Jessica has three heads): “Dampness! Moistness!” ( / 湿)

Jessica: “So? What will happen?”

Neighbours: “She’ll get sick!” (得病)

Jessica: “You mean she’ll get a cold?”

Neighbours: “No!”

Jessica: “Then what sickness?”

Neighbours: “Her bones will get sore.” Then they quickly discuss what the proper term is, and say: “Rheumatism!” (风湿症)

As with a great many of the stark, mutually-appalling Chinese v. North American parenting differences, this one is rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). By TCM I mean the health theory (学术理论中医学)), not Chinese herbs (中药) like ginseng or specific applications (具体应用) like acupuncture (针灸), guasha (刮痧), or fire cupping (拔罐).

TCM is a fundamental given for the Chinese, part of their basic fabric of reality. And it’s so deeply culturally determined that it’s virtually incomprehensible to Westerners. (Fun game: If you want to get yourself patronized like a silly little child, go explain to a Chinese friend how TCM is make-believe and inferior to Western medical science.) But I won’t let a little thing like that stop me from trying to explain! :)

The problem is, according to the popular TCM understanding of our neighbours and of our sharp and foreigner-accustomed language tutor (I could write several posts on the reasons she gives for her real or imagined ailments), if our daughter sits in the water on a bricked sidewalk, she’ll get Damp (). (Well, shoot dang! No kidding. She might get wet, too. Maybe even soaked!) But they don’t mean damp like what you’re thinking; it’s more like damp+. Being affected by Damp Air (潮气) is a particular TCM health condition; Damp involves but is not entirely reducible to the purely physical/material/scientifically investigate-able and explainable phenomenon we think of. Ditto for related TCM concepts like Cold () and Moist (湿) and Wind (), all of which can get into your body in some nonspecific unobservable way and give you future health problems. Maybe like cooties? With Chinese characteristics?

The fear is that because of the water and the material that bricks are made of, Cold Air (寒气) could get into our daughter’s body or bones (身体/骨骼). She would therefore “get/receive/be subjected to Cold” (受寒). This would cause her to get sick (得病), not in the sense of “catch a cold” (curious we say it that way, eh?), but in the specific sense that Cold entering her bones when she was almost 1-and-a-half-years-old will cause her to have rheumatism when she’s old.

Anyway, this little episode is interesting to me for a couple reasons: the TCM stuff, but also because it’s a situation in which normal Chinese people actually intervene on a regular basis. I wonder if us being foreigners makes them more or less willing to intervene like this.

More about being a bad parent in China:

About getting involved in other people’s business:

And about TCM:

Translation is about cultures, not just languages

Here’s something from the most bicultural person I know about translating from one culture to another, and how powerful meaning is often “lost in translation” even with when the translation is ‘correct’.

“In order to translate with integrity, one must transfer the concepts, worldview, values and history from one cultural framework to the other…I often encounter words in English I can’t translate to Chinese and vice versa…The word “fun” is inexplicably difficult…The value American culture places on entertainment and “having fun” just does not translate into Chinese culture I hate to break it to my foreigner friends, but sometimes what you think are fun, whimsical behaviour are viewed as ridiculous childishness precisely because of this disconnect in cultural difference…

“An example of a Chinese word which does not find an easy equivalent in English is the word “陪“ (pei, pronounced “pay”)….When a Chinese person says, “wo pei ni” or “ni pei wo” (I accompany you, or you accompany me), the implied understanding is a mutual need for each other. This is a spirit which is easily dismissed in American culture where value is found in independence, and needing company is a sign of weakness…

“Yet in my life journey of interweaving cultural paths, I am rediscovering the beauty of this Chinese value. I am a firm believer…that God is already at work in every culture, and I believe he placed this gem of truth inside the Chinese language to reveal a foundational element of the Gospel…

“The truth of the Gospel is God “pei” us through this battle of life. And He asks us to “pei” each other. No more walls of hostility, no more judgment. No more lies of individual strength, no more isolation. Our fears are meant to be overcome in community, not on our own. Our needing others is a sign of strength, not weakness. We become heroes in our life stories not because of our own resilience and might, but because of our utter reliance on each other.”

The Untranslatable (TCM translation fail)

So I unwisely agreed to “translate” an interview with a Chinese doctor for the magazine this month. Translating simple Chinese about normal everyday topics — fine, no problem, especially with dictionary tools and Chinese coworkers on hand. But a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine talking TCM-speak about how to stay healthy in the summer? Not a chance. Half of what he said doesn’t make one lick of sense in English and they weren’t paying me near enough to justify sweating too much over it anyway. But I want to share one section because it’s a great example of how translation involves much more than words and grammar; translation involves culture, and culturally-defined and culture-bound ideas.

