English is Perfect – Know What I mean?

September 4, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

Quick!  Someone define the word, “Contradiction”.  Let me take a stab.

“Contradiction.  Central-American rebels who enunciate perfectly.  Contra-diction.”

Ok, maybe not.

The word “contradiction” is a perfect example of the idiosyncrasies of the English language.  In other words, the word “contradiction” is in itself a contradiction.

My wife Maya was born and raised in Taiwan, and came to the U.S. for college and has stayed here ever since.  She learned to speak perfect English, which absolutely amazes me.  It amazes me that anyone whose first language wasn’t English can figure out this confounding language that seems to have so many contradictions.  She can even speak English while simultaneously tapping her head and rubbing her tummy.

In many respects, English is a language where just about anything goes.  In the end, communicating in English has less to do with what you actually said and more to do with what you really mean.  It’s a very “loosey-goosey” language.  Why that phrase refers to a very limber bird is beyond me, but you know what I mean.

Here are some perfect examples of English that don’t make obvious sense:

Breakfast is what you eat in the morning.  It’s not a time to take a break from eating to go on a fast.
You can draw a picture, but you can also draw a bath, draw a breath, draw someone’s attention or draw a conclusion.  Is there anything you can’t draw?
Creature comforts are for people.
A formula is a mathematical equation as well as something you feed a baby.

Even for those of us who speak English, there are two types of English.  One English for the general population, and another English specifically for professional athletes.  You can refer to this form of English as “Jockish”.

Watch any sports channel on TV while a professional athlete is being interviewed – you almost need subtitles to know what they are talking about.

Ask your average “Joe Athlete” a question like, “Hey Joe, how do you feel?” after a big game and you will most likely hear a response like:

I gave 120% to that game.  Could I have done better?  No.  Did I prepare enough for the game?  Yes.  Would I have done anything different?  No.  When you have a Joe Athlete go on the field, you have to play like you know you’re going to win.  A Joe Athlete will always put in 150% to help his team win.  Would I have liked to win?  Yes.  Will we ever get another chance?  I hope so.

Are you asking and answering your own questions?  Yes.  Are you referring to yourself in the 3rd person?  Yes.  Would putting in 150% of effort risk violating the time and space continuum?  Possibly.

One of these days, I’m going to walk into a Denny’s restaurant and order my breakfast like a professional athlete.

“Yes, I’m ready to order.  Do I want pancakes?  Yes.  Would a half-stack be enough?  No.  Would I like my eggs scrambled?  Yes.   A Wayne Chan never likes his eggs runny.  Would I like two or four links of sausage?  Two.  Does it look like you’ve stopped taking my order to call for security?  Yes.  Do I need to give it 170% to finish all my food before security arrives?  Yes.

It probably wouldn’t help for me to tap my head and rub my tummy while I’m eating either.

Learning the ABC’s of Chinese – Minus the ABC’s

September 3, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

I am in the midst of an identity crisis – or maybe it’s a panic attack.  Even worse, maybe it’s both.

Last week I took my six-year-old son to Chinese School.  For those who may have read some of my earlier columns, you should already know about my Chinese language competency.  For those of you that haven’t, let me describe it this way:  My Chinese is like a soufflé – it starts out big and beautiful, but once you dig into it you find that there’s not much substance and filled with hot air.

People have told me that the intonation and phrasing of my Chinese is very good.  The problem is that my vocabulary would put a four year old to shame.

I am the first to admit my limitations when it comes to the Chinese language, which is one of the reasons why we decided to send my son to Chinese school so that he could get a head start.  But I’m not about to admit my weaknesses to my own son.

When my wife signed him up for the class, I made it perfectly clear what my responsibilities would be – I would take him to and from class. I would sit with him during class to make sure he paid attention.  But I made it perfectly clear – I was not about to teach him myself or be a teacher’s aid.  We had an agreement.  We had a pact.

I knew there was a problem the minute we sat down to class.  The teacher immediately started directing the parents on what she wanted us to do to help while we were in session.  Every word the teacher said was in Chinese.  Every utterance.  Even what she wrote on the chalkboard…all Chinese.  I’m sure people could tell that we were father and son by the same distant expression we had on our faces.

Oh sure, I understood a few things.  She started out by introducing herself, told us she was excited to be here, and then asked us to open our workbooks.  After that, yada, yada, yada.  She could have been telling us to run for our lives to escape a marauding pack of killer cocker spaniels, but you’d never know it by the way that I was frantically flipping through the work book trying to get some inkling as to what she was talking about.

