Downstairs vs under

When my husband took me to a squinchy Japanese restaurant that had high chairs at a bar-style counter, the server laconically instructed me to put my bag “downstairs”, which meant “on the shelf under the seat of the chair”.

I have heard English teachers eager to hold students accountable for their spoken language deride this common Singlish use of “downstairs”, but it’s wonderful (and typical) in its succinctness.

If you use the preposition “under”, you have to include a noun for the preposition to be, well, positioned in front of. If you use the adverb “downstairs”, you’re just saying something needs to go below something else, and letting context do the work of indicating what the something else is.

Chinese has a phrase approximately meaning “down side” which can be used the way the server was using “downstairs” to adverbially indicate “under something”. It also has phrases meaning “up side”, “behind side”, “opposite side”, etc., and you can say “located opposite side” without needing to say “located opposite the hotel”, for example, the way we can say in English that “the receipt is in the bag” or just “the receipt is inside”.

I get the sense that Chinese relies on context more than English, or at least relies on context in ways that English doesn’t, since a large proportion communication in any language is always shared context.

Lehigh mug is lihai.

The Mandarin expression 厉害 (lìhài) means ‘awesome’ or ‘powerful’, among other things.

I heard the expression several times while watching Kung Fu Yoga, so when I next looked at this mug, I saw it in a whole new light, even though I’ve had it for years.

I toured the New Jersey plant belonging to Lehigh Press (a Von Hoffmann company) at some point when I was working in the production department of Princeton University Press (2005–2008).

The place was full of huge, expensive German printing machines and stacks and stacks of different kinds of paper.

The company printed the book cover (but I think not the pages) for some of our titles. They also printed Harry Potter book covers!

Before we left, they gave us some company-brand swag stuff like this mug, plus samples of things they’d printed with fancy techniques.

Lehigh Press closed down in 2008.

It was home to the country’s largest vacuum collator, an assembly-line machine that uses suction force to stack sheets of printed paper or plastic film in order.

That was awesome.

Reading Magic by Mem Fox

Reading Magic promotes the idea of teaching literacy from the top down rather than from the bottom up. The author believes parents and teachers should start with stories, then sentences, then words, then letters; that children who can sound out words in a book but who don’t understand them aren’t reading, but that children who tell a story using the pictures on the pages to make their own meaning are.

Although I don’t think Mem Fox is all wrong, I think she’s misguided.

I definitely believe parents should read to their children, and that amazing, wonderful, terrific things can and do happen when reading is part of the family routine. “Read to your kids” is a message that deserves to be shouted from the mountaintops, and to be listened to and enacted.

However, while it may be the case that literate, supportive families can immerse children in books to such an extent that some bookwardly inclined children learn to read effortlessly and joyfully—accidentally, even!—at age 3 or 4, that is not a helpful one-size-fits-all solution to the general problem of literacy instruction, and in particular, encouraging children to interact happily with texts until they get the hang of reading is not a practical strategy that teachers can implement in their classrooms. Teachers really are better off with “letter A makes a as in ‘apple’, letter T makes t as in ‘table’, and when you put A and T together, you get ‘at’.”

The tone of the book is self-congratulatory and anecdotal; there’s no science or statistics here, so I don’t feel there’s much reason I should believe what Mem Fox has to say, even if it sounded intuitively correct, which it doesn’t; in fact it contradicts my experience as a reading teacher.

For more on what I liked and disliked about the book and why, see below.

Continue reading Reading Magic by Mem Fox

Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

Trying to write down what I think about Mao’s Last Dancer is like unpacking a Russian doll. There are stories within stories within stories.

The reviews tell a story about the film’s reception. Critics were harsher than I expected, oddly saying both that the movie was bland and that it was melodramatic.

Included on the disc is the filmmaker’s story of how the movie was made, which made the whole thing sound like a minor miracle. The casting was challenging because in addition to a fantastic Chinese-speaking ballet dancer who could play Li, they needed a whole set of kids to play Li and his ballet classmates at age 11, and a whole set of teenagers to play Li and his ballet classmates at age 15. They also had to choreograph and stage a bunch of different ballet performances in different styles: a Chinese imitation of a Western ballet, a Chinese revolutionary ballet, Don Quixote, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (familiar to me as the cartoon evolution of life on Earth in Disney’s Fantasia).

In 2003 Penguin published Mao’s Last Dancer, the autobiography of Li Cunxin, who is still alive and was consulted during filming. It must be strange to see your life made into a movie. I don’t think I’d like it.

Two cultures clash: Mao’s communist ideals and the American dream. Unsurprisingly, the movie teaches that it is better to live rich and free in the West than poor and oppressed by Party members who do not tolerate ideas that conflict with their doctrines.

And there is the plot of the movie itself (see below).

You see what I mean about the recursive nature of the story? There’s the story of the reception of this particular biopic; the story of the making of the film; the story in the film itself; the story in the autobiography the film was based on; the memories that the autobiography was based on; and the real-world cultural backdrop of the dancer’s life.

I’m still not clear on the title. The name “Mao” conjures up the Chairman, but Li was chosen by representatives of Madame Mao, not Chairman Mao, to learn ballet at the Beijing Dance Academy. I’m not sure why he was called the “last”, unless perhaps he was the last child selected during tryouts.

This movie, like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Kings of Pastry, was a gift from my in-laws.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/maos-last-dancer/id424153088

Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

Today Special

Let’s have a look at a strange sentence.

My class today was fun.

Which word is “today” modifying?

