What I lost in translation at both ends of the Great Divide.

And what I found for making that attempt to bridge the chasm.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Ninja is A Patient Man. 忍者

In the past, when I saw someone wearing a T-shirt with a large in the middle of it, I used to think that he is a man who values patience due to my ignorance. But he is more likely to be a martial art fan for rěn is short for 忍者 rěnzhě or ninja. is “endure” and zhě is “person who...” but though 忍者 literally means “one who endures”, it is not the intended meaning in Japanese.

Ninja is the reading of two kanji 忍者 but written as shinobi-no-mono (忍の者), which is the native Japanese word for people who practice ninjutsu 忍术 rěnshù .

In feudal Japan, ninja are often employed as spy 间谍 jiàndié and assassin 刺客 cìkè. 刺客 is an interesting word composing of “stab” and “guest, visitor or traveler”. Thus, an assassin could be a guest who stabs you in the dark if you are not careful!

It is not easy to be a ninja. Not only do you have to master Ninja Juhakkie the 18 skills of Ninja 忍身十八形 rěnshēnshíbāxíng but also Bugei Juhappan the 18 martial arts of the samurai 武芸十八般 wǔyúnshíbābān. I think it ironical that the first skill listed under the skills of Ninja is Seishinteki Kyoyo (精神的教养 jīngshén de jiàoyǎng spiritual refinement) while that of the samurai is Jujutsu / Kenpo (柔术 / 拳法 róushù / quánfǎ unarmed techniques), don’t you?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Knife Over the Heart 忍耐

What my taxi driver said (refer to previous post) made me recalled the Chinese word 忍耐 rěnnài which means “to exercise patience” or “to show restraint”. Taken individually both the characters rěn and nài means the same – “endure, tolerate”. This is a very important word in Chinese moral teaching and is stressed by the following emphasis by which all Chinese youngsters are taught.

[rěn] 心上一把刀 xīnshàngyíbǎdāo
A blade over the heart
[nài] 面子少三寸 miànzishǎosāncùn
Face less three inches

The character rěn is composed of rèn ('blade') phonetic over (xīn) 'heart'. It is not easy to tolerate sometimes “like a blade over the heart”. That is why it is even more virtuous to be able to show restraint in the face of such aggravation.

Sometimes, we cannot endure further because of our pride, of what we deemed as a slap to our face. Please note that the character nài is made up of ér (this serves as the phonetic but is pronounced differently in ancient time - *nzi) and (cùn) 'inch'. is very close in writing to [miàn] “face” but less 3 strokes (or 3 inches) in total. Thus, if we are not so particular about our “face” and are willing to concede 3 inches; we will find the situation much easier to tolerate. From these examples, you can appreciate the beauty of the Chinese written language. Below are some Chinese compound words and proverbs that further stressed tolerance. The reasons why those characters are combined to give the meanings are pretty obvious.

rěn + xīn 'heart' = 忍心 rěnxīn have the heart to
rěn + shòu ‘receive’ = 忍受 rěnshòu v. endure; bear
rěn + cán ‘savage’ = 残忍 cánrěn adj. cruel; ruthless (can endure savagery)
rěn + jiān ‘solid; firm’ = 坚忍 jiānrěn adj. steadfast and persevering (firm in enduring)
rěn + ràng ‘let, allow’ = 忍让 rěnràng v. be conciliatory
忍诟偷生 rěngòu-tōushēng vp. (“endure shame, drag out an ignoble existence”) = endure disgrace in order to stay alive
忍气吞声 rěnqì-tūnshēng vp. (“endure anger swallow sound”) = swallow anger

nài + xīn 'heart' = 耐心 nàixīn adj. patient
nài + fán ‘be vexed’ = 耐烦 nàifán adj. patient (able to tolerate being vexed)
nài + xìng ‘nature’ = 耐性 nàixìng n. patience; endurance
nài + láo ‘labor’ = 耐劳 nàiláo adj. diligent; able to stand hard work
吃苦耐劳 chīkǔ-nàiláo vo. (“eat bitter endure labour”) = endure hardships

These examples should give a good idea of how a lot of Chinese words are constructed, putting two or more similar or contrasting characters to form a word with the same or totally new meaning. The above are examples with logical explanation but there are vexing examples where one will be hard pressed to find logic. That is why Mandarin is so difficult to learn but then Chinese speakers said the same thing of English! Isn’t this food for thought? 耐人寻味 nàirénxúnwèi?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

What My Taxi Driver Taught Me. 忍无可忍

20 April, 7.30 a.m.: Ben, my regular taxi driver was ferrying me to KLIA to catch a flight to attend the Food Hotel Asia Trade Show in Singapore. As we backed up in heavy traffic, we talked about how too many cars in densely populated neighborhood often led to parking disputes. I had borne the brunt of such distaste.

