Text: Mandarin (Simplified): “吃着碗里，看着锅里” Pinyin (Simplified) : chi zhe wan li, kan zhe guo li Literal translation: Eating in the bowl, looking in the pot
Context: C is a Chinese international student from Anhui Province, Hefei studying at USC. There were a lot of pauses between sentences as C was finding the right words, as English was not his first language. C： “This folk speech is relatively widespread in China. It’s not very local or original, but it’s more like a proverb. That kind of thing. It’s called “吃着碗里，看着锅里“ (chi zhe wan li, kan zhe guo li). My parents used that a lot with me, because when I was very young, I tend to be very protective of my food. And that’s why my parents described me as that. It translates that you’re eating the food in the bowl, and looking at the food in the pot. I remember one time when my cousin was visiting over the weekend and my parents was cooking a lot of good food. I was always the one eating the chicken leg, the best part of the chicken. And I was so protective, I licked the chicken. I was so young at the time. And my mom said that [proverb to me]. In my family, it was more about not being greedy.”
Interpretation: This proverb is a shorthand bit of wisdom passed down from parent to child. It condones the subject for being too greedy with food. In Mandarin, it’s also a comment on personal character. The direct English translation implies a passiveness to eating and looking, merely an observation. What’s lost from the original Chinese wording is the tone of condescension and the clear subject being the person who is eating. It is not only an observation but a warning. What is in the pot, what the eater cannot look away from, is something the bowl cannot and will not have. This proverb is not only about sharing food with others, but also a caution against selfish desire. One’s personal needs cannot always come first in every situation nor can they be met perfectly. It is not the right response to be ungrateful and expectant for a self-centered result every time, but better to practice moderation and patience with what one wants most and be understanding towards others about their own desires. This proverb’s nugget of knowledge goes past the surface level hoarding of food and deeper into human nature without becoming overbearingly moral. It exemplifies how proverbs operate in folklore well; as generational sayings that though short, have deep meaning.
“There is a common saying in Chinese (Mandarin) : 箭双雕”
Original Script : 箭双雕
Phonetic: Yi (Yee) Jian Shuang Diao
Transliteration: Complete two tasks with one job
Full translation: to shoot two birds with one arrow
This saying is also present in English, it is the same concept as “to kill two birds with one stone”. The theory being you can complete two separate tasks with one action. For example: say a person has to go get a test done at the doctor’s office and also a check up with a different doctor. But both doctors happen to operate out of the same medical office building. By scheduling the appointments back to back, the person is able to complete two tasks (the doctors’ appointments) with one action (driving to the medical office building).
The informant of this info is my friend and she is Chinese and used to live in Shanghai. She always found it interesting that this phrase exists in both English and in Chinese in an almost synonymous context. She can’t find anywhere as to which phrase came first and who got it from who or if the similarity is purely coincidental, and if it is a coincidental likeness then she wanders what does that say about human nature?
The informant is a friend of mine and we were video calling over the phone during quarantine and just chatting about life and funny coincidences across cultures.
I kind of agree with my friend on how she feels about the odd coincidence between the two languages and the same phrase. It is interesting that they are so similar in literally every aspect of their meaning.
Informant Background: The informant was born in rural parts of China called Hainan. She lived there with her grandparents where she attended elementary school. She moved to the United States when she was thirteen. She speaks both Chinese and English. She lives in Los Angeles with her mother but travels back to visit her relatives in Beijing and Hainan every year. She and her mother still practice a lot of Chinese traditions and celebrate Chinese holidays through special meals.
In Chinese you can’t say the word clock because in Chinese the word clock sounds the same as death. People usually point at the clock instead of saying it or called it “big watch,” “time,” “the time thing,” etc. If you end up saying the word then you have to apologize to the people around them for giving them bad luck.
The informant lives in the United States but still speak Chinese. She was taught about this ever since she can speak the language. It was emphasizing in the family and she found out it is practiced among her relatives and her friend’s family as well.
I think this is similar practice to the reason Chinese people avoid saying the word four because it sounds like they are saying death. Death, which is the unknown, is feared and avoided in everyday life. The idea of death is only mentioned and emphasized at funeral. The clock, in this case, has a nickname to avoid saying the actual word. Certain words that have overlapping sound are then muted for everyday life. The same way funeral rituals occur as a special event, words surrounding that particular event are prohibited to occur at any other time otherwise bad luck will enter your life. It is also similar to Western culture’s belief around the number thirteen where in a tall building floor 13 are eliminated.
I always find it peculiar that many everyday word and objects can have bad luck connotation through the way it sounds; also having to apologize for saying those words by mistake. This reinforces the idea of belief and how the truth value of it is irrelevant to whether or not it is practiced. Saying the word “four” or “clock” in Chinese would not bring bad luck but it would bring the belief of bad luck. I think that these traditions are carried through as accepted practice rather than the actual fear of the consequences.
yi ge ri ben ren
One Japanese Man
zhan zai men kou
Standing at the doorway
na zhe yi ba dao
Holding a knife
sha le si ge ren
He kills four people
This was learned by my informant when she was growing up in Singapore in school, when she was about ten or eleven years of age. While she can’t quite recall who she learnt it from, she said it was rather useful for learning characters in Chinese. It is in essence a word riddle, in which the bottom four lines would be told to the other person and the other person would try to guess what the word was.
Even though there is supposedly nothing meant by the content (morbid as it is), it is just there because it fits the word. However, when my informant was growing up during the 1950s and 60s in Singapore there was a great deal of resentment against the Japanese for WWII. The words of this riddle could originate as a subtle form of anti-Japanese rebellion or statement for the brutal acts that they performed in Singapore and most of South East and East Asia.
During World War II, it was very common for Japanese soldiers to enter houses indiscriminately and slaughter whole families for numerous trumped up charges, like being Chinese, or having a wife that the soldier found mildly attractive or even looking at them wrong. Therefore this might be a reflection of not only this anti-Japanese sentiment but also oppositional culture.