June 01, 2009

Horse Horse Tiger Tiger

This week has marked the beginning of both of us making up for our lost study time when traveling. Our visa is conditional upon 10 hours of school per week, so when we miss it, we have to make it up. James is spending the month of June doing four hours a day, and I am spending two weeks doing three per day. We seem to be making quite the impression at the school. There are forty teachers there and every time we change our schedules, we get new ones. The more teachers teach us, the more feedback we here about ourselves being spread around the school. A line we are hearing a lot is "Wo tingshuo ni.... (I heard that you...) from teachers we know and teachers we don't know.

"I heard that you play piano". "I've heard that you and your husband sing silly made-up songs together". "I've heard that you have two children and that you're only 25". "I heard that James' wife was very pretty, but I didn't know that you are his wife!" (All of this in Chinese of course).

Yesterday I found myself in a conversation where all of my facial features were being analyzed. "Your eyes are so big and blue. Mine are not! The bridge of your nose is so tall! Mine is flat! Your skin is so white!" I interrupted with "Keshi ni hen piao liang" (But you are so beautiful!)

White skin is a trait that is to be aspired to here. There is a huge market for whitening creams and they are shocked to hear that in North America people want their skin to be dark. You can imagine that I was surprised to hear for the first time, "Your skin is so white! So beautiful!". I wasn't sure if I should take offense or be complimented on what James and I refer to as our winter color. Not knowing what to say to most of this, I just say, "Oh! Um, thank you".

But yesterday I learned that yet another subtlety to Chinese culture is that when you are complimented you must instantly come back and say "No no, it is not so!". To say thank you means that you agree with them and that you are a very proud person. I've certainly heard of this concept before, but what I did not know is that the best response is...ma ma hu hu (Horse Horse Tiger Tiger!). This strikes me as such a funny response that I have decided that I'm going to use it all the time!

For example, if I hear "Your children are so smart!" I'll just say "Horse Horse Tiger Tiger!" (Oh those children? They're just horses and tigers!)

Or "You make the most elegant hors d'oeuvres!", I'll respond with "Horse Horse Tiger Tiger!" (after all, horse and tigers make the best hors d'oeuvres!)

I know it probably sounds like I'm making fun of it, but the truth is that English has plenty of its own strange phrases. For example, James once tried to explain to a non English speaker the phrase "Put your nose to the grindstone". Only after seeing the girl's extreme confusion did we realize just how pointlessly painful that expression sounds!

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