Our conversation led us to a recent incident reported in the newspaper where one man bashed the head of another in with a large rock due a minor accident. And for what? He will be jailed a long time for that moment of outburst if found guilty. It was then, Ben spouted out “退一步, 海阔天空” tuìyībù, hǎikuò-tiānkōng loosely translated as “taking a step back, the situation is as boundless as the sea and sky”. I was both amused and impressed. I reached for my notebook and asked him to repeat that.

He obliged. Then with a smile, he added “忍一时, 风平浪静” rěnyīshí, fēngpíng-làngjìng “tolerate for a while, both the wind and waves calm down”, to further drive in his point.

But he told me there are times when one is really at the end of his tolerance 忍无可忍 rěnwúkěrěn. His neighbor will steal anything he can reach from his side of the fence – pails, brushes, car shampoo, etc. At times like this he reminded himself of his neighbor’s elderly parent who are such nice and polite people, and that 10 brushes only costs RM12.00. So he concluded with a sigh – still I find the reasons to tolerate 还是要忍 háishiyàorěn.

As we approached the airport building, this thought crossed my mind before I alighted from the car - 三人行必有我师 sānrénxíng bìyǒuwǒshī, “there is a teacher among every three persons I meet”…

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Learning Chinese – Part I. 另一种语言

It is not easy learning another language. Especially Chinese which is universally acknowledge as one of the most difficult in the world. But I had to do it. Why? Being of Chinese descent is a good reason. But more so because I once read that –

If you know only one language, you're a prisoner, stuck in the tyranny of that one language.
-Andrew Cohen, professor of linguistics (1944- )
rúguǒ nǐ zhǐhuì yīzhǒng yǔyán, nǐ jiùshì nà yǔyán de bàozhèng qiúfàn

And you never know how true that is until you start to learn another language. You thought the language you mastered contained all you need and you took pride in the beauty of your language until you took up another and see a whole new world. It will not in any way diminish the appreciation of your own language, but enhance it by broadening your views. Federico Fellini puts it better –

A different language is a different vision of life.
lìngyīzhǒng yǔyán shì lìngyīzhǒng yǎnguāng

Learning another language is like stepping through the door to another dimension. You can only go to that dimension if you have that magic key, and that magic key is its language. The greater your command of that language, the richer is the unfolding scenery. I am determined that it is worth the sacrifice for the Czech 捷克人 jiékèrén said it is living a new life.

Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem.
You live a new life for every new language you speak.
If you know only one language, you live only once.
(Czech proverb)

If you followed this blog, you will already know how much I gained by travelling down this unfamiliar road. The experience I had, the people I met, the knowledge I gained; I will never have enjoyed that had I not made those “desperate” attempts to bridge the gap. It was not all fun. I found myself in some rather uncomfortable situations when my attempt to communicate fell flat. I found people at the other end of the divide who could not warm up to me because I could not effectively communicate (being a rather reserved person did not help either). I was not “one of them” because I could not speak their lingo. The problem is not with them. The problem is with of my command of the language. And only I can do something about it. For the Russian 苏联人 Sūliánrén said –

Language is not honey but it can bind everything (person).
yǔyán bùshì mì, quèkě zhānzhù yīqiè dōngxi.

I am under no illusion how difficult this will be. But I know how much I stand to gain. I can only hope it will get easier as it goes along for everything is more difficult at the start. 凡是总是由难而 fánshì zǒngshì yóunán éryì. After all Chinese has an old saying that said “Bitter first, sweet later” 先苦后甜 xiānkǔhòutián…

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

“Reborn at the End of the Road” 绝处逢生

I waited in a long queue to have the book I bought signed. When it was my turn, I told Dr. Hsu that of the 19 books he wrote this was the only one I could read. It was translated into English. He looked up, gave me that boyish smile of his and said that more are being translated. The book I gave him to sign is “Reborn at the End of the Road” or 绝处逢生 juéchù-féngshēng. The Chinese title is a proverb meaning “being unexpectedly rescued from a hopeless situation”.

And that is what Dr. Hsu preached in that book. That cancer is not the end a road but the beginning of a new one. He boldly declared that 癌症不是 - 症! Áizhèng bù shì zhèng! meaning that cancer is not a disease of the body. He said that cancer is a distortion of our emotion that over time expresses itself as a disease. That modern medical treatment only emphasizes on the treatment of the body hence only the symptoms. In that, it is only attending to the trifles while neglecting the essentials, 舍本逐末 shěběn-zhúmò. He believed treatment should be from a holistic approach, from body, mind and spirit 身心灵 shēnxīnlíng. If we only rely on what medical science or alternative medicine can provide, it will never be enough for we did not treat the root cause; for cancer is just a reflection of our life’s condition through our body. Thus, we can only cure cancer through our heart「xīn.

