Lost in Beijing

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Managed to clock up my fourth city in China last week. A family trip to Beijing, land of alleged blanket pollution.

It was grey for about two days, not sure if that was pollution I was sucking in or just general mist, could’ve been mist as April is a month of infamous changeable weather, but after that the sky turned blue and I could see that Beijing was surrounded by mountains.

The trip itself?

As with all my family trips, or trips with my in-laws, I was able to understand about 20% of what they were chatting about. Actually, I would say it was closer to 40% this time as I’ve been working on my listening skills and my vocab is broader…

Yet

Both my parents in law must have noticed this improvement and, in order to keep me in the pit of language-learning despair, made their vocab more obtuse and their pronunciation more slurred. I don’t know how he does it, but my father in law especially always manages to come up with a synonym for a word I know instead of using the actual word I know.

E.g. we went to the site that the foreigners burnt down over a hundred years ago [not my ancestors, they were all working in factories far as I know] and I asked my father in law what was in this place. Straight away he used the word ‘Wai zee’, which to me meant ‘place’ or ‘location’…therefore I thought he was pointing at the map saying, ‘here is a location and here is a location over here…that’s also a location.’ Very vague stuff, so I kept on asking him, ‘what is at that location? Anything?’ and he would again answer with ‘wai zee.’ Continue reading

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Yeltsin Speaks Cantonese// the logic of messing up unexpected questions

It’s been about five days since the last dinner with the in-laws, but they were in the area to get their fingerprints done for the new HKID card, so off we went to the nearby shabu shabu place.

Shabu Shabu = 90 minutes of hot pot, all you can eat and drink

Unfortunately, I was the one who went ahead to get the ticket. Usually, when this happens, I’ll ask the staff in Cantonese how long we have to wait for a table or do they have a table straight away, but this time they sucker punched me with a ‘how long…’ question of their own.

Jung yau gei loi do?

Gei loi is ‘how long’, jung yau is something like ‘still have’, and do is a short way to say ‘arrive’…so I could understand what was said, the problem was, what did it mean?

My brain ran through the logical options: how long until the other people in your group arrive, how long are you willing to wait for a table, how long have you been in Hong Kong, how long does it take to arrive in places generally…

But none of them seemed to fit, so I replied, ‘gei loi meh?’[how long for what?] which was probably quite rude, but I didn’t have a clue what they were saying.

They said the same thing again, I stared back at them blankly, and then the ultimate frustration…a guy standing nearby stepped in and translated for me. They want to know how long your friends will take to arrive, he said.

Ah, that makes sense. Continue reading

Araminta Spookie in Cantonese [via Taiwan]

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My wife says translations into Chinese are always a bit weird, but I liked the cover of this one and the first person voice, so I took it out.

In Hong Kong, you can renew a book 5 times at the library before they send Joaquin Phoenix after you. I think I renewed this one 4 times. Actually, I didn’t finish the first one, I got side-tracked by another book, maybe 3 Body Problem or Virgin of the 7 Daggers, but the second one hooked me a bit more and, despite a few troughs, I got through it.

Then I got through book 3, the one where their neighbour steals their frogs without getting punished for it at the end, and now I’m on book 4.

Each book starts at a gentle pace, with Araminta wandering around the mansion, either looking for a relative, looking for a ghost, looking for a secret door, looking for Uncle Drac’s old Shannon Tweed vids.

The voice is quite natural, and I can pick up a lot of good phrases, though half of them aren’t used in spoken Cantonese. Some of them are Taiwanese, too, as that’s the place it’s aimed at/translated for.

There’s about 17 different ways to say ‘usually’ and ‘even if’, I’m not sure why. Some of the ‘even if’ words double as ‘although’ or ‘even’, a lot of it is situational in Cantonese, and of course a lot of them you wouldn’t say in conversation. The trick is knowing which is which, and the supplementary trick is being able to not mix them up. Continue reading

Yat bun vs yat bun vs yat bun/Geronimo Stilton in Space/ Star Trek

No matter how far I get in fluency and vocab, it always comes down to words like yat bun. If you don’t know any Cantonese, yat bun can be three different words [that I know of], all of them relatively common.

Yat bun = Japan

Yat bun = generally/normally

Yat bun = one half

My default ‘yat bun’ is Japan, I don’t know why. But when I actually want to talk about Japan, I will overthink it and usually say one of the other versions.

