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Monday, January 23, 2012

The First Barb of the Year

This originally appeared as a note entry in Italki.

Again the entry is too long to fit into the notebook box. So the main text appears in the correction box. This is my 101th one notebook entry on this happy occasion. A good sign as the extra one in Chinese means that I am able to be rise above the crowd and be rich, be famous etc. The literal meaning of出頭 is “jutting head”. The faces had been altered to protect the innocent :)
Today is the Lunar New Year. It is rainy, cold and dank outside. However, to the Cantonese it is of a good omen. Water is synonymous with wealth. You see, Canton is on the coast of China and to the Cantonese, water is life. Chinese from the interior regions do not regard water as much as coastal Chinese and Cantonese are a superstitious lot unlike the rest of the Chinese.

Last night was the eve of the Lunar New Year. It was time for the Reunion Dinner. To us, this dinner can be more important than the New Year itself. This is almost like the American Thanksgiving Dinner. It is a time of bonding with family members. It is a time of re-acquaintance. For dysfunctional families, a time of old wounds breaking out for bystanders to enjoy a good Chinese opera. However, this happens only in movies. No one would dare to mar the auspiciousness of the occasion! It is a time for renewal and a time of joy. No one dares to wrought the anger of the gods upon themselves and have bad luck for the entire year!

It is also a time to discard all things old. It is the time to don on things brand new, clothing, including underwear, socks and new pajamas to bed. It is also a time when kids can run amuck with no curfew. They are allowed to stay up to greet the New Year, eat whatever there is to be eaten and play around with firecrackers. As a child growing up, it was a long sought magical time when their childhood times seemed to be at a stand still. A day, an eternity to the kid. It was a time I could play with my rarely seen cousins (because of school and we do not attend the same school); setting off firecrackers; eating candies, sweet meats and drinking sodas (a rare commodity in those days for us) and finally to the temple at midnight for getting good luck (no blessing from priests. Chinese are a very practical people). The women of the family would also prepare their traditional garb for the next morning’s tea ceremony presented to the patriarchs and matriarchs of one’s family.

This all important cup of tea presented by the daughter-in-law and son is the main thing in the ritual besides the birthdays of the paternal grandparents. In a big family like ours, the first son and wife will start the ritual with the youngest son and wife ending it. Almost like watching a Chinese opera close up. This is because part of the house will become a changing room with the ladies donning their costumes. After the tea ceremony, the women changed back into their normal clothing and the costumes packed up in mothballs and covered in plastic bags until next year. Then an efficient round of red packets of money is exchanged by the women for good luck to their respective families. Of course this is another source of endless gossips among different factions of the family. The men, like useless drones are carefree with the wives running the show are by now in the backroom playing poker! Soon the women are enjoined in mahjong sessions. Of course the kids are let loose to do whatever they can get away with by the doting grandmothers (We have two paternal grandmothers living under the same roof). Finally when the gathering comes to an end, each family was on their way to do their various activities. For my family, we had to go to two different places to pay our respect to my mother’s side of the family. Thank goodness, to a kid, there were not as many members. One is to the so called adopted grandmother who adopted my mother’s blood sister and so my mother treated the lady as her “mother” too. It was quite convenient as she lived on the same street as my grandfather. Next we travelled to my maternal grandfather and his second wife (my blood grandmother lives with us). We do not mix often with the maternal side of the family since my grandfather was an ultra conservative and traditional overseas Chinese. Daughters married out are not considered as part of the family. They should belong to the husband’s side. So it was an unspoken rule that the filial daughter-in-law should not be mixing with people not considered being in the direct branches of the family. She must be proper in all her ways. My mother being the obedient one as she was; always followed the rule rigidly. My mother would never go into a hotel by herself even to visit relatives from her side (She has no friends until my grandfather died and claimed that no one is longer interested in an old duck!). She would bring the son or a daughter along to avoid gossip. I never saw other aunts doing the same thing. Either my mother was so obedient or she was the smartest woman alive in the family.

Then the firecrackers ban came. Most Asian cities now banned them because of accidental fires. So the eves of Chinese New Year had become a drab for me. It had turned into just like other ordinary day. The feel and atmosphere were just not the same even though there was enough hustle and bustle going on. No longer were the streets flooded with shreds of exploded red paper of the firecrackers. The magic had gone. Even worse, now in the US, the Chinese New Year Day is just another working day. This year, the Eve fell on a Sunday. Therefore my friends and I can congregate at my place for an afternoon of delight - mahjong before eating out at a nearby restaurant for the Reunion Dinner. Instead of family members, it is my close by friends that we are able to come together for simple enjoyment. We had two tables going on at the same time. We are not gamblers. No money is exchanged. Just our prestige. The reason is simple. Winning too much from a friend is never good. It just creates animosity. Winning meagerly is not satisfying either. So instead, we bet on the prestige of our skills; gossiping and ribbing at each other at the same time. When the time came for the Dinner, the ten of us carpooled and drove in three cars to one of my favourite restaurants that we had patronized regularly over the years. I dare say that if without us being there on weekdays, they would have gone out of business by now!

