I wrote an e-mail to my wife while on the plane from Singapore to Brisbane, and included a story about my having done something that showed inadequate faith in her expertise as Official Chinese Person in the Pierce/Yang Household, only to discover that I should have just assumed that she was right all along, since (naturally) she turned out to be. Then this morning I thought, “You know, that’s actually just a good story…” so I’m posting that part of the letter. (For the benefit of American Gentle Readers I’m adding transliteration/translations of the Chinese bits; otherwise, you’re reading part of a letter to my wife so “you” is her, not you, if you follow.) If you’ve been reading my blog for a very long time indeed this whole thing may sound familiar as this whole “who killed a cat” thing has been bothering me ever since the last time I posted about it back in June of 2012. (I can, you perceive, be a bit obsessive-compulsive from time to time.)
…That reminds me, I did some further research into the 卓文宣 Genie Chuo song that you dislike so much, 哇哇叫 “Make a Scene”, and in particular into the one bizarre line 天知道，我知道，谁杀了一只猫 tiān zhīdào, wǒ zhīdào, shéi shā le yì zhī māo [which means…well, that’s what the post is about, but it sure looks like it means, “Heaven knows, and I know, who it was that killed a cat”]. Jen, who along with Keren was one of the two waitresses who worked for Nick in the Axis café and brought me gallons of coffee and whiskey over the course of my stay, is ethnically Chinese. Keren was the waitress who asked me if you and I dance much, and I told her I hadn’t danced much since hurting my back but what about her, does she dance? No, no, was the answer – but Jen is a GREAT dancer. Only she doesn’t dance to this music (referring to the love song that Melissa and Joshua happened to playing at that particular moment); she dances in the clubs. And here Keren did just enough “club dancing” for me to believe that she was telling the truth when she said she doesn’t dance.
Well, the next day I was listening to 卓文宣 Genie Chuo and remembered what Keren had said about Jen’s liking to dance in the clubs, and it suddenly occurred to me that an early-twenties-year-old Chinese girl who liked dancing in clubs, had a way better chance than you and I would of knowing what the killing-the-cat line was all about. So I asked her – and embarrassed the poor girl terribly because it turns out she doesn’t know Mandarin (and I bet her parents make her feel guilty about it, too, so I was really sorry I had clumsily brought the subject up). I told her to please not to worry about it…but this is the Mandarin Oriental, and they have their standards of service, right? So the next thing I know Nick shows up at my table. “Jen says you have a question about Mandarin?”
I assured him it was no big deal.
“Oh, but there are a lot of people in the hotel who speak Mandarin,” Nick counter-assured me. “Let me send someone up to the Cherry Garden [the Cantonese restaurant one floor up from the Axis Lounge] and find someone who can help you.”
I tried to tell Nick it wasn’t that important but he was having none of it. So five minutes later a nice young Chinese gentlemen appears, I’d say late twenties.
I tell him what I’m trying to figure out: “There’s a line in a 卓文宣 Genie Chuo song that makes no sense to me, and I’d like to know what it means: 天知道，我知道，谁杀了一只猫 tiān zhīdào, wǒ zhīdào, shéi shā le yì zhī māo.”
He looks very confused, no doubt thinking that the 美国人 měiguórén [American dude] must surely be butchering the tones somehow. I said helpfully, “As far as I can tell, it means, ‘Heaven knows, and I know, who killed a cat.”
You can see on his face that he’s thinking, “Ok, the AngMoh actually said the tones right; but it still doesn’t make sense.” Out loud he says, “Well, that’s how I would translate it, too.”
“But what does it mean?” I asked.
He shrugs somewhat helplessly. “I don’t know,” he says, “it doesn’t really make much sense.”
I laugh. “That’s pretty much what my wife said when I asked her,” I tell him and Nick – “she said basically, ‘It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a stupid teenage song for stupid teenagers and by the way I don’t like stupid songs like that.’”
They laugh, and Young Mandarin Dude (whose name I hadn’t caught when he introduced himself) looks both amused and regretful at the same time. “Actually, I don’t think I’m the right person to help you,” he says, “because I don’t listen to pop music much. But we have some other people at the restaurant who like to listen to that kind of music.”
Uh-oh, they’re going to go pester somebody else…so once again I tried to convince them that it really wasn’t that big a deal, and once again they did a very polite equivalent of putting their fingers in their ears and going “nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah…” They had their mission and they had chosen to accept it and I was no longer allowed to revoke it.