No matter how skilled the linguist is (and I’m not claiming to be skilled or a linguist… or a translator, for that matter), some things simply will not make sense in another language; some things cannot be conveyed outside their native cultural-linguistic context. In order to make the translation have any actual meaning that approximates that of the original, you’d have write paragraphs for each sentence explaining the underlying philosophical assumptions and worldview differences. And even the long explanations still don’t make much sense because they’re talking outside of the worldview of the language that they’re written in.

Here’s part of what I translated:

On Summer Nights Avoid Wind Like You’d Avoid Arrows
Cool wind blowing on summer nights and feels really comfortable, making the night not as hard to bear. Thus, a lot of people sleep with the windows open, and even move their beds to the hallway where it’s drafty. A proverb says, “On summer nights avoid wind as if it were arrows”; pathogenic wind can cause many kinds of ailments. In the summer the body’s skin pores expand, and after we fall asleep our immune resistance drops. Additionally, in the latter half of the night the wind is colder, and at this time it’s extremely easy for the body to suffer an invasion of pathogenic wind. Getting wind can lead to a heat cold, facial paralysis, joint pain, sciatic nerve pain, shoulder inflammation, stomach pain, diarrhea, etc. Therefore one should enjoy the cool air in limited amounts and put a blanked over one’s abdomen before sleeping. It’s inadvisable to choose to stay in a drafty room, and one can’t just spread a summer sleeping mat and sleep on a cement floor.

Here’s the Chinese:


“Wind” in Chinese medicine, for example, is very different from what we think of when we say wind in English. Wind (English) still counts as “wind” (TCM), but not vice versa. “Pathogenic wind” and capitalizing “Wind” are two attempts I’ve seen to indicate TCM’s Wind in English. That’s how it goes with much of TCM’s terminology. For example, here’s how the book for explaining TCM to Westerns puts it:

Obviously, the Blood of Chinese medical terminology is not the same as what the West calls blood. Although it is sometimes identifiable with the red fluid of biomedicine, its characteristics and functions are not so identifiable.

Blood moves primarily through the Blood Vessels, but also through the Meridians. Chinese medicine does not make a clear distinction between Blood Vessels and Meridians. The Chinese rarely concern themselves about precise inner physical locations — the Stomach Qi “goes upward,” or the Blood “circulates,” but it is seldom entirely clear what internal paths they travel or where, precisely, they go. The physical pathway is less important than the function. This tendency not to fix sites for things is contrary to the Western approach, but it is inevitable with Chinese medical theorizing, which emphasizes process over fixed entities.

We just now had a big discussion in the office with my Chinese coworkers trying to figure out how to translate what I’ve rendered “heat cold” (热伤风) — they looked up a bunch of dictionaries and discussed it and came back with nothing (in TCM, the name of the cold depends on how it is caused, so summer colds and winter colds are different). But reading this interview and hearing my coworkers explain how you get “heat colds” makes me realize that there’s a whole lot more to Chinese people’s apparent fear of good air conditioning than just wanting to save a few bucks.

The article assignment was to give foreigners tips from traditional Chinese medical theory on how to be healthy in the summer. How would you present stuff like the above paragraph to foreigners? What other concepts have you found that are really hard to convey in another language?

Other traditional Chinese medicine stuff:

Chinglish fun: transliteration disasters

You realize just how related the Chinese and English languages aren’t when you come across transliterated words. Using Chinese syllables to pronounce English words often results in something completely unrecognizable and counterintuitive to native English speakers; we could never guess what the original English word was, and, if we’ve studied any Chinese ourselves, we often feel we could come up with alternative transliterations that make much more sense.

“Qiáo ěr” (乔尔) is “Joel”, for example, but “zhōu ōu” is one of a couple alternatives that sound closer to me. “Obama” is “ào bā mǎ” (奥巴马, like “ow! bama”) even though in Chinese you could easily transliterate the vowels almost exactly (“ōu bā mǎ” / 欧巴马). The other day one of my students did this in reverse as a joke. He held up a sign for me to read that said: “Pieces war found.” To a Chinese ear it sounds like “pì shì wǒ fàngde” (屁是我放的), which basically means, “I’m the one who farted.” They thought it was funny and so did I, but only because it requires a really bad Chinese accent to make the connection between those English words and that Chinese sentence. I doubt that a native English who’s never studied Chinese would be able to connect those dots.

