YOU HAVE TO SPEAK ENGLISH TO READ THIS
Especially not in San Francisco, where if you don't have an apartment mate you can trust, you are very likely living with a drugged-out dingbat or a psycho. Who may actually be blood kin, but far more often than not is some stranger who shares your economic niche and nothing else.
Besides, we're both a bit Aspy. Which means not perfectly socialized, and likely to put off dealing with friends and contacting people who are dear to us for indefinite periods.
Unless work or a bus-accident forces us to interact, we might not do so.
Or do it in imperfect ways.
Living together prevents non-contact.
On my days off nowadays I will often wander around North Beach, Nob Hill, and Chinatown, and enjoy pastries and a cup of milk-tea while people watching, before a solitary and extended smoke break.
Chinatown Chinese don't pry, and the closest most people I know there have ever come is wondering at my tobacco and praising my minor ability to speak their language.
Or asking me whether I want another cup of tea.
Which, when you think about it, is enough.
I deal with people all day long.
At work. They're there.
The reason I bring this up is because of seal script. I mentioned seal script in a conversation with an old friend yesterday (not actually face-to-face, but message contra message), and showed some examples.
With which I shall now illustrate this essay.
Like my ability to speak Cantonese, my skill with a brush is very minor.
Still, I flatter myself that it is better than average, and not altogether miserable.
The Chinese written language three millenia ago derived from symbols and pictures carved into hard surfaces; by the time a kind of felt-tipped pen was used there were already a few thousand characters.
A few hundred of these are straightforward representation, showing the item or concept. They are mnemonically sharp. The next group consists of borrowings, where there wasn't a script symbol, but there was a word with the same or a similar pronunciation that could be used. The majority of the dictionary will consist of compounds, with one element being a phonetic, the other showing to which category the world belongs.
There are around two thousand phonetics, of which a few hundred are very common.
All characters beyond the basic 214 consist of simpler parts, which by themselves always have a meaning, but which are not all still part of the regular vocabulary. It is by these that words are arranged in a dictionary, from simplest character through stroke count in that section, by stroke order, to the most complex.
Most characters you will ever need to know are fewer than fifteen strokes. Some characters almost entirely without function but easy to remember, because they show the same part three times arranged in a pyramid.
Trust me, these three characters (鑫、龘、麤) are pretty much useless. Don't bother looking them up, but simply recognize the construction.
Gold, a mine schematically illustrated, or metal (金 'kam') stacked up; a dragon (龍 'lung') triplicated; and three deer (鹿 'luk') possibly running.
Even they had a common use, they are too complicated to write in normal script size, being 24 strokes, 48 strokes, and 33 strokes respectively.
In a word, they are ink blobs.
One character should be mentioned here, because it is overwhelmingly complicated but will not show up in the majority of dictionaries, being well-nigh ridiculous, and simply a restaurateur's conceit:
This character is absurd. In Shaanxi, it is a type of noodle, and shows up on signboards. Sometimes with sixty four strokes, as in this illustration, sometimes only as few as fifty eight.
Chinese is often easier to learn how to write, as an outsider, than speak. And context counts for a lot. But without at least a few hundred words, most menus become opaque, and daily specials might not be for you.
The reason for that is that English is not very much more simple, and has as absurd a vocabulary and set of rules, and you will kindly note that context, likewise, makes much clear.
There are, in each language, expressions and colloquialisms that make no sense if taken literally. Darn tooting.
Biáng. Good grief.
NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.
Labels: 唐人街 Chinatown