The Great Chinese Language Scam Revealed

I have a theory. I do not believe that Chinese is a tonal language. It is alleged that Mandarin has four tones: 1st tone (a high flat tone); 2nd tone (a rising tone); 3rd tone (a dipping tone, where the tone falls and then rises again); and, 4th tone (a falling tone). I don’t think so.

If Chinese really were tonal that would mean that at some point in prehistory the language’s inventor had to be sitting around choosing words for his new language, and decided that it would be smart to assign an awful lot of unrelated items/actions essentially the same word. Imagine the scene: Our ancient scholar sits under the banyan tree naming things brought by his assistants. First they bring him some rope, he looks at it judiciously, and says, “I shall call this ma (麻) [hemp]”. Next the assistant leads in a horse, the great sage deliberates, and calls it ma (馬). Just then a toad hops by stalking an ant, and the sage looks upon it and names the toad ma (蟆). When the toad catches the ant, the sage exclaims, “Look that ma just ate a ma (螞)”, giving predator and meal the same name. Just then the sage’s mother comes to see him. He looks upon her with filial eyes and calls her ma (媽). But, then she spoke angrily to him and asking why he was lying in the tree’s shade with chores still to be done. “Ahh, ma why must you always [thinking on the fly the scholar decided his mom’s actions were best described as, you guessed it] ma (罵) [scold] me so?” In a moment of bold inspiration he ended the sentence with ma (嗎) indicating to his mother that he was asking a question. Quite proud of his achievements he decided to take a little morphine, or what he fondly called ma (嗎), and drifted off to sleep.

Notice that in the story there are different words in English for the different things. That is logical and expected. However, in spoken Chinese they’re all the same word. The characters are different, but they developed much later than the oral language. I randomly chose the ma sound, but could just as easily have used shi, xi, chi or any other Chinese sound.

It’s ludicrous on the face of it.

Obviously the language’s oral indistinctness causes limitless opportunities for miscommunication. For example, if I’m saying something about miandian am I talking about Myanmar or a bread store. Who knows? Or, if I’m mentioning koujiao, am I referring to the corner of the mouth, a blowjob, or garnering your wages? Well, it’s hard to say. Maybe you can get it from context—is the penis pointing towards the corner of the mouth or scraping the tonsils? Obviously this is no way to make a language.

If we were to accept that Chinese is tonal, then we’d also need to accept Ma ma ma ma, ma ma ma as a valid sentence. That’s problematic. I would contend that no one would be thoughtless enough to create a language that way. Even if one person were that crazy, certainly no one would adopt such a language. It would be a dead language before it got started. It would be lunacy for tones to play a central role in expressing meaning, therefore there are no tones in Chinese. Q.E.D.

What I think is happening is that the Chinese are playing the greatest practical joke in history, and it is Andy Kaufmanesque in its surreal brilliance. Nobody expects it from the Chinese. Everybody thinks they have no sense of humor. Turns out they’re freaking hilarious!

I see them giggling behind their hands as foreigners try to pronounce Chinese with ridiculously exaggerated tones:

Foreigner #1: NIIiiIII  HHhaaAO MA?

Foreigner #2: HHEEennNN HHhaaAOO,  NIIiiIII  ne?

Foreigner #1: HHEEennNHHhaaAOO 

Chinese Man #1: Aiyah, listen to those two foreigners.

Chinese Man #2: What a pair of silly tits. Seriously, who’d speak like that?

Chinese Man #1: I can’t believe we’ve been pulling this for millennia.

Chinese Man #2: It never gets old.

If you’re a student of Chinese, just when you start making progress with tones, someone will crank up the joke and tell you that you’ve been doing the tones all wrong. They’ll claim that if a 3rd  tone word is followed by another 3rd tone word, the preceding word changes to 2nd tone. If there is a series of 3rd tone sounds in a row, then each in turn changes to 2nd tone, until the final 3rd tone word, which reverts back to 3rd tone.

NIIiiIII  HHhaaAOO

should actually be

nNiiII  HHhaaAOO

Bullshit.

They’re pulling your leg. It is an obvious practical joke. Who is going to keep track of how many 3rd tones they will be saying in a row, and which will be the last in the series? If that much calculation were required while speaking no one would ever be able to produce a sentence.