After another five minutes, Nick was introducing me to a somewhat embarrassed young Chinese lady who kindly repeated her name several times for me (I wasn’t going to repeat my mistake of missing Young Mandarin Dude’s name) until I had clearly grasped that her name was 高贝 Gāo Bèi. I told her again what line I was trying to comprehend, and she looked pretty confused; so I just decided to let her listen to the song on my iPhone. She listens with furrowed brow, and then suddenly looks cheerful and takes the headphones off. “I know the problem,” she says, “the words are just hard to understand. It isn’t 谁杀了一只猫 shéi shā le yì zhī māo, it’s 谁藏了一把刀 shéi cáng le yì bǎ dāo.”
I thanked her profusely, telling her, “That’s been bothering me for a year and a half.” And she told me I was welcome and headed back off to the restaurant…but then as I sat down I thought, “Hey, wait a minute –谁藏了一把刀 shéi cáng le yì bǎ dāo is the line right before谁杀了一只猫 shéi shā le yì zhī māo!” I checked to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, and sure enough – she had heard the first line and though that was the one I was talking about.
So this time I thought the least I could do was to do the footwork myself. I headed up to the fifth floor and walked through the doors of the Cherry Garden. Young Mandarin Dude and 高贝 Gāo Bèi turn out to be the Cherry Garden’s greeters; so I didn’t have to ask for her, as she saw me and immediately came to meet me. I explained that I thought she had heard the wrong line, and I played the line I really wanted her to translate. And then she said, “Well, Mr. Pierce, you’re actually translating that line right; I’m sorry I had the wrong line.”
“But what does it mean??” I asked again, even more plaintively than the first time.
This is where I discovered that apparently the whole episode had raised her curiosity – because she explained that while she herself was not Taiwanese, they have several young Taiwanese trainees in the Cherry Garden, and when she had come back to the restaurant from talking to me the first time, she had gone and found them and asked if they knew the song 哇哇叫 “Make a Scene”. And they all did know it, and they all agreed that they liked the song and danced to it a lot – and they all told her that卓文宣 Genie Chuo really does say 天知道，我知道，谁杀了一只猫 tiān zhīdào, wǒ zhīdào, shéi shā le yì zhī māo, but none of them know what she means by that. They all just assume it’s some sort of inside joke, or else that 卓文宣 Genie Chuo just needed a phrase that would rhyme well with 谁藏了一把刀 shéi cáng le yì bǎ dāo and didn’t care whether it actually meant anything or not.
So after all that…I wound up right back where I started, which is being told exactly what you told me to begin with, a couple of years ago. I guess that will teach me not to trust my wife.
A postscript: having arrived in Brisbane, I asked a Taiwanese friend here about it. Her reaction was, and I quote, “Wait – you’re trying to figure out what the words of a pop song mean?” This was said in more or less the same tones that one guy would use in asking another, “Wait – you’re trying to figure out what’s going through a woman’s mind?” So I dropped that subject pretty quickly.
And one other note: it is somewhat unfair that the only mention Miss Keren has gotten to date on this blog, is a smart-aleck comment about her dancing ability, when in fact she is a quite impressive young lady. So let it here be noted that she is, well, a quite impressive young lady, as witness the following quite true sequence of events:
- In April, I spend a couple of weeks at the Mandarin Oriental, where it is noted by the staff at the hotel’s Axis Lounge that Mr. Pierce of Room 814 does not eat sugar cookies, and therefore does not need to have sugar cookies brought to him every time he orders coffee.
- Then I leave and go back to Houston for a couple more weeks.
- I show back up last week, but now as Mr. Pierce of Room 837 (meaning that they don’t have any notes on my disdain of sugar cookies), and for the first two days I’m there, I am waited on by two new waitresses who had been working in a different part of the hotel during April and therefore hadn’t seen me before. So they bring me sugar cookies, and I don’t bother to tell them not to.
- On the third night, Keren comes back from her day off, recognizes me, and welcomes me back. By name.
- And thirty minutes later, when one of the new waitresses brings me coffee, she says, “Mr. Pierce, I know you don’t eat sugar cookies — is there something else I could bring you instead?”
Which means that Keren not only recognized me and remembered my name, she remembered that I don’t eat sugar cookies, and took the trouble to tell the other waitresses. Um…I don’t think I’m smart enough to work in that hotel. And I think Keren is going to do just fine even if she never learns to strut it hot in the clubs.