Category Archives: language

The Great Successor’s Titles

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 87-88:

Kim Jong Il had declared a three-year mourning period after the death of his father, during which time he consolidated his grip on the regime and tried to hang on through the famine.

But the Great Successor didn’t have any downtime. The man now known as the “Beloved and Respected” Comrade Kim Jong Un got busy “turning sorrow into strength,” as newsreader Ri put it. From that moment on, he devoted all his time and energy to staying in power. For that, he needed to establish his own power base, one that owed its loyalty directly to him, not to his father.

It was easy to make fun of the new young leader, and he would soon become the butt of many a joke in the outside world. For starters, there was his cartoonish appearance, with his idiosyncratic fade haircut, his rapidly expanding girth, and his penchant for attire that is fashionable only in Communist holdover states.

Kim Jong Un gave himself a vast array of elongated titles—he had soon collected hundreds of appellations of varying degrees of obsequiousness. Some were standard Communist fare like First Secretary of the Workers’ Party. (He posthumously made his father General Secretary for eternity.) Others were standard but even more obviously undeserved, like chairman of the party’s central military commission and first chairman of the National Defense Commission.

But some were pure hyperbole, like Invincible and Triumphant General. He was the Guardian of Justice, the Best Incarnation of Love, the Decisive and Magnanimous Leader. And there were many with suns: the Guiding Ray of Sun, the Sun of the Revolution, the Sun of Socialism, the Bright Sun of the Twenty-First Century, and the Sun of Mankind. There was no honorific too superlative for the new leader.

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Kim Jong Un’s Tiger Mom

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 50-52:

The apartment on Kirchstrasse was more modest than what he was used to back home, but Kim Jong Un could live a relatively normal existence there. And he could devote himself to his favorite pastime: basketball. It was his mother who first sparked his interest in the sport. There’s an old tale that Korean mothers, North and South, like to tell their children: if you play basketball, you’ll grow taller.

Kim Jong Un was short as a child, and his father was not a tall man—he was only five foot three, and famously wore platform shoes to try to compensate—so Ko Yong Hui encouraged her son to play basketball in the hope the tale was true. He grew to be five foot seven, so maybe it worked a bit.

She was thrilled to see her son taking to basketball, a sport that she believed would help him clear his mind and loosen his childhood obsession with planes and engines. Instead, Kim Jong Un’s mother and aunt soon saw that basketball had become an addiction too—the boy was sleeping with his basketball in his bed—and one that came at the expense of his studies. His mother would visit Bern regularly to scold her son for playing too much and studying too little.

She arrived on a passport that declared her to be Chong Il Son, assigned to the North Korean mission at the United Nations in Geneva since 1987, but the Swiss knew exactly who she was. After all, she arrived in the country in a Russian-made Ilyushin 62 jet bearing the insignia of Air Koryo, the North Korean state airline. The plane, which bore the tail number P882, was for VIPs only. It even had a full bedroom onboard.

All sorts of bags and merchandise would be loaded on and off the plane, watched carefully by Swiss intelligence. They monitored Ko Yong Hui closely, keeping records of everything from her shopping expeditions on Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse, one of the world’s most exclusive shopping avenues, to her hospital bills at fancy private clinics on Lake Geneva.

They also knew who her children were. They called Kim Jong Chol “the tall, skinny one” and Kim Jong Un “the short, fat one.” But the new Swiss attorney general, Carla Del Ponte (who would later become chief prosecutor in the international criminal tribunals on Yugoslavia and Rwanda), had forbidden the Swiss authorities to monitor the children. In famously discreet Switzerland, they were allowed to just be children—even if they were the children of one of the world’s most notorious tyrants.

When Kim’s mother arrived in Bern, she would bring handwritten notebooks containing one thousand Chinese characters, which form the basis of most Korean words, that she had made and photocopied so the children could keep up with their language skills. She told her sons that they had to memorize five or six pages a day, the kind of homework that torments Korean children the world over.

She was what we today would call a tiger mother, pouring a lot of energy into her children’s education and going through their journals and homework no matter how late she returned to the apartment at night.

