Monday, November 19, 2007

Migration time

I have no idea how this post will look, as I'm writing it from within lynx to avoid the Great Firewall of China this time. But yes, I'm moving house.

The new blog is up at, and I'll be posting there from here on out. All past posts and comments have been imported (hurrah wordpress) but the site itself looks extraordinarily ugly still; I'll be fixing that over the coming days, but wanted to shunt people to the new content asap. I'll put instructions on updating your feeds there in just a moment.

In other news, I'm in Shanghai. To make a gross understatement, it's somewhat colder than the Philippines.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A nose by any other name would still smell.

Warning: If you wince at the sound of the Chinese language being mangled, do not read any further. (Then again, if you wince at that, you probably shouldn't be reading this blog in the first place.)

Question: How does one go about getting a Chinese nickname?

Background: As most of you know, I've been learning Mandarin. Slowly. With a terrible American accent. But learning nevertheless. And as I learn about the actual meanings of words I've seen before (like my name, for instance) I can't help but think "man, these could be more amusing."

So. Armed with a dictionary and utter lack of regard for tradition, here goes.

Current name: Cai Jia Ling (蔡佳铃) - good ringing-of-a-bell. Or "nice-sounding chiming from a bunch of jade pieces thwacking together." Something in that vein.

Personally, I like the (inevitably over-romanticized in novelizations, I'm sure) Native American tradition of adolescents being given new names upon their passage to adulthood, names that convey something important to know about the person. Unfortunately, "If-you-cannot-find-her-just-look-in-a-library-or-at-the-nearest-computer" is a little long, and sounds terrible ("jia ru ni pu ke yi fa jue ta...")

Let's try some reasonable criteria here to narrow down the field. Let's say... must sound phonetically alike, even to the point of sticking to the "proper" tones: cai4 jia1 ling2.

And look how much more entertaining this is! 菜加零 ("adding zero vegetables") It's more appropriate for my brother the carnivore, though; I personally enjoy vegetarian food and tend to cook mostly without meat when I'm home. Also, I'm not entirely sure I want my name to be Bad-Luck-Vegetables. It has the lyrical sound of impending botulism.

For the sake of not being confusing, I think I should keep my last name. But I still don't think I'm a bell. Or a belle, for that matter. "Lovely tinkling" sounds way too girly for my taste, and I haven't even reached the Age of the Shrinking Bladder yet.

So how about these?

蔡佳聆 = good-listener Chua (never mind the severe high-frequency bilateral whatsit; you don't need to hear consonants anyway)

蔡加昤 = adding-sunshine Chua (mmm, optimism. and vitamin D.)

蔡家零 = brains-of-the-house Chua (this title rightfully belongs to mom, though)

蔡佳领 = quality-leader Chua (see? I'd rather be a leader than a bell.)

And my personal favorite,

蔡加零 = Chua+0 (no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives either.)

Since any native Mandarin speaker will probably stare at me in befuddlement and horror if I use any of these "names" - or more to the point, since my parents and at least one of my grandparents would likely object, I'm sticking with "Hey, Those Expensive Green Stones Sound Great When You Hit Them!" for now.

But really - why be a bell when you can be a mathematical statement?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Backwards balikbayan box

I'll probably be switching out of Blogger soon. Christie's warnings of "no blogger in China!" have finally spurred me to set up some wordpress-fu after about 9 months of being in the "eh, I'll get around to it" stage. The new blog is still in the "Mel hasn't finished playing with php yet" stage so I'm still using this one, but you might see me popping off Planet Olin and onto my own site in about 5 days. We shall see.

Today I went to the supermarket with my aunt and cousin and (thanks to my aunt) got enough stuff to fill my backwards-balikbayan box (balikbayan boxes, or return-to-home-country boxes, are usually headed to the Philippines) with good Filipino food to cook back in New England.

Any Bostonians feel like coming over for some kaldereta, sinigang, kare-kare (with bagoong), champorado, adobo, lechon, lugaw, or a halo-halo party sometime when I get back? (Yeah, I'm going to make you look up what all those foods are.) I'm also learning how to make lumpia (monster-big fresh spring rolls) and huana miki (Filipino noodles, the "chicken noodle soup" of my childhood) and bringing home banana ketchup, which is good on everything. And spaghetti sauce - the sweet Filipino kind.

And mango. Dried, sorry - but perhaps that's for the best; I haven't been able to enjoy mangoes in America ever since I ate my first mango in the Philippines; Filipino mangoes just spoil all others for you. Another "darn, I can't take it with me" item is buko, fresh young coconuts (of the "lop off the top for an instant juice cup... and meat!" variety, not the shrivelly brown hairy dessicated overpriced specimens found in some U.S. groceries.) I also haven't figured out how to make taho, which is super-soft tofu that you eat with a sweet syrup and sago (tapioca pearls) and one of my dad's favorite foods.

Other than those three, laing (a creamed spinach-like dish with local ingredients) and bicol express (main ingredients: coconut milk, hot peppers, and several gallons of water to drink between bites), I think I can make all my favorite foods from this country back in the states until my sauce mixes run out.

