Friday, September 25, 2009

Steiny Road to China: Steps 4 & 5

While Americans believe the number 13 is unlucky—as in Friday the 13th, the Chinese believe the number 4 sì is unlucky because it sounds similar to the word for death sǐ. However, the number 4 must be "sung" with the fourth or descending tone and the word death is intoned with the rollercoaster of the third tone that goes down and then up. So for this post, Changdi (a.k.a. the Steiny Road Poet) has paired 4 with 5 because the Chinese say that good things come in pairs.

Last week, I had the experience of thinking in Chinese. My laoshi (teacher) was going to each student and asking for a response to a question she would pose to that person on the spot. She was asking, "Are you the teacher" (Ni shi laoshi ma?) or "Are you the student?" (Ni shi xuesheng ma?). She expected us to answer "No, I'm not the teacher" (Bu. Wo bu shi laoshi.) or "Yes, I am the student." (Dui. Wo shi xuesheng.) I was feeling anxious because my brain was bouncing around trying to keep track of how to say I instead of you and yes instead no. The words for teacher and student I had down cold. So when she asked me in Chinese if I was the teacher, I responded, "No, I am the student." (Bu. Wo shi xuesheng.) I certainly hadn't planned what I was going to say. It just popped out without any conscious effort. It also surprised the teacher and she stopped to ask the class if they heard what I answered.

This week the drill is to learn how to write the Chinese characters for five countries and a few assorted words like student, teacher and friend. Last week we needed to learn how to write characters for 1-10 as well as the pinyin. Our first quiz is next week. So far, I cannot hear the tone differences very well. Tone one, the flat sound to infinity, isn't so bad and neither is tone four which descends but the rollercoaster and rising tones are hard for me to hear unless the words are said very slowly.

Basically, my teacher thinks the answer to our student anxiety can be covered by this: ke kou ke le. This is the Chinese interpretation of coca cola and in Chinese, ke with the rollercoaster third tone means permit and le, pronounced with the descending fourth tone, means happiness. So, drink ke le (coke) and permit the mouth to rejoice!


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Steiny Road to China: Step 3

My laoshi (teacher) Xiaoli Zhang said in the second class that she was going to assign us each a Chinese name if we didn't already have one. Over the weekend, the Steiny Road Poet, who has always been good at naming, decided she would look for a Chinese name that appealed to her as a poet. After looking at baby names for Chinese girls, she decided that was like looking for a needle in the haystack.

Shifting gears she thought of the book Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, or is that Chang Jung? (Last names come first in China.) In that memoir, the author and her mother and grandmother have swan in their given names. OK, the Steiny Road Poet decided she wanted a name with a musical instrument and began investigating the translation of flute.

Actually there are many names for different kind of flutes in Chinese: dizi and bangdi are transverse flutes usually made of bamboo. Xiao is an end blown bamboo flute. Gudi is an ancient vertical flute made from bird bones. Paixiao are pan pipes. Koudi is a tiny bamboo flute. Xun is a clay ocarina.

In the Han Dynasty, the dongxiao (currently known as the xiao) was called a chángdí or long flute. During the Song Dynasty, the chángdí was renamed dongxiao. Chángdí is represented by two Chinese symbols. The first symbol looks like a fancy version of the Roman letter K and it means long in space, lasting, deep, profound. The second symbol means bamboo flute.

Ok, so the Poet also needed a Chinese sur name and so she picked Li. Chinese people didn't always have surnames but Li meaning plum is 3000 years old. here is the symbol: 李

Li Changdi

Friday, September 11, 2009

Steiny Road to China: Step 2

On Thursday September 10, 2009, the Poet spent two hours in the language lab trying to nail down how to read pinyin, that's the Romanized phonetic spelling of Chinese which was developed by a government committee in the People's Republic of China and approved by the PRC in 1958. She used the expanded second edition of Integrated Chinese, a popular text book for teaching Americans the Chinese language. However, the Montgomery College Bookstore ordered the wrong edition and next week, the Poet will have to go back to the store and get the third edition. What's really frustrating is not having the CDs that go with this text book.

Her laoshi (teacher) Xiaoli Zhang now says it would be better to have the third edition but that the class should listen to any Chinese recordings to help their ears get tuned up. Yesterday the Poet listened to the CD she bought in Chinatown Philadelphia when she went by bus to hear poet Nathalie Anderson's and composer Thomas Whitman's opera A Scandal in Bohemia. She's about to jump out in the rain and do the same in a few minutes.

She is telling you these ponderous details because learning Chinese and working in the field of new opera are fraught with obstacles. The Poet is OK with this as long as there is some return on the investment.
Here's my ROI from last night's class:

1) The Chinese character for 'hao' is a combination of the characters for woman and child. Hao means OK, fine, good. You greet another human being by saying, 'Ni hao' meaning 'Hi, are you good, are you OK?' Have a look at the character for woman. The Poet had already gotten this character into her subconscious memory in the first class because this is how she is going to find the Ladies Room when she gets to China! Is this not extraordinary that well being engages around the creative act involving a woman with child?