It’s all about tones. That’s where the difference lies.

If you’ve studied Cantonese for a while, and someone says all three ‘yat bun’ to you then you can probably tell the difference. Yet if you have to say it yourself…

Cantonese is a mind fuck.

You know, if you read Geronimo Stilton books in Cantonese they can actually seem decent.

By Cantonese, I mean traditional Chinese writing.

It took me seven weeks on and off to get through the one where Stilton goes into space to regain control of a bad guy’s satellite.

Seven weeks Continue reading

Jin Yong invades heritage museum in Hong Kong

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The martial arts fiction author known by every Chinese person across the world, Jin Yong, is in the Heritage Museum in Tai Wai right now, a museum that is about half an hour down the road from my flat.

If you don’t know this guy, it’s not surprising. Only a few of his novels have been translated into English, though I saw at the exhibition some Spanish + French extracts of his work, so maybe French and Spanish people know about him.

It’s weird, one of the translated novels I read [The Book and the Sword] lost about 750 pages in the move from Chinese to English, and the only reason I can get from anyone for this loss is that Jin Yong’s work is very dense in terms of history and kung fu methodology.

i.e. just like Chinese food in the UK, they tried to adapt it for the market they were translating into, instead of keeping the parts that made it unique in the first place and trusting that people would still be able to follow despite not knowing any of the names. Or trusting them to look those names up. Strange plan overall, as I would’ve thought most people bothering to chase down translations would be doing it to read something different, not something that’s been altered to try and cater for their own culture.

People in HK seem okay with this as they believe Western people would be lost when reading Jin Yong. I asked them if they’d ever seen a Robin Hood film. Or a film about Ancient Egypt. Or Throne of Blood. Did they feel lost watching them? Continue reading

Kwok Fu Shing + shop of gold

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Even though I’ve lost my teacher, I still thought my Cantonese was pretty stable, lying somewhere between upper beginner and lower intermediate, but

it turns out my mother in law is the ultimate leveller of expectations.

Obviously, I can’t understand 75% of what she says,  she’s

too fast

too anxious and

uses vocab way beyond my level, but last week, when I saw Kwok fu Shing on TV I turned to her, confident I could direct the conversation to a place I could have vocab for, and asked if she liked him.

I got the first part of her answer,

she thought he was okay, quite handsome

but then her answer kept going and going and going and I heard some words I knew, like Mainland China, Kwun Tong, basic verbs etc. but overall I was pretty lost.

Why was she talking about Kwun Tong?

Did Kwok Fu Shing grow up there?

Why was she doing a firehose action with her hands? Continue reading

TVB // Blue Veins

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Objectively, all TVB dramas are terrible, the Cantonese equivalent of Monster Dog or Space Truckers, but at the same time weirdly addictive. If you switch on during an episode, there’s a good chance you’ll see it through to the end [of the episode] cos the plot and time within the drama move at lightspeed.

Example:

If a character decides to do something, even something that takes a really long journey like go to Holland to find an ancient artefact, the very next scene will be that character walking around Amsterdam with a map.

This is common in a lot of movies, but TVB stands out more cos a] it happens frequently, and b] it’s juxtaposed with endless scenes of characters exchanging bland dialogue + life philosophies.

E.g. Relationships are just like the waves of the sea, sometimes they’re choppy, sometimes they’re calm. But if you are good at surfing, you can ride them for 10-15 seconds before falling off and potentially hitting your head on a submerged rock.

That’s not a hundred per cent accurate, but I remember hearing the first part of it in one of the dramas and it gives you the basic idea of what I’m talking about.

Rumour has it TVB has an archive of these philosophies that they recycle every 2-3 years, in new dramas. No one really notices, due to the abundance of them, so they keep doing it. New ideas are frowned upon.

It’s not just the dialogue that’s bad. The writing in general is awful, no subtlety at all, which I guess is understandable when you consider they often write the script as the drama is being filmed. This obviously leads to ridiculous plot twists, uneven performances and copycatting.

E.g. in the new vampire drama, the main female character [Kay Tse, channelling a P4 student playing a tree in the school nativity play] can touch dead bodies and bring them back to life for 1 minute. Obviously, the writers have never seen or heard of the US show ‘Pushing Daisies’. Continue reading