Mississippi Delta Chinese

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, during our time in New Orleans, we made the obligatory stop at Cafe du Monde for beignets and hot chocolate. Even though it was quite crowded, we managed to find a table in a corner overlooking Lafayette Square.

Our waitress was an ethnic Chinese woman with a thick New Orleans drawl who called us all “darling” and “honey-child.”

That took us by surprise!

But then I looked around an noticed that nearly all of the wait staff seemed to be Chinese, most of them speaking with thick southern accents.

Clearly, they were not recent immigrants.

Interacting with this sweet Chinese-Louisianan reminded me of a short film that I ran across a few months back about a community of Chinese who have lived in the Mississippi Delta region for over a hundred years. Produced by Al Jazeera as part of a series on Chinese food in America, the reporter introduces us to their life and their food. The title of the piece is The Untold Story of America’s Southern Chinese. 

Here is the video: (email readers: go here to view it)

In March of this year, NPR did a story on the community, titled The Legacy of the Mississippi Delta Chinese. 

Think of the Mississippi Delta. Maybe you imagine cotton fields, sharecroppers and blues music.

It’s been all that. But for more than a century, the Delta has also been a magnet for immigrants. I was intrigued to learn about one immigrant group in particular: the Delta Chinese.

To find out more, I travelled to Greenville, Miss., a small city along the Mississippi River. I meet Raymond Wong in Greenville’s Chinese cemetery, right across a quiet road from an African-American cemetery. Wong’s family has long been part of a thriving — but separate — Chinese community.

“We were in-between,” Wong explains, “right in between the blacks and the whites. We’re not black, we’re not white. So that by itself gives you some isolation.”

Finally, last year documentary filmmaker Samantha Cheng released a film titled Honor and Duty: The Mississippi Delta Chinese. 

The film tells the story of the early Chinese immigrants to the Mississippi Delta during the 19th century; then it explores how the community steadily grew in the early part of the 20th century, as Chinese families across the Delta opened grocery stores that served both the black and white populations. Subsequently, it reveals how 182 Chinese men from the Delta participated in all aspects of the US war effort in WWII, shows the transformational nature of their participation in the war for the development of the community in the decades immediately after the war, and concludes by documenting the contributions of the Chinese Delta families to the state of Mississippi and beyond as t

Their children became doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and many other types of professionals in the contemporary era.

You can see a trailer for the film here.


What Languages Are Spoken in China?

Even though I have a fairly high level of fluency in Mandarin Chinese, there are still numerous places in China where I can travel to and not be able to understand a word of what is being spoken by the locals. This map, posted at That’s Magazineshows why


Image credit: @nick_kapur, via That’s Magazine

Related Posts:

Chinese Language Learning Infographic

Learning About Chinese (and Language Learning)

A Letter to Chinese Language Learners

State Names in Chinese (Literally)

Learning Chinese in the 1920’s

English Words Borrowed from Chinese

This is a pop quiz — what common English words are borrowed from Chinese? The answer may surprise you.

How about kowtow, gung ho, and ketchup? Or typhoon. Or “long time no see.”

Even though English is a language that compulsively borrows from other languages, we don’t have too many borrowed from English.

A post on the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time blog last week delved into the question of why not:

“Linguists note that the heyday for linguistic absorption from China occurred before 1950, as can be seen in the spellings of certain loaner words—kowtow, gung ho, ketchup—many derived from non-Mandarin Chinese languages such as Cantonese.


Though there are other Chinese terms that are well-known in English, such as bok choy or chow mien, as the Economist’s Johnson language blog has pointed out, ‘[English-speaking countries] borrowed the foods, and their Chinese names merely hitched a ride into English.’ The same could be true of another—by now—commonly known Chinese term, feng shui.”

The post then asked its readers to identify Chinese words that could (or should) be imported by English. Below are my top five suggestions:

1. Ding (订). This is a great word that means to reserve or book or settle something. It can be used in multiple contexts — buying tickets, reserving a table at a restaurant, or arranging a time to meet a friend. It’s one of those words that foreigners in China sprinkle into their English discourse. “Did you ding a table?” “Did you ding the ticket?” And then there’s the great phrase, “jiu zhenme ding le.” (It’s settled, then!)

2. mafan (麻烦). This is another catch-all word that means hassle, annoyance, or all-around pain in the neck. Anything that fits into those categories can be described as mafan. It can also take on political overtones — people don’t want to “have mafan” from the government, that is get into trouble with the authorities.

3. mashang (马上). This means immediately, or presently, conveying the idea that something is about to happen. It literally means “on the horse.”

4. couhe (凑合). This word means to “make do.” When things can’t be perfect, then you just couhe couhe. When you don’t have all the exact ingredients or materials, you improvise — couhe. When you have to change your plans at the last minute, you couhe couhe.

5. bu wenming (不文明). The most common translation of this term is civilized or uncivilized. To suggest that someone is bu wenming is to suggest that he or she is rude, or uncouth — without manners.

So, dear Chinese speaking readers….leave a comment and tell me which Chinese words would YOU like to see make their way into English.


Another Great Reason to Learn Chinese

brain_0Last month I hosted a couple of friends from China for two weeks. It was great having them here, but since they don’t speak English I and a mutual Chinese friend traded translation shifts. Wherever we went and whatever we did, one of us had to be ‘on duty.’

Needless to say it was exhausting. By the time they left my brain physically hurt and it took me about 3 days to put the Chinese side to rest for awhile.