But Kim Jong Un had other priorities.

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Filed under economics, education, Korea, language, migration, Switzerland

Afghanistan Civil War, 1992-1996

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 63-65:

All around him, families were crumbling. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it—it didn’t matter what you thought, whether you supported the mujahedeen or the Communists. The only households surviving unscathed, he knew, were the neighborhood’s few Uzbek families, members of the same ethnic group as Gelam Jam.

He wasn’t interested in this war, but the war seemed interested in him. There were no more innocents, no more neutrals, only sides already chosen for him. The choice was clear: pick a side, or end up like his brothers. It would have been unthinkable before the war, but now he felt he could trust only his fellow Pashtuns. They had borne the brunt of Gelam Jam in his neighborhood, it seemed. At first, they had hidden their ethnicity, speaking only Farsi in public, but soon they were getting plucked from their vehicles to have their pronunciation checked—and if their speech sounded Pashtun, they were often killed on the spot. This was a war against people who spoke like him, who looked like him, and if that’s what the enemy had decided, then he’d play by their rules. So one morning he went to a camp of Hizb-i-Islami, a Pashtun-heavy militia, and sought out an acquaintance. “I want to do jihad,” he announced. The man broke into a broad smile. “Welcome,” he said.

* * *

Thousands of young men, many of them now orphans and widowers, flocked to the various factions feuding for power in the civil war. There were no heroes; each group proved as responsible for the bloodshed as the next. Broadly, the factions were organized along ethnic lines—not so much due to ethnic nationalism but because in the face of perpetual instability, with a weak or absent state, you allied with those you knew and trusted. In fact, it was often unclear what ideological differences, if any, divided the men fighting each other on Kabul’s streets. Still, the struggle for power and survival was imbued with meaning: more than simply a battle of wills, for many the war was “jihad.”

The West responded to the civil war by simply ignoring it, and after the 2001 invasion the years from 1992 to 1996 were all but stricken from the standard narrative. It was dangerous history, the truths buried within it too uncomfortable and messy. If the mujahedeen had been no better than the Taliban or al-Qaeda, any attempt to bring the principal actors of that period to account could only lead to the highest echelons of Hamid Karzai’s government, and, by extension, to American policy over the previous thirty years.

Yet it isn’t difficult to uncover this history, for every Kabuli has a story to tell. Deadly roadblocks, disappeared neighbors, and decaying bodies were woven into the fabric of daily life, like going shopping or saying your prayers. Every day brought fresh destruction; any date picked out of the calendar is the anniversary of some grisly toll.

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Lebanon Before Independence

From Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani (Other Press, 2021), Kindle pp. vi-viii (preface to the English-language edition, which provides very helpful context for the diary entries, which I will refrain from excerpting):

For centuries, the religious mosaic and cultural diversity thus introduced into the lands that would become Lebanon were more or less well managed by the central powers of the empires on which Lebanon and its neighbors depended. Of course, there were clashes and conflicts, but everything remained under the slightly manipulative control of the dominant powers, and notably, from the sixteenth to the beginning of the twentieth centuries, of the Ottoman Empire.

When that empire collapsed in 1918, victorious France and Great Britain divided up the Middle East. It was France that secured the mandate over Lebanon, thus fulfilling the wishes of part of its Christian population, which sought to place itself under French protection and to avoid British rule. It should be noted that the Christians had long felt closely connected to France. Many had adopted the French language and culture well before the period of the Mandate, and had dreamed of the French taking control of the country to rid them of the Ottoman occupation. This privileged relationship between the Christians of Lebanon and the French also explains why the Lebanese never felt any hostility toward France. In the Lebanese worldview, France was never seen as an occupying power, but rather as an ally. Only the highly ideological left-wing discourse of the 1970s attempted to represent France as a colonial power, which it never really was in Lebanon, despite some instances of very transient irregularities. In fact it was with the assistance of the Christians, and on their advice, that the French determined the current borders of Lebanon in 1920: they adjoined a long band of coastline and the interior plain of Beqaa to the original Lebanon Mountains, along with the northernmost part of Galilee in the south. The overriding aim was to unite as many regions as possible where the inhabitants were Christian. The Maronites, the Eastern-rite Catholics and Greek Orthodox communities actively worked toward the creation of the new nation in its present form, and considered it to have been founded for them alone, even though part of its population was Muslim or Druze. During a relatively soft Mandate that barely lasted twenty-five years, the French successfully managed the antagonisms between the various communities. But when Lebanon acquired independence in 1945, the foundations for discord were already laid, notably regarding the definition of the country’s identity. The Christians still felt closely connected to the West, the Muslims for their part felt they belonged more to the Arab world. Nevertheless, the two communities both demanded and obtained independence together, then found a way of avoiding conflict by decreeing that the new Lebanon was not a Western country, but nor did it belong to the Arab world. This was the famous affirmation of national identity by a double negative.