What is a father to do when his six-year-old son asks him, “Daddy, what is she saying?  What does she want me to do?”  As I was as clueless as he, the only thing I could come up with was, “Look, if you’re not going to pay attention, I’m certainly not going to tell you!”

They say that in order to overcome a traumatic experience, the average person must go through the five stages of resolution:  (1) denial, (2) bargaining, (3) anger, (4) despair, and (5) acceptance.  You could certainly see me going through each of these stages whenever I responded to the teacher’s questions.

Denial – “Yes, I’d be happy to answer that question, but my ears are still ringing after going to a heavy metal concert last night and I can’t hear you.  It was so totally rad.”

Bargaining – “I’d be happy to answer that question if you’d first answer my question:  Why is there air?”

Anger – “Why are you asking me this question?!?  I’m only the driver!  Please call my wife.  We had a pact.”

Despair – “I’m sorry.  I can’t answer your question.  It brings up painful memories from my childhood.”

Acceptance – “Excuse me?  This is Chinese class?  I’m sorry, wrong class.  C’mon son, let’s go.”

Hmm…that last one seems like I skipped over acceptance and went back around to denial.  Well, four out of five’s not bad.

One Man’s Medicine is the Same Man’s Embarassment

September 1, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

I just came back from a business trip in Beijing and all I got was a lousy T-shirt.

Actually, I didn’t bring back any T-shirts.  Instead, what I came back with was a sense of amazement.

Sky-high skyscrapers.  Locals dressed in the latest couture.  Mercedes Benz cars parked next to trendy microbreweries.

Even factory workers would drink Starbucks during their coffee breaks.

OK, a little creative license there, but you see where I’m going with this.

This wasn’t the Beijing that I remembered.  The last time I visited Beijing, it was 1980.  Beijing was so much different.  But then again, so was I.

In the summer of 1980, I was 16 years old and I joined a group of students from all over the country to attend a Chinese language program at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University.

My parents thought this trip would be a good opportunity for me to learn about my roots.  They thought this trip would give me a chance to expand my Chinese language skills.  They thought I would come back with a greater appreciation of my heritage and the richness of my culture.

I thought it would be a good chance to meet girls.  After all, I and every other student who attended the program were fully aware that this program was informally known as “The Love Boat.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t really hook up with any girls during the trip.  But as a consolation, I did manage to pick up a severe case of food poisoning.

I shared a dorm room with two of my cousins.  Seeing as how they were both younger than me and with even less experience with the fairer sex, this was not the best environment I could have hoped for.  The room had a concrete floor, and each bed was covered completely with mosquito netting.  I quickly discovered that the mosquitoes were in abundance, and unless you wanted to unwillingly donate a pint of blood each night via a hundred mosquito bites, you stayed under the netting.

However, this being the summer, it was also hot and muggy, with nary an air conditioner in sight.  Coupled with the fact that the mosquito netting effectively blocked out any breeze from the windows, you soon came to realize that you had inadvertently duplicated the conditions of a Thanksgiving turkey basting in the oven.

Under these sweltering conditions, a cool, tall glass of water would have really hit the spot.  Unfortunately, the best we could do was a bracing cup of hot tea, or boiled hot water kept in a large thermos, which contained so much excess grit and minerals that you felt like you were drinking a cup of watery sand.

Towards the end of my journey in China, I came down with a severe case of food poisoning.  High temperature, extreme queasiness, a genuine feeling of hopelessness.  No, that’s not what the food poisoning did to me, that’s how I felt as a number of friends helped me make my way to the University’s medical clinic and looked inside.

I felt like I was on the set of M*A*S*H.

Still, how bad could it be?  I immediately felt more at ease when the doctor told me I just needed some penicillin.  However, I soon realized that what might be good for my health might not be so good for my image.

In front of all my friends, including a few girls I was trying to impress, I nonchalantly asked the doctor where I could pick up the penicillin pills.

The doctor replied, “We don’t have penicillin pills.”

Figuring he meant a penicillin shot, I bravely rolled up my sleeve and said, “OK, no problem.  I have had lots of shots before.”

The doctor, seeming a little perplexed, looked at me and quietly said, “Umm…we don’t give you the shot in your arm.”

After a few moments, I quickly grasped the situation and asked,  “You don’t mean to tell me you’re going to give me a shot in my…”

When it comes right down to it, buying flowers, writing a romantic poem, seeing a romantic movie…there are a lot of things a young man can do to win a young woman’s heart.  Bending over and pulling your pants down in front of your friends for a penicillin shot is not one of them.

Then again, the experience certainly wasn’t a complete loss.  I did manage to learn the Chinese words to ask, “Could somebody please cover me up with a blanket?”