Remember that time?

The thing is, everything in China relies on context.

It’s kind of like when you meet your boyfriend’s friends and they’re all “Remember that time? Hahahaha!” while you’re all “Hi, I’m Meg”. They use these half sentences and references to other things, and even an awesome girlfriend just can’t keep up.

In Norse mythology, each line of a story is a kenning, a reference to another story. If you’re well versed in the exploits of Thor and Freyja, the kennings are funny and clever. If you’re not, it’s an epic brainteaser.

There’s actually a Star Trek episode where the Next Gen crew runs into this race that only speaks in references to their history. I’m ok with something like “Caesar and Brutus in the forum,” but it’s hard when it’s “Bob and Joe last Thursday.”

China is an entire country like that. They’re this clique that’s been exclusive for 5,000 years and I just can’t fit in. There’s no need to explain things in China because there’s this cultural hivemind that’s able to understand everything from super-secret contextual clues.

Chinese is all about context. There are so many homonymns in the language, so you need a complete sentence to make sense. In fact, most Chinese jokes are puns that get huge laughs in Chinese but don’t translate particularly well. And there are also many words that aren’t really pronounced the same but I kind of pronounce them the same way. You need to use a complete sentence or a complete phrase because a couple syllables can be easily misunderstood. It doesn’t make sense unless you put into context.

When Zorro was helping me with my Chinese yesterday, he said I should try to speak faster and not draw out each syllable. He also said I’m using a Beijing accent. (Can you believe that? I know about 3 words and he’s criticizing my accent!)

So I try to speed up when I use Chinese. It’s another example of how Chinese is the opposite of English, because when my teenage girls mumble and speed though their answers, I make them stand up and shout each word.

“Shout it like Alice’s mean math teacher!” I tell them. Hey, it’s an inside joke. They understand.

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0 Responses to Remember that time?

  1. Jay Adan says:

    Ah, but it didn’t take long for you to become a part of the contextual conversations. Eventually, “Stick’s Chick” became “The Meg” and all was right with the world.

  2. Stuart says:

    That was the best Star Trek: TNG episode ever. Paul Winfield was amazing as the alien guy in that episode.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Re cliquishness … If you spend an extended time outside the US and then return, you will realise it is no different there. I have been more or less away for ten years and half the stuff I hear on morning talk shows, for example, (full of oblique references which you have to be an “insider” to understand)makes no sense. Even commercials stop making sense, because they too only work if you are clued in to the petty scandals and goings-on in American society.
    Such moments really wierd me out, because when I return to the US I am in a sense returning home. But then I constantly find myself in these moments, during which I don’t get my own culture anymore.
    Yep. Americans off out there by themselves far away from the rest of civilisation (as people in europe like to point out) are just as cliquish and pre-occupied with their little “insider things” as the Chinese.

  4. Meg says:

    True! Pretty soon I was all “oh, THAT’s why you call him Dirty Seth!”

  5. ?? says:

    I had a similar “language” discussion with a friend of mine who has a degree in Chinese.

    When we first start learning the language its easy to think..holy sh1t there’s all these words that sound the same but when we but them together the sum of the combined words is a word completely unrelated to the originals. I don’t think this is that different to English. Look at words like hereby, moreover for example.

    A good example is red and read or here and hare (there are probably better examples out there) The pronunciation in seemingly the same, at least to a student, but the words are written differently. It is the same in Chinese. It’s sometimes good to think of Chinese as a series of sounds represented by different characters.. sorta like English. Also words like “contract” have many different meanings.. this is where we also rely on context in English.

    Once you understand a little grammar and some characters It makes a little more sense, I’m definitely not at that stage yet though. My Chinese is passable, but like many I had the illusion that I didn’t need to learn characters and I have plateaued.

    Did that make any sense? I haven’t had a Coffee yet because I forgot to turn on my magic water contraption and ended up pouring cold water into my mug of crap instant coffee.

    Disclaimer: I don’t actually now what I’ talking about.. 🙂

  6. Stefrog says:

    Hey! I suggested you speed up your Chinese months ago! If you didn’t listen to me then, why start now?

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