"the picture of the universe shifts from tongue to tongue"

The Whorfian hypothesis: “The structure of the language one habitually uses influences the manner in which one understands his environment…We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.”


I found out from a colleague that Happy Easter in Serbian is “Hristos Vaskrs!”, literally meaning Christ resurrected. 

I wonder how Happy Easter “translates” in other languages/cultures! 


Farsi Crossword Puzzle


Culturally determined “Startle Coefficient”?

Yesterday I had a Chinese friend over and I suddenly came up behind her to grab something in her proximity. She didn’t flinch. And this isn’t the first time I have noticed my Asian friends being less jumpy when someone abruptly enters their personal space.

I get startled very easily. I jump through the roof if someone appears or speaks to me when I didn’t know they were there (Have I watched too many horror films in my day?). So do both Yao Rong and I have issues— sensory, emotional, or otherwise—or has our startle reaction been culturally conditioned?

In China, a country with such a large population and often a high population density (depending on the region in which you find yourself), people are used to living with many other human beings in their immediate proximity. There are different concepts of personal space than we have in the West, which you are sure to notice the minute you step on the metro or are waiting at a street corner and find fellow pedestrians huddled up against you waiting to cross.  Friends, regardless of gender, will often walk shoulder to shoulder, quite comfortably. And, as it appears from my recent experience, some Chinese may not become alarmed at an unannounced nudge.

The Canadian province I grew up in has a population of 1 million, and according to Wikipedia, a density of 1.75 people per square kilometer. Compare this to Bangladesh, with over 1,000 people in the same area (which still trails behind Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Vatican city to name a few!)

I suppose it comes down to probability: with a higher population density, the chances of running into another person, and having them encroach on your personal space, becomes higher. If an individual grows up in a densely populated environment since childhood, it would seem to me that their startle response would be conditioned to be less dramatic.

I have not conducted a literature review on the topic, be it in psychology, neuroscience, or what, but for lack of the official term let’s call it a “Startle coefficient”; a measurement of the body’s physical reaction to unpredicted or sudden stimuli. 

So my thesis is: countries with relatively higher population density have a lower startle coefficient than those with relatively lower population density.

And just to keep things interesting, I plan to start testing my hypothesis with the people I meet from different cultures on a daily basis.  




Bill Shakes on Marriage

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.


Gender and Language

…“the sun” in French is le soleil, a masculine noun, and, for the French, a word closely associated with the Sun King, Louis XIV. The French, who imprint this reference at a young age, perceive the sun as male and by extension, see males as brilliant and shining. Women, on the other hand, are associated with the moon, la lune, a feminine word. The moon, of course, does not shine by herself; she reflects the light of the sun….

For Germans, however, these words have nearly opposite meanings. The sun, die Sonne, is feminine, and Germans believe that women are the ones who bring warmth to the world, make things grow, and raise children. German men are the night, the dark, the moon side. Der Mond, “the moon”, is a masculine term….

From The Culture Code, Clotaire Rapaille

Good writing …succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.
Malcolm Gladwell
All men dream but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes to make it possible.
T.E. Lawrence


verbalize it is getting revitalized. as the author gets back into the swing of things following the birth of Mr. Z, posts will become more frequent and wording (hopefully) more polished. 


A pretty penny for postpartum recovery in China

Zuo Yue Zi: a special term in Chinese for the month of recovery following childbirth. Considered to be an important time for the mother in Chinese culture, with associated traditions that seem to be a combination of wisdom and superstition. I thought I’d give it a try. (Welcome to Mr. Z who joined our family on 11.20, 2012)

Did I mention this is big business? A new industry has sprung up surrounding high-end centers for postpartum recovery that can run 4,000 USD to 20,000 USD for one month. On one hand a status symbol, yet at the same time the less affluent are willing to pay a lot since postpartum recovery is given so much emphasis in Chinese culture. It is thought that if the yue zi guidelines are not followed, health problems such as pain in bones and joints will ensue for the remainder of one’s life. In Shanghai you can hire a “yue sao”, a special kind of live-in nanny that looks after your new born baby as well as the recovering new mom. This will put you back around 1,500 USD for the month. Either going to a yue zi center or hiring a yue sao is almost considered a necessity in today’s Shanghai. 

