Saturday, June 2, 2012

Don't stand on ceremony

I never realized how difficult it can be to explain English idioms until lately. Now that I'm practicing Chinese with people and helping them learn English as well, a few common sayings have rolled off the tongue, and it's funny to think that I've never had to explain them until now.

Today it was "You only live once!"

I didn't sleep much last night, woke up too early, and it's been a long, rainy, nappy kind of Saturday (ahhh heaven). So I decided to study some Chinese, and figured hey, I know what this calls for… Coffee! (any excuse, really).

So I am drinking coffee at 4:30pm and chatting with a new friend on QQ (China's most popular instant messaging service). He asked what I'm up to and I said drinking coffee and studying Chinese, and he replied, "You shouldn't drink coffee so late."

It's very common for people here to tell each other what they should and should not be doing. It's usually a pretty friendly gesture, and not a bossy/jerk-y thing. I've mostly gotten used to this, but being kind of a stubbornly independent person, it still feels a little strange at times.

So I tried to explain that since I have to go to bed early most nights due to needing 100% of my energy for wrangling adorably wild little munchkin monsters all morning, I like taking at least one weekend day/night and screwing it up completely. And then I said, "You only live once!"

He then asked me what it means. And I tried to explain it in simple English, well, at least what it means to me anyway...

It means, life is a gift and we only get one chance to live it, so don't waste time worrying about what everyone thinks you SHOULD be doing… do what makes you happy.

So whenever you are doing something that makes you happy, but maybe other people don't think it's very smart or wise, you say "You only live once!"

Even after I explained it, I get the sense that it doesn't quite fit well here. I've made several acquaintances who are younger than I am, and we talk about our cultures, customs, etc. And most of them tell me how they don't like the social and family pressures. For example, to be extremely thin and to find a husband well before you reach 30. Some of my Chinese teacher coworkers are nearing 30, and they seem to really enjoy being single, having a job and being independent, but then they talk about needing to find a husband soon. And when they speak about it, none of them have seemed very excited, and a couple have even seemed worried or anxious. The vibe is usually one of 'well, I don't necessarily like it, but that's what I have to do.' I nearly have to bite my tongue because I recognize that our cultures are wildly different, and it's not my place to interject my own thoughts/values into such a personal feeling. I would never give outright advice on such a thing, I'm just not an advice-giver, but I have to fight the urge to even explain how I feel about it for my own self in the context of just having a friendly conversation on the matter. When really I want to grab them, give them a huge bear hug and then shake them by the shoulders and say "You can do whatever you want with your life, it's yours! Run, be free!" hehe

But I'm 34, divorced, no kids, and I love Oreo cookies. I'm no poster child for the Chinese dream, or the American dream for that matter. So I keep quiet, and take it all in. :)

So anyway, it's a lot of fun trying to explain English idioms, because it makes me stop and really give thought to what they mean, since they have so easily rolled off the tongue my entire life, without any thought at all. And I'm learning some Chinese idioms as well, and they are as foreign to me as the English ones probably are to them.

This week on my audio lessons I listen to, I learned bié kèqì (别客气) which sounds like "bee-yeh kuh chee" which in Chinese means "Don't stand on ceremony." It is sometimes a response when someone says "thank you" so I think it's similar to our response of "you're welcome."

But I guess it means a little more, like "We are all friends, so please don't mention it." And yesterday at our school lunch, which was a slightly more formal or organized event and a treat to us teachers from the school, someone stood for a toast and said "bié kèqì" and everyone cheersed (is that how you spell cheersed?). I remembered hearing the phrase in my Chinese audio lesson, so I took the opportunity to ask my Chinese coworker who speaks really good English to explain what it means in more depth. And she said it can also mean "make yourself at home, we are all good friends."

My Chinese tutor also taught me some curse words and phrases, but I'll spare you. I'm trying to forget them so I don't accidentally use them since I'm still in the phase where I mix up all the vocabulary I have floating around in a jumbled blob in my brain.

I feel like I've advanced in my Chinese speaking from the "baby stage" to the "caveman stage"… I doubt these are real, documented stages in language learning, but it's the best way I've found to describe how I sound when speaking Chinese. I used to sound like a baby, just making a bunch of sounds that don't really make sense at all, all of the words mixed up in the wrong order, wrong words, no context, no sense. Kind of like when I try to tell someone "Nice to see you" and I accidentally say "I want to see good." Now I feel like I've advanced to the stage where I have more context and the words are mostly in the right order, but I still sound like "Me like coffee. You would like with me go drink?"

Me like learn Chinese. ::grunt::

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