If we believe Dr. Hsu, we will believe that cancer is a turning point in our life. It forces us to re-examine our life and ask “what do we live for?” If we are honest with ourselves and boldly live the life we wanted, we will be liberated and find the reason and will to live. I cannot do justice to this wonderful book with this brief description and can only recommend that you read it yourself even if you are healthy. For the lesson within applies to everyone whether healthy or sick…

(p.s. This is probably one of the best books to give to a patient. I once gave “Searching for Shangrila” to a friend who had a heart attack. (如果你用心寻找, 香格里拉可能就在一杯热腾腾的酥油茶中… If you search with your heart, Shangri-la may even be found in a steaming cup of yak butter tea…). When I told him I was deliberating between giving him that book and “Reading Lolita in Teheran”, he cracked up until tears rolled down his eyes and said “you’re killing me!” Well, I did not. And laughing in the face of death may have opened up a few stitches but did his heart a world of good.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Trying Hard to Chew 贪多嚼不烂

Sitting in the large hall with a few hundred other participants, the thought I must have bitten off more than I could chew 贪多嚼不烂 tānduō jiáobulàn crossed my mind. Here I was attending a seminar given totally in Mandarin on emotion 情绪 qíng xù when I did not even know what this word was before I signed up. When I started this blog, I intended to immerse myself into the Chinese speaking world to see what rubs off besides the language. Anyway, I believed that to really learn something, one has to leave familiar ground and extend beyond our comfort zone.

So there I sat, stretching my ears to pick up unfamiliar sounds, words and phrases from 1 p.m. in the afternoon to 9 p.m. at night. At the end, my ears were exhausted and my head was swimming but I was still thinking in English. I could comprehend maybe 80% to 90% of what was conveyed in general (and much less word for word) and which was not good enough for I would not want the doctor who is deciding whether I am sane or not to only understand 90% of what I was saying and guessing the rest!

This team of experts from Taiwan was led by Dr. Xu TianSheng 许添盛 (also Hsu Tien-Sheng due to the way Chinese is pronounced in English). They asked a provocative question – did you invite your depression 忧郁症 yōuyùzhèng, chronic diseases 慢性病 mànxìngbìng and cancer 癌症 áizhèng to be your spokesman? All 5 talks were preceded by a short sketch that impressed upon the audience how little control we have on our emotions. How we let powerful emotions such as panic 恐慌 kǒnghuāng, anxiety 焦虑 jiāolǜ, anger 愤怒 fènnù, self-reproach 自责 zìzé and jealousy 妒忌 dùjì rule us. I was swarmed not only by feelings but also words of feelings! Now I was beginning to feel a little inadequate, 不自量力 bùzìliànglì, of trying to run before I could walk. “没关系” méi guānxi (never mind), I tried to console myself. A missed word or two here and there was not going to trip me.

The speakers told us how we recognize these emotions as negative so we strived to restrain and suppress them. But this misunderstanding slowly and gradually leads to a distortion of our energy that affected both our physical and mental health. And as a result, we became afflicted with diseases. It also resulted in wasting a precious opportunity to reflect on what our body and emotion is trying to tell us. I was beginning to understand what 普悦 pǔyuè meant (see April 5 post on Emotional Utopia) when she told us that she listened to what her cancer was saying to her…
(to be continued…)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A Man in “Jiang Hu”. 人在江湖

There were 3 main elements in the Butterfly & Sword. 流星•蝴蝶•剑 Wuxia story 武侠小说 (see earlier post – 29 Mar). The shooting star 流星 liúxīng represents brilliance, glory but also brevity. The butterfly 蝴蝶 húdié represents beauty, fragility, and romance. The sword jiàn represents fame, ruthlessness and ambition. Which of the three is temporal? Which of the three is eternal? Maybe, we should instead ask what is beauty? What is brilliance? What is eternity? Is brilliance and eternity the fluttering of the butterfly’s wings? Or the rule of the blood soaked sword?

The comment by reader Choo below explored these themes. The beautiful words are from her, the poor translations are all mine and I took artistic liberty to interpret them the way it appealed to me. Please let us have your comments if you disagree.

江湖恩怨, jiānghú ēnyuàn
政坛风云, zhèngtán fēngyún
The gratitude and enmity of “Jiang Hu”,
Or the turbulence of politics.