Last night a Chinese friend showed me Chinese blog post of unintentionally funny English translations on Chinese signage that included this worksheet of a naughty elementary student. Apparently someone’s harbouring some negative feelings toward his or her English homework:

Not only are they trying to pronounce English with Chinese syllables, but rather than just use meaningless rough phonetic equivalents they deliberately chose certain characters to turn the English words into a Chinese joke (or at least vent some homework frustrations?):

  1. bus (bà sǐ / 爸死 / “dad is dead”)
  2. yes (yé sǐ / 爷死 / “grandpa is dead”)
  3. girls (gē sǐ / 哥死 / “older brother is dead”)
  4. miss (mèi sǐ / 妹死 / “little sister is dead”)
  5. school (sǐ guāng / 死光 / “dead completely / die off”)
  6. pea (pì / 屁 / “fart”)
  7. yesterday (yē sǐ tā diē / 噎死他爹 / “Choke to death, his dad”)
  8. guess (gāi sǐ / 该死 / “should die” [This is how they usually translate swear words like “darn!” (but stronger) in movie subtitles.])
  9. dangerous (dān jiǎo lā shǐ / 单脚拉屎 / “stand on one foot, poop”)
  10. five (fèi wù / 废物 / “rubbish / useless (person)”)
  1. Hands,hands,two hands. I have two hands (hàn zǐ hàn zǐ, tōu hàn zǐ, ǎn hái lái tōu hàn zǐ / 汉子汉子偷汉子俺还来偷汉子 / “guy guy steal a guy [cheat on your husband], I’m still stealing a guy”)
  2. How are you. What is you name (hào ā yóu. wǒ sǐ yòu nèn / 耗啊油,我死又嫩)

The Chinese isn’t all correct and some is totally meaningless; he’s just cramming the characters into the English sounds. But you can see what he’s going for. Someone needs to give these kids a break, or a spanking…

Other Chinese education system stuff:

Force-feeding your neighbours infested Mandarin oranges

I stopped by the bike repair corner for lunch yesterday. I brought my own lunch, and figured I’d better bring something to share, since that’s usually how things work. Mandarin oranges — the kind we eat during Christmas in Vancouver — are really cheap right now, so I brought a bag.

Last time I tried to bring food to share with these guys I didn’t understand enough how to offer food to people in China, especially older people. Last time, no one touched the bowl of cherry tomatoes I’d brought, even though we played Chinese chess with a crowd for at least two hours. I talked it over with my teachers afterward, and it seems like I simply wasn’t forceful enough. You’re supposed to be really insistent and disregard their refusals to the point that they can take some without appearing greedy, or something like that. It’s supposed to look like they’re taking the food because they “have to,” at least that’s how the little daily social ritual goes. It’s hard for foreigners because we end up not knowing which refusals are genuine, and which ones are just for politeness sake.

All that to say, yesterday, with my bag of Mandarin oranges, I was determined to make them eat. Both Mr. Zhang and Mr. Lu were surprisingly resistant, but I didn’t care. And I wouldn’t let them eat just one, either. I think Mr. Zhang caved in first just to give me face, since I obviously wasn’t going to back down. I tossed him the second one so he had to take it. Once Mr. Zhang was stuck with one, he started telling Mr. Lu he ought to take one, which he did, but only ate half.

It was weird that they didn’t eat more; this time I definitely wasn’t too weak when offering. So as usual, I asked about it the next day in class. Turns out it has nothing to do with cultural differences blah blah blah. According to my teacher (and Mr. Lu, Mr. Zhang, and Mr. Guo, who I saw again this afternoon), there’s a melanine-sized national Mandarin orange scandal going on right now. “Everyone knows, except the foreigners,” says my teacher. No one could tell me the details, at least not in a way that I could understand, but apparently down south where they grow the oranges some sort of really tiny insect got into all the oranges and now people are afraid to eat them.

If I can’t see it, or can’t understand it because it’s in another language, it can’t hurt me, right?

Pretending to understand (and not fooling anyone)

Chinese is harder first thing in the morning.

It’s 8:30am on a holiday and we’re sleeping in. The phone rings. Nine times out of ten I’d just let it ring (my college roommate hated this), but this time for some reason I jump out of bed and answer it. It’s someone speaking Chinese. What are they saying? I can feel my heart rate thudding to compensate for my sudden leap-sprint out of the warm covers. I guess (correctly) that it’s one of our neighbour’s daughter-in-laws. She’s arranging a time to meet for something – I can’t tell what. Tuesday, 6pm? Right, got it. Ok. But all that other stuff she’s saying I don’t have a clue. I just woke up! My brain’s not in gear! I say ‘Ok, great, Tuesday, 6pm,’ just make sure I heard that part right, and we hang up. I assume it’s about going to the neighbour’s and making pizza and 饺子 because we’d all talked about that last time we were over there. So that’s what I tell Jessica the phone call was about. And that’s what we plan on.