It’s an adverb, and the verb is “was”, so “today” must be modifying “was”. Easy, right?

Not so fast!

I think the sentence above is trying to say:

The class I had today was fun.

in which case “today” is modifying “had” because otherwise we’d say

My class was fun today.

So if you say “My class today was fun,” you’re either using Chinese syntax (which requires adverbs to go in front of verbs) to say that your class was fun today, or you’re using the word “today” to modify a verb that’s not technically even in the sentence but buried inside a possessive adjective.

You could say “Today’s class was fun,” using “today” as a noun but transforming it into a possessive adjective; then you’d be missing “my”.

In Chinese, I believe you could say “My today’s class was fun” because apparently there’s no rule against doubling up demonstratives like that; I’ve heard people say things like “my the other one is nicer”. In English.

In Singapore maybe you could also get away with “My today class was fun.” After all, “today” is an adjective on all the signs outside restaurants that say “Today Special”. Such signs are of course attempting to say “Today’s Specials”, but they not only fail to transform the noun “today” into a possessive adjective, they also fail to pluralize “special”, an adjective acting like a noun.

Why do we even have different parts of speech? Words change part of speech constantly, and people “misuse” them, and start fights about whether they are in fact misusing them or not, and yet we all manage to understand each other anyway. Most of the time.

Maybe the concept of parts of speech survives for entertainment value—and to provide jobs for English teachers!

Speaking of which, back when I was a teacher for a company called I Can Read, I posted about using “I can…” to test whether a word is a verb. The word ‘window’ hilariously failed my test.

Or so I thought. Shakespeare would disagree.

Antony and Cleopatra (IV.xiv.72):

“Wouldst thou be windowed in great Rome…?”
It just goes to show:

(a) Shakespeare is awesome,
(b) the internet is awesome, and
(c) you learn something new every day!

Railroad Tigers (2016)

In Railroad Tigers, Jackie Chan’s character is a Chinese villager living under the yoke of the Japanese army during WWII. He is the leader of a secret rebel group, the Flying Tigers. He leads the small, patriotic group on raids to harass and steal from Japanese soldiers stationed on the trains that pass through his village. They aren’t soldiers, though, and although they constantly risk getting caught, they never really accomplish much. What can they do to truly help their country? When a wounded soldier tells them he has failed in his mission to blow up an important bridge nearby, they know what to do… but not how to do it. Will they succeed?

Almost the whole film happens on a train, though there are some scenes in the village as well. I laughed a lot and thoroughly enjoyed it. Those who have disparaging things to say may have found the pro-China and anti-Japanese themes distasteful; or they may dislike silly action movies, since many action movies these days are gritty, dark, or at least largely serious in tone; or perhaps it’s partly just that they’re English speakers who don’t like having to experience jokes via subtitles.

In fact I wish my Mandarin (and my Japanese) were stronger, because then I’d have been able to appreciate the dialog better. Nevertheless, even though I mostly had to rely on the English subtitles to understand the dialog, it was still hilarious. And you don’t need subtitles for the slapstick comedy, anyway; you could get a fair amount of enjoyment from the movie even with the subtitles off—assuming you like slapstick.

In fact, the main reasons I like Jackie Chan’s movies are: (a) they’re silly, and (b) each of his characters is charmingly and effectively protective. Moreover, as other reviewers unfailingly point out, it’s amazing that Jackie Chan is still not just alive but also kicking. Hats off to an amazing and very dedicated lifelong artist!

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/railroad-tigers/id1225504120

I’m looking forward to the next Jackie Chan movie already, and I don’t have long to wait: Kung Fu Yoga is being released in Singapore this week.

Stackable jewelry box with lots of great feathers

If you thought AutoCorrect only affected text messages, think again.

Whoever was responsible for inputting the marketing text that describes the features of this stackable jewelry box got as far as “feat—” and then took the first word that was suggested.

I mean, clearly this is not the result of a manual typo or a translation error. Some kind of auto-complete software seems to be a plausible explanation in part because this product is made in China, and as I understand it the way you type Chinese is:

  • you type the transliterated (Pinyin) spelling of the syllable you want, using the Roman alphabet and possibly a number for the tone
  • some predictive software shows you a list of characters that match the sound and possibly also the sentence context
  • you select the character from the list

I can imagine similar predictive writing software being used for English text if the writer isn’t typing on a phone but also isn’t a native speaker.

Sakura Cuisine’s Saliva Chicken

I posted a photo of this restaurant before because the name seemingly advertised so many kinds of food. They’ve simplified the name—presumably not because they saw my blog post, but who knows?

Now they are promoting a dish they call “Saliva Chicken”.

The Chinese name of the dish is three characters (that’s the traditional one for chicken, not the simplified one):

口水雞
mouth water chicken

Note that there is no sure-fire way to determine how many characters in Chinese correspond to a “word” in English. If you take the first two characters together, they mean “saliva”, because that’s what “mouth water” is.

口水
saliva

The restaurant seems to be offering a chicken dish cooked with saliva (?!), but actually it just wants you to order the chicken dish that makes you salivate. If they’d named it “mouth-watering chicken” in English, the name would have been perfectly unobjectionable.

In my opinion, the problem is not that the Chinese language is hard, or that English is hard, just that translation is hard. All languages assign meanings in arbitrary ways. Why, after all, should we English speakers think that “saliva chicken” sounds gross, but “mouth-watering chicken” sounds delicious? This distinction is not meaningful in Chinese, any more than the distinction between “cow meat” (eew) and “beef” (yum).