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Filed under Britain, France, language, Lebanon, Middle East, nationalism, religion, Turkey

Walking Through a Land of Fear

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 124-126:

The muhtar who takes me in, Talat Tekine, is kafka (Caucasian), as is the entire population here. He tells me that their ancestors arrived in 1874. There isn’t a single Turk in the entire village, and the inhabitants only speak Caucasian. But no one knows how to write in that language, since only Turkish is taught in school. The two other Caucasian villages that I later go through give me the same impression: there is a strong and self-sufficient sense of community, like little Anatolian kolkhozes. People are mentioning terrorists again. And although I take these warnings seriously, I can’t help but notice with a little amusement that the “terrorists” are always other people. At Tokat, where I’d been forewarned that they were everywhere, people said that there weren’t any. The imam at Çıftlik said they were somewhere around Kızık. In Kızık, they said I’d find them in the vicinity of Altınoluk and Çırçır. Now that I’m there, they tell me that they’re mostly near Tokat [a formerly Armenian Christian city]. We’ve come full circle. Still, it’s a warning not to be taken lightly. Garrisoned in this backwater village is a detachment of jandarmas, tasked with fighting terrorism, and their presence here is certainly no coincidence.

The first village I have to traverse is called Akören. As I approach, I see a man step out of the first house. He spots me, goes back inside, and comes promptly back out with what, from a distance, looks like a stick. As I pass him by—he’s in a squatting position, ready to jump me—I notice that the stick is a rifle. The man looks at me with hostile, stern eyes. Panic paralyzes me, and, for a moment, I’m afraid that my knees might give out. Despite the fear gripping me, I muster the courage to hail him with a sonorous and affable “hello,” but unfazed and stubborn, he says nothing. I continue on at a pace that’s as neutral and light as possible, as if my inexistence might ward off the volley of lead the scoundrel intended for my backside.

A little farther along, on the village square, two old men who had seen me coming look away as I draw near. The young whippersnapper washing up at the fountain points the road to the next village when I ask him about it, without even turning around. Once again, I’m stricken with fear. A diffuse sense of fear that makes my heart beat faster. I’ve heard about “terrorists” for a long time; perhaps now I’m in their midst? The day before yesterday, Mustafa, Kızık’s mayor, told me, “There are some in Altınoluk.” That’s one of my next destinations. The three men, like the man wielding a “stick” a short while ago, are uneasy. They’re not hostile; they’re simply paralyzed by fear. It’s not the same fear that seized me when I saw the rifle and that, in a flash, drained me of my energy. No, the fear they feel is permanent, it’s something they live with. It dictates their every move. I also noticed that not one of the few vehicles that passed me on the road, cars or tractors, stopped to offer a ride. Fear trumps curiosity. And workers in the fields no longer wave to invite me over for tea, as they often did before Tokat. I’ve entered the land of fear.

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Filed under Caucasus, language, military, nationalism, religion, travel, Turkey

Turkish Traditions of Hospitality

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 50-51:

Huseyin has disappeared to prepare the meal. He comes back to get me, shows me the bathroom, where, to my great delight, I see that I will be able to take a shower, rinsing off two days’ worth of sweat. Dinner with Huseyin, the schoolteacher, and one of the latter’s colleagues who joined in the meantime, is a joyful event. The younger men display great respect for the old man. When they leave, my host, in spite of all my protests, sets me up in his own room. He will sleep on the sofa in the greeting room.