I have probably misspelled an atrocious number of words here, since I'm phonetically transcribing Tagalog that I'm only vaguely familiar with. Oh well.

Hypothetically, I'm also bringing back some candy (including polveron, which is sugared powdered milk compressed into tablet form, and much tastier than it sounds). We will see how much is left by the time I actually fly back to the US in January. Once I begin to eat Ovalteenies (malt chocolate tablets) it is very hard to get me to stop.

I also wrote my first essay in Mandarin on my failed attempts to find vegetables at the supermarket. Other things covered via creative combinations of my limited vocabulary:

  • My memory, or lack thereof, for remembering the names of fruits.
  • Filipino supermarkets sell soap, medicine, and other things to whiten the skin. In contrast, American supermarkets sell tanning lotion.
  • The word for "brown" is literally translated as "the color of coffee." There's an old word that just means "brown," but I'm told that using it sounds really old-fashioned. (I wonder when the linguistic shift took place.)
  • Artificial food coloring. I didn't know the word for "artificial," so I said "not-real," where "real" is the character used in the previous post's song fragment about true/real/genuine love. The effect is more melodramatic than intended, something like... "foods that have - o, vile tricksters! - reneged on the true nature of their hues, breaking their promises and - and - *sob* hea-art!"
I also have two new favorite Mandarin phrases. One is "meige haizi, yige diannao," or "each child, one computer." (Hey, you know you want one.) Tagalog version is "isang laptop kada bata." I've been collecting translations of the phrase in as many different languages as possible because I think it'll make a kickass t-shirt.

The other (which has no connection to the first) is "bai wu liao lai," which is the rough equivalent of the English "bored to death," and, if I'm reading the dictionary correctly, literally means either something like "one-hundred nonsense disclaimers," or something like "one-hundred occasions of yakking away to kill time and dammit it's someone else's fault."

It's interesting to see how we create meaning (linguistically and otherwise). Last year's simultaneous foray into a little book by Applebee, and some stuff on Chomsky's work has really sent me down the "learning as language" path, and I've been there so long I'm trying to kick myself out of it, if only to see the thought-path I'm headed down a little better. But how do you kick yourself out of thinking in terms of words? (Extensive meditation?)

Friday, November 09, 2007

More incoherence!

Folks looking for technical and/or enlightening content can skip this entire post, which is another brainsplosion.

First the events of yesterday. It was my Guakong's (mom's dad) death anniversary, so we had mass and visited his crypt. Then lunch (Filipino-tasting Italian food), then I went to the dermatologist (my aunt's classmate, at the insistence of my grandmother) where I got my clogged pores scooped out with a miniature melon-baller. Then dinner with my dad's college friends, the "gang of 5" he hung out with all the time, with me standing in for my dad - the first time they'd come close to being all together for almost 30 years.

. Now...

While my teacher and I were singing today, my Ama (dad's mother) came in and told us that the song we were in the middle of was actually one of my Angkong's favorites.

You ask me how deep is my love for you,
how can I count the love I have for you?
My feelings are also true,
My love is also true,
The moon is a reflection of my heart.

My grandfather wasn't exactly Frank Sinatra, and my dad inherited his musical ability; whenever they turned on the karaoke machine at home, Jason and I bolted for the door and a long drive in the name of "sibling bonding." (Actually, those conversations and critiques of Chicago's architecture were some of the best conversations my brother and I had as teenagers, so "karaoke nights" were a good thing.)

All the same, it's nice to think of him singing that to her when they were young, just like my dad sings "Misty" when he's feeling far too sentimental - overdramatically, complete with hand gestures and puppy eyes towards mom as us kids groan around him. (My emotional immune system hates sappiness - a good indication that's something I have to work on.)

I'm used to thinking of my dad's parents as more formal, traditional people, but that image has been cracking during my stay here. Okay, my grandmother still wants me to wear dresses and be more ladylike. Sure, my grandfather never flew - even across the ocean - in anything other than a suit and tie. But as my aunt reminded me last night, the affection and love they showed for each other was unusually visible for their age and time and culture. You can't imagine one without the other. Same with my mom's parents. And my parents. I'm very lucky.

As time goes by, I'm becoming more appreciative of my tight extended family. When I say "tight extended family," I mean that two of my mom's sisters are married to two of my dad's boyhood friends and classmates, my grandmother's brother married my grandfather's sister, both my parents' eldest sisters were classmates, and so on. It's a big clan.

I'm simultaneously exasperated by it and in love with it. Nearby houses with cousins and aunts swarming around all the time. Everybody always asking what everyone else is doing. I grew up in a house full of aunts and uncles, and apparently when I was a toddler I declared that nobody else could get married because I'd noticed a direct correlation to my relatives getting married and them moving away and not playing with me any more.

In the absence of solid computer time - my usual platform for hacking - I've been forced to move to a different one, namely myself. Which is inconvenient and insanely frustrating and partially as intended. I spend a lot of time thinking. Sleeping, too... and god, it's nice. Just last week I started having regular vivid dreams for the first time since... before high school. I try hard not to feel guilty about taking the time to do this.

