Chinese Superstitions and Evil Fish

This post was inspired by something I learned today, which is why the Chinese word for "good fortune" is sometimes hung upside down.

The Chinese have some nutty superstitions based on words sounding alike. The best known of these is probably that the number 4 is considered unlucky because it sounds like the word for "death".

This "reasoning" is especially silly in the Chinese language. In Chinese, every word has one syllable, and there are a limited number of sound combinations that form valid words. For example, in Mandarin there are words that begin with a "k" sound, but none that end with one. So of course every word is going to sound like a whole bunch of other words, in Mandarin more than most other languages. If you're going to use guilt by homophonous association, EVERY word is going to have a hundred layers of meaning that have nothing to do with the word.

In the case of Chinese tetraphobia, the "logic" is especially silly because the words for "4" and "death" don't even have the same tones.

If you want to be logical about this, I'd pick a language like French, which has a tiny number of homophones compared to Chinese, and I'd look for multiple corroborating word associations, not just one. For example, in French the word for fish is "poisson", which sounds suspiciously like the word "poison", meaning "poison". Furthermore, the word for "fisherman", "pĂȘcheur", sounds suspiciously like the word for "sinner", "pĂ©cheur". So there you have it: FISH IS EVIL.

Some Ways Wonder Woman Is Different

I saw Wonder Woman on opening night, and while pondering the many reasons I loved it, I got to thinking about differences between Diana and other superheroes.

Like Superman, she comes from a peaceful, scholarly world, but unlike Krypton, Themyscira has a warrior culture. Like Superman, she is pure of heart; unlike Superman, she does not draw a line at killing. And unlike Superman, who was rocketed to Earth as a baby, Diana grew to adulthood in her home world, and so she brings her learnedness with her when she comes to our world.

Like Daredevil and Batman, Diana trains insanely hard from childhood to be a fighter. Unlike them, she doesn't do it because she's been scarred or traumatized. She might be the most psychologically healthy superhero I can think of. She trains hard because she is a warrior at heart and rejects her mother's attempts to shelter her from that life.

Unlike Spider-Man, she doesn't need a "great responsibility" teaching moment. Her natural instinctive reaction is: something's wrong here, people are being harmed, and I have the strength to do something about it.

These differences are some of the reasons I found the movie refreshing. They don't mean one character is necessarily better or worse than another, although I will say the character that Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins have created strikes me as a better Superman than the current Superman.

Why I'm Against "Give Him a Chance"

Trump has already got the chance whether we "give" it to him or not. As near as anyone can tell as of today, he won the election. "Give him a chance" sounds like something I tell myself to feel better about my abuser. It uses an action verb, "to give", to sugarcoat my powerlessness.

Why does the clock start now on giving him a chance? Why wasn't that clock running when he encouraged violence at his rallies? Those rallies were a safe home for bigots itching to punch a protester. Why wasn't the clock running then? At what point do we decide someone has blown the chance we gave them?

I'm more inclined than many to give someone a chance. As far as I'm concerned, Trump could be as dumb as people say, though I doubt it. He could be a buffoon. He could be a failed businessman. He could be all of those things and more. Heck, I was highly amused at how easily he swept that huge Republican field — one with in a Bush in it, for chrissake.

But those rallies slammed a door shut in my mind. If that door didn't slam shut in your mind as well, then I may not stop liking you, loving you, or supporting you as a person, but I'm afraid we have a fundamental disagreement.

In no other sphere of life do we simply ignore the fact that someone has behaved so dangerously with no signs of stopping, being held to account, or caring. What happened to "Trust has to be earned"? What happened to "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time"?

I'm not saying he can't do good things. I'm certainly not saying we should mindlessly protest all things Trump simply because they come from him. I'm saying "give him a chance" is passive bullshit disguised as fairness and graciousness. What we should be saying is "Stay on his case."

Getting Writing Done

Every individual is different when it comes to writing. A frequent problem for me is that the words and ideas race around in circles in my head and I can't seem to round them up so that they come out of me and get onto the page. I don't care how sloppily the words come out — that's what editing and revisions are for — if they would only come out.