The day they left I stumbled across this article in USA Today highlighting a study that  shows how speaking more than on language may delay the onset of dementia:

The latest evidence that speaking more than one language is a very good thing for our brains comes from a study finding dementia develops years later in bilingual people than in people who speak just one language.


The study, conducted in India and published Wednesday in the journal Neurology, is not the first to reach this conclusion. But it is the largest and comes with an intriguing new detail: The finding held up even in illiterate people — meaning that the possible effect is not explained by formal education.


Instead, the researchers say, there’s something special about switching from one language to another in the course of routine communication — something that helps explain why bilingual people in the study developed dementia five years later than other people did. When illiterate people were compared with other illiterate people, those who could speak more than one language developed dementia six years later.

Suddenly I saw all that mental exertion in a new light.

So if you’re looking for a way to stave off dementia…..LEARN CHINESE!!

Image source: Penn Language Center

A Letter to Chinese Language Learners

With the end of the semester upon us, I know there are thousands out there who are completing a course of Chinese language learning.  Maybe it was a semester; maybe a year; maybe two years. It doesn’t matter. The hard slog is nearing an end ( or perhaps already over for you), and you’re ready to get on with the next thing, which of course includes being a life-long learner.

For most of us, studying Chinese has been and will always be somewhat of a chore. There is the day-to-day sameness of classes and tutors and personal study; the never-diminishing stack of character flash-cards that have to be memorized; another tutor time that has to be planned.

For many of us, the learning – those moments when we discover something or finally figure something out – will always be fun. Like when you figure out that the literal translation of vacuum cleaner is ‘suck dust machine.” When you begin to see that there is meaning (and beauty) in Chinese characters – they aren’t just chicken scratch.  When you use that new pattern or phrase you have been trying to master, and it works!

But for all of us, the ability to communicate in Chinese – to converse with people on a deeper level, on their terms (and using their terms) is first and foremost a privilege.

To be sure, it doesn’t always feel like a privilege to know the language and live here – when we’re walking home through a rubble and garbage-strewn alleyway; when we’re nearly turned into road kill by a homicidal truck driver; or when we’re trying to extricate ourselves from a guanxi web (personal connections).

No matter how we feel about it (an emotion that changes from day to day), the fact remains that it is a privilege for which we should be grateful.

This new language we have acquired (or are still acquiring) is not just a tool to get so that we can talk TO our Chinese friends and colleagues. It is a tool that allows us to learn FROM them.

Learn before teaching; listen before talking.

It is their country; their language; their culture, and we are allowed to be participants.

That, my friends and fellow language learners, is a privilege.

Bian Lian (Face-Changing)

One of my favorite traditional Chinese peforming arts is Bian Lian (变脸), which literally means “change face.”  As he performs choreographed moves, the performer instantly changes masks– so instantly in fact, that it’s nearly impossible to tell how it is done.

Tradition has it that the art form could only be passed down from father to son, and that this is the reason how bian lian is done is still considered a secret.

At the birthday dinner for my mom last month, we ended up having a private performance of Bian Lian in our dining room.

There is also an excellent movie about Bian Lian called “The King of Masks.”

Set in 1930’s China, it is the story of a Bian Lian master who, not having a son to pass on the art to, purchases a small child that he thinks is a boy. It’s an excellent, but at times heart-wrenching film.











Today’s Reading Assignment– China in a Word

Have you ever wondered if there is one word that pretty much sums up Chinese society? It's a silly question, I know, but Eric Abrahamson has written a great piece on the Latitude Blog of the International Herald Tribune casting his vote for the word guan ( 管). Here's a taste of what he says:

Anyone who’s studied Chinese for more than a few months becomes a folk etymologist. Look: the Chinese character for “good” combines “woman” and “child”! China must be a society of patriarchal homebodies!

Anyone who’s studied Chinese for more than a few years tends to give it up. The history and evolution of Chinese characters is such a messy accretion of historical sediment and false cognates that even scholars of Chinese take its etymology with a grain of salt.

But language is telling, and as I translated a novel about official corruption over the past year, one character began to emerge as the linchpin of the book’s discussion of power and those who wield it. That character is 管, pronounced guǎn, with a “scooping” tone.

Originally meaning “pipe” or “flute” — the feathery bit at the top is the bamboo radical, indicating a section of bamboo culm — guǎn later evolved into a verb meaning “to manage” or “to be in charge of.” If I were given only one word to capture Chinese society, guǎn would be it.

Guǎn appears wherever authority is wielded. Besides its base meaning of being in charge, it shows up in “jurisdiction” (管辖, guǎnxiá), “management” (管理, guǎnlǐ), “supervisory control” (管 制, guǎnzhì, sometimes a euphemism for a police lockdown) and “butler” (管家, guǎnjiā).

He goes on to give other common uses for the word guan in everyday life, ending with this conclusion:

Hovering over guǎn and all its permutations is a gentle anxiety about a society ungoverned. “No one’s in charge!” (没有人管, méiyǒurénguǎn) is a phrase spoken in tones of disapproval, even horror. It’s not only Jackie Chan who believes that Chinese society needs watching over. To a certain mindset, in China everything is someone else’s business.


As they say, click on the link and read the whole thing.

Oh, and getting back to my original question — what one word do YOU think best describes Chinese society?


“Live the Language” – a Great Beijing Video

Sitting in Minnesota, watching this short video of Beijing kind of makes me homesick! It was produced by Education First, a global study-abroad program. Click on the link and enjoy a tour of my adopted hometown.


EF – Live The Language – Beijing from Albin Holmqvist on Vimeo.

 (HT: Yourenotfromaroundhere.com)

Videos of other cities can be found here.