Monday, November 2, 2009

Dreams and nightmares...

As I have mentioned before, I rarely dream (i.e., I rarely "remember" the dreams my brain generates), but in the past few weeks I do recall two nightmares I have had.

The first was a teacher's nightmare. I had just started teaching at a kindergarten (itself a kind of nightmare, but I digress…) and was well liked. I felt comfortable and fortunate to have work. At the end of perhaps the third day, however, I went to shake the hand of a boy, Kevin, whom I found especially clever and cute in class. But as I gripped his tiny forearm, his radius and ulna simply snapped within my hand. (A scenario surely drawn from reading and then watching The Shining all those years ago. It must have also stemmed my uneasiness about touching students. I just don't think teachers should cross any fine lines too quickly, even just in the form of playful rough-housing. I pretty much never touch female students unless it's unavoidable.) Anyway, Kevin didn't cry out in pain, but he was nonplussed and rather confused why his forearm was bent as it was. Nor did any of the staff seem especially upset; it was more like my good first impression had suddenly turned sour in their mouths and they were just waiting for things to get worse. Such a good start for teacher Elliot... alas.

Anyway, I felt compelled to take Kevin to the hospital for care. When I arrived, I found his father, a physician, was waiting at the triage counter, smoking. I was crying and begging for his apology. Look at your son's arm, I said, I'm so sorry. He was not greatly upset. He sighed and grimaced, but grinned it off in a boys will be boys way. Kevin was checked into a room and was expected to be back at school the next day.

By the next day, however, he had gotten much worse. Somehow the bone marrow had leaked out of his fractures and led to a rare blood allergy. Kevin was intubated and on life support. His fate was still very unclear. When I arrived at school, reporters were swarming in the foyer and the staff were visibly angry to see me. The principal was having a press conference in the activity room, trying to deflect the burden onto me as a foreign teacher, yet, I noted, without being too acrimonious about it. Time passed and eventually Kevin pulled out of his coma. He returned to school a few days later. I don't recall if I kept my job or not.


The second dream, which I had last night, was even more arcane. And perhaps therefore that much more frightening.

I try to read Chinese everyday and lately I have been reading Harry G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit in translation. Yesterday afternoon I transcribed a few phrases and words I had read which I either wanted to review or simply didn't know. Then just before I slept I looked up a pair of words with much sentimental value for me: 佩 pèi and 繫 xì (cf. this dictionary, if you'd like to). In any case, by the time I was sleeping, I suppose my "Chinese module" was agitated, so much so that I had a Sinophilic nightmare.

My original name in Chinese is 白亞山 (Bái Yà Shān). As you'll notice, the second character, 亞, is written here as a fourth-tone character. And that was how it was described in my mega-dictionary when I happened to look it up last night. However, since I got my name in September (or October?) 2003, only a month (or two) after I arrived in Taiwan, I have known and spoken 亞 as a third-tone character. In my nightmare, I could find not a single reference to 亞 as ever being third-tone. This meant––by the whiskers of Confucius and by the ox of Laozi!––this meant that I had not only mispronounced a very common word––such as in 亞洲 Yàzhōu ("Asia")––but had also insisted on mispronouncing my own name countless times!

The nightmare was woven of many threads. First, there is the language-learner's horror of discovering that your pronunciation is so bad that native speakers can't even tell if you're getting a word right or wrong, and therefore assume, in this instance, you are saying a fourth-tone when you carefully mean to enunciate a third-tone.

Second, there is the horror that your dictionary usage has been so sloppy all this time that perhaps you have blithely misunderstood hundreds of other words all along.

Third, there is the horror that perhaps even native speakers don't know the subtleties of Chinese homophones well enough to correct you when you plea for help! This is a problem I've actually encountered more than a few times in Taiwan, either because I use a legitimate, but more obscure, alternate pronunciation, or because in some cases I insist on accurate pronunciation to such a degree as to correct the 'slurred' Taiwanese pronunciation of, especially, s/z/zh/c and e/o––whereupon I'm accused of being wrong!

I am happy to announce that 亞 can be either a third- or fourth-tone character, a fact, however, which I discovered at the expense of one final attack of Sinophilic fear. As I was typing this post, I asked a Taiwanese colleague about 亞. She said it was third-tone. I agreed and complained how odd it was that two dictionaries showed it as fourth-tone. And then an eerie silence set in. I could feel the room spinning ever so slightly. A few moments later, she affirmed that 亞 could be fourth-tone. (She had found it in the computerized input tab under both tones.) Good to know, finally––and yet!––yet, why did I not know that at all! I have been studying Chinese for six years and 亞 is an integral part of my own name here! Further, why do I have no recollection of ever hearing 亞 in the fourth tone!

As you can see, now that I am awake, the nightmare has dimmed, but not died, for it lingers, mocking me in a homophonic cackle.

[Based on one friend's confusion, I guess I need to explain that the "content" of the second dream was simply me scouring dictionaries, online and in print, without being able to find 亞 in the third tone. It was nothing less than the inescapable consciousness of being wrong about such a pivotal character in my life. In the end, the nightmare just serves to remind me why I love learning languages: constant lessons in childlike humility. (From what my friend tells me, the more obscure preference for a third-tone 亞 in Taiwan stems from a desire not to sound like "mainland" Chinese, in which 亞 is always fourth-tone.)]


Agellius said...

I have a 13-year-old son who loves learning languages. Latin, which he studies in school, was the first "foreign" language he learned, and after he felt he had the hang of that, he started studying Greek on his own, just for the enjoyment of it.

Is there a profession or area of study which you think someone who has an affinity for learning languages would be particularly well suited for? Or would it just depend on what his other interests are?

The Cogitator said...


Hooray for language people! Consider travel guide work, business translation services, academia, broadcasting, government service, and even speech therapy.