In those situations it sometimes helps when a friend asks one specific question via email or Facebook or chat, and when I go to answer that one person about that one little thing, I find the floodgates open and I end up blathering their virtual ear off. And then I realize all that blathering should go on my blog, if only on Scott Hanselman's "finite keystrokes" principle, so I go ahead and repurpose the stuff I wrote into a blog post. (What you're reading now is in fact an example of me doing this.)

It isn't always a question that sets me off. The person might make an assertion that isn't quite correct, and my "well, actually" reflex kicks in, and there you go, I'm blathering again.

Daniel Steinberg shared some wonderful advice about writing in 30 blog posts last September. Every one of those posts is a gem, and it doesn't hurt that Daniel is one of my favorite people.

Millennial Whoop

Fair warning: I don't have any real point here, except that this is the kind of thing I fixate on at 5:00 in the morning when I'm not sleepy.

On Facebook I came across an article by Patrick Metzger titled "The Millennial Whoop: A glorious obsession with the melodic alternation between the fifth and the third". When I saw that title I tried to think of melodies that use fifth-third repetition. The examples I came up with were older than today's pop music:

  • "JOEY, joey, JOEY, …" ("Joey, Joey, Joey", 1956)
  • "TALL AND TAN and YOUNG AND LOVELY, the GIRL FROM IpaNEMA GOES WALKING and…" ("The Girl From Ipanema", 1962)
  • "on a CLEAR DAY, rise and look aROUND YOU, and you'll SEE WHO YOU are…" ("On a Clear Day You Can See Forever", 1965)

Once I played the first example in the article I knew what Metzger meant, and recognized it from Katy Perry.

Besides coming from earlier eras, I can think of two ways my examples differ from the "Millennial Whoop":

  • My examples use fifth-third repetition, not quite alternation.
  • Harmonically, the Millennial Whoop is sung over a dominant (near as my ear can tell). In my examples, the chords may change underneath the fifth-to-thirds in the melody, but I don't think any of those chords are dominant (could be wrong, too lazy to check).

Side note: it's always amused me that the theme from "Return of the Dragon" (the movie in which Bruce Lee fights Chuck Norris) has the same first four notes as "On a Clear Day". It even continues the similarity by repeating the pattern up a step.

Saw Seven Samurai Again

Went out and saw Seven Samurai last night. I can't remember when I'd last watched it.

I was blown away as always by everything about it, especially Toshiro Mifune's towering, volcanic performance. His character Kikuchiyo is vulgar and ridiculous, but over time we come to understand his rage and his pain, and why he is the way he is. By the end — it gets me every time — my heart is breaking for him.

I'd forgotten a lot of the movie's subthreads and bits of business. For example, there's a hilarious line that I'm pretty sure I won't forget again: "How dare you pick flowers at a time like this!" Also, I'd never noticed before the different ways children are used throughout the movie.

If one didn't know much about it, one could easily assume Seven Samurai is about a bunch of heroes who save the day. There is heroism, but more than that, there is compassion in the face of deep human suffering.

I almost changed my mind about going. Practically speaking, there's a lot of ways I could have spent those few hours more productively. I'm glad I did go, because the experience pushed some buttons in me that probably needed pushing. Plus I got to discover the Metrograph theater, which is pretty cool. I look forward to going back.

My Mind Is a Raging Torrent

For years I've been wanting to make a meme of this line:

My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives. — Hedley Lamarr, Blazing Saddles

I love this state of mind, but I have to be careful. When an idea strikes, I may abruptly stop what I am doing and spend hours pondering, writing up, sketching, and researching "creative alternatives" that I just don't have time for. Before I know it, I've wandered far astray from any plan or schedule I had for the day.

The problem isn't whether these these ideas are realistic or worthwhile. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. Either way, I perceive value in the exercise of thinking about them. The problem is priorities. It is hard to tear myself away from my latest inspiration even when I know there are vastly more important things to do.