Even children are in on the joke. Ask a young Chinese person to teach you a tongue twister sometime. They may teach you a genuine tongue twister like:

吃 葡 萄 不 吐 葡 萄 皮 ,不 吃 葡 萄 倒 吐 葡 萄 皮

Chi pu tao bu tu pu tao pi, bu chi pu tao dao tu pu tao pi

This will have you tripping over the words. But, if the child has a sardonic sense of humor he might suggest this tongue twister:

媽媽騎馬。 馬慢, 媽媽罵馬。

Mama qi ma. Ma man, mama ma ma

Not a terribly tough “tongue twister” is it? Even having never spoken Chinese, you should be able to say this one very quickly. It is almost all the same word. See, this joke operates on many levels and can be appreciated by a diverse cross-section of Chinese society.

Well played my Asian friends, well played.

Help! I’m Living in a High-Context Family

My wife, Venus Chen, contributed most of the ideas in this article. Mainly I just organized and wrote up her perception, and provided specific examples. I independently reached a similar set of conclusions, but she has dealt more intimately with these issues and has a deeper perspective.

When I first arrived in Taiwan I was constantly told how tight-knit families are here. It didn’t take long to figure out this was at best a communal fiction. Most of my Taiwanese friends shared almost nothing with their families—they were virtual strangers. The familial feelings in Taiwanese families are not based on love and warmth, but duty and obligation, with an artfully applied dash of guilt. If you don’t recognize it, that’s the formula for filial piety. The closeness in Taiwanese families is a closeness that expresses itself in form more than reality. (See: Form Over Function).

The adult children should come home and visit the parent’s the prescribed number of times per month, and deliver the prescribed amount of money for support. If during these regularly scheduled visits there is no meaningful interaction, and all present just stare like zombies at the TV, that’s fine. It is not about being close as a family—it is about observing correct form. When we first married, during one of our first weekly trips home, I went along, and was surprised when we arrived and the parents left. Venus and I sat alone for a couple hours watching TV until they returned. No familial closeness had been achieved, but form had been observed. I don’t quite follow the logic, but I suppose if the neighbors had been watching, they would have thought what a good daughter and marginally acceptable son-in-law, they visit weekly. (High-context cultures prioritize perception over reality).

Many Taiwanese choose to hold back most aspects of their lives from their parents. Usually they just give parents some small irrelevant pieces of information about their lives, trying to provide an illusion of involvement. One of the reasons for this is that Taiwanese kids are afraid to make mistakes. Parents, teachers, and schools do not provide a safe environment to fail. Consequently, the young never learn how to screw up, pick themselves up off the floor, and try again. That fear extends into adulthood where it is compounded by the fear of losing face that comes with admitting failure. If they fear that something may not work out, it’s easier to hide it. The classic example of this would be the daughter who gets engaged before her parents are even aware that she has ever had a first date. The most extreme example I can think of is a former student who met, dated, lived with, got engaged to, and married someone without her parents being any the wiser. I bumped into her two years after she married and her parents still didn’t know, despite weekly visits home. That example is exceptional, but in day-to-day family life small secrets and misdirection are the norm.

At the same time the default position of parents is to strive toward controlling their children’s lives. This is understandable for young children, but extends well into middle age. At its core is the fear of failure. If I don’t exert maximum control over my children, they may fail. I will feel bad if they fail, but also what will that do to my face if it becomes known that my child is a failure. Taiwanese parents don’t have the conception of we did our job, we raised a good child, now we should trust their judgement, and allow them the opportunity to sink or swim on their own, only coming to the rescue, in a nonjudgmental way, if necessary. That is not the Taiwanese way.

Parents here, of course, feel sad that their children won’t share with them. They feel sad that when they make an effort to help and the children get mad. Their experience, knowledge, and goodwill is not appreciated. The children, likewise, may be generally unhappy with the status quo. They might like some advice from their parents, but instead they get parents just telling them what to do, or more likely what not to do. It is not really advice, but just an attempt at control. So, kids often simply avoid all the drama by keeping parents out of the loop.

Where’s the Beef?

My wife is a vegetarian, so I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about meat. I lust after it. I make elaborate plans for preparing it; the way I’d lovingly caress the supple flesh, gently rubbing in the dry spices, or how I’d pound a center-cut shank with my meat mallet until it yielded to my will and became the soft piece of beef I want. Don’t even get me started on boozy marinades, the combination of alcohol and beef could have me on an hours-long flight of fancy.

When I say I dream about meat I mean beef. No point fantasizing about chicken breasts. I come from Western Canadian, farming and ranching country. Beef really is the only meat there. Pork—the other white meat—is suitable for health freaks. Chicken and fish? Those are practically vegetables, appropriate for the daintiest of lady’s, hippies and assorted pansies. Beef. Grass-fed. Well-aged. That’s a man’s meat.