I've noticed that my English is getting more fragmented as I learn more Chinese; in the back of my head I'm always trying to figure out a parallel translation for what I want to say, and there isn't always one. I've also noticed that my thoughts are jumping around more - and I can let them do that now, and I'm actually conscious of it. I know that if I release the reins and wait instead of trying to beat the ADHD-ness out of my head, my brain will dance a marvelous dance, longer and deeper than what I'd originally planned on "forcing" it to do.

I've also noticed that whenever I have these periods of MASS CONFUSION!!! they're typically followed by a Period of Massive Growth and Productivity in whatever area I'm confused about. So when I'm befuddled, my tendency is to try to make myself as confused as possible as fast as possible, and let it all stew out and then explode back into clarity (more or less) on its own schedule. (This usually doesn't coincide with an academic semester schedule, really.)

Somewhere in the middle of this mess and confusion (and often aggravation) is the trying to figure out how to hold seemingly contradictory things inside myself, since I'm a walking statistical anomaly who's recently become aware of the various facts that make up that statement. (It's a lot easier to be a girl who loves math before you learn that being a girl who loves math is weird.) I need to recompile all my header files, so to speak. I've also forked too much, and now I'm figuring out how to merge all the changes back into the main repository for the next release.

Oh, there's getting work done in the "conventional" sense, of course. Always is. This is work of a different sort that's also there. Summary: I'm alive and confused and happy, all three of which are sort of the same thing.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Sunday, November 04, 2007


I did my first useful bit of translation last night - redirect instructions to the new wiki in Chinese. I showed it to my grandmother for checking before I hit the "Save" button, and she read it and said it sounded correct but what in the world was Ubuntu and what did I mean it had relocated? So I ended up translating from/to three languages; Mandarin, English, and (as Chris would say) Bahasa Geek.

Yeah, I know I am way too excited over the "I can speak Chinese!" thing. I daresay my family's getting tired of me trying to translate every Chinese-language sign we walk by, carrying a dictionary in my pocket, etc but I'm just amazed at being able to understand - it reminds me of being a kid and reading about something new in physics (or whatever) and running around excitedly going "and-and-and does the magnet stick to this? YEAH!" (Sometimes this led to "and does the do ?" *CRASH* "Whoopsie..." situations. But it's always fun.)

I also did my first semi-extended bout of translation on my grandfather's eulogy (which had actually been delivered by my dad in English, then translated into Chinese - I wanted to see how well I could do in porting it back to English). It matched up reasonably well, aside from the idioms I wasn't familiar with. I think I'm ready to try something with no English language equivalent now. Armed with the power of Dictionary, that is; my vocabulary is still forlornly small.

Yesterday's dinner was a family favorite - lumpia. It's the Chinese equivalent of a burrito. Take a lumpia wrapper (much, much thinner than a tortilla) and put a lettuce leaf on top so it won't get soggy. Put shredded vegetables, top with a mixture of sugared peanuts and seaweed with white crackers, roll, and eat. Here's a lumpia before wrapping, followed by my Ama (paternal grandmother) demonstrating correct eating technique.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


I am a lakwasera. This is a Tagalog term for someone with a great wanderlust - always itching to go out and explore, can't stay at home (of the female variety; the male equivalent is 'lakwasero'). Today I had my Chinese lesson al fresco - my teacher's family went to Tagaytay, so I went along.

It turns out that my teacher and I are actually related by marriage - she and my mom are something like third cousins (discovered during a conversation about our extended families). Chua laoshi was the last Chinese-Filipino I'd met during my entire time here who I didn't think I was connected to in some way. I give up. We're either related to or classmates of (or related to classmates or classmates of relations of or...) everyone in the Fil-Chi community, or so it seems. I gave up trying to keep track of who was who long ago, because if I met the daughter of the niece of the second wife of the father of my paternal grandfather for 2 minutes when I was in 1st grade, I will probably not remember.

Anyway. Today I saw pineapple bushes for the first time. We bought bits of tree trunk from roadside stands (with young coconuts and bananas attached), I mangled the national language of the People's Republic of China, the view was gorgeous, the air much better than Manila except for when we passed the piles of burning garbage - common practice here, alas; one pile was the size of my parents' front lawn and sent a thick gray plume into the air that we could see for kilometers afterwards.

Another new food was also introduced: fish crackers, which are simply small fish about 8cm long that have been battered and fried. No gutting. You just dip them in vinegar and eat, eyeballs and guts and bones and all, with the feathery bones making a calcium-rich crunching sound between your teeth. ("Are you going to eat that?" one of my distant aunts said, smiling at my extended close scrutiny of the food item. "Yeah - I'm just trying to get over the fact that it looks like a fish," I said.) It's pretty tasty, but I'm not too fond of the bones.

One of the nieces of my teacher, a woman twice my age who's a professor of dentistry in one of the main area colleges, pointed out a(nother) field of goats as we drove by. "I know there are also animals called sheep that are similar," she said, "but I don't know what they are." "A sheep," I explained, "looks like a goat with an afro."

We had a dinner of homemade noodles in Chinatown. This video (taken with permission from the restaurant's owner) is how they make them. It's also a nice example of powers of two, for the younger folks following along. The noodles were delicious.