February 28, 2008

Overheard in elevator

I particularly like overhearing conversations in Chinese where the speakers misunderstand each other. When I speak in Chinese, misunderstandings happen all the time, so hearing other people's misunderstandings is comforting in that you realize a certain amount if it is inevitable, and not all of it is due to your foreignness.

Here's a conversation between two fortyish men in an elevator:

A: ...他們也qie1工--

B: [Interrupting] 什麼叫做qie1工?

A: 人員不夠.

B: 噢, 缺工.

A: ...他們也qie1電.

B: [Quietly, as if to himself] 缺電.


A: ...they are shot on workers--

B: What does "shot on workers" mean?

A: They don't have enough employees.

B. Oh, short on workers.

A: ...and they are shot on electricity.

B: [Quietly, as if to himself] Short on electricity.

I'm not sure why one of the men had a problem with pronunciation of one syllable. His pronunciation was otherwise fine. The mispronunciation was not what I found amusing. Rather, it was the way that the other man repeated the correct pronunciation. There was no hint that he was correcting the pronunciation, he just repeated the word quietly with the correct pronunciation, as if for his own benefit.

I wish half of the population could respond so gracefully to my mispronunciations. Two of the most common responses I get are: (1) no response, I only later realize the mistake (2) (From the very few who know me well enough) a burst of laughter, sometime to be followed by the cell phone being taken out and the explanation: Hold on, I've got to call my friend to tell her about this one.

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February 20, 2008

Fish maw

The most expensive meal I've had in the last few years was at Japanese restaurant in Taipei. One of the dishes that I did not recognize was a long white thing that tasted like neither meat nor vegetable. It looked like a mushroom more than anything else. It's taste was not strong--the texture is clearly what is unique about it. It was soft like soggy tofu. Clearly a delicacy. It wasn't bad, but I didn't hear anyone exclaiming how good it was.

My coworkers told me that it is biao ( 鰾, which is fourth tone according to the dictionary, but was pronounced as first tone by my coworker), a bladder that a fish fills with air to rise or sink in water.

I didn't think I was likely to see this dish again, but then I saw it again a couple of weeks ago, this time at a Chinese banquet. So, I decided to learn a little more about it. In English, it's called a fish maw or a swim bladder. A fish fills it with oxygen from the gills to increase its buoyancy, and lets out air to decrease buoyancy. Not all fish have one.

Next time someone asks me how to describe this fish organ in English, I will be able to give them the following unsatisfying answer: it's called a fish maw, a swim bladder, or a gas bladder; but there's a good chance that an English speaker won't know what you're talking about even if you manage to remember all of those terms.

Wikipedia entry: gas bladder
How stuff works explanation

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