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Guest Blog: Old Port Conversations

One never knows where our conversations will drift to. Case in point, did you know that the American epic, "Gone with the Wind" was translated by one single Chinese word, 飄 piāo, which means "to float"? So much can either be lost in communication... or be so concise and precise that a single word punctuates its translation!
As we all gathered around the sun-filled conference room in the Old Port, Chi - who originally hails from Taiwan - pointed out that when two people speak a new language with their own regional accents, it can make things tricky. Speaking to be understood can be likened to shaking hands with gloves on or without gloves. One cannot "feel" as precisely or succinctly when wearing gloves.
A glove, "手套 shǒutào," could be your accent, whether an American with a southern drawl or a Bostonian's dropped "r's"... or an Asian who learned English as an adult who may speak with a heavier accent, or learned English as a child and can speak it without a traceable accent. When two non-native Chinese speakers talk with heavy accents it's as if each is wearing gloves! When one cannot understand nor be understood, it's like wasting one's breath "白講 báijiǎng"...l iterally, the color "white" and "speech", where "white" in this case may mean "empty", thus translating into "empty speech" fallen on deaf ears.
How is one's attempt to speak the foreign language in that country received? If you were in Sweden, they might wonder why you just don't speak English... since English is one of 20 official languages in the European Union. A foreigner trying to speak Chinese is usually greeted with welcoming giggles. Europeans speak multiple languages due to the closeness (in distance) of neighboring countries. Whereas in the US and China, the vast expanse between regions and cities cultivate distinct accents and sub-cultures. And don't the residents of big Chinese cities also speak multiple languages... Hong Kong is becoming a trilingual city: Mandarin, Cantonese and English.... in Shanghai it's Mandarin, Shanghainese, and English. 
"Is there a comparable idiom for 'go with the flow'?" "隨波逐流 suíbō zhúliú", which means "follow the wave, chase the current". The recent protest in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, in southwest China, against a planned chemical plant raised questions about how the Chinese population is protecting itself and its environment..."自我防衛 zì wǒ fáng wèi or  自(我)保(護) zì wǒ bǎohù" both phrases meaning "self protection".
The evolving Chinese peoples can be seen in the changes in Hong Kong since the Handover in 1997... the integration back with the mainland was supposed to take 50 years...and in just 15 years, Hong Kong has gone through dramatic cultural and political tension and upheaval. Hong Kongers were once more wealthy than mainland Chinese. Now, there are wealthy Chinese buying up Hong Kong real estate, making it difficult for Hong Kongers to afford to stay. Status seeking, status reversal... inflation & deflation... like the deflating of the "giant rubber duckie" in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor last week for the Art Basel Art Fair (that thankfully came back to life). 
What if change is the one constant in life? What if we can all embrace change with greater ease and joy?    

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. 

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. 

Photo credit: Wiki Commons