2) Changcheng (the Great Wall) means long city/fortress and Chang Jiang is the name of the longest river, the Yangtze.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

First on the Steiny Road to China

The Steiny Road Poet has rarely taken the easy path. For years, the Poet has been meaning to learn Chinese. Well, at least learn enough vocabulary to get by as a traveler. Over the years, she bought flashcards, cassettes, workbooks, and CDs. Today she is officially on the books at a local college for Chinese 101. The first class was Tuesday evening.

The Poet walked in the class late because she was caught up in a line trying to register for the class. Wow, the majority of the 20 or so students were Asians. The laoshi (that’s Mandarin pinyin – phoenetic spelling—for teacher) greeted the Poet with “Ni hao!” Lucky for for the Poet, she knew this is how you say hi and so she returned the “Ni hao!” By the way, the pinyin she is using here is missing all the accent marks. Sorry but she doesn’t have that character set.

First up is to learn the four tones—the flat tone into infinity that is Ma as in mother (open your mouth wide), the rising tone (like a question) of Ma that means flax, the rollercoaster tone of Ma that goes down and then up and means horse, and the descending tone Ma that means scold or criticize.

And tones are not the only sounds that need to be heard and internalized. There are also the sounds that require different positioning of the tongue. The idea is to spend hours in language lab to nail down the sounds and tones. So the Poet went to check out the lab and got totally confused. The confusion stems from the fact that different versions of the text book and workbooks are being sold and used. So for example, the Poet had the 2nd edition of the text book, while her laoshi had a 3rd edition. Laoshi Zhang said it didn’t matter. Oh but it does, the Poet is now muttering to herself. Guessing where her laoshi is reading from wastes time. When the Poet was in the lab she tried to follow the CD lessons in the workbook but that didn’t work. Wrong version? The Poet had a 3rd edition workshop but the CD said 2nd edition. Now she thinks the CD plays to the text book and not the workbook. To quote her Yiddish bubbeh, Oy vey!

So for now the Poet will concentrate on learning her numbers. This is something she started to teach herself from YouTube tutorials before she decided to go to a formal person-to-teacher class. What she didn’t realize is that the numbers say a lot about learning the tones and the characters are pretty simple to grasp.

Learning Chinese is like learning to identify instruments in an orchestra. The Poet likes the musical aspect of learning this language. By the way, the Poet thinks in another life she was Chinese.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Avoiding the Deadly Undertow

Yesterday, the Steiny Road Poet received an email from composer John Supko who has been germinating an opera project with the Poet. His message read, how about changing the name of the work from the storytellers of Tangier (actually Raconteurs in Tangier) to an actual story title by Paul Bowles. Paul and Jane Bowles are the focus of this work. While the question from the composer wasn’t put to the Poet in exactly that way, she is now thinking after a walk along the Potomac River this is how the conversation has evolved.

One of the things that the Poet liked about this suggestion is how intimate the composer is with the literary side of Paul Bowles. For those who don’t know PB, he was both a writer of words (fiction and poetry) and music. More importantly, John’s suggestion took the Poet outside of the box she had created for herself. While she was OK with Raconteurs in Tangier, she knew deep down that it wasn’t the most evocative title because while raconteur is a word used in English, it’s not familiar to most people.

“How Many Midnights,” the story title that John is suggesting, comes from Paul’s collection The Delicate Prey. In “How Many Midnights,” the main character June (surely modeled after Jane Bowles) is engaged to be married to a very private man named Van. For some period of time, she has been focused nightly (midnight) out her bedroom window on where he lives. She is much younger than Van and she still lives with her parents. Finally, Van makes the ultimate sacrifice and gives her a key to his apartment. The trouble is the first night she goes there by herself, he never comes home from his book store. The story deals with privacy, the threat of suicide, and abandonment. Paul Bowles was the master of suggestion.

While the libretto the Steiny Road Poet wrote never mentions midnight, there is a suggestion that midnight could be the timeframe during which the anchoring characters Paul and Jane's Moroccan lover Cherifa are rehashing Jane's life. (She has already died when these two unlikely smoking partners get together.) So now the quandary is whether to insert the phrase how many midnights somewhere in the libretto. The Poet is thinking, why make the audience for this opera work so hard on how the title connects, especially if they are unfamiliar with this particular story by Bowles. The gift of its connection to PB's short story should stand out of the way and only go to the Paul Bowles aficionado.

So that’s it on a Labor Day weekend from the Steiny Road Poet who went for a walk along the C & O canal and learned today about an enticing dam across the Potomac River that kayakers might like to run. Well, the only rapids this Poet will run deal with the creative process. How wonderful to have a creative partner who can set the Poet free without sending her into a deadly undertow.