Thursday, December 18, 2008

And We Don't Even Own A Cat!

For a moment there, Desi and I were kind of wondering about our Chinese teacher.

It all had to do with a simple little word...pai (sounds like "pie"). This single syllable led Desi and I to two very different places...one mystifying, the other downright disturbing. But it all had a humorous ending. The joke, it turns out, was on us...yet again!

Now, I should begin by saying that our Chinese lessons have been going fantastically well. Yanke is a downright first-rate teacher. He came in that first day and assessed the heck out of me. By the end of an hour, I felt really humbled about my ability to speak, read, and comprehend Mandarin. And three times a week, he really puts us through our paces...right Desi? From vocabulary to grammar to ancient Chinese stories, our sessions run the gamut...and all have proven useful in some way. Just today we were out in the marketplace, bargaining over winter boots. I could have managed the transaction BY (before Yanke). But there were definitely some phrases the seller used that I have picked up recently. (Including when she started mumbling under her breath about how we were ticking her off. I think she was really just acting...We probably overpaid...My guess is that she and her family are right now having a nice dinner out courtesy of the waiguoren.)

At the end of every lesson, Yanke e-mails us 10-20 Chinese sentences that we are supposed to translate into English. Here's how one of those sentences went...

我不高兴的时候,总喜欢拍我的小猫的头。 (Wǒ bù gāoxìng de shíhòu, zǒng xǐhuan pāi wǒ de xiǎo māo de tóu.)

The first part of the sentence, Desi and I both found, was easy enough...When I am sad...

The question was, what exactly does this person do when they are sad? The word mao means cat...easy enough. So this person does something to their cat. What is that something?

I quickly came to the conclusion that it had something to do with taking pictures. Wrong pai...And anyways, the sentence doesn't make sense with "taking pictures" as the verb. When I am sad, I always like to take pictures of my little cat. This translation left me mystified.

Then Desi entered the picture. No, she argued, it's this other pai...the pai that means "beat." The sentence reads..When I am sad, I always like to beat my little cat. Now, I am a well-known "not cat lover." But, even for me, that sentence just struck me (and Desi, of course!) as more than a bit weird.

It was only, a little while later, when sitting at my office desk, supposedly working on something else, that it hit me. It's not a "hit" that we are talking about...It's a "pet."

When I am sad, I always like to pet my little cat on the head.

Phew...While this is not one of my favorite pastimes, it certainly is a reasonable way for a person to cheer themselves up. And, more importantly, it certainly is a reasonable sentence for Yanke to ask us to translate. As Yanke himself put it, when we came clean about the whole story..."I give you interesting sentences to translate...not weird ones!"

No, Yanke, we're the weirdos!

~Steve

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