In the morning, after having groomed, I buckle my pack and knock on his door. He has gone out. He is probably over at last night’s teahouse. I go out, slamming the door closed behind me. But he’s not there. I go back and wait a few moments for him. Then I scribble a word of thanks on a piece of paper and slip it under the door along with a banknote, worth five million liras, in payment for my lodging.

Later that afternoon, a Turk explains to me that in so doing I committed a gross error, that Huseyin will be outraged. What I did was contrary to the traditions of Turkish hospitality. In the Islamic world, to welcome a traveler in one’s home and treat him as best as possible is the believer’s duty. To be hospitable (misafirperver), he explains, means that for you, a good Muslim, it is your duty to treat your guest (misafir), the traveler, with the utmost respect. Your house is his, and you must share your food with him. You will reap the rewards of such kindness in the kingdom of Allah. To bar your door to a traveler is the worst crime a believer can commit. Those of us happily living in the world’s wiser regions would do well, I tell myself, to follow their example.

Among the many words (and place names) that Romanians borrowed from the Turks during centuries of Ottoman rule are musafir ‘guest, visitor’, cafea ‘coffee’, pijama ‘pajamas’, mahala ‘slum’, and habar ‘information, idea’ as in the extremely useful phrase habar n-am ‘I have no idea’.

During our Fulbright year in Romania in 1983-84, we hosted the son of a fellow Fulbright couple who took a brief R&R getaway trip to Istanbul and came back raving about the friendliness and hospitality of the Turks they met, much to the chagrin of normally hospitable Romanians, who during that dark era paid a heavy price for friendship with foreigners. They were required to report any extensive interactions with foreigners to the ubiquitous Securitate, and could be fined a month’s salary or more for providing lodgings to foreigners.

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Filed under language, migration, religion, Romania, travel, Turkey

Pidginized Kazakh, or Calqued Chinese?

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle p. 247:

OTHER THAN THIS, what else did I contribute to the family? Only things like collecting snow, herding calves, herding sheep, embroidering, mending clothes, explaining TV shows … things that anyone could have done. In other words, the presence of someone like me had almost no impact on the family. On the other hand, I was deeply impacted. Especially when it came to speaking. Before I knew it, I was picking up Kazakh speech habits:

When studying Kazakh, I’d say, “Difficulties so many!” (“This is hard.”)

At mealtimes: “Food to eat!”

Asking for help: “A help give to me!”

Announcing that I hadn’t seen the sheep: “Sheep not seen!”

Meaning to say “neither hot nor cold”: “Cold, it’s not, hot, it’s not.”

I am not sure whether these expressions translate the pidginized Kazakh of a new language learner or Kazakh influence on simplified Chinese word order. It is probably the latter, since the author (Li Juan) was writing in Chinese for Chinese readers. Turkic languages like Kazakh are verb-final, and negatives are suffixed to verbs, while Chinese verbs usually occur in medial position (like English) and negatives are preverbal.

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Filed under Central Asia, China, education, language

Romanizing Korean 떡볶이

Korean romanization was a major thorn in my side during the 1990s, when I worked as an editor of academic articles and books in English about Korean history, culture, and language. At that time, the McCune-Reischauer system prevailed in most academic fields, but the Yale system prevailed in linguistics. In 2000, the South Korean Ministry of Education issued Revised Romanization guidelines that eliminated the need for many diacritics that were often omitted on the Internet. The ROK system now seems dominant in popular usage, but romanization still remains chaotic, as this recent Language Log post well illustrates.

I don’t wish to open the whole can of worms here, but just to illustrate a bit of the chaos with examples of how a popular Korean food, 떡볶이 (ttekpokki in Yale transcription) ‘stir-fried rice cakes’, is romanized on signs and food packages in Korean restaurants and markets in Honolulu. The Korean spelling is consistent in every case, but the romanization varies a lot. Wikipedia romanizes the name of the dish as Tteokbokki; a long-time Korean restaurant (which initially prompted this post) spells it Derkbokee; another restaurant spells it Tteobokki; and some packages in a Korean supermarket spell it Tteok-bokki while others shorten it to Topokki.

