Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Chinese Words and Phrases 1: 减肥班 jiǎnféi bān

I'm going to try something new, which may or may not immediately succumb to apathy on my part (after all I am around a month behind on this blog). I don't expect there is a very high number of Chinese learners who read this blog, but I'd like to make a few comments every so often about a word I have come across and for some reason find interesting. It doesn't matter if you have any interest in learning the word or not; I'll try to choose words which are as "Chinese" culturally as they are linguistically. The first word I'm going to look at is:

减肥班 jiǎnféi bān
(note to the uninitiated): to the right of the characters is what is called pinyin, the official system in China for spelling Chinese words with the Roman alphabet. The marks above the letters represent the tone of the character: there are four tones in Chinese, meaning that each syllable must not only be pronounced accurately, but with the proper pitch in your voice. If this is confusing and you want to understand it, listen to this. I suspect that musicians and particularly singers make better Chinese speakers. So, a Chinese person just uses characters because they have them memorized, but those learning Chinese for the first time (foreigner teachers or very young children, who might not be as different as you would expect) need to see the pinyin of a new word to know how it is actually pronounced. There have been different systems for spelling Chinese words in the past, which is why Beijing was once spelled Peking and Daoism is usually spelled Taoism even though it is pronounced with a "d" sound.

Jianfei means "lose weight," and ban means "class," as in a class at school. So jianfei ban means "lose weight class," or if you prefer, "fat class." At our university, and presumably others throughout China, if you fail PE class you must attend the fat class. I came across this word because a student I know but don't teach has to take part. Ironically, she is as skinny as they come, weighing no more than 110 pounds. It came up when she spotted her classmate in the fat class in the park and mentioned it. Why is she in the fat class? Because her PE teacher told her that if she didn't give him a "gift," he was going to fail her. She didn't, and he kept his promise. In America you could maybe count to three before that teacher was fired, but in China bribery is common.

My students often talk of their desire to lose weight, though many would be considered normal or skinny in America. Chinese people are also fond of referring to the general fatness of Americans, and have asked me why I'm not fat. Actually, my impression is that in Chinese calling someone "fat" is not nearly as rude as it is in English. My students use the word in English a little too freely, and as a general rule are not very politically correct (recently a student instructed to plan the China village in Epcot Center said he would make the walls yellow to "represent our yellow skin"). Anyway, the jianfei ban also reminded me of the time in high school when the bottom third of the gym class in swimming speed got held back for extra swimming lessons, and I just barely did not make the cut. But at least they still called it gym class.

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