Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Fun and Lively or Hot and Deafening?*

One of the delights of the Chinese language is its compound words. By some estimates there are more than 55,000 different characters in the Chinese language (now you know why I so rarely have an opportunity to post here). Each of these characters has its own, distinct meaning and stands as a word on its own, but the real fun begins when two or more characters are combined to make a new word. Some compound words are satisfyingly straightforward, such as when the words “fly” (fei) and “machine” (ji) come together to form (you guessed it!) “airplane” (飞机), and others are much more abstract. The more abstract compound words are my favorite—they’re like tiny little doorstops propping open secret entrances, letting me peek into this country’s culture, history and psyche and puzzle over a slice of view.

One of my all time favorite Chinese words has got to be “renao” (热闹), which means “lively”, and also “jolly” or “fun”, as in “let’s go check out the fun.” (Wait, we say that in America, right? I’m suddenly having a moment of English doubt.) The two characters that form “renao” can be directly translated as “hot” and “noisy,” respectively. This never fails to amuse me. Lately, I’ve been thinking of this word a lot because it seems so emblematic of an aspect of Chinese culture that I’m having a hard time adjusting to. To put it clearly, in my book, hot and noisy ≠ fun.

I mean, sure, I like the beach in the sun, rowdy conversations and the occasional raucous party, and nobody would ever call me quiet (indulge me while I don’t rule out the possibility of hot), but never in a million years would I think of combining these two adjectives if I was asked to make up my own word for a fun, lively atmosphere. And I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that most of my fellow Americans would probably agree that they often go out of their way to avoid hot and noisy situations.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the average Chinese citizen fantasizes about demolition derbies in the Gobi Desert. (I confess I’ve actually know very little about demolition derbies but they strike me as being very noisy. I’m thinking crunching metal and gunning engines?) However, Chinese people undeniably possess if not a definite preference for clatter and bustle in every day life, then at the very least a much higher threshold for noise and for hot, sticky crowds than the average Westerner. If the contents of my last entry are not proof of this enough, then hear the case of Beijing’s famous Summer Palace:

The Summer Palace is a former imperial park filled with winding paths, a multitude of elegant pagodas and temples, and a large lake scattered with lotus plants and traversed by elegant, bowed, white bridges. To celebrate the final departure of the evil bacteria that kept us indoors most of last week, Mark and I paid a Sunday visit to this would-be-idyllic refuge, hoping for a momentary escape from the audio onslaught that is Beijing. Imagine our surprise (or maybe imagine your own, because Mark and I are getting more and more used to things here) when we discovered that parts of the park are “enhanced” with piped in music and information.

Presumably, the park plays the music to improve the visitor’s experience. Now, what I can’t figure out is this: does the paying public really demand this extra stimulus, or are they just so numb they no longer notice it? (Or maybe they really can’t hear it? I once had a taxi-driver who told me, in all seriousness, that she was convinced that Westerners had better hearing than Chinese people because the all the Westerners who rode in her taxi spoke to one another so much more quietly than her Chinese customers did.)

As I write this, the Beijing Sports University is providing me with another example of the Chinese quest for “renao”: instrumental music is currently drifting in my bedroom window from the speaker outside. Its 10:14am—people were already properly awoken at 6am with Unchained Melody and lunch isn’t for a couple of hours. I can think of no explanation for the provision of this music other than someone on the school administration, someone very, very different from me, thinking that listening to it would be pleasant.

I promise that despite the fact that all I’ve managed to do here so far is complain about this country’s noise and bad plumbing (and you’re lucky, Mark has to suffer frequent diatribes on many, many other subjects), I’m actually occasionally very glad to be living in it, being noisy and adding to the heat of a billion-plus people. And though my Chinese studies have been exhausting and my progress up to now frustratingly slow, the language does give me little presents, like “renao”, all the time. Maybe in the future I’ll write about another old favorite “luluyouyou” (绿绿油油) or “greengreenoilyoily”. In the meantime, you can play me for a little while, and spend some time guessing at its meaning on your own. (Here’s a hint: it officially has nothing to with cooking, although I would say that it has everything to do with the Chinese palate. Good luck!)

*Mark wanted me to call this entry "Scrabble Would be Fucked-Up in Chinese". But he also suggested "Paperclips" and "Jizz Powder" so I decided I'd better come up with a title on my own.