We had decided to eat near my place because there are not many Chinese or Vietnamese living in my area. In places like San Gabriel, Monterey Park, Alhambra, Rowland Heights, etc, it would be quite difficult to find a place to eat on this day at this time. Even so, Asian restaurants take the advantage on this occasion to raise their prices by ten to thirty percent! Anyway, arriving at the restaurant, it was not a surprise to find the main dinning hall filled up. We waited at the foyer to be seated. Then a regular waiter came up to me and asked,

“Do you have reservation?”

I didn’t think he had cheekily asked in jest. His tone did not suggest that. I was sure he had been worn out by the eating crowds. Still he should not have spoke out in such a way to a regular paying customer. I always pride myself for being quick witted and blessed with a barbed tongue. I quickly retorted,

“Do I need a reservation?”

My reply was laced with menace and venom. The owner must have overhead the conversation and quickly interjected. He told us that our table would be ready soon. Please be patient he said. Of course, I replied with courtesy and told him to take his time. I am sure that he does not want to lose ten people’s worth of business. Being savvy in business and diplomacy, he immediately opened up the VIP section for us to have a private table. We had a great time and the food was great. I wish that I know how to upload the photos of the eight symbolic dishes we ordered. There were two kinds of fish, three kinds of mushrooms, beef, chicken and tofu. I was very sure the owner was a very happy man with dollar signs in his eyes!

Equally impressed were my friends for getting a table so quickly. If the waiter had said nothing or just ask for our patience, I would have kept my mouth shut and waited patiently. It is not that there are empty tables on sight. It would be very unreasonable of me to demand my way or turn my back and head off to another nearby restaurant, of which there are a few. I always believe that I must treat others with dignity, kindness and with smiles. However if you do not reciprocate, then you will know what a stinker I can be.

This is a lesson especially to all my mousey friends on Italki. You know who you are. You need to be outspoken when the situation calls for. Be polite and humble until you are trodden on. Always remember that the customer is right. Anyway, I felt good that my wits are as sharp. I learnt from the best. This quote is from Dorothy Parker (,

"The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue."

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Dim Sum Replies

For those who do not know what dim sum is, it is a Cantonese food fare that started out serving customers who wake up early in the morning to take their song birds to a gathering place to hear them sing. It was a sort of friendly competition and leisure pleasure to meet up with friends with common interests. Originally only hot tea was served. Then some enterprising owner of the place started to have simple items of breakfast foods such as steamed buns and porridge. Later dumplings were served. It has now evolved into an elaborate affair with all kinds of dainty looking foods. There are now two kinds of dim sum restaurants. The traditional ones would have heat generators installed in small carts to keep the steaming food trays hot. The dim sum ladies would push them to the tables where customers can look at what is there. Upon ordering, the bill would be stamped in the appropriate price category. Here in Los Angeles, there are dim sum places where all the price of different items is the same. It is quite an eye opener especially for those who never had dim sum before. Just let their eyes do the ordering. The more modern restaurants, maybe because of the lack of space for the cart maneuvers, will cook whatever items are ticked on the menu ticket. This is good for people on the go with no time to spare. A bonus for this way is that you are sure of the food arriving at the table is piping hot. Dim sum had come a long way.

Today, my essay is not about dim sum but a continuation story from an earlier entry of mine – Mid Autumn Parting. For those who are interested in the background, please refer to

We had dim sum last weekend. There were five of us. It was the usual run of the mill monthly ritual that we do to keep in touch. We were excited because we had received news from our Hong Kong friend who had left the US last autumn. He had suggested we should have a gathering in the coming summer. Of course we were excited and joined in the chorus of cacophony with other customers in your typical boisterous Chinese restaurant setting. Each different table filled with different animations of different people mired in their own world of affairs. We were debating whether to go to Asia or that he should return to the US. There were pros and cons; hotly debated as we caught on with excitement.

Then an evil twinkle of his eye, we knew what this close friend of us was up to in his sleeve. Time to have our brains exercised. True enough to our expectation; soon he uttered the following lines,

叢林百鳥啼, A hundred birds chirping in the deep forest,
枝上鳳凰遊. The phoenix roving on top of branches.
宴席長夜樂, Joyous are banquets through the long night,
定要醉為題. Must use the word ,“drunkness” as the theme.

We smiled at his vivid imagination and a way of demeaning us as nothing but a bunch of chattering birds while he is the phoenix soaring in poetic utterance. It was also a challenge issued to us. What a bunch of winos these friends of mine are! One friend immediately took up arms and recited eloquently,

花間彩蝶飛, Colored butterflies hovering atop of flowers,
池塘水蓮香. Lotus fragrance wafting on the pond.
難得良兄來, Hard it is for our dear friend to come,
不醉不為友! Not in drunkenness, we are not friends!