是敌或友, shìdí huòyǒu
谁是谁非, shuíshì shuífēi
Whether friends or foes,
Whether right or wrong;

扑朔迷离, pūshuò-mílí
像雾里看花, xiàng wùlǐ kànhuā
难分虚实. nánfēn xūshí
Are all complicated and confusing,
Like looking at flowers through the fog,
Impossible to distinguish with certainty.

剑虽无情, jiànsuī wúqíng
却光芒永恒. què guāngmáng yǒnghéng
Though the sword is heartless,
Is the glory forever?

但江湖儿女私情, dànjiānghú ér-nǚ sīqíng
更为万人所道, gèngwéi wànrén suǒdào
Or will it be the romance
That will be recalled

叫人回肠荡气. jiàorén huícháng dàngqì
And which touches the soul?

Whether in the world of Jiang Hu or in this very real world we lived in, very often we are not in control of the situation we found ourselves in. (Hence, the proverb 人在江湖, 身不由己rénzàijiānghú, shēnbùyóujǐ which was a title of another of 古龙 Gulong’s martial arts novel). But it is how we response to the world we lived in that determines who we are. What will be that wish we will make at the sighting of the falling star?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Emotional Utopia 寻找情绪的桃花源

I was intrigued by the newspaper article about 5 speakers from Taiwan coming to give a talk on the subject of emotion 情绪 qíng xù. Their title was 寻找情绪的桃花源 xúnzhǎo qíngxù de táohuāyuán loosely translated as “Seeking our emotional paradise” So I gathered it is about how to control our emotions to create the harmony found in 桃花源 the land of the Peach Blossom (see last post). So on the 8 March, we went for the free introduction to the seminar.

I was surprised that the talk was held in a beautiful old bungalow at a secluded corner of an older section of PJ. We sat on the wooden floor facing a large bowl of pink frangipani freshly plucked from the large tree in the garden. We waited in anticipation, in a tastefully decorated, brightly lighted and well equipped hall.

A cheerful, “short, well-rounded” (in her own words) middle-age lady took the mike and soon arrested the attention of the fifty or so of us seated on the wooden floor. Her name is 普悦 pǔyuè, the founder of Reset Garden 綠色生活 lǜsè shēnghuó (literal: Green Living), She spoke of how emotion can be a wild tornado that swept everything off its path or the calm in the storm lashing all round us. Her enthusiasm and booming laughter were infectious as she made jokes on herself. Then her voice cracked as she spoke of personal feelings, how she was a tempestuous mother and driven wife. All because she let 情绪 emotion ruled her. Do we want to tame the beast? She asked. The crowd was convinced.

Then, she dropped a bomb shell that she has 癌症 áizhèng (cancer). It was deeply shocking for the woman in front of me is so full of life. What this amazing woman said next stayed with me – “I started to really live only when I found I’ve cancer. It taught me to step back, reflect, and value life. It asked me if the life I was living was really the life I wanted. I’m grateful for what it taught me”.

Thankful for having cancer? On my long drive back, my mind were digesting her words mixed with this thought – 江山易改, 本性难移, jiāngshānyìgǎi, běnxìngnányí (it is easy to change rivers and hills but not man’s character). Still, if there is a compelling reason, man can have a paradigm shift. I signed up for the seminar 寻找情绪的桃花源 and hope it can teach me how to make emotion 情绪 an ally in life…

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Heaven on Earth 桃花源

Let us leave the Three Kingdoms to go to a land of eternal happiness – Peach Blossom Spring 桃花源 táo huā yuán. During the reign of Emperor XiaoWu of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (376-396), a fisherman following a stream suddenly came across a grove full of blossoming peach trees with lovely petals sweeping down, carpeting the ground. At the stream’s source through an opening in the hill, he came across a fertile plain with mulberry trees, serene ponds and swaying bamboos gracing the land.

There were well kept houses and men and women working in the field. Everyone whether young or old all seemed to be contented and happy. They were amazed to see the fisherman and treated him well. After several days of great hospitality, the fisherman bade them farewell and they told him “it is not worth telling people on the outside about us.” As he retraced his route, he left markers to find his way back. But he and others could never find that place again.

Shangri-la 香格里拉 xiāng gé lǐ lā is the Western equivalent of 桃花源. Both these names have become synonymous with our search for our 人间乐园 rénjiān lèyuán, our paradise on Earth. But where should we begin to start searching…? Or is it like the Tibetan said, “Happiness can be found in a cup of yak butter tea”. In the next post, I will tell you where my search led me…

(Meanwhile, this weekend I’m going to a retreat to do “unconscious dancing” 无意识舞蹈 wúyìshí wǔdǎo, for a few days. Stayed tune if you want to know more about it.)