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Mandarin Curses by Kazakhs

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle p. 161:

Of course, there were occasions when the siblings argued. Sometimes they even insulted each other in Mandarin. Sister would shout, “Ben dan!” (idiot) and brother would shout back, “Wang ba dan!” (bastard)—which amused them to no end.…

Then, they both turned to ask me, what do “ben dan” and “wang ba dan” mean? For the sake of complete honesty, I offered them a boring literal explanation: a ben dan is a chicken egg that’s gone bad. And a wang ba dan … luckily, I had just seen “The Tortoise and the Hare” in Nurgün’s Kazakh textbook, so I pointed to the tortoise: “This is wang ba.” They let out an “oh.” Then I added, “Wang ba dan is its child.” A disappointed “oh”; they were unable to understand what was so special about a bad egg and a tortoise’s child that these terms could be used as insults? Thoroughly underwhelmed, that was the last time they insulted each other using these words.

My ABC Chinese-English Dictionary (U. Hawaii Press, 1996) defines 王八 wángba as 1. tortoise, 2. cuckold, 3. son-of-a-bitch. It next lists two expressions flagged as colloquial: 王八蛋 wángbadàn N. turtle’s egg, son-of-a-bitch; and 王八羔子 wángba gāozi N. baby turtle, son-of-a-bitch.

The same source defines 笨 bèn as ADJ. 1. stupid, dull; 2. clumsy, awkward; 3. cumbersome. Lower on the same page it lists 笨蛋 bèndàn N. fool, idiot.

Chinese Wikipedia lists 王八 wángba as a type of soft-shelled turtle ( biē Trionychidae).

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Trading Language Lessons in Xinjiang

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle pp. 84-85:

Then, on her own, Kama brought up the topic of marriage, explaining how there weren’t many suitors (probably out of fear of Cuma, the drunken father-in-law), and of them, none were without their own problems, so nothing could be settled for the time being. She went on to say that many of her former classmates were already engaged and some were even married. She spoke with a sense of despair, adding, “If I don’t marry, I’ll be an old lady, and no one wants to marry an old lady. If I do marry, I’ll be just like Mom, day in and day out doing housework, cattle work, sheep work … from now until when I’m old.”

She talked a lot that day, about how she wanted to work in a town somewhere, maybe learn a trade. She thought five hundred yuan a month would have been enough, as long as it could get her out of the wilderness.…

Who knew that this cheerful, resilient girl harbored such a humble, desperate dream.

I WONDERED IF THIS was what drove Kama to so assiduously study Chinese with me—she was determined to learn not only to speak but to write too. She borrowed my Kazakh exercise book to copy out the vocabulary list and phrasebook in the back. She wrote out the pinyin next to each character, studying as if she were really in school. But the content itself was not at all practical, with phrases like “Courtesy must always be a two-way street” and “Life is finite, time is infinite” … what in the world was the editor thinking?

I also sought to learn better Kazakh from Kama, but she always ended up going on and on, to which I had to say, “Enough, enough already, I’ll need a week to learn all that!”

She smiled. “For me, it would only take a day.”

She was right. Words that she learned at night, she had memorized the next day, acing her spelling quiz! I had to increase the difficulty, taking points off for writing even just a stroke out of place. As a result, she only got ninety-five points. Angrily, she crossed out the ninety-five and demanded that I change it to a hundred. I took the pen and wrote “85.” Her eyes bulged. Panicking, she relented, “All right, all right, ninety-five it is.…” She was completely serious.

As a result of our mutual language lessons, our tongues often crisscrossed to comic effect. The best gaff of mine was: “Add some more black?” while her most memorable blunder was: “Por adam, por donkey.” The former meant, “Add some more sheep manure [to the stove]?” The latter was, “One person, one donkey.”

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