Since Taiwan joined the WTO you can buy almost any food that you want [here]. Good quality beef is a bit of an exception. For a price excellent steaks in high-end restaurants can be found. I had one of the best steaks of my life in a Taipei restaurant. It cost as much as a quick trip to Hong Kong for British pub grub, but it’s available. However, if you’re just a dude with a hankering for a slab of well-marbled beef to throw on the barbie—good luck.

Local grocery stores mostly carry anonymously sourced frozen beef. It’s sliced paper thin for boiling in a hotpot. There might be some relatively thin steaks from Australia or the USA. If those countries are capable of producing a decent piece of beef they’re not sending it to Taiwan. It is some sad looking meat. The US beef that comes to Taiwan is all corn fed, so—as far as I’m concerned—relatively tender, distinctly tasteless, and suitable for the trashcan. On rare occasions I’ve run across a nice piece of Aussie beef that somehow accidentally got sent to Taiwan. However, generally the quality is low, usually just a mix of muscle and gristle with no marbling. Of course it’s unaged—it would waste time and space to age such a piece of beef. The end result is a piece of flavorless shoe leather.

There are a very small number of specialty butchers, where you may, on occasion, find good quality beef. I’m aware of one that sometimes has aged, grass-fed, Alberta beef. It is to die for. In recent years a number of high-end groceries have popped up around Taiwan that have decent Western products. Often you can find a respectable looking steak with the right buzzwords on the package; grass-fed, aged and flash frozen. I haven’t tried a lot of these, because when I start finding myself spending around 1000元 on a medium-sized piece of sirloin, I start thinking someone ought to be cooking it for me.

If you do find a restaurant that has decently sourced beef, there’s a good chance that they’ll do a nice job cooking it. It didn’t used to be that way. It was ridiculously difficult to get a restaurant to serve beef that hadn’t been dried out like a sun-bleached turd. The server practically went into paroxysms of fear if you asked for medium-rare or rarer. Inevitably, when the beef arrived it would be overcooked. Ironic considering undercooked chicken is common, but beef—you practically had to march into the kitchen and cook it yourself if you wanted it rare. With the influx of Western restaurants consumers seem to be more knowledgeable and most restaurants are now willing/able to cook beef to the customer’s preference. Fewer of rare beef also explains why it is hard to find a steak thick enough for grilling in Taiwan. Why cut your steaks 4-5 cm. thick—it just makes them harder to dry out.

There are some Taiwanese style “steakhouses” here. They serve a thin minute steak, with lots of sauce, on a hot cast iron griddle with an egg and a bit of spaghetti. It is very affordable. In my early days in Taiwan, back before Western restaurants were on Taipei’s every corner, I used to frequent 我家牛排 and similar local steak joints. It was a pale imitation of a steak dinner, but it was at least an imitation. Funnily, paralleling the interminable rumors in various Western cities of cat being served in this-or-that Chinese restaurant, there were constant rumors of horse being served in this-or-that Western-ish Taiwanese steakhouse. I found it reassuring to see whatever ridiculous culinary xenophobia fueled such rumors in Canada almost exactly paralleled in Taiwan.

Taiwan has become something of a foodie paradise, so why is it so hard to get good beef here? I believe it’s because the Taiwanese are just not that fond of beef. It does not play a starring role in Chinese cuisine. There is an emphasis in Chinese cooking on the importance of fresh ingredients. The idea is if it’s on the plate at lunch, it was clucking in the field at breakfast. That might be good for fish, and okay for chicken or pork, but beef doesn’t work that way. You’re not allowing its flavor to come to the fore. Of course you’re also left with a stunningly tough piece of meat. It’s truly a marvel how beef in Taiwan can be cut paper thin, boiled, and yet still be too tough to cut.

It is even a somewhat common practice in Taiwan to observe a prohibition on eating beef. It isn’t exactly a religious ban. The idea is that farmers rely on cows to help around the farm, thus as a mark of respect beef shouldn’t be eaten.  Many farm families observe this prohibition. They didn’t really rely on cows for help—those were water buffalo, a rather different thing. I think this practice exists because giving up beef is not a heart break for many Taiwanese.

Where’s the beef? Not here.

Gratuitous beef porn. Enjoy.

Form Over Function

When I first came to Taiwan to study Chinese folk religion, I was surprised to learn that form was valued over function. In a religious context, that meant that if the form of an individual’s prayer was correct, it didn’t matter what was in their heart or their beliefs. If the devotee went from incense censer to censer in the prescribed order and made the obeisances correctly, that was good enough. As I’ve lived here longer I’ve found that form is highly valued in most areas of life.