In China, during the month after childbirth women are encouraged to rest and follow a set of practices to ensure a healthy recovery and lifelong good health. This period of time is called “yue zi” and has a foundation in cultural traditions as well as Chinese medicine.

In short:

The Ten Commandments of Yue Zi

Thou shalt not go outside

Thou shalt not shower

Thou shalt not eat or drink anything cold in nature or temperature

Thou shalt lay down as much as possible

Thou shalt wear socks and keep the head covered

Thou shalt avoid lifting your baby

Thou shalt eat special soups and medicines, such as pig liver, fish soup, red bean congee, etc.

Thou shalt not use the air conditioner/heater, fan, or open a window, in order to avoid drafts.

Thou shalt not read, use computer or television, to avoid fatigue.

Thou shalt not do chores

Needless to say I was not able to abide by all of these commandments, but I did give attention to the special soups that seemed to help with regaining strength after delivery and assisting lactation. I did try to not go outside (I think I only went out twice during the first month, for a short time and with my head covered). I did feel more comfortable keeping socks on and my head covered (they say this prevents the “qi” from escaping). Overall, I think the yue zi was beneficial, yet I could also see it being the perfect recipe for cabin fever.

I do think the Western world, where moms are pumping their own gas and lugging groceries days after giving birth, could glean something from the lying-in concept as a way to promote health and recovery. Yet, at the same time we need to view age old practices in light of modern knowledge. And one has to wonder, is five star accommodation really a requirement for the new mom and baby to flourish? 



An Unexpected Encounter with Shoes

Food quality and safety has been a concern in China for many years. There are frequent scandals and reports of contamination in everything from baby food, to processed meat, produce, and dairy such as milk and yogurt. I have heard there is now an app that aggregates the reports of contamination for easy viewing. It is challenging for consumers here, myself included, to obtain accurate information about food quality, and also to know how much to alter our purchases or consumption habits based on what we hear.

Last week I had a couple of friends over one evening, and decided to make my way to the kitchen and indulge in a yogurt cup. As I returned to the living room and sat down, my husband asked me what brand of yogurt I was eating. Before I could answer him, my Chinese friend Lin pointed at the cup and said “Shoes”.

In the moments that followed I learned this particular brand of yogurt had been found to be adding rubber used in the soles of shoes as an ingredient to thicken its texture. Needless to say, I lost my appetite.

What should one do when one’s yogurt has shoes in it? Change brands? Buy import only? Switch to home-made?

China isn’t the only country with food scandals, it has also happened in Canada and the U.S. We are always taking a leap of faith when we consume store bought foods, to a greater or lesser extent. Yet it would require a dramatic lifestyle change to make everything from scratch. There is a middle ground of course, where you could buy directly from smaller local farms, but I have yet to discover how to do this in Shanghai.

Luckily I am not alone- consumers in countries around the globe including China are striving to regain control of our food supply chain. Until then, maybe I should get that app…


"Drink more?" vs. "More tea?"

From The Geography of Thought by Richard E. Nisbett:

"A difference in language practice that startles both Chinese speakers and English speakers when they hear how the other group handles it concerns the proper way to ask someone whether they would like more tea to drink.

In Chinese, one asks “Drink more?” In English, one asks “More tea?” To Chinese speakers, its perfectly obvious that it’s tea one is talking about drinking more of, to mention tea would be redundant. To English speakers, it’s perfectly obvious that one is talking about drinking the tea, as opposed to any other activity that might be carried out with it, so it would be rather bizarre for the question to refer to drinking.”


"Does diagramming sentences teach us anything except how to diagram sentences?"

The curious art of diagramming sentences was invented 165 years ago by S.W. Clark, a schoolmaster in Homer, N.Y. [1] His book, published in 1847, was called “A Practical Grammar: In which Words, Phrases, and Sentences Are Classified According to Their Offices and Their Various Relations to One Another.” His goal was to simplify the teaching of English grammar. It was more than 300 pages long, contained information on such things as unipersonal verbs and “rhetorico-grammatical figures,” and provided a long section on Prosody, which he defined as “that part of the Science of Language which treats of utterance.”

See A Picture of Language- NY Times

“Writing letters constitutes my most agreeable employment.”


"We may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence"

by Steven Pinker 

… “the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset (“War is not an instinct but an invention”), Stephen Jay Gould (“Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species”), and Ashley Montagu (“Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood”),” he writes. "But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler."