You Don't Say

“Nice yifu, mama,” Emmy said to me approvingly the other morning, stroking my pajama top and finding it surprisingly soft. “Nice yifu…”

Yifu is clothes, and while she might have said shuiyi—pajamas—my first thought was to be pleased that she’d grabbed for a Mandarin word at all. 

But then I realized she’d used one of each and it started me wondering—is that the result of learning two languages? Or, more likely, the result of regularly listening to me stuff a single Mandarin word into an otherwise English-language sentence? I think I’m messing her up, which means it’s time to step up—I need to be better about constructing and using whole sentences. 

“Hao kan de yifu!” (Good looking, your clothes!) isn’t perfect, but it would be a step. For both of us. 

(Elmo, as he’s wearing his high heels here, clearly, might be told, “Hao kan de xiezi!) 

Rain, yŭ. Drizzle, máomao yŭ

The last time the three of us were out in a drizzle—the kind of light, messy rain you don’t realize is happening until you step out into it—Emerson, scrunched inside the increasingly too-small confines of the umbrella stroller (the ideal stroller for subway rides) frowned a little and then commented, “Máomao yŭ.”

I thought she was saying māo, cat, and I paused for a second, trying to figure out if she’d seen a cat, or was pretending to be a cat. Before I could follow down this cat path, though, Rich answered, “Duì de,"—you’re right—”máomao yŭ.“

That was day I learned that while yŭ means rain (a word very close to the word for shark—let’s hope I’m never near to some sharks while it’s raining and so robbed of any context clues) máomao yŭ is a light rain.

Tonight, though, eating pears at the kitchen table while reading books before bed time, I asked her, in English, whether it was raining on her way home from school.

”Máomao yŭ,“ she said matter-of-factly. Finally, I thought to ask Rich if the words translated to something separately.

”Máo is fur,“ he said, seeming to consider the weirdness of that, but then—his expression changing—realizing its perfection. What more visceral a descriptor for the kind of muffled, misting rain one more experiences and endures (than can hold an umbrella to) than "fur rain.”

Looking it up tonight, I also fell a little in love with the written symbol for rain, which (in the noun form) looks like drops falling outside a window.

ps: Let us not overlook the adorableness (and literalness) of the word for cat being essentially the sound a cat makes. Māo

Asian Mathletes

“The fish is the last to notice the water,” the proverb goes, and it seems my endless pestering, regarding how to say words in Mandarin and what they mean, has caused Rich to give the water, as it were, a bit more thought.

A few years ago, we decided he’d solved the question (slash borderline racist generalization) of why Chinese people are good at math by realizing that Chinese math has so many fewer words to slow a person down. There’s no “2 plus 2 equals 4,” but just “2, 2, 4” and you’re on your way.

(You can roll your eyes at dropping those two words, but give 20 second graders a 100-question, 10-minute test and see if the Chinese kid doesn’t finish 8 minutes ahead of everyone else. It’s the effect of eliminating those two words, not the words themselves.)

But more recently, at a point when my counting skills had maxed out at 10 but Emmy was ready to take on more, Rich offered an even better argument. He explained that there’s no eleven, twelve, thirteen, but ten-one, ten-two, ten-three. In Mandarin, learning to count is learning to add.

Surely that must make the relationship between numbers more deeply intuitive—lodge it into the brain folds where we store the information we understand intuitively, emotionally.

Mandarin speakers (is Cantonese the same? are other Asian languages?) also get a math tutorial from the months.  

“Month” is yuè, so January onward is the equivalent of 1-month, 2-month-, 3-month. If my kid was born in August (8-month) and yours was in June (6-month), there’s not even a second of thinking about their age difference. Abstract ideas are made into numbers and the relationships between them are obvious.

The days of the week work similarly—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday are xīng qī yī, xīng qī èr, xīng qī sān: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3.

Until you get to Sunday, which for some reason doesn’t play along. Instead of Day 7—xīng qī qī—it’s xīng qī rì.

“Why does it do that? What does it mean, if not Day 7?”I asked, irritated by the inconsistency. 

Rich shrugged. “I don’t know. It means … Sunday.”

ps: When I look at this art piece it instantly says to me: Fish. It’s one of my favorites, from a growing body of work by the young artist who in these parts refers to herself as “E-M-Y! Two m’s!”