Friday, June 6, 2008

New (or should it be old?) Sounds: Chinese Neighbors

I don't talk to my neighbors. Actually, all the families in my neighborhood are fairly self-contained, limiting all communications between houses to formal greetings when a couple neighbors coincidentally check the mailbox at the same time, or when one walks by another mowing his or her lawn.
I live in those edge city phenomenon houses built by KB Homes, in the planned labyrinths of suburban houses that look identical every two or three doors down. My community is ethnically diverse - white, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, Russian - but before I digress I'll focus back on the theme of this entry - my Chinese neighbors.
The Chinese neighbors coagulate. When I leave the window open, I can hear them from as far as five houses down. Before I studied Chinese, I subconsciously blocked out all the raucous unintelligible gossip out of my head, but after finishing Chinese 150 at Yale, their furious shouts started to make sense:
"Wife, you've cut the bushes too much!" says a husband.
"Just go to work, I know what I'm doing," replies the wife, the sounds of bush scissors snipping.
I worried that I would have to resort to textbook recordings and Youtube videos in Chinese to consolidate my Chinese before going to China, but listening to the everyday conversations of my neighbors, at last understandable through all the tones and phrases, I decide to venture out of my room and talk to them.
Fortunately, I don't have to initiate the awkward hello, knock on their doors or wait by the mailbox until they come out of their houses. My mom, being the ideal neighbor, actually talks with them, so she just calls one, relates my desire to speak Chinese and sets up a date for me and a neighbor.
Jenny, a middle-aged Taiwanese mother, lives next door. The first part of our first conversation together consists of my apologies for not even saying hello after living next to each other for more than three years. Jenny, instead, just waves it all away and compliments the fact I could express apology in Chinese. After her first flattering statement, I just start from Chinese 115's "您过奖了" and enjoyed our talk.
While she was differentiating 丢掉,失去 and an assortment of other synonyms related to "to lose," she teaches me "丢掉脑袋." These characters mean, literally, to lose your brain. If you say something that's considered offensive towards the government, you can 丢掉脑袋. It was a pet phrase in Taiwan when Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-Shek) was still around, censoring the media and the press. I'm not sure if this 俗话 is used on the mainland, but still a useful colloquialism, no?
Hours go by in a flash, and soon she has to pick up her daughter. She criticizes her daughter's poor Chinese, wistfully voicing her regrets, "If my daughter can at least recognize characters, I'll be happy!"

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Lucky said...
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