Form’s importance partially relates to the nature of high-context culture, with its emphasis on community and maintaining a shared perspective, based on shared history and culture (The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock). People are discouraged from scratching too deeply below the surface—there be dragons. If social cohesion’s underpinnings are examined too closely the house of cards will fall. The surface calm and solidarity required by high-context societies necessitates a willful denial of deeper social realities. The form, or surface, needs to be prioritized over the heterogeneity below the surface.

A system of politeness that emphasizes form developed in the Chinese cultural milieu to maintain surface calm. I’d like to turn to Chinese literature for a historical example. The Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh (水滸傳) is one of the four great classic novels of China (四大名著). Written in the 14th century by Shi Nai’an, it has been described as China’s tale of Robin Hood. It is an adventure story about bandits. What surprises is how much of the narrator’s time is spent describing the formal modes of address and politeness employed when for example two bandit leaders meet, or a court official and General meet, etc. Much of the story is conveyed in the subtle shifts in forms of politeness. It was surprising to read an adventure novel where several pages might be spent on the minutia of showing respect:

After the usual courtesies as to names, Lu Da said that he had met Lin Cheng’s father at the Eastern Capital. Lin Chong was much pleased, and insisted upon making LuDa his sworn elder brother…. Lu Da ordered his servants to bring wine for the guest and when the later had partaken three cups,…  (Shi Nai’an, The Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh. Translated by J. H. Jackson. Tuttle Publishing: Hong Kong, p. 64).

Or:

Chao Gai pressed Lin Chong three times to take the seat of honor, but Lin Chong declined the honor. At last Chao Gai gave way and agreed to take the premier seat, and Lin Chong took the second seat. The other six men took their seats in a row. (Ibid. p. 214).

While the actual adventure parts of the story—the chases and battles—can be shockingly brief, occasionally little more than a couple paragraphs. Form is important: Sometimes it is almost the whole story.

I’m not trying to suggest that modern Asia is nearly as formalistic as it was in the Yuan Dynasty, but there certainly are echoes of that history today. Let’s start with a stupid foreigner story. During my first couple weeks living in Taiwan I rode the bus frequently. One day, from my seat, I saw an old Taiwanese man hobble onto the relatively full bus. He was the picture of geriatric distress; a cane, bowed back, small shuffling steps, sagging skin and a constant grimace as he meandered along. Naturally, I got up and offered him my seat, to which he very politely declined, and indicated with his hands that I should return to my seat. I was slightly confused—the guy obviously needed a seat—but, I honored his wishes. I didn’t want to insult him by implying that he was too decrepit to stand. After I sat back down, he gave me a look that I couldn’t decipher. Shortly afterwards a gently smirking Taiwanese businessman offered the old codger his seat, which he gratefully accepted. The old man then spent the rest of the bus ride glaring daggers at me. Most perplexing.

Later that day I found out from Taiwanese friends that I am supposed to offer something three times, so the recipient can reject the offer twice, before finally allowing himself to be cajoled into acceptance on the third time. Who knew? Where I come from, if somebody offers you something, politely reject it if you don’t want it, or take it if you do, because the offer isn’t coming again—function over form.

There are endless examples of the importance of form in Asian social interactions. Korean drinking culture is a great illustration of the importance of form in social interactions. Drinking in Korea is not just about getting drunk, although that is the desired byproduct, it is about showing respect. There are a lot of ritualized rules surrounding how to get drunk with friends. The briefest of lists includes: pour and receive drinks with both hands; don’t pour your own drink; pour drinks for others; definitely for the first drink, and as much as possible for subsequent drinks, try to drink at the same time as others (don’t drink alone); turn to the side when drinking in front of a social superior; etc. As a foreigner, it can be rather odd to watch a group of Korean friends descend into a drunken debauch, all the while, very precisely, observing the correct forms and rituals required to maintain politeness and the social hierarchy. Nothing wrong with it, it’s just distinctly different.

Generally, the form-over-function nature of Asian societies is harmless. Indeed it is part of the culture’s charm. However, it can go too far. One extreme example comes from Chiayi (嘉義), Taiwan. This event happened not too long after I arrived in Taiwan. Four people were working in Pachang Creek (八掌溪) when the water began to rise. The four workers became trapped on a small piece of land in the center of the flooded river. Rescuers arrived in plenty of time to carry out a rescue. However, for three hours no rescue helicopter came. Eventually the four were swept to their deaths, literally in front of the TV cameras, family, and emergency services workers standing helplessly on the riverbank.