[UPDATE: I could swear I'd posted this image already, but if so I can't find where.]

Mind is a raging torrent 700x700

Hurry Up and Copy Faster

[I posted this on Facebook today and felt compelled out of self-absorbedness to repurpose it as a blog post.]

From the department of "'But enough about me…' is not a phrase in my vocabulary":

You guys are killing me over here. So much fascinating stuff today, so many articles I want to read and respond to, so many interesting updates about your lives, so much plain old fun. I open my Facebook timeline and my brain is like a dog bombarded with a million amazing, irresistible scents. That dog is going to starve to death if it doesn't pick a rabbit to chase.

On top of that, my mental bandwidth is so narrow. It feels like dial-up Internet when what I need is fiber-optic. It's like in a spy movie when the spy is stealing computer files, and the bad guys are beating down the door, and you're watching the download progress bar, thinking "Argh, HURRY UP AND COPY FASTER so the spy can escape!" I feel like that during a high percentage of my waking hours. My progress bar always feels like it's moving too slow relative to the urgency of my impulses around information.

My "bandwidth" is frustratingly low in both directions. In the incoming direction — I'm not a great reader. I have to reread a lot, and it takes me more effort than your average bear to put together a mental model of what the heck the writer is saying. Maybe I should work to improve on this, to learn to read. That said, on rare occasions when that mental model interests me, I will turn it over and over in my head long past where most people would have been tired of it. I fiddle with it, critique it, boil it down. I try to think how I would communicate it to someone else. For better or worse, I am glad I do that. I value my fussiness — I think it means I care about getting things right — though I wish I could direct it more selectively and productively.

In the outgoing direction — I often struggle to express myself in words. Takes me way too long to compose simple email replies. Yes, writing is partly an act of discovery, and a certain amount of writerly squirming is necessary to figure out what I think. But sometimes, honestly, just spit it out already. No one is going to judge, remember, or necessarily even notice this thing I'm writing. And if they do judge, well hey, it's a free American country [1], I can say what I want. This is also something for me to work on, the spitting it out already.

There's a flip side, which is that I can babble at length once I do get going, which is not great in terms of having good conversations. It's both a social skill thing and a cognitive thing, I think.

All I really meant to say is, I'm trying to rush through my Facebook-skimming today — a few quick likes and shares, and then step away, and get back to various tasks I'm behind on. But you guys make that difficult.

[1] I could swear this is a line from Taxi Driver, spoken by Peter Boyle's character. Can't seem to find a reference online though, and the phrase is not in the script that I found. [Update: My sister thinks it was Archie Bunker who said "free American country", and I think she's right.]

Fresh Off the Boat: Two Women

I've liked all episodes of Fresh Off the Boat except the one mentioned in this NY Times article, in which "Eddie develops a protosexual fascination with a blond, large-breasted trophy wife who has just moved into the neighborhood". I did not like how sexuality was treated in that episode, and I can see how the real Eddie Huang would feel betrayed by how it trivialized his deep connection with hip hop. I mostly try to pretend that episode never happened — mostly. The episode has one saving grace, in that the busty blonde in question, Honey, is a refreshingly sympathetic character, sweet but not ditzy. She isn't there for other characters to take cheap shots at.

By contrast, I really dislike how the grandmother's character is written. Every time she appears I dread what she's going to say. She only speaks an occasional line, always in Mandarin with subtitles, and always something weird or offbeat. No one ever replies to anything she says. In several episodes Eddie basically uses her as a prop. To me it seems the intended humor is a combination of:

  • "Ha, crazy old lady",
  • "Ha, crazy old Chinese lady", and
  • "Actually this line is not funny at all, but she says it in Chinese, and that's funny."

In Episode 11 ("Very Superstitious") the grandmother finally gets a few reasonable lines, and one of the kids actually asks her a genuine question. I swear, a little part of me cheered when that happened. But in the same episode there's an awful moment when the parents accidentally walk in on her while she's on the toilet. Talk about a cheap shot.