Well, at least we are now promoted to colorful butterflies while making him as the lofty pure lotus blossom! Not only that, he also suggested that our friend should come to the US instead of us going abroad. Then as we contemplated on his wisdom, another friend set off another salvo, continuing on the previous scenic themes,

水上蜻蜓點, Dragonflies hovering on the water’s surface,
萍下金鱗現. Under the duckweeds, golden scales appear.
此聚定要醉, For this gathering, we must get drunk,
酒盡才回家! Only when the wine is gone, shall we then head home!

Geez, are we now mere dragonflies while he compared himself to some golden carp to be dragon. Oh well, what to do? After all, it is his poem. I am always amazed at their quick witty replies. My mind is still at a blank. Well, as more tea passed around since the restaurant does not serve alcohol at this time of the day, my fourth friend started on his,

小溪柳蔭邊, By the banks of the brook, under the willow shade,
閑釣問長短. Fishing in leisure while asking the long and short of things.
遍地酒壺空, Strewn on the ground are empty jugs of wine,
嘻哈鬼震狂! Laughing in orgiastic merriment!

His poem suggests that we should camp in some private park where they can drink themselves to stupor; laughing and making fools of themselves without any care in the world. Not only that, no law can touch on them for being in thorough intoxication. Sure the idea merits a second thought. To be with nature while asking the ins and outs of our friend we are just a gossipy bunch hidden in the guise of things. And they say that only women revel in gossips! What baloney! Anyway, I was sure they were ganging up on me since I am the only one in the group who does not drink. If I came out with some similar thought, then they would ridicule me to no end as a hypocrite! Need to act fast but how. One of them even smirked and told me to take my time. When they are not drunk, they can be viciously dear to me. This is what friends are for, to needle and jab you without mercy and yet not have to worry about anything. I guess I have to rely on my engineering and mathematical background to save me. Then a mathematical corollary thought gave birth to an idea. To give me the time to polish my words, I chided them for being drunks while coming up with the eloquence needed,

上樓四仙醉, In this grand tower pavilion, the four immortals are drunk,
身無飛天駒. If there is no sky reaching steed by their sides,
若回玉蟾宮, Wishing to return to the Lunar Palace,
醒後坐花廳! Upon wakening, only to find themselves in the goalie!

Breaking out in guffaws, they simply said, “Touché. Not bad... Not bad at all”.

NOTE: For those not in the know, driving under influence in California is illegal. If caught having 0.08% by weight of alcohol in the blood stream of 100 millimeters of blood or in 210 liters of breath, heavy penalties are levied with a mandatory night spent in the jail.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

First Entry of 2012 Or English Pronunciation

2011 is already past history and 2012 is just tipping its toe into the calendar. My mind was at a blank on what to write. I guess too much partying. Least people may misunderstood by the word partying... I never drank in my life and so your image of a drunken Jeff, staggering and slurring his words with a glass in hand would be totally off the chart. I was totally sane but having a great time in laughter and sampling morsels of food here and there.

Anyway, a Facebook friend alerted me to this article which I think would be of interest to all those who are learning the English language. It says, if you can pronounce every word of this poem correctly, you are better than 90% of all English native speakers. However, I do think the poem cheated somehow because they have Greek words for the names of Greek Goddesses thrown in. However, they are all accepted in the English language.

It is really a shame that there is no accompanying audio to test how well you stack up against the "standard" pronunciation. Alas, I don't have input audio on my computer system, else I would have made a recording as well. If anyone would care to do one, it will be great!

The main text of the poem appears in the correction box in case for those who cannot access foreign websites. Enjoy exercising your tongue :)

If you can pronounce correctly every word in this poem, you will be speaking English better than 90% of the native English speakers in the world.

After trying the verses, a Frenchman said he’d prefer six months of hard labour to reading six lines aloud.

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

English Pronunciation by G. Nolst Trenité

desertjedi 1 hour(s) ago

Wow, I knew English was bad in terms of rules of pronunciation but I didn't realize the extent of the confusion it must create amongst non-English speakers. Well, I guess that's the biggest strike against English. But as I teach my friend English (while she teaches me Russian), I have found some positives: 1) So many words in English are short in length. It's amazing the concepts that you can convey even when limited to words of four letters or less. 2) I'm finding the verb conjugations are often the same across all pronouns with occasional exceptions for he/she or singular vs. plural pronouns. Often I will give her a verb's full conjugation and then realize the verb form never changes!...with the ensuing revelation of...OMG! English is so easy! Maybe this is part of the reason that my friend's progress in English has been superb while I continue to be lost, floundering and generally discouraged with Russian.

Jeff 46 minute(s) ago

I totally agree with you. Too many exceptions in English made it a language too difficult to learn. However, we got it easy when we don't have to distinguish the gender of nouns and choose which verb to use like in French, the myriad of verbial conjugations of other languagues compared to English and of course those pesky of "c", "z", "j", "k combination to produce countless exercises on the tongue. Clicking sounds of some African languages. Chinese on the other hand, has thrown away all tenses, verbial agreements, etc. However their tonal system is a monkey wrench to the ears of non-tonal language speakers. In the end, no language is easy to learn :( We are a complicated bunch of animals.