Friday, October 12, 2007

Cross-cultural communication

[Zhejiang Province, China, July 2006]

One of the things about being a foreign language major is that there is really only so far you can go, in terms of language proficiency and cultural nuances, before you must experience that culture yourself. I say that as someone who never studied abroad as a Chinese major, and as someone who later lived in China for a year after graduating. You can hit the books, dictionary in hand, all you want, but there is something about living and breathing in the context of your language and stories that imbibes you with a different understand of the fluid, lifelike nature of language.

So anyways, one of the [many!] expressions I learned last year deals as much with language and usage as it does with cultural connotations:

'你穿, 有点老.'

Which literally translates as ... 'when you wear it, its a little bit old.'

Or actually, 'when you wear [implied object], [implied somebody] is a little bit old.'

[oh, vagaries of the Chinese language. You and your implied subjects/objects. It makes the language so beautiful and so difficult to translate.]

In other words, there is something that I'm wearing that makes me look old. Which actually means that there are certain clothes and certain clothing colors that are expected of different ages of women, and if you're wearing something that's a little bit outside of the expectancy, then they would say something like that.

Like when I was looking for a calf-length down jacket, [weather so cold your boogers freeze in your nose ... and weather so dry they're impossible to get out. I'm sure you appreciated that one] and I was deciding between fire engine red and khaki, the neutrals-loving practical voice in me was screaming 'pick the khaki!' and the whimsical side was screaming back 'but wouldn't red be FUN?' And the saleswoman finally said the magical phrase, '你穿, 有点老,' meaning to say that I should choose the red one. And I did. And I loved it. Fire engine red happens to be the second most popular down jacket color of choice, just barely behind black and barely beating out yellow, lime green, bright purple, orange ... not a whole lot of blue, for some reason.

In a city that is as grey in winter as Beijing is, of course you would try for as much color as possible in your winter attire.

So anyways, when I bought that mustard-yellow long sleeve t awhile ago from Target, I vacillated forever and a half on whether or not to actually keep it or return it [safer to buy what you're wavering on and return it later ... and yes, I am very good about returning things I decide that I don't want, and I'm also very good about deciding I don't want things]. I mean, I really like the mustard yellow. And since SF has very little in the way of an actual spring or summer, it is only with layering that I can really wear any short sleeve t-shirts whatsoever.

'你穿, 有点老.'

Because I had the sneaking suspicion that this was a '老' looking color on me. Wasn't I supposed to be falling in love with babydoll tops or something? [ick, doesn't work on my body, though I love the look]

But anyways, I decided to keep it in the end. To heck with colors being '老' and all. Probably nobody was thinking that but me anyways. And I do love layering colors.

And of course, it wouldn't be me if I didn't make goofy faces at the camera now and again. You can't really see it, but this is my 'Sheeba: Queen of the Nile!' shirt, purchased in Wuhan [central China] two Mays ago. I love crazy China clothing. It glitters and sparkles and usually has a few too many details for its own good, but this one, I happen to like.

And I'm sure this is rather season-inappropriate, but one thing I definitely miss about Asia is the way that women carry sun-umbrellas around. Which actually double as regular umbrellas, if you should happen to get caught in a sudden summer storm. It makes walking cooler and protects your skin. And of course, it wouldn't be China if the umbrellas weren't ridiculously pretty colors, and best of all, embellished with cute characters on them.

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