China: So Far So Near

Chinese “shakam ezay” packet

It is the Academic Writing class and we are going through a journal article by an American woman who taught English in Shanxi province in the 80s. “The provincial capital is Xian, right? Which was also the capital of a medieval Chinese empire,” I offer my comment to the class. My knowledge of China is quite limited and also superficial. “Not that Shanxi. Another one,” my professor replies. “Oh! There are two Shanxis in China?” The class (just three of us) laughs at my latest realisation. Jay offers to explain the difference between the two Shanxis. “This is Shanxi, pronounced as Shaan Xi, meaning “Land west of Shan mountain”,” Jay writes in Chinese characters and also the romanised version. “Then why couldn’t we call “East” of Shan Mountain the other Shanxi?” I propose with the inquisitiveness of a child and refusing to admit defeat. “Oh, east of Shan is Shan Dong, another province, Dong means East. This is where Jojo comes from,” Jay continues. I burst out laughing again. Amused by own stupidity.

Ok. To summarise: there are two provinces with same name (but romanised as Shanxi (west of Mountains) and Shaanxi with double a, which means Land west of Shan for the benefit of sentient beings like me who cannot read Chinese). There is slight variation in how they are pronounced but to an untrained ear they are both identical. Obviously, they are totally different when written in Chinese characters. The writing system is not alphabet-based (meaning phonetic) but pictorial and ideographic representations.

The class continues. The topic for today is contrastive rhetoric – the difference between Anglophone and Chinese academic writing styles. A paragraph, in particular, from the journal article catches my eyes:

All Chinese know the standard procedures of Chinese courtesy: 
"This food is not very good, we are not good cooks, you must eat 
more." "This is Chinese candy, Chinese candy is terrible, this 
is especially terrible Chinese candy, you must have some." 
Certainly, all language-users rely upon idioms, clichés, and 
set phrases, but the Chinese seem always to rely upon them...

My face brightened as I noted the astonishing similarity to my own culture. If I just execute the “Find” and “Replace” function on my Word document of just one pronoun, it will be a valid description of popular courtesies we followed back home. I just translated them in my head in my native language and they fitted word by word. I smiled even more.

This is what I like about learning. A discovery such as this. First of all, in a place that is so far that I didn’t even know the existence of two similarly named provinces and yet to find out a similar tradition of basic social norms as mine.

It just reinforced my confidence in my own culture.

NB – “This food is not very good, we are not good cooks, you must eat more” are widely said in Dzongkha as Zhego tshuebchi ga nay ya bay matshub. Zhay may la and in Sharchopkha as Toh tshutpa thur hangraang drangmay may la. Zhey na la.  



Jay explaining the difference between the two Shanxis



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