Author Archives: Eugene Sung

“Even cold water will get in your teeth” (喝凉水也塞牙)

Original Script : 喝凉水也塞牙

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Hē liángshuǐ yě sāi yá

Transliteration : Even cold water will get in your teeth

Full Translation : If you are meant to be unlucky, you will be unlucky no matter what you do

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Denver, Colorado. His family moved to the United States before he was born from mainland China. Even though his first language was technically English, as his family used Chinese at home, he grew as a bilingual student. Here, he is describing a proverb that his grandparents and parents taught him when he was young. He told me that since he couldn’t remember in detail and had to ask his parents again, a lot of the dialogue is summarized. He is identified as Z in the dialogue and this piece was collected over a phone call.

Z : What does it even mean by ‘water getting in my teeth’? It’s something that is not possible because water is a liquid without any smell or taste. This proverb thus means that if you are unlucky, you will be unlucky no matter what you do. If you are trying to drink water and you’re meant to be unlucky, a water will get between your teeth and you will be annoyed by it. 

Analysis :

This short proverb and its explanation added a humor factor in it. Rather than explaining it with other food or drink items, the proverb talks about water ‘getting in one’s teeth’, which is something no one has ever and will ever experience before. This reminded me of the Korean version of this proverb, “an unlucky man will break their nose even if they fall backwards (재수 없는 놈은 뒤로 자빠져도 코가 깨진다)”. In this Korean version of the proverb, it also talks about an impossible combination of happenings; first, one falls backwards and is expected to hurt his backside of his head but second, he ends up breaking his nose, which is located on the front side of their head. This also indicates how unlucky events seem inevitable and unavoidable because it is destined to be so for people. 

“A Kappa carried away by a river” (河童の川流れ)

Original Script : 河童の川流れ

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Kappa no kawanagare

Transliteration : A Kappa carried away by a river

Full Translation : Even experts make mistakes and no one is perfect

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Osaka, Japan. She graduated elementary school in Japan but soon moved to the United States for English education. She still uses Japanese in her home and uses and knows a lot of Japanese proverbs and idioms that are still widely used in Japan. Here, she is describing a well-known Japanese proverb. She is identified as Y, and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Y : Kappa is a Japanese traditional mythical creature that lives in the water. Even though they still can survive outside water, they need to keep themselves moist enough to live. Like this, they are very water-friendly creatures. This proverb talks about how a Kappa is being carried away in the river while they are experts in swimming. It indicates how they have made a mistake and are being carried away. It doesn’t mean that they are dead through! It just means that even an expert makes a mistake sometimes. 

Analysis :

I liked this proverb because it adds humor and makes the audience think about a water-based mythical creature floating around in the river water because of their mistake. Other than the humor, this piece also tells the audience that not everyone is perfect and even experts would make mistakes in certain situations. The origin of this proverb is unknown, but a Korean version of this proverb is called “even a monkey falls off a tree sometimes (원숭이도 나무에서 떨어질때가 있다)”. This Korean version is a possible oikotype of this proverb because Kappas are not believed in Korean societies. Thus, they took out the Japanese mythical creature out of it and replaced it with a monkey, who is an expert in climbing trees and vines. 

“Finding a needle in the sea” (大海捞针)

Original Script : 大海捞针

Phonetic (Roman) Script : dà hǎi lāo zhēn

Transliteration : Finding a needle in the sea

Full Translation : It is as hard as finding a needle in the sea

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Denver, Colorado. His family moved to the United States before he was born from mainland China. Even though his first language was technically English, as his family used Chinese at home, he grew as a bilingual student. Here, he is describing an idiom that his grandparents and parents taught him when he was young. He is identified as Z in the dialogue and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Z : Haha, I think I don’t even need to explain this because the idiom speaks for itself. Finding a needle in the middle of the vast sea is not even close to being possible – it’s impossible. This idiom is used when expressing a situation that is not possible in any way.

Analysis :

This is a very common idiom used in Asian countries, and I believe it is used in other cultures too in different oikotypes. In Korea, there are two versions to this idiom. One is ‘finding a needle in the beach’, which is very similar to the Chinese idiom by my informant. I thought it was very interesting how they both are related to the sea and also how it implies the fact that sea is still not studied enough and no one knows what is down in the deep sea. The other one is ‘finding Mr. Kim in Seoul’, which adds a Korean aspect to it. Kim is one of the most common last names in Korean and Seoul is the capital of South Korea and is well known for its crowdedness since all people gather in Seoul. This Korean version shows that it is impossible to find the ‘Mr. Kim’ one is looking for in the overcrowded city. 

“A terrapin and the moon” (月と鼈)

Original Script : 月と鼈

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Tsuki to suppon

Transliteration : A terrapin and the moon

Full Translation : Two completely opposite beings

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Osaka, Japan. She graduated elementary school in Japan but soon moved to the United States for English education. She still uses Japanese in her home and uses and knows a lot of Japanese proverbs and idioms that are still widely used in Japan. Here, she is describing a well-known Japanese proverb. She is identified as Y, and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Y : You can think of terrapin as a small turtle. I think it’s other name is a soft-shelled turtle, but it’s basically the same thing except that terrapins are smaller than turtles and stay in the mud of rivers. The reason why they compare a terrapin and the moon is because of the fact that they are similar because they are both round like a circle, but also very different. While the moon is often described as a bright and aesthetic figure up in the sky, a terrapin stays under the dark, wet mud. This proverb is used when comparing two objects or people that are completely different beyond comparison. 

Analysis :

I thought this proverb possibly expresses the Japanese society’s affection for the moon. There are a lot of traditional stories like ‘the story of Genji’ where a character wakes up in the middle of the night and stares at the moon for a long time, admiring its beauty. It was interesting how they chose the moon over the sun, which is also a symbol that is round in shape and admired by a lot of cultures. 

“Eating from the same rice pot” (同じ釜の飯を食う)

Original Script : 同じ釜の飯を食う

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Onaji kamano meshiwo kuu

Transliteration : Eating from the same rice pot

Full Translation : Joining as a new member of a community

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Osaka, Japan. She graduated elementary school in Japan but soon moved to the United States for English education. She still uses Japanese in her home and uses and knows a lot of Japanese proverbs and idioms that are still widely used in Japan. Here, she is describing a well-known Japanese proverb. She is identified as Y, and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Y : Basically, eating from the same rice pot indicates that they are sitting in the same space while eating and are familiar with each other. Sharing a meal shows that they are friends and are in the same boat. If you think about it, not a lot of people get to share the rice from a single rice pot; it’s either your family or a person who lives with you. It’s this straight-forward.

Analysis :

This proverb was very easy to understand and personally relatable because there is a Korean version of this proverb. The Korean version of this proverb also translates into “eating from the same rice pot”. I’m not sure where it was first introduced from, but this shows that Asian cultures have a similar understanding of proverbs. Also, I thought it was interesting how it was ‘rice pot’ out of all foods that a person can share; it adds an Asian aspect to it. It also implies how sharing of foods means that they are ‘on the same boat’. 

The sharing of food (or drinks) is also related to the ‘Sakazuki’ ceremony, which is a ceremony of Japanese yakuza (Japanese gang) performs when a new gang member joins in. They share a cup of traditional Japanese alcohol, sake and the sharing of the drink means that the new member is now an official member of the yakuza family; the member must show absolute loyalty to the family and the boss must protect the member under all circumstances. 

A detailed further description of the Sakazuki ceremony and the importance of creating bonds between yakuza members could be found in this article, “Insider Outsider: The Way of the Yakuza” written by Jacob Raz.