One of the unique aspects of the Chinese language is its use of tones. There are five tones, and each word in the language carries a tone. The tone of a word is an essential contributor to its meaning. Because of the existence of tones to broaden the meanings of a single combination of sounds, there are far fewer “words” (distinct sound combinations) in Chinese. In fact, the rules of pinyin allow for only certain combinations of sounds, so the number of “words” in Chinese is actually very limited, and a lot of specific meaning is derived from context.
One of the effects of this is that it is much easier to make puns in Chinese, because almost every “word” has many different meanings, which are interpreted depending on tone and context. But this property of the Chinese language is so inherent that puns in Chinese have been absorbed into traditional culture and have grown into traditions. This is especially observable during holidays.
Fish is a staple food of Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner. However, you can’t eat all of your fish at this dinner; you have to leave some behind. The reason for this is based on a pun: “年年有魚, 年年有餘” (niannian you yu, niannian you yu), which means “every year there’s fish, every year there’s surplus.” Because the words for “fish” and surplus” sound the same (yu), Chinese people don’t finish their fish on Chinese New Year’s Eve in the hopes that in the following year they will have surplus in other areas of their life as well.
For Chinese New Year, it is also a tradition to decorate with red paper cut into shapes. One of these shapes is a Chinese character: 福 (fu), meaning fortune. This one is pasted upside down, because of the saying “福到了，福倒了” (fu dao le, fu dao le). The words for “upside-down” and “arrive” sound the same (dao), so what this phrase means is “fortune is upside down, fortune arrives.” In other words, if fortune is hung upside-down, then fortune will come to the household.
I just realized the power of puns in the Chinese language as my Chinese class was doing a unit on holidays this semester, and I thought it was interesting that puns, at best a groanable joke in America, are the basis of many traditions in China. I’m hoping to discover some more powerful Chinese puns in the future!
This semester, I took IAS 2003: Understanding the Global Community, which is a required course for Global Engagement Fellows. Going into the course, I expected it to be interesting, but I didn’t expect us to cover such a wide range of fascinating topics as we did.
We started out by discussing globalization from different viewpoints. In the American educational system, we are often only exposed to the view of globalization held by most Westerners. In this class, we looked at both its positive and its negative effects, and explored the factors which can affect a cultural group’s or a person’s opinions on globalization. This moved into a discussion on development, capitalism, and neoliberalism.
From there, we started our final two units, and it was these two I found most interesting. Each unit was based on a book, first HIV Exceptionalism: Development through Disease in Sierra Leone by Adia Benton, and then The Spectacular Favela: Violence in Modern Brazil by Erika Robb Larkins. HIV Exceptionalism discussed the effects of an over-focus on HIV treatment and prevention in Sierra Leone, at the expense of other public sectors. The Spectacular Favela explored the impact of the essentialization and commodification of the Brazilian favela (slums) on violence and corruption within the slums. Each of these books brought up points I had never considered about how a Western viewpoint when interacting with the rest of the world can have serious, and often negative, results.
We finished the semester with a discussion about climate change and climate justice, which is based on the idea that certain communities are less responsible for climate change but experience more dramatic negative impacts. Every topic covered in this class helped me to broaden my worldview and understand how the rest of the world may think differently from me. From what I’ve heard from other people, the curriculum for this course may change from semester to semester, but I’m sure each class is just as engaging and thought-provoking as this one. I’m so glad I got the chance to take this class, and I hope to be able to take another one like it during my time at OU.
One of the groups I’ve gotten involved with this year is OU’s Chinese Club. Our first event this year was the Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival. This traditional Chinese holiday takes place between early September and early October, and this year it was on October 1. We had moon cakes and tea while we listening to Moon Festival Songs. Then we played traditional Chinese games like mah jongg and Chinese Chess. It was a great way to celebrate Chinese culture with other Chinese language students.
The club hasn’t been too active this semester, but we’ve got a lot of exciting plans for next semester. Our goal is to increase knowledge about Chinese language and culture in the rest of the OU community. We’re hoping to have more celebrations at times of major Chinese holidays, like Chinese New Year in February. We also want to host some showings of the best Chinese language movies. And especially for Chinese language students, we want to host conversation hours and tutoring sessions to increase both our skill levels and our sense of community as language learners.
We actually tried to have one tutoring session two weeks ago, right before dead week. I was one of the tutors, along with five or six other people. No students needing tutoring actually showed up, but we all had a good time talking about study abroad opportunities in China. As I’m planning my own study abroad trip for Spring 2017, it was very helpful to hear about others’ experiences. I’m excited to get more involved with Chinese Club next semester and continue learning about Chinese language and culture!
Most people have heard of the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony thanks to the viral Kony 2012 campaign. The people who are less well-known, however, are those who are cleaning up the mess he left behind. One of those people came to speak at OU on October 1. Since 2002, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe has worked with girls who have been rescued from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Kony’s corrupt military. She provides them with housing, food, community, and education. One of the most important parts of her program is teaching the women marketable skills, such as weaving and sewing, so that they can learn to provide for themselves and their families. And, since many of the girls have had children as a result of their rapes during their period of captivity, Sister Rosemary and her organization provide for those children as well. Their movement has grown and spread over the years and now covers a wide area in central Africa.
In her talk, Sister Rosemary shared her experiences of serving God in this way over the past thirteen years. She talked about the things she’s seen, both painful and happy, and explained ways that we can get involved, even though we’re so far away. Most of all, she wanted to share the importance of using love to counteract the effects of all the hateful things Kony and his men have done. She is truly an incredible woman, and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to meet her and hear her speak.
On Saturday, November 14, I got the opportunity to attend OU’s Mosaic Social Justice Symposium. This annual event “provides a space for University students, faculty, staff, and alumni and outside community members to learn and discuss contemporary issues of social justice through presentations, research, and discussion forums” (from the Mosaic webpage).
I listened to three presentations, but the one I found most engaging and provoking was the first, titled “Why Doesn’t OU Recognize American Sign Language as a Language?: Signs of Linguisticism and Audism Among Speech Communities.” The presenter, Melanie McKay-Cody, was deaf and gave her presentation through an interpreter, which was a unique experience for me. Ms. McKay-Cody opened the presentation by explaining how she had tried to get OU’s Modern Languages and Linguistics Department to open an American Sign Language (ASL) program. The response she received argued that “ASL is a non-verbal form of the English language” and that she should ask the English Language Department or the Speech Pathology Department to consider ASL classes. But ASL is not a “form” of the English language. It doesn’t communicate through English words; it has its own distinct vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. Further, to suggest that ASL would be more appropriate next to Speech Pathology studies implies that there is some sort of inherent problem with the way deaf people communicate – that they are broken or flawed in some way.
This response is just one of the many experiences of audism (discrimination against non-speaking people) Ms. McKay-Cody shared in her presentation. She often feels marginalized as a non-hearing person, and offering ASL classes is one way that OU could really help to make a difference in the value society places on deaf people. But this issue isn’t just an issue at OU – all throughout the world, deaf people struggle to live in a world that sees them as unwhole. As Ms. McKay-Cody explained in her presentation, the first step to changing this is to help raise awareness about the challenges facing the deaf community, a diverse community unified across political and cultural barriers.