The problem? Well, it was a matter of form. There was confusion over whether police air rescue or air force search and rescue should handle it. In my mind, I imagine the gathered rescuers calling for a search and rescue helicopter, and the commander on the other end answering, “Oh, I’m so honored to be considered first for this great undertaking, yet I must demure to my honorable colleague from police air rescue.” And, when they called in police air rescue, the commanding officer there responding, “Oh, the air force commander is too kind, we police are but amateurs compared with the air force’s pilots. I must insist that they take on this grand endeavour.”  And, on and on, until everyone died, in a shockingly literal example of the Midwestern American idiomatic expression; a Chinese fire drill. I’m sure that is not exactly what happened; but, I’m likewise sure it is sort of what happened.

Form is important. For people from lower-context cultures, the importance of social form is perplexing, but it is the glue that maintains the surface homogeneity necessary for a high-context culture to function. It is intrinsic to the culture and not likely to change.

Vignette #7: My Favorite Student

I’d like to introduce my favorite student. I have had over ten thousand students, but one really stands out. Wei. He was one of my middle-aged buxiban students. I adored him. It is not that he was a particularly great English learner—he was okay. Nor did he have such an awesome personality—he annoyed most that dealt with him. It’s that he was the biggest L.K.K. (Taiwanese-style old fart) that I’ve ever seen—and, he was damn proud of it. Think redneck pride with a Taiwanese twist. He was idiosyncrasy, opinionatedness, warmth and kindness rolled together with a healthy dose of L.K.K. orthodoxy to form one complex, amusing and thoroughly vexatious sausage.

His eccentricities provided me endless in-class amusement. He was one quirky dude. The foible that amused me most was that he used three sets of glasses, as opposed to trifocals. I reveled in causing him to switch glasses as fast as a tap dancer on crack cocaine. I’d write something on the board [long-distance glasses], make the students write something in their books [close-up glasses], and then run to the center of the class and begin speaking [middle-distance glasses]. Wei would be flinging glasses onto his face left and right. The high point of my teaching career was running through the various focal lengths so quickly that he accidentally ended up wearing three pairs of glasses at once.

Wei’s whimsies were entertaining, but it was his dominant personality characteristic—Taiwanese hillbilly—that I loved him for. Objectively, being an L.K.K. is not charming. As a foreigner you’d think I’d have hated him for being an unrepentant, culturally insensitive, Taiwanese rustic, but the guy used to save my bacon regularly. His was my first adult conversation class. Up until then I’d only taught reading and writing. So, I’d prepare some conversation topic I thought would last 90 minutes, usually a cultural topic, only to have the students go, “Oh no, that’s not true. We don’t do that in Taiwan”. End of discussion; the material meant to last the whole class would barely make it past the opening minutes. That was before I was a seasoned conversation teacher with a vast repertoire of activities to fall back on. It was frustrating and frightening to suddenly need to vamp for an hour and a half. It was even more annoying because I knew the students were lying. They’d insist that aspect of Taiwanese culture or lifestyle, that I’d just seen in full operation, had disappeared long ago. They were unprepared to acknowledge many facets of life here. Most the students, I suppose, didn’t want to find themselves defending Taiwanese ways to me. Except Wei, who, God bless him, would come out and say something like, “Yes, yes, that’s exactly how it is in Taiwanese culture, and what’s more—that’s how it should be”. To which the rest of the class would face-palm and go, “Oh that. Yeah, yeah, we do that”.

An unforgettable instance occurred when I had prepared a discussion on child-rearing and family values. As usual the discussion ran onto rocky shoals when it turned to child-rearing goals. I contended that Western parents try to raise their children to be individualistic and independent; and, differences between Western and Taiwanese family life stem from this. The class felt Taiwanese parents shared Western parent’s goals. The conversation was in its usual danger of grounding to a halt, when to the class’s chagrin Wei began harrumphing. When their attention shifted to him, he artfully arranged his three pairs of spectacles on the table, leaned back in his chair, gazed unseeingly at the ceiling and said the most memorable thing any of my students have ever said, “No. The goal of Taiwanese child-rearing is to emotionally cripple your children, so they lack the confidence to go out on their own, and will never leave you.” He practically stuck his thumbs under his arms—Jed Clampett style—before continuing to pontificate, “And what’s more, that is a beautiful thing. That is the beauty of Taiwanese culture”. How could anyone not love such an unrepentant L.K.K.? The conversation snowballed beautifully after that.