Is Your Home a Love Nest or a…say WHAT??

So there’s a big international conference for Christian Chinese business owners coming up next weekend in Houston, with lots of break-out sessions and special speakers, all of whom will be speaking in Mandarin – or at least attempting to. It’s easy to understand why Mandarin is the dialect of choice for this conference, since it’s not only the most widely spoken Chinese dialect, but is also “dialect #2” for every non-Mandarin Chinese who has tried to learn another dialect besides his own. And this is particularly true of Chinese businesspersons, who need Mandarin for their international trade with the Chinese mainland.

Unfortunately, speaking in Mandarin is a serious challenge for a Hong Kong Chinese, whose native dialect of Cantonese is quite different from Mandarin, to the point that each dialect has sounds and tones that the other dialect doesn’t use at all. Local Chinese pastor Brian Lam is himself a Cantonese speaker who has had to learn to preach in Mandarin, and he has a rueful motto: “We do not fear heaven; we do not fear earth. We fear only Cantonese trying to speak Mandarin.” And my friend Jocelyn, who grew up in Houston Chinese Church and in a bilingual English/Mandarin household, has told me, “When one of our Cantonese church members gives a talk in Mandarin, the only people who understand him are the other Cantonese.” So now you know that Chinese is not difficult only for Americans – it’s even difficult for Chinese.

At any rate, as the conference was being organized, one of the local Houston volunteers was on the phone with one of the conference speakers, a native of Hong Kong (well, Guangzhou actually, but close enough). The volunteer asked the speaker for the title of her talk, and she told him (speaking in Mandarin), “Is Your Home a Love Nest, or a House of Sinners?” (I am assured by my wife that this title sounds fine in Mandarin even though it translates oddly into English.) Alas, the phrase she used for “house of sinners” was 罪人之屋 zuìrén zhī wū (literally sinner-of house), and both the z and the i in zhi are non-Cantonese sounds which the speaker couldn’t pronounce very accurately. So the volunteer heard 巨人鸡屋 jùrén jīwū, which doesn’t make a lot of grammatical sense but which means, if it means anything at all, “giant’s chicken coop.” And that’s what he wrote down and sent to the guy printing the programs for the convention.

But the printer was not stupid, and he looked at 巨人鸡屋 jùrén jīwū and said to himself, “That can’t be right.” So he thought for a bit, and then, very intelligently, said to himself, “Wait a minute – this is a Christian conference. I bet that’s not supposed to be 巨人jùrén, “giant;” I bet that’s 罪人 zuìrén, ‘sinner.’” And of course he was quite right. But 罪人鸡屋 zuìrén jīwū still doesn’t make sense, because there’s no “of” word. And instead of guessing that 鸡屋 jīwū was supposed to be 之屋 zhī wū, he guessed that the “of” word had been left out, and so he put one back in: 罪人的鸡屋 zuìrén de jīwū, “sinner’s chicken coop.”

And now the programs have been printed, and now the speaker gets her first look at the title of her talk as it has been printed in the official program. Alas, she is Cantonese, and “sinner’s chicken coop” happens to be an idiomatic expression in Hong Kong. Thus it comes to be that this nice Christian lady sees the title of her talk in the official program:

“Is Your Home a Love Nest, or a Whorehouse?”

A personal note: my own wife has already signed up for this particular talk…


In which we make the best of Rusty’s concussion by drawing some amusement from it

Not that concussions are intrinsically amusing, especially when they cause a very eager offensive lineman to miss three games out of the short freshman football season…but when life gives you lemons, etc.

So Rusty gets his bell well and truly rung on the football field, and I pack him off to Dr. Slaughter’s office. (Yes, our family doctor’s name really is Dr. Slaughter; but I admire her very much as I think she runs her business at least as much as a ministry as she does a business, and, given where she has chosen to locate and the community she serves, I am happy to have my insurance company pay her very well for my visits in order to offset the number of patients I think she treats without getting paid at all.) My wife, who for nearly a year has been trying unsuccessfully to go see Dr. Slaughter to discuss my chronic heartburn, points out that this would be an excellent time to kill two birds with one stone, or, as she put it, “to eat two grains of rice with one chopstick.” (One of the nice things about being married to a Chinese woman is how different her folk idioms are from those I grew up with. In fact I enjoy her Chinese idioms so much I sometimes make them up for her. Like that last one, for instance…ahem. Moving on.)

So we go see Dr. Slaughter, where Dr. Slaughter rapidly diagnoses a really-and-truly concussion, thanks partly to Rusty’s inability to stand up with eyes closed without falling over, but also to the incoherence of his answers to simple questions (“Who is the Vice-President of the United States?” “Ummm…Barack Obama?” “What month is it right now?” “October.” “Can you count backwards from forty by two for me, please?” “Forty, forty-eight, forty-six…”) I’ll grant you that Rusty is a fifteen-year-old boy who does not always pay close attention to his elders’ words, but he really was not right, and couldn’t even really keep track of the conversation, as he kept losing track of what he or we were saying in mid-sentence.

Before I go any further: this was a couple of weeks ago. He’s better now. And also, so that the next paragraph won’t worry you: the tests are back and I do NOT in fact have cancer.

At any rate, Dr. Slaughter tells Rusty he is not to play sports until further notice, much to his disgust. Then she leaves Rusty sitting in his chair in one corner of the examination room and turns to me. She quizzes me in rather more detail than I expected (I assume because she figures I’m getting old and am bound to have SOMETHING pretty seriously wrong with me at my age), asking me lots of personal and not-very-obviously-pertinent questions, and after about two minutes of not being made very happy by my answers, she stops to concentrate for a second or two, and then says emphatically, “I think we need to have you tested for colon cancer.”

Over in his corner, Rusty suddenly snaps to full and wide-eyed attention: “I have COLON CANCER?!?!?!??”


That was a couple of weeks ago, and Rusty is very tired of being questioned by his teammates about how the concussion is going and when he will be allowed to play again. The original estimate was a week, but he didn’t recover very fast and the C-T scan had something that Dr. Slaughter thought probably wasn’t too big a problem, but given his slow recovery and the fact that he’s been having bad headaches recently, she packed him off to a neurologist for a specialist’s opinion. Then the neurologist ordered up an MRI, but it was another week before the MRI lab had a space ready. By now he had already missed two of his Thursday night games; so he was relieved to find out that he would have his MRI on Wednesday and thus have a chance to be cleared to play on Thursday.

Alas, as we were on the way to the clinic, they called us. It seems the technician was in a car wreck on the way to work, and they had to push Rusty’s MRI back a day. So he missed Game #3 as well, much to his disgust.

But as we were headed back to the high school, I passed on to him a true story about a friend who recently all but knocked himself unconscious in most undignified fashion. It seems my friend had a stomach virus and was hunched over the toilet bowl throwing up. Alas, one spasm was so strenuous that my friend slammed his head into the toilet seat and nearly knocked himself unconscious.

You can imagine how long, and how hysterically, my fifteen-year-old son laughed over THAT one. Then I invited him to imagine what it would have been like if he had gotten his own concussion that way rather than on the field of honorable combat. I was teasing him (speaking in my fluent teenagerese, of course)…

“…imagine if your teammates were like, ‘Dude, why aren’t you playing today?’ And you’re like, ‘Um, I have a concussion.’

“Then they’d be like, ‘Oh, bummer. How did it happen?’ And you’d be like, ‘Um…[long pause] My dad hit me.'”

Because you know there’s no way even the most truthful of ninth-grade boys is going to tell the other guys on the football team, “I was puking and hit my head on the toilet seat and knocked myself out.”