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Guest Blog: More Idioms!

As usual, our gathering in early March ranged through a wide variety of themes. The weather in Beijing this time of year is not great, but people joke that the gathering of officials and delegates for the National People's Congress clears the air quality with their "big talk", or "吹牛" (chuī niú). 

We were soon discussing how Chinese restaurants in the U.S. have two ways of cooking your Chinese dish to sate your taste buds, depending on whether you are American or Chinese. A waiter in New York City in the 1980's shared that he would indicate whether the customer was Western or Chinese to the kitchen staff with "人" (rén) for Chinese and "鬼" (guǐ) or "(foreign) devil." For the Chinese guest, a little saltier, for the Western guest, a little sweeter. Also, the Chinese would serve gelatinous pig's blood "猪血" (zhū xuě) for a Chinese guest, but would not for an American guest. I know of a beloved Taiwanese restaurant in southern California that caters only to Taiwanese... Americans leave it hungry. Tastes vary in China as well. For example, dishes in Shanghai are sweeter than in Beijing.

We weren't far into the roundtable when Bob Poole, one of our most entertaining Chinese speakers, whipped out his colorful pages of more idioms for double-checking interpretations with the Chinese at our Chinese Language Roundtable. He pointed out that he checks every new idiom he stumbles across with at least five Chinese people. A good thing too. For this one idiom, a younger person explained it the current way, and my 90-year old mother explained it the older way. 打草惊蛇  (dǎ cǎo jīng shé) "Beating the grass and flushing out the snake" currently means alerting the target of one's schemes by being cautious. The original meaning is that punishment for someone can serve as a warning to others. But people now use the idiom to indicate that premature actions can put the enemy on guard. A similar idiom, 杀鸡儆猴 (shā jī jǐng hóu), Killing the chicken to warn the monkey means to punish an individual as an example to others. 

Here are a few more that came up for your reading pleasure and contemplation:

雪中送炭 (xuě zhōng sòng tàn) litto send coal during snow (idiom); fig. timely help to provide help when one most needs it. 

雪上加霜 (xuě shàng jiā shuāng) to add hail to snow (idiom); one disaster on top of another to make things worse in a bad situation. 

火上加油 (huǒ shàng jiā yóu) - to add oil to the fire (idiom); fig. to aggravate a situation; to enrage people and make matters worse 夜长梦多 (yè cháng mèng duō)  A long night is fraught with dreams - a long delay may mean trouble. 

Idioms can communicate so much with a few words. Like all communications, when in doubt, ask. Or in the words of Mark Twain, "it's better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool rather than to open your mouth and remove all doubt." 

Karen Morency was born in Taiwan, emigrating to Newfoundland at the age of 10, and then moved to Maine. Her love for the Chinese language and culture was renewed when she began teaching her children and other children in the 1990’s. Her East-meets-West personality is expressed in her alternative healing modalities, qigong, and tai chi. 

The Chinese Language Table meets at Fox Intercultural Consulting’s headquarters in Portland on the first and third Friday the month. Starting at noon, we spend the hour catching up on news and in-depth discussions in Mandarin.

Photo credit: Cultural China