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Guest Blog: Using Cultural Idioms with Awareness

Our first gathering after the summer hiatus took place at the new offices of Fox Intercultural overlooking Congress Street near Monument Square. We felt like China's great emperors as we looked down at the passing people of downtown Portland through floor-to-ceiling glass windows.
As soon as the conversation began, we were entranced with Bob Poole - a Portland resident and former Vice-President of the US-China Business Council - who carries a stack a index cards full of Chinese idioms (chéngyǔ 成语 ) wherever he goes. His way of utilizing the time spent in lines at the store or bank to learn Chinese idioms, inspired us all. 
His most ardent advice about using Chinese idioms?
Always verify the application of an idiom with a native Chinese speaker first, because you can easily misconstrue its intended meaning. He shared what happened at a talk in the United States in June 1989, just days after the Tiananmen Square incident, when reports were flying around wildly and facts were still being sorted out. In his attempt to placate the crowd, as no one was clear on what exactly happened, he said that coming to any conclusions would be like searching for fish in muddy waters or "hún shuǐ mō yú 混水摸鱼"... you can't fish out the facts since you cannot see clearly in muddy waters. After his talk, a Chinese person explained to him that the actual meaning for that idiom of "To fish in troubled water" was to "take advantage of a crisis for personal gain." Not his intended meaning at all!
Here are a few chéngyǔ 成语
四面楚歌 sì miàn chǔ gē  is literally "songs of Chu from all sides" that comes from a war strategy that when surrounding a group of Chu soldiers, the Han enemies sang Chu folk songs, sinking the Chu's into homesickness and worry... that the enemy enlisted Chu's, thus defeating and annihilating them. This idiom refers to a helpless and critical situation, surrounded by the enemy on all sides. 
鞍前马后 ān qián mǎ hòu  "in front of a saddle clean up after a horse," meaning to take care of things for important people, to serve them well...and sometimes, one also cleans up the mess a horse can leave behind. 
  guà yáng tóu , mài gǒu ròu, which means "to hang a sheep's head while selling dog meat"... false advertising.  
吞吞吐吐 tun tun tu tu "swallow swallow spit spit," used to describe stammering, which can also indicate an unwillingness to answer. 
We wondered if the younger generation use idioms (chéngyǔ 成语 ), if they are as popular as with the older generation of Chinese. In my own family life, idioms are coming out of my 90-year-old mother more and more... like her treasure trove of wisdom and experience is opening up with age and spilling over... and she is hoping that some of it sticks to me; hoping that these idioms will help me to understand human nature and behavior so I can have more peace in relationships and in my world. 

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.