I can’t remember the last Korean drama I finished (not even Descendants of the Sun, gasp!) before this one, so I’m feeling pretty strongly about this right now—”this” being the 16-episode Age of Youth, which is currently on Netflix as “Hello My Twenties!”
I was speaking to my mom on the phone today when I heard and then dwelled on a phrase I know but, as it turns out, don’t really understand.
I’m talking about…
三下五除二 | sān xià wǔ chú èr
I’ve always heard this while I was growing up, and based on context clues, have gathered that it means to do something quickly, decisively, effectively…and that’s essentially what it means. But more interesting is its literal origins, which I only found out after doing some googling today.
As you might be able to tell, there are a lot of numbers in there: 三 (three) 五 (five) 二 (two), so it shouldn’t be too surprising that this idiom comes from a calculation formula for the abacus, which I totally don’t remember how to use…And I’m not sure how that formula works either (3 = 5-2?), but I guess the main point is that doing calculations on an abacus is much faster than using fingers or physical objects…Fun!
It all started with the show-stopping Balmain x H&M collab, which got me somewhat transfixed by the French fashion house’s bright, young, just dashing creative director, Olivier Rousteing (seriously, are those cheekbones even real?)…
Then comes the frantic googling for info/interviews/etc…Lucky for me, the guy speaks French! Here’s one (argh won’t let me embed!)
I didn’t understand too much…but am always happy to discover new places to listen to authentic French…actually, Canal+ (French cable company, Google tells me) has a trove of HQ videos, including this series of comedy shorts.
I’ve been away from this blog for about half a year, during which summer came and went…as did my much-anticipated vacation to China — those simultaneously long and short two weeks were a huge boon to my teenage brother’s Chinese language skills and only a moderate one to mine…
But today I pop back in here to say that recently I keep finding myself defaulting to the narrative that modern Chinese culture contains a chock full of nonsense English and similar gaffes — that in the process of plucking desirable Western traits, something always gets lost or otherwise garbled in translation.
For instance, a couple of weeks ago I was musing (for the umpteenth time) why my mom’s alma mater, 北京师范大学 (Běijīng Shīfàn Dàxué), is called Beijing Normal University…are there abnormal universities? What could “normal” possibly mean in this case? Was it an erroneous translation that just came to be widely accepted? All I knew was that the school was historically a teachers’college…and other teachers’ colleges were also called “normal” universities in English…
This time, I finally asked my mom and she said something about how the name was based on an early teachers’ college in France. What do you know, Wikipedia confirms:
A normal school is a school created to train high school graduates to be teachers. Its purpose is to establish teaching standards or norms, hence its name. Most such schools are now called teachers’ colleges.
And this tidbit from the article on the university:
A normal school referred to an institution that aimed to train school teachers in the early twentieth century, and this terminology is preserved in the official names of such institutions in China. [source]
Laugh out loud.
So all this time I thought China was translating English weirdly…it wasn’t even about English…it’s French! I was just way limited in my knowledge.
Now, English blunders can be found all over China, but I think this is nonetheless a case for avoiding presumptuousness and the general viewpoint that the culture you’re most familiar with is the most correct and at the center of everything.
Last weekend, I finally got around to visitingAlbertine, the new-ish bookstore and reading room housed in Manhattan’s historic Payne Whitney mansion, which has served the cultural services of the French Embassy since the 1950s. Conceived as a project to bridge the French and American cultures through books/humanities/general intellectual deliciousness, Albertine carries 14,000 titles in French and English and hosts special events like discussions, book signings, and story hours. While I aspire to partake in those alluring offerings later on, my first visit consisted of a quick stroll through the place, which was intimate and well-heated, and well, getting really hypnotized by the gorgeous indigo-and-gold ceiling on the second floor (details on the design of that here).
Today’s language-learning inspiration comes from Mr. Mark Zuckerberg, who just wow-ed the world with another mesmerizing video of him speaking entirely in Chinese. This time, it’s a Lunar New Year greeting, of course.
Also fascinating: this deep dive over on Quartz on what exactly is this year’s Chinese Zodiac animal sign. Is it a sheep? Goat? Ram? Does it matter? Apparently, some people in China are laughing at Western media for getting hung up on this, which is pretty amusing in itself. Linguistic mischief!