I hope the lines Grandma got were a sign of better things to come. If not — if the writers aren't going to give her basic dignity or a real personality — then I'd rather she be written off the show, as brutal as that sounds.

Fresh Off the Boat: Enjoying the Book vs. Enjoying the Show

I highly recommend Eddie Huang's autobiography Fresh Off the Boat, on which the TV sitcom is loosely based (more on that in a moment). Huang's writing is raw, passionate, and funny. Just about every page of the book has got something interesting on it. In that respect, I find it's like reading Richard Feynman's collections of stories about his own life.

Among his many adventures, Huang writes about hustling sneakers on the Lower East Side and turning that into a way to support the Obama campaign. He writes about his ill-fated attempt to get hired as a beat writer for the local newspaper (I'll never hear the phrase "that face" the same way again). He writes about being stomped day after day, Rudy Ruettiger-style, playing high school football.

In a more serious vein, Huang writes about the deep influence hip hop culture had on him, and how it spoke to him as an outsider. He writes about his lifelong love of food and his passion for cooking. He also writes about his experiences with racism and about the violence he grew up with, both on the streets and at home, where Eddie and his brothers were routinely beaten by their parents.

I see loose parallels with Bruce Lee in the life stories of both Huang and his father, in that all three men started as Chinese street punks and grew up to achieve versions of the American Dream. I'm not the only one to see this connection — a friend pointed it out to me recently.

Part of what I find fascinating about Huang, in both his writing and the bits of him I've seen on YouTube, is how strikingly he differs from stereotypes of Asian males — again, a very loose Bruce Lee parallel.

At this point, if the only "Fresh Off the Boat" you know is the TV show, you may be wondering if I'm talking about the same Eddie Huang. Street fights? Domestic violence?

The TV show is indeed very different from the book. By comparison, imagine being told The Cosby Show was based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. (Please note: I'm not comparing Huang to Malcolm X by any means; I'm just trying to give an idea of how the show might shock someone who was expecting the book, and vice versa. Also — full disclosure — I have not actually read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.)

Huang has spoken out more than once about how the show has sanitized and trivialized aspects of his life that are important to him:

I can understand his disappointment in the show, but I can also understand the question "What did you expect?" Huang admits he naively thought he could "change things" much more than he did. Perhaps this is yet another similarity to Bruce Lee, in that Huang had about as much chance of telling his story in his own way as Lee did of starring in Kung Fu. Who knows, maybe someday there will be an Eddie Huang 2.0, just as there was a Steve Jobs 2.0, who will take what he's learned from bitter experience and find new and bigger ways to change the world.

I'm glad Huang did push his way into the show to the extent he was able to. He tells a story about how one of the writers thought it would be funny to have a line about how Huang's grandfather used to castrate pigs with a stick. Huang's actual grandfather sold mantou (Chinese buns) on the street, took a factory job from a customer who admired his work ethic, and eventually took over the factory. Huang did not appreciate the Boratification (a term I just made up) of his grandfather, nor the fact that the writer could not understand why Huang was horrified. The line was eventually changed.

I enjoy the show. With one exception, I find all the characters very likable and funny. I enjoy the show separately and differently from how I enjoy the book. For better or worse, it is simply a different thing.

In the months leading up to the show's premiere I wasn't sure what to expect from an Asian family sitcom. Does that sound strange? What's so hard to imagine about a network sitcom? It just goes to show how the absence of Asians on TV had affected me. Fortunately, by the end of the pilot episode I was cured of that befuddlement. The show seems as "normal" as any other TV show, and that feels good.

Part of what feels good is not only seeing faces like mine, but seeing memes from Asian life being aired in mainstream American comedy. In one episode, the mom wants to use "white flower oil" on Eddie's broken arm. It was a passing reference, and I doubt it stuck in many non-Chinese viewers' minds, but it was there. Who knows, maybe it will be repeated enough that white flower oil will be recognized for what it is: my people's tussin, my people's Windex.

Do I see myself in the show? Not really, but I've seen comments from friends and strangers, Asian, Jewish, and black, who say they do, and I like that too.