Turns out it wasn’t at the neighbours’ or even with the neighbours. Their son’s family owns a DIY baking shop and because of our connection I’m writing a Thanksgiving article highlighting it for the local expat magazine’s November edition. They’d phoned to ask us out to dinner, I’d said yes, but Jessica and I were all set to show up at his parents’ place with pizza baking supplies.

The only reason we found out in time was because Jessica just happened to be taking some friends over to their store yesterday afternoon and mentioned looking forward to making pizza with them that night. The daughter-in-law made a confused face, and soon they were laughing about the mix up.

We went out last night to dinner at a cool restaurant called 1928, which recreates a Tianjin feel from that period, complete with traditional forms of entertainment popular in Tianjin. This of course meant me drinking with the boys at one end of the table; good thing there was tons of food and we were there for hours (maybe that’s part of the plan). It’s not a cheap place, and they bought us a gift as well. I’m relieved that so many of our foreign friends bought stuff at their store that afternoon, and that I’ve got the magazine article coming up, or I’d feel like we’re in some guanxi debt.

Negotiating rent in Chinglish – Round 2

The phone was ringing as I unlocked the front door and stepped inside. It was ‘Aunty Wang,’ and she wasn’t in the mood to make baby-talk with the not-so-cute foreigner. Jessica had answered the phone, and Auntie Wang tried to discuss the rent hike with her, but Jessica again made her ‘talk’ to me.

‘Aunty Wang': “We still want you to pay 1200.”

That is totally not fair. Plus, she’s talking really fast, and I hadn’t had time to prepare. I’m scrambling.

Me: “Last time you said 1100.”

A.W.: “Oh, well-“[long string of fast Chinese that I can’t catch involving babies and other people who love paying 1200, but the general gist of it all, after I remind her again that they’d already come down to 1100, was that they’ll settle for 1100].

Me: “We discussed it while we were waiting for you to phone us, and we feel we can pay 1050.”

That is true. Prices are going up, and we feel 1050 was OK, with strings attached…

A.W.: [Something long and fast about forget 1050 and remember the babies that like to pay 1200 and perhaps might be ready to move in so we’re talking about 1100.]

I tell her to hold on a second, and I quickly discuss the next move in English with Jessica.

Me: “OK. We have a list. Some problems. We can pay 1100 after those all get fixed.”

Aunty Wang doesn’t sound impressed.

A.W.: “What are the problems?”

(This is the part where we try to make them pay for raising our rent.)

Me: “The first problem, a stinky smell often comes up from the drain in the bathroom. When we have guests it’s really embarrassing. I tried to fix it my own way, but my way was no use.”

A.W.: “And?”

Me: “The kitchen yángtái (阳台 – North American apartments don’t really have these) windows are ok, but the other windows all leak air. They leak cold wind in the winter and hot wind in the summer…”

She laughs when I say “hot wind” – maybe “hot wind” (热风) means something I don’t know about.

“… and of course you already know the roof leaks. The kitchen has no hot water. The water pressure usually isn’t enough for the gas water heater. And we’re scared of it. And the water dispenser leaks.”

I forget to mention the broken mosquito nets. There’s other stuff I could mentioned, but we’re aiming to get a couple big ones fixed and just need the little ones as bargaining pieces to give up.

A.W.: [She rattles off a whole bunch of fast Chinese which I can’t catch. But I’m pretty sure it involves us having the money ready when they come over with the contract this Saturday, and her saying they’ll take a look at fix things.]

Me: “After everything is fixed, then we’re able to pay.”

A.W.: “Sure, we’ll fix everything and then you pay us.”

I’m pretty sure she actually said this – though it kind of surprises me. Maybe I’m hearing wrong. We’re only hoping to get one or two of the more important things fixed. I double check, and it sounds like she confirmed it, but I’m definitely not certain.

We arrange a time for them to come over. She says bye but as she’s hanging up I hear her start complaining to her husband, “Aì yà…!” (哎呀; [exclamation!]).

So they’ve forced us to our Plan B. This coming Saturday night will be Round 3, when they come over with the new contract. If I spoke really good Chinese instead of Chinglish, I would have tried to make it all nicer and smoother and leave the option open for them to not raise the rent and not fix stuff. But I speak Chinglish, and that’s just how it is.